A deadly gas leak at a Union Carbide Corp. plant in Bhopal, India, is likely to become "the chemical industry's Three Mile Island," according to the president of an environmental research center, who told a congressional panel yesterday that multinational corporations must stiffen their safety standards if they want to continue doing business in the Third World.
"Just as TMI spurred a thorough assessment of the safety of nuclear power, Bhopal will bring justifiable demands that hazardous facilities in the chemical industry be designed, sited and operated so that nothing even close to Bhopal can ever happen again," said James Gustave Speth, president of the World Resources Institute.
Speth, who was chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter administration, testified before the House Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs, one of two House panels that convened hearings yesterday in the wake of an industrial accident that killed more than 2,000 people and injured tens of thousands in a crowded Indian slum next to a Union Carbide pesticide plant.
In an earlier hearing before a House Education and Labor subcommittee, the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and an official of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers defended safety procedures at a similar Union Carbide plant in Institute, W.Va.
"I think such an incident in Institute is unlikely. I hesitate to say it's impossible," said Dick James, a union business agent who has worked at the West Virginia plant for more than two decades. OSHA chief Robert A. Rowland concurred, calling the facility "a safe plant."
But Speth, under questioning from Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Relations panel, said U.S. standards may not be adequate for plants in developing countries.
"The circumstances found in much of the Third World today impose special obligations on U.S. companies to adopt measures that are not necessary in the United States," he said. Urban crowding, low educational levels and weak environmental enforcement "create special vulnerability" in some nations, he said.
A State Department official said the United States has no "general policy" to encourage U.S.-based companies to run their foreign operations under the United States' more stringent environmental and occupational safety laws.
But the official, Robert A. Peck, a deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, acknowledged that news media attention in India has begun to focus on "multinational corporations in general . . . and the United States in regard to the conduct of U.S. multinationals."
Peck said the State Department had been "in close touch" with the Indian government and also had alerted other nations that import methyl isocyanate, the gas that leaked from the Bhopal plant, from the United States for use in pesticide production.
But he declined to answer questions about the Reagan administration's policy on the export of hazardous materials. Shortly after taking office in 1981, President Reagan rescinded an executive order that outlawed the export of dangerous materials unless the receiving country had first been notified of their hazardous properties.
"This question is an issue that is being addressed within the administration," Peck said.
Union Carbide declined an invitation to appear at the Education and Labor hearing but sent a last-minute witness to the Foreign Relations hearing.
Ronald Wishart, a vice president for governmental affairs, was unable to answer many of the panel's questions about the Indian plant, however, saying he was more familiar with domestic operations.