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There’s No Sanity Clause

UE News, December 1994

THE DAY I SAT DOWN to write this column — Saturday, Dec. 3 — is the 10th anniversary of the monumental tragedy in Bhopal, India. Ten years ago on this day, in 1984, a toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate gas was released from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, and snuffed out almost 7,000 lives. Another 300,000 to 500,000 survivors suffered injuries including blindness, permanent paralysis and serious post-traumatic shock disorders. It was the worst industrial disaster in human history.

What happened, I asked, to the survivors and the families of the victims? Their situation, I came to find out, is insane.

More than 400,000 persons have filed lawsuits and medical claims against Union Carbide and its Indian affiliate. In 1989, five years after the disaster, the Indian government negotiated a legal agreement with Union Carbide. The company would set aside $470 million to pay the claims of the survivors, and in return, the Indian government agreed to drop all criminal charges against company officials. The Indian Supreme Court approved the amount but reinstated the criminal charges.

After further legal wrangling in the courts, the 38 lower courts handling compensation cases began issuing final rulings last year. By May 1994, 120,000 cases had been handled, with payments totaling $110 million. A typical surviving family whose breadwinner was killed received a total (and final) payment of $5,500. In all, about $22 million of the $110 million spent went to the families of the 6,954 victims officially listed as killed by the gas.

But in May, all payments were blocked and further cases halted when Indian medical officials reported fraudulent cases had been filed. On the tenth anniversary of the killings, at least one- third of the fatality cases haven’t yet even been heard, and payments in many of the other "decided" cases are blocked. In all, 300,000 cases (fatalities, injuries and illnesses) still have to be decided. None of the trials in the criminal cases for company and personal negligence has begun yet.

So as we discuss the death penalty for crimes in the U.S., it appears unlikely that any top multinational officials of Union Carbide will ever be sentenced and serve time for their participation and responsibility for crimes which took the lives of not one or two or three people, but 6,954 persons.

This probability seems like business as usual to Union Carbide executives in the U.S. Back in the 1930s, when the company was building the Gauley Tunnel, several hundred workers died from silicosis brought on by drilling through dry sandstone. This was the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history. Forget about the death penalty — not a single person spent a day in jail for these murders. The company got off by claiming that they didn’t know about this situation, and their "independent" contractors didn’t tell them.

You might say this wouldn’t happen in the U.S. today. Well, look again — at the recent "settlement" of the federal case against General Motors for building a dangerous truck with side-saddle gas tanks which often explode upon collision.

According to U.S. government figures, an estimated 150 people have died needlessly because of this design defect. Thousands of others have been injured. On Dec. 2, 1994 — ironically, the day before the 10th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster — Transportation Secretary Peña announced a sellout decision on behalf of the government. The company agreed to pay $51 million for safety programs and research, and in return the government would drop its efforts to require a recall of the trucks.

The Secretary, in announcing the decision, noted that an estimated 32 more people will die from side collisions in the remaining trucks still on the road. Some of these will be workers, 1,200 of whom die annually in highway accidents.

Of course, the victims’ families can still sue, but obviously GM figures its legal costs will be much less than the costs of a national recall and repairs. In reporting on the settlement on Dec. 5, New York Times reporter James Bennett said, "the brutal mathematics of safety, the inevitable weighing of money and lives, is rarely performed as publicly." Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, called it "one of the worst settlements I’ve ever seen."

As Groucho might have put it, "There is no sanity (clause)."

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