Despite Progress, Chemical Spills Persist

Article excerpt

Silently after nightfall, an uncontrolled chemical reaction began in a vessel holding thousands of pounds of toxic substances. Gas pressure began to build, opening a safety device designed to protect the vessel from bursting. However, the chemical plant lacked equipment to contain the release, and a cloud of unidentified gases began wafting through nearby neighborhoods.

By the time sleepy residents realized what was happening, many had been exposed. Emergency responders, lacking the proper equipment and experience, alerted residents by going door to door and struggled to help the contaminated and the sick reach the nearest hospital.

These were the actual events of April 12, 2004, in the northwest Georgia community of Dalton. But to those of us who study chemical- process safety, there are eerie similarities to the events of Dec. 3, 1984, in Bhopal, India, where an uncontrolled release of 90,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate gas from a US-owned chemical plant immediately killed several thousand residents - and ultimately thousands more - and shocked the world.

Fortunately, the gas release in Dalton was smaller and less toxic, the area around the plant was less densely settled than Bhopal, and a fortuitous rainstorm helped suppress the hazardous fumes. While 154 Dalton residents were sent to the hospital for evaluation, none died.

Nevertheless, the incident illustrates that 20 years after the Bhopal tragedy, inattention to chemical safety can still threaten the public with a devastating impact.

Are we doing enough to prevent such accidents? I have been thinking about this question a great deal since returning recently from a conference in Kanpur, India, to examine the causes and consequences of Bhopal on the 20th anniversary of the accident. The agency I head, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), is one of Bhopal's many legacies, established by Congress to independently investigate significant chemical accidents, determine root causes, and make recommendations to prevent future accidents.

Our investigations of major accidents provide persuasive evidence that serious safety problems still exist among some US operations that store, use, or produce chemicals. The problems often occur at smaller businesses that may lack substantial safety expertise or receive less frequent oversight from regulators. A striking example was the chemical explosion at a small signmaking company in Manhattan two years ago, which injured 36. Elsewhere, we have seen employers using untrained workers to handle highly hazardous materials, workplaces where critical safety equipment is absent or in disrepair, and emergency-response plans that leave nearby residents confused about what to do.

There have been significant regulatory changes and other improvements in the past 20 years, and both industry and government continue to look at chemical safety issues in light of the Sept. 11 attacks. Among new federal rules are chemical process safety regulations adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1992 and the Environmental Protection Agency in 1996. Industry has developed its own voluntary standards as well, such as the American Chemistry Council's Responsible Care program, which commits members to environmental and safety principles and community outreach. …