WASHINGTON — Galvanized by the death of more than 2,000 persons after a toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, local and national officials in this country are moving to clamp costly new safety and pollution restrictions on U.S. chemical makers and others who use or transport hazardous substances.
And the chemical industry, aware of its political vulnerability in the wake of the Bhopal disaster, is rushing to take a variety of voluntary actions designed to head off what it fears most: a new round of costly and burdensome regulations.
For example, although the nation's big chemical makers raised a flurry of objections several years ago when the federal government first proposed that workers get detailed information on the hazardous substances they contacted on the job, the giant St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. offered last month to give much the same data to anyone who asks for it.
'Heightened Public Concerns'
"It's fair to say we're doing this in response to heightened public concerns about chemical hazards after the Bhopal incident," said Larry O'Neill, a Monsanto spokesman.
That concern was evident within days of last December's Indian tragedy, when two Ohio cities, Akron and Canton, passed "community right-to-know" ordinances that force firms to disclose the presence of dangerous chemicals on their property. Cleveland's city council will consider a similar ordinance this month. Massachusetts is beginning to enforce a statewide right-to-know law enacted last summer. Other states, including Louisiana and Washington, are considering similar measures.
At the national level, a bipartisan group of House members led by Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.) proposed a sheaf of federal laws Tuesday mandating disclosure by chemical companies, setting limits on hazardous air pollution and requiring development of evacuation plans for neighborhoods in which heavy industries are located.
"This legislation should create powerful incentives for industry to resolve some of the worst and most dangerous pollution problems," Florio said.
California Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) plans to attach some of the same measures to new clean air legislation.
When the two congressmen proposed additional environmental controls on the chemical industry last year, the industry successfully opposed them as onerous and unnecessary. But the public revulsion and fear following the Bhopal disaster could prove a potent catalyst for new anti-pollution laws.
"I think we're starting to harvest the results of about 30 years of chemical production," said Rep. Bob Wise (D-W.Va.), whose district includes the Union Carbide chemical works that was a model for the Bhopal plant. "All the problems that have built up over that time are coming up to face us. They can't be put off any longer."
Geraldine V. Cox, vice president and technical director of the Chemical Manufacturers Assn., disagrees: "It's so easy to pick on industry. Let's take the politics out of this and look at the facts. We're the safest industry in the United States."
Indeed, by traditional measures--worker accident rates, lost workdays and so forth--the chemical business has an enviable safety record. In 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.5 of every 100 chemical workers suffered job-related injuries or illnesses, compared with 10 of every 100 workers in all manufacturing industries.
But critics such as Florio and Waxman contend those statistics ignore a host of health and safety hazards that chemical plants pose to the millions who live or work nearby.
The threat of a Bhopal-style chemical disaster in an American city is merely the most obvious concern. While both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have some power to enforce chemical-plant safety, the task has fallen largely to chemical makers themselves.
While no domestic chemical industry accident has claimed a large number of deaths in nearly four decades, the industry's own safety surveys sometimes turn up embarrassing oversights, as when a September study of the Union Carbide plant in Wise's congressional district warned of a "real potential" for a Bhopal-style leak of toxic gas there.
Critics say neither EPA nor OSHA is inclined to force industry to toe the safety line. EPA officials, for example, say the laws that give them the power to regulate underground storage tanks that leak toxins into the ground may not cover those tanks that, like the ones in Bhopal, leak deadly gases into the air.
Similarly, OSHA has responsibility for chemical leaks that stay within a factory's boundaries, but once a deadly gas crosses the company fence, it enters the legal province of the EPA.
The Florio legislation would attempt to abolish such jurisdictional stumbling blocks, and would place most of the safety burden on EPA, which has better chemical industry expertise and records than the understaffed OSHA.