Issue Date: March 19, 2012
Let Dow Sponsor The Olympics
I have little sympathy for Dow Chemical’s claim that it has nothing to do with the tragedy that occurred at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, in December 1984. When Dow acquired Union Carbide in 2001, it acquired a chemical firm that had been wounded and remained haunted by what had taken place in Bhopal. By gobbling up Carbide, Dow swallowed Carbide’s heritage and historical baggage.
But activists and a few politicians based in London and India are now drawing a link between Dow’s sponsorship of the 2012 Olympics and the Bhopal tragedy. In a nutshell, they claim that Olympic ideals will be tarnished if the games are supported by a company that has taken away the lives and health of thousands of Bhopalis. I have no sympathy for this particular campaign.
On three trips to Bhopal between 2004 and 2006, I saw firsthand what makes the most prominent Bhopal activists tick. They do want to improve the health and welfare of Bhopal victims. They do want the abandoned Union Carbide site at the center of their beautiful city to be cleaned up. But above all, they want to punish Dow and make it pay.
Satinath Sarangi is one of the most revered figures among activists. If the voices of Bhopal victims are still heard today, it is largely thanks to him. Based in Bhopal, Sarangi has devoted his adult life to the victims. He has lobbied for better health care, pushed for additional compensation, and organized countless marches. He serves on the board of Sambhavna Clinic, a health center for Bhopal victims.
In 2006, Sarangi told me that he wishes Dow’s top managers to “have ulcers at night.” I was in Bhopal to investigate why an offer to clean up the former Union Carbide site from Cherokee Investment Partners, a specialist in the cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated sites, was opposed by activists like Sarangi.
It is widely suspected that waste left at the site since 1984 is contaminating groundwater in Bhopal. But Sarangi opposed both Cherokee’s cleanup offer and its offer to survey the site to find out how contaminated the soil is and where the pollution is going. His main argument was that the undertaking would weaken his group’s demand that Dow be made to pay for the Bhopal tragedy. “The polluters will escape” if Cherokee cleans up the site, Sarangi said. Other activists in Bhopal I talked to had either not heard of Cherokee’s offer or claimed that Dow was behind it.
But Cherokee’s chief executive officer, Thomas F. Darden, was acting on a request by Michael Braungart, who had visited Bhopal several times in the 1980s while he was head of Greenpeace Chemistry. Braungart believes cleaning Bhopal cannot wait. “It kills people every day,” Braungart told me in 2006. Unable to overcome the activist opposition, Cherokee eventually gave up on the plan.
Which brings us to the Olympics. The activists would have you believe that Dow being a sponsor of the Olympics is equivalent to Satan himself supporting the event. But activists who turn down an offer to improve public health in Bhopal without debating it with the people involved are not saints.
In terms of despicable corporate behavior, Dow and Union Carbide aren’t the greatest villains. Immediately after the 1984 tragedy, Union Carbide recognized its responsibility and eventually paid $470 million in damages. It’s easy to argue that this is not enough; ExxonMobil paid more for damages to Alaskan wildlife after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But Carbide never really rebounded from its association with the Bhopal event, providing an opportunity for Dow to acquire it.
Dow has been bearing Union Carbide’s burden since then. In recent years, dogged by Indian activists, it has been unable to establish a sizable presence in India, one of the world’s most promising markets.
Attacking Dow’s involvement with the Olympics continues this punishment. Spurred on by activists, the head of the state of Madhya Pradesh, where Bhopal is located, is lobbying for India to boycott the sporting event. Such a move would cost Dow little, bring no benefit to victims, and deny Indian athletes their perhaps once-in-a-lifetime chance of participating.
Giving Dow the boot would moreover make it more difficult to find future sponsors for the Olympics. Dow is providing $100 million to the Olympics over 10 years and is sponsoring a $9 million fiber wrap for London’s main venue. Where should Olympic organizers draw the line? Should makers of potato chips, carbonated drinks, and fast food be deemed unacceptable for contributing to obesity, which leads to thousands of deaths every year?
Most of all, I have a problem with the intransigence of the activists. In their pursuit of Dow, they have turned down offers of help that would reduce the contamination in Bhopal. Their uncompromising stance makes it less likely that Dow will admit some connection with the Bhopal tragedy. At this stage, I imagine that Dow would be willing to pay something and get involved in the cleanup of Bhopal if it had some expectation that the controversy could end.
Meanwhile, Dow is doing good by sponsoring the Olympics. There’s no reason it should not be allowed to do so.
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