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Carbide Chairman Says Bhopal Tragedy Has Turned Into A ‘Political Football’

December 3, 1987

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Union Carbide’s chairman says the gas leak that killed thousands in Bhopal three years ago today in history’s worst industrial accident has become a ″political football″ mired in India’s bureaucracy.

Halfway around the globe, hundreds of demonstrators wove through the streets of Bhopal on Wednesday chanting ″Down with Union Carbide.″

The Indian government filed a $3 billion lawsuit against the multinational corporation after the Dec. 3, 1984, leak of methyl isocyanate gas at Carbide’s Bhopal plant killed more than 2,000 people and injured thousands of others.

Several weeks ago the two sides appeared close to an out-of-court settlement, but on Tuesday, the Indian government filed criminal charges, including homicide, in an Indian court against Carbide and several executives.

Among those charged with homicide was Warren Anderson, the former chairman who led the corporation through the disaster before his mandatory retirement in 1986 when he turned 65. He was succeeded by Robert D. Kennedy, a 32-year veteran of the Danbury-based coorporation.

Kennedy, wrapping up his first year as Carbide’s top executive, complained in a telephone interview Wednesday that lawsuit settlement negotiations are hampered by India’s slow-moving bureaucracy.

″We never know who’s on the other side of the negotiating table and whether those on that side are empowered to make a decision,″ he said.

″We can only go as fast as the Indian government is prepared to move. ... It has become increasingly a political football in India and a kind of nightmare for us.″

The executive said he is eager to ″get the compensation to the victims and put this terrible, needless lawyering and bureaucratizing behind us.″

Carbide maintains the leak was the result of sabotage by a disgruntled employee of Union Carbide India Ltd. But the Indian government said the chemical giant was negligent.

Kennedy said that while some Indian officials want to settle, ″there are strong elements in the country who don’t want to settle and aren’t concerned with the victims.″

Kennedy has given up predicting when a settlement will occur. ″We could have a settlement any minute or one in 10 years. Either way, I think the amount (of money) will be the same.″

The company doesn’t officially acknowledge the anniversary of the tragedy, but Kennedy said it ″would not be human if we didn’t think about it.″

While Kennedy said the disaster has left no effect on the company’s day-to- day operations, settling the issue would help victims as well as ″remove that uncertainity from our future planning.″

Will Bhopol always haunt the company’s image?

″I suppose like all other tragedies, Bhopal will recede into the background in time,″ he said. ″We will regain our good name and good public image in the mind of the general public, I think, the same way we got it in the first place - one day at a time.″

During Kennedy’s first year as chairman, Carbide successfully fought a hostile takeover bid from Samuel J. Heyman’s GAF Corp., a move some analysts say occurred because Bhopal weakened the company.

Since then, Carbide has ″re-thought and redefined our corporate missions and strategies. We are coming into an up cycle in the chemical industry and therefore, the financial results have been good and better than 1986.″

Some analysts believe Kennedy will lead the company in new directions.

″I think Kennedy is much more aware of the outside world than past chairmen,″ said Leslie Ravitz, a vice president of Salomon Brothers Inc. in New York. ″He recognizes that maybe Carbide wasn’t doing everying right, and he’s willing to look at change.″

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