FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Will Bush Miss the Next Bhopal?

by BRIAN McKENNA

On May 12, 2005 the Department of Homeland Security staged a spectacular joint terrorist preparedness exercise in Romulus, Michigan and the Detroit Metropolitan Airport called “Operation Vigilant State, a Surface to Air Threat Exercise.” Citizens were informed that military aircraft would be flying in and around Metro Detroit, and warned not to panic. The daylong event tested the response plans, communications and interoperability of a host of governmental exercise participants.

“It may look like the real thing,” the press was told. But when the real thing happened, just 3 months later, on August 9, 2005, homeland security was caught unaware, breached from within.

“It was like an atomic bomb went off,” said Aurora Martin of Romulus, recalling that night. “My son lives next door and came running over. His walls were rattling. The firemen came yelling on loudspeakers and banging on doors telling us all to get the hell out of here.”

 

Terrorist Plane?

At first it was suspected in the media that a terrorist plane had slammed into “Environmental Quality Resource Recovery,” a Romulus based chemical plant, resulting in the catastrophic toxic explosion. Orange yellow flames careened into the upper reaches of the sky. Many residents spoke in horror of a “black mushroom cloud” that spread soot, ash and “black hamburger like” debris over rooftops, yards, churches, bikes and an elementary school, Roosevelt McGrath, that sits a few hundred yards from the facility.

No alarm sounded but the eight workers at the factory had run frantically off site after hearing a hissing noise from an ammonia tank. The working class community surrounding the factory, totaling about 3,000 households, were given no prior warning. They were rapidly evacuated to area shelters and not permitted to return home for 2 days.

The explosion had immediate physical health effects. Fifty people, including residents and firefighters, were seen at Oakwood Hospital for burning sensations in their lungs and associated ailments.

According to an EPA finding, 32 above ground tanks, some ranging in size up to 15,000 gallons, “were impacted.” Four hundred toxic drums were destroyed.

“I never even knew there was a chemical factory over there,” said Martin. There was. And now it’s mostly gone.

 

Nothing to Worry About?

On August 15th, MI Congressman John Dingell requested a full accounting from government agencies, including the EPA and the Department of Homeland Security, about the chemical hazards and the advance preparations for a disaster by EQ Resource Recovery. For example, he asked whether EQ had been required to file an emergency response plan.

“There has been a need to improve security and safety at the nation’s chemical plants for years,” he said, “Despite my repeated requests and those of other Members of Congress, the federal government has made almost no progress toward a comprehensive program for securing chemical facilities across the nation.”

Carolyn Merritt, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, agrees. She goes so far as to raise the specter of Bhopal, the world’s worse chemical catastrophe, which killed thousands within hours of a poisonous gas leak from an Indian pesticide plant in 1984.

Merritt told reporter Kristen Hays, “Over and over again, we see companies–even those covered under process safety rules–committing the same kind of management errors, mechanical errors and process errors that set up the facility at Bhopal for the accident.”

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is currently investigating a number of serious chemical explosions which have impacted neighboring communities. These include 2005 explosions at BP America in Texas City, Texas, and one at the Acetylene Service Company in Perth Amboy, NJ, which killed three workers. It also includes 2004 explosions Marcus Oil and Chemical in Houston, TX, (felt more than 20 miles from the site), Sterigenics Ethylene Oxide in Ontario, CA (rendering the facility unusable), and another at Formosa Plastics in Illiopolis, IL. That explosion killed five workers and forced a community evacuation.

For a mother running in tears in the night with her infant from a catastrophic mushroom cloud spewing toxic debris over her head, as happened in Romulus Michigan in August, it doesn’t matter if the “terrorist” is al-Qaeda or one of the chemical complexes named above.

 

Off the Radar

Romulus is located in Wayne County, Michigan. In FY 2004 Wayne County received $23.5 million (which it shared with Detroit) in Homeland Security Grant awards. Romulus directly received $256, 818 in FY 2004. But these governmental agencies had apparently paid little or no attention to the “Surface to Air Threat” (i.e. a possible pollution plume from EQ Resource Recovery) in their midst on May 12, 2005, the day of the exercise.

It’s not as though it wasn’t noticeable to them. EQ is the nation’s third largest facility that blends toxic wastes for fuels in cement kilns. In 2002 EQ handled or treated 81,181,711 pounds of toxic waste in the Romulus neighborhood, including 13,485 pounds released into the air of the surrounding community. According to the federal government’s own Toxics Release Inventory, EQ has a cancer risk score that places it near the 100th percentile as “dirtiest/worst facilities in the U.S.” Two tons of this pollution are recognized carcinogens with carbon tetrachloride being the top cancer risk.

EQ has been cited 68 times over the past two decades. On May 11–the day before Operation Vigilant State — an inspection by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found three violations at EQ including not storing hazardous waste in the areas specified by its license.

One wonders why this wasn’t alarming enough to draw increased scrutiny by Wayne County officials.

 

“We’re Moving”

Tracey Easthope, Director of the Environmental Health Program at the Ecology Center is engaged in a study on the likely short-term and long-term effects the pollution. “There could be traces of several dangerous pollutants in the fallout,” she said. “It’s an incredible toxic stew, and people who live there are going to deserve a lot of answers.”

Dr. Michael Harbut, an environmental and occupational medicine expert said it is possible that microscopic particles suspended in the burnt solvents could have lodged in the lungs of people.

It’s also known that numerous by-products could be created from the explosive interactions. These can drift into the soils, rugs and wood throughout ones home. That is why residents were told to turn off their air conditioners before evacuating, to avoid sucking in the airborne contaminants.

Citizens who can afford it often flee from these insecure homelands.

A plumber who lives a few blocks from the Romulus Michigan explosion showed off his car which had a number of black, gummy patches on it, six weeks after the firestorm. “They’ve not come off even after eight car washings,” he said. He worries about the health effects of material like that on his family’s lungs. “My wife has asthma and complained about throat burning but we decided not to join the class action lawsuit,” he said. “We’re moving.”

 

How to Make Toxins Invisible & Create Illusions of a Safe Homeland

There is often little citizen unrest about potential chemical explosions in their midst. One reason many Romulus neighbors are unaware of the true nature of the Environmental Quality corporation is its signage.

A pretty green yin yang EQ image adorns its façade and trees shield passer-by from the inner workings. Its Orwellian name, focusing on “quality,” connotes safety, distracting citizens from the yang within the yin, which is “dangerous to your health.” Imagine if “Toxics Central” was the name presented to the public.

Brad van Guilder, an organizer with the Ecology Center, an environmental group located in Ann Arbor, expresses an even broader concern about the need to eliminate the use of toxic substances in general.

“The EPA has a Toxic Waste reduction program that is based on reducing the use of these toxic materials,” he says. “Allowing a market where this toxic soup is reprocessed as a fuel to be burned so we have to breathe all of this crap, and transporting hazardous waste through a densely populated area and having it sit around in storage in huge quantities as a time bomb, contradicts the goals of the EPA program.”

BRIAN McKENNA can be reached at: MCKENNA193@aol.com

 

 

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
April 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Slandering Populism: a Chilling Media Habit
Andrew Levine
Why I Fear and Loathe Trump Even More Now Than On Election Day
Jeffrey St. Clair
Mountain of Tears: the Vanishing Glaciers of the Pacific Northwest
Philippe Marlière
The Neoliberal or the Fascist? What Should French Progressives Do?
Conn Hallinan
America’s New Nuclear Missile Endangers the World
Peter Linebaugh
Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017
Vijay Prashad
Reckless in the White House
Brian Cloughley
Who Benefits From Prolonged Warfare?
Kathy Kelly
The Shame of Killing Innocent People
Ron Jacobs
Hate Speech as Free Speech: How Does That Work, Exactly?
Andre Vltchek
Middle Eastern Surgeon Speaks About “Ecology of War”
Matt Rubenstein
Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies
Sami Awad - Yoav Litvin - Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb
Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland
Pete Dolack
Tribunal Finds Monsanto an Abuser of Human Rights and Environment
Christopher Ketcham
The Coyote Hunt
Mike Whitney
Putin’s New World Order
Ramzy Baroud
Palestinian, Jewish Voices Must Jointly Challenge Israel’s Past
Ralph Nader
Trump’s 100 Days of Rage and Rapacity
Harvey Wasserman
Marine Le Pen Is a Fascist—Not a ‘Right-Wing Populist,’ Which Is a Contradiction in Terms
William Hawes
World War Whatever
John Stanton
War With North Korea: No Joke
Jim Goodman
NAFTA Needs to be Replaced, Not Renegotiated
Murray Dobbin
What is the Antidote to Trumpism?
Louis Proyect
Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay
Medea Benjamin
Women Beware: Saudi Arabia Charged with Shaping Global Standards for Women’s Equality
Rev. William Alberts
Selling Spiritual Care
Peter Lee
Invasion of the Pretty People, Kamala Harris Edition
Cal Winslow
A Special Obscenity: “Guernica” Today
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey’s Kurdish Agenda
Guillermo R. Gil
The Senator Visits Río Piedras
Jeff Mackler
Mumia Abu-Jamal Fights for a New Trial and Freedom 
Cesar Chelala
The Responsibility of Rich Countries in Yemen’s Crisis
Leslie Watson Malachi
Women’s Health is on the Chopping Block, Again
Basav Sen
The Coal Industry is a Job Killer
Judith Bello
Rojava, a Popular Imperial Project
Robert Koehler
A Public Plan for Peace
Sam Pizzigati
The Insider Who Blew the Whistle on Corporate Greed
Nyla Ali Khan
There Has to be a Way Out of the Labyrinth
Rivera Sun
Blind Slogans and Shallow Greatness
Michael J. Sainato
Trump Scales Back Antiquities Act, Which Helped to Create National Parks
Stu Harrison
Under Duterte, Filipino Youth Struggle for Real Change
Martin Billheimer
Balm for Goat’s Milk
Stephen Martin
Spooky Cookies and Algorithmic Steps Dystopian
Michael Doliner
Thank You Note
Charles R. Larson
Review: Gregor Hens’ “Nicotine”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail