Who is to blame for NIMBY?

January 24, 2011 at 6:30 pm Leave a comment

NIMBY, or “not in my backyard”, refers to the objection that homeowners and businesses sometimes raise over a newcomer to the neighborhood. The newcomer can be all sorts of things, from a cell phone tower to a new airport runway. What really got the NIMBY ball rolling, though, was the discovery that residents living and working around a chemical manufacturing plant might be exposed to hazardous materials.

These days NIMBY tends to be invoked by the newcomers as a way of belittling the concerns of residents. The newcomers use NIMBY to imply that residents are nothing more than silly frightened sheep who stand in the way of good jobs and economic progress. They would like residents to believe that dangerous accidents are relics of a bygone era and that a multitude of environmental regulations and safeguards now protect people from their own shadows.

If only it were true. The simple fact is that NIMBY is often a rational response to self-interested behavior by negligent companies. Furthermore, despite what companies may say about their respect for their neighbors and the environment, negligent behavior persists. On August 28, 2008, a pesticide manufacturing unit at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, West Virginia exploded when workers lost control of an exothermic chemical reaction. The explosion destroyed the plant and killed two workers. Tragic enough. But, as a just-released report from the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board reveals, the tragedy was compounded by the negligent behavior of the plant’s operators and could have easily been much worse.

Here are some of the Board’s findings as reported in the Jan 24, 2011 issue of C&ENews, “Bayer Accused of Skirting Safety”:

  • the plant’s operators rushed to restart a pesticide manufacturing unit without evaluating new computer programs, inspecting safety equipment, or conducting safety process checks. In addition, workers were instructed to intentionally override an interlock system designed to prevent runaway reactions
  • when the plant exploded, only luck caused debris to fly away from, instead of towards, a tank holding 13,000 pounds of volatile and highly toxic methyl isocyanate, the same poisonous gas that was responsible for the worst chemical tragedy of all time in Bhopal, India in 1984
  • while the fire burned, company officials did nothing for 4 hours to notify local residents and even blocked the state fire marshal from entering the plant. The then-chief of the Chemical Safety Board added, “The Bayer fire brigade was at the scene in minutes, but Bayer management withheld information from the county emergency response agencies that were desperate for information about what happened, what chemicals were possibly involved. The Bayer incident commander, inside the plant, recommended a shelter in place; but this was never communicated to 911 operators. After an hour of being refused critical information, local authorities ordered a shelter-in-place, as a precaution. Proper communication between companies and emergency responders during an accident is critical. The community deserved better, especially considering the amounts of hazardous chemicals, in use and being stored at various chemical facilities in the Kanawha River valley.”
  • Bayer officials went to great lengths after the accident to prevent the Chemical Safety Board from releasing portions of its report to the public
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Entry filed under: In the News.

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