Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Shades of Bhopal

The arrogance of some American businesses is truly a wonder to behold. When disaster strikes, some companies simply turn off all the safety and information gathering systems, sit back, and dare the US government to investigate, according to this article in the NY Times:

When a huge explosion occurred last August at a West Virginia chemical plant, managers refused to tell emergency responders for several hours about the location of the incident or the toxic chemical it released, and they later misused a law intended to keep information from terrorists to try to stop federal investigators from learning what happened, members of a House subcommittee said Tuesday. ...

Devices meant to detect releases of the chemical, methyl isocyanate, known as MIC, had been disabled, and video cameras had been disconnected, steps that “raise concerns about an orchestrated effort by Bayer to shroud the explosion in secrecy,” said the subcommittee chairman, Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan.

After the Bhopal catastrophe, Congress created an independent agency, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board to investigate chemical accidents in this country. But the president and chief executive of Bayer, William Buckner, said in his prepared testimony that company officials believed they could “refuse to provide information” to the board.

Later, Mr. Buckner said, company officials labeled some documents as having security-sensitive information in order to “discourage the C.S.B. from even seeking this information.” The company acted under a 2002 law intended to make ports more secure; the company brings barges in on the Kanawha River. The company asserted that it was under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard, an agency that does not have extensive experience in chemical processing.

By stalling the emergency responders for hours and initially refusing to even let them know what chemical was involved in the accident (MIC was the same agent which caused so many deaths and injuries in Bhopal, India), Bayer put the citizens of the area at great risk. Fortunately, because the local government wasn't sure just what dangers were involved, it took the safest route and ordered townspeople to stay indoors with the windows closed until the emergency passed.

The stonewalling didn't stop there, however, as the company did everything it could to stymie any investigation of the accident by invoking some rather bizarre legal theories. Fortunately, somebody at the company must have caved, because enough details have emerged to show what lengths the company was willing to go to hide the important facts:

Committee investigators found internal Bayer documents that detailed a company strategy to “marginalize” a local citizens’ group and the local newspaper, The Charleston Gazette.

The strategies didn't work, at least this time. I wonder how many often the strategy did work the past eight years, at Bayer and other companies. I also wonder what it will take to stop this kind of dangerous nonsense. A good start might be some stiff fines for the company and some criminal charges for those who were actively engaged in the cover-up.

I know, I know. I'm showing my naivete again.

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