Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

If not now, when?

A brief reminiscence about the Bhopal factory tragedy

Image courtesy of Richard Asinof

The 1984 op-ed published by The Los Angeles Times.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/4/23
The toxic tragedy and travesty at a Bhopal, India, pesticide factory, was featured in an op-ed I wrote for The Los Angeles Times in December of 1984.
Will prosecutions and jail terms for executives from polluting companies in Rhode Island spur the clean up of Narragansett Bay? Will Attorney General Peter Neronha consider creating a special strike force to crack down on illegal toxic dumping in Rhode Island? Will the School of Public Health at Brown University consider inviting the director of the Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts to talk about the links between endocrine disruption from toxic chemicals and plastics and the growing incidence of breast cancer in Rhode Island?
When will “Story in the Public Square” host G. Wayne Miller invite ConvergenceRI to be a participant on the program, sharing stories about storytelling from alternative newsweeklies, the no nukes movement, writing television scripts in Hollywood, Environmental Action in Washington, D.C., and belonging to the Grange in Montague Center, Mass.?

PROVIDENCE – Sometimes it is difficult to be persistent in asking questions, particularly when those handling the news media for corporate entities put roadblocks in your way.

The release on Netflix of a new movie, “The Railway Men,” hyped as the untold story of the Bhopal accident in 1984, brought with it a rush of memories about how I found myself in the unlikely position of talking to a national audience for the work being done on toxics and hazardous waste by Environmental Action, where I served as communications director and co-editor of Environmental Action Magazine.

When ABC-News came calling to interview someone to talk about the Bhopal tragedy for Nightline, I found myself in the camera’s aperture. I had my 15 seconds of fame – in which I was able to claim: “The Bhopal accident is both a travesty and a tragedy – and it demands that we ask serious questions about corporate accountability.”

In addition, one of the op-ed editors from the Los Angeles Times, Juana Kennedy, called me, asking if I could turn around an opinion piece about Bhopal, which I did. “We have toxic tragedies of our own,” which ran on Sunday, Dec. 9, 1984, in the Los Angeles Times.

Around the world.
Talk about global reach. Through an arrangement with the Los Angeles Times syndicate, the op-ed appeared in the International Herald Tribune, and the story was read by a friend in Moscow, Richard Larsen, who was busy working as a house painter, and by a housemate from Washington, D.C., who was traveling in South Africa at the time.

Further, the story was picked up by The Valley Advocate, which ran the op-ed in its New Haven and Hartford, Conn., editions as well as its Amherst/Northampton/Greenfield editions.

The op-ed began with the retelling of a story about my interview with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the Midway Airport terminal in October of 1983, on the verge of announcing his candidacy to run for President. It began: “As the death toll from the tragic pesticide factory accident in Bhopal, India mounts – now more than 1,200 and growing – I keep thinking of a remark Jesse Jackson made in an interview during the Presidential campaign.

"Suppose the Russians were doing to us what we are now allowing corporations to do to us,”Jackson said. “We would rise up and declare war. Suppose the Russians had poisoned our earth and contaminated our water. We would call that chemical warfare. We would make speeches and mobilize our army saying that Russia had no right to pollute air and contaminate our water and poison our vegetation. In fact, nobody has that right.”

The op-ed continued: All week our offices at Environmental Action have been flooded with calls and urgent requests for interviews asking the same questions: “Could it happen here? What can we do to protect ourselves? What should be the corporate liability? What would our response have been if it had happened here in the United States? The sad truth is that it is happening here, but most of us remain unaware of it. Unlike the tragedy in India, it’s rare that you can see the immediate effects of poisoning from toxic chemicals in our air and water. It may take five, 10, 15 years before people start dying, but the result is no less tragic.

The op-ed ran with a wonderful cartoon by Tony Auth, showing the outline of a factory, with a skull underneath the ground, it’s teeth grinning in a mask of death. [Auth was married to Eliza Drake, someone with whom I had worked at The Drummer in Philadelphia when I had been a cub reporter in 1972-1973.]

15 seconds of fame  
The op-ed had run in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, Dec. 9, 1984. Three days earlier, on Thursday, Dec.6, I had appeared on ”Nightline,” the late night news program hosted by Ted Koppel. My 15 seconds of fame went like this: “The Bhopal accident is both a tragedy and a travesty and it demands we raise serious questions about corporate responsibility.”

On Friday morning, I “coached” our toxics expert, Ken Silver, for his appearance on “The Today Show, which was broadcast from the NBC studios in Washington, D.C. It required me meeting Ken at 5:30 a.m. at an all-night diner on Wisconsin Avenue and prepping him on how to respond to expected questions from a spokeswoman from the American Chemical Society.

Ken, in turn, took my response on “Nightline” about “a travesty and a tragedy” and turned it into a humorous song, “We demand the right to know,” in which he listed all the dangerous toxic chemicals.

A long time  
Thirty-nine years ago is a long time, it seems. It’s hard to believe that:

  • I had interviewed the Rev. Jesse Jackson at Midway Airport, traveling with him to his home on the South Side, from where I had to call a cab to get back to where I was staying.
  • I had been selected by the ABC News camera crew to appear on “Nightline,” because Ken Silver had frozen, which required me to grab a tie and a sports coat in record time.
  • The op-ed traveled the world – being read in Moscow and South Africa from the pages of the International Herald Tribune.

At the holiday gathering in New Jersey at my Aunt’s house [my mother’s sister], my appearance on “Nightline” was met by incredulity – my relatives could not believe it, it seemed.

As I write this, I find myself thinking about the sayings attributed to Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  And, being only for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

"If not now, when?” is also the title of a novel by Primo Levi, an Italian chemist who survived Auschwitz. Levi’s writings are an integral part of the forthcoming book by Providence writer, Rebecca Altman, entitled “The song of styrene.”

In my interviews with Altman, I have often been surprised by the serendipitous intersections of our lives – plastic factories in Kearny, N.J., reporting on mercury poisoning of the Cree in northwestern Quebec, the protests against the factory in Rocky Flats, Colorado, which manufactured plutonium triggers – and yes, the pesticide accident at Bhopal.

For now, let me leave you with the conclusion from my op-ed, where I quoted the former Los Angeles City Attorney, Ira Reiner, who directed a special strike force created to crack down on illegal toxic dumping, who said: “Corporate executives [responsible for illegal dumping] must be made to pay the price. They need to hear the slam of the jail door behind them.”

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