8 Jun 2010

For America is BP India's Union Carbide?

Is Union Carbide’s horrific environmental disaster of 1984 America’s ‘BP’? Yesterday’s minimal sentences passed down on eight former Carbide employees, did not include the then Chief Executive Warren Anderson. No one has ever acted upon the arrest warrant that was issued for his arrest. No one until yesterday was ever brought to book. America and her then multi-national, in effect, took little or no action to remedy the disaster.

When I visited Bhopal in 2002 – 15 years after it had happened, the stench still hung over the site. The wreckage stood untouched since the devastating explosion that left 50 tonnes of the toxin – methyl isocyanate – hanging in a cloud over the City’s slums.

At least 3,000 people died immediately, some 15,000 are estimated to have died since as a result of ingesting the fumes. Many birth deformities have occurred and many cancers diagnosed amongst survivors. It is alleged that the ground water remains dangerously polluted.

Beyond the 11 people killed aboard the exploding oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico no one has yet died from the consequent oil spill. Yet an American president is now at war with a British multi-national and all political guns are blazing.

Had President Ronald Reagan expended against Union Carbide a tenth of Mr Obama’s energy and rhetoric today focused on BP, would life and death for the people of Bhopal might have turned out very differently?

Perhaps what Union Carbide and BP tell us is that even in a globalised world, holding great multi nationals to account is technically extremely difficult.

The eight carbide employees sentenced yesterday for their role in the Bhopal disaster have got two years in jail and a little more than £1,000 each in fines. No one expects anyone from BP, Haliburton, or Trans Ocean, to go to prison, let alone to have to pay personal fines.

Perhaps the fact that BP is voluntarily paying for both the battle to contain the oil and to clean it up is real progress.

But if BP’s disaster had happened off Nigeria or Uganda’s Lake Victoria oil field, could we have been so sure?

Is this still a globalising world with one outcome for the rich and another for the poor?

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22 reader comments

  1. John says:

    Fatuous, BP is Anglo American with approximately equal share holding in UK and USA and with 2.5 times as many US employees as UK.

  2. the-Richard-of-Nottingham says:

    “Is this still a globalising world with one outcome for the rich and another for the poor?”

    Of course it is Jon. America leads the way on that front, and the breathtaking of hypocrisy and double standards of the American media and that nice Mr Obama really grates.

    No American will ever be held to account over the disaster at Bhopal.

    1. adrian clarke says:

      that is true richard .Now it maybe a disaster that could well have been averted , and if that is the case , no matter where it is in the world , perhaps people should be held to account.If oil was not a commodity in such demand , then these rigs would not be operating in such dangerous conditions .
      It would be much safer to go back to horse and cart

    2. the-Richard-of-Nottingham says:

      Going back to horse and cart might be a little extreme Adrian. It is a fact that oil is becoming harder to find and bring out of the ground. And with instant mass coverage screw ups are easily seen and the miscreants identified and – rightly – brought to task.

      We weren’t so in the dark back in 87. The TV had been invented by then. But Bhopal wasn’t given coast-to-coast coverage in America (and I know that).

      I’d like to see Jon get someone from UC to talk about the recent judgement. It can’t be done. America simply doesn’t want to know.

  3. Margaretbj says:

    Thought that you would be acting sports correspondent at Queens today .

    Pertinent juxtaposition of Union Carbide and BP.Jon.One markedly striking difference is that Obama is there now. He is a goodie , whereas Reagan played the baddie.

    The difficulties between comparing past and present is the parity of ethos changes. Countries and large companies could get away with demeaning compensation for casualties of accidental human damage ,now the world is too aware as communication improves to get away with it. We hope that lessons are learnt from past experiences as in Bhopal ,as we do with BP.

    All the sticky fudge which spoils the gulfs coastline , the pelicans and other birds and sea creatures will not feel any benefit from brass though.

  4. adz says:

    This is one world for the rich and another for the poor Jon.
    Bhopal is a typical & very frightning example of just how little we can really say or do against the super rich. It’s laws for us and other’s for them.
    No one will serve time for what happened or shall i say what they let happen without the due safety measures in place because they would only mean more cost & less profit.
    £1000 fine? That is another crime against those who lose loved ones in these disasters and a general mockery of us all.
    adzmundo The Venus Project, ZM, CND

  5. CWH says:

    Haliburton is an American company with friends in high places e.g. Dick Cheney to name but one so President Obama is not going to take them on. Furthermore he, President Obama, had just given or was about to give permission for more offshore drilling. He wont want people to remember that so – go after BP. Foreign owned – a so very convenient sitting duck.

    1. Margaretbj says:

      That may be so, however he has already spoken. Even if his will is trapped in high places, it is irrelevant in retrospect to infer that a go ahead for more drilling would have altered the course of the BP accident/neglect. There are two very different ethical dilemmas, one dealing with disastrous consequences and the other dealing with issues of searching for black money and prescribed and potential difficult issues.

  6. John Smith says:

    Hmmm. Food for thought. If Bophal had happened in the US, heads would most certainly have rolled and some imprisonment would have followed. Did Union Carbide ever pay proper compensation to the unfortunates of Bophal? I seem to think not. But the nasty old British Petroleum will, quite rightly, be held to account. But are they not jointly liable with the owners of the rig?
    America would do better if it applied fair justice universally, the computer hacker could do with some leniency. But generally I think we still need them more than they need us.

  7. Roy Page says:

    I am not sure this sabre rattling by Mr Obama is doing any practical good. BP are not sat around doing nothing, and they have the best expertise to solve this problem. Currently BP do not need additional pressures of financial repercussions, they need to maintain 100% effort on resolving the problem. The comparison John has made with Bophal is excellent.

  8. James Askew says:

    Unfortunately Indian justice has also long been subject to both delays in proceedings – often decades – and corruption at high levels. Indian activists have already made these claims many times. Rather like the blame game between the companies involved in the Gulf of Mexico spill, the US company, Union Carbide, has always hidden behind “it wasn’t our fault” – the company reacted to this judgement by saying neither it nor its officials were subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian court since they were not involved in the operation of the plant, which was owned and operated by Union Carbide India Limited. Warren Anderson, the then Chairman of Union Carbide Corporation of USA, who lives in the United States, appears to have gone scot free for the present as he is still an absconder and did not not subject himself to trial – I hope that he can sleep easily at night given his criminal negligence in causing such a terrible disaster. I am however optimistic that a much more just result in the Gulf of Mexico will eventually be obtained by a combination of public outcry, Obama’s clear outrage, and – just perhaps – a little bit more concern shown by BP than ever has been by UC.

  9. Margaretbj says:

    A really amazing fact is the general perception that money is the cure all for all ills. Compensation , fine where it is needed, but does it really compensate or is it rather a punitive measure.

    Obama is sabre rattling , but the president has set a precedent and that is the turning point to address similar problems transparently..we must move on and improve.

  10. Saltaire Sam says:

    Colonialism is not dead. It’s just called globalisation these days. But it adds up to the same thing – the wealthy countries exploit the resources and the people of poorer countries and give little care to those who get harmed.

    BP, on the other hand, is just an example of capitalism at its most extreme – cut corners for more profit and hope nothing goes wrong. But every so often it does and, as with the banks, ordinary people will pay a higher price than those who are to blame.

    One thing intrigues me – how come we can invent protective clothing that makes it safe for man to walk in space or on the moon, but have yet to find anything to protect them in the depths of the sea?

  11. paul begley says:

    1/ It’s very seldom that any sort of overseas accident (eg plane or train crash) does not get reported here as “150 casualties INCLUDING FIVE BRITISH”. This might give the impression that there is a kind of ranking in the value of human life.

    2/ This is not the first recent accident BP has had which affected USA.

    3/ Perhaps we need some objective, fact based journalism to establish whether BP has been significantly more accident prone than other oil industry majors.

  12. Keith Myers says:

    ‘No one expects anyone from BP, Haliburton, or Trans Ocean, to go to prison, let alone to have to pay personal fines.’ The frustration over accountability is understandable. However, if laws or regulations have been broken (and its not yet clear that they have in the BP case), individuals will be held to account. Companies and their officers should be accountable to the laws and regulations in the countries where they operate. If those laws and regulations are insufficient or the institutions that implement them are weak, they need to be strengthened. Then there is the question of the punishment if laws or regulations are broken – that is for courts and regulators to decide. I don’t see it as a particular issue with transnational companies. You are right to point out the risks in Lake Albert Uganda (not Lake Victoria BTW). The oil industry is having a serious think as there are very oil companies with the resources to respond in the way BP has.

  13. akamrburns says:

    Bit late coming to this one…
    BP sloppy…Chief Exec – where did they get him from? Is he really the best in BP’s CEO locker? Toyota’s PR was rubbish, BP’s is then times worse. Wakey, wakey guys!
    And Mr President? Don’t kick BP too hard must be the message from Mr Cameron. It could do untold damage to our ‘special relationship’ if British pensioners are pawns in the US mid-term election hoo ha!

    1. adrian clarke says:

      Akam i tend to agree .With this protectionist president ,it is perhaps time we looked at our so called special relationship.If Obama wants to decimate BP for political gain , perhaps it is time to say enough is enough .We can no longer support the USA’s Afghanistan adventure, and just leave then to it

  14. KOYLI says:

    Shame the American governments had not taken Environmental issues seriously in the past. Correct me if I’m wrong but did they not show the world “two fingers” on implimenting Kyoto treaty agreements to combat climate change!

  15. RogerB says:

    Obama’s handing dictats to honourable men (at BP) is for show.
    His outrage is almost certainly more with those that have the audacity to blame the president for this disaster.
    This was a disaster in waiting.
    There is no double whammy at the moment so the world can learn to manage the consequences in a sandbox environment so that future oil-pipe/wellhead ruptures caused by hurricanes, earthquakes and the like have a better that 50% chance of being contained.
    Those livelyhoods affected on the Gulf of Mexico have the luxury of adapting to other lifestyles without their families being decimated as in the Bhopal disaster.
    Many will retire, others will sell their story to newspapers and go few will earn a respectable sum in the clean up.
    America is well adapted to living beyond its means, living with shame and applying the blame culture (to others).
    If 20 billion dollars had been escrowed in the name of almost 20 000 dead (3000 plus subsequent deaths) in Bhopal, I think most people would agree that the one million dollars assigned to each would be a very generous compensation in the circumstances. Shame on UnCarb. that it is not even one tenth of that.

  16. James says:

    Saltaire Sam gets my vote, globalisation = colonialism. As for the BP clean-up, lets put it in context: 20 billion put aside for compensation of American livelihoods, but how much for the people of Nigeria who have suffered from oil pollution by Shell and Exon-Mobil – at an average of 10 million gallons of spillage, yes, per year, for the past 50 years? Whole regions laid waste for decades compounded by uncaring neglect for the people and wildlife affected. Perhaps, John, you should investigate this for Channel 4 news and then ask those responsible to explain the disparity of response by comparison.

    As for Union Carbide: may the cowards responsible rot forever in hell.

  17. Rich says:

    Glad to see this point made! The situation is bad, this is granted. But USA taking this enviromental high ground is laughable. Why are we not seeing reports about USA history of disasters in other parts of the world???? It needs to be reported so to put in balance what has gone on, especialy the Union Carbide situation. Oil on beaches, yes bad…….but 15,00 dead!!! And how much did they give them $500 each. It all stinks if you ask me. USA are polluting more than most countries, but still they contiue as they do not want to affect their business markets. So its Ok for them to take this line, but not others. BP are being targeted as taking risks for profit. Well USA are taking risk with the global wellbeing for the sake of USA PLC.

  18. paul says:

    sorry but are you idiots serious, 3000 indians were killed, minor compared to bp, killing a human in america carries a death penalty, kill 3000 indians, well their indian. how can you compare the two. it makes me sick….

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