Dow Chemical Just Says "Yes" to Bhopal
On November 29, 2004, an email comes in to DowEthics.com: BBC World Television wants a Dow representative to discuss, four days hence, the company's position on the worst industrial accident in history.
In the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, Union Carbide's poorly-maintained Bhopal plant released a cloud of toxic gas that killed 5000 people. Over the next twenty years, an estimated 15,000 more have died from the toxicity, which Union Carbide never cleaned up, abandoning the site shortly after the accident. Because of the accident, an estimated 120,000 Bhopalis requirebut, for the most part, do not receivelifelong medical care. (Even today, an estimated death every day can be traced to the tons of poisonous goop still lying around and leaking into the groundwater.)
When Dow acquired Union Carbide in 2001, it seemed to be also acquiring Union Carbide's obligations and liabilities. Dow itself seemed to agree, at least so far as its American liabilities went: it promptly settled outstanding Carbide lawsuits related to asbestos victims in the United States.
About Bhopal, in contrast, Dow has remained curt and uncompromising: it will not now, or ever,
accept the slightest responsibility for Bhopal. It will never help clean up the site, or adequately compensate the victims, accept responsibility for the disaster at Bhopal. It will do no more than it has already done to help clean up the site, or to compensate the victims, who have only ever seen a maximum of $500 each, enough to pay for just one year of medical care.
There are many reasons for this; most significantly the U.S. court doesn’t oblige it to, as cleaning up the site and compensating Bhopalis would make a dent in the company's annual profits, and in the U.S., CEOs who make unprofitable decisions voluntarily are subject to lawsuits by shareholders. Also, Bhopal is by no means Dow's only outstanding liability abroad, let alone the chemical industry's; accepting responsibility for Bhopal would set a precedent that would make Dow much less popular with its "colleagues."
Normally, Dow sends a polite refusal to the BBC or anyone else who asks them to talk about this issue. If a spokesperson does consent to say a few words, they are always on the order of this: "The 1984 gas disaster at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) facility in Bhopal, India, was a human tragedy that should never be forgotten. It is a continuous reminder of the frailty of life and that safety must always be a first priority for industry. This unfortunate event stimulated the chemical industry's Responsible Care® initiative dedicated to continuous improvement in environment, health and safety performance."
This time around, though, when a BBC researcher asks Dow for a comment, the researcher gets lucky. That's because he has come to DowEthics.com, rather than to the “real” Dow.
DowEthics.com owes its existence to some attentive Dow lawyers. Two years before this latest anniversary, on December 3, 2002, we sent out a press release to thousands of people from Dow-Chemical.com, a website we'd created expressly to help Dow tell the truthh. Our release explained why Dow refuses to take responsibility for the disaster: in a word, because Bhopalis will never be shareholders, and as a publicly owned corporation, Dow is onlyby nature, definition, charter, and lawbeholden to its shareholders. Even if we in the Dow management care as individuals about the victims of Bhopal, and feel responsibility for them, we cannot do anything for them. We aren't obliged to, and basically aren't allowed to.
As expected, no journalists were fooled, but many understood the point we were trying to make, and a couple wrote articles about our release; as a result, the New York Times covered the Bhopal anniversary for the first time in years.
Dow reacted in a different way: it sent a threatening legal notice to Verio, the "broadband" company that controlled the flow of data to and from Dow-Chemical.com's internet host, Thing.net.
Twice before, Verio had received such complaints from targets of ours. One came from the World Trade Organization, who were angry about our fake WTO web site, GATT.org, and wanted it stopped. On that occasion, Verio did exactly nothing, stating that the WTO should complain to Thing.net, not Verio, since Verio was so far removed from the site. (Thing.net, of course, simply passed the complaint on to us, and we passed it on to a few thousand of our closest friends.)
This time, with Dow rather than the WTO at the source of the gripe, Verio had a different approach: it shut down the entire Thing.net network, which included a hundred activist, artist, company, and personal websites and bulletin boards (as well as Dow-Chemical.com). It did this after business hours, when neither of Thing.net's staff of two was on hand to respond.
Thing.net sprang back twelve hours later, and not long afterwards replaced Verio with a smaller broadband provider. Dow-Chemical.com was not so resilient.
On December 6, it suddenly came to our attention that Dow-Chemical.com was no longer owned by us, but by Dow! A flurry of calls to the domain registrar, Gandi.net, resolved the mystery: when we had registered the domain, we had thought it would be funny to list as owner one James Parker, the real son of the real Dow CEO. We even put down his real home address.
On December 4, James Parker himself had sent a xerox of his driver's license to Gandi, declaring that since he was listed as owner, the domain belonged to him. According to the rules that govern the Internet, Parker was correct, and Gandi had no legal choice but to hand it over.
Fortunately, DowEthics.com was available, and the name reflected better what we were about anyhow: ethics, not chemicals. So we registered it, gave it Dow-Chemical.com's content, and thought no more of it for the next two years.
When the BBC’s remarkable invitation arrives, the first thing we do is go nuts for the requisite hour. The second thing we do is look up the price of a ticket to London. Seeing stars, we inform the BBC researcher that Dow's spokesperson, like Andy, lives in Paris, and would prefer to be booked in a studio there. The researcher complies with this wish, and Mr. Jude (patron saint of the impossible) Finisterra (earth's end) is born.
What to do with the five or so minutes Mr. Finisterra will be allotted? Working with some environmentalist friends who helped us write the 2002 release,
we briefly consider doing a repeat of that and embodying the psychopathic monster that is Dow: basically, explaining in frank terms how they (a) don't give a rat's ass about the people of Bhopal and (b) wouldn't do anything to help them even if they did. Which they don't. we briefly consider doing a repeat of that, and explaining in frank terms that Dow are not prepared to do anything more to help the people of Bhopal.
The research for this approach has already been done, and even the performance itself would be familiar territory. When, in 2002, GATT.org received a request for a representative from a TV show called CNBC Marketwrap, Andy went on the air as WTO representative Granwyth Hulatberi. He clearly stated, at length, the underpinnings of WTO policy: might makes right, and the poor don't know anything anyway. It was as crude and shocking as we could make it, but somehow it went completely unnoticed. The WTO didn’t say anything, and CNBC never issued a retraction. It might as well not have happened.
Since our main purpose today is to get the Bhopal anniversary noticedespecially in the US press, where it's often completely ignoredwe decide to take a different tack. Rather than crudely but correctly describe current company policy, the impossible Jude will announce a radical new direction for Dow, one in which the company takes full responsibility for the disaster. He will lay out a straightforward ethical path that Dow will follow to compensate the victims, clean up the plant site, and otherwise help make amends.
There are some risks to this approach. It could create false hope for people who have already suffered for 20 years. But all hopes are false until they're realized, and what's a few minutes of false hope to 20 years of unrealized ones? If it works, this approach could focus a great deal of media attention on the issue. Who knowsit could even somehow force Dow's hand. In any case, it will force Dow to speakon the anniversary of the disaster, with everyone listening, they will have to refuse to help once again.
After all, the real hoax here is Dow's claim that they can't do anything to help. They have conned the world into thinking they can't end the crisis, when in fact it would be quite simple. What would it cost to clean up the Bhopal plant site, which continues to poison the water people drink, causing an estimated one death per day? (Of course, Dow would have to risk shareholder lawsuits and the ire of the industry, but it could be done, and Dow hasn't made the feeblest attempt to do anything .) We decide to show how another world is possible, and to direct any questions about false hopes for justice in Bhopal directly to Dow.
Another problem we anticipate is backlash for the BBC. This is bothersome, because they have covered Bhopal very well, infinitely better than what we're used to in the US.
We would much rather hoax CBS, ABC, NBC, or Fox, but none of those could give that rat's ass about Bhopal, and so none of those has approached us. We would much rather hoax CBS, ABC, NBC, or Fox, but Bhopal does not feature on their news agendas, and so none of those has approached us.
In any case, it didn't seem to hurt CNBC when "Granwyth Hulatberi" appeared as WTO spokesperson. It was a simple mistake, and one that anyone could make. Intelligent people will not question the excellence of BBC's overall coverage because of an unavoidable error, especially if it is caught quickly and provides for some interesting discussion that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
On the day of the interview, we wake up early and put on our thrift-store suits. Andy nervously runs through his answers once more while Mike fumbles with cameras. A crowded metro ride later, we arrive at the BBC's little Paris studio on the rue du Faubourt Saint-Honoré. A lone technician seats "Jude" at a table in front of a green screen and helps him with the plastic earpiece.
At 9am GMT, Dow's spokesperson appears live on the BBC World Service in front of the Eiffel Tower. The host, in London, addresses Finisterra on a large screen.
BBC WORLD: Joining us live from Paris now is Jude Finisterra, He’s a spokesman for Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide. Good morning to you. A day of commemoration in Bhopal. Do you now accept responsibility for what happened?
Jude Finisterra: Steve, yes. Today is a great day for all of us at Dow, and I think for millions of people around the world as well. It's been twenty years since the disaster and today I’m very, very happy to announce that for the first time, Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe. We have a $12 billion plan to finally, at long last, fully compensate the victimsincluding the 120,000 who may need medical care for their entire livesand to fully and swiftly remediate the Bhopal plant site.
When we acquired Union Carbide three years ago we knew what we were getting. Union Carbide is worth $12 billion. We have resolved to liquidate Union Carbide, this nightmare for the world and this headache for Dow, and use the $12 billion to provide more than the $500 per victim which is all that they’ve seen, a maximum of just about $500 per victim. That is not “plenty good for an Indian,” as one of our spokespersons unfortunately said a couple of years ago. In fact, it pays for just one year of medical care. We will adequately compensate the victims.
Furthermore, we will perform a full and complete remediation of the Bhopal site, which as you mentioned has still not been cleaned up. When Union Carbide abandoned the site 16 years ago, they left tons of toxic waste on a site that continues to be used as a playground for children. Water continues to be drunk form the groundwater underneath.... It’s a mess, Steve.
BBC World: Jude, that’s good news that you have finally accepted responsibility. Some people would say too latethree years, almost four years on. How soon is your money going to make a difference to the people in Bhopal?
Jude Finisterra: Well, as soon as we can get it to them, Steve. We’ve begun the process of liquidating Union Carbide. This is, as you mention, late. But it’s the only thing we can do. When we acquired Union Carbide we did settle their liabilities in the United States immediately, and we are now, three years later, prepared to do the same in India. We should have done it three years ago; we are doing it now. I would say that it’s better late than never, and I would also like to say that this is no small matter, Steve: this is the first time in history that a publicly held company of anything near the size of Dow has performed an action which is significantly against its bottom line simply because it’s the right thing to do. And our shareholders may take a bit of a hit, Steve, but I think that if they’re anything like me, they will be ecstatic to be part of such a historic occasion of doing right by those that we’ve wronged.
BBC World: Does this mean you will also cooperate in any future legal actions in India or the USA?
Jude Finisterra: Absolutely, Steve. One of our non-financial commitments is to press the United States government to finally extradite Warren Anderson, who fled India after being arrested in 1984. He posted $2,000 bail on multiple homicide charges and fled India promptly. We are going to press the United States Government to extradite Mr. Anderson, who is living on Long Island, to India, to finally face the charges. And I believe they may be lenient.
We are also going to engage in unprecedented transparency. We are going to release, finally, the full composition of the chemicals, and the studies that were performed by Union Carbide shortly after the catastrophe. This information has never been released, Steve, and it's time for it to be released in case any of that information can be of use to medical professionals.
And finally we are going to fund researchany interested researcher can contact Dow’s Ethics and Compliance office. We are going to fund, with no strings attached, research into the safety of any Dow product. There are many Dow products about whose safety many competent scientists have raised significant doubts. We don't want to be a company that sells products that may have longterm negative effects on the world.
This is a momentous occasion, and our new CEO, Andrew Liveris, who has our CEO for less than a month, has decided to take Dow in this unprecedented direction.
BBC World: Jude, we will leave it there; thank you for joining us. Just to reiterate what Jude Finisterra, the spokesman for Dow Chemicals, has just said: he said Dow Chemicals now fully accept responsibility for the events in Bhopal 20 years ago and they will cooperate in future legal action.
The technician enters the studio, relieves Andy of his earpiece, and accompanies him to the radio room for an interview with BBC World Service radio. "What a nice thing to announce," she says happily.
"I wouldn't work for Dow if I didn't believe in it," replies Andy matter-of-factly.
We expect the story to be retracted immediately, but Dow takes two hours to notice that alas and alack, it's done the right thing. The full interview therefore runs twice, and for two hours the story is the top item on news.google.com. CNN reports a Dow stock loss of $2 billion on the Frankfurt exchange.
After Dow notes emphatically that it is not in fact going to do right by those non-shareholders in Bhopal, the retraction remains the top Google story for the rest of the day.
Back at Andy's apartment, we help Dow make its share price rebound by mailing out a more formal retraction on its behalf:
Dow "Help" Announcement Is Elaborate Hoax
On December 3, 2004, a fake Dow spokesperson announced on BBC World Television fake plans to take full responsibility for the very real Bhopal tragedy of December 3, 1984. Dow Chemical emphatically denies this announcement. Although seemingly humanistic in nature, the fake plans were invented by irresponsible hucksters with no regard for the truth.
As Dow has repeatedly noted, Dow cannot and will not take responsibility for the accident. ("What we cannot and will not do... is accept responsibility for the Bhopal accident." - CEO Michael Parker, 2002.) The Dow position has not changed, despite public pressure.
Dow also notes the great injustice that these pranksters have caused by giving Bhopalis false hope for a better future assisted by Dow. The survivors of Bhopal have already suffered 20 years of false hope, neglect, and abdication of responsibility by all parties. Is that not enough?
To be perfectly clear:
· The Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) will NOT be liquidated. (The fake "Dow plan" called for the dissolution and sale of Dow's fully owned subsidiary, estimated at US$12 billion, to fund compensation and remediation in Bhopal.)
· Dow will NOT commit ANY funds to compensate and treat 120,000 Bhopal residents who require lifelong care. The Bhopal victims have ALREADY been compensated; many received about US$500 several years ago, which in India can cover a full year of medical care.
· Dow will NOT remediate (clean up) the Bhopal plant site. We do understand that UCC abandoned thousands of tons of toxic chemicals on the site, and that these still contaminate the groundwater which area residents drink. Dow estimates that the Indian government's recent proposal to commission a study to consider the possibility of proper remediation at some point in the future is fully sufficient.
· Dow does NOT urge the US to extradite former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson to India, where he has been wanted for 20 years on multiple homicide charges.
· Dow will NOT release proprietary information on the leaked gases, nor the results of studies commissioned by UCC and never released.
· Dow will NOT fund research on the safety of Dow endocrine disruptors (ECDs) considered to have long-term negative effects.
· Dow DOES agree that "One can't assign a dollar value to doing what's morally right," as hoaxter Finisterra said. That is why Dow acknowledged and resolved many of Union Carbide's liabilities in the US immediately after acquiring the company in 2001.
Most importantly of all:
· Dow shareholders will see NO losses, because Dow's policy towards Bhopal HAS NOT CHANGED. Much as we at Dow may care, as human beings, about the victims of the Bhopal catastrophe, we must reiterate that Dow's sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law.
For more information please contact Marina Ashanin, Corporate Media Relations, +41-1-728-2347.
For a while, thisas reprinted in "Men’s News Daily" a reactionary drivel bucket that doesn't realize our Dow release is fake, and doesn't mind at all what it saysbecomes the top story on news.google.com.
"Whatever be the circumstances under which the news was aired, we will get $12 billion from Dow sooner than later," one Bhopali activist is quoted as saying. But the "false hope" question does come up in some articles, especially in the UK. Much as we try to convince ourselves it was worth it, we cannot get rid of the nagging doubt. Did we deeply upset many Bhopalis? If so, we want to apologize.
We're also bothered that the BBC has taken the fall, and that this has somehow called the BBC's credibility into question. It shouldn't. The BBC, as soon as Dow finally noticed out that "Jude Finisterra" wasn't theirs, promptly and prominently retracted the story. There was no net misinformation. In fact there was significantly more information, since more people knew about Bhopal and Dow, especially in the US.
The real credibility problem is when networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox, or papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post (and most of the rest), systematically and for months on end mouth the assertions of a lying, scheming crook of a presidentabout WMDs, for example. It was thanks to these well-amplified lies that the crook in question was able to wage a war with 100,000 civilian casualties on a country that very clearly posed zero threat. At least the Times and the Post issued quiet, late apologies and mea culpas. Not enough: for such a monumental failure of journalism, the American media should undergo a thorough examination and perhaps restructuring. At the very least, their owners and editors should have been required to explain to a court why big corporations should be allowed to own so much noise. Which, as the episode proves, they shouldn't be.
Throughout the day, we are deluged with email, almost all of it positive. Later, the BBC calls again: they want us back at the studio. Yeah, right! No, reallythey want us on for a show on BBC5, to talk about what has happened. Against our better judgment we goand arrive to find four smiling staffers, including the morning's technician. "Where are the cops?" Andy asks, and the staffers actually laugh.
Another interview on Channel 4, and the day is finally over. Now all we can do is wait to see how it all pans out. Will our fondest hopes be realizedwill Dow be forced to concede? Or will the people of Bhopal have to wait twenty more years?
All we know if that at least for today, this 20th anniversary of the catastrophe, news about Bhopal and Dow is front and center in the US news. And on this most somber of days, Dow has been forced to show, by its curt refusal to do anything, just what "corporate social responsibility" really means.
And besides that, did we accomplish anything? We have no way of knowing. All we know is that the fight for justice in Bhopal goes on, assisted by some very committed organizations, all of whom need financial support.
The Bhopal Medical Appeal (www.bhopal.org) provides free medical care to those affected by the Bhopal disaster, and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (www.bhopal.net) does what its name suggests. Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org) has been very active in the fight for responsibility. Other organizations include Students for Bhopal (www.studentsforbhopal.org) and The Truth About Dow (www.thetruthaboutdow.org).
Finally, the BBC's coverage (www.bbc.co.uk/bhopal/) provides an excellent starting point for deepening your knowledge of the catastrophe, its consequences, and its implications.
 In 2004, Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, the U.S. military's largest private contractor in Iraq, went bankrupt trying to pay off asbestos liabilities it had inherited from its 1998 purchase of another company.
 "What we cannot and will not do... is accept responsibility for the Bhopal accident." Memo of CEO Parker, 2002.
 For more on our WTO adventures, see The Yes Men, Disinfo Books, 2004. The other instance referred to involved the internet startup company eToys.com; see Leaving Reality Behind, Adam Wishart and Regula Bochsler, 4th Estate, 2002.
 Another outcome of the episode was Reamweaver (www.reamweaver.com), a piece of software that allows anyone to reproduce and alter corporate websites on the fly with a minimum of time and expertise. But that, too, is another story.