Owners of more than $278 million in shares of Dow Chemical field a shareholder resolution this week demanding the company address outstanding issues from a 1984 explosion at a pesticide plant in India.
The explosion at the Union Carbide plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal is widely seen as the worst industrial disaster in world history. Between 3,000 and 7,000 people died instantly after the explosion. Gases from the plant also injured anywhere from 150,000 to 600,000 people, at least 15,000 of whom later died.
Union Carbide became a fully owned subsidiary of Dow in 2001.
The resolution was brought by the human rights group Amnesty International, New York City Pension Funds (NYCERS), and the New York State Common Retirement Fund (NYSCRF).
"To date, Dow has not even been willing to reveal what chemicals were released in the accident," Amnesty's Amy O'Meara told OneWorld. "That's made it very difficult to treat the victims."
O'Meara adds Dow has refused to help with the clean-up and said as a result waste from the disaster continues to contaminate drinking water. That, combined with other long-term effects of the disaster, has led to serious health problems for more than 100,000 people, she said.
In a report released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in 2004, Amnesty wrote that Union Carbide "decided to store quantities of the 'ultra-hazardous' methyl isocyanate in Bhopal in bulk, and did not equip the plant with a corresponding safety capacity."
The human rights group claims Union Carbide transferred technology that was not proven and did not apply the same standards of safety in design or operations to Bhopal as it had in place in the United States. Unlike in the United States, Amnesty said, the company failed to set up any comprehensive emergency plan or system in Bhopal to warn local communities about leaks.
Representatives of Dow Chemical were not available for comment on this story. A company spokesman reached by telephone also declined an opportunity to release a written statement.
Shareholders will have the opportunity to vote on the Bhopal resolution at Dow's Annual Meeting in May 2007.
With more than $5.1 billion in sales in Asia alone, New York City comptroller William Thompson does not doubt that the company is profitable. But in filing the resolution as a shareholder in the company, Thompson said safeguarding New York City's public employee pensions requires him to "look beyond the information that a company provides us."
"Dow has claimed for years that outstanding issues in Bhopal are not material to the company's success," Thompson said in a statement, "but the facts tell a different story. It is in the long-term interest of shareholders for Dow to address potential liabilities in Bhopal, rather than allow them to impact our company's reputation and ability to expand into new markets."
Amnesty International and the New York City Employees Retirement System were joined in presenting the resolution by the New York City Teachers Retirement System, the New York City Fire Department Pension Fund, the New York City Police Pension Fund, and the New York City Board of Education Retirement System, with total assets of $96 billion. The New York State Common Retirement Fund's total assets are $146 billion.
"We feel like we're building the pressure," Amnesty's O'Meara said, noting that a similar resolution filed last year garnered 6.4 percent of shareholders votes.
"That's significant in the world of shareholder resolutions," she said. "Dow doesn't want to talk about these issues but we're beginning to make an impact."
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