The 2012 Summer Olympics in London are fast approaching, and protests recently broke out in both London and India, calling for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to drop Dow Chemical Company as a sponsor. The growing opposition to Dow’s sponsorship comes from individuals and a host of organizations including Amnesty International, Action Aid, and the Indian Olympic Association, and stems from Dow’s links to one of the worst industrial catastrophes in history.
On December 3, 1984, a methyl isocyanate gas leak at an American-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India killed over 5,000 people and exposed thousands more to harmful chemicals with devastating long-term health impacts. While the company initially tried to deflect any responsibility for the accident, in 1989 Dow reached a settlement with the Indian Government to pay $470 million in compensation. Dow representatives have told the media that their hands are completely clean, because the settlement closed the Bhopal matter years before Dow had even acquired Union Carbide.
However, that settlement is just one piece of the puzzle, and when Dow purchased Union Carbide in 2001 they inherited a number of pending civil and criminal cases in both India and the United States, including Sahu v. Union Carbide, a case in which ERI is co-counsel. In 1994, a decade after the original spill, Union Carbide abandoned the plant in Bhopal, leaving behind a toxic mess of chemicals that continued to leak into the surrounding water supply. In the Sahu case, residents of Bhopal have filed suit against Union Carbide over the health and enivonmental impacts of this contamination.
The Olympic Charter aims to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” so critics are right to question the sponsorhip of a company with any ties to such a tragic disaster. The Indian Olympic Association called on the IOC to terminate the sponsorship, but the IOC rejected this request. Dow has agreed to leave its logo off of London’s Olympic stadium, but the $100 million advertising deal still stands.
After more than 27 years, Bhopal’s survivors continue to struggle with the horrible consequences of both the original disaster and subsequent contamination, and in the face of this reality it’s hard to believe that Dow’s sponsorship of the 2012 Games is in keeping with the Olympic Charter’s concern “with the preservation of human dignity.”