Wanted for crimes against the planet

Feature story - 31 March, 2003
Take one smooth, media savvy, corporate executive at the helm of the world's largest chemical company. Pit him against a few determined activists fighting for justice. Outcome a forgone conclusion? Throw a huge ongoing chemical disaster into the mix and in fact the outcome was a surprise to all.

M Parker - Former Dow CEO.

Michael Parker was in charge of Dow Chemical. While not exactly corporate environmental enemy numero uno (that dubious honour goes to Lee Raymond, head of ExxonMobil) he consistently refused to consider helping survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide Gas disaster in Bhopal.

Our intrepid activists from the international campaign for justice in Bhopal had one goal in mind - to ensure Parker was not able to forget that Dow is now responsible for the ongoing suffering of thousands in Bhopal and a using only a fraction of Dow's huge annual turnover he could end the ongoing tragedy.

23 October: Houston, Texas

Parker was out at a prime greenwashing opportunity at the Tenth Annual Houston Conservation Leadership Awards luncheon (a front group funded by dirty industry). Dow was sponsoring the awards to the tune of US$40,000 to brush up its image. While Parker espoused the wonderful contribution Dow makes to the environment our courageous activists were plotting to enliven proceedings beyond the mundane corporate backslapping.

During his speech Parker was interrupted by a photographer who announced "We have someone here from Bhopal with a better award for you," she told him in front of 500 bemused guests.

Booing from the Dow contingent at tables near the stage fell silent when Bhopali activist Kinnu appeared in her sari bearing two genuine Bhopali brooms. A flustered Parker was unsure what to do now his careful prepared speech was interrupted by some harsh reality. Kinnu told Parker that he was a liar to say that Dow had no liabilities in Bhopal. She told him that women living near the abandoned factory have mercury and other toxins in their breast milk and demanded that Dow take immediate action to clean up its mess.

Parker flapped for a moment, and then began repeating his old formula about remembering where he was in 1984 when he heard the news about Bhopal. Any activist who has written to Dow about Bhopal will be able to quote it word for word. During the commotion at the front, the 500 guests were being leafleted on why Dow should clean up Bhopal and some friendly words of advice - Investing a bit of capital in taking care of the Bhopal disaster would be so much better than this useless PR!

Let hope at least a few guests left with a more realistic idea of Dow's contribution the environment.

15 November: University of Michigan

Mr Parker was gracing the University with a visit but just to make sure he doesn't forget, we were there to remind him of a few harsh truths. After his usual speech about morality, sustainability and how Dow is just the best damn company to work for in the world there was a gentle Q&A session lined up. Mr Parker got a preliminary question from the back about Bhopal. He gave the usual "I feel your pain, it was awful, I remember where I was when Bhopal happened, oh, but we have no liabilities thank you very much". However our student organiser, Azita, wasn't buying it, but Parker bought her sweet cherub smile and called on her next, expecting a soft question. Here is roughly how it played out:

Azita: "Mr Parker, the liabilities in Bhopal can't be 'over' when people are still being poisoned every day?"

Parker: "Well, I, uh, meant that our liabilities are over."

Azita: "Call me foolish, but I didn't think that corporations, could just determine when and if their liabilities are over. That's why we have courts."

Parker: "Um, yeah..."

Azita: "And you forgot to mention that your company is being sued in the Federal District Court of New York for contamination at the Bhopal site."

Parker: "Well, we're actually trying to find a solution to this - we are currently in negotiations with Bhopal survivors -"

Azita: "No you're not. You see, I'm with Greenpeace."

Parker: (internal groan, face contorts)

Azita: "And we've been trying to ask you for almost a year to sit down with Bhopal survivor organisations and talk about the problems in Bhopal. And we've sent you over 50,000 postcards, emails and faxes to remind you to do this!"

Parker: "Well, I....."

Azita: "And that's why I want to present you with this book (Dominique Lapierre's Five Past Midnight in Bhopal)so you can read how the people of Bhopal suffer while you drag your feet in dealing with your liabilities."

Parker: (Begrudgingly takes the book. Gives Azita the look of death)

Facilitator: "Well, that's all the time we have today for questions for Mr. Parker. Thank you all for coming."

The Dow contingent left the campus in a huff after their recruitment party was ambushed but not before they each got handed a copy of the technical guidelines to clean up the Bhopal site. Some nice bedtime reading maybe?

Of course we were not going to let Mr Parker get off lightly. After having being quoted as saying he will "be spending a few quiet moments of reflection" on the 18th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. We decided to drop by to see if the quiet reflection lead to a change of heart?

3 December 2002: Midland, Michigan

50 students from the University of Michigan along with environmental and social justice activists from around the state visited Michael Parker's house where they held a vigil to mark the 18th anniversary of the world's worst industrial disaster. Rather than some quiet moments of reflection it appeared Parker was hosting a party instead. The activists were there to remind Mr Parker that they hold him personally responsible for the ongoing suffering in Bhopal

Although the vigil candles, Bhopal banners, tombstones, Parker "Wanted Posters" and other props didn't seem to distract the gleeful party goers, Michael Parker did step outside and debate the activists for approximately twenty minutes.

Amongst the now very familiar meaningless Bhopal waffle there were a few statements of interest from Mr Parker. He claimed he was "too busy" to see the suffering for himself in Bhopal. Pressed on the fact that the treatment of the victims is made harder by the composition of the gases leaked in the disaster being kept as trade secrets he claimed he know nothing of this and would ensure this information was released.

10 December 2002: Midland, Michigan

Hot on the heels of announcing he intends to release trade secrets Mr Parker got canned by Dow. This firing was supposedly, 'solely in light of the disappointing financial performance of the company' and of course absolutely nothing to do with the growing criticism of Dow's stance on Bhopal. Some on the internet put a different spin on events...

What next?

Well Dow has a new CEO - William S. Stavropoulos. A change is good, it allows for a change or heart. William should know all about Bhopal as he masterminded the merger with Union Carbide. However since taking over he has been very silent on the issue of Bhopal. He seems mostly concerned with Dow's falling stock price. So we will definately be paying him a visit or two to demonstrate that resloving the issue of Bhopal would give him lots more time to concentrate on counting the corporate pennies.

Stay tuned for more unconventional interventions whenever William puts in a public apperance....