Magazine article The Nation

Runaway Chemicals

Magazine article The Nation

Runaway Chemicals

Article excerpt

The cause of the leak of toxic gas from Union Carbide's plant in Institute, West Virginia, is still under investigation, but such evidence as is available points to a systems failure. Apparently, steam leaked into the jacket around a tank in which 500 gallons of aldicarb oxime and methylene chloride were stored. This triggered a chemical reaction sending gas into pipes that were supposed to convey it to a scrubber, where it would be neutralized. The pipes were too small, however, the pressure ruptured several disks and the gas escaped.

As the company did after a much more serious venting of highly lethal methyl isocyanate killed more than 2,000 people in Bhopal, India, Union Carbide may imply that the occurrence was unique, an aberration. Such a claim with regard to the Institute facility flouts the laws of probability, though, because a Congressional investigation of the plant conducted after the Bhopal tragedy discovered that there had been sixty-two accidental leaks in the past five years. Of course, Union Carbide installed a $5 million safety system earlier this year and promises that next time it will avoid needless delay in warning the public.

But it is time to stop entrusting our safety to the chemical companies. The government must step in and impose stricter standards on the industry--regulations that require better safety systems and qualified personnel monitoring them. And there must be greater public accountability by management. As Robert Engler wrote in The Nation's April 27 special issue on the Bhopal catastrophe, "Decisions on what basic technologies are needed and how and where they are to be introduced must involve people in the affected communities and workplaces. …

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