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Publication date: Nov. 24, 2004

BHOPAL, 20 YEARS LATER: CAN IT HAPPEN NEAR YOU?

It could still happen here - even today in 2004. On Dec. 3, 1984, in the middle of the night, an explosion at a Union Carbide pesticide manufacturing plant spewed a plume of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) across the city of Bhopal, India. In the first several days, up to 4,000 people died painful, harrowing deaths. Worst hit was the slum next to the factory. Most of the victims were poor rural people who had moved to the city in search of jobs. It was the world's worst industrial chemical accident. But it was not the last.

The story is still unfolding decades later. Thousands of Bhopal residents suffered serious long-term side effects such as blindness, and liver and kidney failure. Estimates of total deaths in subsequent years attributable to the disaster range up to 20,000. Injuries probably exceeded 100,000, with some estimates ranging up to 500,000.

Such numbers almost dwarf the casualties of 9/11, and offer a reminder that some large chemical facilities in the US amount to pre-positioned weapons of mass destruction. Intelligence shows al qaeda is both aware of and interested in this fact. Yet statistics show that terrorists are far less likely to cause a chemical catastrophe than poor plant design, poor operator training, poor plant maintenance, poor operating decisions, poor employee screening, etc. More dangerous than terrorists may be the disgruntled employee or the plant operator with a drug problem ... or a rusty valve.

Since Bhopal, chemical companies have done a great deal to make their US plants safer. But the US government, lobbied heavily by the companies, has maintained a largely hands-off policy.

Could Bhopal happen again? "Yup," answers Gerry Poje, Clinton-appointed member of the US Chemical Safety Board, whose term recently expired. He says the Sept. 21, 2001, chemical explosion in Toulouse, France, which sent some 2,100 people to the hospital, shows plants of major multinational firms can still have "major catastrophic events," even in developed countries.

The Bhopal disaster resulted from a runaway reaction caused when water was pumped into a tank containing the highly reactive MIC. The US Chemical Safety Board in Oct. 2002 recommended that OSHA tighten regulation of just this kind of "reactive" chemical - a recommendation which the Bush administration has so far ignored. February 5, 2004, Chemical Safety Board Release, "CSB Board Declares OSHA Response to Reactives Regulation Recommendation 'Unacceptable'".

THE AFTERMATH

Long-term chemical contamination still plagues Bhopal. On Nov. 14, 2004, BBC reported that recent drinking water samples taken from a well near the accident site show contamination 500 times greater than limits set by the World Health Organization. Routine symptoms among survivors and current residents include chest and stomach pains, shortness of breath, sore or swollen joints, miscarriage, infertility, headaches, rashes, gynecological problems, and cancer.

Listen to BBC Radio Five Live Report, "Bhopal, 20 Years On," by Paul Vickers, reporting from Bhopal (Real Audio, streaming). Vickers visited the remains of the plant site and describes a strong lingering chemical odor, inadequate cleanup, lack of security, pools of mercury, and open containers and drums containing chemicals. Some 25,000 tons of toxic waste remain in and around the site. Heavy rains in the region, lack of safe drinking water, and grinding poverty exacerbate the ongoing effects of the disaster and other pollution legacies from the plant.

In 1998 Union Carbide turned over the Bhopal plant site to the government of India's Madhya Pradesh state. Then, in 2001, Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide with a stipulation that the company bore no outstanding liability at Bhopal. This stipulation was based on a 1997 finding of no remaining water supply contamination at the site - a finding later studies contradicted. Dow Chemical (US press): Terri McNeill, 989-636-0626.

In 2003 India attempted to extradite from the US Warren Anderson, Union Carbide CEO at the time of the disaster, on charges of culpable homicide. US authorities rejected the request on technical grounds.

Union Carbide paid $470 million to compensate surviving victims, but little of that reached them for over a decade. Then, in October 2004, India's Supreme Court approved a plan to disburse nearly $360 million to victims. By April 2005, all funds should be disbursed to the 572,173 people whose claims have already been settled.

THE NEXT BHOPAL: IN YOUR BACKYARD?

Bhopal may have been more disastrous because of Third-World conditions, but industrial chemical accidents of various sizes and lethality happen regularly in the US.

Is your locality ready? Start by asking your Local Emergency Planning Committee. Ask to see "Emergency Response Plans" for your community and "Risk Management Plans" for individual facilities. You can also ask for records of chemical releases they have been notified of, and 5-year accident histories for local plants. Try cross-checking this information with the database of the National Response Center.

One of the best ways to stay apprised of US chemical accidents and incidents is the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). On their news release page you can sign up to receive their announcements (which include incident reports, investigation reports, and more) by e-mail.

The 1990 Clean Air Act gave OSHA and EPA limited authority over chemical safety, but left company action largely voluntary. In 1996 OSHA promulgated its "Process Safety Management" standard. However, underfunded OSHA enforcement and shifting national priorities toward terrorism call the effectiveness of this regulation into question.

The 108th Congress will end in deadlock between competing chemical security bills. One (S 994), by Senate Environment Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) largely leaves chemical security to companies with a voluntary, do-it-yourself approach. The other (S 157), by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ), takes a stricter regulatory approach, and requires companies to engineer "inherent safety" into their plants, making them less vulnerable to both terrorism and routine accidents.

Prospects for chem security legislation in the 109th Congress are unclear. There may be efforts to transfer jurisdiction away from EPA and the Environment Committee over to the Dept. of Homeland Security and corresponding Congressional panels. That, plus a bigger GOP majority, could mean more lenient, industry-written bills and more secrecy about hazards to the public ... if the 109th passes any bill at all.

Various industry groups are attempting to enhance chemical plant safety through voluntary codes and research efforts. Key sources:

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Last revised January 22, 2013

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