Listening Session on President Obama’s Executive Order 13650 – DHS-2013-0075
Comment on behalf of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, North America (ICJB-NA)
This is a comment made on behalf of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, North America (ICJB-NA), a stakeholder in the environmental and community groups segment. We thank the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for making available the opportunity to present our comment. ICJB-NA is the North American solidarity tier of a global campaign for justice led by five Bhopal-based survivor and support groups. Through our comment, we wish to remind all stakeholders that Bhopal represents what is wrong with voluntary industrial regulation, coupled with inadequate government checks on the global chemical industry. The Bhopal disaster signals the need for more stringent regulation of the global chemical industry at the national as well as international levels and we urge the EPA to take the lead under the authority vested in it by the Clean Air Act.
It will soon be three decades since the people of Bhopal, India, were exposed to 40 tons of the highly toxic, methyl isocyanate (MIC) due to the hazardous design/cost-cutting decisions of the US-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), now owned by the Dow Chemical Company. The Bhopal gas disaster has resulted in over 25,000 deaths to date, and currently affects over 500,000 people. Chronic health problems stemming from initial exposure to MIC include sickness in the respiratory, ocular, neurological, neuromuscular, gynecological and reproductive systems, which continue to plague survivors 29 years later. Moreover, independent studies have established that the mutagenic effect of MIC exposure has led to higher rates of developmental disabilities and birth deformities among the children of survivors.
Facilities producing hazardous chemicals within the United States and globally are routinely situated in areas populated by the poor and/or racial minorities. The Bhopal plant was situated alarmingly close to a number of slum communities, populated by some of the most marginalized sections of Indian society (e.g. poor, migrants from nearby villages, Muslims, scheduled-caste Hindus and so on). The recent chemical leak in Charleston, WV resulted in a federal emergency being declared. Over 300,000 people in nine counties did not have access to clean drinking water. Many of these counties are part of the same region that once earned the dubious distinction of “Cancer Valley” for its abnormally high cancer rates. The valley has a high concentration of industrial and chemical plants and these areas are predominantly populated with African-American and poor and working class white communities. It is not a coincidence that one of the more serious chemical disasters in ‘Cancer Valley’ was an explosion that occurred in 2008, in Institute, WV, at a plant that manufactured MIC, the same chemical that had leaked in Bhopal in 1984. At the time, Bayer CropScience, the company that owned the plant, used an anti-terrorism law to hide from emergency responders the nature of the explosion and the chemical released.
We echo the stance taken by numerous environmental justice groups on this forum and urge the EPA to act to prevent future chemical disasters under the authority vested in it by the Clean Air Act. Rather than rely on industry to regulate itself, the EPA needs to focus on “risk prevention” before, and not “risk management” after, a disaster occurs. The Bhopal gas disaster epitomizes the failure of risk management and industry self-regulation. We hope Bhopal’s experience can serve as a cautionary tale that demonstrates the need to protect the most vulnerable communities living and working near facilities storing hazardous chemicals. This is summarized in our campaign slogan, “No more Bhopals.”
In addition, the lack of environmental remediation in the aftermath of the ongoing, multi-generational disaster in Bhopal indicates the need for the EPA to consider the inequity of the burdens borne by vulnerable communities both within and outside the United States. We urge the EPA to factor into regulations that result from these public listening sessions the globalized nature of the storage, production and use of hazardous chemicals. The EPA should consider not only the risk to national security that some environmental and community groups have identified, but also the global threat that toxic chemicals pose, to humanity at large. We believe that any real solution to the problem of the safety of toxic chemicals should address the interconnectedness of the global ecology, for, environmental disasters know no national borders.