Saturday December 20th, 2014, 12:17 pm (EST)

Dear Reader,

We place these articles at no charge on our website to serve all the people who cannot afford Monthly Review, or who cannot get access to it where they live. Many of our most devoted readers are outside of the United States. If you read our articles online and you can afford a subscription to our print edition, we would very much appreciate it if you would consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Chemical Catastrophe: From Bhopal to BP Texas City

Tomás Mac Sheoin (tomas.x [at] ireland.com) is an independent scholar in Ireland who writes on the chemical industry and popular movements. He has written Asphyxiating Asia (2003), a book about the chemical industry in Asia.

Twenty-five years ago, a runaway chemical reaction in a tank at a Union Carbide (UC) pesticide factory created a poisonous gas which, unimpeded by the factory’s safety devices, spewed out over the sleeping population of the Indian city of Bhopal. Amnesty International estimated that seven thousand to ten thousand died in the catastrophe’s first three days, and that, by 2004, another fifteen thousand died. Prior to Bhopal, concern over toxic chemicals was confined to long-term or chronic effects on human health and the environment. Bhopal, however, showed that the manufacture, storage, and use of toxic chemicals also posed a major, acute risk to the safety of those working in and living around petrochemical plants and complexes.

Bhopal has become the prototype of chemical catastrophes, against which all others are compared. Themes that constantly reappear in accounts of these catastrophes—corporations denying responsibility and blaming workers and victims; critics highlighting corporate responsibility for decisions resulting in faulty equipment; inadequate maintenance; staff and training cuts; and neglect by state regulators—can all be found in Bhopal.

In addition to its standing as a chemical catastrophe, Bhopal, unique in its devastation and intensity, is an exemplar of industrial disaster. In 1985, the Bhopal plant had a bad history of accidents: there was a major series of equipment failures; inadequate maintenance had been a longstanding complaint at the plant; and workers were often assigned to work for which they were unqualified. Corporate management, although lacking state regulation, was aware of the problems, but instead of increasing investment to make the plant safe, continued to cut costs and minimize investment, reducing worker numbers while increasingly employing unskilled workers. After the catastrophic leak, UC continued to contribute to the disaster by denying that the chemicals leaked were dangerous, refusing to release information on the toxicity of those chemicals, and abandoning at the factory toxic waste that continues to poison the drinking water of nearby communities. UC also tried to escape responsibility for the catastrophe by blaming it first on Sikh terrorists, and then on sabotage by a disgruntled worker.

The cause of the Bhopal catastrophe was rooted in the control by a private corporation of a highly dangerous factory that used toxic chemicals without consideration of public health and safety. The disaster occurred as the result of commissions and omissions on the part of the U.S. multinational and its Indian subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), along with omissions, commissions, and failures on the part of the Indian state. UC was following a “harvest strategy” in Bhopal, where the local unit was starved of investment, staffing levels reduced, and maintenance and other costs cut radically in an attempt to harvest as much profit as possible from a market, a production process, and production machinery from which UC had already planned to exit. Workers were untrained; machinery was not maintained; some systems were not working; other systems were turned off to make small savings in electricity costs. The Indian state’s culpability is also incontestable: warnings by workers and their unions were ignored, while inspection of the factory was consistently inadequate.

Racist Explanation

An attempt was made to contain the resultant safety crisis to peripheral countries by claiming that a similar catastrophe could not occur in metropolitan countries, due to their highly trained workers, technological development, and strong “safety culture.” Furthermore, the great loss of life was caused by the inconvenient third world habit of shanty-town building close to industrial premises. Thus, the problem was not the toxic chemicals, nor the multinational corporations, but the ignorant and indolent workers and the stupid local people who did not know enough not to build their shanties in close proximity to hazardous factories. The comforting notion that these disasters occur only in poor countries, with underdeveloped safety cultures and shantytowns pressing up to the gates of dangerous factories, is, of course, an illusion. Hazardous facilities exist in highly built up and densely populated zones throughout the planet, as shown by reports that approximately 66 percent of major industrial incidents occurred in highly populated areas.

The racist explanation that these things can happen in India but cannot happen here evaporated in 1985, when another incident occurred at a UC factory in Institute, West Virginia, that mirrored the Bhopal catastrophe in every way except the body count: a leak of aldicarb oxime sent 135 people in search of hospital treatment.

Both catastrophes were caused by runaway reactions. In both cases the safety systems were overwhelmed; both incidents resulted from multiple equipment failures, some of which were already known; UC failed to inform the West Virginia authorities promptly of the leak; like Bhopal, the Institute plant had a history of accidents and leaks; regulators in both countries assured the surrounding populations that the plants were safe, while trade unionists at both factories considered inspection of the plants to be unsatisfactory; and, most fundamentally, both catastrophes can be traced back to decisions based on capital’s values of profit-taking and cost-cutting.

Today, despite major industry and government programs triggered by Bhopal, chemical catastrophes continue to occur. In October 1989, an explosion in Pasadena, Texas killed twenty-three workers; in July 1990, an explosion in Channelview, Texas killed seventeen workers; in May 1991, an explosion in Sterlington, Louisiana killed eight and injured 140; in June 1991, an explosion in Charleston, South Carolina killed six and injured thirty-three. Along with these headline-grabbing catastrophes, chemical factories continue to suffer smaller incidents, killing only one or two people at a time. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, from 1970 to 1998, 372 people died, 14,356 were injured, and 517,000 were evacuated in eighty-seven large-scale chemical incidents in the United States. A Chemical Safety Board (CSB) study found that, from 1987 to 1996, 2,565 deaths and 22,949 injuries were reported in relation to chemical incidents in the United States, while, from March 2001 to December 2005, 273 deaths and 5,142 injuries were reported. Finally, according to the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups, U.S. PIRG, from 1990 to 2003, at least 25,188 chemical incidents were reported to the National Resource Center by members of the American Chemistry Council—an average of five incidents a day.

An explanation for the continuing toll of chemical catastrophes in the United States since Bhopal can be found in the political economy of the chemical industry. During the 1980s, a wave of corporate takeovers and mergers in the industry resulted in corporations in chemical, oil, and petrochemical industries cutting costs, while slashing staff numbers. Employment in the U.S. refinery industry between 1982 and 1990 dropped from 155,000 to 115,000, according to the Petroleum Institute, while the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) estimated around 30,000 jobs were lost in the chemical industry. Before coming under attack by corporate raider T. Boone Pickens in the mid-1980s, Phillips Petroleum employed 30,000 workers; when its Pasadena complex exploded in 1989, it employed only 22,000. Commenting on the Phillips explosion, Joseph Misbrener of OCAW said, “Every oil refinery, every petrochemical plant” is a time bomb “ticking away—tragedies waiting to happen. The industry is running these facilities into the ground.” This “coupled with the pervasive use of contract labor throughout the industry ensure that they will blow up regularly.”

The trend to cut employment levels has continued into the 1990s, with the globalization of the chemical industry, including major expansion in Asia. The International Labour Organization estimates that over 1.5 million jobs were lost in the industrial chemicals sector of the chemical industry from 1995 to 1999. This trend continued into the twenty-first century, with employment at twenty chemical companies in the United States declining nearly 40 percent from 2,538,000 in 1991, to 2,179,000 in 2004.

Continuing Toxic Threat

A quarter of a century seems not an unreasonable amount of time for scientific and technical knowledge to accumulate and to help deal with the threat of chemical catastrophes, and for state and other authorities to implement regulatory programs based on this knowledge. Yet twenty-five years later, chemical catastrophes continue to result from many of the same causes that unleashed that night of hell on the inhabitants of Bhopal. These causes stem from common technical, organizational, and managerial problems, many of which are directly related to economic decisions based on the primacy of private profit in the design, operation, and regulation of highly dangerous chemical factories.

Chemical catastrophes are often portrayed as the result of uncontrollable chemical processes such as runaway reactions. They are, more often, the result of uncontrollable business procedures. The causes of these recurrent chemical catastrophes are not hard to find: chemical and petrochemical corporations consistently choose short-term economic advantage over the long-term safety of workers, the community, and the environment.

The available data indicate that chemical catastrophes or major incidents continue to occur, and not just in the United States. An analysis of major incidents stretching from the beginning of the twentieth century to 1992 found that 95 percent of the incidents occurred in the period from 1963 to 1992; 674 incidents from 1963 to 1972; 1,746 incidents from 1973 to 1982; and 3,335 incidents from 1983 to 1992. The number of releases of hazardous substances reported in the United States under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 increased from 4,541 in 1987 to 7,656 in 1994. From 1985 to 1997 in the European Union, such releases also steadily increased, while there was no significant decrease in major industrial accidents in the United States.

Similarly, for Japan, data have not shown a reduction in incidents attributed in part to cost-cutting and restructuring in the Japanese chemical industry. Cost-cutting, restructuring, and de-staffing in response to global competition are consistently cited as causes for safety problems, globally. In India, for example, critics point out that staff reductions are not assessed for risk implications, but only for monetary gain, while outsourcing of maintenance to unskilled workers poses substantial risks.

Increased regulation since Bhopal has not prevented the continued occurrence of toxic chemical incidents. While, thankfully, nothing on the scale of Bhopal has occurred, the continuing litany of mini-Bhopals indicates that, in the chemical factories themselves, not much has changed. Indeed process safety specialists and regulatory authorities point out that incidents resulting from the same underlying causes that resulted in the Bhopal catastrophe continue to recur. I shall briefly illustrate this by looking at two recent catastrophes in the United States.

BP and the Catastrophe in Texas City

On March 23, 2005, fifteen workers were killed and 180 injured in a series of explosions and fires during start-up of an isomerisation (ISOM) unit at the third largest refinery in the United States owned by BP. All the dead were contract workers; all the dead and many of the injured were in and around temporary trailers that had been placed near the ISOM unit to support maintenance and turnaround work on a nearby refinery unit. Outside the plant, 43,000 residents were ordered to remain indoors for several hours, and houses three-quarters of a mile away were damaged.

BP agreed to pay the maximum allowable fine of $21 million to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as part of a settlement for some 300 violations, including eighteen “egregious willful violations,” the biggest penalty ever in OSHA’s history. Other costs to BP included plans to spend $6.8 billion from 2007 to 2010 on upgrading its five U.S. refineries and replacing its corroded Alaska pipeline, with $1 billion to be spent on Texas City over five years. BP also paid over $2 billion to settle lawsuits.

BP blamed the blast on “a series of failures” by staff: “Had the individuals who were operating the facilities and running the facilities followed the written instructions, the explosion would not have happened.” BP’s accident investigation report of May 2005 admitted safety problems but blamed the incident on a series of “surprising and deeply disturbing” mistakes by plant operators and supervisors. BP spokesperson Ronnie Chappell said company investigators “didn’t find evidence of budgetary decisions which were an immediate cause or critical factor in this terrible tragedy.”

Unsurprisingly, a different story was told by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), the U.S. authority with responsibility for investigating major chemical incidents. In October 2006, the CSB’s preliminary report found that high-level decisions to defer overhauls, cut staff, and rein in costs contributed to the accident. CSB investigator Don Holmstrom said BP executives had been sent documents months, or years, before the incident, reporting that cost-cutting had undermined safety at the refinery. The CSB further reported that BP had cut training staff from around thirty in 1997 to eight in 2004, while continuing to cut fixed costs by about 25 percent from 1998 to 2004—cuts that “adversely impacted maintenance expenditures and infrastructure at the refinery.” CSB chairperson Carolyn Merritt observed that BP displayed “all the symptoms of a failed safety culture”: poor maintenance; inadequate staff training; outdated procedures; malfunctioning equipment; overworked and over-stretched staff without adequate supervision. An independent panel headed by ex-Secretary of State James Baker, and brought in by BP at the CSB’s urging, reported in January 2007 that BP suffered a “corporate blind spot relating to process safety,” saying BP was not “adequately measuring, tracking and managing process safety performance.” The panel accused BP of a failure to learn lessons from a fire in 2001 at its Grangemouth refinery in Scotland, and failing to establish safety as a “core value” at its U.S. refineries.

The final CSB report concluded, “The Texas City disaster was caused by organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation.” Problems included inadequate corporate response to safety problems and incidents, ignoring regulations, and a focus on production over safety. At the board and senior management levels “decisions to cut budgets were made at the highest levels…despite safety deficiencies at Texas City.” Thus, in 2004, despite audits confirming underfunding, BP “challenged” Texas City (and other refineries) to cut another 25 percent from their budgets. This meant cuts in training and staffing, deferring maintenance, and ignoring federal requirements. The blowdown drum and safety relief valve at the center of the incident were undersized: federal regulations required a study of the relief system, but BP was unable to produce documents showing this study had actually been performed. “By 2005 the required relief valve study was 13 years overdue,” CSB’s Mark Kaszniak said. For Texas City management, “reporting bad news was not encouraged, incidents were often ineffectively investigated and appropriate corrective action not taken.” BP “strongly disagreed” with the CSB findings but said it would give full and careful consideration to the recommendations CSB made.

Accident Waiting to Happen

Details that came to light during the various investigations showed that Texas City, like Bhopal, was an accident waiting to happen.

The refinery had a bad accident history, the Houston Chronicle reporting at least forty-one deaths since the mid-1970s and the Financial Times reporting twenty-two deaths over thirty years, including three deaths in 2004. The refinery fire chief said that the refinery suffered an average of one fire a week, fifty to eighty a year, over the previous ten years.

The unit where the catastrophe occurred also had a bad accident history: it had suffered eight other vapor releases from the blowdown drum between 1994 and 2004, two while the refinery was in BP’s hands. Six of these resulted in vapor clouds, which the CSB’s chairperson Carolyn Merritt said could have had “catastrophic consequences, but for the absence of an ignition source,” while the other two led to fires. A proposal by BP engineers to upgrade the system in 2002 to a safer technology (involving flaring the releases) was refused on cost grounds.

The hazards involved in the use of trailers in refineries were also well known. Three contractors died in October 1995, when fire from a storage tanks’ explosion at a refinery in Rouserville, Pennsylvania engulfed trailers. On January 21, 1997, at the Tosco Avon refinery in Martinez, California, a release of flammable gases ignited, killing one Tosco worker and injuring eight Tosco and thirty-eight contractor workers. Some of the injured were in or near contractors’ temporary trailers.

Equipment Failures

The BP Texas City explosion occurred “after a catalogue of mechanical failures. Alarms remained silent, level indicators failed to judge the mounting danger and valves jammed.” On the level of machinery, the CSB reported the “faulty condition” of valves, gauges, and instruments:

A transmitter told operations personnel that liquid levels were gradually declining when they were actually rising. At 1.04 pm, 16 minutes before the blast, the level indicator read a height of about 7.9 feet when it was actually 158 feet. The tower was so dirty the personnel did not know the equipment had broken. “Had the tower level sight glass been clean and functional, it could have provided a visual verification of the actual tower level” the CSB said. “It was dirty and unreadable.” In addition the level transmitter was miscalibrated, using a setting from outdated data sheets that probably had not been updated since 1975.

Corporate management was well aware of problems. In late 2004, refinery manager Don Parus commissioned consultants from the Telos Group to survey refinery staff on safety. Workers told Telos about “broken alarms, thinned pipes, chunks of concrete falling, bolts dropping 60 feet and staff being overcome with fumes.” One worker told the consultants, “The history of investment neglect, coupled with the BP culture of lack of leadership accountability from frequent management changes, is setting BP Texas City up for a series of catastrophic events.” Workers also said they had stopped reporting injuries and incidents, due to pressure from management, and one said, “The employee is always at fault—and required to sign [a] statement that he committed an unsafe act.”

BP’s attribution of the incident to worker error was put in context by the final CSB report that said these workers had worked thirty-three, twenty-nine, thirty-seven, and thirty-one consecutive shifts. Several workers had worked twelve-hour days for thirty days in a row, some with two-hour commutes, as well. Such over-extension of workers was not unusual in the refinery. Indeed, such intense working periods are characteristic of turnaround and maintenance when there is a major rush to get capital-intensive plants back into operation.

The Subcontracting Problem

Contracting out services, including maintenance previously done by company employees, began in the 1980s and, by 1990, had become standard in the petrochemical industry. Unions were quick to point out the safety problems that could arise from the growth of subcontracting. These concerns were confirmed by the 1989 catastrophe at Phillips, which led OSHA to commission a study that reported, “the majority of firms…advise their plant managers to avoid responsibilities for training and supervising the contract labor force…in order to avoid whatever legal and financial responsibilities would be incurred if the plant was found to be a co-employee of the contract workers.” Given limited data, the study found contract workers more likely than direct-hire workers to be involved in accidents. Safety problems related to subcontracting have also been reported in Australia, India, Japan, and South Africa.

The advantage to BP in Texas City of hiring contract workers is shown by the example of James Aguiler who, in 2003, at the time of his retirement from BP, earned $24 an hour, and who, returning to BP as a contract worker for Altair Strickland, did the same work at $19 an hour. By 2005, Aguiler was working for Industrial Air at around $15 an hour, doing store work. In April 2005, there were 1,100 BP employees and around 2,200 contract workers working at Texas City. A few of the injured were BP workers; all the dead were contract workers. As were eleven of the seventeen workers who died in the ARCO refinery at Channelview in 1990, while doing a turnaround for contracting company Austin Industrial. Many of those who died in the 1989 Phillips Petroleum chemical catastrophe were also contract workers.

Three factors explain this mortality rate. Contract workers are generally less well trained in safety, do not know plant machinery and processes as well as those who work in the factory all the time, and are normally hired for the most dangerous work, including restarting of large and complex production units. Many chemical catastrophes occur during such restarts after production units have been out of operation.

The industry denies that economic motives alone determine the use of contract workers. According to BP public relations manager Hugh Depland, “BP believes that by using workers who specialize in turnarounds that it is actually an additive for safety and operational efficiency. We certainly wouldn’t trust our extremely expensive and sensitive equipment to workers lacking the expertise to maintain it. That flies in the face of logic.” But capital often operates in ways that fly in the face of logic, exposing itself to possible major costs (from litigation, loss of equipment, and loss or interruption of production) through the paring of operational, maintenance, and staff costs. This PR position may be usefully contrasted with the common sense position given by the representative of the refinery’s unionized workers: “I think the person who works in the plant on a daily basis, who knows its hazards and its safety features, is the safest worker.”

Corporate Responsibility for Texas City

Most of the problems at Texas City can be traced to corporate management decisions to cut costs and minimize investment. The background was two decades of cost-cutting and underinvestment in the oil industry. According to one consultant, “BP’s culture was designed to be the most efficient cost-cutter in the industry…out of that came too many corners cut on maintenance and safety.” Many of the safety problems affecting Texas City were inherited when BP took over the refinery in 1998. Instead of investing to bring it up to safety standards, BP in 1999 ordered a cut in fixed costs. BP spokesperson Ronnie Chappell said these cuts were not a “directive” but a “challenge” to achieve savings, without compromising safety or the refinery’s long-term economic viability. In an interview for an internal BP inquiry, refinery manager Don Parus said that, while requesting further investment, he had shown U.S. Regional Refining Vice President Patrick Gower problem areas, including the condition of piping in the refinery—and had told BP’s head of Global Refining John Manzoni of annual underinvestment in the site, asking visiting senior management for more capital.

Furthermore, BP management had actively opposed state regulations that could have helped prevent the incident. BP lobbied against new rules on highly reactive volatile organic compound (HRVOC) emissions by Texas regulators, which would have forced BP to upgrade the relief system of the ISOM unit to include a flare. BP had an answer for this as well: according to Ronnie Chappell, “Even if the environmental regulations had required the ISOM unit to have a flare, the time between what was the effective date of the regulations (December 23, 2004) and the tragedy—three months—would have made it almost, if not impossible to engineer, permit, obtain materials for and install a flare at the ISOM unit prior to the incident.” So that’s all right then. An internal BP email estimated savings at $150 million.

The CSB was also critical of OSHA for failing to target the refinery for comprehensive planned inspection and for its minimal regulation and inspections of a whole swathe of highly hazardous plants with catastrophic potential. OSHA also failed to provide requested information to the CSB investigation team.

From UC Bhopal to BP Texas City

There are many echoes of Bhopal in Texas City. The causes of both catastrophes can be traced back to decisions about investment and cost-cutting by the corporate parent company. While corporate headquarters was informed of the local safety problems, it continued to cut costs recklessly. In both Bhopal and Texas City, management tried to pin the blame on workers, rather than on corporate decision makers.

In Bhopal, UC’s Warren Anderson flew in and took moral responsibility for the catastrophe. Lord Browne, head of BP, also flew in the day after the catastrophe to accept responsibility for the incident. Yet later, Browne was careful to distinguish between moral responsibility—which he was happy to assume—and legal responsibility or liability, which was another matter entirely. Speaking at the launch of the Baker report, he said, “I have a deep and moral responsibility for this company. In that moral responsibility I always feel that when anything goes wrong, I have let the staff down.” But while accepting moral responsibility Browne was careful to deny the report had any implications for BP’s legal liabilities, noting, “the panel did not believe that the board failed to comply with their legal duties.”1

In Bhopal, when the workers despaired of getting management to act, the union warned the local population, using posters. In Texas City, workers used union connections in Alaska to try and get Chuck Hamel, a noted campaigner for oil workers, to publicize the problems they faced.

Texas City continues to be a threat to worker and public safety, just as the toxic waste left at Bhopal by UC continues to poison the waters of communities close by. Three more workers died in Bhopal between 2005 and 2008, a period in which the 146 other refineries in the United States not run by BP killed nine workers.2 In September 2009, the Financial Times reported that BP still had not brought Texas City up to standard, commenting on similarities with “what the authorities found in investigating the 2005 explosion.”3 In October 2009, OSHA fined BP $87 million for failing to correct hazards in compliance with the 2005 agreement it made to settle charges related to the catastrophe, and for other safety violations. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said that BP’s failure to comply with the 2005 agreement left the refinery in a condition which “could lead to another catastrophe.”4 BP said it was in full compliance.

From BP Texas City to…

The threat of chemical catastrophe is not confined to the BP Texas City refinery, nor to refineries in general. A survey performed for a union think-tank documented endemic safety deficiencies in the industry, many mirroring those at Texas City. Furthermore, BP, like UC, has a relatively good safety record, as shown by figures published in the Financial Times, which put BP’s record into perspective. In 2006 BP had fewer deaths (at seven) than the generally recognized safety leader in the industry, Exxon Mobil (with ten), and many fewer than Shell (thirty-seven), although many of Shell’s deaths were in Nigeria and Russia, outside the notice of the Western media.5

Table 1. Deaths of employees and contractors, 2003-2006

These hazards are not confined to the oil industry, however, but are common to the chemical, petrochemical, and plastics industries, as well. Consider, for example, an explosion and resulting fire in Institute, West Virginia, at the only U.S. plant to store methyl isocyanate (MIC), a major constituent of the toxic gases that devastated Bhopal. Two workers died and eight responders were injured in this explosion, including two contract workers. Thousands of local residents were advised to stay indoors and the main highway was closed for several hours.

This plant has a history of accidents. On August 19, 1994, an explosion and fire there led to two deaths and a record OSHA fine. In 1996 a leak and fire at the plant forced thousands of residents to shelter indoors. After the 1994 explosion, OSHA officials warned of “more catastrophic failures” if problems at the plant were not resolved, and alleged that Rhône-Poulenc (the French multinational then running the plant) attempted to increase production at the Methomyl-Larvin unit without analyzing the effects of these changes on plant safety.6

The 2009 incident occurred during start-up of the Methomyl unit, which had been out of operation for a long period, and which Bayer was rushing to complete in order to meet a sudden increase in global demand.7 As part of the refit, Bayer introduced a new computer control system but had not properly trained workers to use it. A report for the House Energy and Commerce Committee found that the explosion “came dangerously close” to igniting several tons of MIC stored nearby. The explosion and resulting fire were caused by a runaway reaction. The CSB reported critical safety features had to be overridden to reach the required temperature in the unit that exploded, and cited operator fatigue as a possible contributing cause, noting that workers had worked an average of twenty hours of overtime a week for three months prior to the incident, and repeatedly worked twelve- and sometimes eighteen-hour days, with very few days off.8 Written operating procedures were out of date: ten months before the explosion, Bayer had written that correcting these operating procedure problems was one of its “priority action items,” but this had not been completed. Indeed, Bayer’s 2004 process hazard analysis contained over two dozen “action items” that had not been completed.9

Bayer was attacked for failing to provide information on the incident to the local state emergency responders. Bayer’s CEO admitted that the company tried to limit public access to information in order to avoid pressure to reduce or eliminate MIC use at the plant.10 The congressional committee report accused Bayer of “withholding critical information from local, county and state emergency responders; by restricting the use of information provided to federal investigators; by undermining news outlets and citizen groups concerned about the dangers posed by Bayer’s activities; and by providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public.”11 In August 2009, Bayer announced plans to cut MIC production at the plant by 80 percent as part of a $25 million safety upgrade.12

Twenty-five Years After Bhopal

Twenty-five years after Bhopal, the likelihood of other chemical catastrophes has not dramatically decreased. We can expect these catastrophes to occur as long as corporate priorities—production over safety and profit over everything—continue to be decisive factors in the operation of highly dangerous chemical factories. So far, we have been lucky that nothing on the scale of Bhopal has happened. However, we should remember the comments from the Irish Republican Army, after it failed to kill Margaret Thatcher at Brighton: “You have to be lucky all the time, we only have to be lucky once.”

It is not possible to be lucky all the time.

Notes

For Bhopal, see http:bhopal.net. For UC’s “harvest strategy,” see Business Strategy and the Environment 7: 71-89, 1998. For the PIRG report, see http: uspirg.org/home/reports/report-archives/healthy-communities/healthy-communities/irresponsible-care-the-failure-of-the-chemical-industry-to-protect-the-public-from-chemical-accidents. For the CSB report, see http: csb.gov/newsroom/detail.aspx?nid=205 For the union refinery report, see http://legacy.usw.org/usw/program/content/BeyondTexasCity.php. Tara Jones Corporate killing (London: FAB, 1988) is useful on corporate responsibility for chemical catastrophes.

  1. Financial Times, January 17, 2007, p.19.
  2. Houston Chronicle, February 24, 2008.
  3. Financial Times, September 29, 2009, p.25.
  4. Guardian, October 31, 2009, p. 39.
  5. Financial Times, March 20, 2007, p.19.
  6. Charleston Gazette, August 30, 2008.
  7. Charleston Gazette, April 25, 2009.
  8. Insurance Journal, April 24, 2009.
  9. Charleston Gazette, April 25, 2009.
  10. Chemical and Engineering News, May 11, 2009.
  11. Charleston Gazette, April 21, 2009.
  12. New York Times, August 27, 2009.
FacebookRedditTwitterEmailPrintFriendlyShare
FacebookRedditTwitterEmailPrintFriendly