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A new, beautifully-designed line of bottled water - this time not from the melting Alps, nor from faraway, clean-water-deprived Fiji, but rather from the contaminated ground near the site of the 1984 Bhopal catastrophe - scared Dow Chemical's London management team into hiding today.
Twenty Bhopal activists, including Sathyu Sarangi of the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, showed up at Dow headquarters near London to find that the entire building had been vacated.
...exposing more than 500,000 people to toxic gases. The first official immediate death toll was 2,259. A more generally accepted figure is that 8,000- 10,000 died within 72 hours, and it is estimated that 25,000 have since died from gas-related diseases...
Already in 1982 tubewells in the vicinity of the UCC factory had to be abandoned. In 1991 the municipal authorities declared water from over 100 tubewells to be unfit for drinking.
Carbide's laboratory tests in 1989 revealed that soil and water samples collected from near the factory were toxic to fish. 21 sites inside the plant were highly polluted. In 1994 it was reported that 21% of the factory premises were seriously contaminated with chemicals.
Studies made by Greenpeace and others from soil, groundwater, wellwater and vegetables from the residential areas around UCIL and from the UCIL factory area show contamination with a range of toxic heavy metals and chemical compounds.
Substances found, according to the reports, are naphthol, naphthalene, Sevin, tarry residues, alpha napthol, mercury, organochlorines, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, hexachlorethane, hexachlorobuta-diene, pesticide HCH (BHC), volatile organic compounds and halo-organics. Many of these contaminants were also found in breast milk.
In 2002, an inquiry found a number of toxins, including mercury, lead, trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane and chloroform, in nursing women's breast milk. Well water and groundwater tests conducted in the surrounding areas in 1999 showed mercury levels to be at "20,000 and 6 million times" higher than expected levels; heavy metals and organochlorines were present in the soil. Chemicals that have been linked to various forms of cancer were also discovered, as well as trichloroethene, known to impair fetal development, at 50 times above safety limits specified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In an investigation broadcast on BBC Radio 5 on November 14, 2004, it was reported that the site is still contaminated with 'thousands' of metric tons of toxic chemicals, including benzene hexachloride and mercury, held in open containers or loose on the ground. A sample of drinking water from a well near the site had levels of contamination 500 times higher than the maximum limits recommended by the World Health Organization.
To highlight these issues, we are profiling a series of community struggles against Coca-Cola in India, all of which point to a pattern in the company's operations. The communities are left thirsting as Coca-Cola draws water from the common water resources. Its operations are polluting the scarce water that remains. The emergence of local, grassroots struggles against the cola giant's operation in India should also serve as a reminder to Coca-Cola's bosses in Atlanta that this is not a public relations problem that one can just "spin" and wish away. Rather, the heart of the issue is a serious concern about control over natural resources and the right of communities to determine how business is done in their communities.
Local residents in Mehdiganj, near the holy city of Varanasi, are also gearing up for a struggle against Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola has illegally occupied a portion of the common property resources of the village and was found guilty of evading payment of land revenue by a local court. Protesters were met at Coca-Cola's factory gates by about 200 police personnel, sent to "protect" the plant along with 50 gun-toting private security guards. This was not all for show-- the demonstrators were beaten up. The Coca-Cola plant in Mehdiganj enjoys heavily subsidized electricity and is accused of spewing toxics into surrounding agricultural fields as well as causing serious water shortage as a result of its operations. We have a report from Mehdiganj.
Coca-Cola, it seems, is on its way to soon earning the reputation that Enron enjoyed in India. Both Enron and Coca-Cola top the Foreign Direct Investment list from the US in India. Enron's Indian operations (Dabhol Power Corporation, a joint venture with Bechtel and General Electric, among others) was the single largest foreign direct investment in India and became the target of activists across the country due to irregularities in its manner of carrying out its business, including the use of armed thugs to suppress opposition. Indians had shut down Enron long before the financial scandal in the US brought the entire company down.