Sunday, June 27, 2010

Victims of the Bhopal Disaster still seeking justice

In the early hours of December 3, 1984, around 40 metric tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked into the atmosphere from the Union Carbide chemical plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal and was carried by the wind to the surrounding slums.

25,000 people died in the immediate aftermath and the years that followed, and another 500,000 suffered serious consequences. The Bhopal disaster was the world's most deadly industrial disaster and the worst example of "corporate killing" in history. The website of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal is an excellent source of information.

Union Carbide, a US company, was responsible for the Bhopal disaster. Union Carbide now longer exists, the company being taken over by Dow Chemicals, another US company, in 2001.

The letter below was sent to the US President by over 100 Indian victims of the Bhopal disaster.
Mr Barack Obama
United States of America

Dear Mr President Obama,

With a great deal of interest, we have been following your tough stand against British Petroleum for the oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico, particularly your demand to know whose 'ass needs to be kicked'. We think your demand for corporate accountability for causing huge environmental damages is worthy of emulation by other governments around the World.

May we draw your attention to a bigger disaster that took place in the city of Bhopal in India in December 1984 that has officially killed over 15,000 people (about 25,000 people unofficially) and seriously injured nearly half a million people by now. This disaster was caused by another mega corporate entity called Union Carbide, headquartered in the United States of America, unlike BP whose parent company resides in Great Britain.

Through 'friendly' interventions of the Reagan administration that ruled the US in 1984, not only was Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide sent back from India even though he was arrested and cases were registered against him and the Union Carbide, but similar overtures resulted in all criminal cases against Union Carbide to be dropped in a shameful out-of-court settlement for a paltry US$470m. Twenty six years later, the local court in Bhopal, fettered by these collusive legal manipulations could at best convict six Indian officials of the Union Carbide India Limited for two years of jail, for which all the accused were given instant bail. The parent company based in the US, against whom charges exist in Indian Courts, is unanswerable. So no one pays for the death of over 15,000 people! Another major US corporate, Dow Chemicals, that bought Union Carbide in 2001, refuses to accept its liability for cleaning up the toxic wastes at the closed factory, that is still harming citizens of Bhopal, mainly from water that is contaminated with leached poisons stored in the abandoned factory; or liability for just compensation to the victims.

We are of course more than aware that the Indian Government and the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide (UCIL) are as complicit in this disaster as the US government, the parent company Union Carbide Corporation and Dow Chemicals. For twenty six years the stricken but surviving gas victims of Bhopal have waged a sustained battle with the Indian establishment – governments at the center and in the state of Madhya Pradesh, scientific, medical and industrial monitoring institutions - in courts and streets, and will continue to do so. But the subtle pressure of the US administration, contested alien tort laws of the US and the discriminatory legal functioning of the US system that puts a higher cost to a US life than that of in Bhopal has made it necessary for the victims to fight on both fronts - the US and the Indian administrations, corporations and judicial systems - for over a quarter of century now.

It is well documented that the UCC is a guilty party since it deliberately exported a defective plant whose safety systems were grossly lacking compared to the parent plant at Danbury, West Virginia. The UCC also hid facts about the toxicity of methyl-isocyanate, while it was aware about its deadly effects. The guilt about these criminal acts requires the US judicial system to act; just as the inability of the Indian inspectors to check these shortcomings requires the Indian judicial systems to book the culprits.

Is it too much to expect that you use the same yardsticks of accountability you are using for BP for the terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for corporations based in the country you rule? Whose 'ass' should the citizens of Bhopal kick if governments selectively shield their corporations and officials from legal accountability? How would you react, for example, if because of the pressure of the British media that is asking Prime Minister Cameron to ‘stand up’ to you, Mr. Cameron made a 'friendly overture' to you to back off from 'kicking anyone's ass', meaning British Petroleum's? If you wouldn't back off, then consistent with your stand, the citizens of Bhopal and the whole World demand from you that:

1. You signal/order that judicial processes be allowed, both in the US and India, to take their course in fixing responsibility of corporations and individuals of the US, responsible for the Bhopal carnage; dismantling the manipulative obstacles put up in these intervening years. This is crucial to restore the subverted system of justice.

2. You set processes in motion that make Dow Chemicals own up their responsibility for liabilities, that includes cleaning up the toxic mess that resides in the closed factory they now own. Any assurances to the contrary that they might have received from some Indian Ministers acting individually are laughably irrelevant and illegal.

3. You work with the same sense of collaboration with the Indian government on this issue to provide justice and proper compensation to Bhopal victims, that you proclaim you have achieved with the Indian government on the issue of 'global terrorism'.

Just as the US administration has demanded from the BP that it set up an escrow fund of US$10b for compensation pending legal settlements arising out of the oil spill, we demand from you to ask the erstwhile UC, Dow chemicals and the judicial system of US to reverse the out-of-court Bhopal settlement, and deposit amounts commensurate with the deaths of over 15,000 persons and half a million injuries in Bhopal, and process the extradition of guilty people immediately.

In anticipation of a prompt response and decisive action,

Friday, June 25, 2010

Will any corporation be held to account for the Montara explosion?

It is looking even more doubtful that any corporation will be held to account for the West Atlas/Montara explosion and oil leak, and subsequent ecological, economic and environmental damage, despite it being the largest oil explosion, blowout and leak in Australian history.

And the Federal Government continues to approve drilling operations, despite the lessons of the Montara catastrophe.

The Report of the Montara Inquiry into the explosion and 75 day long leak from the West Atlas/Montara oil spill in the Timor Sea (off the Western Australian coast) has been handed to the Federal Government. However, Martin Ferguson the responsible Minister is refusing to release the Report, citing legal reasons.

The Greens have called for the public release of the Report. In light of the eerie similarities (I have written about these before here) between the Montara explosion and the explosion and catastrophe on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf Coast, there is growing international interest in the Montara Report. Halliburton, the company responsible for cementing on the Montara well was also responsible for cementing on the Deepwater Horizon rig. It appears that cementing operations were a factor in both the Montara and Gulf explosions and blow out.

Public release of the Montara Report is essential, not only to ensure West Australians know what happened and to identify who was responsible, but also to ensure that such catastrophes never occur again. The regulatory, safety, engineering and management lessons of the Montara explosion will be important in shaping government and industry responses in Australia, and the USA, particularly the Inquiry into the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico catastrophe.

Based on press coverage, it appears likely that the Montara Report will find :
  • there were serious breakdowns in regulation, safety and management
  • the blow out was to be the result of a long chain of poor decision making, inaction and miscalculations and corporate greed
  • The well operator failed to follow its own safety procedures
  • The immediate trigger for the explosion is likely to be failure of vital pressure containment caps used to plug the well and problems with cementing
  • The well was not capped properly, causing it to burst.
  • a single National Regulator for offshore drilling is needed (although the Federal Minister has in the past opposed this) is needed.
One of the forgotten issues is the adverse social and environmental impacts of the blow out and spill in Indonesian and Timor Leste maritime waters. The governments of Indonesia and Timor Leste are now seeking compensation for the adverse impacts from the Australian government and PTTEP, the Thai owner of the Montara rig.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Criminalise corporations not civil society

'Limited liability is at the heart of this rise of corporate power: it constitutes a blanket exemption of a special interest group from accountability for the actions of their companies"

Blankenburg and Plesch

One consequence of the corporate structure and form is the ability to escape and hide liability and responsibility. The tenets of "limited liability" and "corporate person hood" allow corporations to avoid criminal responsibility. This protection is not available to individuals or civil society groups. Governments and authorities rarely use the full power of existing law against corporations.

It is telling to compare the way the US Government uses the full force of the law against civil society groups and whistle-blowers who try to hold it and corporations to account, with its complete inaction against recidivist corporate criminals such as BP who in their reckless disregard are responsible for the deaths of workers and the destruction of ecosystems, environments, livelihoods, and industries in the Gulf of Mexico.

The US government has arrested and imprisoned, without trial, a whistle blower who leaked to WikiLeaks a video showing US forces murdering 100 people, mainly children, in Garani Afghanistan. The video, which showed a US army helicopter gunning down civilians, was released by WikiLeaks early this year and caused outrage around the world. The soldier who is alleged to have released the video has been arrested and detained in an US army prison in Kuwait. The Australian founder of WikiLeaks has been forced to leave the US and go into hiding in response to a "manhunt" by the US government keen to arrest and prosecute him.

WikiLeaks collects and publishes evidence of human rights abuse and illegality by governments and corporations.

But when it comes to recidivist corporate criminals such as BP, Massey Energy or Goldman Sachs there is tough talk about criminal charges but little action. There is no serious attempt by governments to hold corporations, corporate executives, and shareholders personally and criminally responsible for the company's crimes. Laws are rarely used or enforced against corporations and the responsible individuals. And if charges are laid they are usually against low level functionaries and, as in the case of the corporate killings by Union Carbide in Bhopal, it takes 25 years before anyone is legally held to account.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Corprate power and the "marriage" of money and politics

image courtesy of The West Australian

This picture is from the front page of Thursday's West Australian newspaper.

The photo shows the Deputy Leader of the Federal Liberal Party locked in an embrace with WA 's richest man, who is also one of the key spokespeople for the miner's campaign against the Federal Government's Super profits tax.

My colleague Gavin Mooney and I have a piece in the online publication Online Opinion under the title Power and Money to Thwart Democratic Process in which we raise concern about the power of corporate money and corporate self- interest to control the democratic process. Our concern is that the debate on the super profits tax reflects the disproportionate influence of wealth and corporate power over the political and democratic process.

In our piece we raise questions about the way that the mining companies and some of the richest people in Australia use their financial power against a democratically elected government in order to protect their private interests. And what of the role of large segments of the corporate media who have actively prosecuted the miners' case?

Currently there are few rules that limit the spending of rich and powerful individuals and corporations. We ask
  • Why have limits on government spending on selling public policy and not on corporations spending on opposing public policy?
  • Surely any curb on political advertising first and foremost should apply to corporations? And should there not be limits on corporate funding of political parties?
In the piece we also ask about the role of the Liberal National Party in prosecuting the miners’ case. How much money are they receiving from the mining industry and how much money is flowing into the party’s coffers from the industry?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A case study of how corporate power works in the USA

On April 5 2010 the worst mining disaster in the USA in 40 years occurred at Massey Energy's Upper Branch coal mine in West Virginia. Twenty nine (29) miners were killed. The company responsible, Massey Energy, had a long history of safety and environmental violations. Its CEO and Chairman Don Blankenship has continually used his financial and political power to prevent scrutiny of the company and reject attempts to improve safety.

On the day before the explosion the company had received 2 citations for safety violations. In the month before the explosion it had been cited 57 times for safety violations.

Massey Energy is the 6th largest coal corporation in the USA and exercises immense political, financial, and legal power.

Russel Mokhiber runs Corporate Crime Reporter a US based website and newsletter that highlights corporate crime and corruption. It is a fantastic resource. The piece below appears on the website, along with other pieces on the explosion and the company responsible.

The piece is an example of how corporate power works.

Coal Intimidation

by Russell Mokhiber

Let's say you live in West Virginia.

And you want the local prosecutor to bring a criminal charge against Massey Energy.

And the responsible Massey executives.

For manslaughter.

For the deaths of the 29 coal miners who were killed on April 5.

At the Upper Big Branch Mine.

In Raleigh County.

So you put up a web site --

And you urge people to sign a petition to the prosecuting attorney in Raleigh County -- Kristen Keller -- urging her to bring a prosecution.

And in the first week, almost 2,000 people sign the petition.

And let's say you design a billboard that reads -

29 Coal Miners Dead.

Prosecute Massey for Manslaughter.

And you purchase three billboard spots in the eastern part of the state.

Far from coal country.

Four hours away from where the miners died.

And put up the billboards.

And people see the billboards driving by.

When they get home, they go to the web site.

And they sign the petition.

And donate money to buy more billboard space.

And then you call billboard companies in coal country.

And you call up the biggest billboard company in the state and the country for that matter.

Lamar Advertising Company.

And you say -- hey, I want to pay to put up a billboard.

Sure, the billboard man says -- what does the billboard say?

Well, we'll send you the design.

And you send the design.

To Bruce Morrison of Lamar.

Bruce says he'll check with his general manager.

He writes back and says -- okay, we'll do it.

But you can't use the word "manslaughter" because no charge of manslaughter has been brought yet.

But Bruce, the point of the campaign is to persuade the prosecutor to bring a manslaughter charge against the company and responsible executives.

Before the statute of limitations runs -- April 5, 2011.

But Lamars say no.

We then turn to Kanawha Valley Advertising -- the second biggest billboard company in the state.

I speak with the head sales guy -- Frank Young.

Up front, I ask Frank -- do you have Massey as a customer?

Yes, Young says, but I'll ask the owner -- Wade Leslie -- anyway to see what he says.

Days go by.

No answer.

Finally, we get a letter faxed to us.

From Wade Leslie.

It's dated May 10, 2010.

Leslie doesn't say -- what are you nuts?

Massey is one of our clients.

I'm not going to do this.

No, Leslie says it's about the miners and their families.

Leslie says that "our primary focus at the present time is to assist our communities in the healing process and pray for the families affected by this terrible tragedy."

So, we wait a couple of weeks and e-mail Frank Young back and ask -- let us know when we can start to talk about justice for those responsible and bringing a criminal prosecution.

The statute of limitations is April 5, 2011.

No answer yet from Frank Young.

Finally, we approach Friendly Outdoor Advertising.

Friendly is a small company that has a number of billboards in Raleigh County -- some near the Massey mine where the 29 coal miners died.

We talk with Mike Rincic, the general manager for Friendly.

At first, Rincic says -- yes, we'll do it.

He says -- they've done controversial billboard ads before -- including for "adult entertainment" businesses -- like Lion's Den and Southern X Posure -- a topless bar.

"Some of the advertisers -- like Wendy's -- don't want to be on the same board as an adult entertainment store. And I can understand that for the kids' sake."

"And in today's world, there's a lot of women in charge of marketing -- and they consider this exploitation of women," Rincic says.

But we take the heat, he says.

And so, this Massey billboard shouldn't be a problem.

We talk price.

And we talk location.

I'll e-mail to you the locations, Rincic says.

No e-mail arrives.

Then Rincic calls the next day.

He's changed his mind.

But Friendly turns out to be a touch more honest than Lamar or Kanawha Valley.

"We worried about the possibility of vandalism -- they could hurt our property or tear your sign down," Rincic said.

"Plus, a lot of the people who have advertising with us are affiliated with the mining industry. It's probably not a wise business decision."

Do you have Massey as a client?

"No, but I'm sure that people we deal with sell supplies to Massey. Car dealerships sell to Massey employees. We just don't feel like it's a good move for us."

"And we're struggling -- we need the business."

"We never said no, until we asked around," Rincic said.

"I'm up here in Logan," Rincic said. "And yesterday, I'm talking to a machine shop guy. He probably services the coal mine industry. And I tell him about your billboard. And this guy says to me -- you want to get yourself killed, don't you?"

"Yesterday I was going to send you four locations that would have been possible. Vandalism is a possibility. And they could just tear your sign down. And there's a big possibility some of our customers just might not renew with us. They might say -- what did you do that for? Risk wise, if you were in my position, you would probably do the same thing."

"I was trying to be fair. But I just couldn't do it."

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. He is also founder of