"Everybody keeps asking, 'Can Bhopal happen here?' Until you know what you have and where it is, who knows?"
Richard Anderson, commander of the hazardous materials section of the Los Angeles Fire Department, posed that question. He and other officials who watch over hazardous materials in the South Bay are going to get some answers.
Once the multiple deadlines of a new state law click into place in the coming months, thousands of businesses throughout the South Bay and the rest of the state will be forced to disgorge a wealth of previously secret information about the hazardous materials they use.
"After this, we will have at least a reasonable assumption as to whether it can happen here," said Anderson in a reference to the release of methyl isocyanate in Bhopal, India, on Dec. 4, 1984, that killed more than 2,000 people and injured an additional 200,000.
Even before the deadlines for compliance, the new law--passed in reaction to the Bhopal disaster and other toxic releases--is yielding significant information.
A preliminary survey conducted by Carson officials to find out what would be involved in administering the law indicates that 37% of the city's businesses handle significant quantities of hazardous materials, including petrochemicals, chlorine, methyl chloroform, aromatic isocyanates and polyisocyanates, caustic alkalis, mineral acids and methyl ethyl ketone, to name a few.
Besides death, dangers from the uncontrolled release of these chemicals include fire, damage to the lungs, liver and kidneys, spasms, asphyxiation, delirium and blindness.
The law, authored by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), was passed Sept. 28, 1985, and amended with minor revisions in July, 1986. It requires businesses to provide local officials with detailed inventory information about hazardous materials and a plan for dealing with emergencies. Local officials must prepare an areawide plan for emergencies and set up a computerized data base to provide instantaneous access to information during an emergency.
The state Office of Emergency Services will monitor local programs. Municipalities may administer the law or let counties do it.
When the inventory information comes in, municipalities may find some unexpected results, judging by the findings of the Carson survey.
Community Development Director Patricia Nemeth said the surprise was not that a high percentage of Carson companies handle hazardous materials; because half of the city is zoned for industrial and commercial uses, she expected that. The news was where the hazardous materials are located.
"I was surprised every time I saw someone reporting handling (hazardous) materials in a residential area," Nemeth said. She said she was particularly concerned about a high concentration of hazardous materials in the city's northwest corner, the site of many warehouses and several residential neighborhoods.
Torrance notified 2,500 companies last week that inventory information on hazardous materials is due in a month. In El Segundo and Manhattan Beach, city officials intend to seek inventories from about 250 firms, including the Chevron refinery, Hughes Aircraft, TRW and other aerospace firms. All three cities decided to administer the law themselves.
Inglewood, Hawthorne and Gardena also decided recently to run their own program and soon will be seeking information from firms in their cities. In the next few weeks, Redondo Beach and Hermosa will be voting on whether to run their own programs.
The city of Los Angeles will face the huge task of digesting inventory forms from 44,000 businesses--many of them in San Pedro and Wilmington and the city strip along the Harbor Freeway. County officials, who will be monitoring the South Bay's unincorporated areas, Lawndale, Lomita and the municipalities of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, estimate that they will keep tabs on up to 25,000 companies.
The law, the first attempt in California to bring some system to a cross-hatch of government agencies, has long been needed, authorities say.
It comes in the wake of the tragedy in Bhopal, which spurred a nationwide movement toward more planning for industrial disasters.
The federal government has issued guidelines for the disclosure of inventory data for hazardous materials that are similar to California's inventory disclosure requirements. In addition, the chemical industry has begun its own program, Chemical Awareness/Emergency Response, which encourages companies to beef up training programs for employees, planning for emergencies and coordination with local safety officials.
In Southern California, there is a special need for the new law because chemical plants often lie close to residential areas, and earthquake faults pierce the region, according to a report produced by the Southern California Air Quality Management District in September, 1985.