Shana Ortman, May 15, 2008
I got to the Midland Center for the Arts at 9 AM, and joined a group of about 20 protestors from the surrounding area. We had signs and posters that said “WE are the human element” and “Deadly Dow Dioxin” and larger than life fish puppets labeled “sick fish” and “not for children.”
Just before 10am, about five of us went into the meeting. The official meeting agenda included presentations and voting of board nominations and shareholder resolutions.
Our allies had two resolutions on the floor: “Proposal for Report on Chemicals from Dow Chemical with Known Links to Asthma and Other Respiratory Problems” and “Proposal for Report on Environmental Remediation in Midland Area” (mostly about Dioxin).
After the results were tallies and presented, and after Andrew Liveris presented an unsettling state of the corporation report, the meeting was officially closed.
But before anyone left, everyone was given the opportunity to ask a question or make a comment to Liveris. A number of people, including myself, filled out cards and waited to be called on to speak. As I waited I closed my eyes and tried to channel the strength and moral conviction of our brothers and sisters sitting at the Dharna Stahl in Delhi. Considering that as soon as I started to speak I quickly became one of the most, if not the most, hated person in the room, I was very calmed and comforted to have that strength behind my voice.
I come with a message from the Bhopal Disaster survivors:
*I’m holding in my hand a recently uncovered internal document from the Indian Ministry of Law that affirms that Dow Chemical will be held legally liable for any judgment against Union Carbide to clean up the toxic waste and water contamination in Bhopal. The document states that Dow’s assets in India will not be protected in the event the company is forced to pay for the clean up.
* The Indian Ministry of Chemicals has filed a petition to require Dow to pay a $23 million deposit for the Bhopal toxic clean up.
*Yesterday seven institutional shareholders filed a complaint with the SEC, asking for an investigation and action against Dow for failing to inform shareholders about these developments.
* Bhopal survivors walked 500 miles from Bhopal to New Delhi to demand the right to live free of Dow’s chemical poisons. They are drinking water laden with your poisons and their children are being born with horrific birth defects.
*I express solidarity with the people of Midland and the Tittabawasee River Basin, who demand that Dow clean up the dioxin mess it has left here.
*The Bhopal survivors will never give up until you clean up Bhopal. Because of Bhopal people have blocked the road to your facility construction site outside of Bombay for 5 months. Dow has been kicked off 4 of the campuses of India’s top technical institutes, the IITs.
* We are the faces that never show up in your Human Element campaign, but we are more powerful than you. You will never succeed with your investment strategy in India as long as we are alive. We grow more powerful every day!
*Dow has made plans to invest more than $1 billion in India, but now these plans are at risk, and your opposition in India is growing. Why have you failed to inform your shareholders that Dow’s efforts to avoid liability in Bhopal have failed?
Liveris gave an expected response, mainly:
# He had not heard anything from the Law Ministry in regards to the document I mentioned, so he would not comment on that.
# Dow’s investments in Industry has been warmly welcomed by the Indian goverment.
# The never owned nor operated the UC facility so therefore they are not liable.
# NGOs are the ones that keeping this issue going and resisting clean up of the site, and we should go to the Indian Government for remediation.
These are, of course, the same false talking points we’ve heard for years. Liveris’ response got a disturbing applause from the shareholders present.
After the meeting was over came the fun part. I went to the “Little Theatre” where Liveris had announced that anyone could go to further discuss issues brought up in the meeting. Kanina Blanchard, director of Dow’s Global Issues of Industry Affairs, immediately approached me.
Dow’s Director of Global Dissimulation, Kanina Blanchard
We had a lively and long conversation. At one point a Dow Lawyer joined us for a moment. During the last half of our conversation Scott Wheeler, Director of Communications, joined us. They were all very interested in who I was, what my role was, where I had worked before ICJB, and what the ICJB’s plans were. Kanina was very soft-spoken, but I was happy to speak loud enough so that anyone else in the room could hear me. We spoke for about 20 minutes. Pretty quickly it seemed that they ran out of talking points to respond to my statements and documents. By the end of the conversation, Kanina and Scott had to rely on repeating, “Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree” because they were unable to respond to my arguments.
Here are a few highlights of our conversation(these are not quoted verbatim, just my best attempt to remember exactly what was said):
Kanina: As you know, Dow bought UCC 16 years after the tragedy, and there were no longer any shares of UCC in India.
Me: As you know, the civil case about Bhopal was still pending when Dow bought UCC, and it’s still open today. Dow bought UCC knowing full well that the Bhopal issue was far from resolved.
Me: I don’t feel like my question about why Dow has failed to inform it’s shareholder that their attempts to avoid liability in Bhopal have failed was answered.
Kanina (her long answer was basically): There is clearly a lot to be done in Bhopal, but it’s not our responsibility. We think that we should stand back and let the Indian Gov’t deal with the existing cases and issues.
Me: According to this document, The Indian Government says that Dow will be the liable party on any judgments passed regarding the Bhopal disaster, clean up and water contamination. So, you will not be able to ignore or disregard the legal cases that are still pending.
Kanina: Well, I’m not a lawyer so I cannot comment on this document.
Lawyer: I’m a Dow lawyer, and I can comment on it….. This appears to be a summary of another document, so this isn’t a real document so it’s not important.
Me: Actually, this is a memo from the Ministry of Law to the Prime Minister’s office and it clearly states that Dow will be held accountable for judgments against UCC.
Kanina: We use this analogy, and it’s not a perfect analogy, but if you’ll allow me; It’s like if you bought a used car, and there were major problems with the car, it wouldn’t be your fault, it would be the fault of the previous owner.
Me (loudly): It is extremely offensive to compare the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in Bhopal to a used car. But using that analogy: If you buy a used car, and that car breaks down in the middle of the highway and causes a pile up, then it IS your fault because you chose to buy and drive that car. (Kanina Blanchard is at +1.519.472.9984 and firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to ask her about her understanding of negligence laws – let us know how you get on)
Kanina: What is your role in the campaign, and what are the plans of the ICJB.
Me: I’m the new US coordinator for the campaign. The goals of the campaign have always and will continue to be fighting for the demands of the survivors. Those demands include clean up of the site, clean water, healthcare, and holding Dow liable for the tragedy.
Scott: I think we can all agree that it is a tragedy that the factory and site of the accident was never cleaned up, and we all hope that that happens very soon.
Me: Dow has a very important role to play in that clean up.
Scott: I guess that’s where we have to agree to disagree.
Me: Fortunately the Indian Government seems to agree with me that the liability for the clean up will likely fall on Dow.
Thank so much to Amy O’Meara and Amnesty International.