It took a trick of stiletto artistry to remind Americans about the 20th anniversary of Bhopal, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant began manufacturing corpses and its owners redirected their resources to the production of alibis.
Toxic gas wafted from the factory and choked a sleeping city on Dec. 3, 1984. Three thousand people died outright. An estimated 5,000 others are thought to have died from the after-effects.
Union Carbide sold the plant to an Indian battery company in 1994. Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide in 2001. The average Bhopal victim got a little more than $500 in compensation after the government of India divvied up and spread about $470 million in compensation in 1989.
Union Carbide's chairman, Warren Anderson, went to the scene shortly after the disaster and was arrested. He skipped out of Bhopal after posting $2,000 bond and, since retirement, has been charged, along with his former corporation, with "culpable homicide not amounting to murder" by an Indian court. Anderson lives in fugitive luxury on Long Island, despite a longstanding extradition treaty between India and the United States.
The switcheroo in ownership has allowed Dow Chemical to insist it has no financial obligations to the Bhopal victims, although most corporations, when buying another company, assume, along with that firm's assets, its liabilities. At the very least, as the new owners of Union Carbide, they could force their subsidiary to put in a court appearance in India, where the corporation, along with Anderson, is considered a criminal fugitive. Not to worry. With the sale of the plant, then the later purchase of the parent firm by another, everything has been taken care of except, of course, the people of Bhopal.
Bhopal's wells continue to absorb chemicals from the ruined plant. The cleanup seems to have been less carefully planned than the legal and business strategies of the principals connected, however tangentially, to the catastrophe. In Great Britain, once India's parent firm, the Bhopal anniversary stirred memories and the BBC launched a major commemoration. In the United States, Bhopal was best summed up by Terri McNeill, spokeswoman for Dow Chemical, who told me: "I'm not prepared to get into all that." She referred me, instead, to Union Carbide's public relations office to "find out anything you would like to find out about the Bhopal tragedy and their position and they can also give you Dow's position." It is strange for a company that denies any significant connection to the victims of Bhopal to assign the job of speaking for it to the purchased subsidiary that did.
Finding a spokesman willing to speak was one of the tasks the BBC thought it had accomplished.
Thus did a 41-year-old man who fakes his way through life as "Andy Bichlbaum" -- he was born Jacques Servin in Tucson, Az. -- end up in front of the television cameras last week. He is no more a spokesman for Dow Chemical than am I the Panchen Lama.
Bichlbaum is a member of a squad of hoax artistes called The Yes Men, whose exploits are the subject of a documentary released this fall. Over the past few years, he has posed as a member of the World Trade Organization and explained to a cow-eyed audience in Salzburg that elections should be privatized, with corporations allowed to buy votes from citizens who aren't putting them to good use. Indigenous cultures, he told a group of businessmen there, are getting in the way of an orderly marketplace. The siesta, for instance, should be abolished in Latin nations.
"We basically came up with the most preposterous thing we could, the most preposterous version, but accurate to the idea that everything should be subject to the market," he said. "They didn't notice. We stopped, there was a question from the audience by a fellow who was a young lawyer who said, 'That was all well and good. Now, what are you people doing about these stupid protesters?' "
Bichlbaum and his co-conspirator, Mike Bonanno, set up a Web site, dowethics.com, trying to shame the company into paying the debt they think Union Carbide owes the victims of Bhopal. The site is such a subtle parody that a producer for BBC failed to notice it wasn't really Dow Chemical and invited them to send a spokesman for a live television report.
"I think they were quite surprised when we agreed to, because Dow has not said anything about it ever," Bichlbaum said. "They've refused to say anything about it other than, 'We're sorry for the victims, but it's not our fault.' "
The Yes Men worked out a plan. First the spokesman needed a name. They chose Jude Finisterra. St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes. Finisterra, for anyone with rudimentary Latin, translates basically as "end of the earth." Bichlbaum lives in Paris, so they arranged a satellite hookup through the BBC studio there.
With the Eiffel Tower superimposed on the background, Finisterra looked into the camera and the BBC anchor confronted him: Would Dow accept responsibility for what happened at Bhopal in 1984? "Steve, yes," Bichlbaum gushed. "Today is a great day for all of us at Dow and, I think, for millions of people around the world as well." On behalf of Dow, its unappointed spokesman announced that the company was liquidating Union Carbide and using an estimated $12 billion in proceeds to compensate the victims of Bhopal, "including the estimated 120,000 who may need medical care for their entire lives." The Bhopal site would be swiftly cleaned up, he said. To boot, the company would press the U.S. government to extradite Warren Anderson.
The news glimmered across the wires. Dow's shares fell 3 percent on the European exchange. In the Paris studio, a technician told Bichlbaum it was a wonderful thing he'd announced.
"I wouldn't work for Dow if I didn't believe in it," he replied.
Celebrations in Bhopal lasted for the two hours it took for Dow to issue a flat denial and for the BBC to retract the story, apologize to both its viewers and Dow Chemical. The customary internal inquiries were announced.
"We certainly appreciated the apology from the BBC. It was an unfortunate situation for everyone involved," said McNeill, the Dow spokeswoman. "And we are continuing to assess the situation."
I asked what she meant by assessing the situation.
"What can others do to prevent this from happening in the future. That sort of thing," she said. It took a moment to realize she meant preventing another hoax, not preventing another Bhopal.
Having bought Union Carbide in 2001, Dow had nothing to do with the plant leak. And while settling some unrelated Union Carbide liabilities in the United States, Dow was clear of any similar ones in India, because the government there had settled matters very generously with Union Carbide.
Not that Union Carbide had anything to do with Bhopal, according to the spokesman who replied for that company.
The Bhopal plant was owned, managed and operated on a day-to-day basis by Union Carbide India Limited, explained Tomm F. Sprick, a spokesman for Union Carbide.
Union Carbide owned 51 percent of the company, and Indian banks and investors the rest.
"As you can see from the above information, the Bhopal plant was never owned or operated by Union Carbide or, just as importantly, by The Dow Chemical Company, and the liablility for the site was publicly assumed by the Government of Madhya Pradesh in 1998," Sprick wrote in an e-mail. "Therefore, Union Carbide bears no responsibility for it. Additionally, the settlement agreed to by the Indian Government, UC (Union Carbide) and UCIL (Union Carbide India Limited) in 1989, concluded civil matters in the case -- long before Dow acquired Union Carbide. Therefore, again, Dow has no position in this issue."
That is true insofar as the civil settlement goes. Dow's subsidiary is still under criminal indictment in India, where, under the system of law inherited from the British, a criminal defendant can also be compelled to pay damages to the victim based on the magnitude of the crime.
So there we have it. Since 1984 an estimated 8,000 people have died and more are likely to follow as they drink from wells infected by the ghost of a disaster for which nobody's responsible. It remained for a duo of pranksters to test the credibility of each side's argument by rushing to the edge of plausibility, shouting down the canyon and waiting for a credible echo. In the Information Age, the Yes Men had to lie their way into the truth.
"We were trying to have Dow do the right thing and do it in their voice," Bichlbaum said. "In the past we have pushed it to that edge or tried to and never arrived at that edge. It seems people can accept just about anything if you're dressed in a suit."
Perhaps that is why, at chemical companies, executives wear them.
Dennis Roddy can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1965.
© 2004 Post-Gazette