Chemical cowboys

Published: Wednesday 30 April 2008

the recent fire at Bharuch Enviro Infrastructure Limited (beil) at Ankleshwar, Gujarat, may not be a 'big news' for there was no body count, fortunately (see page 9). But it is a grim reminder of the state of the powerful chemical industry that has turned the whole earth into a combustion chamber. The beil plant, with majority equity held by pesticide heavyweight United Phosphorus Limited (upl), was set up to manage and dispose of hazardous industrial waste. The untimely industrial diwali, that saw 250 tonnes of toxic chemicals bursting into flames, has made obvious the casual attitude of the industry and regulators.

The plant also bid for a 'prestigious' million dollar contract to manage toxic waste from the abandoned Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. The latter is a metaphor that refuses to leave us. There must have been tens of thousands of seminars and workshops all over the world to deliberate what civilisation learnt from the Bhopal disaster. The beil incident is a comprehensive answer: nothing.

The chemical industry is often described as a new outcome of applied science. It knows very little about the materials and processes it handles, and things often go wrong. To top that, this juvenile industry is typically shrouded in mystery, so that society gets to know very little about what goes on inside those alien tanks and pipes. Lobbyists have effectively managed to keep regulators at bay, while incomplete knowledge and secrecy have made the industry even more dangerous. Union Carbide cited trade secrecy for not disclosing the chemical composition of the gas that choked thousands in Bhopal. Doctors attending survivors had no clue about treatment. It seems nothing has changed in the past 24 years. In spite of laws, regulatory officials were not clear about the quantum and composition of the chemical garbage that burnt in Ankleshwar. The post-episode management was an even bigger joke where officials expressed helplessness in measuring ambient toxins for want of equipment. Why do we play with something we have no clue about managing?

In the wake of the Bhopal disaster, the global chemical industry got worried about public perception and possible stringent legislation. In the us, the industry came up with an effort called 'Responsible Care Initiative', about preparing industry spokespersons to improve public image. Industry also worked towards voluntary safety measures to ward off stringent legislation. Of course, the chemical industry's apathy towards public safety is understandable; a fool-proof safety measure would make this business unprofitable. But over the years lawmakers in most countries, too, have done very little to safeguard public interest.

There is a new security bogey in the air. The chemical industry is now trying to avoid full disclosure of location, transportation of inventory and facilities in the name of a security threat from international terrorists. Question is: with the industry and its lobbyists in place, do we need any other kind of terrorist?

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