Aug 15, 2005
On August 9, a hazardous-waste processing plant exploded in Romulus, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. As reported later, the plant had no general alarm system. Evidently it was only by a stroke of luck that a worker realized the danger when he smelled something unusual and heard a hissing noise. By a second stroke of luck, all seven other workers were able to hear his radio message, "Get out! It's going to blow!" And it did blow, just as the workers ran out.
Thousands of residents and workers from other factories around the plant were evacuated. More than 50 people were reported treated at area hospitals for itchy skin, difficulty breathing, and chest tightness.
The fire burned for more than two days. Ash and grit fallout covered homes in the area – lawns, cars, children's pools, gardens. Before the fire was completely out, evacuated residents were told they could return home – even though officials still could not tell what was in the fallout!
A day later, officials headlined that lab tests had found no hazard. But in the small print, readers found that only 60 of the most immediately hazardous chemicals had been ruled out. Results of other tests for heavy metals like lead and arsenic would take several more days – yet residents were being given the impression that the danger was past.
In chemical spills or fires, the danger is never past. A doctor specializing in environmental and occupational medicine noted that there's a relationship between high rates of chronic illnesses and high rates of chemical releases in the region.
A local environmental official, in a broadcast news conference, dared to brag, "We always err on the side of safety." Yet authorities seemed in a big hurry to minimize the danger from a whole hazardous-chemical processing plant exploding and burning to the ground.Officials didn't even know what chemicals, or how much of them, were in the plant! In May, state inspectors warned EQ Resource Recovery, the plant's owner, that it was not storing materials in the proper areas, and that it was not doing proper paperwork to verify what it was receiving. This for a company that processes millions of pounds of the most hazardous solvents and chemicals – 28 million pounds in 2003 – mostly toxic waste from the auto industry.
In fact, contractors such as EQ are an escape hatch for the companies who actually create hazardous wastes. After the waste is "sold" to contractors, the creators of the problem have no further legal liability. Whatever the future holds for the victims of this catastrophe, the inevitable lawsuits can only go so far as EQ – which can always, if things get too hot, declare bankruptcy and start life again under another name.
The entire system is set up with the full understanding that public health disasters are bound to happen. Companies simply make sure that safeguards are in place. Not safeguards like effective alarm systems, or like building hazardous factories away from residential areas! But safeguards for their wealth, against the all-too-legitimate claims of those who will be injured.