Nate Stell, Cambridge Chronicle, September 21, 2006
The City Council will vote on a series of resolutions next Monday that reprimand Dow Chemical for an industrial disaster that occurred 22 years ago, and which it did not cause. Wait a minute, what’s this all about, and why should anyone give a darn?
The disaster in question occurred in the city of Bhopal, India. On Dec. 3, 1984, 27 tons of poisonous gas leaked from a pesticide plant on the edge of this densely populated city. The residents received no warning because not one of the plant’s six safety systems was functioning. More than 3,000 people died immediately, and many thousands more would die in the following years from the long-term complications caused by gas exposure. To date, more than 20,000 are lost as a result of this catastrophe, and more than 120,000 are permanently disabled.
This was not a tragedy — the accident was due to gross criminal neglect. A few years before the disaster, three smaller poison gas leaks killed one plant worker and injured dozens more, yet the repeated calls from the workers to repair the deteriorating facility fell on deaf ears. The Indian courts found the evidence against the plant’s parent company, Union Carbide, compelling enough to charge it with culpable homicide, yet has steadfastly refused to honor the subpoenas to address those charges in court.
Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide outright in 2001, and in doing so took on its liabilities. Nevertheless, Dow refuses to respect the jurisdiction of the Indian court system. It also refuses to consider the justice of Union Carbide’s victim compensation package, which provided for roughly five years’ worth of medical costs to victims with chronic complications. It is a profound insult to human dignity for Dow to ignore a matter of such moral and legal importance, especially when it is well within the company’s reach to do the right thing. So long as the victims’ suffering remains unanswered, the Bhopal chemical disaster will stand as an international symbol of impunity, disrespect for the rule of law, and basic human rights.
Cambridge has an admirable reputation of taking the lead on some of the most important human rights and social justice issues of the times. I hope it will come out in support of Monday’s resolutions, one of which asks the Cambridge Retirement System to co-file a Dow shareholder resolution on behalf of the victims. Another requests the city’s purchasing department to replace Dow Chemical products with alternatives until the company addresses its liabilities to the Bhopal disaster victims. The passage of such measures will notify Dow that people are seriously concerned with the way it conducts business.
Coalition for Justice in Bhopal, Somerville