Sunday, January 12, 2014

Waiting for America's Bhopal: How Budget Cuts and De-Regulation Are Making the Unimaginable Inevitable

fatalities at Bhopal Indiaby Nomad

Last year's West, Texas explosion and this week's West Virginia chemical leak could just be a wake up call to the nation. De-regulation and budget cutting may make us more competitive but at what cost?

A single environmental disaster could affect the lives of millions of people, cost the state billions and make entire areas uninhabitable. And that  could make the discussion of de-regulation and budget-cuts completely null and void.

Not long ago I read the book Five Past Midnight in Bhopal: The Epic Story of the World's Deadliest Industrial Disaster. It's the kind of book that you know you should read but dread to begin. It's an exceedingly thoroughly-researched book and at times, slow going. In spite of that,  in these days when environmental regulations are under attack by the conservative Republicans, it should be on every American's reading list.
Most people, I suppose, have heard of the industrial disaster at Bhopal but here's a little refresher.

The Bhopal Event
In the early hours of December 3, 1984, in the town of Bhopal, India, a nearby Union Carbide plant, which manufactured insecticides, accidentally released a heavy toxic cloud of chemicals into the surrounding residential area. The heavy cloud hovered over the area, which was comprised mostly of crowded slums. It literally fumigated the unsuspecting village, mercilessly killing the people that lived there.
Within hours, things quickly collapsed. Panic and confusion spread and any kind of coordinated response was impossible. The local government was totally ill-equipped to handle the emergency. (The very idea that it could happen at all seems never to have crossed their minds.)


victims of Bhopal
The villagers soon realized that there was no means of escape since any direct contact would be deadly.  Death was nearly instantaneous for most victims. Local hospitals had absolutely no emergency plan. In fact, doctors had no clear idea what was actually happening.

Worse still, when a local train crowded with passengers arrived- despite courageous effects to stop the train- the confused disembarking passengers began dropping dead at the station.
All through that night and into dawn, the gas seeped into homes and suffocated those that remained. Blindness caused by contact with chemicals left many victims unable even to find their way out of the affected area. Even doctors attempting to give mouth to mouth became victims, simply from the air in the lung of the victims they attempted to save. 

The cloud of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals. spread across 40 sq. kms of area of Bhopal, covering about 36 of the 56 municipal wards. Over 500,000 people were exposed.

How many of those actually died as a direct result is, even today, a subject of debate. The government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release. Other estimates go as high as 8,000.
As horrible as the loss of life was, it was only half of the story. The total death toll from the event is hard to calculate and hotly-disputed by the chemical industry. However, researchers believe the number is close to 20,000 dead (over several years).  

Bhopal Union Carbide plantA government affidavit in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries- roughly the population of the city of Denver- including 38,478 temporary partial injuries and approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries.

Union Carbine claimed that sabotage was to blame. It was a tricky argument too. By willingly ignoring safety protocols, and not reporting earlier warnings, the plant managers effectively conducted an act of sabotage. The old disgruntled employee excuse. Sabotage is an act of individuals, negligence; on the other hand,  can include a whole company.
Actually the causes, many critics claimed, were easier to find.
The known safety violations at the plant, the lack of education and training of workers, and the documented incidents of noncompliance before the leak speak for themselves.
Later investigations found that safety regulations were largely ignored and the equipment and storage tanks, values and lines were not properly maintained. The amounts of dangerous chemicals were far more than the safety rules allowed. It was, in short, only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred.

The litigation began almost immediately. Star attorneys (like Greta Van Susteren's husband) flew to India within days of the event to sign up as many clients as possible. The battle went on for years and in some respects, will never end.
According to Wikipedia:
Eventually, in an out-of-court settlement reached in February 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay US$ 470 million for damages caused in the Bhopal disaster, 15% of the original $3 billion claimed in the lawsuit.
In the end, tardy justice arrived not as victory but as an insult.
In June 2010, seven former employees of [Union Carbine plant], all Indian nationals and many in their 70s, were convicted of causing death by negligence and each sentenced to two years imprisonment and fined Rs.1 lakh (US$ 2,124). All were released on bail shortly after the verdict.
Nevertheless, the battle for justice for the victims continues to this day, nearly three decades after the disaster. As one source explains:
neither the State nor the Central Government has made any attempt to either undertake a comprehensive assessment of the ramifications of the Bhopal disaster or to take necessary remedial measures. As a result, the gas-victims have had to wage concerted struggles in their quest for medical relief, compensation and justice.
For a more complete examination of the legal problems with the Bhopal case, try this link.) 
The profiles of the victims- being from the poorest class of Indians- may have had something to do with the general lack of progress. India's nightmarishly-complicated justice system (particularly when attempting to establish criminal negligence by powerful corporations) has no doubt played a role in this sad result.

It Can't Happen Here?
Many Americans, while feeling sorrow for the victims, may find smug comfort in the belief that such things cannot happen here. There are safeguards. We have protections in place to prevent this from ever occurring. We have emergency plans and well-equipped first responders. Although Tea Party voters might not want to admit it, it can't happen here because we have Big government. Our taxes- at least, in theory- pay for regular inspections and to the salaries of emergency teams.

And yet, year after year, gullible American voters are being swayed by relentless propaganda from Koch brothers (and other special interest groups) to vote for de-regulation. We are told that environmental regulations are unnecessary. Self-regulating industries do better without governmental interference, we are told by politicians hired by corporate interests. How else can America compete? they ask.

The thing not mentioned, of course, is that India with its virtual slave labor force and appalling lack of safety regulation is one of our prime competitors. India's emergency services are practically non-existent when compared to America's. When it comes to disasters, man-made or otherwise, the lesson that India can teach America is not about completion- a race to the bottom- but about preparing for the worst scenarios and maintaining the best prevention.

Distorting Tort Laws
In addition to the de-regulation crusade, tort reform is an issue close to the hearts of the Koch brothers. 
Tort laws, among other things, punishes criminal negligence on claims on industrial accidents which would have been avoided had reasonable care been taken. Reforms to these laws would make it harder for victims to seek adequate compensation, by establishing stricter criteria and time limits for claims. One class of  litigation, especially dealing with chemical spills and gas emissions, is known as "toxic" torts. These protect the rights and interests of businesses and individuals from the harmful effects of land, water and air contamination.

The brothers, partnered with big name insurance companies, have been willing to pull out all stops to affect legislation on tort reform. According to one law firm dealing in toxic torts:
In 2013, special interest groups financed by the Koch Brothers tried to sneak tort reform through the Arkansas Legislature in the form of SJR5 on two hours’ notice during a severe weather outbreak across the state. Lawyers from the Chaney Firm and others around the state dropped everything to attend the committee hearing in opposition to the bill, and it was defeated in committee. The vote was close, and it shows that special interest money from the Koch brothers can buy lots of access.
To dismantle tort laws at a state level, they have chosen their most successful tool.
their lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council(ALEC) has spend millions of dollars across the country for decades lobbying for draconian tort reform that would make it harder for ordinary Americans to receive compensation for their injuries.
Tort laws also have another effect, besides the awarding compensation to victims. Tort laws also force companies to maintain adequate safety protocols.  This is also backup by pressure from insurance companies, attempting to avoid large payouts.
But there is a very quiet war being fought against your rights to compensation when disaster strikes your community.
According a report by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). last year, across the nation, ALEC was responsible for "71 bills narrowing citizen access to the courts. 14 of these became law. These bills cap damages, limit corporate liability, or otherwise make it more difficult for citizens to hold corporations to account when their products or services result in injury or death."

The Effects of Slashed Budgets
Apart from punitive measure, preventive measures are also being chipped away in the name of budget cutting and reducing big government. Another big cause by the Koch-backed Tea Party.
Last year the nation was stunned by the chemical explosion in Texas which killed 15 people, injured more than 160. The explosion literally blew a small town off the map, ripping apart over 150 building. 
Like Bhopal, the West, Texas plant was situated in the middle of a town without any thought to the worst case scenario. (The town actually grew up around the plant, but that too was true in Bhopal.)

the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has only inspected five fertilizer plants in the entire state of Texas—and the plant in West, Texas was not one of them. OSHA is severely understaffed and operates with a tiny federal budget. With the agency's current resources, that means "OSHA can inspect a workplace on average once every 129 years and state OSHA inspectors could inspect one every 67 years."
The article goes on:
Budget cuts, and the sequestration, loom large as every federal workforce is scaled back. Rather than provoking reform, at least in the short term, tragedies like this may get worse as there are fewer and fewer regulators to ensure safety at these types of facilities.
And these budget cuts are playing out in state after state. And a large scale industrial accident, affecting several states, is all it takes to cripple a state economy, render large area uninhabitable or, worst of all, lead to fatalities or long term health risks. Therefore, despite the short-sightedness of state legislatures, prevention is far cheaper than clean-up or legal compensation to victims.

One a national level, the Republicans recently launched another covert offensive against environmental regulations. Most deceitful of all, House Speaker John Boehner actually attempted to sell the legislation as a jobs bill.  It was, as Huffington Post explains, nothing of the kind:
At the heart of the GOP jobs package is a push for rolling back regulations -- and gutting environmental laws that regulate clean air and water -- to spur job growth. The House Republican Conference website makes the argument that deregulation will "remove onerous federal regulations that are redundant, harmful to small businesses, and impede private sector investment and job creation."
So while hailing the long-awaited jobs bills, they are in fact working to undermine environment regulations. Even in the face of West Virginia's environmental emergency. That has to be the worst timing of any legislation ever! 

West Virginia: Almost Heaven?
Of all of the states, lobbyists from ALEC has introduced the most bills (25) in West Virginia.  It is speculated that most of the draft legislation deals with the environment, related to the state's coal mining industry. 
However, it is hard to know exactly. Why? Last year, ALEC began taking steps to hide its lobbying efforts from the public eye, by stamping all of its documents as exempt from state public records laws.

Last year's government shutdown and sequester showdown played right into the hands of ALEC de-regulators. The Obama administration issued a short analysis for each state warning the impact of the sequesterization. For West Virginia, the White House noted that:
West Virginia would lose about $2,013,000 in environmental funding to ensure clean water and air quality, as well as prevent pollution from pesticides and hazardous waste.
If anything more money is needed in order to prevent industrial disasters. Apparently self-policing from American corporations works about as well as it did in India. 

"Despite its terrible reputation, ALEC is still valued by polluting companies like ExxonMobil, Duke Energy and Koch Industries, which finance and help craft ALEC's state policies to smother competition from clean energy industries and offer handouts to fossil fuel companies at every turn,"
"ALEC's guise of 'free market environmentalism' is just a code word for its real mission in our states' legislatures: to allow dirty energy companies to pollute as much as they want, to attack incentives for clean energy competitors and to secure government handouts to oil, gas and coal interests."
 We can expect ALEC to continue as long as legislators choose to represent corporations over the interests of their citizens. 

Freedom Industries
Yesterday we watched the wretchedly bad press conference from Gary Southern, the president of Freedom Industries, the company responsible for a hazardous leak that has left roughly 300,000 residents without usable water. The spill stretched for more than 1500 miles, impacting 9 WV counties.
The spill originated at a chemical storage facility run by the Charleston-based company Freedom Industries, when a 48,000 gallon tank dumped an indeterminate amount of the compound 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol into the Elk River. The chemical, also known as MCHM, is used by coal companies to wash and prepare their product. People who are exposed to a sufficient quantity of MCHM may experience vomiting, skin blistering and shortness of breath. Very little is known about the other potential health consequences of exposure to the compound.
Another source tells us that the number of people reported to have symptoms of chemical exposure, such as nausea and uncontrolled vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat, headache, dizziness and difficulty breathing is expected to rise over the next few days.

Once again, it was the Big Bad Government and that socialist President Obama who came to the rescue. On Friday morning, only hours after the emergency was reported, the president declared a state of emergency in West Virginia.  
The West Virginia National Guard has also been called in to help distribute clean water to residents of the affected area. A spokesperson for FEMA confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security would be delivering over 1 million liters of clean water to the affected area, though the exact amount of water to be delivered remains in flux
And yet, as bad as it is for the people in the region, as Bhopal shows us, it could have been so much worse.

Gary Southern Freedom Industries
What made the press conference so bad was the company president's  tone. As he drank from his bottled water- like a fish he drank- he seemed just as dismissive as British Petroleum CEO  Tony Hayward after the Gulf spill. It seemed like a shameful exhibition of corporate arrogance and contempt for the residents that were affected by the accident. 

When confronted with questions about the lack of safety, Southern claimed that as a storage facility, it was not required to be regularly inspected. Could this be true? It seems hard to believe. After all, strictly speaking  the Bhopal accident wasn't the result of a chemical process gone awry. It was the result of chemical reaction inside storage tanks. With water. The chemicals themselves create the process if not adequately monitored.

In any case, there are important questions being asked about the West Virginia event. Such as who will be held responsible? What will be the economic consequences of the spill? How much will it cost to clean it up? How did it happen and most of all, how can we stop a repeat performance? 
These two events in Texas and West Virginia, as well as other notable industrial accidents of late, should be a wake up call to Americans around the country. (At least the ones who drink water and breathe air and prefer life over anything else.) 

Map of chemical plants by states
There is a real danger here but the possibility that something barely imaginable happening is also real. 

Today 1 of 3 Americans live in the shadow of a chemical plant facilities.
According to one source, 
The danger zone of these plants often extend so far that you might not even know you live or work in it. Due to the volume of chemicals stored at these facilities, an accident or an attack could release a cloud of poison gas that could endanger people 14 miles down wind. Many of these facilities are more vulnerable to storms because they are located in ports along our coasts. They are both environmental and security risks -- the U.S. Army Surgeon General estimated that an attack on just one U.S. chemical plant could kill or injure up to 2.4 million people.
That's not alarmist. It's common sense.

We should all be asking questions whether the wholesale de-regulation of industries and drastic budget cutting is really the wisest option. Is it worth the risk? We should be asking whether an American-style Bhopal is only a matter of time.
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More information about chemical facilities in your area can be found at this site. 

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