KINGS LYNN 13 MAY 2003. Two mysterious beings appeared this morning at the Dow Chemicals factory in the tiny, remote English town of Kings Lynn, Norfolk. “We are from the UK branch of the ICJB and we come bringing a gift” they told plant managers who stared at them in wonder and said, “We have heard of you. You delivered soil and water.” Yea verily. The long arm of the ICJB reacheth out even unto the furthest ends of Dow’s realm of chemical despair.
THE INSCRUTABLE POWER OF THE JHADOO
We evacuated the realm of sleep at 3:00 am and were soon bearing North with our potent cargo. By the time we reached Cambridgeshire a glorious dawn had risen over the fens: it was a fine day to jhadoo.
Dow Agrochemicals at King’s Lynn, Norfolk has been around for 46 years, muddying its hands with the on site production of Dursban, the widely disseminated neuro-toxin chlorpyrifos – or “crop protection system”, as Dow would have it.
The sprawling factory squats on the mouth of the Great Ouse River, discharging its output into ships, trucks and we know not where else. “It’ll all come out in The Wash”, we laughed darkly, before setting about our first task of the day, the leafleting of Dow workers during the early morning shift break.
Our first encounter brought jolly results. “Oh yes, Union Carbide: I still don’t understand why we bought them out, it was a big mistake. We have enough trouble with Agent Orange in our history. We do try to be a responsible company, but this sort of thing really doesn’t help.”
Security trooped over warily. “Now, erm, you know as well as I do that we can’t stop you being in this car park, but… but if you start harassing workers or damaging their cars or anything then that’s different. We had that SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) here and there were women and children screaming at us and setting about the cars.”
“Don’t worry, we’re not from SHAC. We’re here because of people, not animals. Read our leaflet: there are serious implications for Dow workers too. We’d like to discuss them with your managing director. After that, we intend to present him with a gift from the people of Bhopal.”
“Oh, well, er, I can tell you now that, er, he doesn’t see anyone without an appointment.”
Over the last year, Dow’s Public Affairs drones have made the phrase ‘Union Carbide remains a separate legal entity…’ a central riff of their pre-programmed Bhopal mantra. Some legal observers have commented that – for the 100% shareholder that Dow is – this feeble, disingenuous and hypertechnical argument for Dow’s lack of responsibility is as absurd as if Dow were to make the same claim of any of its other subsidiaries: for example, Dow Agrochemicals. When security returned from their consultation with management, the reply was telling.
“Look, we are only a manufacturing unit here, and… and, as you know, Dow is an American company. We can’t say anything without it going through Michigan first. The managers we have here can’t comment on anything to do with this, they can’t enter into debate. This is an American company.”
At which point the cops arrived. After being reassured that we were only people’s rights activists, they left us with the hope that the weather would hold out. We decided to signal our intentions to security.
“If the manager will not see us, we have no choice but to demonstrate. Our gift has travelled 6,500 miles, and we have come to deliver it in all seriousness. We have to remind you that 53 members of parliament are behind our campaign, and will be informed about the attitude of the management here at Dow.”
“Who are you, anyway?”
“We are the UK wing of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal”.
When we next talked to security, their tone had changed.
“I’ve been told to step back a bit from you lot. You’ve set up sandwich boards now, and you’re the people who dumped those drums on us – all those drums. I have to step back a bit. They can’t talk to you.”
“Please tell your bosses this: if they want to redeem themselves of their discourtesy, they don’t have very long. We’re being interviewed by the BBC shortly, and will have to explain that Dow won’t speak to us.”
They weren’t quick enough. The interview had been done by the time the Environmental Health and Safety manager made his way over to us.
“We’d like to meet and talk with you. We have heard of you but we didn’t expect you to see you here! I have to say here that we are limited in terms of what we can say; we can’t speak for Dow, we’re not allowed to enter into any debate, but we will listen to what you have to say though we can only give you ten minutes. If it’s ok with you there will be three of us, and we’ll meet in the pink house at 1:00 pm.”
The pink house, according to its plaque, was 15 years older than the Dow Chemical Company, and when it was built in 1882 would have looked out across the estuary plains onto a world relatively free of the tentacles of corporate power. Now it faces the gates of a complex of tanks, pipes, and chimneys spewing sickly smelling white vapour that makes your head feel light and causes your glands to swell.
When they filed out, the public affairs, environmental health and safety and plant manager looked across sheepishly, and arrowed straight for the pink house with hesitant, flickering half-apologetic smiles in our direction, as if trying to convey that they had never expected to be playing this game with us. We joined the uncomfortable procession and followed them inside.
They sat marvelling at us as if we were beings from another galaxy. Or had stepped from a TV documentary about some faraway disaster right into their lives. But Dow has obviously trained its managers. They knew what they were supposed to do. The game of activist appeasement was afoot.
They introduced themselves, reiterated that they couldn’t say anything, that they were very aware of the issues, but they were there to listen to what we had to say.
We declared that we were acting as witnesses, testifying to the massive injustices faced by survivors, that we wanted a message to reach Michigan that wherever Dow operated the ICJB would be there and would not go away until justice was done to the satisfaction of survivors.
During the course of our twenty minute presentation – through which we showed photos of the factory contamination, explained the daily poisoning of local residents, the outstanding charges of culpable homicide, the legal necessity of Dow’s pending liabilities, the foreknowledge of these issues by Dow prior to the merger, their mis-declarations to the Securities and Exchange Commissions of north America and Europe, Dow’s deceit towards its workers, shareholders and the survivors, the danger to stock value and therefore workers posed by its dishonesty and stonewalling, the inescapability of lawful process – the managers sat mutely nodding, wincing, evincing sympathy and bashful impotence, like three liberal vicars in a moral quandary. They could not have been more effectively gagged had there been gaffer tape across their mouths.
Finally, we mentioned that we had a gift.
“Erm, no, we really can’t, we… WE CAN’T TAKE THE BROOM.”
“Ah, we see. We assume that a directive has come from on high over this?” The three exchanged conspiratorial smirks of mutual embarrassment, and agreed to accept the 1999 Greenpeace report instead.
The inscrutable power of the jhadoo remaining in our hands for other days such as this, we left Norfolk with our hearts in gladness.
Tim Edwards, UK Campaign for Justice in Bhopal