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Lorraine Close

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Will Lord Coe Take the Bhopal Water Challenge?

Posted: 17/01/12 00:00

Despite the continuing furore concerning Dow's sponsorship of the Olympic games, Lord Sebastian Coe and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) maintain that they are satisfied with Dow Chemical's ethical performance and sustainability.

Almost three decades on from the infamous Bhopal gas leak of 1984 in Central India that killed an estimated 25,000 people, the death toll continues to rise.

As well as suffering long-term health effects from gas exposure at the time of the disaster, over 120,000 people are living with chronic health problems as a result of 27 years of ground-water and soil pollution from toxic waste dumped while the factory was in operation. That toxic waste has never been removed from Bhopal and continues to pollute the environment today. The CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) and the BBC have tested the Bhopal ground water and found it to be contaminated with highly toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Greenpeace describe this area as a "Global Toxic Hotspot."

This is an entirely separate environmental and humanitarian catastrophe to the gas leak, and one that has been largely ignored by those responsible. Dow Chemical are the multi-billion dollar corporation responsible for the clean up of Bhopal, and have thus far refused to accept this responsibility, while simultaneously being closely associated with London 2012; an event that supposedly prides itself on its ethical and environmental policies.

Having spent six moths living and working with communities in Bhopal at the Sambhavna clinic, funded by British based charity The Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA), I witnessed first hand the continued devastating impact of the contamination nearly three decades after the closure of the factory.

I watched as children played on 'solar evaporation ponds' (toxic dumping grounds); I walked through the former factory site avoiding the blobs of mercury and jars full of chemicals with hazard labels still clearly visible that lie scattered on the ground; I listened as local people told stories of having no choice but to drink, bathe and cook with water that smells odd and that they know makes them sick.

Given these experiences of the ongoing situation in Bhopal I find it completely unacceptable that Dow Chemical are pouring millions into sponsorship of the London Olympics rather than supporting those affected by the disaster in Bhopal.

And apparently I'm not alone - over 17,000 people have signed my petition on Change.org. to end the deal for Dow to provide the 'wrap' around the London Olympic stadium, proving that the British public do not support this partnership.

The first chink in Dows armour appeared before Christmas with the announcement that Dow branding would be dropped from the stadium wrap. The Dow vice president of Olympic operations George Hamilton has claimed the removal of the branding was nothing to do with the protests around the partnership, and that Dows actions were not carried out in order to 'placate a group of protesters'.

Coincidence, or (far more likely) not, the dropping of the logo is a small victory in a much bigger battle that will continue until the partnership with the Olympics is ended. Last week marked 200 days until the games begin and campaigners gathered in London, Chennai and Bhopal to protest against Dow Chemical's sponsorship under the banner: "200 days to drop Dow."

Outside the Olympic clock in Trafalgar Square, my friend and Bhopal survivor, Farah Edwards Khan, issued a challenge to Lord Coe. She asked that if he is to continue supporting Dow's sponsorship, he should first travel to Bhopal and drink the groundwater, which has for many years been the sole drinking water supply for thousands of local people. Lord Coe has, surprisingly, not yet responded to our invitation.

Much attention in the media is currently being given to the fact that Dow never owned or operated the factory in Bhopal. This is correct, but they acquired Union Carbide in a lucrative takeover in 2001 and have legally inherited their liabilities as well as their assets. This is basic corporate law, acquisitions and takeovers 101: you cannot acquire a company's wealth without inheriting its debt. Dow essentially admitted this themselves when they paid off an outstanding lawsuit against Union Carbide soon after acquiring the company, settling with former UCC asbestos workers in Texas for a whopping $2.2 billion. However, Dow has consistently argued that it isn't liable for Bhopal, without giving any satisfactory reasons as to why. It is corporate crime at its worst and, along with its legacy of environmental contamination globally, places Dow at the top of the list of environmentally irresponsible organisations, surely not a good choice for the Olympics?

As excitement builds in the countdown to the Olympics, the people in Bhopal continue to wait for justice. In the crowded waiting room of Sambhavna clinic, there is a message carved into a large wooden beam that reads: "A heart-felt thank you to the thousands of British people who made this clinic a reality... "

It is the voice of the same British public, alongside the Bhopalis and their international supporters, who can influence the decision of LOCOG to drop the partnership with Dow, and bring the prospect of clean up and justice for the communities in Bhopal one step closer to becoming a reality.