After Union Carbide Corporation killed an estimated 8000 workers and
townspeople in Bhopal, India in December, 1984 (injuring up to 300,000
others, 50,000 of them seriously) because of flawed plant design and
faulty maintenance (see RHWN #170), the company felt the need to
improve its image. Five years later, in December, 1989, Carbide issued
a report called Toward Environmental Excellence: A Progress Report in
which it claimed major progress reducing emissions and discharges from
its many U.S. chemical plants, and, further, claimed substantial
progress in actual pollution prevention--creating less waste in the
first place. In short, Carbide presented itself in 1989 as a company
that had reformed itself and was now leading the U.S. chemical industry
in developing a modern approach to environmental protection.
Part of Carbide's new image involves the placement of company officials
on the boards of directors of national environmental organizations.
Carbide now has one or more of its top people (directors, CEOs, or vice
presidents) on the governing boards of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF,
the environmental group formerly headed by William Reilly, now chief of
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), the World Resources Institute
(WRI), the Wilderness Society, and the Natural Resources Defense
Council (NRDC) where Carbide officials serve not on the board of
trustees but on a non-governance advisory body called the chairman's
council. (MULTINATIONAL MONITOR, March, 1990, pgs. 10-12.)
In sum, it appeared in 1989 that Carbide had managed to rehabilitate
itself almost entirely--not only had it declared itself on a cutting-
edge industrial track (pollution prevention) but it had been welcomed
into the fold by some of the nation's leading environmental
organizations. Presumably Carbide's claims had been scrutinized by such
groups and had been certified as honest, well-intentioned, and true.
Now, however, a detailed new report reveals that Carbide has basically
not cleaned up its act at all, and that the company has cynically
manipulated data to make it appear that they have reduced wastes when,
in fact, their waste generation has increased substantially in recent
years. Furthermore, the report charges that Carbide has shifted waste
disposal from air to land and to water--hardly a progressive
environmental direction. The report charges that Carbide's chemical
management and environmental programs are putting the company's assets
in jeopardy because of longterm liability resulting from poor
environmental management (on-site burial of large quantities of
hazardous wastes). Carbide is already a potentially responsible party
(a known or suspected dumper) at 21 Superfund sites where it faces a
liability of $421 million dollars; the new report estimates that
Carbide faces an additional liability of $250 million for cleanup costs
from dumps it has created on its own property at various chemical
plants around the U.S.
The new report, PRESENT DANGERS... HIDDEN LIABILITIES; A PROFILE OF THE
IMPACT OF THE UNION CARBIDE CORPORAION IN THE UNITED STATES (1987-
1988), was prepared by well-known environmental scientist Robert
Ginsburg for the National Toxics Campaign Fund and the Council on
International and Public Affairs.
Most importantly, this new report reveals how an unprincipled company
can use the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) [part of the federal
Community Right to Know law, which requires large users of chemicals to
report their releases of toxics into the environment] to make it appear
that they have reduced their toxic emissions when, in fact, their toxic
emissions have increased. Grass-roots activists and journalists using
the TRI data should study this new report carefully because it reveals
that the TRI data must be supplemented by additional sources of
information about a company's waste generation if a reliable picture of
a company's total pollution is to be drawn. The TRI data can be
manipulated to make it appear that chemical emissions and releases are
being reduced when, in fact, they are increasing.
Another lesson to be drawn from this new report is that unworthy
companies can find acceptance among some sectors of the American
environmental community without deserving such acceptance.
Carbide's claims: On pg. 1 of its 1989 report, Carbide said, "We're
finding ways to reduce the amount of wastes from our production
The facts: In 1988, Union Carbide generated 301 million pounds of
hazardous wastes--an increase of 70 million pounds over 1987, a 30.3%
growth in waste generation.
Carbide's claims: In its 1989 report (pg. 6), Carbide said, "Here are a
few of our source reduction accomplishments: Institute, WV--Reduced
annual waste generation in one production unit by 3.4 million pounds--
some 60%.... Seadrift, TX--Reduced its largest hazardous waste stream
by 20%.... Reduced the annual amount of waste solvent generated by over
two million pounds... Additional technology modifications resulted in a
650,000-pound reduction in annual waste generation. By adjusting
production schedules... cut annual waste generation by an additional
The facts: Carbide's claim of a total reduction of 5.4 million pounds
of wastes generated at its plants in Seadrift, TX, Institute, WV, and
Sisterville, WV, is contradicted by the company's own official reports
to state and federal agencies, which reveal an increase of 17.6 million
pounds at these plants.
Carbide's claims: "Union Carbide is committed to making the new law
[Sara Title III--Community Rightto-Know] a success. In this, as in the
whole area of health, safety and the environment, we want to do a
quality job--and we want people to know about our commitment." (Carbide
Annual Report, 1987, pg. 6.)
The facts: Carbide became the first company in the U.S. to be
challenged under Sara Title III... when one of its subsidiaries, Unison
Transformer Services, Inc., of Henderson, Kentucky, claimed trade
secrecy protection, refusing to identify one of the key chemicals used
in its Henderson, KY, facility. (Dembo and others, Abuse of Power:
Social Performance of Multinational Corporations--The Case of Union
Carbide, pg. 103). Furthermore, Carbide reported releasing 4000 pounds
more methyl isocyanate (MIC) into the community of Institute, WV,
during 1988 compared to 1987. MIC is the highly toxic gas that killed
an estimated 8000 townspeople living near Carbides's Bhopal, India,
plant in 1984.
Carbide's claim: Carbide asserts it is a leader in new-style, modern,
environmentally-sensitive chemical processing and management.
The facts: Union Carbide's Taft, Louisiana plant generates fully 36% of
all the wastes Carbide produces in total. Carbide's Taft and Star
plants in Louisiana recycle or re-use (as distinct from incinerating,
burning in industrial boilers, or burying in a dump) only 12% of the
hazardous wastes generated at the plants. This falls far below the
chemical industry average rate of 55%, as identified by the Chemical
Manufacturers Association's 1986 hazardous waste survey of the U.S.
Furthermore, Carbide seems to rely to an unusual degree on land
disposal. In 1988, Carbide buried 35% of its 301 million pounds of
hazardous waste in the ground. According to the Chemical Manufacturers
Association's 1986 survey, the industry-wide average for burying
hazardous wastes is 13.3%.
It is perhaps not unusual for wolves to masquerade as something else.
What is unusual is for the masquerade to be dissected so carefully and
so thoroughly. Also noteworthy in this case is the degree to which the
environmental community has embraced this particular wolf; Carbide has
managed to place its officials on the boards of more environmental
organizations than any other company. What does this say about the
environmental movement in this country?
Get: Robert Ginsburg, PRESENT DANGERS... HIDDEN LIABILITIES; A PROFILE
OF THE IMPACT OF THE UNION CARBIDE CORPORATION IN THE UNITED STATES
(1987-1988) (21 pages; dated November, 1990). Available from two
sources: National Toxics Campaign Fund, 1168 Commonwealth Avenue,
Boston, MA 02134; or: Bhopal Action Resource Center, Council on
International and Public Affairs, 777 United Nations Plaza, Suite 9a,
New York, NY 10017.
Descriptor terms: union carbide; bhopal; world wildlife fund; william
reilly; wri; nrdc; studies; liability; tri; ky; la; methyl isocyanate;
bob ginsburg; chemical industry;