December 3 marks the 32nd anniversary of the Bhopal, India disaster: the world’s worst industrial accident. In the middle of the night, an accident at a Union Carbide plant released a toxic gas, methyl isocyanate. The impact on the surrounding community was immediate and deadly. Chaos ensued as people attempted to escape the lethal toxic cloud. Thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands of lives were forever changed. The effects from the toxic exposure included blindness, kidney and liver failure. Decades later, survivors and their offspring continue to experience health impacts from that deadly night.
In response to the Bhopal disaster, the United States Congress took action and passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986. The late Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative James Florio were the lead sponsors of this law, which was based, in part, on the 1983 NJ Worker and Community Right to Know Act. The purpose of EPCRA was to help communities plan for chemical emergencies by requiring industry to report on the storage, use and releases of hazardous chemicals to federal, state, and local governments. It requires state and local governments to use this information to prepare their community from potential risks and it provides public access to local emergency response plans.
Although access to these plans is important, the best planning is not a substitute for prevention.
In the decades to follow the Bhopal tragedy, the US and NJ have passed a series of chemical policies. New Jersey policies have focused on tracking toxic chemicals, ensuring worker and community right to know, regulating reactive chemicals and reducing toxic chemicals by switching to safer alternatives when feasible. Even with all the laws and regulations passed, an estimated 12 million people still live in the danger zone of a chemical facility using extraordinarily hazardous chemicals that pose a potential catastrophic risk to workers and/or the public in the event of a worst case toxic release caused by an incident or attack.
This year, the US Environmental Protection Agency followed New Jersey’s lead and issued a draft chemical security rule requiring chemical facilities covered by their Risk Management Program (RMP) to conduct a safer alternatives analysis (STAA). However, it missed the mark by not requiring facilities that must conduct a STAA to make the switch when feasible. EPA also exempted 87 percent of the RMP chemical facilities from conducting a STAA for industries, such as bleach plants, despite known availability of safer alternatives.
As documented in the May 2016 GreenPeace report, Chlorine Bleach Plants Needlessly Endanger Millions 86 U.S. Facilities Fail to Use Safer Alternatives, large commercial bleach manufacturing facilities in the US continue to use large amounts of chlorine gas. The number of people at risk can be significantly reduced by utilizing different methods. One method is to produce chlorine on-site in a just-in-time basis. The product end-users, such as drinking water and waste water facilities, can remove the use of chlorine gas from their process by switching to safer ultraviolet light and liquid bleach.
As we remember the victims of the Bhopal tragedy, we must also look ahead and ensure we are doing all we can so another tragedy of this magnitude never happens again. Strong safeguards are needed in order to ensure that industry continues to reduce the risk of toxic exposure to workers and communities by utilizing safer alternatives whenever possible.
Although these powerful images are disturbing, they serve as a chilling reminder of why this is important.