How the bounty of big industry makes way for unrepentant enviro-bashing

In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave one of the most honest and illuminating speeches made by any head of state in the last century. In a lengthy address, he made clear that the leaders of tomorrow “must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.” He warned that, “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” and urged the population to do everything in their power to safeguard against the emerging trend of power consolidation under the banners of industry.

These were bold and unprecedented words from a man in his position, and their conviction has yet to be matched by any who have held his office afterward. Despite this, the transformation that Eisenhower feared was well under way prior to his speech, and it has continued into the modern age. The embracing of industrial infrastructure has resulted in countless travesties and injustices, and yet the corporations responsible march ever onwards, seemingly unimpeded by the loss of life and well-being that wells up in their wake.

What BP Oil terms the “Gulf of Mexico Incident” was just the latest in an ongoing string of industrial disasters that stretches back to the very beginnings of the industrial revolution. Of course, even small scale industriousness will lead to the occasional negative outcome, but the vastness of industrial activity allows for unprecedented gravity in terms of the fallout of poor practices. Any claim that the Deepwater Horizon disaster and others were a product of simple chance should be dispelled immediately. A TED report on the Bhopal disaster provides a list of numerous faults on the part of Union Carbide that led to the failure of the MIC containment tank, and numerous other agencies have corroborated reports of substandard safety procedures in the wake of nearly every significant industrial disaster in human history. It falls to us to bring these matters into the public domain, and strive for some form of reform in the practices of big business and multinational corporate entities.

Keith Stewart, a Greenpeace representative, is one of the many individuals who have striven to draw public attention to the dangers of the global industrial economy. “One of the things we need,” he says, “is for governments to truly hold companies accountable for the ecological and human impacts of their practices,” rather than put the onus on profitability and continuation of production cycles as they currently do. In his mind, the flaws in our present system run deep, as political campaigns are often funded in large part by big industry, which naturally leads to lenience on the part of the elected representatives in creating legislation regarding industrial practices. “There’s always going to be some temptation to cut corners to make a buck,” Stewart says, but it falls on lawmakers to enact and enforce guidelines which prevent unsafe practices, lest we be faced with a continuation of the distressing trends of the last century.

Since 1900, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in completely preventable industrial accidents, and incalculable volumes of pollutants have been added to the environment as a result of shoddy practices. This is due in part to the outsourcing of manufacturing to areas where safety standards are not as rigorously enforced, and in part due to blatant disregard for the safety of the surrounding populations on the part of the corporations running some facilities.

In Minamata, Japan, the Chisso Corporation knowingly dumped almost 30 tons of mercury-laden toxic waste from their factory into the surrounding waters over the course of 30 years, resulting in one of the worst environmental disasters in recorded history. In this case, environmental refers not only to the cost in terms of wildlife depletion and the poisoning of local flora, but also to the human cost that resulted from the corporation’s actions. Chisso began dumping waste into the bay in 1925, and in the years thereafter the population of the town began to notice cats “dancing” in the streets. A short while later, the residents of the town themselves became afflicted with a series of strange illnesses linked to their nervous systems. People were blinded, body parts lost all sensation or developed severe tics and some inexplicably lost consciousness altogether. Some years later, and after a great deal of investigation, all of these effects were linked to Chisso’s continual dumping of waste products into the bay, which was a practice that continued for some 40 years from 1925 to 1968.

Despite the strict denial of the dumping by Chisso representatives, the company was eventually brought to court by some of the victims in the mid 1970s, and small payouts were gained by a fraction of those affected. There are still well over a thousand victims who have received no recognition whatsoever from the Chisso corporation, while they continue to do business both domestically and internationally. Attempts on the part of the Courier to contact Chisso representatives have elicited only an email which reads: “Thank you indeed for inquiring. We will answer later.” On the corporation’s web site, there is a glowing account of their history which makes no mention of Minamata. To this day, there have been no arrests made in connection with the systematic poisoning of the Japanese people.

It may be tempting to dismiss this episode as a byproduct of twisted foreign mores in bygone days, but there are recent parallel examples that come much closer to home. In the late 1960s, the failure of a holding tank at a pesticide manufacturing facility in Bhopal, India gave rise to what is widely regarded as the worst industrial disaster in history. Union Carbide, a multinational corporation which manufactures various chemical agents, was operating this facility in a state that would fall well beneath the standards set by any modern safety regulations, and this continual neglect led to a worst case scenario failure of the facility’s chemical holding tanks. The specific agent, methyl isocyanate (MIC), is an extremely toxic chemical which can cause respiratory hemorrhage and death if inhaled. Adding further to the potential for harm, MIC has a high reactivity index, and will undergo rapid heating and expansion if it comes into contact with some of the acids commonly found in tap water.

On Dec. 23, 1984, after the plant had run for a miraculous number of years in ramshackle condition, a large quantity of water got into one of the MIC holding tanks, and all hell broke loose. The plant was surrounded by a population of tens of thousands, mostly living in an impoverished state which meant that their dwellings were almost exclusively single-level affairs. MIC is heavier than air, and thus the tonnage of the chemical which was released spread throughout the surrounding communities in a dense, ground-hugging blanket. Contemporary estimates put the number of dead at well over 20,000, while those who have been affected with serious health complications number in the hundreds of thousands.

The TED society has put forth one of the most comprehensive reports on the incident, which notes various faults on the part of Union Carbide, including that, “gauges measuring temperature and pressure ... were so notoriously unreliable that workers ignored early signs of trouble, the ... unit for keeping MIC at low temperatures (and therefore less likely to undergo overheating and expansion should a contaminant enter the tank) had been shut off for some time,” and “the maximum pressure that [the tank] could reach was only one-quarter of that which was reached during [the failure].” All of these shortcomings were known to the operators of the plant, and yet production continued at full bore up until the incident.

After a brief period of public outcry, Union Carbide, which is principally an American venture, arranged a settlement package with the Indian government that amounted to less than $500 per victim. This amount would hardly pay for medical bills, never mind compensating one adequately for the loss of their loved ones, or the lingering toxicity in the groundwater around Bhopal after the incident. According to a report issued by Greenpeace on the issue, “More than 20,000 people still live in the vicinity of the factory and are exposed to toxic chemicals through groundwater and soil contamination.” Further, the effects of the disaster are not limited to those who were present at the time of the tank’s failure, as “a whole new generation continues to get sick, from cancer and birth defects to everyday impacts of aches and pains, rashes, fevers, eruptions of boils, headaches, nausea, lack of appetite, dizziness, and constant exhaustion.”

Cast against suffering of this magnitude, it is incredible to think that no one has lost their job, been jailed or even been significantly personally chastised as a result of the Bhopal disaster. Union Carbide now claims on their website that “Someone purposely put water in the gas storage tank,” in an act of “deliberate sabotage.” This claim is based on information provided to Union Carbide by Arthur D. Little, Inc., which Union Carbide claims to be an “engineering consulting firm.” In actuality, Arthur D. Little Inc., is a firm which proclaims to be “a unique management consultancy, linking strategy, innovation and technology to ensure business success for [their] clients.”

To date, the precise causality of the Bhopal disaster remains unknown. Due to lack of access to proper legal facilities the majority of the still living victims will likely remain unable to pursue Union Carbide for more adequate compensation.

More recently, we have seen similar examples of ecologically damaging disasters such as the alumina spill in Hungary which reached as far as the Danube river, and the BP Oil crisis which is still far from over. BP spokesmen have proudly proclaimed that the completion of the relief well, in conjunction with the capping of the original well, spell the end of the disaster. However, over a quarter of the millions of barrels of oil that were spilled remain at large, with some scientists theorizing that the waters of the Gulf have been impregnated with a soup of hydrocarbons that may take decades to dispel. Further, recent research by the BBC has found there to be “an undersea plume of crude oil-based chemicals up to 200m high and 2km wide, extending 35km from the spill site.”

Thankfully, given the fact that this disaster transpired on American soil, BP has spent billions of dollars in settlements, and on the effort to both contain and clean up the spill. Nonetheless, as this incident has not yet concluded, it remains to be seen whether or not these efforts were a success. Attempts by the Courier to contact any high level BP representatives have been unsuccessful, other than to elicit another terse form letter thanking us for “our interest.”

In early October of this year, improper maintenance and safety checks on the walls of a residue holding reservoir at an alumina refinery in Hungary led to a disastrous breach of the dykes retaining the toxic sludge. Once more, poor procedures and regulations led to an ecological nightmare, with excessive alkalinity in local waterways resulting in mass wildlife death, and the extermination of vegetation in wide swaths of the countryside. In addition, the initial release flooded nearby settlements with the sludge, killing four people and injuring hundreds, while irreparably damaging their homes and possessions. The reddish waste reached the Danube, one of Europe’s major waterways, in the days following its release, and has done untold ongoing ecological damage. Once more, apologies have been issued by the corporation responsible for the facility, and otherwise business has continued in a normative fashion.

These disasters are potent examples of how “we’ve allowed short term greed to set the rules of the game,” according to Stewart, and he sees this as a paradigm which absolutely must change: “If we’re going to stop climate change, if we’re going to have a future for our kids [in] a sustainable, biologically diverse world.” To Stewart and his fellow Greenpeace administrators, it is high time that the public demand higher standards across the board for multinational corporations, as “there might have been a time when we could say that we didn’t know the consequences [of poor practices] but that time has passed.” It is clearly improbable that we would be able to retroactively punish Chisso, Union Carbide et al. for the damage they have done, but it is imperative that we strive to put an end to the era of allowing the bottom line of profitability to take on greater importance than the health of our environment, and ourselves as its inhabitants.

As Stewart notes, “accidents will happen,” but “it’s our job to make sure that the government is doing their role in protecting the public instead of protecting the corporations.”

//Max Mackay, Staff Writer

//illustrations by Lydia Fu

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