BP and Union Carbide: A Tale of American Hypocrisy

BP's gulf oil spill was not the 'worst man-made environmental disaster in history', but the American media and U.S. politicians don't want you to remember Bhopal

Peter C. Glover
On 5 July 2013 10:12

BP is back in the headlines. Not for any new scandal but rather, in relation to the long-running saga of its Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

America, like Europe, loves anti-Big Oil stories. The trouble is, however, that the liberal-dominated American media’s regular stoking of the fires of public self-righteousness over the BP spill stand in stark contrast to its total lack of concern for a far greater, U.S. instigated, environmental disaster. And it’s a scandal with a truly black-hearted U.S. company ‘villain’ at its heart: Union Carbide (UCC).

Much is currently being made of the threat of a rash of new lawsuits against BP. Meanwhile, the company has called for an independent investigation into the whole process being used to compensate people for their losses after reports that a lawyer working for the claims administrator has been suspended.

The alleged misconduct relates directly to encouraging the lodging of new, potentially fraudulent, claims. However, it’s the moral sub-text to the whole saga that leaves the sourest taste as environmental lobbies and the media alike persist in beating up on the gulf spill entirely ignoring the legacy of Bhopal. 

Hypocrisy on a breath-taking scale ought to be exposed. It is the business of journalists to do it but the silence from the U.S. media is deafening. Yet the pain of those in India watching the latest American anti-Big Oil soap-opera unfold, those in dire need of proper reparation from UCC (now subsumed into Dow Chemical), is palpable.   

Just this month, one American U.S. expert advising investors erroneously referred to the BP spill as “the worst manmade environmental disaster in history”. Not by a country mile it isn’t my ‘specialist’ friend. As I wrote back in 2010:

For those Americans with a selective or short memory, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), a US company, was responsible for the world’s worst ever industrial disaster at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India. On the night of December 2-3 1984 the gas plant at UC’s Indian subsidiary experienced a serious leak of gas and other toxins. A powerful explosion resulted, killing over 2,200 immediately and over 3,700 in the short-term from gas-associated illnesses.

Indian Government agencies estimate as many as 15,000 to 25,000 deaths over the past 26 years in the areas are directly linked to the Bhopal disaster. Weighed on the scale of global industrial disasters Bhopal – a disaster for which a major US company was responsible – stands head and shoulders above all others, including, contrary to popular myth, the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. 

26 years on from Bhopal 390 tons of abandoned chemicals at the abandoned plant continue to pollute the groundwater in the area affecting thousands of lives. Civil and criminal cases are still pending in India and the United States against Union Carbide and its executives, though the company was taken over by Dow Chemicals in 2001. Neither Union Carbide’s Board nor the Board of Dow Chemical has ever accepted legal liability.

UCC’s CEO Warren Anderson was originally arrested and charges were laid in the Indian courts. But the Reagan administration succeeded in cutting an out-of-court deal which saw all charges dropped and a mere $470 million in compensation damages being paid out. Anderson quickly skipped the country. Neither he nor any of the American executives of Union Carbide’s parent company have ever faced prosecution. Few observers doubt that the Reagan administration and Union Carbide sold the people of Madhya Pradesh down the Ganges.

In June 2010, the court in Bhopal finally managed to convict seven Indian UC ex-employees, including the former chairman of Union Carbide India, for causing death by negligence. Each was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment and fined $2,000, the maximum allowed by Indian law. An eighth defendant died before sentence could be passed.

During the case, the UCC India executives were shown to have known about 30 major safety hazards at the Bhopal plant. Significantly, the evidence also suggested they were not alone. And that the U.S. HQ executives also knew about the hazards; hazards not mirrored at the companies U.S. HQ plant.  Yet not one American employee of the parent company has faced legal action over the last 26 years. It seems Union Carbide’s American employees are beyond the law, when UCC’s Indian employees are not.  

The people of the Madhya Pradesh region have spent 28 years campaigning in the courts and in the streets to overturn the morally reprehensible U.S.-India deal. They seek justice as they still today take their protest to the streets. They want Warren Anderson extradited. They want a proper clean-up of the abandoned chemicals. They want to stop getting ill and dying prematurely. But no one in the U.S. is listening. They are too busy venting self-righteous moral outrage against a foreign-company they deem to have “assaulted” their shores.

Even today, the Bhopal disaster site is still proving to be a toxic killer. But the people of Bhopal still wait for an American company to face justice and pay the price for its social and moral culpability.   

I do not seek for one minute to minimise the culpability of BP in the Gulf of Mexico. 11 workers died that day. The environmental, economic and social damage caused is real enough. Even though BP’s greatest investment as a global company is in the United States, its pension schemes, jobs etc. BP should be made to pay, and big-time. But, as I have previously written:

The reality is that BPs British CEO and executives have shown far more moral spine than the Union Carbide or Dow Chemical Boards. More than that, BP HQ based in London has created a $20 billion compensation fund – an immediate tacit admission of responsibility and perhaps liability – without a court gavel or well-heeled US lawyer in sight. If the actions of a previous US administration can be taken as a yardstick, plainly strong-arming BP to accept the ludicrous “unlimited damages” demanded by some highly vocal American rage-aholics would be to apply a thoroughly reprehensible double-standard. 

Clearly BP has a legal and moral case to answer, yet appears willing to answer it. But those adopting the high moral tone national “kick butt” position might first like to consider which American “asses” the people of Bhopal should kick to get justice for their cause?

The jury is still out on whether BP can survive the economic fall-out of the gulf spill. Some investment advisors consider it could bring BP “to its knees”. Others, and it’s a view I share, suggest BP will not only survive but will prosper. I would suggest that its moral stance in stumping up billions without any form of legal inducement after the oil spill suggests it has more than earned that right.

Investors in Dow Chemicals, on the other hand, could choose to ‘send a message’ to the company responsible for cutting and running post-Bhopal. The legacy of human misery in Bhopal, even today, is horrendous.  More than that, it is heart-breaking, not least when the terrible pictures of the deformities inflicted on the children are viewed.

President Obama, U.S. politicians and the American media like to collude to make BP and the hydrocarbon industry generally their ‘usual suspect’ whipping boys; a highly prejudiced and misguided alliance. That is, given that all modern economies run, and will continue to run, primarily on hydrocarbon fuels, whatever the politicians do or ideologues want. The plain truth is, however, that the “worst man-made environmental disaster in history” was not inflicted by ‘foreign’ Big Oil but by a U.S. chemical company.

If the sheer magnitude of human misery caused by the ‘worst man-made environmental disaster in history’ counts for anything, then U.S. (and other) public outrage ought, as of first importance, be better re-focused on a chemical company – and the breath-taking level of American hypocrisy over Bhopal.  

Peter C Glover is co-author of the bestselling Energy and Climate Wars and is a contributing editor at The Commentator. For more: www.petercglover.com

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