A cloud of lethal gas escapes from a pesticide factory in the central Indian city of Bhopal, in 1984, immediately causing death and long-term damage. In a facsimile incident in January 2014, a storage tank disgorges chemicals contaminating the drinking water in West Virginia. These disastrous incidents reveal that despite the thirty-year gap between such calamities, there remains a clear need for environmental safety regulations and strategies for disaster preparedness as well as corporate and government accountability.
Early in the morning of January 9, 2014 people near Charleston, West Virginia noticed a strong licorice smell in the air and called emergency officials to investigate. It turned out to be a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries that had spilled 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) into the Elk River in West Virginia. MCHM is a chemical used to clean coal before it goes to market.
Around midnight between the 2nd and 3rd of Dec 1984 people in a very poor neighborhood in Bhopal noticed a strong feeling of burning chilis stinging their eyes and searing their lungs. It turned out to be a storage tank owned by Union Carbide that had leaked 40 tons of methylisocyanate (MIC) gas covering an area of Bhopal, India populated by 500,000 people. MIC is a chemical used in the manufacture of the pesticide carbaryl.
In the initial few hours after the spill in West Virginia public health officials were issuing statements assuring the public there was nothing to worry about. According to a short report by CNN, West Virginia’s Poison Control director Dr. Elizabeth Scharman said there’s not much information available about the chemical because it hasn’t been adequately studied. Ten thousand gallons of an inadequately studied chemical dumped into a river 1.5 miles upstream from a water treatment plant serving 300,000 people in nine counties. This posed a serious problem for doctors treating hundreds of people in the weeks following the spill.
Federal code requires the owner of any facility post information about the hazards of any chemical which they produce, import, or to which their employees could be exposed.
The regulation also states the material safety data sheet (MSDS) must be submitted to the local emergency planning committee, the state emergency response commission, and the fire department responsible for that facility. In this case the MSDS Eastman Chemical for MCHM is full of holes due to “lack of data.” If you look at the document it’s rather laughable. The US Chemical Safety Board has noted that “Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) often do not adequately communicate hazard data and precautions.” That’s very true in this case. Why is there no data? According to a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, MCHM was grandfathered in under 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), along with 62,000 other chemicals. No data required.
The National Library of Medicine Toxicology Data Network states MCHM is an irritant to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract and that high exposures can damage the heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs. That’s true of many chemicals. The treatment information provided for doctors is also very generic and could be applied to any poisoning case. No actual antidotes for MCHM poisoning are known. As a practicing urgent care physician I can tell you this isn’t particularly helpful information.
Some days to weeks after the initial leak, Freedom Industries reported that another chemical, Dowanol PPh, was also in the tank. PPh is manufactured by none other than Dow Chemical, the current owners of Union Carbide. Once again not much is known about PPh. Dow’s safety assessment document states “Eye contact with PPh may cause severe irritation with slight corneal injury. Prolonged skin contact may cause slight irritation with local redness.” And that’s about all.
The Freedom Institute atrocities continue. On Feb 6, 2014 another leak of MCHM occurred when contractors hit an underground pipe while excavating for Freedom Industries. You’d think they’d be extra careful after the first accident.
On the night of the Union Carbide Gas Disaster somewhere between 3,000-6,000 deaths occurred while the local hospitals were overwhelmed by the ill and dying. Local doctors had no information on the composition of the gas with no idea how to care for the survivors. Union Carbide was not immediately forthcoming about the toxicity of the gas nor how the survivors could be treated. In the immediate aftermath Union Carbide’s official statement to local authorities in Bhopal was that MIC was a mild irritant, not a lethal chemical. There was some possibility that sodium thiosulfate could have acted as a partial antidote to the toxicity of the cyanate component of the Union Carbide Gas, but that information was not available in a timely fashion to the treating physicians.
The Aquatic Fates
Five or six hours after the MCHM leak in West Virginia, statements were issued to not drink the water. The Do Not Use Water Advisory issued by the State of West Virginia was lifted four days after the leak. But according to the Toxnet database only half of the dissolved MCHM would have been expected to volatilize from the river in three and a half days. Several days after the advisory was lifted the Center for Disease Control issued warnings that pregnant women abstain from drinking the water, just to be on the safe side. One month after the disaster the water still smells.
On Feb 6, 2014, after the second leak occurred, the West Virginia Governor requested the state’s privately held water utility to provide more bottled water to the population. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided bottled water to the area for ten days. The state has spent spent nearly a million dollars on bottled water. Why is the state paying for the bottled water? Why is the bill being footed by taxpayers? Why isn’t anyone telling Freedom Industries to belly up to the bar and buy rounds of clean water for everyone?
For years after the 1984 Union Carbide Gas Disaster, there were signs reading “Water Unfit for Drinking” on the hand pumps in the neighborhood from which residents obtained drinking water. Many of the residents of that area were illiterate. The signs were of no use. Thirty years after the disaster the groundwater and the surrounding soil is still contaminated. It wasn’t until 2004 the Supreme Court of India ordered the state government of Madhya Pradesh to provide clean drinking water to the inhabitants. In 2012 the Supreme Court gave Madhya Pradesh three months to start supplying clean water. Finally in 2013, thirty years after the disaster, a pipe supplying clean water to the contaminated communities was near completion. Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, isn’t footing the bill for the clean water to Bhopalis either.
Tougher government oversight was recommended by the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) three years ago after they investigated a series of industrial accidents in 2008 at a Bayer CropScience Chemical Plant Institute in West Virginia. One of those accidents came dangerously close to damaging a storage tank containing methylisocyanate (MIC), the same chemical in the tank responsible for the Union Carbide Gas Disaster in Bhopal.
After the investigation, the CSB recommended that West Virginia create a new chemical accident inspection program, and that state and local authorities considered the recommendation “ … but due to a number of reasons, including funding, it has not been adopted.” [Source: Testimony from the Transportation and Infrastructure Field Hearing on the West Virginia Chemical Spill] The state of West Virginia wants to keep the economic climate favorable to businesses and insists there is enough regulation of industries already. The state prides itself in being industry-friendly.
After the Freedom Industries spill in January 2014, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors scheduled a visit to assess the situation. Following the visit it was revealed that Freedom Industries “‘does not have OSHA history,’ meaning … that federal workplace safety officials have never inspected the site.” [Source: Charleston Gazette] Additionally, State Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials conceded “that their discovery of the [WV] leak marked the first time [West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP)] inspectors had been at the site in more than 20 years.” [Source: Charleston Gazette] Why does West Virginia not require inspections of storage tanks containing dangerous chemicals?
It is clear that the owners of Freedom Industries did not follow regulations.
Under current West Virginia law, Freedom Industries was required to submit a groundwater protection plan per the Clean Water Act. It is alleged that “the state had no record of a plan being filed.” [Source: the Council of State Governments Knowledge Center] Freedom Industries was required to report hazardous spills immediately following an incident. “An odor complaint was filed with WVDEP at 8:16 AM on January 9, but Freedom did not report the spill until 12:05 PM that day—almost four hours later.” [Source: DownStream Strategies, an environmental consulting firm] According to Bloomberg Businessweek, after the January spill, Freedom Industries admitted they had earmarked $1 million in 2013 to fix the wall that ultimately failed to contain the chemical spill. They obviously hadn’t made the repairs.
Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy on Jan 17, 2014, eight days after the incident and 18 days after being acquired by Rosebud Mining via Chemstream Holdings. Roll-ups, holdings, mergers, and acquisitions go a long way to obscure accountability too.
Back to Bhopal
Union Carbide had sent an internal audit team from, where else but, West Virginia to inspect the plant in Bhopal. Their report outlined many concerns about safety mechanisms that weren’t working three months before the tragedy. That report was never sent to India. The flare tower meant to burn any gas that leaked was not lit; the caustic soda scrubber to neutralize any gas leak was not working; the refrigeration units to keep the tank and gases cold was not working as the freon was being used somewhere else; and the public alarm system had been shut off as it had been going off too frequently for 2-3 weeks before the “accident.” Dow Chemical now owns Union Carbide and denies responsibility. Another case of obscured accountability through the sleight of hand through mergers and acquisitions.
The government of Madhya Pradesh, and India, have basically protected the interests of corporations. The priority demonstrated has not been the protection of its citizens, but rather making conditions favorable for foreign companies to bring their operations to India. Of course it benefits people to have jobs, but a job does you no good if you are too sick to work, or dead.
According to Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the United States Chemical Safety Board, “we need comprehensive regulatory reform.” I’ll add that regulations need to be consistent worldwide. Companies are constantly escaping regulations here and dumping their toxic problems elsewhere. Years ago the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator had proposed regulations encouraging safer chemicals and processes. American companies strongly opposed these regulations, even though they comply with similar regulations in Europe. When governments calculate the balance between environment, health, and jobs, who are they keeping in mind? Aren’t the jobs for the same people who need clean environments to be healthy and happy. Having a sick and dirty job doesn’t serve anyone either, particularly the people doing the work.
America is basically on a path to outstrip the 1984 Union Carbide Gas Disaster’s notorious place in history as the world’s worst industrial accident in history. According to the EPA, there are about 13,000 facilities across the United States storing or processing hazardous chemicals in amounts capable of endangering the public, not to mention all the transporting of those chemicals. Three US Senators, Barbara Boxer, Joe Manchin and John Rockefeller, all three Democrats, introduced a bill in the Senate requiring states to inspect chemical facilities that put public water systems at risk every three to five years. The pressure has been turned up now with an original action filed by two public interest law firms against the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Human Resources alleging the agencies “failed to protect public health and the environment.”
The tragedy in Bhopal affected primarily very poor people. The tragedy in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, impacts the upper class of government officials, attorneys, and the like. When it’s your own water, it tends to tip the regulatory scale.
Beyond Holistic is hosting “We All Live in Bhopal: Commemorating 30 years of the Carbide Disaster”—a week of events in the San Francisco Bay Area Dec 2-7, 2014 in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Union Carbide Gas Disaster in Bhopal.
Jayshree Chander is a practicing physician board certified in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, as well as Family and Community Medicine. She serves part time at the Tom Waddell Health Center for the Homeless in San Francisco and is also a performing artist. She is the founder of Beyond Holistic, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting primary prevention through healing, arts, action, and medicine. www.beyondholistic.org.
A version of this article originally appeared on the blog, Nei Jing Now!-Prioritizing Well Being, www.neijingnow.org