Every December for the past nineteen years, marchers in Bhopal, India, have paraded an effigy of Warren Anderson through town and burned it. Anderson is despised because he was the CEO of Union Carbide on December 3, 1984, when an explosion at the company’s Bhopal factory leaked deadly methyl isocyanate gas over the city’s shantytowns in the worst industrial disaster in history. The exact death toll will never be known–many corpses were disposed of in emergency mass burials or cremations without adequate documentation–but the Indian government now puts the total at more than 22,000 and climbing.
As the disaster’s twentieth anniversary approaches, Bhopal is back in the news. On April 19 two advocates for the survivors won the most prestigious environmental award given in the United States. In her acceptance speech at the annual Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony in San Francisco, Rashida Bee confessed that she and colleague Champa Devi Shukla initially assumed they had been selected by mistake. “We knew a few individuals who had won awards,” she explained, “[but] they were all educated people, spoke English and had e-mail accounts.”
One a Muslim and the other a Hindu, Bee and Shukla are leading the fight to hold Union Carbide and its new owner, Dow Chemical, accountable for the Bhopal disaster, which the two women assert is still killing and injuring thousands of people a year through poisoned groundwater. “The gas disaster was sudden, one night, but the last twenty years have also been miserable,” Shukla said in an interview. “People still have pain and breathlessness, and now we are seeing cancers, too. There is mental and physical retardation among children. Many women are sterile or never begin menstruating, so men don’t want to marry them.” A 1999 study commissioned by Greenpeace International but conducted by independent scientists concluded that Bhopal’s groundwater contains heavy metals, volatile chemicals and levels of mercury millions of times higher than is considered safe.
Neither Union Carbide nor Dow has ever faced trial for Bhopal–inconceivable, activists charge, had the disaster occurred in the United States or Europe. Union Carbide instead reached a $470 million settlement with the Indian government in 1989, based on now-discredited estimates that only 3,000 people died and only 100,000 were “affected.” Upon review of the settlement, an Indian court reinstated criminal charges against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson in 1991. When neither the corporation nor Anderson showed up for trial, they were declared fugitives from justice. The Indian government is now seeking their extradition, but Washington has not honored the request. Meanwhile, Dow, which purchased all outstanding shares of Union Carbide in 1999, refuses to accept the company’s alleged Bhopal liabilities. “Dow remains firm in its position that in acquiring the shares of Union Carbide it acquired no new liability,” John Musser, a Dow spokesman, wrote in an e-mail interview.