U.S. At Risk of Bhopal-Scale Chemical Accident

WASHINGTON, DC, December 2, 1999 (ENS) - Bhopal, India - The very name calls up images of thousands of victims dying from clouds of poisonous gas that rolled over them December 2, 1984 while they slept. Today, a new report released by U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know says a similar incident could happen in the United States.

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Children who died in the cloud of toxic gas. (Photo courtesy City of Bhopal)
Nearly five thousand U.S. chemical facilities are storing greater quantities of extremely hazardous substances than were released in Bhopal chemical accident, according to the report, "Accidents Waiting to Happen: Hazardous Chemical Storage in the U.S."

In the Bhopal disaster, a Union Carbide pesticide factory released 90,000 pounds of the chemical methyl isocyanate. The resulting toxic cloud killed an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands more.

"These facilities really are accidents waiting to happen," said Jeremiah Baumann, environmental advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). "Fifteen years ago at Bhopal, the world saw the worst chemical disaster of all time, yet industries in the U.S. continue to put communities at risk, storing hazardous chemicals in amounts far greater than released at Bhopal."

The report examines facilities across the country storing chemicals that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has defined as "extremely hazardous substances" because of their potential for catastrophic accidents. Of those facilities, at least 100 are storing more than 30 million pounds of an extremely hazardous substance, or more than 300 times the amount released at Bhopal. Every state except Vermont has at least one facility storing greater amounts of hazardous substances than were released at Bhopal.

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Union Carbide's Bhopal factory (Photo courtesy Corporate Watch)
The report also notes the high frequency of chemical accidents in the U.S., citing a study by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) estimating that, on average, 60,000 chemical incidents happened every year between 1987 and 1996, or more than 150 every day. On average, these accidents kill about 250 people nationwide every year.

U.S. PIRG and the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know also noted the potential for Y2K computer problems to trigger chemical accidents. A survey released by the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem in late October warned that more than 85 percent of small and mid-sized chemical facilities were not ready for Y2K and had not coordinated Y2K contingency plans with local officials.

"In the past, we have had very little information about small chemical handlers and manufacturers, and the assumption was made that they were not prepared for Y2K," said Senator Robert Bennett, the Utah Republican who chairs the committee. "To a large degree, that assumption has been confirmed by this in-depth, independent report."

The report was prepared by the Texas Engineering Experiment Station's (TEES) Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center headquartered at Texas A&M University in College Station. Its results include the following:

An estimated 85 million Americans live within five miles of one of the 66,000 sites that handle hazardous chemicals.

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Gas victim (Photo courtesy City of Bhopal)
"Plant managers, workers and emergency responders must redouble their efforts to coordinate contingency planning and implementation," said U.S. Chemical Safety Board member, Dr. Jerry Poje. "The time to apply an ounce of prevention is running out."

The press release announcing the Senate report, and a link to the full report, are available at: http://www.senate.gov/~y2k/news/pr991021.htm

"The fact is that we donít know if chemical plants are ready for Y2K," said Paul Orum, coordinator of the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know. "Facilities need to develop contingency plans, communicate openly with communities, and focus on preventing any future accidents."

Todayís report also found that ammonia, a hazardous substance used as a fertilizer, is stored in very large quantities in farm states, ranking these states highest among facilities storing more than 100,000 pounds of a hazardous chemical. More traditionally industrial states have the highest numbers of facilities storing hazardous chemicals other than ammonia.

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Dow Chemical plant in Ludington, Michigan (Photo courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources)
To help reduce risks from chemical production and storage facilities, U.S. PIRG encourages Congress to pass H.R. 1657, The Childrenís Environmental Protection and Right to Know Act, which will give the public the right to know about chemicals transported through communities, used in the workplace, and placed in products. By requiring reporting on chemical use and transportation, the bill would encourage facilities to make process changes that would prevent both pollution and accidents.

Congress is currently considering revisions of the Superfund law, which provides for the cleanup of toxic waste sites. U.S. PIRG says Congress should not amend toxic waste cleanup laws without also strengthening Toxics Right-to-Know laws.

The EPA should issue regulations to promote accident prevention through principles of "Inherent Safety," U.S. PIRG says. Because even state of the art safety systems can fail - at least five systems failed at Bhopal - "Inherent Safety" means examining materials, processes, and products, and making choices that reduce or eliminate the potential for an accident. For example, where possible safer chemicals should be substituted for a given use.

U.S. PIRG encourages facilities to adequately prepare local communities for Y2K related chemical safety problems, by communicating openly with communities about any potential for accidents and by developing and coordinating contingency plans with local communities and emergency responders. In addition, local governments, reporters, and other interested parties should contact facilities to inquire about their Y2K readiness, the group says.

"Based on the amounts of extremely hazardous substances being stored at chemical facilities across the country, there is still dangerously high potential for chemical accidents fifteen years after the tragedy in Bhopal and the lesson that the chemical industry should have learned," said Baumann.

The report is available at http://www.pirg.org/chemical/