The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) today released a short video safety message marking the 30th anniversary of history’s worst industrial accident. The tragedy occurred at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India and killed an estimated 25,000 people. The CSB’s safety message examines recent incidents in the U.S. three decades after this deadly event and discusses how more must be done to prevent similar accidents from occurring.
How it happened
The video entitled “Reflections on Bhopal After Thirty Years” chronicles how on December 2, 1984, water inadvertently entered a storage tank containing more than 80,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, which reacts react violently with water. A subsequent runaway reaction overheated the tank and resulted in a massive toxic gas release. A dense, lethal cloud drifted over the city of Bhopal, exposing hundreds of thousands of people to deadly MIC and other chemicals.
An estimated 3,800 people died immediately, and tens of thousands were injured. Eventually thousands more died from toxic gas-related illnesses.
Chemical accidents continue to occur despite new laws
In the wake of Bhopal, Congress enacted new laws to increase chemical emergency preparedness and to require companies to develop process safety and risk management programs, and to report their worst-case release scenarios. Congress also established the Chemical Safety Board to independently investigate chemical accidents and recommend measures to prevent such catastrophic accidents. But despite these actions in the 1990’s, the United States continues to experience serious chemical accidents.
In the video, CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso says, “Process safety management regulations are in need of reform. There must be more emphasis on preventing the occurrence of major chemical accidents through safer design. Responding to emergencies and punishing people after the fact are not enough.
Similarities to Bhopal incident
In the past few years, CSB investigations have found deficiencies in design and process safety management similar to those uncovered in Bhopal. The video points out that a 2008 explosion killing two workers and injuring eight others at a pesticide plant in Institute, West Virginia found that incomplete operator training and procedures similar to Union Carbide’s at Bhopal.
Furthermore, had the Institute plant vessel that exploded taken a different trajectory, pieces of it could have struck piping connected to a storage tank containing 13,700 pounds of MIC, potentially causing a large release of the same highly toxic chemical that killed thousands in Bhopal.
Regulatioins should focus on reducing process risks
The safety message discusses a number of additional accidents currently investigated or previously investigated by the CSB which ultimately could have been prevented had current federal and state regulations focused on preventative measures or continuously reducing process risks.
To enhance safety in the chemical industry, the Board has voted to include “Modernize U.S. Process Safety Management Regulations” on the CSB’s list of most wanted safety improvements.
Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso concludes the video with the following call to industry and regulators, “Since Bhopal, both industry and government have increased their efforts to prevent major chemical accidents. But multiple CSB investigations show that much more needs to be done to assure that future tragedies will be avoided.”
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating serious chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.