The debate over chemical plant safety is spilling into state legislatures and Congress, where demand is growing for more oversight and better public information. Can government improve safety of chemical plants?

With a smack of the gavel, New York State Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey opened legislative hearings last week about how his state can better regulate the chemical industry. ``It's time we took a good, thorough look at how safely they're operating and how we can make them safer,'' Mr. Hinchey says.

This is the sort of sound that may be heard with increasing frequency as state and federal lawmakers grapple with ways to ensure that chemical manufacturers operate as safely as possible. But attempts by state legislatures to mandate many types of safety inspections and equipment in chemical plants are still few and far between, such is the daunting complexity of the subject.

The chemical industry has historically fought such initiatives, claiming that government attempts to regulate plant safety would only stall the industry's own efforts, already in progress. Industry representatives also say that the lion's share of technical specialists, on whose expertise a government would have to depend, work for industry anyway.

Still, as public attention continues its focus on chemical industry safety, advocates of greater industry regulation insist that the trend toward tighter federal control over the chemical industry is here to stay.

``It's inevitable,'' says Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey, who is cosponsor of a bill that would force the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate 85 hazardous air pollutants identified as carcinogenic by the National Toxicology Program, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the American Conference of Governmental and Industrial Hygenists.

Many chemical company executives already consider their industry to be one of the most heavily regulated in existence. They maintain that government interference won't improve on their own good-faith effort to bolster safety programs. They also say that the likelihood of huge liability settlements in the event of an accident, combined with the increasing reluctance of insurers to shelter companies from lawsuits, is enough to keep chemical producers in line. ``What would the federal government have us do that we are not doing by ourselves?'' asks Harold J. Corbett, senior vice-president for health, safety, and the environment at the Monsanto Company.

Yet among the 12,000 chemical plants scattered across the United States, the safety practices of smaller chemical operations, with dozens rather than thousands of employees, most concern many safety analysts. These companies, some observers say, do not have the technical expertise or the financial reserves that the larger corporations have to upgrade their safety programs and equipment.

``They aren't as prepared, but that's just a hunch,'' says John P. Miles Jr., head of field inspection at OSHA.

``If Union Carbide, which has the most to gain out of improving operations has had all the problems they've had since Bhopal, what can we expect from little companies around the country that no one is scrutinizing,'' Congressman Florio adds.

Hundreds of plant operations are governed by a web of federal statutes enforced by an alphabet soup of federal agencies. Yet critics of the present setup, such as Mr. Florio, charge that the patchwork of laws is difficult to enforce, and that some things are left uncontrolled.

For example, no federal regulation exists that requires companies to disclose to their employees and surrounding communities what chemicals they use and how much they release into the environment. That fact has prompted at least 30 states to pass so-called ``right-to-know'' legislation.

Many chemical producers have fought such laws in court, claiming that they force manufacturers to reveal proprietary information that could be used by competitors. Yet the idea has caught on. By the end of the 1985 legislative session, both houses of Congress had passed five-year Superfund toxic waste cleanup legislation that contained a right-to-know provision. ``Right to know is the major success in post-Bhopal'' chemical industry regulation], says Margaret Seminario, a safety analyst with the AFL-CIO.

Chemical industry observers say repeatedly that they are concern about the lack of public knowledge about and regulation of the 54,000 chemicals currently in commercial use. According to the National Academy of Sciences, little or nothing is publicly known about two-thirds of these compounds. Even if a chemical is said to be dangerous, that isn't enough to guarantee specific regulation. Air emissions of methyl isocyanate, which leaked from the Bhopal, India, pesticide plant, and aldicarb oxime, which leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Institute, W.Va., are not regulated by any specific federal statute.

The EPA recently issued a list of 403 highly toxic chemicals it identified as posing the risk of injury or death in a major accident. The list is intended to help states and localities indentify potentially hazardous sites, prepare for emergencies, and reduce risks to workers and the surrounding population.

Critics have assailed the EPA plan for putting the onus of fashioning regulations and emergency plans on localities, which, they say, have little experience in such matters. ``It means that the local fire department and town council will be doing things that should have been taken care of by the EPA and Congress,'' says Fred Millar of the Environmental Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying and research group. ``Who are those localities going to depend on for technical knowledge? Guess who -- the local chemical industry people.''

Representative Florio, one of Congress's most outspoken critics of the chemical industry, says it may be quite a while before any national legislation on chemical plant safety is passed. Indeed, he says he doesn't believe that the bill to regulate the 85 toxic chemicals will go anywhere for the time being.

``The political climate isn't right,'' he says, noting adamant opposition from the Reagan administration to proposals that have been floated recently from some quarters. ``I'm afraid it's going to take a major tragedy to wake people up.''

At least one state is not waiting for national attempt to regulate chemical plant safety. Earlier this month, New Jersey Gov. Thomas F. Kean signed into law a bill that state officials say is the most far-reaching piece of chemical plant safety legislation yet passed by any state. The new law gives the state the power to order safety evaluations of chemical plants and requires companies to assess the risks of their chemical operations.

Second of two articles. The first one ran on Jan. 27.

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