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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

December 9, 1994

Air Date: December 9, 1994


Deadly Decade / Scott Neuman

It's been ten years since the deadliest industrial accident in history. Thousands died and thousands more were maimed. Scott Neuman reports on the aftermath of the chemical accident and the pressure that's building for stricter laws to try to avert such a disaster from happening again. (07:24)

Cautious Lessons at Institute, West Virginia / John Gregory

John Gregory reports from this college town that houses an industrial plant similar in design and production to the one whose leak devastated Bhopal in 1984. Gregory talks with residents about their concerns around living near the plant. (06:41)

Probable Prevention

Hillel Gray, Policy Director of the National Environmental Law Center talks with host Steve Curwood about the production of toxic chemicals. He says in the United States an average of 19 chemical accidents happen every day. Gray wants the U.S. Government to do more to assess risks, better plan hazardous facilities, and, where necessary, stop production. (04:44)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Jeff Rice, Alex Kirby, Scott Neuman, John Gregory
GUEST: Hillel Gray

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living On Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Ten years after the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, caused the world's worst industrial accident, critics charge that toxic chemical makers in densely populated areas of India are still poorly regulated.

MEHTA: There is an industry which is still manufacturing chlorine. And it is in the heart of [the] city.

CURWOOD: In the US, Union Carbide built a plant in Institute, West Virginia, that was the model for the Bhopal facility. The plant has a new operator now, but a history of accidents there has raised fears on the college campus next door.

BELLER: In August of 1993, while we were having registration here, there was a major explosion at the plant. And these kinds of concerns have led us to worry about the future of the college.

CURWOOD: Living in the aftermath of Bhopal this week on Living on Earth. First news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The fishing industry in the Northeast faces more drastic restrictions within the next 6 months. Legislative sources familiar with the issue tell Living on Earth that a ban on large fishing boats operating close to the New England shore is likely to follow the shutdown of 3 major fishing grounds earlier this month. That action was aimed at protecting rapidly-declining stocks in the George's Bank area, once one of the world's richest fishing grounds. The Clinton Administration has pledged about $60 million to aid Northeast fishing families, but some want the US to buy out many of the boats that will be beached by the ban.

An internal Army report has found scores of safety and management problems at the centerpiece of the US's program to destroy chemical weapons. The report bolsters allegations made by a former plant safety manager that problems at the facility could endanger plant workers and neighbors. The Army plans to start burning nerve agents, mustard gas, and other chemical weapons at the Tuella, Utah, incinerator late next year. From KUER in Salt Lake City, Jeff Rice reports.

RICE: The report, issued by the Army's Inspector General's Office, found more than 60 safety violations at the plant, ranging from improper oversight of government contractors and lack of proper safety inspections to improper handling of deadly chemicals. The document support allegations by former plant safety manager Steve Jones that a widespread pattern of safety problems existed at the plant. Jones was fired from his job as safety manager in September and alleges his termination was because of his accusations. The Army says that it takes both the internal report and Jones's allegations seriously, according to spokesperson Susan Fornier.

FORNIER: We already have about 75% of them addressed and solutions are in place. We still have some that we want to address, and those will be done before the plant begins operation next September.

RICE: The Tuella incinerator is crucial to the US chemical weapons incineration program. Observers say the fates of 7 other disposal plants hinge on the successful start-up of Tuella. The US is obliged by treaty to destroy the vast majority of its stock of chemical weapons by the year 2005. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Rice in Salt Lake City.

MULLINS: The Energy Department says it's working on a plant to put tons of plutonium stored haphazardly at dozens of facilities around the country in safer containers. An internal DOE audit found at least 26 tons of the highly radioactive material stored in shoddy containers, or left in tanks and piping. The report says many of the containers have leaked or are in danger of bursting, and pose a significant threat to workers, the public, and the environment. The Energy Department says it may take a decade or more to find a long-term solution to the problem.

The Chinese government has signed an agreement with 2 animal protection groups to end the practice of farming bears for their bile. The deal is the first ever between China and non-government organizations. The BBC's Alex Kirby reports.

KIRBY: Until recently, China was planning a massive expansion of the 8,000 farms where the bears are kept for years in cramped and squalid cages. The animals of several species are kept for their bile, which is siphoned off every 2 weeks or so from their gallbladders through metal taps permanently implanted in the bears' stomachs. The bile is used in traditional medicine, where it is believed to be effective against cancer and other diseases. Under this agreement, China has promised to close down the worst farms as soon as possible. It will cut production from the rest by one third, and has pledged to end bear farming completely in time. Beijing also says it will work to develop herbal substitutes for the bile. For Living on Earth, this is Alex Kirby in London.

MULLINS: Air in 9 of the nation's smoggiest cities may get some relief with the new year. That's according to the EPA, which has ordered gas stations in those areas to sell a new, cleaner burning gasoline. Many other cities have volunteered to use the fuel to help states meet Clean Air Act goals, but the new gas is expected to cost an extra nickel or more a gallon, and nearly 30 counties in Pennsylvania and New York are withdrawing from the program. That's upset several oil companies, which have invested billions to meet the EPA standard. They're concerned they'll lose money on already-delivered stocks of the new gas.

The first mass-produced electric car may soon make its way to the US market. Massachusetts-based Selectria Corporation has unveiled a 4-door sedan which they hope will hit showrooms in 1997. With a price tag of less than $20,000, it will be far cheaper than current electrics. Selectria says its Sunrise will be made of lightweight composite materials, and drive about 120 miles between charges. The country's Big Three car makers argue that limited range and long recharging time mean the cars won't be ready for the road any time soon.

Whether or not the technology is ready, a new study indicates that consumers may be. A survey conducted for an industry newsletter, Automotive News, finds 63% of Californians would consider buying an electric vehicle despite their limitations, and 30% say they would pay more for it.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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(Theme music up and under)

Deadly Decade

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Shortly after midnight on December 4, 1984, a series of 5 safety systems failed at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. As a result, a cloud of deadly cyanide gas, methyl isocyanate, was released into the atmosphere. By morning, more than 2,000 people in the surrounding area were dead. In the months and years that followed, the death toll continued to rise in what remains the most fatal industrial accident in history. A decade later, most of the survivors of Bhopal are still awaiting compensation for the deaths of family members and for their own mounting medical bills. And as Scott Neuman reports, many believe India has failed to heed the lessons of Bhopal, and that there's a high risk of another chemical accident.

(Ambient conversations)

NEUMAN: In the shantytowns that surround the now closed and rusting Union Carbide plant on Bhopal's north side, a group of volunteers is trying to document the medical condition of people who continue to suffer the long-term effects of cyanide poisoning. In a dilapidated wood and brick structure, an elderly woman recounts the night 10 years ago that changed her life.

WOMAN: [Speaks in Indian dialect]
TRANSLATOR: So everywhere there was smoke and everyone, people went running. So she also ran to an area called Daramkarta, then she fell down unconscious. When she went to the hospital, she doesn't know how she reached there, and she saw people, all the people in her community area die, dead there.

NEUMAN: The 70,000 people treated in the hours immediately following the gas leak overwhelmed Bhopal's several hospitals and dispensaries. Dr. N.P. Misra was working as dean of the local medical college in December 1984. To cope with the overflow, Misra says the roads around the city's main hospital were converted into makeshift wards. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues desperately scrambled for information on how to treat the gas victims. Union Carbide had no plan for such a large-scale disaster, and Misra says the company failed to provide adequate guidance in those crucial hours.

MISRA: They could not tell us exactly what is the toxic effect of the gas, and how best it could be treated. Secondly, they also did not tell us whether the information on this subject was available anywhere else if it was not with them. Thirdly, they did not give us any substantial help in carrying out treatment of these patients. Until 4 or 5 days later when a team arrived from their United States office.

NEUMAN: At least two-and-a-half thousand people died within the first few days after the accident. Several thousand more have succumbed to gas-related injuries in the 10 years since. But the company moved quickly in an effort to mitigate the disaster, says General Manager for Union Carbide India, Kumaraswami.

KUMARASWAMI: We flew in whatever medicines the local doctors prescribed at that time, was mostly the [sounds like "cortisones"] for the eyes and something for the lungs and other things. And then we flew in a lot of oxygen cylinders which became very short in Bhopal.

NEUMAN: But when then Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson arrived in India with an on-site survey team, he was promptly arrested by Indian authorities. Soon after, he was released on bail. Since then, Anderson has repeatedly failed to appear before the Bhopal District Court, where criminal charges against him and other Union Carbide officials are still pending. Union Carbide's Kumaraswami won't comment on any issues related to the criminal proceedings. But in 1989, a $470 million settlement was reached with the Indian government to compensate the gas victims. A much smaller figure than what the government had originally demanded.

(Woman speaking in Indian dialect)

NEUMAN: But progress toward settling those claims and distributing the money has been painfully slow. For the gas-affected poor, the cost of medical treatment is often more than they can handle. And for most of the victims, like this woman, the money has not come.

WOMAN: [Speaks in Indian dialect]
TRANSLATOR: The women here live in very bad condition, and all over, the health condition is deteriorating, and there's no help or no compensation or whatever. That has also an effect on the generations to come, as she was telling about some person who's living near to her house. His wife died on the night of second December; he delivered, his other wife, second wife gave birth to two children, and both the children are handicapped.

NEUMAN: Since 1984, steps have been taken in India to regulate industries that produce toxic substances. Those industries are now liable for any environmental damage or loss of life caused by negligence. The government also now has the power to shut down industries it deems unsafe.

MEHTA: But unfortunately that is not happening.

NEUMAN: M.C. Mehta is an attorney who has argued before the Indian Supreme Court on behalf of stricter environmental laws. Mehta says the laws are not being properly enforced because India's aggressive new economic policies encourage foreign investment at any cost.

MEHTA: And these multinationals, because of stringent laws in other countries, they are coming to India. Because here they know that the laws are there but their implementation is nowhere.

NEUMAN: The Environment Ministry has primary responsibility for enforcing those laws, but repeated attempts to set up an interview with Ministry officials were unsuccessful. M.C. Mehta warns that the seeds of another large-scale disaster already exist in India. He says unsafe and poorly-regulated chemical plants are operating in most of India's major urban centers.

MEHTA: Bombay is sitting on a volcano without knowing when will it erupt. Similarly, in Delhi also, there is an industry which is still manufacturing chlorine, and it is in the heart of [the] city. There is a factory which the government industry, which is manufacturing DDT, and this DDT has been banned, but they are manufacturing here. There are many Bhopal-like accidents all in the offering in this country.

(Traffic sounds; horns blowing and trucks)

NEUMAN: A small, unimpressive stone sculpture is the official monument to the victims of the world's worst industrial accident. The real monument, the factory itself, is across the street. The cement walls that surround it are littered with angry graffiti condemning Union Carbide for what happened here. One slogan calling for Union Carbide to quit India seems to have been fulfilled. The company has just completed a deal to sell off its Indian subsidiary. Meanwhile, India's economic reforms are designed to prove to foreign industries that the country holds potential for new large-scale investments. Now the government must reassure its citizens that the Bhopal disaster will never be repeated. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Neuman reporting.

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Cautious Lessons at Institute, West Virginia

CURWOOD: The chemical released in Bhopal, methyl isocyanate, or MIC, is used to make everything from plastics to pesticides. The common insecticide Seven, which many gardeners use on tomatoes, corn, and roses, is made using MIC. The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal was modeled after the company's other MIC facility, located in Institute, West Virginia, a small college town 10 miles outside of the state capitol in Charleston. It wasn't until after the Bhopal disaster that many of the people in the area learned that MIC was being produced in their community. Two years after the Bhopal accident, Union Carbide sold its West Virginia plant to the French-owned Rhône-Poulenc, A.G. company. From Institute, reporter John Gregory continues our story.

GREGORY: The Rhône-Poulenc facility in Institute, West Virginia, is sandwiched between the Kanahwa River and Interstate 64, in a narrow valley of the Appalachian foothills. Although a variety of potentially dangerous chemicals are used and produced here, it is the lethal and highly volatile MIC that is most feared by the local community.

(Factory floor sounds; large fans)

GREGORY: The 460-acre plant is a maze of silver pipes, duct work, and tanks, some of which are labeled in bright orange.

DeLESCIO: See the orange, it has MIC up there? Basically those are steel barriers that protect the MIC transfer lines within the plant. Cranes are not allowed to use...

GREGORY: Tom DeLescio is the public affairs manager for Rhône-Poulenc A.G. Company. The steel barriers surrounding the double-walled MIC pipes are some of the numerous safety improvements Rhône-Poulenc has made since buying the facility in 1986. The company has also dramatically reduced the amount of MIC stored at the plant from over 1 million pounds to about 180,000 pounds per day. All of the MIC produced here is used by Rhône-Poulenc and 3 other chemical companies located within the Institute complex. DeLescio says keeping the producer and users in one facility has made it easier to control the MIC. In the event of an accident, Rhône-Poulenc has installed a series of flares and scrubbers.

DeLESCIO: The flare would burn off any release of MIC should that escape. Basically make it black smoke rather than a harmful gas. And that scrubber basically would collect any release and neutralize it with caustic material.

GREGORY: Even with this increased scrutiny, Rhône-Poulenc has had a series of problems at the Institute plant. A fire and explosion in 1988 damaged a pipe reportedly containing MIC. In 1990, an MIC leak injured several plant workers. And in 1993, one worker was killed when an explosion damaged a tank containing 30,000 pounds of MIC. That brought a $1.6 million Federal fine for alleged safety violations. The company is appealing the ruling. But the penalty and the safety improvements the plant has made has done little to calm the fears of the neighboring communities.

BELLER: In August of 1993, while we were having registration here, there was a major explosion at the plant. And these kinds of concerns have led us to worry about the future of the college.

GREGORY: Jerry Beller is the chairman of the political science department at West Virginia State College in Institute. The school, with its 4,600 students, sits right next door to the Rhône-Poulenc complex. Beller is a founding member of a local citizens' group called People Concerned About MIC. He admits that a major accident is less likely to happen here than it was in Bhopal, but he's concerned that the average amount of MIC stored daily at Institute is 2 to 3 times the amount that was released in India.

BELLER: We want some way of the plant working with us on a level playing field, where we're all equals in the sense that we can look at the kind of dangers that they have and know what they know about the dangers there.

GREGORY: The citizens' group has asked Rhône-Poulenc to reduce its storage of MIC to near zero. Such production techniques already exist and are used by chemical giants DuPont and Bayer. But Rhône-Poulenc says that since they have 4 on-site customers with 4 different production schedules, that it's virtually impossible not to keep some stockpile of MIC. However, the company plans to review their production and storage system next year.

(Student conversation in hallways; musical instruments being practiced)

GREGORY: Just before noon, students begin trickling out of the lecture hall in the Fine Arts Building at West Virginia State College. This classroom is one of several places on campus where students are told to take shelter in the event of a chemical release. The Fine Arts Building is about 300 yards downwind from Rhône-Poulenc's primary MIC storage tank. David Heath and Kim Fisher are seniors at the college.

HEATH: And I grew up in the area; I just take it as a, we live there and that's one of the facts of living there, you know? We just have to hope that it doesn't happen. And if it does, I hope that I'm not around, or in a place where we can get to a shelter.

FISHER: I think, though, that they should have some kind of precautionary measures. You know, send out some kind of literature to the public to let them know just in case; because how are you going to let them know once it's happened?

GREGORY: The telephone book for Greater Charleston does contain 5 pages of emergency instructions, and the community does have monthly tests of its emergency systems, although officials still have problems getting all the sirens to work. After months of negotiating, activist Jerry Beller says Rhône-Poulenc has tentatively agreed to an independent review of plant operations and emergency procedures.

BELLER: It's important, I think it's a worthwhile thing to do. But it still angers me. I mean, they don't have to concern themselves over there with the running of the college and the teaching of classes here, but we feel that we have to do this because they're a threat to us.

GREGORY: Beller says he fears Rhône-Poulenc may, quote, "talk the proposal to death." But company officials say they hope to strike a deal for an independent audit some time during 1995. For Living On Earth, I'm John Gregory.

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(Music up and under)

Probable Prevention

CURWOOD: Since the Bhopal accident in 1984, much has changed in the way hazardous substances are made and used here in the US. There are new emergency planning and response programs, new standards for disclosure of toxic releases, and occupational health and safety reviews of plants. But some activists say these measures aren't being enforced well enough, and that even if they were properly enforced they wouldn't be enough to protect the public from serious chemical accidents. The National Environmental Law Center has just completed a review of government and industry data on accident rates and storage of hazardous chemicals, and concludes that it could still happen here. Hillel Gray is the Center's policy director, and he's with us in the studio now. Thanks for joining us.

GRAY: Thank you very much, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, the EPA says it has taken measures that will prevent accidents, and we haven't had any Bhopal-like accidents here. So why should we worry?

GRAY: There's a common myth that you often hear from experts, which is there's no cause for alarm. And far be it from any responsible group to ask the public to be alarmed without information. What we want to have is more information about what are the true risks to the public, and so far EPA's done a very poor job in ensuring that the public understands the risks associated with these hazardous materials being stored all over the United States. And the second problem that we have is a problem of mindset. That the same type of design approach occurs in the manufacturing plants here in the United States as did in Bhopal, which is that you add on systems like flares, scrubbers, sprinklers. Emergency response systems. And you call that prevention. And instead, what is needed is to change the approach to prevention so that companies actually reduce their use of these chemicals or change their production operations so that they're safer, and so that accidents cannot happen in the first place.

CURWOOD: But haven't in fact things gotten better over the last 10 years with the manufacture of chemicals?

GRAY: Well we see 2 areas of improvement. One is that there's a lot more regard for emergency response, like firefighting and cleanup. And the second thing you see is there is a lot more attention to safety systems. What we don't know today is whether there's actually been a reduction in the use and the production of hazardous materials over the last 10 years.

CURWOOD: Now, what's wrong with our current laws, let's say, for Institute, West Virginia? Are there currently laws, in your view, that are on the books now, that aren't being enforced, that would help in this area?

GRAY: Yes. There is considerable authority that EPA has under the Clean Air Act, and there are 2 types of things that they could do today. First of all, that they could require companies to go through a planning process to assess their technologies and the materials they use to make them safer and cleaner. And secondly, EPA could identify extremely high-risk, dangerous chemicals that are used in particular industrial sectors and require that those companies phase out the use of those materials.

CURWOOD: These kind of changes for industry cost money. They're very expensive. And how can you mandate these kinds of changes in ways that will be economically efficient for industry?

GRAY: There are 2 types of costs. There are the costs of making the innovation. And then there are all the costs of not making the innovation, of putting on all these response systems, putting on all these safety systems, and having at your disposal alarms and shelters and firefighting agencies and so on. That's a very expensive system to have to run. We can make a transition and have it be economically viable. If we change some of the incentives, if you had fees on some of the most costly chemicals, if you ensure that there are high insurance rates, when you force companies to really take into account all the costs of having an accident, then they will have internal incentives to change their technologies.

CURWOOD: EPA is in the process of making some rules under the Clean Air Act. What would you like them to do?

GRAY: The Sierra Club recently took EPA to court. In a settlement, EPA finally agreed to take into account these prevention issues in their regulation. Unfortunately, EPA at the same time is asking for an extension of time, and what we're asking for is faster action, because we do have serious risks in this country and we have a rate of 19 chemical accidents a day. I think what we do need to do after Bhopal is to seriously go after these companies and ask them, do you really need to use that material? Do you really need to produce that material? And do you need to do it quite the way you're doing it today? I think that our country did not adequately respond to Bhopal, and 10 years later it could happen here still.

CURWOOD: All right. Thank you very much. Hillel Gray is policy director for the National Environmental Law Center. Thank you, sir.

GRAY: Thank you very much.

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(Instrumental music up and under, followed by song: "Here comes the jackpot, question in advance. What are you doing, what are you doing New Year's? New Years Eve?)

CURWOOD: Ah yes, soon the New Year will be upon us and with it a new chance to do all those things that we think we should do. We need your help. We'd like you to share with us what environmental resolutions that you plan to adopt, or think the rest of us should adopt for this coming year. Let us know, and your resolution might be one of the ones we select to read or play back on the air. You can write to New Year's Resolutions, Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's New Year's Resolutions, Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Or e-mail to LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Or call your resolutions in toll free to 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Con Von Hoffman, David Dunlap, Jonathan Medwed, Heather Corson, Jessika Bella Mura, and Molly Glidden. Our WBUR studio engineers are Keith Shields and Frank deAngeles, and our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living On Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded in the studios of WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation for coverage of science and the environment; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; and the Bullitt Foundation for Northwest reporting.

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