The Aftermath of Bhopal

An Interview with Jack W. McGraw
[EPA Journal - January/February 1985]

Q: In the wake of the Bhopal tragedy, many people have asked the question--could the same kind of catastrophe happen in the United States?

A: Yes, it could happen here, but the probability is low. The real issue is what to do to prevent such an incident from happening, and how to look at the resources that we would need and the systems that it would take to respond to such an incident if one should occur.

Q: What has been EPA's official response to the Bhopal situation?

A: EPA at this time has not played any direct role in response to the Bhopal tragedy. However, we had continuous inquiries from the news media, from Congress, from private citizens, coming into all parts of the agency--the Office of Public Affairs, the Congressional office, the Office of Research and Development, the Office of Pesticides and Toxic Substances, the Office of Air and Radiation, the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, and the regional offices. As each element of the agency had only a piece of the information, it was essential to consolidate and share the limited amount of data that was available. So, Al Alm (EPA Deputy Administrator at the tie) appointed me to organize the agency components that would have a role if and when a Bhopal-type tragedy ever occurred in the United States.

My assignment was to pull together a group within the agency to organize and consider the information, to determine what technical support was available, should it be requested by the Indian government, and to develop a course of action. This involved resources from EPA and other federal agencies. A task force has been established to deal with all of these problems. Jim Makris of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response is the Project Leader.

Q: What other federal agencies are involved in the official response of the U.S. government to the Bhopal tragedy?

A: EPA chairs the twelve-agency National Response Team; the U.S. Coast Guard is the vice-chair. The agencies most concerned with this kind of incident are the Department of State, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Labor (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Right after the accident, we called a meeting of the National Response Team. We are now reviewing the authorities, regulations, programs, and expertise these other federal agencies might have that would be valuable in the event that we had to respond to a domestic incident or to provide technical assistance to the government of India.

Q: Does EPA have authorities to deal with toxic chemicals and their storage?

A: Yes. Although we still do not know exactly what caused the Bhopal incident, EPA has a variety of regulations dealing with storage and handling of toxic materials. These authorities are established under TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act), RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act), CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act), and the Clean Air Act either to prevent or to respond to an incident of this kind.

Q: Is our government prepared for accidents like the one in Bhopal?

A: Although it would be virtually impossible to assure no loss of life and injury should an accident like that occur suddenly and without warning, local, state, and federal agencies have a variety of response capabilities that would come into play. Beginning with the local police and fire departments and the local Red Cross and expanding rapidly to include county and state emergency services organizations, local health services, and the emergency response programs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Department of Transportation, the National Weather Service, and EPA, assistance to the injured and evacuees would be rapidly mobilized.

Similar responses have been made to deal with the Texas City chemical explosion in 1947, the chlorine barge sinking on the Mississippi in 1962, the more recent chemical spills following train derailments in Florida and Louisiana, and fires in New Jersey--and of course after the accident at Three Mile Island.

Q: What would be EPA's specific role?

A: EPA would provide emergency technical support, including monitoring teams to advise public safety authorities on current and potential dangers and effects of the chemical involved, and would work with other agencies to determine the cause of the problem, any violations of regulations, and steps needed to prevent future accidents. Our On-Scene Coordinator and Environmental Response Team would be there as soon as possible. The Regional Response Teams, which include the relevant federal agencies as well as state agencies (and local agencies as required) could be assembled to assist in the coordination.

Q: A minor methyl isocyanate leak occurred in Middleport, New York, in November 1984. How well did emergency response procedures work in that case?

A: It depends on your point of view. The fact that it happened at all would raise concerns. But looking at it in terms of emergency response, our review showed that the company involved was very responsible. It immediately notified the local government, and also assisted in evacuating a school that was in the pathway of the air plume. There were no injuries. Obviously, local and industry officials and the public responded in a very positive manner.

Q: What steps has EPA taken with regard to methyl isocyanate (MIC) production at Union Carbide's Institute, West Virginia plant?

A: Our Region 3 office, in conjunction with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), conducted a full multimedia environmental inspection of the Institute plant. The investigation of the findings is continuing. Other EPA specialists are also examining the plant and its operation. In addition, the State of West Virginia is also actively reviewing the plant. At this time, MIC is not being produced at the Institute plant.

Q: What is a multimedia environmental inspection?

A: The agency regularly inspects facilities for compliance with laws, regulations, and requirements. In a multimedia inspection, the various program criteria are consolidated and all relevant elements of the facilities are reviewed. The inspection may be specific or general in nature depending on the overall objective. For example, it may be directed at the potential for air releases only or it may also include water releases, solid and hazardous waste handling practices, ground water problems, and certain manufacturing practices if they involve hazardous chemicals.

Q: We understand that methyl isocyanate is transported to other Union Carbide plants from Institute. Has EPA taken any steps since Bhopal to inspect these or other sites?

A: There are a number of other places that use methyl isocyanate, particularly the Union Carbide site in Woodbine, Georgia. Our Region 4 office conducted a thorough multimedia inspection there. We've also completed environmental inspections at two production facilities that use MIC in Region 6. All other EPA regional offices are now reviewing similar facilities. I would like to note that Institute, West Virginia, is the only place in the United States where MIC was actually produced by Union Carbide. At the other locations, it is used in the production of pesticides.

Q: Many communities would like more information about hazardous chemicals in their vicinity. Could you tell us something about the recently adopted "Hazard Communication Standard," commonly known as the "Right-to-Know Law"?

A: There is a "Right-to-Know Law" for employees covered by OSHA, which will be fully effective in late 1985. Employees are entitled to know what kind of chemicals they are dealing with in their workplace environment. There are a number of state laws, around 16 I believe, that go beyond the workplace and apply to local communities. These state laws entitle local officials and the general public to know what chemicals are being used or produced and the potential risks from such chemicals. But there is no federal law at this time which deals with the "Right to Know" beyond the workplace. There have been several bills presented. Chairman Anderson of Union Carbide was asked during the hearing in Institute, West Virginia, what his position was on such laws, to which the industry as a whole had previously objected. Anderson said that he would take another look at such bills, indicating that Bhopal had changed a lot of people's attitudes about a lot of things.

Q: Will EPA representatives be going to India to help in the investigation of the cause of the Bhopal tragedy?

A: The Governor of West Virginia and several members of the state's Congressional delegation have asked EPA to send a team to investigate the causes of the Bhopal incident. We're working closely with the State Department in connection with this request. However, at this time India has not requested or agreed to our sending such a team. We have written to the Department of State regarding such negotiations with the Indian Government about an EPA team. We do not yet have an official invitation from the Indian Government to send such a team.

On the other hand, we have worked closely with the Department of Health and Human Services on a request from the Indian Government to send a team from the Centers for Disease Control. CDC did send four medical experts to evaluate the impact on the human health situation, which was India's primary initial concern.

Q: What is EPA doing to help prevent tragedies like the one in Bhopal?

A: EPA has two basic roles. One is our responsibility for developing and implementing our programs to prevent such tragedies. The RCRA program, for example, has very specific rules for how you can store, dispose, and even transport the highly toxic wastes generated during the production of such chemicals. The other key role, in conjunction with other appropriate agencies, is to assist in the development of contingency plans for state and local communities and to provide training and technical guidance so that, if necessary, proper evacuation and procedures for protection of life could be carried out.

Q: What steps has the U.S. taken to cooperate with other countries in emergency response?

A: The United States aggressively pursues cooperative agreements with its neighbor countries in the area of emergency response. For example, there are viable joint contingency plans with Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean area. In addition, the United States participates in emergency planning projects through several international organizations, such as the United Nations, NATO, and the World Health Organization. These efforts ensure that we have direct access to the most recent developments in emergency response and that we are meeting our responsibilities to provide assistance where we can to help others when environmental emergencies occur.

Q: Is there anything that you'd like to add, based on your experience with the Bhopal emergency?

A: I think the big question is, where do we go from here? Once we now what caused the tragedy, we can evaluate our own environmental regulations and look at our response programs to see whether or not we could prevent such an incident from happening here and assure the highest capability of response. An incident such as this certainly raises our consciousness about the importance of EPA's job, and reminds us that we're specialists who deal with real-world situations. Our regulations have a direct impact on the actual lives of people in communities where those regulations apply. What's more, Bhopal underscores the need to lay out a strategy for making certain that we do have the necessary statutory authorities to be able to prevent and deal with such emergencies here in the United States.

At the time of publication, Jack McGraw was Acting Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency Response at EPA, and had headed an agency task force on Bhopal.