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From Bhopal to BP
Posted on Jun 21, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
In the predawn hours of a December day 26 years ago a poison crept through a city of more than 650,000 souls, and soon many who inhaled the gas were dead. In addition to those who died directly from the fumes, others were fatally trampled in the panic that swept the area.
The estimates of the number who perished vary widely. One official source put initial deaths at nearly 3,000 and subsequent deaths at nearly 15,000; permanent disabilities were set at 50,000.
The toxin that attacked Bhopal, India, on that morning in 1984 was released accidentally from a pesticide plant owned by an Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide. Roughly 40 metric tons of a lethal chemical wafted into sleeping homes to be breathed by perhaps half a million people. The discharge occurred after water entered a tank of methyl isocyanate and created a runaway reaction that raised the temperature within the container to nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
From time to time some element of the calamity’s aftermath was reported in the Western press, but before long the accident was mostly forgotten—but certainly not by the thousands who had been blinded or afflicted with cancer, respiratory ailments, neurological conditions or other medical troubles. Other people’s problems, especially when they occur in the faraway Third World, tend to have a short stay in the higher parts of our brains, chock-full of our own troubles big and small.
I had not thought about the Bhopal disaster for years before I saw a June 7 article in the Los Angeles Times headed “7 guilty in 1984 Bhopal disaster.”
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The Indian press and others were vitriolic in denouncing the lateness and lightness of the sentences. The convicted men—released on bail bonds of $530 and expected to appeal the verdict—each were ordered to pay a whopping $2,100 fine, and Union Carbide India was assessed the breathtaking penalty of $10,600.
Indian officials shouldn’t be planning to spend that $10,600 just yet. The fine—tiny though it is, even allowing for differences in economic standards—may never be paid. The Times observed: “… Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co. acquired Union Carbide, the parent company, in 2001 and has denied any inherited responsibility for the incident or its aftermath.”
In 1989 Union Carbide did accept a $470 million out-of-court settlement, but that gave many victims and other survivors only about $500 each; these folks probably counted themselves as lucky, for others who suffered ended up with zero, zilch and zip.
The big fish associated with what some writers have called “the Bhopal massacre” continues to swim free. Warren Anderson, who was chairman and chief executive of the Union Carbide corporation in 1984, was arrested at the Bhopal Airport several days after the accident and was quickly released on bail. He promptly fled back to the United States. Some years afterward, Bhopal authorities charged him with manslaughter, and later he was declared a fugitive.
U.S. authorities were in no hurry to extradite the now 89-year-old Anderson, who turned out to be not too difficult to find. In 2002 Greenpeace reported that it had visited him at his home. In a Greenpeace website article headlined “Carbide criminal found,” the organization said:
Week before last, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., renewed his call for the extradition of Anderson, saying: “All those responsible for this disaster, including the former chairman of Union Carbide Warren Anderson, should stand trial in India and receive punishment that reflects the devastation and pain they have caused for thousands of people. Warren Anderson absolutely deserves to be extradited from the U.S. and punished for the full extent of his crimes.”
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