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  Cover Story  
  June 7, 2004
Volume 82, Number 23
pp. 19-23
Smokescreen or true reform? Has the chemical industry changed enough to make another massive accident unlikely?



Nearly 20 years ago, in the middle of the night, a toxic cloud of gas from a Union Carbide pesticides plant crept over Bhopal, India. More than 3,800 people died within days of the leak; thousands more were injured.

Because Union Carbide was an American company, U.S. chemical industry leaders were especially shocked when they learned about the disaster. They vowed they would do all they could to ensure that such a disaster never happened again. With the Responsible Care program, industry leaders say they have taken their best shot. But critics insist they have not done enough and are just blowing smoke. Arguments over what really happened in Bhopal nearly 20 years ago on the night of Dec. 3 continue to this day. Certain facts are painfully clear: A toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate gas emanated from the plant. Reports indicated that workers were cleaning a storage tank containing 15 metric tons of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, which is an ingredient used to manufacture the pesticide carbaryl, sold under the name Sevin.

During the operation, investigators theorize, water entered the tank, creating an exothermic reaction. Pressure in the tank rose, causing MIC vapors to burst open a pressure valve. A backup scrubber and flair tower failed to work. Four tons of MIC vaporized and enveloped half of Bhopal, then a city of 800,000.

As an environmental nightmare or human tragedy, Bhopal was not unique. Other appalling industrial tragedies had preceded it. Each one extracted an enormous toll in human suffering and on the environment that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

In 1947, a ship holding fertilizer blew up in the Texas City, Texas, harbor, killing 600 people and leveling a Monsanto chemical plant. In the late 1960s, thousands of residents near Minamata Bay in Japan developed symptoms of mercury poisoning, the result of wastes dumped into the bay by Chisso Corp.

In 1976, a pesticide plant explosion in Seveso, Italy, exposed thousands of residents to cancer-causing dioxin. In the late 1970s, toxins from a Hooker Chemical waste site, Love Canal, sickened residents living in homes built on top of the one-time chemical dump.

But the Bhopal accident stands out. Bhopal was quick and it was deadly. It didn't take months or years for effects to appear or for investigators to gather enough proof to fix blame on an offending company, as in the Minamata incident. Like the Texas City disaster, the Bhopal incident was a sudden, deadly, industrial accident of unimaginable proportions.

In 1989, Union Carbide paid $470 million to Madhya Pradesh, the Indian state of which Bhopal is the capital, to settle liability claims. In 1994, it sold its 51%-owned subsidiary, Union Carbide India, to MacLeod Russell of Calcutta. Today, survivors and their representatives continue to press claims for cleanup and medical bills, demanding $1 billion in compensation from Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001.

More than the incidents that preceded it, Bhopal raised a host of legitimate questions on the handling of hazardous chemicals in a socially responsible manner. Today, it also raises questions about the vulnerability of chemical plants to terrorist activities.

SOME ARGUED that Bhopal was an example of how technology transfer to a developing country could fail. However, another potentially deadly accident poked holes in that argument. A smaller but frighteningly similar leak in 1985 of aldicarb oxime from a Union Carbide carbaryl pesticide plant in Institute, W.Va., sent 135 people to the hospital. That incident proved that a potentially deadly chemical accident could occur in an "advanced" country.

Robert A. Roland, president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association--the chemical industry trade association now named the American Chemistry Council (ACC)--between 1978 and 1993, has said that Bhopal "clearly put the spotlight on the global characteristic of the chemical industry. We're everywhere." In a 1995 oral interview deposited at the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Othmer Library in Philadelphia, Roland said, "What [our association] did in Bhopal was, for the first time, to become the command center for a major issue that affected the entire industry."

According to Roland, the industry's first substantial reaction was to establish the Community Awareness & Emergency Response (CAER) program. "We're good at emergency response," he said. "We can put the lid on the pots, we can put the fires out, and we can have mutual assistance and all that stuff. It's the community awareness part where we are weak."

A year later, U.S. industry leaders also adopted the Canadian Responsible Care program, a combination of management systems and codes of conduct that govern functions such as chemical transportation, process safety, pollution prevention, product stewardship, and employee health and safety. The industry incorporated the CAER program into Responsible Care as part of its master plan to pull together and avoid another tragedy like Bhopal.

In an interview with C&EN late last year, Whitson Sadler, retired chief executive officer of Solvay America, said that shortly after the Bhopal accident, Union Carbide's chairman, Robert D. Kennedy, suggested that the U.S. industry should adopt Responsible Care. Kennedy said it could be the industry's action plan to prevent chemical accidents. Some would say Kennedy's suggestion was well intentioned; the cynics would call it ironic.

Sadler's own reaction to Responsible Care as a member of the Chemical Manufacturers Association board, was, "My God, Carbide has a tragedy in Bhopal, and we're going to have to spend millions to put in Responsible Care." But Sadler said industry leaders considered the idea seriously, "and I now think it is one of the most important things the industry has done."

However, Anna Aurilio, legislative director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), an advocacy group, says, "The chemical industry's so-called Responsible Care plan lets the fox guard the chicken coop." The group contends that the industry's safety record shows that voluntary measures do not work to ensure public safety.

Brian Wastle, vice president of Responsible Care at the Canadian Chemical Producers Association--the group that developed Responsible Care in the early 1980s--bristles at Aurilio's suggestion that the chemical industry manipulates government regulators. In Canada, government officials sat in on the design of the group's third-party verification program, he says. "It's not just self-regulation. It's a team of foxes and chickens doing the right thing."

Citing more than 20 years of oil and chemical spill data from the National Response Center, U.S. PIRG also contends that ACC members have had an average of 1,800 accidents per year with no downward trend. In a report in April titled "Irresponsible Care: How the Chemical Industry Fails To Protect the Public from Chemical Accidents," the group said the industry should be substituting inherently safer chemicals and processes to eliminate potential accidents.

"Good, smart people who work for chemical companies would do the right thing," Aurilio suggests. "But without legislation to hold these firms to account, the smart people won't have their chance." Because chemical firms refuse to change the way they do things, an accident or sabotage at any one of 120 chemical facilities could put more than 1 million people at risk of injury or death, Aurilio says.

"Responsible Care is essentially a public relations strategy that doesn't address the real issues," says Satinath Sarangi, a member of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. A founder of the Bhopal Group for Information & Action, Sarangi says he was among the first responders to do relief work after the accident 20 years ago.

Having seen "the devastation firsthand," Sarangi says the industry should be putting more effort not just into developing safer products and processes, but also into providing more complete information on chemical hazards to workers and chemical plant neighbors.

Rick Hind, legislative director for the environmental group Greenpeace, agrees with Aurilio and Sarangi. He says the public is no safer today than it was 20 years ago. The threat of lawsuits--not the Responsible Care program--has been the biggest deterrent to practices that might lead to accidents that hurt people or the environment, Hind asserts.

THE INDUSTRY, Hind charges, has successfully lobbied the Bush Administration and Congress to lighten up on regulations. The government should instead actively regulate or even ban outright the production of hazardous chemicals. It should force the industry to innovate and develop environmentally friendly, inherently safer green chemistry processes that are needed in the 21st century, Hind argues.

Hind and other environmental activists have many good reasons to be concerned about chemical company operations. Accidents still happen. In late April, an explosion at a Formosa Plastics plant in Illiopolis, Ill., left four employees dead and four injured. About 1,000 residents surrounding the polyvinyl chloride plant had to be evacuated.

Though Formosa is not an ACC member and therefore not required to follow all Responsible Care codes, the firm is nevertheless a chemical company. The public makes no distinction between companies that follow Responsible Care codes and those that do not.

"Our members get blamed for the shortcomings of the rest of the industry. Government needs to do more to crack down on companies that don't adopt Responsible Care," says Terry F. Yosie, ACC's vice president for Responsible Care. Both ACC and Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association members must implement the Responsible Care program as a condition of membership. "We support regulatory action against companies that do not adopt Responsible Care," Yosie asserts.

"Inherently safer chemistry is one of the early concepts woven into Responsible Care," he points out. For instance, soon after the Bhopal accident, Carbide changed the manufacture of its pesticide Sevin so that the MIC required for its production was consumed as fast as it was manufactured; thus no MIC was stored on a plant site.

Yosie says evidence of Responsible Care's success is that the industry has not experienced any accidents on the same order of magnitude as Bhopal. "ACC members' safety record over the past decade is four times better than the average for the entire manufacturing sector," he says, referring to Bureau of Labor Statistics worker safety data. They show that all chemical industry companies, including those that are not ACC members, have incident rates of one-half that of manufacturing as a whole.

ACC says its members, which account for 90% of U.S. chemical production, have also cut by more than half their releases of toxic chemicals into air, land, and water between 1988 and 2001. And the group adds that its members have cut toxic emissions, which must be reported to the government, even as they increased production by 25% over the same period.

Even though workers and the communities surrounding plants are safer than they were 20 years ago, "we can't assure people that accidents will never happen," explains Michael E. Campbell, chairman, president, and CEO of Arch Chemicals. "But I can assure you that we are working hard to make chemical plants safer both in the U.S. and globally." Campbell, who is also chairman of ACC's executive committee and who last year was chair of the board committee on Responsible Care, says all chemical companies should commit themselves to the Responsible Care program to mark the Dec. 3 anniversary of the Bhopal accident.

TO CRITICS who call for an immediate switchover to green chemistry practices, Campbell says there is no simple answer. For instance, an Arch plant searched for years to find a safe replacement for carbon tetrachloride, a solvent it uses in one of its manufacturing processes. The difficulty, he says, is "in switching to something safer while not creating other risks." Saying that you are adopting green chemistry is good public relations, "but if it doesn't change your risk profile, then it has no true meaning," he says.

Responsible Care "sets us apart from other industries," says Fran Keeth, president and CEO of Shell Chemical. Keeth, who succeeded Campbell as chair of the ACC board committee on Responsible Care, adds that the industry program is intended to "keep us focused on creating safe conditions for workers and plant communities."

Thomas E. Reilly Jr., who took over temporarily as president and CEO of ACC when Gregori Lebedev resigned on June 1, tells C&EN that Responsible Care "as an ethic has gone a long way" to making the industry a safer one. "We have certainly done a lot to improve our dialogue with our immediate neighbors, local emergency providers, and local officials," adds Reilly, who until he retired about a year ago was chairman and CEO of specialty chemical maker Reilly Industries.

Criticism of the chemical industry has "gone away from our distribution and our plants and processes and has now moved onto the secondary derivative impact of our products," Reilly says. The critics are more concerned, he says, with the cumulative effect of synthetic chemicals that appear in minute quantities in human tissue.

"That says to me," Reilly continues, that "we have made substantial progress in terms of our plants, processes, and distribution. When our communications program gets off the ground, I think we'll talk a lot about product issues." In late April, ACC's board of directors authorized $20 million to be spent on a long-planned advertising and communications program.

Speaking at a Responsible Care conference early last month before he resigned, Lebedev said, "Our critics can't stand that our performance has improved. It drives them nuts." The continuing barrage of criticism from environmentalist activists "tells us a lot about our critics. It discredits them in the public domain."

Lebedev also told his audience that Tom Ridge, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, complimented Responsible Care as a "model" program. "We've asked Congress to step in and bring everyone up to the same Responsible Care standards," Lebedev said. Congress and U.S. government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency have written 75% of Responsible Care's requirements into government regulations, ACC's Yosie tells C&EN.

In fact, Congress has a history of incorporating industry initiatives into the law of the land. As far back as 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Planning & Community Right To Know Act. It required that companies not only report accidental releases of more than 300 toxic chemicals, but also essentially adapt the community emergency response initiatives outlined in the industry's CAER program.

"We're looking to get ahead of government," Yosie adds. "We want to become a resource for government agencies. We want them to model their activities on what we've done."

TO ADDRESS terrorism concerns, the U.S. Coast Guard recently recognized the Responsible Care security code as an acceptable security alternative to requirements outlined in the Marine Transportation Security Act of 2002, Yosie points out. ACC is also on the verge of an agreement with EPA that would streamline the process for Responsible Care companies to join Performance Track, which is an EPA program that, for instance, lowers costs and speeds up the process of obtaining emissions permits for companies that go beyond basic regulatory compliance requirements.

Not everyone is so sure that Responsible Care ought to be used as a tool to expedite EPA reviews. Elaine Giessel, an environmental consultant and community advocate, says she is upset about the ACC's efforts to use Responsible Care as "a substitute for regulatory control." ACC, she says, had years ago promised not to use the Responsible Care program in that way.

Giessel questions whether Responsible Care can actually prevent another Bhopal. "The industry hasn't done much research on reactive chemicals, safety has not been addressed well, and the industry is still not where it needs to be regarding plant security."

OVER TIME, Giessel maintains, ACC has put less emphasis on community involvement in Responsible Care and has attempted instead to reach key decisionmakers. Pointing to the advertising campaign soon to get under way, she says: "It's about influence and money spent on reputation. I'm very concerned."

ACC seems less concerned now with reaching plant communities than it was in the program's early years, Giessel says. ACC abandoned its Public Advisory Panel, made up of community activists and environmental group representatives, and instead put together a Leadership Dialogue Panel of influential opinion leaders. She is the only member of the original Public Advisory Panel, dissolved in 2001, to sit on the now two-year-old leadership panel.

Valve leaks and human error occur regularly at chemical plants, Giessel says. She knows this because she is a member of Bayer's Community Advisory Panel in Kansas City. Chemical companies sponsor about 300 such panels in the U.S. in an effort to learn about community concerns and keep local residents informed about plant operations. "They don't want to talk about hazards, but about risks," Giessel says.

ACC maintains that the arguments over hazards are essentially irrelevant because hazards can be contained, Giessel says. But the way she sees it, "Responsible Care doesn't eliminate human error," and, therefore, it doesn't eliminate the potential for disaster.

On the other hand, the European Union's proposed regulatory framework for chemicals, REACH--Regulation, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals--assumes that hazardous chemicals can't be managed, Giessel says. She is not sure that REACH and its precautionary principle are the final answer to preventing another Bhopal, she says, but ACC should more directly confront the hazards involved in chemical production.

Gilbert Omenn, who is also on ACC's Leadership Dialogue Panel, says his impression is that the chemical industry is concerned about issues such as security and the risk of a chemical accident. Omenn is a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Michigan and chaired the President's Commission on Risk Assessment & Risk Management between 1994 and 1997. He is also on the board of directors of specialty chemicals firm Rohm and Haas. "We have lots of vulnerabilities. We live in an open society," Omenn says.

Like ACC, the Canadian Chemical Producers Association, which owns the Responsible Care trademark, also has its panel of advisers. Its National Advisory Panel includes community activists, academicians, an epidemiologist, an economist, and even a labor union staff member. Brian Kohler, the health, safety, and environment representative of the Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union of Canada, has an interesting outsider's take on the chemical industry's efforts to prevent another Bhopal.

The Responsible Care program has "made people more aware of the potential for another accident like Bhopal," he says, and that's all for the best. Although parts of Responsible Care are encoded as law, it "depends heavily on good will and voluntary standards." And because not every chemical firm or oil refinery subscribes to the program, it is flawed.

"The missing ingredient," Kohler says, "is a government regulatory framework to make safety stick." And he sees some hope that government, industry, and labor leaders might one day agree on a suitable regulatory framework. "Not everyone in the chemical industry is opposed to regulation," he says. "It's the same for car drivers, who are not all opposed to speed limits."



American Chemistry Council says it will supply the facts to earn the public's trust


  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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