Dow, Bhopal, and Andrew Liveris
Andrew Liveris, chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical, recently gave a commencement speech for this year’s graduating class from Northwood University. From the newspaper account, it seems the speech was a typical commencement address with advice on being passionate about what you are doing and work to make the world a better place. “Work to make the world better” sounds ordinary enough until we remember who is saying it, because Mr. Liveris, as the head of Dow, is not following his own advice.
Imagine this: a major chemical plant in Midland, Michigan, explodes, and the pesticides that fill the air kill 15,000 people within hours. The vapor cloud spreads, and people in Bay City and Saginaw fall ill and a number of them die. Eventually, 800,000 people are affected. The multi-national corporation that owns the company rushes to rescue the survivors and contain the damage, but does nothing else beyond a basic clean up of surface material in the aftermath. The corporation, however, insists that it has no responsibility for the explosion, that the American subsidiary that ran the plant was somehow at fault because, after all, it was run by Americans. The denials continue for five years as the survivors pursue their case through the courts, at which time the corporation throws in the towel and settles for $450 million dollars. The survivors feel that some justice has been granted until they receive their checks: $20,000.
Meanwhile, the American government is suing the corporation to clean up the pollution. The water table in the entire northeastern section of Michigan is polluted; children are being born with deformities, mothers’ breast milk is unsafe because it contains mercury and other toxic chemicals. In desperation, the government charges the CEO of the corporation with manslaughter, but the government of the foreign nation refuses to extradite him. Seventeen years after the explosion another foreign corporation buys the first corporation, and declares that it, the new owner, has no responsibility for anything that went on earlier; that enough money has been paid in the settlement.
Strangely, several major stockholders of the new owner disagree. They ask that the corporation disclose the financial and environmental impact of the explosion so they can make up their own minds about the situation. The corporation refuses to share the information, saying that it could have a negative effect on their other American markets.
Does this sound like the scenario of a beach book? Unfortunately, it is reality. Instead of Midland, substitute Bhopal, India. The plant that exploded twenty-one years ago belonged to Union Carbide, and the current owner of Union Carbide is Dow Chemical, and the current CEO is Mr. Liveris.
Most Americans are unaware of the explosion in Bhopal, or perhaps have a vague memory of something like that happening years ago somewhere in Asia. But the suffering continues. Mr. Liveris (who, by the by, also has a warrant for his arrest issued by the Indian government) has taken the stance that “markets” (that is, money) are more important than people.
Money, apparently, is more important than the residents of Seadrift, Texas, where Dow has been dumping pollutants into Seadrift’s bay. Aquatic life is dying, particularly shrimp, and residents of the community are experiencing high incidents of cancer. One resident, Diane Wilson, a mother and fisherwoman, protested by hanging a banner declaring “Dow Responsible for Bhopal!” and chaining herself to one of Dow’s towers. She was arrested, fined $2000 and sentenced to four months in prison.
Meanwhile, Mr. Liveris is free to make commencement speeches praising passion, hard work, and a vision for a better world. His actions speak louder than his words. So what do his actions say about his true goals and corporate ethics? Profit is more important than the environment. Go for the money–people be damned.