Should the Bhopal tragedy preclude Dow Olympics sponsorship?

A storm has been brewing in London, home of the 2012 Summer Olympics: A coalition of groups representing survivors of the 1984 Bhopal, India, methyl isocyanate gas leak (*) and now the Indian Olympic Association have asked the International Olympic Committee to drop Dow Chemical as one of the sponsors of the Olympics.

The Bhopal incident was one of the world’s worst industrial disasters: 4 tons of methyl isocyanate was vaporized and released over the city of Bhopal. The chemical is very toxic and can cause eye, skin, and lung damage; the exposure limit recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health is 0.02 ppm. At least 3,000 people died from the Bhopal release–estimates range up to 25,000–and tens of thousands more were injured. Union Carbide, which owned the plant, claimed that sabotage was the cause (*). In 1989, the company agreed to pay $470 million (*) to compensate the victims. Last year, an Indian court convicted seven former officials of Union Carbide India of criminal negligence and sentenced them each to two years in prison:

In his 95-page ruling, Tiwari said the defendants “omitted to do what they were entrusted to do.” Their company failed to anticipate the possibility of a large-scale leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and to fit the plant with suitable countermeasures. Tiwari moreover determined that Union Carbide was storing MIC in excessive quantities, that it had allowed maintenance and training to deteriorate, and that a critical refrigeration system was not working at the time of the accident.

Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001, so its guilt in the Bhopal case is by association. Nevertheless, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, minister of Madhya Pradesh, where Bhopal is located, wrote to the Indian sports minister that “it was not appropriate for a company linked to such a tragedy to be allowed to sponsor an event ‘considered as an ultimate expression of fair play, honesty and healthy endeavour,'” according to the BBC. The deal to make Dow a worldwide sponsor of the Olympics through 2020 was announced last year, although the terms were not disclosed. In London, Dow is funding an $11 million fabric wrap to go around the Olympic stadium, BBC reports.

What say you, Safety Zone readers? Do you think that Dow’s link to Bhopal sullies the company and, by extension, the Olympics? What about the International Chemistry Olympiad, to which Dow pledged $2.5 million?

(*) Subscription required to C&EN Archives. We’re working on free access but we’re short-staffed this week–it’s the one week of the year when we’re not producing a magazine for Monday.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. Dow’s guilt is by more than association. When Dow Chemical took over Union Carbide they acquired the assets and the liabilities of the company.
    Dow Chemical knew that there were outstanding criminal charges against Union Carbide and Dow Chemical knowingly acquired them.
    Dow Chemical has been guilty of shielding a fugitive from Indian justice since the time of the acquisition.

  2. According to a Dow statement (pdf):

    “[The Dow Chemical Company (TDCC)] and [Union Carbide Corporation (UCC)] are separate companies. TDCC did not, as a matter of law, acquire UCC’s liabilities when it acquired UCC’s stock. … Under well-settled principles of corporate law, the 2001 combination agreement resulted in TDCC’s becoming the owner of UCC’s shares, but UCC is, and remains today, a separate corporate entity responsible for its own debts and obligations.”

    (I know nothing about corporate law, so I can’t weigh on the nuances of the Dow-Union Carbide acquisition.)

  3. Is this the same IOC that let Nazi Germany hold the racist and anti-Semetic 1936 Olympics to showcase their superior Republic? Is this the same IOC that let its officials almost-openly accepted bribes from potential host cities? And now they want to be high and mighty?

    (Did anybody notice that BP is a corporate sponsor too? Why not complaints against them?)

  4. Dow certainly has a substantial link to Bhopal. Even if it did not own the company at the time of the tragedy, it does own the company now, when this tragedy continues to affect many people to this day. There are massive amounts of pollution at the site where the tragedy occurred, and UCC did not contribute all that it should have to remedy this effect. This pollution has contaminated plenty of water, causing victims defects even now 27 years after the tragedy. Perhaps Dow should not have to clean up on UCC’s behalf, though the humanitarian in me would disagree. Nevertheless, Dow’s takeover of UCC has essentially condoned what the UCC did all those years ago–Dow has been a passive bystander to crime. The IOC should not condone those who condone such a tragedy.