New Internationalist

Dow Chemicals and Lord Coe are wrapping London 2012 in shame

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Do we really want an Olympics sponsored by one of the world’s most unethical and controversial companies? Lorraine Close and Jack Laurenson think not.

© Jack Laurenson 2011
Women gather water from a government water-truck delivery in Bhopal. © Jack Laurenson 2011

Tucked away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of Bhopal’s busy main roads and markets, and within a stone’s throw of the abandoned Union Carbide complex, is an oasis of calm and healing. The Sambhavna Clinic, which is funded by UK-based charity The Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA), is the only facility in Bhopal which offers effective and free healthcare to the thousands who still live in the toxic shadow of the world’s most infamous pesticide factory.

In the crowded waiting room of the clinic, where patients seated on benches look out onto lush herb gardens and a pond filled with turtles and fish, 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…’

For Brits – who often visit the clinic while travelling through India – it’s impossible to read this sign without feeling somewhat patriotic and proud. The BMA is a small charity based in Brighton and through the kind support of their donors – who are, as the sign states, mostly British – they are able to help Indian doctors and therapists save lives on a daily basis.

How perversely ironic it is then, that Britain would now undermine this excellent charitable work by engaging in a ludicrously ill-advised sponsorship agreement with one of the world’s most unethical and controversial companies. Via the misguided Olympic organizing committee and the ignorance of Lord Sebastian Coe, we are on track to insult a billion Indians by embracing Dow Chemicals as an official London 2012 sponsor.

It is now estimated that between 9,000 and 15,000 Bhopalis were killed within three days of the initial gas-leak in 1984. The first incident, caused by cost-cutting measures and a dramatic decline in safety standards implemented by Carbide’s American management, is infamous. Less well known is the fact that some 120,000 or more are still living with agonizing chronic health problems caused by 27 years of ground-water and soil pollution; a result of dumped toxic waste contaminating communities around the factory.

A global toxic hotspot

Total deaths are estimated at around 25,000 and still rising. Greenpeace and the Indian Centre for Science & Environment state the area around the factory is so saturated with dumped chemicals and heavy metals that they have labelled Bhopal a ‘global toxic hotspot’; the disaster is ranked alongside Chernobyl as one of the world’s most terrible industrial catastrophes. This unresolved legacy of pain is now the official property of Dow Chemicals. Is it a legacy we want our Olympics to be associated with? Does Britain want this irresponsible company wrapping their stadium in their branding?

Doha Stadium Plus under a CC Licence
Sebastian Coe - former athelete and Tory MP - was head of the London bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Doha Stadium Plus under a CC Licence

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 back in 2001 and have legally inherited their liabilities as well as their assets. This is basic corporate law and a 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.

Even if the thousands of dead and dying in Bhopal were not the issue here, Dow Chemicals would still have to answer for other crimes, such as their awful environmental record and the heart-breaking legacy of Agent Orange and Napalm in southeast Asia. Dow became a major provider of Agent Orange to the US military when many other companies ceased production in the face of overwhelmingly negative public opinion. They have, however, alongside Monsanto Company, continually avoided any kind of legal liability for these crimes.

© Jack Laurenson 2011
The Union Carbide complex is abandoned and neglected. It's used by local communities for gathering water and soil and is often a playground for children who are unaware of the dangers. © Jack Laurenson 2011

The Dow Chemical company claim to be a responsible ‘global corporate citizen’ and committed to ‘environmental sustainability’ but in reality they are a rogue corporation that cannot be held accountable to national or international law – apart from in the US; where their reputation is seemingly more of an issue to them than human rights or the environment.

The Dow subsidiary Union Carbide have created, via their negligent waste disposal methods, a brand new tragedy in Bhopal that has slowly developed over time. Neither company has ever paid out a single dollar for this ongoing environmental damage and as Dow now operates Union Carbide as a full subsidiary, the liability belongs to them. They must clean up Bhopal.

By arranging and endorsing Dow’s involvement with London 2012, Lord Sebastian Coe and the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) have demonstrated their complete ignorance of the situation in Bhopal – and indeed their own policies on ethical and sustainable sponsors.

If Dow cannot face up to their legal and moral responsibilities, and will not spend a single dollar on their liabilities in Bhopal, do they have a right to splash their money and branding around at the London Olympics? With a powerful opposition movement growing – including motions in the UK and Scottish parliament, mass media coverage and a petition that has attracted thousands of signatures – it’s becoming clear that whatever happens in this fight, this has been a spectacular PR disaster for Dow Chemicals.

Lorraine Close is a volunteer campaigner with the Bhopal Medical Appeal and started the petition to drop Dow as a sponsor from the London 2012 Olympics.
Jack Laurenson is a freelance journalist and documentary photographer who works regularly in India. He founded the Bhopal Now campaign project.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from the Bhopal Now website.

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  1. #1 MirrorballBob 14 Dec 11

    It's inspiring to see people puncturing the 2012 corporate Olympian bubble like this.

    Here's another element of the post-corporate Olympics mobilisation:


    If you're in a hurry, here's the pitch: BP is sponsoring the 2012 Vultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival in the UK. Do you have a creative response to this situation? If so, please contact us here: [email protected] or 07709 545116. Let us know if you could help illustrate and/or design a leaflet on this issue.

    Here's a more detailed explanation ...

    BP is sponsoring the 2012 Vultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival in the UK; We'd like all this wonderful creative activity to be allowed to breathe free of the stench of BP, and in a step towards that eventuality, we're setting up a BP-free Cultural Olympiad gallery on our website. For that, we're inviting you to submit artworks which address this mismatch directly, poetically, peripherally, satirically, elegiacally, comically or hysterically. (Or using an adjective of your own choosing.) We'd also like to feature work that looks at the Olympics more generally.

    Unless we get a rush of blood to the head, this gallery will only exist
    online, featuring two dimensional artworks (ie. images, films and written
    word). In return for your labours, we can promise some degree of exposure,
    (maybe more than usual, given the media's taste for Olympic stories), a
    link to a site where your work is featured, and our undying gratitude. We
    apologise for not being able to press any cash into your hand; if it's any
    consolation, copyright remains with you always.

    We'll be adding to the gallery throughout 2012, but would appreciate
    receiving work in the first two months of the year.

    There are many good things taking place under the umbrella of the Cultural
    Olympiad; this initiative seeks to shed light on its darker side. Since
    the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010, BP has been hard at work in
    an attempt to shore up its reputation (which was already beset with
    troubles surrounding safety and ecological destruction). But the Olympics
    has presented the company with the perfect platform for some aggressive
    rebranding. It might also have presented us with a more positive
    opportunity to expose the gulf between the company's rhetoric and its

    For quite some time now, campaigns have been afoot to persuade cultural
    institutions like the Tate to sever their connections with BP, and Big Oil
    more generally, the argument being that their own highly valued brands are
    being damaged by proximity to the sticky black stuff. We reckon that oil
    companies enjoy undeserved kudos from these relationships, and that they
    cultivate them not out of kindness, but as part of a cool, calm strategy
    to ensure that public disgust with their activities doesn't impact on
    their ability to operate, (in ever deeper Arctic waters it seems.)

    So what might the message be to people, be they artists, musicians, poets
    etc., who take their creativity into the community, and are out there
    often at the sharp end of austere times, (and with funding sources looking
    increasingly corporate), quite probably struggling to keep that creativity
    at the heart of their daily endeavours? Well, we recommend is that you try
    to find time to take a good, hard look at the way fossil fuel-intensive
    corporations are operating, and make your own decision as to where you
    draw the line when it comes to sponsorship. Many would refuse to work on a
    project sponsored by an arms company, but what if the suffering and
    (climatic) damage caused by oil companies was even greater?
    (Interestingly, there has been talk amongst Indian athletes and beyond of
    boycotting London 2012 because of its acceptance of sponsorship from Dow
    Chemical, which now owns the company responsible for the Bhopal disaster:

    Then there's the question of what action - beyond creating a piece for our
    new gallery - to take if you do find a sponsor's activities unacceptable.
    Like traditional workplace struggles, where a union can help create a
    united front on an issue, perhaps we need to act together on this, in
    order to prevent isolation, possible reputation damage or a sense of
    futility. Let us know what your take is on all this, and let's hope we can
    take some more concerted action that protects not only our livelihoods and
    the projects we love, but also a wider worldwide community of humans and
    other living beings.

    Thanks for reading,

    Us at Art Not Oil

  2. #3 Len Aldis 20 Dec 11

    Thanks for this article, the role of the London Olympic Committee in awarding a contract to Dow Chemical is a disgrace, did no one check on the background of this company?

    It is well known and recorded that Dow Chemical was also one of the US companies that made Agent Orange and Napalm, used with horrific results on Vietnam. Agent Orange was sprayed for ten-years from 1961 to 1971 resulting in the destruction of huge areas of forests and the animal life within. In addition, and here is the largest war crime, the use of Agent Orange resulted in many thousands of abnormal births.

    Today in Vietnam there are four million suffering from various illnesses and deformities, the effects have now gone into the fourth generation. Each year since I made my first visit to the country in 1989, I have met with many Vietnamese of all ages and it is heartbreaking to see them, especially the children.

    Lord Coe and his committee that includes the Princess Royal MUST cancel the contract withoput any delay.

  3. #4 Mike Wells 25 Dec 11

    The Author of this piece has a good understanding of Dow and Union Carbide etc.
    However the main point of the piece is that Dow are and unsuitable
    sponsor for the London Olympics. In coming to this conclusion one
    should have an in depth understanding not only of Dow etc but also of
    London 2012. I feel the author has not furnished himself with this s
    side of the story. I argue that Dow are in fact the perfect sponsor
    for 2012 because the share the same values.

    The agurements to back this claim can be found at the Link below.

  4. #5 JackL 14 Jan 12


    By all means, if you want to make that point - and it's a valid one - then write an article. I'm sure NI would accept your proposal!

    We were arguing that Dow are an unsuitable sponsor on the basis of what LOCOG & Lord Coe claim these games are meant to represent; in the case of London 2012, it's meant to be the most sustainable & ethical Olympics ever.

    At the end of the day, Dow have given campaigners a platform for raising awareness about Bhopal & Agent Orange. So, in a way, we should be grateful!

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