Friday, September 30, 2005

Responsive Local Government and Chemical Leaks in New Jersey

New Jersey Chemical Leak Disrupts Morning Commute
By JOHN HOLL (source 9/30/2005 New York Times)

"A chemical leak at a swimming pool chemical plant in Kearny, N.J., this morning snarled the morning commute by closing the Pulaski Skyway and had local officials warning of potential health risks to residents with respiratory problems. The leak occurred around 8:30 a.m. when about 1,000 pounds of trichloroisocyanuric acid, a chlorinating agent and disinfectant used in swimming pools, began to decompose sending a plume of gas into the air. By 10:30 the leak had been contained, though there was an ongoing release of gas that was being filtered through an air pollution control device, or scrubber. A reading from inside the building found that there were three to five parts-per-million of chlorine in the building. Authorities urged residents to stay indoors with their windows closed and told drivers in the area to roll their windows up."

I was not a good chemistry student in college so I don't know how a severe a public health threat this shock could have been but I'm struck by the fact that the social environmental costs of this accident appear to be quite small because the problem was quickly identified and fixed and the public was notified concerning what self protection steps should be taken to reduce exposure risk. The main losers from this shock seem to be the diverted morning commuters.

It would interest me what would have happened if this same industrial accident had taken place in a developing country. How much greater would the damage have been? A competent local government represents a type of insurance policy against risk but I have never seen anybody try to quantify how effective is this insurance. In similar sized cities around the world, how many people die from fires and industrial accidents in richer cities versus poorer cities? How much is risk exposure reduced by in richer cities because of "good governance" and well functioning competent officials?