Before Bhopal, there was Love Canal. In the late 1970s, hundreds of residents living on top of what in the 1940s and '50s was a Hooker Chemical dump site were sickened by toxins the firm had left behind. No chemical firm wanted to be associated with Hooker.
Robert A. Roland, president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association at the time, said, "Hooker Chemical was persona non grata within the Manufacturing Chemists Association." MCA was the predecessor of CMA and today's American Chemistry Council. Roland retired in 1993.
As Roland recounts in an oral history maintained at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Hooker legally dumped chemicals in what was once a canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The local school district bought the land from Hooker but was not supposed to sell it for development.
Roland took Hooker's case to the MCA executive board and told them: "There but for the grace of God goes every one of you around this table. ... You can turn your back on Hooker, but you can't turn your back on this problem. ... You're setting yourselves up for a great fall."
Executives learned something from the drubbing that the chemical industry took over Love Canal, and by the time the Bhopal accident occurred, Roland had convinced executives to advocate on behalf of the industry in public and before Congress. Bhopal "was a benchmark event because it took us to the next plateau that was really called proactive," he said. Responsible Care grew out of that proactive approach resulting from a terrible event.
As the industry wrestled with safety issues immediately following Bhopal, public officials were on high alert to the possibility of chemical accidents in their communities. Warren Anderson, vice chairman of the industry association and Union Carbide's chairman, said in a January 1985 C&EN interview: "If you had tried six months ago to get a bunch of different people involved in evacuation plans around a chemical plant, you might have been hard-pressed to get everybody's attention.
"You must get doctors, hospitals, TV stations, radio stations, police, state troopers, the governor's office. Now you can get their attention." When the Bhopal disaster occurred, the industry's association didn't run from a member in trouble. Mindful of Roland's warning, its members realized that any one of them might suffer a similar disaster.
Edward Donley, chairman of Air Products & Chemicals at the time of the Bhopal accident, says, "I was appalled at the massive fatalities. It heightened our sensitivity to the possibility of such an accident, and it drove us to be more vigorous about safety." Donley served a stint as chairman of CMA's Environmental & Safety Committee.
Harold A. Sorgenti, who was president of Arco Chemical when Bhopal occurred, recalls that his company was negotiating to buy Union Carbide's petrochemical division. The accident quashed the deal. Sorgenti, who was also chairman of CMA at the time, said the accident was "a huge shock to the CMA board." But he sees the development of Responsible Care as a positive outcome. "It's been very effective at reducing risks and helped improve people's perception of the industry."
Former Crompton Corp. chief executive officer Vincent A. Calarco says that, because of Responsible Care, "we are safer today than we were before Bhopal." He remembers clearly the difficulties the accident posed. "It was a real turning point for the industry."
Calarco was active in the industry association as the Responsible Care program got under way and championed the program at his firm until his recent retirement. He admits that "accidents do happen," but he says all Responsible Care adherents have one goal in mind: "zero accidents."