BHOPAL, India -- A court has summoned a Bombay representative of Dow Chemical Co. to explain why the company should not be forced to pay for environmental damages and compensation to the victims of the gas leak that killed thousands of people in central India nearly 20 years ago, a court official said Thursday.
The gas leak in the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, the capital of central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, killed an estimated 12,000 people in one of the world's worst industrial accidents on Dec. 3, 1984. Dow Chemical of Midland, Mich., acquired Danbury, Conn.-based Union Carbide in February 2001.
On Wednesday, Chief Judicial Magistrate Vijay Kumar Dubey ordered the Bombay representative of Dow Chemical to appear before him on July 21. The ruling came after the court received a petition by two organizations representing the victims of the gas tragedy.
It was the first time that Dow Chemical has been asked to appear in court.
John Musser, a spokesman for Dow Chemical, said he did not immediately know what the company's response to the judge's order would be. However, he said that the position of Dow on the Bhopal disaster remained unchanged.
"Union Carbide settled its responsibilities with respect to Bhopal when it entered into a settlement with the government of India in 1989," he said, adding that the Supreme Court upheld the settlement in 1991.
Musser said environmental remediation was never the responsibility of Union Carbide, but of a Union Carbide subsidiary that worked with the government to clean up the site until it was taken over by another company in 1994.
The Bhopal Group for Information and Action Committee and a group that represents female victims has argued that since Dow Chemical had taken over Union Carbide, its liabilities and its assets, Dow should also be held responsible for its damages.
Dubey also reprimanded India's federal Central Bureau of Investigation for failing to extradite from the United States the then-chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, and not keeping the court updated on progress in the Indian government case against Anderson.
He ordered the CBI for a report by July 19 on its efforts to extradite Anderson.
Many survivors believe India has not aggressively pursued extradition because it does not want to offend Washington or discourage multinational corporations from investing in India.
In the accident, toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from Union Carbide's pesticide plant, leading to the painful deaths and contaminating the local water and soil.
Some 600,000 people have filed compensation claims with the Indian government and the victims have been demanding the extradition of Anderson to face trial for manslaughter.
Union Carbide paid the Indian government $470 million as part of an out-of-court settlement in 1989 and the government dropped the charges against the company and Anderson.
The Supreme Court reinstated the charges of manslaughter against Anderson and Union Carbide in 1991 and groups representing the victims have demanded a review of the settlement. They believe that if the accident had taken place in the United States, the payout to victims would have been much higher. They've also alleged Union Carbide held double standards when it came to safety and those responsible for the faulty design of the chemical plant should be prosecuted.
In morning trading Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange, Dow Chemical shares were down 8 cents at $39.14.