Concern for Safety : After Bhopal--a Lid on Chemicals

Times Staff Writer

Galvanized by the death of more than 2,000 persons after a toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, local and national officials in this country are moving to clamp costly new safety and pollution restrictions on U.S. chemical makers and others who use or transport hazardous substances.

And the chemical industry, aware of its political vulnerability in the wake of the Bhopal disaster, is rushing to take a variety of voluntary actions designed to head off what it fears most: a new round of costly and burdensome regulations.

For example, although the nation's big chemical makers raised a flurry of objections several years ago when the federal government first proposed that workers get detailed information on the hazardous substances they contacted on the job, the giant St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. offered last month to give much the same data to anyone who asks for it.

'Heightened Public Concerns'

"It's fair to say we're doing this in response to heightened public concerns about chemical hazards after the Bhopal incident," said Larry O'Neill, a Monsanto spokesman.

That concern was evident within days of last December's Indian tragedy, when two Ohio cities, Akron and Canton, passed "community right-to-know" ordinances that force firms to disclose the presence of dangerous chemicals on their property. Cleveland's city council will consider a similar ordinance this month. Massachusetts is beginning to enforce a statewide right-to-know law enacted last summer. Other states, including Louisiana and Washington, are considering similar measures.

At the national level, a bipartisan group of House members led by Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) proposed a sheaf of federal laws Tuesday mandating disclosure by chemical companies, setting limits on hazardous air pollution and requiring development of evacuation plans for neighborhoods in which heavy industries are located.

'Powerful Incentives'

"This legislation should create powerful incentives for industry to resolve some of the worst and most dangerous pollution problems," Florio said.

California Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) plans to attach some of the same measures to new clean air legislation.

When the two congressmen proposed additional environmental controls on the chemical industry last year, the industry successfully opposed them as onerous and unnecessary. But the public revulsion and fear following the Bhopal disaster could prove a potent catalyst for new anti-pollution laws.

"I think we're starting to harvest the results of about 30 years of chemical production," said Rep. Bob Wise (D-W.Va.), whose district includes the Union Carbide chemical works that was a model for the Bhopal plant. "All the problems that have built up over that time are coming up to face us. They can't be put off any longer."

Geraldine V. Cox, vice president and technical director of the Chemical Manufacturers Assn., disagrees: "It's so easy to pick on industry. Let's take the politics out of this and look at the facts. We're the safest industry in the United States."

Indeed, by traditional measures--worker accident rates, lost workdays and so forth--the chemical business has an enviable safety record. In 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.5 of every 100 chemical workers suffered job-related injuries or illnesses, compared with 10 of every 100 workers in all manufacturing industries.

But critics such as Florio and Waxman contend those statistics ignore a host of health and safety hazards that chemical plants pose to the millions who live or work nearby.

The threat of a Bhopal-style chemical disaster in an American city is merely the most obvious concern. While both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have some power to enforce chemical-plant safety, the task has fallen largely to chemical makers themselves.

Jurisdictional Limits

While no domestic chemical industry accident has claimed a large number of deaths in nearly four decades, the industry's own safety surveys sometimes turn up embarrassing oversights, as when a September study of the Union Carbide plant in Wise's congressional district warned of a "real potential" for a Bhopal-style leak of toxic gas there.

Critics say neither EPA nor OSHA is inclined to force industry to toe the safety line. EPA officials, for example, say the laws that give them the power to regulate underground storage tanks that leak toxins into the ground may not cover those tanks that, like the ones in Bhopal, leak deadly gases into the air.

Similarly, OSHA has responsibility for chemical leaks that stay within a factory's boundaries, but once a deadly gas crosses the company fence, it enters the legal province of the EPA.

The Florio legislation would attempt to abolish such jurisdictional stumbling blocks, and would place most of the safety burden on EPA, which has better chemical industry expertise and records than the understaffed OSHA.

The New Jersey Democrat's proposal also would require industries to draw up emergency evacuation and disaster-response plans in cooperation with local fire, police and health officials. In addition, it would order regional training programs in chemical emergency procedures for fire and safety officials. Although most big chemical makers already have such plans, critics say they are sometimes poorly prepared and are seldom explained to the persons who would be evacuated in a crisis.

Equally rankling to Florio is the EPA's apparent failure to limit the industry's everyday venting of scores of highly toxic gases, from formaldehyde and phosgene (mustard gas) to small doses of methyl isocyanate, which caused the Bhopal deaths.

In 14 years, EPA has set pollution limits on only eight hazardous airborne substances, all of them nationwide health threats that cause cancer when breathed over lengthy periods.

According to agency spokesman John R. O'Connor, those guidelines have allowed the EPA to tackle the biggest pollution problems first. But Waxman charges--and O'Connor agrees--that they virtually exclude such gases as methyl isocyanate, which are lethal in small doses and are found only in isolated factory towns, not nationwide.

The Florio proposal would give the EPA a deadline for classifying the unregulated gases as hazardous air pollutants and setting ceilings on their emissions.

Getting House in Order

Spurred by the Bhopal accident, the chemical industry has been rushing to place its own house in order before Congress or the states intervene. Cox, of the Chemical Manufacturers Assn., said 90% of firms recently surveyed already have begun "intensive" audits of their safety, transportation and pollution-prevention programs.

"I suspect we may discover things that need to be changed," she said. "We'll volunteer to identify those things and to suggest changes."

Some companies say they have already found ways to improve their plants. Monsanto ordered a company-wide review of safety procedures a week after the Indian disaster, and officials at one typical factory--a Texas plant that makes highly explosive acrylonitrile--are moving to reduce surplus chemical stocks to reduce the potential for leaks and major blasts.

William R. Robirds, a top Monsanto official, says the Texas plant has traditionally concentrated on preventing explosions but is now studying new ways to control leaks of such manufacturing byproducts as deadly hydrogen cyanide gas. The plant last week began new training in cleaning up chemical spills.

Such efforts, Cox says, should reassure the public that the chemical industry "hasn't waited for regulations" to force improvements in its operations. "We don't want a dirty environment," she said, "and we don't want an unsafe workplace."

Monsanto's voluntary offering of data on its chemicals, said Monsanto spokesman O'Neill, shows the company is "promoting public disclosure, not . . . finding reasons to withhold information."

But the industry also seems agreed that it wants no new laws to gum up what it regards as a smooth safety and health program. O'Neill says the company believes existing laws and regulations are adequate. Cox says legislative packages such as Florio's could take years to enact, when all that may be needed is some fine-tuning of existing federal rules.

Chemical makers and other business interests have sometimes fought to discourage state and local efforts to monitor the industry through right-to-know laws. Despite that, nationwide support for community right-to-know laws had been building for several years, advocates say. More than 40 cities and a score of states have enacted laws requiring companies to disclose chemical rosters to their workers or the public.

Accumulation of Incidents

"It's been an accumulation of one toxic incident after another" that spurred several Ohio cities to adopt such ordinances even before Bhopal, said Lucy Audette of the Ohio Public Action Campaign.

In Ohio, the state Chamber of Commerce is leading opposition to the ordinances on the grounds that disclosure is too expensive and may endanger companies' trade-secret formulas. In New Jersey, another "right-to-know" state, the chemical industry went to court to overturn a law that required disclosure to both employees and the public.

A U.S. district court ruled last month that the New Jersey law, one of the nation's toughest, was preempted by a weaker federal right-to-know rule enforced by OSHA that applies only to workers. The ruling effectively bars states from issuing tougher worker-disclosure laws of their own, although it does not limit community right-to-know statutes.

The ruling will cause "no diminution of workplace safety," said Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council, which battled the Jersey statute. But the state is appealing the decision, and state legislators are working on community right-to-know legislation that would skirt the ruling.

Florio will offer a less complex solution: one proposed national right-to-know law for citizens, and a second law allowing states such as New Jersey to enact worker right-to-know laws that are tougher than the federal standard.

Either prospect is dismaying to industry experts such as Cox, who warns that the result will be "a couple of lawyers at 20 paces. I'm very worried that if we regress to the confrontational type of politics we had in the '70s, both the environment and the public health will suffer because nothing will get done."

But the confrontation may already be under way. Aides to Florio pledge privately that, if their legislative proposals are not passed as a package, it will be tacked piece by piece onto an endless series of anti-pollution laws that Congress will be considering this year and next. And the Chemical Manufacturers Assn. is already meeting with community groups, newspaper editorial boards and reporters to press its view that Bhopal was the exception, not the rule.

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