The Sunday afternoon crowd at a neighborhood restaurant sits casually enjoying a pleasant meal. Many have come in for a family lunch after church. Others are on their lunch break from work. Suddenly, a hissing noise is heard coming from the kitchen, followed by a strong chlorine odor. Sounds of loud coughs and gasps shatter the relaxed atmosphere, followed by screams of fear as the patrons make a run for the door and the safe, clean air that lies behind it. As it turns out, the incident was caused by a restaurant employee mixing incompatible chemicals into a mop bucket resulting in a cloud of toxic gas. Although no one was hurt in this fictionalized account, it does show us that careless or improper use of chemicals can have disastrous consequences.

This was vividly seen in the early hours of December 3, 1984, in the city of Bhopal India. On that tragic morning, gas leaked from a tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC) at a plant owned and operated by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). When the gas cloud had cleared, approximately 3800 people were reported dead, 40 people were totally disabled, and 2680 more people had experienced partial disabilities. (1) Rightfully, this prompted serious outcry from environmental and human rights organizations. The flame was rekindled in February of 2001, when chemical giant Dow merged with Union Carbide.

Naturally, this created a public relations nightmare for Dow, as CEO Michael Parker had the unenviable task of justifying the merger to environmentally conscious citizens. In a letter written to one such citizen, Mr. Parker calls for a new beginning with Union Carbide, as well as the people of Bhopal. Although to some, Mr. Parker is defending the indefensible, his letter does seem to have noble overtones, and if he is sincere, it could be the beginning of the healing process.

However, when the wounds run this deep, any healing process will understandably be one baby step at a time. There would no doubt be many who would say that Union Carbide is beyond redemption, and that they should never be viewed as a legitimate company again. Although I will certainly not downplay the horrors of the tragedy, or excuse the negligence that led to the disaster, at what point can a new start be made? It has now been almost twenty years since the tragedy. Are the responsible parties even employed by Union Carbide anymore? Even if they are still working there, what about the many Union Carbide employees who had nothing to do with the incident? Should they and their families suffer for the misdeeds of the few? According to Mr. Parker, Dow has been involved in intensive talks with the National Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (NCJB), as well as representatives from Greenpeace. He says that Dow is seeking to better understand the situation, and possibly provide humanitarian relief to the people of Bhopal. If Dow does follow through on this, it could be a win/win situation for all parties involved.

In the letter, Mr. Parker repeatedly attempts to reassure the public that the Dow/Union Carbide merger is in the best interest of all, including the people of Bhopal themselves. In addition to the previously mentioned philanthropic efforts, Mr. Parker also discusses how Union Carbide immediately took responsibility for the tragedy. He writes that in 1989, they reached a settlement with the Indian government for $470 million, and that the Indian Supreme Court found the settlement to be “just, equitable, and reasonable”.

Playing the role of healer in the wake of such an agonizing tragedy will certainly be an uphill battle. The mistrust shown to Union Carbide is quite understandable. However, this does not change the fact that the company still serves a purpose, providing many valuable services. If they have truly done all they can to make restitution, and have genuinely learned from, and as much as possible, corrected their past mistakes (and I realize that is a big if) then what more can we ask of them? As Mr. Parker points out in his opening paragraph “Perhaps the only encouraging news to be gleaned from the tragedy is that it has changed our industry forever, for the better”.

Obviously, winning the trust of the people of Bhopal will have to be a high priority for Dow/Union Carbide. Mr. Parker points out that Union Carbide was totally willing to abide by the decisions of the courts, as well as being sensitive to the needs of the people effected by the tragedy. In addition, Dow’s web site contains a large section describing their commitment to environmental protection. It begins with the following words of assurance: “Dow sees its place on the earth as a place in nature. We will uphold our tradition of protecting the environment. We will also vigilantly guard the health and safety of the people around us, particularly those who work for us, those who handle or use our products, and those who live in the communities where we operate”. (2)

Still, not everyone is convinced. Nityanand Jayaraman, Greenpeace’s toxics campaigner in India, says:

"Union Carbide is an environmental criminal fighting hard to erase its liabilities in Bhopal. But the evidence of Carbide’s crimes are still there in Bhopal for all to see in the form of hundreds of tons of poisonous wastes, (and) hundreds of tons of liabilities. Policy makers worldwide should cringe every time they say 'Polluter Pays' and realize how hollow it sounds when one of the biggest polluters is still roaming free." (3)

Both of these perspectives raise valid concerns, which does hinder me from fully taking sides either way. The concerns of Greenpeace and other environmental groups should certainly not go unheeded. No matter how much money or prestige is involved, what value do you place on even one human life? According to some, Bhopal was not an isolated incident in Union Carbide’s history. (4) The recovery effort of the people of Bhopal is still very much an ongoing effort. There is obviously a great deal at stake here, and as we know, big business has not always been faithful to its word. At what point does good will become blind faith?

Not knowing Mr. Parker personally, I cannot gauge his sincerity. However, if Dow does consistently follow through with the plans Mr. Parker describes, it would give Union Carbide a much needed opportunity to make up for its past sins. It would also give the company’s employees a more stable working environment. Most importantly, although no amount of compensation can make up for loss of human life, the philanthropic efforts between Union Carbide, the NCJB, and others could be a real bridge builder to the people who were hurt by this useless tragedy. As Mr. Parker’s “vision of zero” words it: “zero incidents, zero injuries, zero environmental harm. No lesser ideal is acceptable to us”. If this truly is the case, it could be the start of something very good.

1. Author Unknown, “Bhopal Incident Review”. Bhopal.com 2001, Union Carbide Corporation. 23 June, 2002. http://www.bhopal.com/review.htm.

2. Author Unknown. “Holding Nature Sacred” Around Dow Publishing date unknown..Dow Chemical Company. 25 June 2002 http://www.dow.com/webapps/lit/litorder.asp?objid=09002f13800ba24b&filepath=/noreg

3 Yashwant, Shailendra. “Greenpeace denounces U.S. ruling on Bhopal case" 1 Sep 2000.”. Remember Bhopal Greenpeace India. 23 June, 2002. http://lists.essential.org/pipermail/remember-bhopal/2000-September/000150.html

4. Author Unknown. “Summary of the Greenpeace Report.” 1999. Greenpeace Research Laberatories, Bhopal.net. 22 June, 2002. http://www.bhopal.net/gpexecsummary.html