Dear EarthTalk: December 2010 marked the 26th anniversary of the infamous Bhopal disaster in India when chemical company Union Carbide leaked deadly gases, killing thousands of people. What safeguards are in place today to prevent incidents like this?
— Charlene Colchester, via e-mail
Bhopal should have been a wake up call, but it is unclear whether chemical plants around the world are any safer a quarter century after the December 1984 disaster—during which some 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide (now part of Dow Chemical), killing 2,259 people immediately and causing lifelong health problems and premature death for tens of thousands more.
In the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) oversees chemical and other facilities that deal with hazardous materials, making sure various “process safety” routines are followed so as to “prevent or minimize the catastrophic injury or death that could result from an accidental or purposeful release of toxic, reactive, flammable or explosive chemicals.” Also, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security instituted its own “Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards” (CFATS) that chemical and other hazardous materials facilities must follow or be shut down.
While this system has worked pretty well in the U.S. so far, some worry that a Bhopal-scale tragedy, whether due to an accident or terrorist attack, could still occur on American soil. For one, water treatment and port facilities are exempt from CFATS altogether, so some of the nation’s largest chemical facilities are not subject to as rigorous standards as they could be. A 2009 bill that passed the House of Representatives but failed to make it through the Senate addressed this and other issues. Supporters are optimistic that the bill in one form or another could resurface in future legislative sessions.
Of course, what happens in industrial facilities abroad is up to the host country to regulate. And while standards are higher than they used to be in many developing countries today, runaway economic growth often means oversight and enforcement are lacking if nonexistent, so dangerous facilities still threaten people and the environment in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated in the United States.
Advocates for corporate responsibility say that companies should be held accountable for accidents with their materials, whether they occur on home soil or elsewhere, arguing that a double standard presently exists that is much too lenient on multinational corporations operating in developing countries. Martin Khor, executive director of The South Centre, a Geneva-based research group, reports that this double standard also seems to apply to compensatory pay-outs. Union Carbide’s settlement for the Bhopal disaster, for example, was only $470 million, or a few thousand dollars per affected family.
If nothing else, the Bhopal disaster certainly raised awareness around the world about the dangers of modern chemicals, especially those used or manufactured in close proximity to people. Hopefully at least some local governments in developing countries have taken heed and stepped up efforts to site potentially hazardous industrial facilities away from both human population centers and environmentally sensitive landscapes. But, unfortunately, without stronger regulations and enforcement around the world, it may be only a matter of time before another highly lethal accident occurs.
CONTACTS: South Centre.