BP and Union Carbide: A tale of two moralities

Peter C. Glover, Troy Media Corporation
Tags: manufacturing, business management

Two words for President Obama and those assuming the moral-high ground “kick ass” position over the BP oil spill: Union Carbide.

For those Americans with a selective or short memory, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), a U.S. company, was responsible for the world’s worst ever industrial disaster at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. On the night of December 2-3, 1984, the gas plant at UC’s Indian subsidiary experienced a serious leak of gas and other toxins. A powerful explosion resulted, killing more than 2,200 immediately and over 3,700 in the short-term from gas-associated illnesses.

U.S. was the culprit
Indian Government agencies estimate as many as 15,000 to 25,000 deaths over the past 26 years in the area are directly linked to the Bhopal disaster. Weighed on the scale of global industrial disasters Bhopal – a disaster for which a major U.S. company was responsible – stands head and shoulders above all others, including, contrary to popular myth, the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl.

As appalling as BPs Gulf Oil spill disaster is – and there will need to be a recompense – the 11 deaths, the environmental damage (still speculative) and the ill-feeling against any big-time screw up by our industrial giants – foreign-owned or otherwise – needs to be granted a more considered perspective.

Twenty-six years on from Bhopal, 390 tons of abandoned chemicals at the abandoned plant continue to pollute the groundwater in the area, affecting thousands of lives. Civil and criminal cases are still pending in India and in the United States against Union Carbide and its executives, though the company was taken over by Dow Chemicals in 2001. Neither Union Carbide’s Board nor the Board of Dow Chemical has ever accepted legal liability.

All about politics and money
Although UCC’s CEO, Warren Anderson, was arrested and charges were laid in the Indian courts, the Reagan administration succeeded in cutting an out-of-court deal which saw all charges dropped with a mere $470 million in compensation damages being eventually paid out. Anderson was on the first plane home. Neither he nor any of the American executives of Union Carbide’s parent company have ever faced prosecution.  Few observers doubt that the Reagan administration and Union Carbide sold the people of Madhya Pradesh down the Ganges. Consider the tens of thousands of deaths, the loss of family incomes, supporting the chronically injured, not to mention the loss of livelihood as UCC’s American executives abandoned the Bhopal site and, effectively, fled the country.

Slap-on-the-hand punishment
In June 2010, the court in Bhopal finally managed to convict seven Indian UCC ex-employees, including the former chairman of Union Carbide India, for causing death by negligence. Each was sentenced to two years imprisonment and fined $2,000, the maximum allowed by Indian law. An eighth defendant died before sentence could be passed.  During the case the UCC India executives were shown to have known about 30 major safety hazards at the Bhopal plant. Significantly, the evidence also suggested they were not alone, and that the US headquarter executives also knew about the hazards; hazards not mirrored at the companies US headquarters plant. Yet not one American employee of the parent company has faced legal action over the last 26 years. It seems Union Carbide’s American employees are beyond the law, when UCCs Indian employees are not.

The U.S. doesn’t care
The people of the Madhya Pradesh region have spent 26 years campaigning in the courts and in the streets to overturn the morally reprehensible US-India deal. They want justice and, even today, they still take their protest to the streets. They want Warren Anderson extradited. They want a proper clean-up of the abandoned chemicals. They want to stop getting ill and dying prematurely. But no one in the US is listening. They are too busy venting self-righteous moral outrage against a foreign-company they deem to have “assaulted” their shores.

The reality is that BPs British CEO and executives have shown far more moral spine than the Union Carbide or Dow Chemical Boards. More than that, BP headquarters, based in London, has created a $20 billion compensation fund – an immediate tacit admission of responsibility and perhaps liability – without a court gavel or well-heeled U.S. lawyer in sight. If the actions of a previous U.S. administration can be taken as a yardstick, plainly strong-arming BP to accept the ludicrous “unlimited damages” demanded by some highly vocal American rage-aholics would be to apply a thoroughly reprehensible double-standard.

Clearly, BP has a legal and moral case to answer, but at least it appears willing to answer it. But those adopting the high moral tone national “kick butt” position might first like to consider which American “asses” the people of Bhopal should kick to get justice for their cause?

About the author:
Peter C  Glover is a British writer on international affairs, specializing in energy issues. He is co-author of  Energy and Climate Wars: How naive politicians, green ideologues and media elites are undermining the truth about energy and climate.

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About the Author

Peter C  Glover is a British writer on international affairs, specializing in energy issues. He is co-author of