Sipho Hlongwane
Sipho Hlongwane

Has big industry become public enemy number one all over again?

Industrial companies have never had an easy relationship with the public. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, when these behemoths were first born, they have been blamed for all manner of things, ranging from child labour to global warming. But it wasn’t till about 30 years ago that industrial companies were viewed not only as exploiters, but as contrary to the public interest. This change in perception was precipitated by a series of massive industrial disasters that were all preventable to a degree, and were all blamed on industrialists.

The Three Mile Island accident occurred in 1979. It was a partial core meltdown core in a pressurised water reactor of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania. Although there were no deaths, the accident captured the public imagination and solidified the efforts of the anti-nuclear campaign.

Five years later, what has become the worst industrial disaster of all time occurred in Bhopal, India. On the night of December 3 1984, a tank in a fertiliser factory containing methyl isocyanate, an extremely deadly substance, ruptured and covered the surrounding slums in a blanket of toxic gas. By the next morning, over 8 000 people were dead. Hundreds of thousands more were injured, and would die of the next months. What made this particular disaster even more horrific was the reaction of the company, Union Carbide, which owned the fertiliser factory where the accident happened. The company paid $470-million, which amounted to about $500 per victim, to the Indian government, then promptly refused to accept any further responsibility for the aftermath of the disaster. Today, the Union Carbide factory still stands, but the chemicals inside have never been cleaned up, so the toxic waste continues to leak into the nearby water systems. This water is used for cleaning, cooking and drinking by those who live around the factory. Union Carbide, now owned by the Dow Chemical Company has never claimed responsibility, saying that the leak was caused by sabotage, as opposed to the lax safety standards practised at the Bhopal factory.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened just two years later, in 1986. It is the worst nuclear accident in history, having reached a level seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the Three Mile Island accident was a level five on the INE scale). A reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had a meltdown, resulting in a massive fallout over the surrounding areas and into the atmosphere. The radioactive could eventually spread over parts of Eastern, Western and Northern Europe. About 4 000 deaths are directly attributable to the Chernobyl disaster, which was caused by a peculiarity in the design of the reactor. After the accident, protesters took to the streets, decrying the dangers of nuclear energy. Politicians, never ones to let such an opportunity go by, took up the cry. Chernobyl effectively sounded the death knell for nuclear power.

In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh’s Reef in the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska, spilling an estimated 10,8-million US gallons, or a quarter of a million barrels of crude oil. In terms of spillage, this wasn’t the largest one, but the remoteness of the location made the clean up a slow affair, which made the Exxon Valdez spill the worst in terms of environmental damage. The disaster was blamed on faulty sonar systems, as well as overworked crew members who failed to steer the ship properly. Most significantly, this accident lead to the passing of the Oil Pollution Act.

Even though industrial accidents have continued to occur around the world, there has been a shift in perception. After 9/11, terrorists took up all the attention (the unhelpful thing being that you can’t really “clean” the terrorists up once and for all, like you would industrial accidents). And now we have the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the gloriously incompetent Times Square car bomber, the attention of the world is back on industrial disasters. The Middle East must be sighing in relief.

These things are about perceptions. Bhopal was exacerbated by the tardy response of Union Carbide, and to a lesser extent, the Indian government. What made the Exxon Valdez oil spill such a powerful statement were those images of seals and birds floundering in oil. It was heartbreaking.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is currently leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico at an estimated rate of 1 100 000 US gallons of oil (25 000 barrels) a day and is probably going to eclipse the Exxon Valdez as the worst disaster of its type in history. The slick will cause untold damage to the environment and local fishing, tourism and shipping industries, should it reach the shore. What a perfect metaphor for the world’s fatal reliance on fossil fuels.

To their credit, British Petroleum, the company that everyone is blaming for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, has accepted blame and is willing to pay for legitimate claims.

Like Chernobyl and the Three Mile Island accident, I believe the Deepwater Horizon spill is going to drastically alter public opinion (and by extension, political opinion) on the dangers of offshore drilling. The government of California has already withdrawn support for drilling projects off the coast of California. What will be really interesting to see is whether the Republicans will dampen their support of the oil industry. Remember “drill baby, drill”?

Whatever the outcomes of this disaster, we can be assured of one thing: big industry is in the naughty corner again.

  • Borris the Beast


    Re: “the unhelpful thing being that you can’t really “clean” the terrorists up once and for all, like you would industrial accidents”

    Can you clean up nuclear waste, and nuclear disasters?

    Chernobyl Radiation Killed Nearly One Million People: New Book

    “Nuclear Power Nearly as Dangerous as Weapons, Critics Say” by Haider Rizvi

    “UNITED NATIONS – The quest for nuclear disarmament is likely to fail if governments and corporations continue to promote nuclear technologies as a solution to the world’s energy needs, say independent experts……..

    Rest of article:


    What about genetically engineered crops? Once Genetically modified (GM) organissms are released into the environment, they cross pollinate, and breed and our mistakes will be the burden of all future generations.

    Read how hamsters fed for three generations on GM soya become sterile:

    More details have emerged of the Russian GM soy feeding trial we reported in last week’s Weekly Watch. Scientists fed hamsters for two years over three generations. Those on the GM diet, and especially the group on the maximum GM soy diet, showed devastating results. By the third generation, most GM soy-fed hamsters lost the ability to have babies. They also suffered slower growth, and a high mortality rate among the pups.



  • Jane

    Good one Sipho.

    What worries me more than anything is corporate control of our food supply. Sterile and patented seeds mean CEOs of corporations can decide who eats and who starves.

  • Iblis

    All very well to say that BP is accepting “legitimate” claims. Appears however that US law and agreements limits their liability to $75 million only. After which, like Union Carbide, they will be able to refuse further responsibility.

  • brent

    A few facts about the Bhopal tradegy that you leave out:

    – the company was 51% owned by the Indian Govt, socialist India at the time did not allow foreign companies to have majority ownership.
    – the slums next door grew up after the plant was erected, which was originally miles from residential areas. Union Carbide complaints about people living on the plant were fobbed off and advised that they did not run the country
    – the amount paid was the sum levied by an Indian court after a court case. Union Carbide did nothing as it was forbidden to until the out come of the case.

    Interesting observation by me, if Union Carbide as 49 % owner paid USD450million how much did the 51% owner pay? The most sordid part of the whole saga was that the Indian Govt. got the $450 million and to date the victums still have not received the full benefit of this sum.


  • MLH

    Which must be a welcome relief to the first- and third-world governments that fail to set limits on their own oil and gas consumption or pay any particular attention to lowering emissions, etc.

    And Hiroshima, was that okay? All for the sake of world peace?

    Would you blame the oil companies, MEND or the Nigerian government for the destruction of the Niger Delta?

    South Africa, for instance, has the nerve to criticise the USA, but cheers Eskom on to build new coal-fired power stations. Then, of course, there’s the latest blue at King Shaka airport, with jet fuel seeping away into the earth.

    Perhaps the entire airport should ethically, really hitch-hike back south until the issues there are sorted. (But please, no. The silence this side of town is gloriously deafening.)

    Where would you place ACSA? Surely, as another state-owned agency, you cannot label it ‘big business’? One chap falling asleep over the wheel Exxon Valdez spill) can hardly be compared to boardroom meetings where cover-ups are planned.

    We all make mistakes and the individual is generally given more leeway than big business because his capacity to destroy and his intellect are considered less than a team’s.

    Unfortunately, the fate of small companies that prosper, is that they become big businesses, but I’d hardly declare SMEs or the little man less responsible for what’s happening in the world.

    When did you last drop a sweet wrapping in a public area?

  • John

    Good article…

    “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”

    As multinationals become more powerful, it becomes increasingly important that they are more transparent and more accountable. We should ensure that no man within a corporate entity has the power to subvert our world. It is almost as though democracy is reaching the corporate world. The various role players in business are increasingly having a say in the governance of business. The community, the customer, the suppliers, the workers, the investors and the champions of the environment and other special causes all have a role to play. THANK GOD!

    Many business tools are becoming popular, such as “Balanced Scorecard”, GAAP and environmental assessments. This makes doing business vastly more complex but provides some limited safeguards to our world.

    To be sure, we will see more and deadlier transgressions from corporates in the future but we are moving in the right direction. To rely on man’s integrity, whether in business or in politics, has become foolish.

    A fascinating aspect of South African law (Roman Dutch) is that business entities are regarded in law as people. This enabled some CEOs to avoid their responsibility. The company (a legal person after all) did it, not them. This must change. Business is not automatically corrupt; some people make some business corrupt.

  • Benzol

    You mention the big, news making disasters. You did not count the smaller, daily industrial disasters taking 10-100 lives at the time. Or natural disasters often related to prior industrial activities.
    Apart from environmental disasters we experience social disruptions caused by industries when they move production units at will to find the “cheapest labour” on the planet.
    Only a few years ago were the four criteria in the famous “balanced scorecard” extended with two to six criteria to include “Social” and “Environmental” criteria, now included in King III.
    Many companies “adhere” to these but in fact paying lip service through a budget item in their financial planning.
    Big industries run most of the governments on the planet. They think and act globally in the most dictatorial fashion. Few governments (socialist or not) stand up to their “suggestions”, “guidelines” or plain “demands” with some blackmail as convincing arguments.
    SA -in an attempt to attract the elusive Foreign direct investment- bends in all directions to please the world with concessions (mining, electricity rates, tax free zones).
    The solution(s)? That is a study in its own right and this blog does not allow the space to begin suggestions.
    For starters: look at the movement of New Economics ( and their principles.

  • Foom

    They never left – they’ve constantly and without surcease worked to turn the world into their own private little cess pool where they get to sit on golden toilets.

  • Clean Air

    Terrorist attacks are small compared to the devastation that will be caused by CO2 pollution and climate change.

  • Kaalgat Piet


    Governments are often in cahoots with big business. Corrupt governments and corrupt big business, opposite sides of the same coin.

  • Sathyu

    i am responding to misleading and incorrect information posted by brent.

    – the company was NOT 51% owned by the Indian Government. Fact is its Union Carbide Corporation, USA that owned 51% of the shares of its Indian subsidiary Union Carbide India Limited. As the majority stake holder UCC exercised absolute control over the design and operation of the the Bhopal factory.
    – some of the communities next to which Union Carbide located the factory are several hundred years old.
    – the amount paid by union carbide was 15% of what the Indian gov had claimed on behalf of survivors. the court also asked union carbide, usa to present itself in the ongoing criminal case where it was charged with manslaughter and other offenses. union carbide and its officials are absconding for last 18 years.

    all the money paid by union carbide (470 million dollars) has been distributed among 572 thousand persons who were exposed that night or lost their family members due to toxic exposure.

    Union Carbide’s current 100% owner Dow Chemical Company, USA refuses to clean up the toxic contamination of soil and ground water caused by reckless dumping of thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste by the management before and after 1984.

  • the ensemble

    Gosh, thanks, Sathyu – I read Brent’s post thinking where do people get this kind of info from?
    Let’s not forget that UCC scientists warned of the danger some time before the disaster – and on that night, most safety systems were not working. SOP in big companies operating in developing countries. Read Belching Out The Deveil about Coke (by Mark Thomas).

  • the ensemble

    Oh, and @ Sipho – big industry is always in the naughty corner – because corporates will do just about anything that makes the bottom line look good.

  • Roy

    The big companies that KNOWINGLY aided and abetted the apartheid security forces in oppressing South Africans living in townships have not yet acknowledged their collusion or paid any redress to the direct victims and survivors of the security forces’ actions. The lawsuit in New York City has whittled the accused companies down from 23 to 5 — Daimler, Ford, General Motors, IBM and Rheinmettal. But there’s no doubt that the banks and oil companies amongst others were KNOWINGLY aiding and abetting the apartheid government. Corporates are still KNOWINGLY collaborating with illegitimate regimes involved in murder, torture and unlawful detention of their citizens. It’s time international human rights law held these “personae” to account.

  • Johan Meyer

    The claim that only 4000 died at Chornobyl is inaccurate, and comes from the IAEA – there is an agreement between the IAEA and the WHO that the WHO shall not investigate the health effects of nuclear power, accidents and weapons, but leave such to the IAEA. The actual death toll is about 1 million.

    Likewise, while there was an effective blackout about human deaths (using courts) in the US re three mile island, anecdotal and other evidence suggests many human deaths (and multiple mammal deaths are in the public record).

  • brent

    Sathyu, thank you for your reasoned unemotional reply. If the Indian Govt. had 49% as you say there is no way that they would be rode over in every decision plus they made handy profits from their 49% so should also be fined the appropiate amount.

    Regarding the population alongside the plant, i have seen a picture of when the plant was first built and there was zero population living right up alongside it. Those squatters came later allowed by local authorities and the ‘49%’ owner of the company.

    The executives did not go to India siting concern of getting a fair trial which is not unreasonable seeing as the Indian court refused point blank to even hear evidence of possible sabotage.

    Regarding compensation i read an Indian article in a Singapore paper ± 10 years ago complaining about corruption, favouritism and mismanagement and that many vitims were still waiting for their compensation.


  • Clean Air

    Brent is an industrial chemist that likes industry. He does not believe in global warming or climate change either.

  • Borris the Beast

    Thanks for that Johan Meyer.

    All the more reason to work towards a nuclear free world.

    The best book I know on the subject of nukes:


    Alternate title: Nuclear Power, Nuclear Weapons, Corrupt Government, Corporate Greed, Mass Hysteria, General Ignorance, and Your DNA: A Dangerous Mix? A look at the Data

    by Ace Hoffman

    First published: 2008

    Available free from:



  • X Cepting

    Hey Sipho, you joining us deep greenies in saving our planet? Well done, sir.
    Environmental disaster compensation? And the winner is: lawyers! I rest my case.
    I think that to ascribe guilt to one sector of the powerful or the other (govt’s, big business, etc.) is neither accurate nor helpful. The ethically deficient and shortsighted abuse power. The more power they get their hands on, the wider their net effect on everything else.

    In all of the above cases, Chernoby, Exxon, etc. a lack of accountability which lead to reduced levels of control, and therefore maintenance, were to blame. Nuclear power can be safe as baby powder, if and only if, the correct safety measures and maintenance programs are installed and rigorously controlled by (uncorrupt) outside controllers. A badly managed candle factory could be just as lethal as a nuclear plant.

    Business, big or small, has only one ultimate goal: making money. It is up to the public to control the way they do this through pressure on govt. If left to their own devices they will do it cutting the expenses down to a minimum to maximise profit. You trade on your staff’s greed and overwork them, accidents will happen. The legal maximum hours/shift is not union-instigated but has a really valid purpose. But then, the masses really do not have the resources to check every tanker. Who do we rely on? Investigative journalists. Please guys, don’t wait for the disasters to happen. Act now.

  • brent

    Clean air, it might interest you to know that just about 100% of what you do, buy, use, eat, build, work with, have leisure with in fact everything contains a chemical made mostly from oil (probably over 90%) plus some via non oil sources but still chemicals – tough but true.

    So if we get rid of oil/coal based fuels to morrow ALL countries normal activities will just simply stop – tough but true. All i ask is live in the real world solving its problems realistically not in a dream world.


  • Clean Air

    @X Cepting

    Re: “Nuclear power can be safe as baby powder, if and only if, the correct safety measures and maintenance programs are installed and rigorously controlled by (uncorrupt) outside controllers.”

    1) There is no safe repository for nuclear waste anywhere in the world yet.

    2) How safe is a nuclear power station if hit by terrorists? If Al Qaeda can take out the the Twin Towers they can take out Koeberg when the wind is blowing over Cape Town and over the winelands and wheat growing areas.

    3) Nuclear power is extremely expensive and uranium is getting more expensive to mine as mines get deeper and poorer grade ore is mined. We only have 30 years uranium left, so why leave future generations with our nuclear waste to deal with for a couple of years of electricity for ourselves?

    4) If France can have radiation leaks into their ground water so can we. Every year there are radiation leaks from power stations, no country can guarentee its safety.

    5) In the USA a year or two ago there were 250 incidents of nuclear material being lost or stolen, most of them untraced or never recovered.

    There is absolutely no case for nuclear energy power generation.

  • Clean Air

    @X Cepting…..again

    Is this meant to be black humour or what “A badly managed candle factory could be just as lethal as a nuclear plant.”

    Imagine news headlines, “Candle facory in Poff Adder kills more people than Chernobyl!!!”

  • Johan Meyer

    @Borris the Beast
    Будь ласка, мій друге! (To other readers, that’s not Russian, but rather Khokhols’ka…)

    Another useful though more technical source is the late John William Gofman, who is a former nuclear physicist, and later a nuclear health physicist/researcher.

  • Borris the Beast

    @Johan Meyer

    Please could you translate Будь ласка, мій друге!

    for me.

    I will check out the late John William Gofman when I get a mo.



  • Clean Air


    In the real world a new study from Australia’s New South Wales University and Purdue University in the USA show that the world could be too hot for humans to adapt and survive by 2300 if we keep burning fossil fuels.

    Re: “about 100% of what you do, buy, use, eat, build, work with, have leisure with in fact everything contains a chemical made mostly from oil (probably over 90%)”. Stop trying to side line the real issue, you debate like a typical industry spin doctor.

  • X Cepting

    @Clean Air – You are right on all counts, I’ll add one that people seldom think about: heat pollution from the cooling towers altering the water environment in disturbing ways around Koeberg. I apologise for glibly comparing a nucleur power station to a candle factory but just wished to make the strong point that nothing is safe if the proper controls are not in place to ensure this. The newer designs of nuclear power station is a totally different kettle of fish than Koeberg and, it seems, would be able to use some of that low-grade waste piling up somewhere under Koeberg. I agree that ultimately we should stay away from all nasty consumables like coal and uranium, but, given the choice between more coal plants and the new very promising research on PBMR nuclear plants, which would be the less destructive to the environment? This current government will never allow IPP’s to succeed, it will give Eskom competition. The best scenario, to me, is that households generate their own needs, also, those businesses who can, with a set-up incentive from government. I read that one mine in Gauteng was able to generate electricity from its off-gas for a fraction of the Eskom cost. At the moment, R19 000 for a solar geyser? Come on, what percentage of the pop can afford that? We need more competition in solar geyser business before we can give up either coal or uranium. Care to start some? Maybe a franchise.

  • X Cepting

    @Cleaner Air (cont’d) Black humour? Guilty as charged. Metro Mayhem Adventures, the biggest waster of electricity bar government departments, municipalities and police stations, the public transport system not of my choice, but my only economically viable choice, started my day. This tends to over-stimulate my imagination and I can think of things blowing up in very graphic detail. The fact is, it does not just matter how we generate it, it also matters how we use it and share it (no more subsidies to Aluminium smelters!).

    To add to my previous comment: nuclear waste is a pesky problem and cannot be tolerated longterm, I know, but it can be contained short term, the brown coal-fire smog over Soweto can’t.

  • Clean Air

    @X Cepting

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, just some comment:

    You suggest replacing brown coal smog over Soweto with nuclear radiation that causes leukemia in kids?

    Nuke plants take 8 to ten years to build, and no nuclear plant anywhere in the world has come on line on time or on schedule.

    Wind and solar farms take 18 months to build, if you want to clear the brown coal smog from Soweto, give them all solar panels on their roofs, and they can sell their excess electricity to the grid and make some extra money. Build wind farms in suitable places as back up.

    The result: No brown coal smog over Soweto, and no children dying from leukemai from nuclear radiation, and no long term problem with nuclear waste for future generations to die from.


  • Johan Meyer

    @Clean Air
    That is only economically viable if you have a local facility that can scratch up the panels appropriately when they lose their energy production capability, otherwise they will be net available energy sinks (the solar panels – first usable lifetime output is around manufacturing energy).

    It means “Plesier, my vriend.”

  • X Cepting

    @Clean Air – Yes, right again. There has not been noticable radiation effects from Koeberg that I’ve heard of but they do take long to built, which is why this new PBMR type are so promising, they do not, from my understanding, need to be so large and will therefore be much quicker to scope and commission. I agree with solar, I have seen an entire mining village in Namibia that quite successfully did this, but then, that one was funded by Rio Tinto. Solar is still too expensive for the ordinary person to afford and if left to government, will lead to another loss of tax money and probably another tender scandal. Wind farms use a lot of land/KWh and create another form of pollution, noise pollution. They are not quiet! I at first thought that the concept will combine well with game farming but it will, from that aspect, be a total disaster. There is a new type of vertical propeller, designed in Stellenbosch that might solve this problem, which I believe is at patent stage. All hopeful. But, no matter what power production method we use, all the problems encountered points to a lack of local manufacturing capacity, i.e. we have to import these things so its back to Eskom. They will never allow householders to be refunded for feeding back into the grid. The politicians also sound tetchy when one mention this. You see the picture? Logical against greed.

  • Clean Air

    @X Cepting

    1) New Scientist: “Children living near nuclear facilities face an increased risk of cancer.”

    2) Saying that Eskom will never allow people to feed their excess electricity from solar panels back into the grid and be paid for it is like past Prime Minister Ian Smith from Rhodesia who said, NEVER in a thousand years would a black man rule that country.

    ‘Never’ can change very quickly. Read the book, “A Short 1000 Years”

    3) Solar Power Systems Become Cheaper Than Coal

    We don’t have to rely on Eskom to import solar equipment, our business and industry are perfectly capapble of manufacturing it themselves, stop throwing up obstacles.