The New York Times has an excellent write-up on the current situation in Bhopal India, where, 25 years ago there was a disastrous chemical spill at the Union Carbide plant killing thousands immediately and affecting hundreds of thousands more as time went on with poor cleanup.
The Bhopal-Union Carbide story is probably the #1 CSR story about what should not be done. It’s the case that probably every business student has gone through.
The saddest part is that 25 years later…. it’s still disastrous. Corporations are dodging responsibility. Governments are stalling, lying, and ineffective.
5 years after the disaster in 1989 – Union Carbide washed its hands clean of the cleanup by giving a meager half billion or so and pushing the responsibility to the local Government…. right.. the 2nd largest chemical company at the time (was sold for over 9 billion in 1999) hands over responsibility to a REGIONAL GOVERNMENT of a DEVELOPING COUNTRY.
Unsurprisingly, the government has failed at cleanup, failed at getting the money distributed (of which there wasn’t enough money allocated in the first place) and have failed at informing people about the true medical hazards still present on the site.
The controversial buyout of Union Carbide by The Dow Chemical Company in ’99 now pushes the responsibility further and further away from the problem.
In the NYT article, the company’s response:
Dow, based in Michigan, says it bears no responsibility to clean up a mess it did not make. “As there was never any ownership, there is no responsibility and no liability — for the Bhopal tragedy or its aftermath,” Scot Wheeler, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail message.
Ownership. Yep, that tricky area of business that is not as easily understood… But how then, when Dow bought Union Carbide, did it not buy its liabilities? (I actually don’t know the legal implications of all this but it seems like buying=owning=responsibility=liabilities, no?)
At the end of the day, as the article so aptly puts it – the corporation is being left alone (at least by the gov’t) because it pretty much threatened the government with pulling out investments (which is so badly wanted in a fast growing country like India) – the CEO stated “in your efforts to ensure that we have the appropriate investment climate.” What a simple statement; what a big implication.
Some more background on The Dow Chemical Company:
- was the sole supplier of Agent Orange (that horrific chemical weapon used during the Vietnam war)
- responsible for 96 of the United States’ worst Superfund toxic waste
And something I found interesting while wikipedia-ing this company… their vision statement:
“To be the largest, most profitable, and most respected chemical company in the world“.
Right… you may get the first two, but you most definitely should never achieve the that last one.
Corporations can be amoral and this is a case in point. Here’s hoping that we, as society, don’t let atrocities like this occur again.