As many as 200 hazardous chemicals are being leaked into the air at U.S. chemical plants, but only five of those compounds are currently being regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a congressional survey released yesterday.
The survey of U.S. chemical companies conducted by the House health and environment subcommittee showed that many chemical plants are releasing "disturbing levels" of hazardous compounds into the atmosphere and that federal officials have "abdicated their responsibility to regulate poison gases," charged Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee.
Waxman said the panel wrote to 86 chemical companies, asking what chemicals industry experts regard as hazardous and whether they are being emitted into the atmosphere by their plants. According to Waxman, 67 companies had responded by last Friday. He said industry experts classified 204 chemicals as hazardous and that "almost all of these compounds are being emitted into the air, sometimes in very high quantities." Waxman said he will push for legislation that would require the EPA to set standards for these chemicals, adding that even though the agency currently has the authority to regulate them, it has not done so.
Although the EPA for years has been empowered to regulate hazardous chemical emissions under the Clean Air Act, it has only issued regulatory standards for five chemicals. EPA spokesman Chris Rice said there have been delays in issuing standards for other chemicals, partly because it can take years to conduct the necessary studies on some of the chemicals to determine their toxicity.
"The EPA is willing to admit that we're not as happy with our progress as we'd like to be," Rice said. "We've run into significant problems."
The survey results were released during a congressional hearing on a series of issues raised by the fatal poison gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, last December and the company's decision to resume production of the same gas, methyl isocyanate (MIC) at its Institute, W. Va. plant within the next few weeks.
Union Carbide officials, releasing their internal report on the Bhopal tragedy, said last week there were at least a half-dozen serious safety violations at the plant that contributed to the accident, but claimed the violations were the fault of the plant's Indian managers rather than officials at corporate headquarters in Danbury, Conn. Carbide officials also said the same poor safety conditions would never be permitted to exist at any of Union Carbide's U.S. plants.
But the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that an Indian government report on the disaster due to be released next week found that Union Carbide, as well as its Indian subsidiary, must accept responsibility for the poor conditions at the Bhopal plant.
"There just were no safety procedures to deal with the disaster," said an Indian investigator quoted in the Monitor story. "And we have plenty of documentation to substantiate that [Union Carbide officials at] Danbury, Conn., knew exactly what was happening at Bhopal."
Carbide officials declined to comment on the Monitor's report yesterday.
Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson told the congressional panel yesterday that the company had "no evidence whatsoever that sabotage was behind" the Bhopal incident.
But under close questioning by members of the subcommittee, another top Carbide official acknowledged that it was a "high probability" that a key water valve was deliberately connected to the methyl isocyanate storage tank where the accident occurred. The Carbide report had concluded last week that a large volume of water had been "inadvertently or deliberately" pumped into the storage tank over an extended period of time, causing a runaway chemical reaction that resulted in the gas leak.
Jackson Browning, Carbide's vice president for health and safety, told the subcommittee that the water tubing from a nearby utility drop -- the only large source of water near the MIC tank -- was incompatible with the valves on the storage tank. This made it seem unlikely that a worker at the plant would have accidentally connected the water tube to the tank.
"It would have taken a bushing or some other adoptive device to hook it up and force the water in," said Browning.
Several members of the subcommittee said that the Carbide testimony left them "confused," because it appeared to lend credence to the possibility of sabotage despite Anderson's denials. But Carbide officials also stressed that their investigation at the plant was severely restricted by the Indian government, which denied them the right to interview key witnesses.
Meanwhile, U.S. chemical companies, stung by the publicity over the Bhopal disaster, have begun a major safety campaign aimed at alleviating public concerns about the industry. On Monday, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group, announced a series of safety initiatives, including expanding its community response planning program, and providing information on hazardous substances at chemical plants to local officials and members of the public who live near them.