Sunday, January 09, 2005

AIChE on Bhopal ...

A small followup from an earlier post on this blog about the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy:

A letter from the President-elect of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), Jeff Siirola appeared among letters to the editor in the December 5, 2004 issue of the New York Times. Here is a link to the actual letter. Siirola says:
Today, modern chemical facilities have independent layers of protection. Rigorous safety methodologies are followed daily.
It turns out that the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal which was the source of the leak had an elaborate safety system in place to protect against a methyl isocyanate leak - but the maintenance on the plant had broken down ... it was a tragedy waiting to happen. Siirola also points out
More plants hold smaller supplies of hazardous chemicals, and often chemical products are produced as needed.
This is something that chemical engineers have known for a long time - this was even known when designing Union Carbide's plant (Ref: ICFTU-ICEF Mission Report on Bhopal). While its something Union Carbide would never do in the US, warnings related to the huge inventory of methyl isocyanate in Bhopal by engineers of Union Carbide India Limited were ignored by Union Carbide, including a corporate inspection report in 1982 (also from the ICFTU-ICEF Mission Report on Bhopal).

Big corporations have a tendency to exploit rules (or the lack thereof) in third world countries. The Bhopal tragedy is an excellent example - I wonder if the AIChE can do something to ensure that US companies do not cut corners when it comes to safety precautions, procedures and maintenance of plants in populated third world countries. The additional expense that will be incurred to install these will be a small price compared to that paid by the Bhopal victims. The Bhopal tragedy will continue to remain a blot on the chemical engineering profession (which includes yours truly). The only way to obliterate it would be to ensure that a Bhopal doesnt happen again.

No comments: