"We will be meticulous, we will be comprehensive, and we will be aggressive. We will not rest until justice is done," declared US Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month, as he announced a criminal and civil investigation into the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama administration has pledged to hold oil giant BP accountable for billions of dollars in damages and clean-up operations, as well as penalties, in the aftermath of the offshore oil rig accident that killed 11 men and has emptied millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea.
However, the world's worst industrial disaster to date was in Bhopal over 25 years ago. It is believed to have claimed over 15,000 lives and damaged thousands more. It has not merited this attention.
When asked on Monday if the US government would be willing to exert more pressure on Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide Corporation over a decade earlier, to pay for cleaning up the site of the accident, or consider extraditing Union Carbide executives, including former CEO Warren Anderson, who has been declared an absconder in India, State Department official Robert Blake instead expressed the hope that the judgment delivered yesterday by a district court in Bhopal would give closure to the victims.
The judgment--two years in prison and fines of $ 2,100 each for seven defendants, a $ 10,600 fine for Union Carbide India Ltd, and no mention of Warren Anderson--has left even American lawyers aghast. "It's an absolute travesty," says Frank A Mayer, III, a Philadelphia-based lawyer with the firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP.
Referring to the out-of-court settlement reached in 1989 between Union Carbide and the government of India, which fixed Union Carbide's liability at $ 470 million, Mayer points out that such a settlement would not be possible in the US. "The US government would not be able to make a deal on behalf of various individuals. The individuals could pursue their rights under the law and the US Congress could not change their rights through legislation."
In contrast, the Indian government took over the representation of all the Bhopal victims by passing the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act.
"The outcome is the best-case scenario for multinational corporations that want to do business in India," says Brian Mooney, Clinical Associate Professor at New York University. As a young lawyer at the firm of Kelley, Drye & Warren in 1984, Mooney was on the legal team that represented Union Carbide Corporation, but is now a supporter of the Bhopal gas victims.
However, experts feel Indian attempts to bring Warren Anderson to justice are on less solid ground. Mooney says corporate executives are not always held criminally liable for industrial accidents, and believes it's inconceivable that the US government would ever agree to extradite Anderson. He adds that it's especially unlikely at a time when the US wants to export nuclear technology to India and is pushing for liability legislation as part of the civilian nuclear agreement.