A sulfur smell spews from smokestacks that mar the flat, Texas horizon with steam and flames. Along Highways 185 and 238, chemical companies Dow/Union Carbide, Formosa Plastics, BP, Seadrift Coke, and Alcoa are braided among the modest farmhouses and black, loamy fields. When the rain pours and the wind whips — like today — the tropical breeze lifts the water and sulfur and drops the acidic mixture on the cotton, corn, and soybeans.
Seadrift is quiet.
This coastal fishing village folds snugly in the crook of the San Antonio Bay, where the air is so hushed you might hear the salt peeling the paint from the boats. The bay bathes the shore only five miles downstream from the chemical strip, but if you didn't know better, you could forget about the smokestacks: A crab missing a claw crawls along the asphalt, seagulls catch a warm updraft, and fishermen silently swab decks, tighten masts, and check nets for white shrimping season, which begins tomorrow.
Fifty-four-year-old Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation fisherwoman, is not preparing her boat for shrimping season. Instead, she wears a red sleeveless dress and sits barefoot beneath an army-green tarp in the bed of a blue Chevy pickup truck that is parked in front of the Dow/Union Carbide plant — marking Day 29 of a hunger strike to protest the company's latest actions in Bhopal, India.
|In 1952, Union Carbide settled in Seadrift. An explosion in 1991 killed one man and injured 26 other workers. Photos by Mark Greenberg|
But Wilson's hunger strike — which has been joined by hundreds of people worldwide — extends beyond the current events in Bhopal. This is Wilson's third self-imposed starvation in the 14 years she's fought Seadrift's chemical plants: battling them over discharging their waste into San Antonio Bay, the threat to the town's drinking water, the cancers that afflict workers in the plants.
The issues of environmental destruction and its human toll, corporate influence and its absence of accountability, ties Bhopal to Seadrift and to every community that is at the mercy of contaminating industries.
|For Seadrift residents, the San Antonio Bay is their mother, friend, enemy, and undertaker. Photos by Mark Greenberg|
Dow has refused to accept Union Carbide's liabilities in Bhopal, even though the chemical company knew about them when it purchased the company for $11.6 billion in 1999. And within India, there is apparently a split among the courts, government, and citizens on how much compensation is due and how it should be spent.
In 1986, the Indian government sued Union Carbide for $3 billion; three years later, India's Supreme Court settled for $470 million, which was contested by the Indian government and disaster victims. About $272 million remains undistributed because India's politicians are arguing about how to spend the money; instead of giving it to victims, some want to use it to decontaminate the soil or build a memorial.
The proposed leniency against Anderson and Dow means the survivors and victims' families will receive even less compensation than the mere 7 cents a day Corporate Watch, a non-profit group, maintains they're currently allotted for their misery.
With only $470 million earmarked for compensating thousands of victims, and cleaning up a site whose toxicity exceeds hundreds of times the U.S environmental standards, the poison will afflict Bhopal for generations.
An Indian court will decide on Anderson's charges August 27.
The Indian embassy in Washington, D.C., had not responded to the Current's questions by press time.
As an activist who had long clashed with Union Carbide in Seadrift, Wilson flew to Bombay in 1992 to testify against the company. "I'll tell you why this has stayed so clear in my mind: A man started chasing the bus I was in and he shoved a white handkerchief through the window, yelling, 'Testify, testify.' Inside were 10 pictures and they were of little dead babies, some newborn to about 3 months. I'm a mother of five ..."
Wilson' voice quivers and for a moment is silent. "So I turned the photos into the court as evidence."
John Musser, public affairs spokesman for Dow, calls Wilson's latest protest "misdirected," and denies claims that Dow has pressured the Indian government to reduce the compensation or Anderson's criminal charges.
"Our position is that the issue has been resolved morally and legally by Union Carbide several years ago," Musser says, adding that Anderson accepted responsibility for the disaster shortly after it happened.
Yet, Anderson's "acceptance" speech was merely lip service: Within a year Anderson had blamed employee sabotage for the accident. In Union Carbide's 1984 annual report the company claimed Bhopal "was well served by our quick and compassionate response ... and that many were shocked that the accident had happened to Union Carbide, a company with an excellent safety record."
This "safety" record includes a 1982 Union Carbide inspection report concluding the Bhopal plant was dangerous and substandard. The annual report neglected to mention the greater-than-average number of cancer cases at several Union Carbide plants; hundreds of employee deaths from silica poisoning at a West Virginia facility; four in Puerto Rico, including one death from a benzene leak; one death from propane fumes in West Virginia; six in a Belgium explosion; plus fires, explosions, and spills at scores of facilities.
Anderson, who retired from Union Carbide in 1986, has consistently refused to appear in Indian court for his actions, despite a 1988 arrest warrant issued by a Bhopal district court. In 1992, an Indian court also ordered his extradition, which Anderson also ignored. If his charges are reduced from culpable homicide to negligence, he would avoid appearing in Indian court and would pay only a small fine instead of serving a maximum two-year jail sentence.
Musser is not commenting on whether the $470 million is adequate compensation. "I'm not going to make a judgment on that," he says. "The Indian courts decided it was fair and just and reasonable. To resolve people's claims, they should go to the government."
The Dow of Texas
Union Carbide's dirty history in the U.S. is loaded with accidents, negligence, and death. In Texas, where environmental law notoriously favors polluters, Union Carbide couldn't have found a more corporate-friendly place to set up shop. The state's cozy relationship between industry and regulators has allowed the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission to seat Ralph Marquez, a former 20-year Monsanto employee and lobbyist for the Texas Chemical Council — which in 1998 honored Union Carbide with a "Caring for Texas" award — as commissioner of the regulatory agency.
Union Carbide's parent company, Dow, has paid for its political influence in Texas and the U.S. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Dow donated $35,000 to George W. Bush's gubernatorial campaign; on a national level, since 1997 the chemical company contributed $6.5 million to Republicans — and less than $100,000 to Democrats — to see things the company's way.
However, Dow/Union Carbide has logged toxic incidents too egregious to ignore. The company has racked up an extensive list of violations and fines levied by the TNRCC and Environmental Protection Agency — although for a company that last year generated $30 billion in revenues, the penalties are little more than a mosquito swat.
From 1987 to 1994, Union Carbide reported to the EPA at least 227 chemical spills and gas releases in Texas — inside plants, on land, into sewer systems, the air, or water. More than 90 of these accidents happened in Seadrift, including a spill of the pesticide ethylene oxide into San Antonio Bay. Add to that insult dozens of benzene spills, another dump of 2,768 pounds of butadiene, and 1,526 pounds of furnace gas. On Wilson's 27th day of her recent hunger strike, the company spilled 12,000 pounds of carbitol. All these chemicals are known carcinogens.
Drawn by the proximity to shipping routes in the bay, Union Carbide arrived in Seadrift 50 years ago; it employs about 1,200 people, just a few hundred shy of the town's population. By 1989, Union Carbide's emissions had contributed to Calhoun County's dubious distinction of ranking No. 1 in Texas for toxic releases, according to the TNRCC.
"I think these companies are drawn to rural areas," Wilson notes. "Places where there won't be a big outcry and they just slide on in."
Seadrift residents were outraged in March 1991, when an explosion at the plant's ethylene oxide production unit killed worker John Resendez and injured 26 others. In September of that year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposed a $2.8 million fine for 112 health and safety violations. Union Carbide eventually paid $1.5 million in penalties, plus another $3.2 million to the Resendez family. Union Carbide's total payout was almost $2 million less than the company has doled out to politicians in the past five years.
The toxic chemicals that pour into the bay have turned the estuaries — fish nurseries — into slime. Contamination has killed thousands of shrimp, fish, alligators, and dolphins. "They were all floating upside down," Wilson recalls of the largest dolphin kill in 1992. "Their big white bellies, it looked like melted butter on the water. There were more buzzards out there than seagulls.
"Scientists came from all over, they left, and we never knew what they found. All these studies, and nobody said anything."
Nobody says much in Seadrift, an insular community that appears suspicious of outsiders, especially since the town gained infamy in the film Alamo Bay. The 1985 movie depicted the racial conflagration that broke out in the late '70s between Anglo and Vietnamese fisherman.
"It has a reputation as a rebel town," says Wilson. "That is because people don't leave here. Fisherman are not fisherman because it's a job, it's who they are. It's their identity."
That identity is under siege, as the bay's health deteriorates. Contamination adds to the challenges of market instability, competition, and natural disasters that make shrimping an arduous and unpredictable task.
"It's the worst year ever," remarks the rare fisherman willing to chat with an outsider. "The price is bad. There are a lot of Vietnamese and Mexicans running boats up here."
And the impact of the chemical plants?
"You can use your imagination on that," he hints, smirking. "A lot of water goes into the 'stinky ditch' and we get the runoff. The shrimp won't hang 'round very long."
Many locals have abandoned Wilson, refusing to join her in fighting the chemical plants. "I've been shot at, dogs dead, a helicopter in my yard, my shrimp boat has been sabotaged twice, yeah I've had a few run-ins," she says, matter-of-factly. "It's a very conservative town. I've had people call me up and say, 'I'm glad you're doing this, but I won't stand up.' I think some people wish I would drop dead."
But many fishermen admire Wilson for forcing Formosa to quit discharging wastewater into the bay. Unfortunately, Dow has refused to sign the same agreement.
"We like her. She's put a little pressure on them," the shrimp fisherman adds. "But since the plants have been releasing, the shrimp have not been the same."
Wilson grew up here, and learned to fish at age 8 from her father. As a child, she was debilitatingly shy, and often hid under the bed rather than speak to people. "I was the last type of person to do this," says Wilson, who, armed with only a high school education, started learning about chemicals and permits when she noticed the shrimp and fish dying in the bay. "I found out why I was perfect for it: The bay is personal."
Seadrift is not a thriving town: a couple of gas stations, bars, boat repair shops, family restaurants that serve the catch of the day. At the Harbor Restaurant on Bay Street a man wearing a Dow badge grabs lunch with friends; they order fried shrimp. Whether it is part of a bigger plan or an unintended consequence, by ruining the shrimping industry, the chemical corporations are uprooting hundreds of people from their livelihoods that revolve around the bay. Their only alternative will be to leave their hometown or to work at the very plants that displaced them.
"This sea is a part of us," remarks Wilson. "When I was a kid, and would go to the bay it was like a person, and she had an identity. The sea is where we entertain ourselves, it's the sea where we make our living and I don't know how many people have died out there, so it claims people too. When the bay goes, the town dies."
The Indian court will decide on Dow at the end of the month. Wilson believes the Bhopal people will win. As for Seadrift, "Hopefully we can heal the bay, but I don't know if it will be in time for the fishermen. I often dream of the bay and I look down the shore and nobody's there."
Leaving Seadrift on 185, you can stop and take a last look at Union Carbide. Wilson's truck is gone, as she has returned home for the evening. All that remains is the stench and the silence.