Sustained Outrage

Remembering the Bhopal Disaster

India Bhopal

In this Dec. 5, 1984 file photo, two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal, India.  (AP Photo/Sondeep Shankar, File)

Thirty years ago tonight, a leak of methyl isocyanate at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.

As many Kanawha Valley residents know well, the Bhopal plant was a sister facility to the Institute, W.Va., Carbide plant that is now owned by Bayer CropScience. And just months after Bhopal, a Carbide leak in Institute sent 135 people to the hospital in an event that gave momentum to passage by Congress of the landmark chemical right-to-know and emergency planning law.

For many years, local residents lived in fear of a Bhopal-type disaster here. They pointed to the Institute   plant’s huge stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the deadly chemical that leaked at Bhopal.  Pressure for Bayer to get rid of the MIC stockpile increased dramatically following an explosion and fire that killed two workers in August 2008. The Institute plant  came under new scrutiny after that, with a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report that provided the most telling look to date about the dangers the facility presented. Then in March 2011, Bayer announced its landmark decision to never restart its MIC unit in Institute.

Coal Water PollutionBut other events remind us of the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface without proper regulation, enforcement and attention to safety. Locally, last January’s chemical spill by Freedom Industries was a case study in what can happen without prior planning or adequate government oversight (see here, here,here and here). State lawmakers responded by passing a very strong bill to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks and local drinking water systems, but the new Republican-controlled Legislature appears poised to dismantle that bill in the upcoming 2015 session, based largely on unfounded criticisms of the bill’s potential costs (see here and here).

Despite continued serious chemical plant accidents around the nation, the Obama administration’s response and its proposed reforms have been disappointing to safety advocates.  Just last week, in its latest regulatory agenda, Obama’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration downgraded its efforts to write a new safety standard for combustible dust to a long-term action item, meaning it’s unlikely any rule will see the light of day during this administration. OSHA has delayed this rule for many years, and as we’ve written before, combustible accidents continue to claim the lives of workers, including three in a December 2010 explosion and fire in Hancock County, W.Va.

The recent chemical leak in Texas that killed four workers at a DuPont plant reminded us again that chemical safety concerns go well beyond history and one company. Not long after that Texas incident, DuPont was cited for safety problems at its plant in Deepwater, N.J., in a move that Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle explained this way:

In two of the 11 violations in New Jersey, OSHA alleged that the company had repeatedly failed to perform proper inspections and tests on equipment used in the chemical process based on problems inspectors uncovered there and previously found at other DuPont plants in Beaumont, Texas, and in Belle, W.Va.

Readers of this blog will remember that those were the sorts of problems that the CSB reported were the cause of serious accidents, including one that claimed the life of a Belle plant worker here in the Kanawha Valley.

To commemorate the Bhopal Disaster, on Thursday evening, West Virginia’s premiere of the new film, “Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain,” will take place at  7 p.m. at the LaBelle Theatre in South Charleston. A panel discussion will follow the film. Tickets are $5 at the door. Donations supporting the people of Bhopal will be accepted at the door. For more information on the event, visit the People Concerned About Chemical Safety website, or call 304-389-6859.