updated 12/2/2004 1:23:06 PM ET 2004-12-02T18:23:06

Twenty years later, Bhopal is not a memory — for many people, it is a reality that could happen again and in the United States. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks raised fears that terrorists might attack a U.S. chemical plant and cause a disaster of similar proportions.

The same kinds of backup failures and lack of disaster preparedness that contributed to Bhopal still exist, said Carolyn Merritt, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

“Bhopal was not a technical unknown. It was because of failures to maintain systems and employees not knowing what to do and having backup and systems that actually worked to prevent this. We have that same thing here. We investigate it every single day,” Merritt said.

“Over and over again, we see companies — even those covered under process safety rules — committing the same kind of management errors, mechanical errors and process errors that set up the facility at Bhopal for the accident that occurred,” she said.

Merritt heads a board that was created as a result of Bhopal. The board investigates toxic gas releases and chemical explosions with the same independence under which the National Transportation Safety Board probes plane crashes and train derailments.

Industry cites improvements
The cause of the Bhopal leak remains in dispute. Union Carbide, acquired by Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical in 2001, accepted moral responsibility for the tragedy, but continues to blame sabotage on an unidentified disgruntled employee. The company, based in Danbury, Conn., at the time of the accident, is now headquartered in Houston.

The U.S. chemical industry’s trade group, the American Chemistry Council, says Responsible Care, its performance initiative implemented four years after the disaster, has helped cut emissions and improve worker safety. The ACC also requires its members — 140 companies, or 90 percent of the industry — to exceed government standards of safety and public disclosures through the Responsible Care program.

“The tragedy of Bhopal is one that we’ll never forget and that was a defining moment for the chemical industry,” said ACC spokesman Glenn Ruskin. “It changed how the industry operated.”

Member companies range from small to the giants, including Dow Chemical, Bayer Corp., DuPont Co. and Shell Chemical. However, while the program is mandatory to ACC members, companies can drop out of the organization.

Dorothy Kellogg, senior director of security and operations for the ACC, said member companies recognize, at the very least, the economic benefit of avoiding deaths, minimizing injuries and preventing lawsuits by meeting or exceeding safety requirements with extra precautions and detailed community response plans.

“It’s not just an issue of the litigation,” she said. “There’s just no money to be made in blowing up. There’s no money to be made in injuring your employees or shutting down your process.”

Activists, union aren't convinced
Yet environmental groups say such initiatives must be mandatory to be meaningful because ACC member companies that give up their membership only have to do the minimum required by laws and regulations. And the PACE International Union, which represents about 50,000 workers in the paper, chemical and oil refining industries, says worker training in prevention and emergency response needs improvement.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group said in an April 2004 report, “As a voluntary industry endeavor, the chemical companies are not accountable to either the public or the government to provide complete safety.”

The PIRG report also said most federal and state policies that address chemical accidents focus on the back end, or mitigating effects of an accident, rather than prevention.

Ruskin said that while prevention is the goal, chemical plants need layers of protection, like backups that kick in when a mechanical or computer system fails. For example, when a swath of the Midwest and eastern United States went dark more than a year ago in the nation’s worst ever blackout, chemical plants dependent on power for safety kept running on generators.

More regulations needed?
Dr. Gerald Poje, a toxicologist who recently ended his second five-year term on the chemical safety board, said a string of system breakdowns at the Union Carbide plant led to the Bhopal disaster. He said the U.S. chemical industry, as well as the Occupational Health and Safety Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have taken monumental steps to improve safety since Bhopal — but far less than needed.

He said a 2002 CSB study found that uncontrolled chemical reactions — like the mixture of water and methyl isocyanate that, with failed safety measures, led to the Bhopal release — caused 167 accidents in the U.S. from 1980 through 2001 that killed 108 people. The board recommended that OSHA and the EPA expand regulations to cover chemical reactions in addition to listing chemicals based on their individual properties — such as whether they are toxic, corrosive or flammable — but no such action has been taken.

“I wish I could tell you that was 20 years ago and everything has worked out well since (Bhopal),” Poje said. “I’ve seen all too often the same underlying situations result in tragedies here in the U.S. They involve big and small corporations, and communities seem unaware of hazards in their midst.”

Case of recent release
The board’s eight ongoing investigations include a release of hydrogen chloride gas and allyl alcohol vapor from the MFG Chemical Inc. manufacturing plant in Dalton, Ga., last April. Poje said a chemical reactor overheated on a cold day; a statement from MFG said the privately owned chemical company declined to comment “due to the fact that our internal investigation continues, as well as the fact that the CSB has made no final factual findings or conclusions.”

Poje said police wearing no protective equipment went door to door to warn plant neighbors of the MFG gas release, putting themselves at risk of exposure. Emergency responders also didn’t know what kind of chemical hazard they faced, Poje said.

He also said some companies provide model programs on safety management, but federal regulations are needed to reduce the risk of leaks — particularly since chemical plants often sit next to residential neighborhoods.

“It’s not a new trend,” John Eldridge, head of the environmental practice group for the Houston office of law firm Haynes and Boone, said of neighborhoods closing the land buffer between them and chemical plants.

“Most plants in Houston were relatively isolated when constructed, but a lot of residential communities have grown up around them because of proximity to work or other factors. Those are now risks that are there and the good news is people can evaluate those risks themselves,” he said.

Poje gave a more stark assessment: “500,000 people are victims of the event in Bhopal. That’s a warning sign for everybody.”

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