Monday, October 25, 2010
BP & Bhopal
By. Parth Chauhan
The headlines on BBC News’ website on September 19th, 2010, read “Gulf oil spill ‘finally sealed,’” putting an end to a five month ordeal for the citizens near the Gulf of Mexico. On April 20th, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by British Petroleum, exploded, leaving eleven workers dead and an uncontrollable fountain of oil gushing into the Gulf. Over the next few months, efforts to cap the leak saw their effectiveness ebb and flow like the tides of the Gulf; the blowout preventer remained unresponsive, the static kill took months, and a “junk shot” failed. It was only until the relief well was completed in September that the leak stopped spewing oil. All in all, the explosion led to 4.9 million barrels being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The livelihoods of thousands of fishermen, crabbers, tourism-service providers, and other Gulf-residents were threatened, as millions of fish and sea creatures died on the polluted beaches of Louisiana and Alabama. And yet, as the final feet of the relief well was bored, and as the pressure on the well abated, the end of the crisis was realized. The objective had been reached, and the Deepwater Horizon spill was over, never to spew black liquid death again.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was an unheard of ecological catastrophe, a disaster whose magnitude is still being grasped. Despite this, all signs point to the Gulf essentially making as full of a recovery as possible. The oil-eating bacteria that helped eat up the crude did not create the dreaded “dead-zone” of oxygen-deprived ocean water; the massive cleanup crews assembled by BP and the US government were able to contain much of the oil before it reached too many beaches; the deaths of the eleven men, while undeniably tragic, was not a calamitous number. Despite all of this, British Petroleum was forced by the US Department of Justice to set aside 20 billion USD for victims, after already spending over 8 billion USD in cleanup and recovery efforts. Pressure from the American public and President Barack Obama led to BP’s announcing of the creation of the fund within two months of the explosion, and within weeks, 319 million USD had already been issued out. Though the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, did step down, further punishments in terms of fines and finding those responsible for the spill are still ongoing processes.
Thus, a British company who victimized the American people came under scrutiny and pressure from the US legal and political system to right its wrongs. This was not the case in Bhopal, India, where an American company was responsible for devastating the region, and yet remained relatively untouched in terms of punishment.
On December 3rd, 1984, a gas cylinder in the Union Carbide pesticide plant reacted with water and exploded, spewing forty tones of poisonous gas over Bhopal, a town of one million people. By the 6th, 8,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands of deaths followed in the next months. The poison’s effects remained in the area, affecting 600,000 people at the time. Even today, the groundwater in Bhopal is likely still contaminated, and the children of the region are known to have disproportionally high rates of many genetic diseases. The exact number of those who became ill, passed away, and were adversely affected by the Union Carbide explosion will never be known, but the area will never be the same again.
Though it occurred over two decades ago, the people of Bhopal are still waiting for justice. In 1989, Union Carbide paid 470 million USD, which amounted to around 783.33 USD per person affected. [In contrast, if the BP fund for the Gulf disaster was allocated equally to all 31 million people living (regardless or not if they were affected by the spill) in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida would receive around 651.70 USD in compensation.] $783.33 was all the money that the victims got to fight off kidney, liver, skin, and brain disease; for those families that lost males, the main breadwinner was replaced by this paltry sum. The Indian government has been slow in dealing with the victims, and legally, India was unable to leverage the US into allowing for Bhopal to file charges in American courts.
When BP’s negligence in the US came to light, the latter immediately forced the gas giant to make amends. However, in a case where an American company neglected to ensure the safety of a foreign nation’s citizenry, the United States refused to force just compensation. Union Carbide’s CEO, Warren Anderson, was not punished by the company or the US; in fact, he was allowed to retire in 1986. His outstanding warrants to be brought in on homicide charges in India have been ignored, as Union Carbide claimed that it does not fall under Indian jurisdiction. The American legal system backed this when, in separate Superior and Supreme Court cases in 2006 and 1993, attempts by Bhopal victims to sue in US courts were dismissed. Thus, the United States government did little to compensate India for the gross negligence of its company’s actions abroad.
The discrepancy and hypocrisy of the United States legal actions towards both incidents are glaring. In one situation, a major environmental disaster became a PR nightmare for the offending, non-American company, with billions of USD being issued in compensation. On the other hand, one of the worst industrial disasters in history, which led to the deaths of thousands, was perpetrated by a US subsidiary that was forced to pay under one thousand dollars per victim. It was a cold welcome to American capitalism.