Bhopal past hangs over BNFL chief

Green activists are planning a campaign against Michael Parker, the new chief executive of BNFL, highlighting his poor environmental track record in his previous job at Dow Chemical.

The British-born Mr Parker was appointed on Thursday, at the same time as Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt said she had shelved plans to part-privatise BNFL. Mr Parker will be paid a basic salary of £550,000 a year, 50 per cent more than his predecessor, Norman Askew.

He was fired last Christmas as chief executive of Dow after nine successive quarters of disappointing figures, receiving a £2m payoff. He had been with the US chemical giant for 34 years and been instrumental in the group's disastrous $11.6bn (£7bn) merger with Union Carbide in 1999.

The Union Carbide deal brought him up against activists campaigning for compensation for victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster at an Indian United Carbide chemical plant. Mr Parker was challenged at public meetings, work and home by activists supporting the Bhopal victims. Greenpeace even put out a "wanted" poster accusing Mr Parker of evading responsibility for the continued legacy of Bhopal. Union Carbide paid out $470m to victims. The Indian government is seekingup to $2.5bn more.

Tim Edwards of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal claimed Mr Parker would make public pronouncements of sympathy but refuse to talk to victims' groups about further help. However, Bhopal is only one of theissues that brought friction between Mr Parker and environ- mentalists. Greenpeace has clashed with Mr Parker and Dow three times in two years.

The most glaring was the row about dioxin contamination at Midland, Michigan, where Dow has its headquarters. Local rivers have dioxin levels of up to 80 times the legal limit. Dow struck a deal with the local Department for Environmental Protection to raise the acceptable level of dioxins ninefold, so making much of the contamination legal. But last December the Michigan attorney general quashed the deal.

In Plaquemine, Louisiana, Dow is facing litigation from hundreds of residents of communities next to a Dow plant making vinyl chloride. An investigation into Dow's working practices found low standards, including pouring waste into the local water supply. Dow has refused to accept liability, saying contamination came from other sources. A third issue is asbestos contamination. Dow has set aside $2.2bn to deal with claims from asbestos-related disease sufferers and settled a case in Texas, paying $100m. Most of the liabilities were inherited from Union Carbide. However, Dow did not disclose any potential liabilities when it bought Union Carbide in 1999.

Greenpeace will head a campaign highlighting Mr Parker's actions at Dow and questioning his suitability as BNFL boss. Casey Harrell of Greenpeace in Washington said: "His track record is mixed at best in terms of his ability to understand and deal with these issues of environmental responsibility."

BNFL and the DTI say they believeMr Parker was the right choice.

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