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Two years ago here I wrote about the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster.

As today is the 28th anniversary of that awful day in India, and the suffering still continues there, I think the story is worth repeating. Here it is.

 Boycott Dow Chemical until they do right by Bhopal

Some stories are hard to believe simply because they carry truths that stagger the senses.

Here’s one that can be summed up in a single sentence: After a factory causes the death of thousands of people, the corporate owner shuts it down and moves out leaving behind a toxic wasteland that continues to kill people 26 years later.

Can’t happen? Well it did; and the death and suffering continue today.

Shortly after midnight on the morning of December 3, 1984, something went very badly wrong at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India; a city with a population of more than 900,000. An out-of-control reaction in a storage tank caused a relief valve to blow open, allowing a cloud of toxic gas to escape into the outside air. The gas was mostly methyl isocyanate, a chemical used to make insecticide. By the time the reaction finally stopped some two hours later, about 40 tons of the gas had escaped.

The released gas stayed close to the ground and immediately began drifting towards a sleeping shantytown bordering the factory. No one knows for sure when the first cry of panic came from there, but it was most likely within 20 minutes after the valve blew. The effects of the gas were instant and terrible. It burned the eyes and produced a scalding pain in the mouth, throat, and lungs. Inhaling the gas was like breathing acid. And the acid was everywhere.

Not knowing what was happening, terrified mother and fathers picked up children and ran outside. But the air out there was no better, and the shantytown was quickly in chaos. The quiet night had become a raging nightmare, one that only the most unlucky of unlucky could ever understand.

Many soon suffocated, as seared lungs filled with fluids. Alleys and streets began filling with bodies. Carcasses of dogs, cats, cattle, goats, and sheep added to the hellish scene. Birds fell dead to the ground.

The gas didn’t stop at the shantytown. It kept moving, working its way into other neighborhoods, where the horror continued. More than 15 square miles of Bhopal were affected.

By morning, most of the gas had dissipated, but Bhopal was a very different city. Half the population had fled. Estimate vary on the number of dead and injured, but it is believed at least 3,000 died within hours of the gas release. According to the Bhopal Medical Appeal (, 8,000 to 10,000 people died within three days. Another 15,000 would die later. More than 500,000 people were declared affected by the gas. Today, 26 years later, some 120,000 residents have chronic medical conditions that require constant health care, all believed related to the gas exposure.

If you think the story can’t get worse; think again. The factory site was never adequately cleaned up, so it has remained a toxic wasteland for 26 years. Now the groundwater around the site is contaminated with chemicals that are either known or suspected carcinogens.

Some of those chemicals are there in massive quantities. For example, recent tests show carbon tetrachloride -- a chemical suspected to cause cancer -- at 2,400 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.

As always, it’s the poorest of the poor who must live near such poison pits. And they have little choice but to use the polluted water for drinking and cooking. The Indian government has a program to provide clean water to the area, but reports indicate it’s far from adequate.

In 1989, Union Carbide paid $470 million to settle the case, an amount that, on average, provided about $550 to each victim. The value of a life or a lifetime of physical suffering was reduced to a pittance.

Union Carbide sold the Bhopal factory in 1994. In 1999, Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide. Between the years 2005 and 2009, according to Fortune magazine, the average profit of Dow Chemical was nearly $3 billion per year. That means, each year, Dow gets to bank about six times the amount paid to settle the Bhopal disaster.

Going all the way back to the disaster in 1984, activists have tried to get Union Carbide and Dow to do right by Bhopal. No one but Dow thinks $550 is fair compensation. And no one thinks it’s right to leave behind a chemical cesspool that kills people every year.

Dow argues it didn’t own Union Carbide back in 1984. And they blame the Indian government for some of the current problems. Both claims are true enough. But Dow owns Union Carbide now. And now it needs to buck up and do the right thing.

Greenpeace ( states that Dow could forever help Bhopal by doing two things; (1) assume liability for the loss of livelihood caused as a result of the disaster by providing income opportunities to victims and support to those rendered destitute, and (2) remove the contamination of the ground water and soil in and around the factory.

Of course, no one expects Dow to voluntarily embrace the Greenpeace proposal. Dow has shown no interest in the subject. The Bhopal story has been told hundreds of times, by activist organizations and a long list of newspapers and magazines, and several books. Dow doesn’t pay attention.

So I have a suggestion. Since moral arguments don’t penetrate the walls of Dow’s corporate headquarter, let's stop preaching morality and start talking dollars and cents, a subject they fully understand and dearly love.

This is what we tell them: We won’t buy Dow products until the company does right by Bhopal. Perhaps, if we all pull together, we can create a small but noticeable downtick in Dow’s sales and profits. And, maybe, just maybe, it will be enough of a tick to cause Dow to grow a conscience.

In the end, both Bhopal and Dow will be the better for it.

Dow Products You Don’t Want To Buy

Here’s a list of Dow products you’re likely to come across at a hardware store or home center. Help the people of Bhopal by asking for a substitute product.

Dowfrost RVR
Use: Winterization fluid for RV’s, vacation homes, boats, and swimming pools.
Substitute: Any propylene glycol product made for the above applications.

Great Stuff
Use: Polyurethane expansion foam
Substitute: Touch ’n Foam (

Use: Rigid foam insulation used in building construction
Substitute: Formular 150 (

Weathermate Housewrap
Use: Weather-resistant insulating wrap used in building construction
Substitute: Tyvek ( or Pinkwrap (

Also, many Dow chemicals go into products made by other manufactures. For a list of all Dow products, go to

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Comment Preferences

  •  It's an interesting conundrum whether (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MGross, Rich in PA, ebohlman

    the goal here is to extract a pound of flesh from Dow (like your diary suggests, with good justification).

    Or to get Bhopal cleaned up.  For example via the mechanism described in this article: An Offer Rejected: Prominent U.S. company gets nowhere with its offer to clean up Bhopal  

    I suppose this is a classic example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the possible - heck, it WAS possible to get Bhopal cleaned up, but w/o making Dow suffer that wasn't an acceptable solution.

    •  asdf (0+ / 0-)
      heck, it WAS possible to get Bhopal cleaned up, but w/o making Dow suffer that wasn't an acceptable solution.
      At an unknown cost to the government and people of India/Bophal. Having the polluter pay for the cleanup (as opposed to the victims) was deemed preferable by the victims. Such a classic example of rejecting the idea of making the victims pay.

      That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

      by enhydra lutris on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 01:30:11 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Dow owes nothing, morally or legally. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rich in PA, Roadbed Guy, wader

    The whole Bhopal "movement" is contemptible.

    UCIL (the subsidiary that owned the plant) was a joint venture between Union Carbide and the Indian Government.  The actual company, by the way, is still around... and not part of Dow.  See Everyready Industries India.  That company actually ended up with the plant and is the one that had responsibility for the clean-up.

    In 1989, Union Carbide paid $470 million to settle the case, an amount that, on average, provided about $550 to each victim. The value of a life or a lifetime of physical suffering was reduced to a pittance.
    That's the amount the Indian government agreed to, in an out-of-court settlement.  Recall they actually owned about half of the business entity liable.

    Union Carbide wouldn't be liable if they still existed (and didn't operate the plant, they just participated in UCIL) and Dow certainly isn't liable.

    The whole thing is a sham by activists both in and outside India to soak the non-Indian parties involved for money.

    •  The actual compensation is in line... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roadbed Guy, wader

      ...with what national and state governments in India typically pay in cases of official negligence leading to death, e.g. train crashes or stepping on downed power lines. It's unusual for victims of private-sector negligence leading to death to receive any compensation except when government assumes the expense.  I don't have an opinion on Dow's liability by Indian legal standards but the compensation, however paltry, was at least in line with the prevailing standard.

      You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

      by Rich in PA on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 11:48:22 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  The bigger problem is that US companies (0+ / 0-)

        can still use this mechanism to get cheap products at the expense of worker (and community) welfare.

        Referring of course to the recent WalMart contractor who lost dozens of worker in their locked-in factory.

        Is WalMart to blame?   In a  fuzzy wuzzy moral/ethical sense - absolutely!  In a legal sense - meh, probably not.

        •  What's distinctive in this case, India c.1984... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

 that there was no cheap-products angle.  This was a factory for the India market, in an era before trade liberalization so UC was kept at or under 50%.  

          You know, I sometimes think if I could see, I'd be kicking a lot of ass. -Stevie Wonder at the Glastonbury Festival, 2010

          by Rich in PA on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 01:05:13 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  I had a friend who worked in Union Carbide as a (4+ / 0-)

      secretarial temp. Immediately after Bophal shredders ran 24hrs a day, managers hired extra staff and brought in extra shredders in the days that followed.  Funny behavior for those with nothing to hide.

      Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree. -Martin Luther

      by the fan man on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 12:41:06 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  "UCIL" may have owned the plant (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      but there's a legal doctrine called piercing the corporate veil that can extend liability beyond the piece of paper that incorporated UCIL.

      I am more concerned about the lessons not learned. There's plenty of slow-motion Bhopals simmering around the world, where tons of airborne toxics are emitted every day as part of a plant's "normal" operations, not to mention so-called "upsets."

      And there's many candidiates for new Bhopals, for instance at the dozens of domestic refineries that stores multiple tons of hydrofluoric acid (HF) near large cities, where a busted valve or punctured tank would threaten tens of thousands of folks.

      A train overturned in Kentucky with several tank cars of HF a week or two ago, by the Grace of God the tanks didn't rupture.

      There was supposed to be legislation to encourage use of less-toxic alternative chemicals, but it died.  And the new homeland security regulations won't even allow you to look up the full extent of chemical hazards from nearby industries, despite the right-to-know laws.

      I'd hope we could take this day to consider how to prevent future Bhopals instead of bickering over who was legally responsible for the last one.

    •  Silent partner with no operational control, (0+ / 0-)

      I'm almost certain. That is the standard arrangement in these kinds of deals.  The government or a government owned entity is given a profits interest in a joint venture but no authority or control over operations (because they don't have a clue how t run the operation).

      So, the operating, managing partner commits gross negligence. It then negotiates a "blood money" settlement for the loss of life and those hospitalized and/or maimed (also SOP).  

      The blood money settlement rarely encompasses any toxic pollution issues or remediation costs. The perp usually unloads the local assets and bails so there is nothing to seize when the existence and magnitude of such is discovered.

      As for the rest, look up "successor in interest".

      That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

      by enhydra lutris on Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 09:01:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  You'd be incorrect. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        enhydra lutris

        The Bhopal plant at the time of the accident was operated by some 193 Indian nationals, including the managers of seven operating units employed by the Agricultural Products Division of UCIL, who reported to Indian Works Managers in Bhopal. The plant was maintained by seven functional departments employing over 200 more Indian nationals. UCIL kept at the plant daily, weekly and monthly records of plant operations and records of maintenance as well as records of the plant’s Quality Control, Purchasing and Stores branches, all operated by Indian employees.

        The Indian government basically ran UCIL as their own wing, with UCC just allowed in to provide the technology.  This was the cost of being allowed to do business in the country.  From the above source:

        As Judge Keenan found, however, UCC’s participation was limited and its involvement in plant operations terminated long before the accident. Under 1973 agreements negotiated at arm’s-length with UCIL, UCC did provide a summary “process design package” for construction of the plant and the services of some of its technicians to monitor the progress of UCIL in detailing the design and erecting the plant. However, the UOI controlled the terms of the agreements and precluded UCC from exercising any authority to “detail design, erect and commission the plant,” which was done independently over the period from 1972 to 1980 by UCIL process design engineers who supervised, among many others, some 55 to 60 Indian engineers employed by the Bombay engineering firm of Humphreys and Glasgow. The preliminary process design information furnished by UCC could not have been used to construct the plant. Construction required the detailed process design and engineering data prepared by hundreds of Indian engineers, process designers and sub-contractors. During the ten years spent constructing the plant, its design and configuration underwent many changes.

        The vital parts of the Bhopal plant, including its storage tank, monitoring instrumentation, and vent gas scrubber, were manufactured by Indians in India. Although some 40 UCIL employees were given some safety training at UCC’s plant in West Virginia, they represented a small fraction of the Bhopal plant’s employees. The vast majority of plant employees were selected and trained by UCIL in Bhopal. The manual for start-up of the Bhopal plant was prepared by Indians employed by UCIL.

        In short, the plant has been constructed and managed by Indians in India. No Americans were employed at the plant at the time of the accident.
        In the five years from 1980 to 1984, although more than 1,000 Indians were employed at the plant, only one American was employed there and he left in 1982. No Americans visited the plant for more than one year prior to the accident, and during the 5-year period before the accident the communications between the plant and the United States were almost non-existent.


        •  Thanks for the info. (0+ / 0-)

          That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

          by enhydra lutris on Tue Dec 04, 2012 at 01:30:35 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

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