Dow Chemicals avoiding Bhopal tragedy-activists

NEW DELHI, April 9 (Reuters) - Activists accused Dow Chemicals Co.


on Monday of side-stepping responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster in India while thousands continue to suffer from toxic contamination.

In a letter obtained by activists, the Michigan-based company urged the Indian government to drop a clean-up suit against the firm for the industrial disaster, saying that would help create a climate for future investments by the company in India.

"This letter is another indication of how Dow is trying to avoid accepting Bhopal as their liability," Rachna Dhingra from the Bhopal Group for Information and Action told a news conference.

The letter dated Nov 8, 2006 and written by the firm's chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris to India's Ambassador in Washington, Ronen Sen, said the government "should now withdraw its application for a financial deposit against remediation costs."

The company thanked the ambassador "for your efforts to ensure that we have the appropriate investment climate to facilitate forward-looking investment and business partnerships."

Dow Chemicals Co. said it never owned or operated the former Union Carbide site as it took over the company more than 16 years after the tragedy and no court has ever held the company responsible for the site clean-up.

"As we said in the letter, the former Union Carbide India Limited site is in the control of the Indian government and it is up to them to resolve the Bhopal matter," Scot Wheeler, Dow's spokesman, told Reuters in an e-mail from Michigan.

More than 3,500 people died in the central Indian city of Bhopal after inhaling toxic fumes following a leak from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide -- now a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals Co.

Official figures say at least 15,000 have died since from cancer and other diseases, but activists put the death toll at 33,000 and say toxins from thousands of tonnes of chemicals lying in and around the site have seeped into the ground water.

In 1989, Union Carbide paid $470 million in compensation to victims of the disaster.

In May 2005, the Indian Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers requested the high court of Madhya Pradesh state, where Bhopal is located, order that Dow pay a deposit of $22 million for remediation, or clean-up, costs.

Activists said more than 25,000 people in Bhopal were drinking contaminated water and the impacts of the disaster were being felt in the next generation where babies were being born with disabilities.

The estimated cost of a proper clean-up would be $500 million, according to assessments made by environmentalists and voluntary groups.