Borregaard has kept it secret: Uses Bhopal gas in China
By Harald Eraker
During the debate in the wake of former Prime Minister Brundtland's opening of Borregaard Taichang Chemicals in China in November 1995, Borregaard defended its investment saying that the factory "represents a fundamental improvement with regard to safety and the environment". The company also claimed that there is no "storage of toxic intermediates in the process" in the factory, which produces carbofuran, a pesticide that was banned in Norway as early as in 1983.
NorWatch can now reveal that Borregaard's Chinese factory all along has produced the toxic gas methyl isocyanate (MIC) as an integral part of the production process for carbofuran. This emerges from a memo from the Environmental Affairs Project in NORAD, which has considered an application from Borregaard for development assistance funds worth NOK 6 million for the installation of a safety system at the factory.
"Borregaard has not wanted to be secretive about environmental and safety conditions at the factory," manager of communications Dag Arthur Aasbø of Borregaard tells NorWatch, and adds that the company actively has disseminated information about starting up production of carbofuran in China.
According to Aasbø, Borregaard's technology has many advantages, partly because the factory does not use any toxic raw materials, and partly because the MIC gas is not being stored, but is being formed continuously in a closed system.
Borregaard does not answer NorWatch's question as to why the company has not previously informed anybody about the use of MIC.
NORAD's Environmental Affairs Project has, according to the leaked memo, referred Borregaard's application to an expert on gas leaks at the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research at the University of Trondheim (SINTEF), who says that the proposed OPSIS system, intended to monitor any MIC leaks, is a method that "should be appropriate for MIC monitoring."
But SINTEF is very skeptical to Borregaard's planned use of OPSIS:
"However, the system is very sensitive to interference from other gases, thus the system could be activated for no reason. As a consequence an operator might switch off the system, leaving the plant without protection."
Because the OPSIS system reacts to many different types of gases, there is a risk that the alarm at Borregaard Taichang Chemicals will sound at all times, due to the general problem of air pollution and smog in China.
There obviously is a danger that the operator will switch off the system instead of stopping production, because the company does not want to lose money, or that recurring false alarms will have a "cry-wolf" effect.
"It was human error and safety systems not functioning as they should that caused the Bhopal tragedy. This is gambling with the lives and health of the local population," says director of The Future in Our Hands Norway (FIVH) Tor Traasdahl.
According to the NORAD memo, SINTEF further says that the problem with the OPSIS system is that the measuring equipment is very sensitive to smoke and dust.
Manager of communications Aasbø says that the factory in China already from the start-up had safety systems installed, but that they ran across the OPSIS system, which is even better and is activated more quickly.
"Borregaard has (...) been a prime mover to have the system installed in order to obtain maximum safety," says Aasbø.
Halvard Lesteberg from NORAD's Department for Industrial Cooperation says that no decision has been made as to whether Borregaard will receive support for the factory in China, and that NORAD will take the time necessary to consider the matter.
A danger to NORAD
But NorWatch has reason to believe that NORAD plans to make a decision soon. If that is the case, it goes against the Environmental Affairs Project's recommendation in the memo that NorWatch has obtained:
"It is not possible for us to make a recommendation regarding choice of solution until we have more detailed information," is the conclusion concerning Borregaard's application.
The Environmental Affairs Project also raises some fundamental questions on this issue:
"Although this concrete project aims to reduce the environmental risk stemming from Borregaard's activities, there is a danger of Borregaard not taking responsibility for its operations if safety measures are being funded over the development assistance budget. The question is whether Borregaard should not itself bear the financial costs of installing a safety system at the factory. There might be a risk that NORAD will be held responsible if, for instance, the equipment does not work as intended, and if it requires too much maintenance. We recommend that these aspects are further discussed prior to any decision with regard to support."
"The Future in Our Hands strongly recommends that NORAD refuse Borregaard's application. It makes no sense that development assistance is used to fund an unreliable safety system. NORAD cannot support a project involving the risk of a new Bhopal tragedy, nor can it support a factory manufacturing carbofuran, which is banned in Norway," says director Traasdahl of FIVH.
Banned in the US
In its memo, NORAD's Environment Affairs Project also refers to the ban on carbofuran in Norway:
"It should be added that the pesticide carbofuran is banned in Norway, and that Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland's opening of the factory in China prompted some negative reactions."
Since then, new, strong restrictions have been imposed on the use of carbofuran in the US. A total ban has now been imposed on all use of carbofuran in granules, i.e. tiny grains spread out on the fields in order to kill insects.
The ban in the US is based on the fact that birds and other animals eat the granules and thus become poisoned by the carbofuran. Borregaard Taichang Chemicals, which produces carbofuran in its pure form (the active ingredient), sells the product to manufacturers in China producing such granules.
When asked whether Borregaard has any misgivings about this, manager of communications Aasbø answers evasively that these products are wanted in China because they prevent considerable destruction of crops by insects, and that Borregaard follows up on its customers in order to ensure that they comply with the relevant legislation in China.
"If Chinese authorities on account of their own and others' experiences find it necessary to change the use and legislation, we will follow up accordingly," says Aasbø.
"The ban in the US and Norway, seen together with the use of the hazardous Bhopal gas, raises the question as to whether Borregaard should manufacture carbofuran in China at all," comments Traasdahl.
Borregaard in China
Borregaard Taichang Chemicals is owned 61% by Borregaard, and the factory producing the pesticide carbofuran has Norwegian management. Joint venture partner: the Chinese company Jinlong Group. The factory was opened by former Prime Minister Brundtland in the fall of 1995.
Borregaard is owned by the Orkla Group.¨
Norwatch Newsletter 9/97