September 1996

After Bhopal: Responsible Care

by Jon Entine

In 1962, the chemical industry faced a huge crisis. Rachel Carson was readying her bombshell exposÚ of the environmental and human damage caused by widespread use of DDT, an herbicide. Before her book was released, Velsicol Chemical Corporation tried unsuccessfully to intimidate its publisher into modifying or canceling publication. In an attempt to undermine the book’s impact, Monsanto distributed The Desolate Year, a parody in which failure to use pesticides causes a plague of insects that devastates America. Although Carson lost the initial PR environmental wars, DDT was eventually banned, and Silent Spring went on to become the seminal work of the modern environmental movement.

Now, more than 30 years later, rose-colored glasses aren’t needed to see that many chemical companies, including Velsicol and Monsanto, have made major strides in re-engaging their community responsibilities. According to Joel Makower, editor of The Green Business Letter and a leading environmental writer, "Monsanto...is widely acknowledged as having raised the performance bar for corporate environmental reporting." Since their introduction in 1991, says Makower, Monsanto’s reports have been noted for their candor and accessibility.

Just last year, Velsicol was named by the EPA and Chemical and Engineering and Environmental Engineering World magazines as an "environmental champion" under the EPA’s 33/50 program, a voluntary pollution prevention initiative that targets 17 toxic chemicals for reductions. Velsicol has become an outspoken supporter of Responsible Care, the first industry-wide environmental code. Responsible Care’s emphasis on management practices and continuous improvement has laid the groundwork for subsequent industry codes such as the ICC Charter, the Global Environmental Management Initiative, and ISO 9000. 

The chemical industry is a messy business. Even with best practices, spills occur, and the environmental impact of some chemicals is not always adequately known. Sometimes rancorous debate is a fact-of-life. Velsicol is currently embroiled in a controversy over its manufacture of chlordane and heptachlor, carcinogens that critics say may migrate into the Memphis, Tennessee, aquifer. In that sense, it is a fertile industry for a revised model of corporate social responsibility. Even a tiny improvement in the way a Monsanto or a Velsicol handles its environmental problems would yield far more benefits than the environmental "reforms" touted by many eco-friendly retailers.  

How the Chemical Industry Came to "Care" 

In December 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, suffered a major leak of the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate. It resulted in a terrible environmental disaster: more than 3,000 people died and tens of thousands were injured. It was also a disaster for the chemical industry—"the single most astonishing and terrible event" in the history of the industry, according to Union Carbide CEO Robert Kennedy. The next year, another chemical accident in Institute, West Virginia, exacerbated the industry’s crisis. 

In the 12 years since Bhopal, the chemical industry has gone through painful self-analysis. At an annual meeting of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), former board chairman William G. Simeral noted that "while the industry saw itself as a producer of high-tech jobs and exports, the public saw only leaking drums and hazardous waste sites—and that image meant trouble for the industry." With the specter of more life-destroying disasters, chemical companies came to realize that their outright assurances that such an accident could not happen in the United States were not enough. What has resulted is a tough set of self-imposed environmental standards that, although they don’t prevent accidents or even occasional malfeasance, make an important contribution to opening up the chemical industry to public scrutiny, dialogue, and accountability. 

Shortly after Bhopal, Canadian chemical manufacturers drafted a detailed program, called "Responsible Care," that involved codes of practice for transportation, distribution, manufacturing, research and development, and hazardous waste operations. In a statement that reads as if it were lifted from a social responsibility movement booklet, The Codes of Practice commits its member companies to "reflect the concerns, needs, and values [of the stakeholders]...this is ethical thinking, decision making, and performance." All Canadian producers were required to sign up. 

In mid-1987, CMA Chairman Bob Clark surveyed U.S. CMA members and found that "everyone's number-one or number-two problem [was] the negative public perception of the industry." Further, industry polls showed that the public generally did not distinguish chemical manufacturers but instead saw the whole industry in the same light. For this reason, the major companies in the industry felt vulnerable to public perceptions that were based on the poor performances of other, often smaller, companies. They decided that a single plant or company could do only so much to allay public concerns. As a result, CMA devised a mandatory, industry-wide program. In 1988, 190 CMA members, representing more than 90 percent of U.S. basic industrial chemical productive capacity, adopted many of the Canadian "Responsible Care" guidelines "to respond to public concerns about the chemical industry with actions, not words." 

Box

Responsible Care«

Chemical Manufacturers Association

Guiding Principles

• To recognize and respond to community concerns about chemicals and our operations.

• To develop and produce chemicals that can be manufactured, transported, used, and disposed of safely.

• To make health, safety, and environment considerations a priority in our planning for all existing and new products and processes.

• To report promptly to officials, employees, customers, and the public information on chemical-related health or environmental hazards and to recommend protective measures.

• To counsel customers on the safe use, transportation, and disposal of chemical products.

• To operate our plants and facilities in a manner that protects the environment and the health and safety of our employees and the public.

• To extend knowledge by conducting or supporting research on the health, safety, and environmental effects of our products, processes, and waste chemicals.

• To work with others to resolve problems created by past handling and disposal of hazardous substances.

• To participate with government and others in creating laws, regulations, and standards to safeguard the community, workplace, and environment.

Codes of Management Practices

• Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER) Code: promotes emergency response planning and encourage dialogue with plant communities.

• Pollution Prevention Code: commits industry to the safe management and reduction of wastes.

• Process Safety Code: helps to prevent incidents and accidental chemical releases at plant sites.

• Distribution Code: focuses on employee and public risks from the shipment of chemicals, and applies to the transportation, storage, handling, transfer, and repackaging of chemicals in transit.

• Employee Health and Safety Code: protects employees and visitors at plant sites.

• Product Stewardship Code: manages chemicals from initial research through recycling and disposal.

Responsible Care Initiatives

Responsible Care-type initiatives now exist in approximately 30 countries in addition to the United States and Canada. In the United Kingdom, the national association of chemical distributors has adopted programs similar to Responsible Care. In France, 360 companies representing 90 percent of basic chemical sales and 70 percent of specialty chemical sales have signed up for Responsible Care. The German chemical industry association held its first Responsible Care workshop in November 1993. And although Danish industry first rejected the program, it is now adopting it. 

CMA expects member companies to sign the guiding principles, communicate a commitment to Responsible Care to their employees, and make "good faith efforts" to implement the codes. If a company consistently fails to conduct its operations in accordance with the codes, CMA will revoke its membership. To date, no company has had this happen. As a rule, the larger firms have shown the most commitment to enforcing the code. 

Responsible Care requires companies to annually evaluate the extent to which they have implemented each code. Companies report their progress only in general terms, however. For example, they may indicate that they have taken no action, have developed a plan, or have a program in place. These evaluations are not publicly available, although CMA has encouraged its members to share this information with "key audiences." In CMA's annual reports on Responsible Care, these data are aggregated into the percentage of companies that have reached particular "levels" of implementation for each code (but not for each practice in each code). In 1994, CMA reported that for the community awareness and emergency response code, 65 percent of its members had code practices in place, and another 16 percent were implementing an action plan. 

Community Advisory Panels

As chemical companies became more aware of the need to open their practices, many set up community advisory panels (CAPs) at hundreds of chemical sites.  

Although critics have suggested CAPs are little more than greenwashing efforts, there have been notable successes as well as questions. A CAP at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, home to a largely poor, minority community, has not worked very well according to most observers. Chevron is perceived as manipulating local planning officials to approve environmentally dubious projects, while Chevron blames the tensions on activists using the dispute as a political chip.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a CAP in Kingsport, Tennessee, where Eastman Chemical has a plant. It meets every other month and has provided a forum for local environmentalists and the community to influence corporate actions. Roy Settle, U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation officer who sits on the CAP, was concerned at first that his membership would be used as a tacit endorsement of the company but later noted, "I do not think they have tried to take advantage of me."

According to John McKeogh of Rohm and Haas, who helped Eastman set up its CAP, the most successful CAPs include sharp critics. They are not designed to convince a skeptical community that all is right, he says. Their primary focus is to "enable a community to have an impact on the thinking of chemical company management."