Warren M. Anderson, 92, died peacefully in a Florida nursing home Sept. 29. His death went largely unnoticed and unreported for more than a month, until the New York Times published his obituary on Oct. 31.
The name’s probably unfamiliar to most Americans. Anderson lived a quiet life for the past 28 years, intentionally staying out of the limelight, the Times reported.
But in India, it’s a different story. Many Indians regard Anderson as nothing short of a mass murderer.
What was Anderson’s alleged crime? Being the CEO of a U.S.-based multinational corporation responsible for the worst industrial disaster in history — the 1984 Bhopal gas leak.
On the night of Dec. 2, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India, released a cloud of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, killing thousands and severely injuring hundreds of thousands more. Estimates of the number of people killed that night range from about 3,800 to more than 20,000. And many more have died following severe lung damage and other organ failure over the ensuing 30 years. Others have lived with MIC-induced illnesses and disabilities.
Anderson flew to India just days after the deadly release and was promptly arrested. Released on bail, he left the country and flew back to the United States, never to return to India. He retired from Union Carbide less than two years later.
Despite calls for his return, Anderson was never extradited to India, where he would have faced homicide charges. News of his death has brought fresh outrage in Indian news outlets, with Bhopal victims and their families claiming justice wasn’t served, with many suggesting that Anderson “rot in hell.”
Union Carbide paid the Indian government $470 million in 1989 to settle claims from the accident. The cause of the disaster was never determined. Indian activists blame poor maintenance and outdated equipment at the plant. Union Carbide (now part of Dow Chemical) blames sabotage by disgruntled workers. The truth likely will never be known.
But for those calling for Anderson’s head on a platter, how responsible was he? At the time, Union Carbide operated more than 700 industrial plants worldwide. Should the CEO have known that one plant was in a dangerous condition? Should he be held responsible, even though he didn’t cause the release of toxic gas? To what standard should we hold corporate officers running legal businesses at the highest levels?
Before you say “of course not,” put the shoe on the American foot. Should Tony Hayward, the chairman of BP at the time of the 2010 oil spill have been jailed? Should the man who said “I’d like my life back” after 11 people lost theirs on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that exploded have to do time in the United States?
I’d argue that it’s a dangerous claim to make. Neither Anderson nor Hayward directly caused the deaths the accident victims. And while anger and a cry for vengeance may feel good in the moment, they tend to lead to unsatisfying conclusions. Jailing Anderson — or Hayward — wouldn’t have brought back the lives lost. It wouldn’t have healed the injured, helped the economy or cleaned up the environmental damage.
In the case of large-scale disasters, perhaps there simply is no justice, for anyone involved.