Several months before the tragic gas leak in India, the civil defense director for Camden County, Ga., called the Union Carbide plant there to ask what hazardous chemicals it dealt with.
Robert Mumford, the civil defense official, was trying to update evacuation plans for the southeastern Georgia county. ''They (Union Carbide officials) said we handle chlorine,'' Mr. Mumford recalls. Chlorine gas is poisonous.
But plant officials did not mention that they used the same deadly gas that later leaked in India, according to Mumford. He says he first learned the plant used the same gas when he read an article in a newspaper after the leak at the Union Carbide plant in India, which led to the deaths of at least 2,000 people and serious injuries to thousands more.
No other county official contacted by this newspaper was aware that the same gas was being used at the plant. Consequently, no evacuation plans were ever drawn up by the county in the event of a gas leak at the plant, county officials say.
After the Dec. 3 leak from the plant in Bhopal, India, a Union Carbide spokesman at the company's headquarters in Danbury, Conn., said the same gas, methyl isocyanate, was normally shipped from the company's plant at Institute, W.Va., to the Georgia plant. (Those shipments were halted after the gas leak in India, until more was known about what caused the leak, the spokesman added).
''If the thing (the gas leak in India) hadn't happened over there, I don't think this would have come up (public knowledge that the Georgia plant used the same gas),'' Mumford says.
Local officials and representatives of the Union Carbide plant in Georgia have met since the India leak to begin preparing evacuation plans for the area in the event of a leak of the gas at the plant, according to county officials there.
''One thing they (Union Carbide officials) admitted to us (was that) they'd been lax in their planning'' regarding evacuation of nearby communties, says Kenneth Gay, chairman of the Camden County board of commissioners.
Methyl isocyanate gas has been used at the Georgia plant since 1978, says James Bertrand, employee-relations manager at the plant. The plant, which employs about 600 people, has had an evacuation plan for its employees, he said. Now a coordinated emergency evacuation plan for people in the area is being prepared with local officials for Camden and nearby counties, he added. The company meets all federal safety requirements for storage and transportation of the gas, he said.
Mr. Bertrand said he thought Camden County Sheriff James Middleton might have known of the existence of the gas used at the plant. Sheriff Middleton could not be reached.
The previous lack of public knowledge of the existence of a deadly gas at the plant raises several questions:
* Should companies be required by law to notify local officials that hazardous chemicals are used at their local plants?
''Workers in plants have a right to know what they're working with, and members of the general public have a right to know what's in facilities where they live,'' says Vicki Bremen, a lawyer for the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation in Atlanta. The Georgia legislature is studying both points, she says.
* What safety requirements are in effect regarding shipment of such materials? Union Carbide has been shipping the gas by truck from West Virginia to southeastern Georgia. Should public officials, especially in major population centers along transportation routes of hazardous chemicals, be notifed of such shipments? What emergency response plans are in effect in the event of spills along the way?
* Camden County clerk John Peterson, who lives a few miles from the plant and just a quarter of a mile from the truck route to the plant, asks: If there is a leak, how far might the gas be dispersed? Is the gas pressurized or in liquid form? ''I think the things concerning the people are the response time of emergency teams,'' he adds.
* Finally, are some chemicals just too dangerous to use?
Danny Daniels, director of emergency services for Camden County, says: ''I think from just a moral standpoint, we might need to look at the amount of stuff we're producing and cut back.''
He says he is unaware of any antidote to use in the event of a methyl isocyanate gas leak. And his emergency instructions for response to such a leak call for clearing the area for half a mile, although the gas cloud in India apparently affected people for several miles downwind.
As for length of response time to a gas leak, Mr. Daniels says no plans were ever drawn up for such a response. Previously he did not know specifically which gas was being used at the plant, although he knew an ''extremely dangerous'' gas was being used there in addition to chlorine, he says.
For emergency officials to stay informed of all the many hazardous chemicals being shipped through and used in a county is no easy task, especially in a county with a low population, he says.
Daniels says he and a county fire official recently participated in a firefighting training program offered by Union Carbide in Texas. ''It was a great school,'' he says.
''I'm more concerned about the amount of chlorine'' than methyl isocyanate used in the county, he says. A local paper company uses much more of it than Union Carbide, he added.
The Union Carbide plant in Camden County is located in a sparsely populated area. The nearest community is Harriett's Bluff, some three or four miles away, says county clerk Peterson. It has a maximum of about 300 residents at its summer peak, he says.
''I think there's been pretty much a feeling of security within the community because a number of (plant employees) live there,'' says Peterson. He says he does not believe that a lack of public knowledge of the use of the deadly gas was ''an attempt to keep anything secret.''
County official Gay says of Union Carbide's plant: ''It's about as safe a plant as you can have. I'm personally not that concerned.''
But he also says: ''We're sitting on a bomb, it looks like.''
''We didn't realize the effect of this particular (gas),'' he says. He adds that he was unaware that the gas was being used at the plant.
What the area needs now, say local officials, is some kind of clear signal that would call for evacution in the event of a gas leak, and a planned evacuation. And campers and other visitors to the Cumberland Island National Seashore, close to the plant, would need to be alerted in such an event, he says.