Corresponding with the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal, India, disaster, a coalition of labor and environment groups called for increased safety at U.S. chemical plants through improved processes and reduced onsite hazardous chemical storage.
Representatives from Greenpeace, United Steelworkers, the International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC) and other experts held a Dec. 2 press conference call to discuss the Chemical and Water Security Act of 2009 and chemical plant safety. The legislation would amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and aims to strengthen security at the nation’s chemical plants, drinking water facilities and wastewater facilities to protect from potential terrorist attacks. The House of Representatives passed H.R. 2868 Nov. 6, with a companion Senate bill expected to follow.
Liz Hitchcock, public affairs advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the Bhopal disaster “is a powerful reminder that we need to take action in the United States to protect American communities against the hazards that exist in our communities.” The 1984 toxic chemical release at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal killed thousands of people, with lingering health and environmental issues still present today.
“We know that 110 million Americans live in the shadow of catastrophic gas poison releases from one of 300 chemical facilities,” Hitchcock said. “We also know that we can reduce the consequences of an attack or accident at one of these facilities by employing the common sense solution of using safer chemicals and processes in many cases.”
Chemical security expert Paul Orum explained that safer, alternative processes exist for many industries. For example, wastewater treatment plants could switch from using chlorine gas to ultraviolet light, or drinking water plants could use chlorine bleach instead of chlorine gas. Power plants, petroleum refineries, paper mills and facilities in other industries also could implement process changes that better protect against the possibility of a catastrophic accident.
The bill includes several labor provisions, such as protecting existing labor rights, whistleblower protections and a proposed 8 hours of annual training for relevant workers in the event of a terrorist attack. Training would cover identification of substances of concern, reviews of site-security plans, cyber security equipment, use of voluntary standards, integration of other government training programs, training on emergency response plans in the event of a terrorist attack and more.
“Workers need to have the correct information to be able to respond and prepare for any possible terrorist attack,” John Morawetz, director of health and safety at ICWUC, told EHS Today during the conference call.
“When you think of Bhopal and you think of a major, catastrophic accident, the workers are exposed first, and probably higher levels in general. But [during] a catastrophic release, we’re all in the same boat,” added Morawetz. “We’re going to make it a safer process where if something goes wrong, if a terrorist attack happens, the consequences will be much less [severe].”
“This disaster was predicted and yet it was not prevented,” said Greenpeace Legislative Director Rick Hind of the Bhopal tragedy. He stressed this legislation “could prevent future disasters in the United States, whether they are by a disaster by a chemical attack by a terrorist or an accident the way Bhopal happened.”
According to H.R. 2868, chemical plants in the United States may be vulnerable. “The Nation’s chemical sector represents a target that terrorists could exploit to cause consequences, including death, injury, or serious adverse effects to human health, the environment, critical infrastructure, public health, homeland security, national security, and the national economy,” the legislation states.
Hind explained that the legislation conditionally requires chemical plants to conduct an assessment of safer technology. Approximately 107 plants would be required to implement that technology. Chemical plants, however, can attempt to appeal this requirement, even in the 107 required cases, and the legislation doesn’t account for public disclosure of which facilities are regulated under the program. These issues, Hind said, ideally will be improved in the Senate bill.
“Had that accident [in Bhopal] happened in the United States, none of our existing laws would have addressed it,” said Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers. He was part of a team that traveled to Bhopal to investigate the 1984 disaster. “All the things that the company did wrong to cause that terrible tragedy would have been perfectly legal in the United States at that point.”
Wright said that while some progress has been made with OSHA process safety standards and EPA risk management standards, not enough has been done. “We think that Homeland Security really needs the ability to tell a company that it has to do something a little different to reduce risk to surrounding populations,” he said.
According to Wright, the biggest problem at the Bhopal Union Carbide plant was the large quantities of methyl isocyanate (MIC) stored on site. Inherently safe technology, he stressed, avoids storing enough toxic chemicals that could “dramatically affect people in the surrounding communities” should there be an accident or terrorist attack.
“That, to us, is one of the lessons of what happened 25 years ago,” Wright said. “We need to have some way of taking a look at how these plants operate, and making sure they operate in the safest way possible with the least possible storage of toxic chemicals.”