Tag Archives: industrial pollution

Echoes of Bhopal in California

Rashida Bee, Margie Richards from Norco, Louisiana, Hilton Kelley from Port Arthur, Texas — all residents of toxic hotspots — today went on a toxic tour of one of the Bay Area Bhopals, guided by Denny Larson of Bucket Brigade fame and Henry Clark of the local NGO West Country Toxic Coalition.

Richmond, California is one of USA’s own slow-motion Bhopal, where communities are gassed on a daily basis and subjected to the threat of an impending disaster on the scale of Bhopal. The similarities with Bhopal are startling — powerful corporations, historically oppressed communities, toxic pollution, cover-ups by polluters and regulators, and widespread ill-health among the residents. The drive up there is spectacular, a medley of thickly vegetated landscapes and the ever present Bay with its numerous bridges.

Rashida surveys the West Coast’s largest oil refinery, owned by Chevron Texaco

Tucked away within the affluence of the San Francisco Bay Area is the little toxic neighborhood of North Richmond, a predominantly african american and latino area — a third world in a first world setting.

“It is amazing to see places like Richmond in America. If this is the way they treat their own people, it is little wonder that Union Carbide treats the Bhopalis so badly,” said Rashida Bee after her tour of the Chevron legacy.

Home to the West Coast’s largest oil refinery run by Chevron Texaco, Richmond has been the site of numerous protests in recent years given Chevron’s interests in keeping the war in Iraq going. Condoleeza Rice, an ex-director of the Chevron board, is currently one of the leading spindoctors on the Gulf war.

The word “Bhopal” finds tremendous resonance among the environmental justice activists here. Not only did the aftermath of the disaster trigger a busy phase of community organising against the disaster potential and ongoing pollution in Richmond, it also inspired local communities to fight for better toxics monitoring and disaster warning systems. But as Henry Clark put it, “We didn’t get anything without a fight. Without organisation and an organised fight, we couldn’t have won a thing.”

In the 21 years of its existence, West County Toxics Coalition has made environmental justice an accepted phrase in the vocabulary of the locals and in the policy books of the city and the State.

Chevron Texaco’s contribution ot the environment of North Richmond, California

Despite the organised and growing resistance, incidents of pollution and spills are routine. In our 90 minute tour of the industrial estate, we saw inadequately remediated superfund sites, billowing clouds of black smoke from one of the numerous facilities dotting Chevron’s 3000 acre complex, stacks of empty chemical containers, the site of an old incinerator that used to tower over the school grounds in town, the seemingly dilapidated factory of General Chemicals from where a leak of sulphuric acid in 1993 sent 20,000 people to the hospital.

Much like in the Bhopal case, where the Government of India offered to withdraw criminal charges against the Union Carbide as part of a negotiated settlement, in Richmond too, the state prosecutors withdrew criminal charges against General Chemical in return for a $5.1 million settlement. In Bhopal, though, public pressure forced the Government to reinstate criminal charges against Carbide.

Just as in Bhopal, where people are fighting GOvernment efforts to siphon off compensation funds, the Richmong community had to fight a pitched battle to ensure that the $5.1 million obtained in settlement did not disapear into state funds, but was actually spent on setting up a health clinic for the community.

The Richmond community has been able to win for itself basic health services, an emission monitoring and warning system and an Environmental Justice law that calls for fair treatment of all peoples when it comes to enforcement of environmental law, they are yet to get the companies to submit an evacuation plan in the event of a disaster. However, Clark feels more optimistic about the future: “Now we have a Community Advisory Council as part of the Municipal agency. All development plans have to be approved by the council. Only companies that are clean, green and provide local jobs will be allowed to set up.”

Rashida et al at the Health Centre fought for by the local community

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Tell Dow to face Bhopal now

Union members and academics from all over the world can now lend their names to the fight to make The Dow Chemical Company accept its liabilities in Bhopal by signing our online petitions. By submitting your name you’ll not only help to make it impossible for Dow to continue with its intransigence towards Bhopal, you’ll also be showing to Bhopal’s survivors that communities and individuals everywhere stand in solidarity with their longest struggle.

If you are signing our Union Petiton or Faculty Members Petiton, please do also pass the links onto others if you can.

Dow habitually depicts advocates for justice in Bhopal as ‘professional activists’, conveniently ignoring the protests of Bhopal survivors and their representatives, international citizens, shareholders, elected politicians, Unions, students, ethical investors etc. In this way it seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the objections mounted against its behaviour. It will now have to try to ignore the objections raised by each and every signatory of these petitions.

But it is not only by dismissing its critics that Dow attempts to obscure its moral and pending legal and environmental liabilities in Bhopal: in has other methods also.

By continually reasserting that Union Carbide is a separate legal entity, Dow obfuscates the fact that, under merger law, as 100% buyer and owner, it is anyway the inheritor of Carbide’s liabilities – as demonstrated by its taking on of $2 billion dollars worth of Carbide’s US asbestos liabilities. Also, the corporate veil Dow has placed over it’s relationship to Carbide is entirely transparent: the board of what remains of Union Carbide is made up of Dow employees such as Carbide CEO John Dearborn, also Dow’s vice president of technology licensing and catalysts; listed as a director is Luciano Respini, President of Dow Europe; and the registrant of Carbide’s SEC submissions is Frank H Brod, Dow’s Vice president and Controller. Union Carbide today exists as a business to supply Dow alone.

Secondly Dow makes itself a denialist by refusing to acknowledge the outstanding liabilities it inherited through its digestion of Carbide. Massive contamination in Bhopal created and abandoned by Carbide, the polluter, is anybody but Carbide’s responsibility according to Dow. The unresolved charges of culpable homicide against Carbide are simply never mentioned by Dow.

Even now Dow believes that it can wholly mislead its stakeholders over its Bhopal liabilities, as demonstrated long before, during and after the 2003 AGM, where CEO Stavropoulos denied before the assembled stakeholders that Union Carbide was actually indicted in the criminal case ongoing in Bhopal. Dow management’s attitude to its own shareholders therefore appears almost as contemptuous as the one it holds towards those people in Bhopal being progressively poisoned by its deliberate inaction over the deadly toxins left by behind by Carbide.

Dow’s position on Bhopal flouts both moral and legal conventions, in the apparent hope that the issue of Bhopal will simply evaporate. 150,000 chronically ill survivors, another 20,000 victims of the contamination, the Indian and US courts, the approaching 20th anniversary and a growing international recognition of Bhopal as central to the unstoppable movement for real corporate accountability means that Dow’s hope is a forlorn one.

One of the hundreds of sacks of poison Dow refuses to clean up. Help make them.

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