When Dow Chemical (then Union Carbide) leaked a cloud of pesticide gas on the night of December 2-3, 1984, more than 500,000 people were exposed to the toxic chemical. Like little bugs in their sleep. Almost 4,000 people — more than were killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 — were dead before sunrise.
They ran like bugs fleeing bug spray. They grabbed their children and ran. They fell in heaps, gasping for air, their lungs and their eyes on fire.
Pregnant women birthed stillborn babies as they ran. There’s photos to prove it. [Go ahead and click that link — no graphic images, just text, I promise.]
In the thirty years since, more than 15,000 additional people have died from lingering effects of the poison. Thousands more will pass the remainder of their lives blind, sick, and in pain. Every single moment for the remainder of their wretched lives.
In the thirty years since, Dow/Union Carbide have continued to draw in billions of dollars in profits ($4.8 billion in 2013 alone), but they have yet to admit responsibility, properly compensate victims and survivors, or even clean up the abandoned plant (which continues to contaminate the groundwater.) Their CEO, Warren Anderson, fled criminal prosecution in India, and is living a cushy life on easy street in New York’s Hamptons.
The Bhopal Disaster — the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world, was not the result of an accident or a mistake — it was the result of criminal negligence. Dow (Union Carbide) was fully aware of faulty safety equipment, but the billion-dollar corporation just could not be bothered to spend a few bucks ensuring the safety of the community where its operations lay, nor the safety of its workers, while raking in the billions.
In 2002, they did pay out a $470 million settlement, which comes out to about $500 per victim. When asked about that paltry sum, Dow spokesperson Kathy Hunt said that $500 is “plenty good for an Indian.”
But what does this have to do with the University of Houston, its new stadium, and UH’s (Indian-American) President? Well, last week, the University of Houston announced that it had sold the naming rights to its new sports stadium to the Texas Dow Employees Credit Union for 10 years, for $15 million. Check out this passage from the press release:
“With TDECU, we have a great friend of the University that shares our philosophy, values and mission. When two winning teams come together, great things happen,” said University of Houston President Renu Khator. “TDECU Stadium is a powerful symbol of our commitment to athletics and student success that will bring together faculty, staff, students, alumni and the city of Houston. We cannot thank TDECU enough for helping us to make this gift possible.”
“From the beginning of this process, we have been very strategic with how we chose our naming rights gift. We wanted an entity that aligned with our core values, cared about its workforce and its clients, invested in the community and the University. We’ve found that and more with TDECU,” said University of Houston Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Mack Rhoades. [Emphasis added.]
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that the Texas Dow Employees Credit Union, which has $2 billion in assets, is so generously supporting UH athletics even though so many Dow employees (and Dow’s neighbors) are sick from various cancers due to chemical exposure. I also think it’s great that UH has built a new stadium costing $120 million (well, only $105m after you subtract TDECU’s “generous” $15m contribution) at a time when it has raised tuition 25% since 2008.
Surely, I need not remind you of Dow’s practice of buying “dead peasant” life insurance on its employees, which list the company as the beneficiary of a deceased former-employee’s life insurance policy (rather than that employee’s family). So, Dow takes out life insurance policies on its workers, exposes those workers to hazardous chemicals, and then it gets a check when the poor wretch dies.
Aren’t they rad? Isn’t it great how they “share the philosophy, values, and mission” of the University of Houston? Watch out world — when winning teams come together! Shame on UH President Renu Khator for giving Dow Chemical this opportunity to green-wash their image after they said that $500 for a lifetime of suffering is “plenty good for an Indian.” Some Indians require $15 million, I suppose.
But wait–let’s look at President Khator’s last sentence again. “We cannot thank TDECU enough for helping us to make this gift possible.” Am I the only one confused by this? Who is giving what gift to whom? Khator’s sentence implies gratitude on the part of UH for TDECU making it easier for UH to bestow a gift on TDECU. The fuck? Who is the “us” in the latter half of the sentence? It’s UH, right, because Khator speaks on behalf of UH. So…TDECU helped UH give TDECU a gift? It just doesn’t add up — it’s like some kind of circular circle-jerk.
Anyway, the subject of naming stadiums and public monuments has been on my mind ever since Enron Field became Minute Maid Park. Here is a status update that I shared on Facebook just a few days before the UH/TDECU announcement while I was on a road trip through the Midwest:
Louisville, KY has one stadium named for Kentucky Fried Chicken and another named for Papa John’s pizza. My hometown has a stadium named for a soft drink (Minute Maid Park) that was originally named for a corporation (Enron) that turned off grandmas’ lights (rolling blackouts in CA in 2001) even as it looted grandmas in an unregulated utilities environment (fabricating power plant catastrophes to jack up prices, por ejemplo). Papa John is a dickhead (net worth: $600m) who says he can’t afford to buy his workers health insurance because it will cost him $0.14 per pizza. (Forbes has calculated that number closer to a nickle a pizza.)
Many years ago, when I first learned of the name change from Enron Field to Minute Maid Park, I asked my friend, “Remember when we used to name big public buildings and monuments after people we admired? What happened?”
“We ran out of them,” he said with a smirk.
But not really. There are tons of people I admire, who inspire me to better myself. Most of them are not famous (no celebrities and dramatic scumbags on “reality” TV) but there’s still a lot of them.
And let’s not forget that the Rockets’ old stadium (the Summit) became Compaq Center and then Lakewood Church ™.
So a few days later, after that Facebook post and after UH/TDECU made their announcement, I tracked down one of my heroes: Diane Wilson. Wilson is a fourth-generation shrimper and a political organizer/activist who, since 1989, has been fighting Formosa Plastics, Union Carbide, and Dow Chemical (since their merger with Union Carbide) in her hometown of Seadrift, Texas. She is a grandmother and a real, down-to-earth, rural, blue-collar bad ass whose very existence debunks the stereotype of environmentalists being out-of-touch, urban elitists with lots of book-learning but lacking in hands-on, real-world, practical experience. She has been arrested close to 20 times, been on at least five hunger strikes, climbed a 70-foot tower, chained herself to it, and dropped a banner reminding Dow of their criminal negligence, been called an eco-terrorist by the Coast Guard for trying to sink her shrimp boat on top of the pipe where Formosa Plastics was pumping poisons right into the bay. She has been arrested more times and done more time in prison than the corrupt executives and managers at chemical plants and the politicians who help them cover up their crimes put together.
I am not a UH alumnus, but I nonetheless propose renaming the Cougars’ new stadium the Diane Wilson Memorial Stadium. Now there’s a heroine we should all be proud to claim! I recommend you head down to that great local socialist institution, the public library, and check out Wilson’s amazing autobiography, An Unreasonable Woman. It reads like a cloak-and-dagger thriller, with leaks from whistle-blowers too scared to lose their jobs, leaks from executives wracked by guilt because their grandchildren were born with birth-defects due to their own chemical waste, corrupt politicians, corrupt regulators, small-town elite making deals with notorious, internationally-known polluting scofflaws, scores of dead dolphins washing up on the beach, and worst of all, attempts to buy off Wilson.
That last bit — her refusal to sell out, is really what earns Wilson my eternal gold star. Too many people I know are willing to compromise, to make a deal with the devil as long as they get their own cushy position. In the first third of the memoir, Wilson tells how the Boss Hogg like local banker came down to the fish house where she worked in his three-piece-suit one day, asking why she had called for a town meeting to discuss their county being listed as number one for toxic waste in all the US. That’s all she did — call for a meeting, and that was enough to raise the ire of the town’s elite.
A few days later, she went to the bank on a work errand and her cornered her again. Said he’d talked to the people at Formosa Plastics and they were willing to create a “community group” with her as the chairperson. She could give off the aura of oversight, call herself chairperson, have nominal oversight, rubber stamp whatever the company wanted, and draw a generous salary for herself. In a town where she was quickly becoming a pariah, he offered her “respectability.”
But Wilson refused to be their pawn, and in the 25 years since, she’s learned just how corrupt the whole system really is. She talks about the alphabet soup of regulatory agencies which do nothing but rubber stamp plans drawn up by industry. She is leaked information (as I mentioned) by employees who fear losing their jobs in the short-term more than their health in the long-term, by low-level government inspectors whose attempts to enforce existing laws are thwarted by their superiors, by higher-ups in the company who are wracked by guilt. She is betrayed by family members, scorned by her town, rebuffed by her “elected representatives,” yet she persists, against all odds.
I cannot emphasize this enough, especially for those who insist on “working within the system” — Wilson has no such delusions.
“Hard core civil disobedience is the only way to go,” says Wilson. “I tried talking to the politicians. I wrote letters to my representatives, at every level — local, state, federal. I gathered signatures on petitions. I tracked down evidence and took it to the regulators. All I learned is that they were all in cahoots with one another — tipping one another off as to what I was up to.”
“Even Ann Richards,” Wilson adds, “she was supposed to be one of the good ones. Even Ann Richards wouldn’t talk to me.”
Wilson fought back. She fought back against Formosa Plastics, which came to Seadrift because they had been forced out of their home in Taiwan for their awful record of pollution, she fought back against Union Carbide, whose Seadrift plant blew up in 1991, seven years after the Bhopal disaster, she fought back against President Bush in his rush to war and against the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. She hasn’t yet managed to close Guatanamo or end the Iraq war, but she has won zero-discharge victories from Dow and Formosa.[Note: The technology for zer0-discharge, which means capturing and safely storing hazardous chemicals at their origin, thereby preventing them from poisoning the air, land, and water, that technology has existed for a long time. Zero-discharge was the goal of the US Clean Water Act of 1972, and all plants were mandated to be zer0-discharge by 1985. We are still not there — because these companies would rather pay fines and/or buy off judges, regulators, and politicians rather than implement these simple, existing technologies.]Despite this, like a true hero, Wilson remains humble. “When people ask me how I did it,” she says, “I tell them all they have to do is pick up the phone. You don’t need a 501(c)3 and grants and a grand plan. Just take the first step, and the road will rise up to meet you.
[UPDATES: Here are a couple videos you might enjoy. The first is a BBC interview with one of the Yes Men, a San Francisco-based activist/prankster group who made international headlines on the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal Disaster by successfully impersonating a Dow executive making apologies and promising amends on an international newscast (more details here and Dow’s hilarious response here). The second video is the first installation in a 30 min short documentary about Diane Wilson called TEXAS GOLD.]