by Zachary Shahan · March 16, 2011
Can you name what is widely considered the world’s worst industrial disaster? I’ll give you some clues: it happened in India in 1984, has killed up to 25,000 people, has caused over half a million injuries, and involved a catastrophic gas leak at a Union Carbide (now DOW Chemical) pesticide factory.
If you guessed “the Bhopal disaster,” you are right. If you haven’t heard of this disaster, however, you definitely are not alone.
Despite being the world’s worst industrial catastrophe to date, due to it being far, far away and a “long” time ago, many Americans or Westerners today don’t know about it. That may soon change.
A 26-year-old filmmaker from Los Angeles, Van Maximilian “Max” Carlson, recently finished a documentary on the disaster, detailing how it is still, to this day, affecting tens of thousands of people. Bhopali: The Bhopal Disaster Did Not Happen. It Is Happening won the Audience Award and Best Documentary Film award at the 2011 Slamdance Festival in late January.
Carlson, whose 2004 documentary Ninth November Night was deemed “one of the outstanding documentaries” of the year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Documentary Screening Committee, made this film out of compassion for the suffering people of Bhopal and a desire to bring greater attention to their plight and to the corporate injustice in this story.
Union Carbide left the area after the disaster, left the factory as it was, and tens of thousands of people living there now are drinking water extremely contaminated with toxic chemicals. It paid a $471 million settlement in 1989 to the Indian government, which basically translated to families of victims receiving $500 for life-long injuries (not to mention emotional trauma). Max wants to bring attention to this, get Dow Chemical to pay more for this ongoing catastrophe, and try to stop any more Bhopals from happening.
Beyond the film, Max has gotten involved with charities helping the area and actually started a petition here on Change last month. The petition targets President Obama and asks him to help the people of Bhopal by forcing DOW Chemical, a Michigan-based company, to clean up the toxic waste still present in the area and take responsibility for this catastrophe. It is the U.S.’s responsibility to act, says Carlson. For example, in 1992, an Indian court charged a U.S. citizen and these two U.S.-registered corporations (Union Carbide was based in Texas) with manslaughter and other crimes. So far, the U.S. has denied extradition requests in the criminal case, and Dow Chemical, of course, continues on its merry business, as it refuses to pay the $80 million in cleanup costs the Indian court has requested.
When President Obama visited Indian, he actually promised he would look into the issues of Bhopal. Sign Max Carlson’s petition below to push Obama to make good on his promise.
To read more about the Bhopal disaster, how Max came to learn about it, his experiences in India, and his thoughts on the documentary, visit the Bhopali site or read a Wall Street Journal interview with him.