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
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. …