Union Carbide’s Warren Anderson: Life in Exile
Even though Tony Hayward will have to live under the shadow of the BP disaster for the rest of his career, one man who can identify is Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide during the disaster that killed 3,800 people and still haunts India.
The 130-year-old white wooden frame house ringed by a white picket fence and shaded by tall maples and a delightful garden in Bridgehampton, New York, doesn't look like a shelter for an international fugitive.
Yet for the past quarter century, that’s what Union Carbide’s former CEO, Warren Anderson, now 89 years old, has been, at least on paper, following the explosion of his company’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, on December 3, 1984, killing 3,800 people almost instantly, and injuring tens of thousands via poisonous gas—the world’s worst industrial accident.
“What I am concerned about is that some nut is going to be stirred up,” says Anderson’s wife, Lillian.
Now with hopes rising that the BP oil gusher is finally snuffed, Tony Hayward, the BP CEO whose career has spiraled out of control since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up, might find it instructive to consider Warren Anderson’s life—and how he has carried the weight of disaster with him all these years.
For 25 years, revenge-lusting activists in India have lobbied for his imprisonment. In 2002, that country declared him a “fugitive”; a year ago, a Bhopal magistrate issued a warrant for Anderson’s arrest; last month, one of India’s major party’s made a bombshell declaration—that Ronald Reagan and then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi wrongly traded for Anderson’s freedom. They hunt him still.
Since retiring in 1986, Anderson has lived out of the limelight, summering in Bridgehampton and wintering in a more modest home in Vero Beach, Florida. “In the early days, I think he couldn’t even go out to dinner without worrying about process servers,” recalls a former Union Carbide executive who helped Anderson handle the Bhopal fallout.
The outstanding warrant and a June ruling from an Indian court convicting seven of Union Carbide’s Indian executives of criminal negligence once again focused the news and Indian activists on Anderson. The Indian executives face two years in jail, and activists still want the man who ran Union Carbide to be extradited to India for trial and jail. A week after the convictions, an Indian law ministry official said Indian law could still reach Anderson.
Union Carbide has long claimed the blast was triggered by employee sabotage. And the company has argued successfully in court that Anderson is not liable because Indians and an Indian company subsidiary ran the plant. Still, as with BP and Anglo-American relations, the Union Carbide question is complicated in both Washington and Delhi.
If the former CEO actually were arrested, his apprehension would be a radioactive precedent, deterring many multinational corporations from doing business in India.
The case is a cautionary tale for BP’s Hayward: the legal and political fallout from disasters on the magnitude of Bhopal and the oil spill far outlast the cleanup. And the wounds take an eternity to heal.
On June 22, a spokesman for India’s Bharatiya Janata Party challenged the ruling Congress Party-controlled government’s plan for more compensation for Bhopal victims. More pointedly, he claimed that the late Rajiv Gandhi, an icon of the Congress Party, protected Union Carbide’s CEO in a secret 1985 political deal with President Reagan.
The contention is that the prime minister secretly promised India would not seek to extradite Anderson. In exchange, Reagan allegedly granted a presidential pardon to a childhood friend of Rajiv Gandhi’s, who was also the son of an important foreign policy adviser to the Gandhi family.
That friend, Adil Shahryar, was serving a 35-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking, wire fraud, and firearms violations, when, without fanfare or public notice, he was pardoned by Reagan on June 12, 1985, the day Rajiv Gandhi made his first formal visit to the White House.
That pardon has never been made public. The Daily Beast asked the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to release details of it, but so far, it has not been released.
“His dad was part of Indira Gandhi’s (and later Rajiv Gandhi’s) cabinet,” says a Florida lawyer, Douglas C. Hartman, who represented Shahryar on separate state arson charges before the Indian was convicted in 1982 on the five federal counts. “He always told me: ‘I will be pardoned.’ And I am just looking at the guy, you know, ‘Right.’”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley last month twice ducked questions about whether India had asked for Anderson’s extradition, saying such requests are confidential. He added: “If the government of India makes such a request of us, we will carefully evaluate it.” Then, in Toronto for the G-20 meeting, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh avoided the question at a June 28 press conference.
“We will try to ensure that the U.S. government takes a more favorable attitude toward extradition,” Singh said. “But we have not approached them yet. I did not raise this issue in my discussions with President Obama. We will cross the bridge when we come to it.”
Anderson’s legal exposure began shortly after the explosion happened. Anderson—overruling objections from Union Carbide lawyers and outside counsel—flew to Bhopal shortly after the blast to survey the damages and try to help the victims.
“At one point, he said he believed Union Carbide was morally responsible, if not legally responsible,” remembers the former Union Carbide official who spoke to The Daily Beast. “He wanted to build a hospital over there. It was a messy situation… he did the best he could. I am sure it haunts him today.”
Like Tony Hayward in the Gulf, he wound up besieged—but his experience was literal. Anderson made the trip after the Indian central government had assured the U.S. government that he would enjoy safe passage. Yet, shortly after Anderson arrived in Bhopal, he was arrested by the state government in Madhya Pradesh, put on 25,000 rupee (about $537 at today's exchange rates) bail and placed under house arrest at the Union Carbide guesthouse at Bhopal.
Gordon Streeb, the charge d’affairs in the U.S. embassy in New Delhi who convinced the Indian central government to rescue Anderson, remembers the scramble vividly.
“The Indian government had flown him to Delhi in a government plane and we had him stay in the ambassador’s residence until he could fly out that night so there wouldn’t be all this harassment,” Streeb tells The Daily Beast. “We and the Indian government decided that the best thing he could do was get out of the country as quietly as possible. He was kind of shaken up by the whole thing. In fact, he himself still wanted to go out and make press statements and we said: ‘No, This has been troublesome enough. We don’t think it is a good idea to stir up any other questions, so just leave the country’, which he then agreed to do.”
Now a visiting professor at Emory University in Georgia, Streeb says: “I can absolutely guarantee that during that period of time, we worked out no quid pro quo with the Indian government, no future guarantees.”
Streeb says he has no knowledge of any deal that might have been struck in 1985 between Gandhi and Reagan.
Harry G. Barnes Jr., who was the U.S. ambassador to India at the time but was out of the country when Bhopal occurred, also tells The Daily Beast that while he made the arrangements for the Gandhi visit to the Reagan White House, he has no knowledge of any deal. The chief outside counsel for Union Carbide at the time, William Krohley of Kelley, Drye & Warren, declined to comment to The Daily Beast. The Indian Embassy in Washington also declined comment beyond the prime minister’s statement in Toronto.
So Warren Anderson remains an international man of intrigue. The Daily Beast attempted to visit Anderson at his Bridgehampton home, hoping to gain insight into the burden executives like Anderson carry when things go horribly wrong. “He’s not talking to anybody,” said Anderson’s 86-year-old wife, Lillian. “He’s not in good health and it’s just… we have nothing to say.”
Despite carrying an oxygen tank to help his breathing, Anderson, says one neighbor, still gardens and plays golf at the Bridgehampton Golf Club, less than a mile down the street. His mind remains sharp, says the neighbor, and that determination to remain physically active may be a throwback to Anderson's days as a star athlete at Colgate University (class of 1943), where he played football, hockey and lacrosse. “He’s still doing the best he can,” says the neighbor.
Mrs. Anderson once told an Associated Press reporter that her husband had been “haunted” by the case. But she was not inclined to discuss Union Carbide’s impact on her husband this day—perhaps mindful of the Indian television reporter who was the last newsman to intrude on their serenity. “I am not afraid of newsmen,” she continued. “I am afraid of what you people can create,” professing concern “that some nut is going to be stirred up.”
When The Daily Beast tried to change the subject to the industrial disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Mrs. Anderson said: “He doesn’t know anything about BP.”
Allan Dodds Frank is a business investigative correspondent who specializes in white collar crime. He also is president of the Overseas Press Club of America, one of the many journalism organizations that protests the arrests of journalists abroad and repression of freedom of speech.