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Pam Nixon (copy)

Pam Nixon

Over the past two years, the world has been consumed with managing risks for the safety of our families.

First, it was the COVID-19, then the delta variant, and now, the omicron variant. Worldwide, over 5.2 million men, women and children have lost their lives to the virus. The United States has lost over 777,000 people. After the World Health Organization was notified of the pandemic in December 2019, there has barely been a daily news cycle that we have not heard or read the words “COVID-19” or “vaccine.”

We now know who the real essential workers are. They risked their lives to make our lives easier while most of us quarantined at home, studied from home, worked from home, attended meetings via Zoom and shopped from home. Then there were those who lost their jobs, and sat in long lines because of food scarcity.

In the midst of this, we had essential workers protesting for livable wages, and Black Lives Matter protesters fighting for civil rights while finding very little justice. Then, to add insult to injury, as a result of climate change, this country has been ravaged by extreme weather conditions, causing droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, heavy rains, floods and Nor’easters.

It is no wonder we can’t remember a chemical industry disaster that occurred 37 years ago this month — the Bhopal India disaster. According to Britannica, 45 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) escaped from the American-owned Union Carbide Corp. plant in Bhopal, India, killing thousands of people the night of Dec. 3, 1984. The final death toll was estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 men, women and children. It left half-a-million survivors who suffer from respiratory problems, eye irritations, blindness and other health issues from exposure to the toxic gas.

Neither Union Carbide nor DOW cleaned up the approximately 400 tons of industrial waste on-site in Bhopal. Soil and water contamination is still blamed for chronic health problems and high instances of birth defects among residents. The survivors continue to this day to protest for justice and accountability.

Eight months after Bhopal, on Aug. 11, 1985, over 130 Kanawha County residents sought medical treatment because a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals was released into the air from the Union Carbide plant in Institute. MIC, phosgene and other hazardous chemicals were manufactured in Institute to make pesticides.

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Before the Bhopal disaster and the Institute incident, communities across the United States did not have a guaranteed right to know the risks or the names of hazardous and toxic chemicals being produced, stored, transported or discharged by local industries near their homes. In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. This doesn’t prevent or minimize uncontrolled releases. The emergency plans are guidelines for first responders and communities to follow after chemical emergencies occur.

In 1990, the EPA Risk Management Plan Rule required facilities that use certain hazardous substances to develop plans for chemical accident prevention. Plans are required to identify the vulnerable zones and potential effects of a chemical accident, identify steps the facility takes to prevent an accident and to spell out facility emergency response procedures when an incident occurs.

Fence-line communities are disproportionately communities of color and the low income. The threat of dangerous and even catastrophic incidents continues to be severe for communities near management plan rule facilities.

Last year, a major explosion and fire at Optima Belle LLC killed a worker, injured two others, sent projectiles onto a nearby highway and injured a resident.

In 2017, the management plan rule was amended, but, in 2018, that EPA administrator deleted provisions that would have strengthened the rule.

The EPA is now developing a national compliance initiative to reduce risks to human health and the environment by decreasing the likelihood of chemical incidents. Let us hope the EPA will strengthen and expand essential requirements for industrial and chemical facilities, to protect front-line workers and fence-line communities.

Pam Nixon, is chairwoman of the environmental and climate justice committee for the Charleston branch of the NAACP.

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