A year after a disastrous poison leak in Bhopal, India, focused new attention on the hazards of chemical production, the Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled a new program that it hopes will put U.S. communities in a better position to handle similar accidents here at home.
But the program, which relies totally on the good graces of the chemical industry, hasn't exactly been met with huzzahs.
In an unusual televised conference, EPA officials recently announced that the agency had drafted a list of 403 chemicals believed to be acutely toxic, along with a chart that is supposed to help state and local officials identify dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of additional dangerous substances being handled by industries in their midst.
The idea is that those officials will go to chemical manufacturers and processors in their areas, ask the firms to voluntarily disclose what is being handled, made or stored there, and plan what to do if an emergency occurs.
EPA officials said the program is intended to put necessary information in the hands of firefighters, evacuation planners, medical authorities and others who would be called upon in the event of an accidental release of toxic chemicals.
"The issue is mostly to stimulate some planning around the local level," said Jim Makris, who directed the project for EPA.
But the plan already has been attacked by environmental groups and some members of Congress, not so much for what it will do but for what it will not do.
"This tells them what to do in case their chemical plant explodes," said Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), who has supported legislation to make disclosures of chemical inventories mandatory. "How about not waiting for an explosion? It's a disservice to throw this hand grenade into the crowd and hope somebody else throws themselves on it."
Some state officials are skeptical as well, in part because they fear that the public will expect far more from the new program than it is designed to deliver.
"We are expecting questions focused on issues other than what EPA expected," said Ken Hagg, a Massachusetts environmental official and president of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators (STAPPA). "People will want to know about the long-term effects of these chemicals."
At the center of the dispute is a superheated political issue, brought to a boil by last December's accident at a Union Carbide Corp. pesticide plant in Bhopal, which cost more than 2,000 lives. The issue has been kept simmering by dozens of lesser accidents at U.S. plants, including one last August at a Union Carbide plant in Institute, W.Va., where a chemical cloud sent more than 130 nearby residents to the hospital.
Adding to the brew are disclosures that U.S. factories routinely vent hundreds of chemicals into the air, many of them suspected of causing chronic health problems, such as cancer or reproductive ailments, upon prolonged exposure.
EPA's new program is not designed to deal with such routine emissions, which are supposed to be -- but usually aren't -- dealt with under a special section of the Clean Air Act.
Instead, the agency's list of 403 chemicals is limited to substances capable of causing immediate injury or death. The formal list has not been made public, largely because the EPA has not gathered all the information on the immediate health effects of the chemicals or appropriate medical treatments for exposure victims.
Agency officials concede that the list is not complete or necessarily even accurate, and they hope local authorities will use the agency's guidelines, or "criteria," of what constitutes a dangerous chemical to ferret out other hazardous substances in their communities.
State officials, however, say it is more likely that the list will define local investigations.
No federal law requires chemical companies to divulge what hazardous substances they keep on the premises, and the industry has long resisted such disclosures for fear of losing control of trade secrets. Still, EPA officials say they expect at least the larger companies to cooperate in the voluntary program.
Environmentalists are skeptical, pointing to the example of a New Jersey environmental group that tried to gauge industry's willingness to release chemical data. The results were discouraging.
"We sent letters to 55 companies, randomly chosen," said Ken Brown of the New Jersey Clean Water Action Project. "Only two firms reported back and gave minimal cooperation. Thirty-five didn't respond and 18 refused to give any information."
The two companies that responded, a Hoffman-La Roche plant in Nutley, N.J., and J.T. Baker Chemical Co. in Phillipsburg, were willing to describe their labeling systems but declined to disclose what kinds of chemicals they used or what quantities were stored, what the chemicals were used for or what chemicals were routinely vented from the plant.
"The record is pretty clear," Brown said. "Unless you require this information, you're not going to get it."