Bhopal, Chernobyl, and hundreds of other industrial accidents make headlines. Then, once the burials and cleanup campaigns are concluded, they fade from the news. But environmentalists, lawmakers, and community activists don't forget. Neither, of course, do lawyers or injured parties, who have brought huge numbers of product liability and worker safety suits in recent years, causing a surge in legal judgments.
Now a series of tough new laws is coming on the books in the United States and the European Community, compelling companies to disclose what kind of hazardous materials they work with.
``There is no doubt this has been stimulated by tragic industrial accidents such as Bhopal, Chernobyl, and Seveso,'' Michael Baram of Boston University's Center for Law and Technology told an international conference on this subject in Boston recently.
Professor Baram was referring to the accidental release in 1984 of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 2,500 people; to the 1986 Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl; and to a widely publicized 1976 release of dioxins during a fire at a chemical plant in Seveso, Italy.
Other landmark tragedies include an explosion of cyclohexane at a plant in the British town of Flixborough, which killed 28 workers; a 1975 chemical explosion at Beek, in the Netherlands, which killed 14; and the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.
But it's not just the big accidents that have galvanized lawmakers. Baram says there have been at least 6,500 chemical accidents in the US in the past five years. He says 25 chemical emergencies occur each week in New York State alone.
In the past, people living near factories and power plants usually had no idea what kind of potentially deadly substances were being stored on site or released into the neighborhood air. Now companies must say.
In the European Community: Companies must report to regulators in their national government under EC's ``Seveso Directive.'' Seveso, enacted in 1982, was recently amended to restrict storage of hazardous substances and require greater public information. Another EC directive after the Chernobyl accident contains new rules dealing with radiation emergencies.
European concern about trade secrecy limits public dissemination of much of this safety information, critics say. Nevertheless, individual members of the EC, especially West Germany, have been adopting even stricter community safety laws on their own.
Harold Otway of the European Community Research Center in Ispra, Italy, notes that there is a ``clear trend in Europe toward requiring that the public be given more information on industrial hazards.'' He says many European companies are now keeping their hazardous chemicals below the minimum level required by the Seveso and other regulations so as to lower their reporting requirement.
In the United States: The new Community Right to Know Act, which is an amendment to the Superfund toxic cleanup law, is making companies disclose to the public more and more data on hazardous substances. This is likely to generate much more local media coverage, and - in the US especially - a surge of lawsuits, legal specialists such as Dr. Baram say.
US companies last month had to begin reporting to state and local authorities whether they were working with more than 300 ``extremely hazardous substances.'' Last fall, industry began reporting on the presence of any of some 60,000 hazardous substances recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Act. And in July companies must report on the release of dangerous substances into the air and water.
With this new data available to journalists as well as the public, ``we've seen more and more [local] press articles'' about local hazardous substances, says Michael Shapiro of the US Environmental Protection Agency. ``But there haven't been observable changes in lawsuits.'' This might change, he notes, after the next set of regulations takes effect in July.
The EPA has estimated that the cost to industry in meeting the new requirements will be $4 billion over the next decade.
Parallel with these federal regulations, and often more stringent, are state disclosure laws. And the threat of lawsuits in the litigious US has already caused many companies to go beyond regulations to try to improve safety and to try to find unalarming ways of communicating risk to the general public.
Both the US and EC approaches have drawbacks, Dr. Baram notes.
The EC gives somewhat short shrift to the public but does emphasize emergency response.
The US gives the public masses of information but leaves the safety issue up in the air.
But it adds up to a big push on at least two continents to get industry to say just what kind of risky materials it is handling and how good its safety precautions are.