Global Community Monitor staff’s recent visit to fenceline communities in West Virginia was not just an opportunity to train residents to use Bucket Brigades to identify and stop chemical threats at their doorstep but also a trip to the birthplace of one of the most important pieces of chemical disaster legislation in the US: EPCRA.

While the issue of averting a chemical disaster is one that reaches as high as federal legislation, it is one that was spawned by a local disaster.  In fact, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) was added to Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), (colloquially known as Superfund), as a response to both the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy in India and a similar incident that happened in Institute, West Virginia the same community that GCM is now helping a generation later.

What occurred in Bhopal on the night of December 2rd, 1984 was the world’s largest industrial catastrophe.  A pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) leaked out methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, along with some other substances.  MIC is extremely toxic, where very low quantities inhaled, ingested, or contacted can result in severe damage to a person.  Thousands upon thousands of people living in the surrounding area were exposed. Estimates vary significantly on the death toll.

Officially, 2,259 deaths immediately occurred. However, many victims died in the ensuing weeks, with some government agencies even citing a total of 15,000 deaths attributed to the MIC leakage.  Nearly 600,000 individuals were permanently injured in the disaster. The gas at the UCIL factory in Bhopal was released from underground reservoirs directly into a populated area.  Most residents in the bordering communities were unaware of the danger that MIC posed.  In fact, even the emergency response to the chemical leak was not correctly geared towards tackling the damage of the MIC leak.  Responding doctors and hospitals, for example, were not informed of proper methods for responding to MIC gas inhalation, told to simply treat their patients with eye drops and cough medicine.

Also in 1984, an industrial incident occurred in Institute, West Virginia at Bhopal’s sister plant that was quite similar in circumstance to the Bhopal leak.  Though thankfully no fatalities occurred during this incident, over 100 residents were sent to the hospital from exposure.

In the US, concern was aroused of a Bhopal-level domestic disaster. In the mid 1980’s, EPCRA was enacted to avoid just such a disaster, designed to do so by both allow the neighboring communities of industries to be aware of potential chemical threats and also to provide the infrastructure at both the state and local levels to plan for chemical emergencies. EPCRA provided the foundation for accessible information, including the Toxic Release Inventory, that many fenceline communities use today.

Despite EPCRA’s good intentions, the threat of domestic chemical disaster still exists.  Bhopal’s sister plant in Institute is currently the only site in the United States to manufacture and store MIC.  In August 2008, an explosion at the plant occurred only 80 feet from the MIC tanks. Subsequent congressional hearings revealed that this explosion could have been “eclipsed” the Bhopal disaster, possibly covering the entire Kanawha Valley with the lethal MIC gas.  The investigation report from the Chemical Safety Board found that the fenceline monitors located around the plant were not functioning on the night of the explosion.

While EPCRA is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most successful environmental laws, the key to the law functioning is a proper alert system.  EPCRA requires only that general chemical threats be made known to the public.  An exemption within EPCRA called the “fenceline exemption” requires that industries only make the specific contents of leakages known to the public if they put members of the public over the facility fenceline at risk.  Any leakages that remain on premises need not be made publicly available.

Though EPCRA is certainly a very powerful tool to fenceline communities, enabling citizen suits and reducing pollution nationwide, EPCRA is not without its flaws. The loopholes built into EPCRA serve to highlight the need for fenceline communities to remain vigilant of the neighboring facilities. With EPCRA allowing communities to be aware of the threatening chemicals across the fence, they must be active in ensuring that proper fenceline monitoring is both in-place and constantly functioning.  Only then can they be sure that proper precautions and responses will be taken.