Risk Communication and Chemical Accident Management: Case Study of BST Elastomers Factory Accident in Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, Rayong, Thailand
By Nicha Rakpanichmanee, Dawan Chantarahasdee and Kanis Pongnavin - Researchers at Ecological Alert and Recovery – Thailand (EARTH), February 2013
Technicians used to believe that risk is a scientific matter, manageable by experts through technology and accurate calculations. With this reasoning, many businesses and government agencies refrain from issuing warnings to the public in risky situations, waiting until risk information is as certain and as accurate as possible. They fear that inaccurate risk information will cause panic. However, according to many research findings on industrial accident management, people will be in a state of panic and fear if they do not receive information in a timely manner, even though the information may be uncertain. Moreover, research reveals that risk communication which does not disclose uncertainties will only reduce overall public trust in the provider of information, be it government or private industry sources.
A study of the chemical accident at Love Canal hazardous waste treatment site in the United States in 1978 found that residents became angry and less trusting of the government, due to the lack of communication about potential health impact from leaked chemicals. On the contrary, Love Canal residents trusted a group of scientists who expressed an opinion on the potential health damages, even when those risks were uncertain. Researchers also found that residents became less anxious when they received an explanation from a biologist on the potential long-term impact on young children from the leaked chemicals and a recommendation to monitor children’s blood levels for many years in the future. Communicating uncertain risk information did not cause alarm but, on the contrary, reduced fear and anxiety.
The public definition of risk is broader than quantitative risk which can be calculated. For example, according to research findings on the two nuclear power plant accidents at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, risk increases in public opinion if (1) the accident has the potential to cause widespread damage, (2) citizens have no choice to protect themselves or reduce the impact from such accidents, and (3) the harm is unknown, for example, unknown chemicals, unknown concentration, unknown potential health impact, etc. Public perception of risk is significant because it directly influences the level of support for public policies. In the case of nuclear power plant, for example, public support for nuclear energy in the US reduced 10-15 percent after the Three Mile Island accident, similar to the widespread decrease in public support for nuclear energy across Europe after the Chernobyl accident.
The lack of risk communication increases public panic and the potential for encountering dangerous situations, because citizens do not know how they should protect themselves. The World Health Organization concluded that prompt communication of information would have likely reduced the number of deaths and casualties from the 1985 Bhopal chemical tragedy in India. There were 3,800 sudden deaths, about 10,000 deaths over the next few days, and 15,000-20,000 deaths over the next 20 years. Today, at least 5,000 people are still suffering from chronic illnesses caused by this chemical accident. At the time, many residents evacuated their homes in a state of panic because they received no information. As a result, many people came into contact with a toxic gas (methyl isocyanate), even though the safest response measure for this chemical is to remain in enclosed buildings and to lie down close to the ground and breathe through wet clothes. The name of the leaked chemical was not released, not even to the local hospitals, and thus they were unable to provide proper treatment to patients.
Risk is therefore not only a scientific question reserved for experts, but a process of public communication. Acceptable risk has not set formula. Rather, it is a result of a mutual negotiation process in society, about what risks are acceptable and how to manage those risks, using technical information as only one of the components for decision-making. Risk communication in a democratic society is not a one-way public relations message or a process of persuading specific target groups. Risk communication is a two-way communication process between experts and the public, in the form of opportunities to exchange information and opinions, leading to a common agreement on the basis of equal decision-making power and trust.
Thailand in a time of rapid industrialization has witnessed increased risk from chemical accidents and industrial pollution. The objective of this study is to review the existing approach of risk communication and chemical accident management in Thailand. We analyze risk communication in practice according to the principle that risk communication is not a product of scientific calculation, but a process of negotiation and deliberative agreement in society. The quality of risk communication has long-term repercussions on public trust toward the government and the private sector, and may influence public willingness to collaborate in chemical accident management in the future. We have chosen a case study analysis of the May 5, 2012 chemical explosion and fire at the BST Elastomers (BSTE) synthetic rubber plant in Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, Rayong, Thailand, as the first chemical explosion in the history of Map Ta Phut, the country’s largest industrial hub, and often deemed the most technologically-advanced.
Research methodology included documentary research and in-depth interviews to gather direct experiences and opinions of various stakeholders. All documents reviewed were released between May 5 and December 20, 2012, including: government documents (issued by Rayong Provincial Office, Map Ta Phut Municipality, Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate Office, Rayong Chapter of the Federation of Thai Industries, Rayong Provincial Office of Public Health, the national Pollution Control Department, documents used in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet hearings, etc.); news reports in local and national newspapers, television, online media; public relations material; and Environmental Impact Assessments by BSTE Co. Ltd. and its affiliate company Bangkok Synthetics Co. Ltd.