December 21, 2014

Little Details: American Bhopal

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By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

“Since the time of the incident, the chemical industry has worked to voluntarily develop and implement strict safety and environmental standards and to help ensure that an incident of this type never occurs again.”

—Statement on Union Carbide Corporation’s Bhopal Information Center Webpage

Bhopal. India. Dec. 3, 1984. Individuals of a certain age and students of history likely recognize the significance. Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, endured the world’s largest industrial disaster.

At approximately 11 p.m., a Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) plant experienced a devastating gas leak. Forty tons of noxious methyl isocynate gas (MIC) spewed forth, contaminating the air of a nearby slum. MIC is a pesticide.

The poison committed its deadly deed with stealth and speed, infusing the lungs of sleeping victims. Eyes and skin burned with chemical fire. Coughing and vomiting racked bodies. Rhythmic patterns of inhalation and exhalation disrupted, convulsing in an agonizing dance of death. Three thousand eight hundred residents died that night. An estimated twenty thousand additional victims would experience long-term health consequences—infirmities, cancers and premature death—as a result of exposure.

UCC, headquartered in Danbury, Conn., originally tried to sidestep legal responsibility to compensate victims. Five years later, the corporation agreed to a $470 million restitution agreement.

Kanawha Valley in West Virginia is a significant hub of our nation’s chemical industry. It’s been dubbed “chemical valley” by some. Coal mining and chemicals put bread on the table and meet the mortgage for many workers whose livelihood is tied to these industries.

The Chemical Alliance Zone is a nonprofit, economic development entity charged with expanding West Virginia’s chemical employers. It appears they’ve been successful. Companies concentrated in this area of roaming rivers include UCC, Dupont, Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and Freedom Industries.

Freedom Industries was sold on Dec. 31, 2013. The new owners issued a statement on Jan. 10 announcing a chemical leak of a coal-cleansing agent from a sixty-year-old storage tank. The leak contaminated the Elk River, water source for approximately 300,000 West Virginians.

State officials issued an order advising residents that they should not drink, cook with, bathe in, launder with, flush or otherwise use their tap water. Aside from the immediate inconvenience, deeper questions linger. How long did the leak go undetected? What chemical exactly was released and what are the health and environmental implications? What are the immediate and long-term consequences of exposure? Where were the regulators?

Visiting Freedom Industries’ website, one finds a patriotic-looking, red-white-and-blue logo emblazoned with an eagle. It lists a post office box in Charleston. What you don’t find is more interesting. There is no announcement of the leak. There are no guidelines detailing safety precautions. There is no statement from the company’s leadership apologizing to the community for the dire and dangerous situation they caused. There is no mention that, as of Jan. 17, seven days after the reported spill, Liberty filed for bankruptcy—to protect their assets and put a hold on lawsuits now pending against the company.

Water systems are being flushed and water is tested. Some residents question the safety of their water, even as “do not use” orders are lifted. This is the area’s third chemical accident in five years. This is particularly unsettling when one considers the National Cancer Institute’s assertion that 80 percent of cancer deaths in our nation are linked to environmental causes.

My Massachusetts hometown was a leather manufacturing hub and host to a chemical processing plant. My Dad spent decades in Peabody’s leather factories, returning home each day tainted by the smell of chemicals. When the leather shops started closing, Dad found work at a chemical factory in the next town over, until it closed and moved to set up shop in the union-unfriendly South.

Walking to the Peabody Institute Library as a child, I passed closed leather factories where the acrid smell of noxious chemicals still hung in the air. I remember the smell; olfactory memory lingers. I also remember speculation about a cluster of childhood cancers near the chemical plant.

My father died 17 years ago of somewhat rare esophageal cancer. He was not a smoker or a heavy drinker—risk factors for the disease. A refugee, with limited education, he spent his working life in noxious chemical environments. He met another of the disease’s deadly risk factors—exposure to chemicals.

I couldn’t figure out why the chemical leak in West Virginia bothered me so much. Writing this article helped me realize why.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, was a 2013 finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism.  Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

 
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