On Day of the Dead–On the Death of Warren Anderson

November 4, 2014
(Originally Printed on November 3, 2014)

Bhopal: Yesterday was Dia De Los Muertos, a somber holiday marked by the onset of autumn in the Central Valley. Last week it rained the first real rain in close to a year in Fresno, and the dust that has been collecting on the leaves of Valley Oaks and tacky landscaping plants that line the strip malls was finally washed to the earth.

Through the passage of October and the advent of November, an astonishing event has gone amazingly unspoken in the US. News of Warren Anderson’s death just hit the media two days ago. That’s a name that likely does not trigger a response in the majority of Americans, considering that according to his obituary he “died in obscurity” in a senior home in Florida. Warren Anderson was the CEO of Union Carbide, subsidiary of DOW Chemical, during the pesticide gas explosion in Bhopal, India that has killed over 25,000 people to date: the single largest environmental disaster in history.

On the night of December 2nd 1984, a toxic cocktail of gases leaked from a ruptured pipe at the Carbide plant. The toxic cloud loomed over all of the residences in the vicinity, sending people into violent convulsions and respiratory attacks as the effects hit their systems. They were reacting to concentrated amounts of byproduct gases used in production of the pesticide Carbaryl, or what American farmers would know as Sevin. Sevin is an insecticide that kills every insect it touches, including bees and butterflies, and is banned in most countries that have the wherewithal to regulate their pesticide industries: UK, Denmark, Sweden, Iran to name a few. Of course it is used widely in the U.S., the mother nation of such technology, and is one of the most commonly applied chemicals in food production as well as landscaping. Additionally it immediately killed over 5,000 people, and permanently debilitated over 3 generations of residents in Bhopal.

Anderson was never tried, and no charges were ever filed against him, as Union Carbide claimed that the company was not under Indian jurisdiction. India was unable to prosecute him and many know him today, and know his face, as the most famous escaped mass murderer in the nation. It’s been nearly 30 years since the incident.

I read in the Hindu Times today that upon getting wind of Anderson’s passing, that hundreds of people gathered at the center of the community (where people continue to live on soil heavily contaminated by Union Carbide/DOW) to spit on his photograph. Today certainly thousands more are burning his image and celebrating the death of a man who should have died behind bars, who should have been tried for homicide as was attempted by the Indian government, and whose livelihood and company should have suffered a government intervention to parallel the impacts of the disaster.

DOW lives on in the blood of the Valley: After Dia De Los Muertos, and after the rain, I am brought down to the land to recall all the life that has been absorbed into the soil here. Dia De Los Muertos is a special time in the Central Valley, because in addition to being life-giving and agriculturally fruitful, this region is far more familiar with death than many of the other places in the state. The Valley’s life expectancy varies from the rest of the state, in some zip codes, suffering a 12-year reduction compared to adjacent cities. One neighborhood in Fresno County, in the south-west region, maintains the worst air quality and standards of life of any neighborhood in the state, and one of the lowest human development indices in the entire nation.

I work with a community group in a remote unincorporated town in Fresno County whose well water was contaminated by DOW Chemical/Shell Oil (yes they are all related) just 9 years after the Bhopal disaster, quite literally in my very own back yard. The town of Del Rey is just one of several predominantly Latino farmworker communities across the San Joaquin Valley who have had their entire water systems decimated by this company, with the release of TCP- trichlopropane, a plastic byproduct, into their waterways. These people will likely suffer the impacts of this contamination for years, carried in their bloodstreams to their children. Del Rey is supported economically in large part by the presence of POM Wonderful’s largest distribution center. Enjoy your pomegranate juice.

I have known about Bhopal for years, though in my mind, as in of many Indians, it is considered to be an anomaly and a hugely devastating event for which there will be no possible course of remedy (though no one can claim that a noble attempt was made). Del Rey suffers a lack of appropriate governance, a lack of representation, and has been overlooked by policy makers for decades. It’s a perfect place for DOW to lay down a layer of toxics—go ahead. No one is watching. Whether fast death or slow death, who is to blame, and who will be accountable?

Plastic world: Pesticide manufacturing is married to the production of plastic, petroleum, petrochemicals, and pharmaceuticals. It’s a world of horrific P-words tied together by the ultimate fall-out on rural communities of color across the globe and right here in California. DOW is known for toxic dumping and has made many public statements about how it is simply economically sound, a normal business practice, to incorporate some of their more hazardous gases and chemical byproducts of plastic production into their pesticides and fumigants.

Chlorpyrofos, Sevin, DDT, methyl bromide…Some of us know that eating pesticide is bad for us, but certainly fewer still think about the impacts of pesticide production, the place where the madness begins. What about a world without pesticide plants? Without pesticides altogether? Is it easier to envision endless contamination of our soil, waterways, and lungs than it is to envision a comprehensive ban? What will it take to serve Warren Anderson the farewell he deserved, an actual collapse of Union Carbide and DOW Chemical?

The Valley is camouflaged against a backdrop of paradox that makes the absurd kind of mundane, to the point that environmental activists from other parts of the state seem to gently look away, and the community groups here continue to whip down an endless circular waterslide of battling for funding to accomplish local political victories. What’s happening? Or rather, what is NOT happening at the state and federal levels?

The stories of environmental injustice are localized yet global, written on every surface yet entirely invisible, existent in every drink of tap water and every bite of conventionally produced food, yet wholly underrepresented by media in the scheme of violence portrayed in our society. To top it all off, hundreds of thousands of people pass through on the I-5 and the 99 every month seeing nothing but Tea Party billboards casting a white mask over the Valley’s incredible wealth of international cultures

Mahatma Gandhi loved to claim that ‘India lives in her villages’. Today environmental and political justice activist and writer Arundhati Roy says, ‘India dies in her villages’. The U.S. loves a similar image to Gandhi-ji; a flourishing countryside populated by farmers who resemble the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence, all beards and plaid and protestant work ethic. In order to tear off the veil, the U.S. must accept that it dies in its villages too, in particular, in the Central Valley’s irrigation ditches and storm drains where yesterdays rain will carry the pesticide applications of those tacky strip-mall landscaping plants.

Regulation will no longer do. When a disaster such as the Union Carbide leak in Bhopal can go unaddressed for 30 years, we must realize that the system is not created to regulate pesticides. It’s created to support their manufacture, and their ‘incidental’ impacts to communities of color. We need alternatives, farmers and agricultural researchers whose hearts and minds are aligned with justice in order to make pesticide-free a reality.

This injustice is a global one; one tied into each of our very bones. If we dip our clothing in the same river, we will all wash out white as a ghost, and today, it’s DOW’s river. This Day of the Dead I am full of a youthful dream, in honor of those lost and continuing to be lost in Bhopal, and those lost and continuing to be lost in central California. Without the goal of nuclear disarmament far off in the future we will never get there. Considering we have had nukes about the same amount of time as we have had pesticides, we must maintain a world free of chemical applications as a long-term goal in order to rewrite history and, little by little, reclaim home.

–Janaki Jagannath

This article was first published on DeathSkull Marigold Society