Amb. y Des., Vol. IV - Nº 1 y 2: 165-168 Abril-Agosto 1988 PRENSA INTERNACIONAL DEL "WALL STREET JOURNAL" DE NEW YORK Danger Zone Chemical-Plant Safety Is Still Just Developing In Developing Nations Many Conditions Raise Risk But Firms Deny Easing Standards in Third W o r l d Fallout From India Gas Leak BY CATHY TROST Staff Report of The Wall Street Journal At an auto-making plant in Mexico, wor- Assessing the Risks kers who use solvents and other hazardous chemicals pray for protection before Just what the Bhopal calamity proves is a statues of the Virgin Mary at altars in their matter of dispute, in part because it isn't work areas. yet clear exactly what went wrong. Ameri- It may not be a bad idea. In a country can executives insist—and the experts ge- with a work force of over 20 million, there nerally agree—that chemical companies are only 230 federal labor inspectors to building plants in the Third World rarely enforce Mexico's occupational safety and are seeking to dodge tough environmental health laws, an International Labor Or- rules at home. Nevertheless, with weaker ganization survey shows. regulations and enforcement abroad This isn't atypical for the Third World. combining with difficulties in quality con- No developing nation's industry comes trol, the possibilities for disaster are worri- close to having the elaborate system of some. safety regulations and inspections the U.S. has. Yet workplaces in the Third World are Although chemical companies insist fast acquiring many of the same kinds of they apply the same standard of safety and complex industrial processes the U.S. has— environmental protection in foreign fa- processes like the chemical production at a cilities as at home, "when you go into a Union Carbide Corp. plant in Bhopal, Third World country, you face many pro- India, where a was leak has killed more than blems in attempting to reach the standard", 2,000. notes Irv Rosenthal, the director of safety, "We're, thrusting 20th-century tech- health and environmental affairs at Rohm nology into countries which are't yet ready & Haas Co. The difficulties he cites range to deal with i t " , says Whitman Bassow of the from finding commercial waste-disposal in- World Environment Center, an indus- cinerators to acquiring gear to test workers' try-backed groups in New York. "We've pulmonary function. gotten away with it so far because there have Dow Chemical Co. has run across simi- been only minor tragedies. But the Union lar problems. At its Chilean polyethylene Carbide accident has really torn apart the plant, none of the critical valves could be whole cover on this, and things will never be acquired locally, so the company had to the same again". keep a big supply from the U.S. on hand 166 PRENSA I N T E R N A C I O N A L lest it run short. Dow's safety officer, developing countries have little status, poor Robert Smith, says the company also pay and huge territories to cover. In Nige- prefers to have an unpopulated green belt ria, the best are regularly lured away by around its plants, but lack of space in some industry. Third World sites—such as Mexico City, Brazil tried to regulate asbestos—pro- where Dow has a plant—makes that ducts companies a few years ago but had to difficult. ask the companies to teach its inspectors how to use the monitoring equipment. Increasing Regulation When a less-developed country does try to strengthen its regulation, political Perhaps more significant is the govern- infighting or corruption may undermine mental policy of a Third World country the effort, says H. Jeffrey Leonard, who has interviewed officials of 60 companies in where a potentially hazardous installation developing nations in his work for a Wash- is located. Mr. Smith finds that "the ington research group called the Con- standard of ethics, the value placed on servation Foundation. safety and the balance between cost and safety typically is different in de- " I n Mexico, U.S.-based companies will veloping countries". These days, he be- tell you off the record that their biggest lieves, "most of the countries in the problem is Mexican pollution inspectors world are going through the same kind of who arrive with their hands out and say. evolution of increasing legislation and 'This could take weeks; why not just settle regulation that the U.S. went through in it today?'" Mr. Leonard says. "One had an the last decade." (The Bhopal tragedy has inspector show up every day for a month, renewed debate on U.S. export controls for continuing to hold his hand out, never taking hazardous substances. See story on page 2). measurements." This seems to be borne out by some No such corruption has been alleged figures that Mr. Bassow of the World concerning the deadly methyl isocyanate Environment Center mentions. He says the leak at Bhopal, India. Still, a less-than-ideal number of environmental-type agencies in situation is described in a 1982 report by developing countries has soared from 11 in three Americans Union Carbide sent to 1972 to 110 this year. But many, he adds, assess its 51%-owned insecticide plant. are small, underfinanced and only meagerly Citing a high turnover rate in the supported by their governments. Indian-staffed plant, the report says that In India, he says, the federal envi- "the team was concerned that personnel ronmental department has a staff of about were being released for independent ope- 150 persons—compared with the U.S. Envi- ration without having gained sufficient ronmental Protection Agency's head- understanding of safe operating pro- quarters staff of 4.400. Yet India, by his cedures." The Americans also expressed calculation does more to enforce safety concern about training by "rote memo- than most Third World nations, partly rization," without "a basic understanding because of the British legacy of laws and of the reasoning behind procedures." inspection procedures, 'It's doubtful that With the cause of the gas leak still half the countries in Latin America even undetermined, it isn't known whether the have an inspectorate," Mr. Bassow says. staff's training was a factor. Union Carbide says it took steps to correct the defi- ciencies, and it chairman expresses confi- Problems with Corruption dence in the Indian staff. The point is simply that the U.S. inspectors in 1982 A study by the International Labor Orga- were finding staffing problems that nization found that labor inspectors in troubled them, including instances of main- DEL W A L L STREET JOURNAL DE NEW YORK 167 tenance people "signing permits they American-based companies may try to cannot read." build the same kinds of plants overseas as Mr. Leonard says many companies at home, but "when it comes down to it, operating in developing countries have told because of human procedures and little him "they just can't get the quality control things left out, the plants just aren't quite we get back in the United States, or the there," says Mr. Leonard of the Con- human (work-force) quality." A 1979 servation Foundation. Barry Castleman, an survey by the ILO suggested a possible environmental activist and consultant in reason, noting that "maintenance work is Baltimore, contends: "Once companies not part of the way of life in parts of the decide to build plants in Brazil or India, the developing world". usual c o s t - c u t t i n g , profit-maximizing An official of Monsanto Co. says that business mentality takes over." over the years the company has had some Many environmentalists say that com- "spirited discussions" with Third World panies also are more likely to build ha- partners over the level of safety required at zardous products in developing countries plants. It is concerned about the safety where potencial hability costs may be less. implications of being a minority partner in Big court awards for asbestos workers in such ventures. the U.S. have prompted most asbestos- products companies to set up foreign fac- tories. "Why risk $ 100 million of liability Roads and Phones when you can make it any way you please somewhere else? " says Mr. Castleman. If an emergency does develop. Third World Some experts say developing nations countries more primitive transportation could better deal with the complex new and communications systems pose a ha- technologies and processes if countries like zard. Organizing an orderly evacuation—a the U.S. supplied more information on daunting task in the best of circum- environmental and safety procedures. Mr. stances—becomes a near-impossibility when Leonard says that wherever he travels in a slum has sprung up around a third world developing lands he finds the walls of plant, as at Bhopal, India. government offices papered with EPA do- Before the natural-gas explosion in cuments. But lately, he adds, some Third Mexico City that killed 450 people last World officials say they can no longer get month, Mr. Leonard says, Mexican officials such documents. And Thomas Gladwin, an had confided to him that they didn't have associate professor at New York Univer- good emergency procedures—that if a plant sity's business school, blames the U.S. for were to explode, there was no way to helping stall a plan by the Organization for notify the populace quickly. This is the Economic Cooperation and Development situation in many developing lands, he to include environmental guidelines in an says: "How can you have an emergency international code of conduct. warning system if the phone doesn't work At the EPA, Fitzhugh Green, the chief half the time? " of the agency's international office, rejects such criticism. "We are missionaries in this," Another way Third World countries he says. "The U.S. has been a leader since may be ill-equipped to accommodate che- mical industries concerns waste disposal. the beginning of the environmental move- Many Latin American nations don't have ment." well-developed commercial waste-disposal operations, notes Pennwalt Corp., which Spain's Stance has six plants in Central and South Ame- rica. Empty waste drums lately have been turning up in Mexican slums, used by the In any case, some countries have ocassio- poor as water barrels. nally provided a haven for hazardous indus- 168 PRENSA I N T E R N A C I O N A L tries. Romania and India were among de- Mexico, noted for its tolerance of veloping nations that began making and asbestos and pesticide plants unwanted in exporting benzidine-based dyes after they the U.S., recently turned down an Ame- were linked to cancer in the 1970s and U.S. rican company's proposal to build an asbes- production dropped off. tos-products facility. And Mr. Leonard of the Conservation Foundation quotes a top Romanian officials insist they have environmental official of Spain as telling state-of-the-art pollution controls, but him: "Spaniards are very proud people. If American companies that build factories we permit our industries to pollute our f o r Romania say cost-cutting consi- rivers, that is our business. But if a foreign derations often lead the chemical ministry country comes here and makes conta- to skip the controls. mination, it's an insult to Spain". Such vigilance seems certain to increase Generally speaking, however, people in now, just as it did in 1976 when a cloud developing countries have become more containing dioxins was loosed by an explo- concerned in recent years about safety and sion at a Hoffman-La Roche plant in pollution, says Roger Moore, who is Du Seveso, Italy. "What Seveso did for Pont Co.'s group director for Latin Ame- Europe," says Mr. Leonard, "It's likely that rica. Says Mr. Moore: " I n some countries, the Bhopal incident will do for developing and I'd prefer not to name the countries, countries. It will alert local citizens to the people have said, 'Pollution means pro- many dangers of chemical plants." In fact, gress.' That was many years ago. I don't be warns, i't may push them beyond concern hear that anymore". to "almost an exaggerated fear".
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