WASHINGTON — The chairman of a House environment subcommittee today accused Union Carbide and the government of ignoring warnings of a possible "Bhopal tragedy" at the firm's West Virginia insecticide plant.
The factory in Institute, W.Va., manufactures methyl isocyanate, the same deadly chemical that killed 2,500 people when it leaked from Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India, last Dec. 3.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment, said at a news conference that an internal Union Carbide memo dated Sept. 11, 1984, warned of a "runaway reaction that could cause a catastrophic failure in the storage tanks holding the poisonous gas" at the Institute plant.
He released copies of the memo, which discussed the concern of some Union Carbide officials that "response to such a situation would not be timely or effective enough to prevent catastrophic failure of the tank."
'The Exact Same Thing'
"They're warning about the exact same thing that happened in Bhopal and warning that it could happen in Institute, W.Va.," Waxman said.
Union Carbide officials were not immediately available for comment.
Waxman made his charges one day after the EPA reported that safety records at Union Carbide's West Virginia plant show hundreds of pounds of methyl isocyanate were released from the factory in 28 separate leaks between 1980 and 1984.
The report said hundreds of pounds of deadly methyl isocyanate were released, but EPA spokesman Dave Cohen said they "were not the types of leaks" that occurred in Bhopal.
Waxman said the company's memo "raises serious questions about this corporation's conduct."
He noted that Warren Anderson, chief executive officer of Union Carbide, based in Danbury, Conn., had testified before his subcommittee last year that "he couldn't imagine such a thing ever happening--yet his internal people were telling him that it could happen, and a few months later it did happen."
Waxman criticized the EPA for lax supervision of Union Carbide and the nation's 5,000 other chemical plants and said he will ask the major firms to give his subcommittee information on their own safety surveys.
"What is frightening is that EPA has no idea what is coming from these plants, yet blithely reassures the public that they are safe," he said.