EarthTalk: December 2010 marked the 26th anniversary
of the infamous Bhopal disaster in India when chemical company
Union Carbide leaked deadly gases, killing thousands of
people. What safeguards are in place today to prevent incidents
Colchester, via e-mail
December 1984 Union Carbide chemical spill in Bhopal,
India killed 2,259 people immediately and caused lifelong
health problems and premature death for tens of thousands
more. Pictured: Survivors and their kin march from
Bhopal to Delhi in 2006 demanding completion of the
cleaning of the factory site to stop toxic chemicals
from continuing to poison ground water.
© Joe Athialy/Flickr
should have been a wake up call, but it is unclear whether
chemical plants around the world are any safer a quarter
century after the December 1984 disasterduring which
some 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from
a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide (now part of Dow
Chemical), killing 2,259 people immediately and causing
lifelong health problems and premature death for tens of
In the U.S.,
the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
oversees chemical and other facilities that deal with hazardous
materials, making sure various process safety
routines are followed so as to prevent or minimize
the catastrophic injury or death that could result from
an accidental or purposeful release of toxic, reactive,
flammable or explosive chemicals. Also, in the wake
of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
instituted its own Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism
Standards (CFATS) that chemical and other hazardous
materials facilities must follow or be shut down.
While this system
has worked pretty well in the U.S. so far, some worry that
a Bhopal-scale tragedy, whether due to an accident or terrorist
attack, could still occur on American soil. For one, water
treatment and port facilities are exempt from CFATS altogether,
so some of the nations largest chemical facilities
are not subject to as rigorous standards as they could be.
A 2009 bill that passed the House of Representatives but
failed to make it through the Senate addressed this and
other issues. Supporters are optimistic that the bill in
one form or another could resurface in future legislative
Of course, what
happens in industrial facilities abroad is up to the host
country to regulate. And while standards are higher than
they used to be in many developing countries today, runaway
economic growth often means oversight and enforcement are
lacking if nonexistent, so dangerous facilities still threaten
people and the environment in ways that wouldnt be
tolerated in the United States.
corporate responsibility say that companies should be held
accountable for accidents with their materials, whether
they occur on home soil or elsewhere, arguing that a double
standard presently exists that is much too lenient on multinational
corporations operating in developing countries. Martin Khor,
executive director of The South Centre, a Geneva-based research
group, reports that this double standard also seems to apply
to compensatory pay-outs. Union Carbides settlement
for the Bhopal disaster, for example, was only $470 million,
or a few thousand dollars per affected family.
If nothing else,
the Bhopal disaster certainly raised awareness around the
world about the dangers of modern chemicals, especially
those used or manufactured in close proximity to people.
Hopefully at least some local governments in developing
countries have taken heed and stepped up efforts to site
potentially hazardous industrial facilities away from both
human population centers and environmentally sensitive landscapes.
But, unfortunately, without stronger regulations and enforcement
around the world, it may be only a matter of time before
another highly lethal accident occurs.
Vice-President Joe Biden just announced a commitment by
the Obama administration of $53 billion to high speed rail.
Isnt it about time? Why is the U.S. so far behind
other nations in developing environmentally friendly public
to expand high-speed rail service are now underway
in several U.S. regions. A recent report found that
high-speed rail in the Midwest would reduce air
travel by 1.3 million trips and car travel by 5.1
million trips per year by 2020, saving 188,000 tons
of CO2 emissions, equivalent to taking 34,000 cars
off the road while still getting everyone to and
from work. Pictured: High speed trains at the St.
Pancras International station, London.
© John Curnow/ Flickr
There are many
reasons why public transit hasnt taken off in the
U.S. as it has in parts of Asia, Europe and elsewhere. For
one, ever since the Model T first rolled off Henry Fords
assembly line, Americans have had a love affair with cars.
Also, a successful plot by General Motors and several partner
companies in the 1930 and 1940s bought up and shut down
rail transit lines across 45 American cities, replacing
them with bus routes driven on GM buses. Meanwhile, the
U.S. government embarked on a plan to link the nations
metro areas via interstate highways, further encouraging
car travel. The sexy new car designs of the 1950s then drove
the final nail in the coffin, relegating public transportation
to an afterthought.
But with rising
oil prices and growing fears about global warming, public
transit is looking sexier to many Americans. As part of
2009s landmark American Recovery and Reinvestment
Act (ARRA), the White House committed $8 billion to efforts
to create and maintain high-speed intercity passenger rail
service. And just weeks ago, after calling for giving 80
percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25
years, Barack Obama pledged another $53 billion to increase
the nations network of high-speed rail lines.
Plans to expand
high-speed rail service are already underway in several
U.S. regions. Illinois was the first of 31 states to receive
a portion of the funding to begin building high-speed rail
lines linking Chicago and St. Louis. A recent report found
that high-speed rail in the Midwest would reduce air travel
by 1.3 million trips and car travel by 5.1 million trips
per year by 2020, saving 188,000 tons of carbon dioxide
emissions (equivalent to taking 34,000 cars off the road
while still getting everyone to and from work).
Funding is also
slated to go to California, where trains traveling up to
220 miles per hour will move people between San Diego and
San Francisco in less than three hours. Californias
high-speed rail system, which should in service by 2020,
is expected to cost about half as much as would expanding
highways and building new airport runways and gates to accommodate
fast growing passenger transportation demand.
is on board with high speed rail. Floridas Republican
governor Rick Scott recently rejected $2 billion in federal
funding to build an 85-mile high speed rail line between
Tampa and Orlando, arguing that cost overruns would likely
leave Florida taxpayers making up billions of dollars for
something they dont need. Scotts move in killing
the Tampa-Orlando run calls into question whether or not
Obama can push his plans through in other parts of the country
that are also conservative strongholds.
No matter how
quickly Americans get up to speed on high speed rail, the
U.S. certainly has some catching up to do. According to
statistics from the International Union of Railways and
other sources, China leads the world with upwards of 2,800
miles of high speed rail lines in operation and another
5,500 miles planned. Spain, France and Japan each have around
1,200 miles in operation; Germany has 800 miles and Italy
has 577. The U.S. has only 226 miles in operation currently.
The Obama administration would like to see Americans riding
on more than 16,000 miles of high speed rail lines by the
middle of the century.
Union of Railways.
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