Issue Date: February 5, 2007
An Offer Rejected
Assess the site, clean it up, and leave. In a nutshell, this is what Cherokee Investment Partners, one of the world's largest land remediation firms, has offered to do with the site in Bhopal, India, where a catastrophic accident at a Union Carbide pesticide factory killed thousands of people in 1984. But thrust into the morass of emotions and politics that surround Bhopal, Cherokee's offer has gone unanswered.
"It's really urgent to do something in Bhopal; it kills people every day," says Michael Braungart, an environmental consultant and professor of process engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Suderburg, Germany. Braungart was a frequent visitor to Bhopal in the 1980s when he was heading chemistry research at Greenpeace, a nongovernmental organization. "Every day that you don't do anything, it makes it more expensive and dangerous for people," he says.
It was Braungart who urged Thomas F. Darden, the cofounder and chief executive officer of Cherokee, to "clean up Bhopal" after meeting him on a bus at a conference in February 2005. Cherokee's main business is to acquire contaminated land, get it cleaned up and rezoned, and sell the reclaimed real estate at a profit to developers who build golf courses, shopping malls, or homes.
Darden took Braungart's idea to heart, first by visiting Bhopal, then by hiring one of the world's leading environmental risk assessment firms, ERM, to produce a remediation plan for the site. A 180-page description of the plan is available on Cherokee's website (www.cherokeefund.com).
Until he talked to Braungart, Darden had not known that Union Carbide's former plant in Bhopal had not yet been cleaned up. Darden recalls being shocked during his first visit to Bhopal in 2005 to see that survivors of the tragedy were still living a life of poverty in shanties next to the contaminated site. "Most people can only talk about how terrible that is, whereas Cherokee can do something" about it, he says.
The ERM study took several months. When it was completed last August, Darden mailed it to government officials and nongovernmental organizations in India involved with the Bhopal cleanup issue. ERM did not analyze new water and soil samples but rather relied on previous studies that were carried out by other organizations.
In his cover letter, Darden said Cherokee would pay for a comprehensive site assessment, including new water and soil samples. He also promised to contribute Cherokee's expertise at no cost. In addition, he tells C&EN, he would volunteer to lead fundraising efforts to pay for the actual cleanup, and Cherokee would pitch in as much as $1 million. Darden acknowledges the possibility that costs could soar to levels at which Cherokee wouldn't be able to do the job at no cost, but he doubts that would happen.
Cherokee needs government permits to access the site and take samples, but the officials in India who received the letter and the ERM study mostly reacted with indifference. K. K. Dubey, undersecretary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief & Rehabilitation Department for the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, says the study was put aside and Darden's letter left unanswered.
The reaction of local activist organizations was one of outrage. These groups insist that, by the "polluter pays" principle, only Dow Chemical, the company that acquired Union Carbide in 2001, can clean up the site. "The polluter will escape" if Cherokee organizes a cleanup, says Satinath Sarangi, one of the Bhopal-based founders of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, or ICJB.
Sarangi says he wishes Dow's top managers to "have ulcers at night" for the death and pain Bhopal residents have endured since 1984. Allowing someone else, such as Cherokee, to clean up the site weakens his demand that Dow pay, he believes. Dow maintains that it has no liability in Bhopal.
Thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands permanently injured in early December 1984 when a runaway reaction in a tank containing 41 tons of methyl isocyanate led to the release of a cloud of toxic gas over the sleeping city of Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Amnesty International estimates an immediate toll of 7,000 and a total of 15,000 deaths over the years from exposure to the gas.
Union Carbide used the site to make various insecticides, mostly Sevin-brand carbaryl. The firm agreed to pay $470 million to the government of India in a 1989 settlement that did not specifically address the question of environmental liabilities.
The accident caused a profound change in safety management in the chemical industry. In the years since, chemical industry associations around the world have committed to Responsible Care, a set of initiatives intended to raise safety practices and improve communications with people living near chemical plants.
The site where Union Carbide operated covers 74 acres, the ERM study says. Outside the site boundary, Union Carbide also had solar evaporation ponds where it disposed of liquid residues. The old city of Bhopal, where tens of thousand of people live and work, lies just a few hundred yards from the old plant.
According to ERM, all studies conducted between 1985 and 2002 found an alarming level of toxic substances in soil and water at and near the site. One of the most comprehensive studies was conducted by Greenpeace at the University of Exeter, in England, in 1999. Researchers took seven soil samples and 12 groundwater samples and found high levels of mercury, other heavy metals, and chlorinated organic compounds. Even so, ERM says, a new and more comprehensive geological and hydrological study of the site must be done to prepare the detailed cleanup plan.
Cherokee does not have a permanent staff in India. Darden has mostly delegated the task of following up on his offer to Amita N. Poole, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist employed by the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Poole has been trying since last August to obtain permits that would allow Cherokee or its representatives on the site.
A native of India who represents Cherokee on various projects, Poole invited C&EN to join her in attending meetings with government officials and community activists in Bhopal early last month. She said she wanted to bring attention to the lack of response to Cherokee's offer. "We're completely transparent," she added.
Darden tells C&EN he selected Poole because she supports other philanthropic projects in the country and she knows how to get things done. She has been to Bhopal seven times in the past year and a half.
Two of Poole's meetings were with the governor of Madhya Pradesh, Balram Jakhar, and the mayor of Bhopal, Sunil Sood. Both promised they would recommend that the relevant officials consider the proposal seriously. Jakhar said he would urge that it be assessed by the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, an official with more power than the governor. "It's been 22 years now; I will recommend we take advantage of that offer," Jakhar said.
Sood said he also supports Cherokee or any other group willing to remediate the site, but he maintained that the final decision rests with the state government. Partly for the purpose of supporting tourism, Sood said he had launched several projects in recent years to enhance the natural beauty of Bhopal, which is widely considered one of India's most pleasant cities.
When Dubey, the site rehabilitation undersecretary, met with Poole, he cautioned that it is not so clear that the state government is in charge. He reminded her that in the summer of 2005, the state, on orders from the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, had collected all the aboveground waste at the site, packed it, and put it into a shed. He said the government was awaiting further court instructions before disposing of the stored waste.
Dubey added that it was Madhya Pradesh's chief minister who had judged that the Cherokee proposal could not be considered until the high court decision. Pressed by Poole and another official present during the conversation, Dubey agreed to explain the government's position to Cherokee by mail no later than Jan. 25. As of press time, Poole was still waiting for the letter.
In contrast with the indifferent response from the state government, Poole was greeted with hostility on her visit to ICBJ. "We read stuff about Cherokee, and it's disgusting," Sarangi told Poole heatedly. Citing articles that appeared in 2005 in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, he and his colleague Rachna Dhingra contended that Cherokee had tried to bribe officials in New Jersey to get a project approved.
Sarangi and Dhingra complained several times to Poole that Cherokee has failed to keep them informed of what the company was doing. "I see myself as someone who can play a big role in whether your proposal moves forward," Sarangi said. He added that ICJB had received a "much superior" cleanup proposal from an unnamed organization made up of "competent businesspeople."
For her part, Dhingra noted that the urgency for a cleanup had diminished because organizations such as ICJB had successfully lobbied the government to truck in water and build new water pipes for the neighborhoods most affected by water contamination.
Braungart, the environmental consultant in Suderburg, dismisses this argument. "Would you want to live there knowing that the soil is contaminated and so is your drinking water?" he asks. "It destroys all human dignity." The cost of the cleanup increases fourfold every five years because the underground contamination disperses as it is carried by the water table, he notes.
Cherokee is not alone in being condemned for offering to clean up the Bhopal site. Tata, one of India's largest business conglomerates, became the target of ICJB and other local groups after it offered in December to lend its assistance to a cleanup in Bhopal (C&EN, Jan. 8, page 10).
Speaking from North Carolina where Cherokee is headquartered, Darden says he is not surprised by the hostility of the activists. "It reminds me of things I have seen in the U.S.," he says.
The Philadelphia Inquirer article suggested that Cherokee had made improper campaign contributions to public officials in New Jersey. Darden says Cherokee did make contributions in the past but that it will not do so in the future as a result of the negative publicity.
Regarding Bhopal, Darden says he is motivated by altruism and Cherokee's unique position to make an effective contribution. "We want to get our hands on that site, just clean it up, and say goodbye," he notes. Responding to claims that he is acting on behalf of Dow, he says he cannot recall ever meeting, corresponding with, or talking to anyone from Dow.
Cherokee, Darden notes, has so far acquired more than 500 properties. The company has resold some and still owns others. It has raised $2 billion in investments, Darden says, mostly from state pension funds. Cherokee has given about $20 million to various philanthropic projects, Darden estimates, including setting up an orphanage in Ethiopia. But he points out that any charitable contributions come from the firm's profits, not from the cash investors have entrusted to Cherokee.
Braungart is not surprised by the activists' assertions that Cherokee bribes public officials in the U.S. "I knew that this might happen to Darden, and I told him so," says Braungart, adding that many people are emotional about Bhopal, perhaps irrationally so. He adds that Darden should not give up promoting his cleanup project even if he might "suffer through some unfair attacks."
Braungart insists that he has never had any business dealings with Cherokee. William A. McDonough, his partner in the environmental consulting firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, advises Cherokee independently about developing homes with low environmental impact.
Despite Cherokee's efforts, progress on Bhopal is hard to come by. Shortly after her December visit, Poole spoke to a top environmental lawyer in India who told her more about the intricacies of just who is in charge of the contaminated site.
Until 2004, she learned, it was the state government of Madhya Pradesh that had the authority to decide what went on there. But because the government failed for too long to make decisions, the High Court of Madhya Pradesh took over in the public interest. Since then, the court has been issuing instructions to the state of Madhya Pradesh on how to manage the site.
Darden says he "has sympathy" for the lack of official response to his proposal. "Our offer came at an awkward time because the high court had taken control of this situation, saying 20 years is enough," he notes. But regardless of who is now in charge of the site, he says, Cherokee will continue to push forward with its proposal.
In the slum of Atal Ayub Nagar, next to the former Carbide site, an elderly man named Itwar Lal told Poole that he hasn't heard of any offers to clean up the site but that he thinks it's a great idea.
A few hundred yards away, in a tutoring center in old Bhopal, teacher R. K. Yadhan tells C&EN he has lived in Bhopal for about 12 years, settling there from his native Hyderabad. He says he doesn't care who conducts the cleanup. "But you have to understand, there were 15,000 who died," he says. "If someone tries to clean up, starts walking all over the site, the local people will get angry and start questioning."
In North Carolina, Darden says he also does not care who does the job. "We just want to make things happen," he says. "We will not stop pushing, but it's not critical that we do it ourselves."
Darden's intentions seem good, but if an offer of a free cleanup by one of the world's largest site remediation companies fails to initiate action in Bhopal, what will?
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