Sunday, 6 June 2010

Bhopal and BP

Let me get one thing straight: The BP Gulf of Mexico oil leak is a disaster: an out-and-out, straight-up, terrible disaster. Nothing I write here should be seen as trying to reduce the impact of the oil spill.

However, I am finding the way Obama is treating BP to be slightly... hypocritical. Yes, he should put pressure on them, and yes, they should be castigated (although not solely at the expense of the other, American, companies involved). A thorough investigation has to be started, the facts found, compensation paid and procedures put in place to ensure this never happens again. If we are going to allow deep drilling, then the industry should be forced to develop techniques to deal with this sort of disaster.

I do not doubt that Obama's anger is real and justified. Despite this, he is being hypocritical as the American head of state. For there was a disaster that cost far more lives than the Deepwater Horizon leak and whose legacy still blights lives decades later. It was caused by massive industrial laxity on the part of an American company, a company that has repeatedly refused to see justice done. One night in 1984, the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, released 40 tons of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate into the air.

The scale of the disaster is staggering: 8,000 people in the Bhopal area died within the first 72 hours; 15,000 people have died since and 100,000 people are believed still to be suffering from the effects of the gas release and polluted groundwater from the plant.

The compensation delivered has been derisory. From the Telegraph article:
Each surviving victim received 25,000 rupees – about £315 by current conversion rates. The average sum paid out for a death claim was 62,000 rupees (£780). In 1991, in a ruling designed to resolve legal disputes, the Supreme Court of India described the settlement as 'just, equitable and reasonable’. ('Five hundred and seventy-two thousand people received compensation,’ one campaigner in Bhopal told me. 'Within that group 80,000 were not properly entitled, and an equal number did not get compensation even though they were properly entitled.’ He shrugged. 'This is India.’)
Union Carbide was taken over by Dow chemicals in 2001. The plant was abandoned after the disaster, and still remains much as it was. Dow is refusing to pay for the clean-up of the site, meaning that clean drinking water is not available to many local inhabitants. In a staggering move, Dow have sponsored a series of runs this year to raise awareness about water scarcity, yet they refuse to pay to clear up the site that pollutes water for thousands of people in Bhopal. The hypocrisy is beyond belief.

So what do Dow say about Bhopal? They address this issue on their website, and say:
"Unfortunately, we have responsibilities to our shareholders and our industry colleagues that make action on Bhopal impossible. And being clear about this has been a very big step."
How would Obama react if BP were to say that they could not pay out because of their responsibilities to their shareholders? He would be furious, and rightly so. Yet Dow Chemicals are allowed to get away with it. Is it one rule for American companies, another rule for foreigners?

Five presidents - both Republican and Democrat - have been in power since the disaster. Yet none of them have done the right thing. So Obama, sort out Bhopal. It is the right, moral thing to do.

Or do you believe that disasters involving foreign companies on American territory are awful, terrible things, which the polluter must pay compensation for, whilst disasters involving American companies on foreign territory can be allowed to be forgotten?

It is a shameful stain on America and American values.

No comments: