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On Friday survivors of the Bhopal chemical disaster staged the latest in a series of protests against the sponsorship of the Olympics by Dow Chemicals. Tansy Hoskins looks at the background.

“The news that DOW Chemical will be branding and wrapping the London Olympic Stadium is disappointing yet sadly, unsurprising. The LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games who claim to be committed to sustainability, are willing to partner with Dow brings shame on the UK and yet again, on the Olympic Games and irrevocably demonstrates the ongoing influence of the multinational superpowers in global affairs.”[1]

Protestors burn effigy of Lord CoeMayor Boris Johnson and Sebastian Coe have enthusiastically welcomed Dow Chemical who, according to their UK Managing Director, are seeking to leave the "awful legacies of the past behind." They are going to provide a £7million wrap around the Olympic stadium, blanketing it in their logo in an attempt to deny the fact that Union Carbide, now merged with Dow Chemical, massacred 25,000 people and left tens of thousands of people with permanent disabilities.

In contrast, campaigners in India will be organising a “Bhopal Olympics” to coincide with the London Olympics in 2012. Children with congenital disabilities caused due to Union Carbide’s poisons, and Vietnamese children hurt by Dow's Agent Orange will take part at this alternative Olympics.

History of Bhopal

In the opening days of December 1984, Bhopal in central India experienced what has been described as the world’s worst chemical disaster. Twenty seven tonnes of highly toxic gas was released from the American-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant.

3000 people died instantly with up to 25,000 linked deaths happening in the following days, weeks and years. In total the Indian government estimates that well over 600,000 people were exposed to the gas. More than 150,000 gas victims remain chronically ill today, and 50,000 are too sick to work for a living.

Union Carbide stated that the released gas was only a “mild throat and ear irritant”. In fact the toxic gas caused chronic respiratory illnesses, heart failure, vision problems, and neurological disorders. Stillbirths rose by 300% in Bhopal and an increased number of children were born with physical deformities. There was a three-fold increase in cancer patients.

Safety concerns at the plant had been raised two years before the toxic gas leak with one safety team stating that the plant had: “a serious potential for sizeable releases of toxic materials…either due to equipment failure, operating problems, or maintenance problems”.[2]

Union Carbide also ran an almost identical chemical plant in West Virginia in the United States, however because it was in the US and not India, its safety standards were far higher. At Bhopal, untested technology was used and corners cut. India’s lack of environmental and safety laws and the power of a multi-national company operating in a developing country allowed the substandard building work to continue.

On the day of the disaster all six leak prevention safety features failed. Warning signals were turned off to avoid panic, increasing the death toll.

Rather than take responsibility for the massacre at Bhopal, Union Carbide attempted to separate itself from the chemical leak. It fabricated scenarios of sabotage and insisted that the facility was in good working condition.

In 1989, the company paid $470 million in compensation. This is the equivalent of $370 per victim – a tiny amount that does not cover medical bills. Imagine, by contrast, the scale of the compensation that would have been paid had the victims been from the United States. Campaigners state that the people of Bhopal are owed at least $8bn.

In 2001 Union Carbide merged with Dow Chemicals in an attempt to shed its name. Dow Chemical now claims that it had nothing to do with the chemical leak in 1984. It has refused to clean the toxic site where groundwater is still contaminated with dangerous chemicals, forcing Bhopal’s remaining population to drink poison on a daily basis.

In 2010, 26 years after the chemical disaster, a court in India found seven former managers at the Union Carbide plant guilty of ‘negligence causing death’. They were sentenced to just two years imprisonment and fined $2000 each.

An arrest warrant for culpable homicide still exists for the extradition from the USA of Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide. However the US has refused to consider extradition.

More recently, there was outrage in India when a senior US official made veiled threats about blocking a World Bank loan to India if the issue of Bhopal wasn’t dropped. He warned that all the ‘noise’ in India over Bhopal might ‘chill’ the US’s ‘investment relationship’ with India.

Arundhuti Roy has said that the lack of Government action over Bhopal is tantamount to the Indian Government sending a: “clear message to the Corporate World: In India you are free to poison, rob and kill our people. The Government will protect you. You will never be brought to book.”

This latest attempt by Dow Chemicals to disassociate themselves from Bhopal and to green-wash their toxic history are an insult to those who died in 1984 and those who are still damaged by the tragedy today. Pressure should be placed on Boris Johnson and the London Olympic Organising Committee to drop Dow Chemical from the list of sponsors.

Notes

[1] Statement by Bhopal protest groups

 

[2] May 1982 Safety Team Report, Union Carbide Headquarters

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