New York Times, June 4, 1994
Bracing for the Worst in Chemicals
This metropolitan area of 252,000 people, nestled in the Kanawha River Valley and bracketed by the Appalachian Mountains, has few natural evacuation routes. And today, in an extraordinary doomsday discussion, the chemical industry described for the people of Charleston and the surrounding area just how potentially dangerous a place they live in.
A dozen of the world's biggest chemical companies have factories here or nearby, producing some of the most caustic and volatile man-made substances on earth -- including methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the same gas that killed more than 3,000 people in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Although the MIC plant, operated by Rhone-Poulenc, has never had a leak anywhere near the scale of Bhopal, its operators acknowledged that a major leak of the same chemical could put this city at risk of similar or worse casualties.
Operators of 11 other chemical plants made similarly dire disclosures here today, as part of a projection of a worst-case scenario that will probably be required of thousands of other American companies in the next few years if the Environmental Protection Agency has its way.
Enlightening, -- and Chilling
Local citizens called this unusual town meeting today an enlightening, if chilling, exercise that should help them assess the risks posed by the region's largest employers and help them draw up disaster plans.
"We hope over time that this will result in reductions in the amount of hazardous materials kept on site," said Pam L. Nixon, chairwoman of People Concerned About MIC, a local group. She said she was among 145 people hospitalized in 1985 by a leak of a different chemical from a plant in nearby Institute, W. Va.
A rule is pending at the E.P.A. that would require any company in the nation that makes or uses any of a long list of hazardous chemicals to disclose how much of the material it has on hand and to indicate the health risks if an accident allowed the material to escape into the environment through a leak, spill, fire or explosion.
"The goal is prevention," said Craig Mattiessen, director of the chemical accident prevention staff at the agency in Washington, who also spoke at the meeting at the Charleston Civic Center, which was attended by some 500 residents. "Any facility that handles hazardous materials has a fundamental responsibility to know how to handle them safely."
Just as the disclosure of toxic emissions in the Toxics Release Inventory, which the E.P.A. has conducted each year since 1989, has prompted many companies to reduce these emissions, environmentalists and community activists here hope the worst-case disclosures will increase pressure to reduce inventories of toxic chemicals stored in plants.
Officials of the chemical industry here in the Kanawha (pronounced keh-NAW) Valley said they were making their worst-case disclosures even before the E.P.A. rule became final because of concerns raised by local citizens.
"Those who share risk, should share knowledge of that risk," said Paul L. Hill Jr., president of the National Institute for Chemical Studies, a nonprofit research group based here that helped coordinate the companies' disclosures.
Besides Rhone-Poulenc, the participating companies included Du Pont, Union Carbide, Olin, ARCO Chemical and FMC.
The Worst Case
By making their public presentation ahead of the final E.P.A. rules, the industry was able to set its own guidelines for today's event. For instance, the companies decided that the standard for the "worst case" would be the complete failure of the biggest vessel holding toxic chemicals that are used in large volume. It is not certain that Federal agency would accept this; it could require the study to include associated pipelines and equipment as well.
At the Rhone-Poulenc plant, the worst-case assumption was that all 253,600 pounds of MIC in underground storage would escape. Using studies of prevailing winds, the company projected that the toxic plume would generally drift eastward, enveloping Charleston in a concentration that could be fatal if the exposure lasted for an hour.
But Van G. Long, the manager of the plant, hastened to point out that the plant did not have a single leak of more than one pound of MIC in the last five years. The other companies also took pains to play down the potential dangers, saying that the worst case was also the least likely.
Nevertheless, there appears to be a sense of unease in the valley. The chemical plants are being hooked up to a series of sirens that sound when a toxic leak has occurred. And residents are being encouraged to seal their houses and to prepare kits with radios and supplies similar to the civil defense kits of the cold war era.
'A Long History of Spills'
Because of the compact geography of the valley, much of the housing is in close proximity to the plants, which can cause problems if corrosive or flammable chemicals leak out.
"The homes there butt right up to the fences; the people are really close," said David S. Bailey, a lawyer and scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. The chemical plants there "have a long history of spills," he said, "and they put people in the hospital."
He added that the geography of the region tends to trap air in the valley, which means that gases emitted by the plants are not quickly dispersed by air currents.
"What you have here is aging facilities with people close by," said David Grubb, a state senator from Charleston and director of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group, an advocacy organization. "There was a leak of ammonia at Du Pont recently and a series of leaks that have rocked the credibility of the companies."
The importance of having the companies outline the worst-case scenarios, he said, is so legislators can determine if laws need to be tightened to protect the public.
Guidance for Companies
The chemical industry's attitude is that today's voluntary exercise will give guidance to other companies expecting to face the E.P.A. rules, although not even officials of the agency are certain when the final rules will be issued.
"In three or four years everyone is going to have to do this anyway,' said John Holtzman, a spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers Association in Washington, whose members include most American chemical manufacturers. "There is a certain amount of tension," he said. "We hope the companies can take the issue and present solutions in such a way that people can make informed judgments."
But focusing on the worst possible, yet least likely, type of accident may provide less protection to the public than concentrating on those more likely to happen, said David Webb, an industrial safety specialist at Arthur D. Little, the consulting firm.
As currently drafted, "the E.P.A. rules assume that everything is released at once," Mr. Webb said. "That may grossly overstate the impact," he said, "and cause emergency services people to assume they will be overwhelmed." And so, he said, local emergency officials may assume no plan is workable.
Still, Mr. Webb said, there was value in forcing plant operators to list the amounts of chemicals they have on site and to induce them to develop methods of dealing with leaks and spills.