Two tragedies, two governments: a gas leak and an oil spill

Bhopal disaster

In April 2010 an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and caused a giant oil spill, the environmental impact of which will be known only with time.

On the night of December 2, 1984, a toxic gas MIC – methyl isocyanate – leaked from the pesticide plant of UCIL, a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation, USA (UCC is now owned by Dow Chemical Company).  Amnesty International estimated that 7000 people died within days of the gas leak, and 22,000 people have died in Bhopal because of the disaster and its after-effects. Hazardous chemical waste continues to remain at the plant site, leaching into the ground, contaminating soil and water for miles.

Soon after the oil rig explosion, the US government charged BP Plc, the British oil company with negligence, and charged the top BP officers aboard the drilling rig with manslaughter in connection with each of those who died. Prosecutors also charged a former BP vice president with  making false statements about the rate at which oil was spilling from the well.

Yesterday, BP agreed to pay  $1.3 billion in criminal fines, $2.4 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for remediation efforts and $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences. BP has also agreed to pay $525 million to settle civil charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission that it misled investors about the flow rate of oil from the well. “The criminal fine is one of the largest levied by the United States against a corporation,” says the New York Times. BP could owe a further $21 billion in pollution fines under the Clean Water Act if it is found to have been grossly negligent. The company will also have to submit to monitoring of its safety practices and ethics for the next four years.

Compare this with the case of the gas leak from UCC’s Bhopal plant:

The Indian government sought a sum of 3.3 billion dollars initially, but finally agreed to an out-of-court settlement with Union Carbide for a tenth of the amount: US$ 470 million. A Supreme Court bench headed by a chief justice, A M. Ahmadi, delivered a judgement in 1996 on the role of the executives of UCC, whittling down the charge from “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” to “causing death by negligence”. In 1999, seventeen survivors filed a case against UCC in the District Court in Manhattan, US. After 13 years, in June this year, the US court held that neither Union Carbide nor its former chairman, Warren Anderson, were liable for environmental remediation or pollution-related claims at the firm’s former chemical plant in Bhopal.

Union Carbide Corporation claimed it had no involvement in the Bhopal plant operations as the plant was managed by Indians in India. Dow Chemicals added that the amount paid as compensation was three times more than envisaged under Indian laws.

BP, on the other hand, apologized for its role in the Gulf oil spill, adding, “as today’s resolution with the U.S. government further reflects, we have accepted responsibility for our actions.”

This is the tragedy of a nation where governance is bankrupt and those at the helm fail to uphold the dignity of the offices they hold.

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