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9 Signposts on the road to recovery

James K. Mitchell

Surprising events and disquieting outcomes
Responding effectively to industrial disaster surprises

Surprising events and disquieting outcomes

This book has chronicled and analysed a selection of the most widely publicized industrial disasters that occurred during the second half of the twentieth century. All are examples of "surprises" (i.e. unprecedented events). Three are unqualified surprises - Minamata (first-of-a-kind surprise and worst-of-a-kind surprise), Bhopal (worst-of-a-kind surprise), and Chernobyl (worst-of-a-kind surprise). The remaining disasters are less complete surprises, although all contain elements of surprise. For example, long-running underground fires are a staple of coalmining regions but few have led to the extinction of an entire town, as is occurring in Centralia. Many dioxin releases pre-dated the Seveso accident and some of these may have involved greater amounts of that hazardous chemical, but this was the first peacetime release to affect a large civilian population. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was certainly not the first tanker accident of its type, nor was it the largest or most destructive spill, but it polluted one of the world's premier fisheries in a flagship wilderness area noted for scenic beauty and scientific importance; it also led to a record-setting court award of punitive damages. Many countries have suffered heavier wartime losses of industrial facilities than Iran, but the Iran-Iraq war was the first significant example of the destruction of a large modern oil industry in a less-developed country.

Industrial disaster surprises like these are public policy problems of increasing global importance. This is not just because they inflict record losses or because they challenge the effectiveness of existing hazards-management programmes: is also because they signal the need to devise resilient public policies in anticipation of currently unidentified problems that are likely to arise during periods of rapid and far-reaching socio-environmental change. In other words, this problem arena is a test bed for the management of an uncertain, perhaps indeterminate, global future.

As reflected in the case studies analysed here, the record of human response to industrial surprise is disquieting. Only in one place (Seveso) is there evidence of more or less successful recovery, although even here the lessons of success are qualified. Elsewhere, the process of recovery has typically been slow, difficult, uneven, and incomplete, although much effort has been expended to bring about a quick and untroubled return to "normal." A disturbingly large number of people are still trying to devise appropriate responses to hidden, chronic, and late-blooming problems. In short, the disasters continue to unfold and societal responses are only partly effective.

Without compelling evidence of successful recovery, it is difficult to argue that there has been much progress in converting these surprises into routine hazards. What does apparent failure of the routinization process signify? Several answers are possible. Some kinds of surprise may simply be very resistant to routinization; we may have to allow considerably more time for appropriate coping strategies to emerge. Relatively quick actions - such as the Montreal Convention for control of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) - may be the exception rather than the rule. In an era of fast-rising environmental pressures, this is a worrying possibility. Alternatively, not enough effort may have been devoted to unravelling and responding to the surprises reported in these case-studies. Perhaps, because they are mostly local and regional problems, they lack the urgency of threats that are truly global in scope. Or perhaps there are countervailing forces that work against routinization. Contestation and struggle are valuable tools for groups that do not now control many of the circumstances of their lives but seek to do so in the future. Perhaps unroutinized disasters act as lightningrods in political disputes about issues of equity, justice, or other matters. As long as they are unresolved, there is an opportunity for disaffected groups to gain advantage. Unresolved impacts of surprise may be an indication that political issues are hardier than technical ones. At present it is not possible to determine which answers are correct, but there is clearly a need to seek answers in the context of a broader research agenda.

Today's problems are rooted in specific events that began at various times in an increasingly distant past and are still continuing. The road between initial crisis and successful recovery appears to be a particularly long one. Often, the early impacts remain unresolved and have been joined by new worries and new manifestations of loss. For example, decades after the dumping of mercury in Minamata Bay ended, local fishermen are still coping with a variety of consequences such as embargoes on catches, closures of fishing grounds, attempts to force them into other occupations, and the government's unwillingness to recognize fishermen as a special class of mercury-contamination victims. The situation around Chernobyl is similarly troubling. Nearly a decade after the accident, hundreds of thousands of people in Ukraine, Belarus, and eastern Russia still do not know how much radiation they have absorbed, how long soils will remain contaminated, and what is the prognosis for recovery. In all of the study sites, many of the adults who were present at the time of the original crises are coming to the ends of their lives and whole new generations are reaching maturity in the shadow of lingering disaster. The frustrations of incomplete and slow recovery are too numerous to bear recounting here; let it suffice to say that, in addition to the heavy material, economic, and emotional costs that are borne by immediate victims, the transgenerational effects of continued victimization may also exact a severe toll.

Just as impacts are becoming more protracted or prolonged, the spatial effects of industrial disaster surprises are also spreading. Three main processes are involved. Effects spread because disaster agents are often carried far from the scene of initial accidents. The larger the quantity of pollutants introduced into air, water, and soil, the greater the probability that distant locations will be affected. For example, some oil from the Exxon Valdez was swept hundreds of miles from Thigh Reef, and Chernobyl's radionuclides were lofted around much of Europe. Sometimes it is the victims who spread out and carry the effects with them. In an increasingly interconnected world, many evacuate or migrate to distant locations in search of medical care, jobs, or assistance. Thus, former residents of Minamata now live, work, and file legal actions about disaster in most of the major cities of Japan. The geographic spread of effects is also transmitted more widely than ever before by new large-scale institutions such as multinational corporations and continental-sized free trade organizations. This was the case in Bhopal, where a US-based corporation was sued for compensation by victims of an accident at an Indian subsidiary. It also occurred throughout the European Community, when member states adopted a sweeping hazards policy directive that grew out of the experience of disaster at Seveso. Indeed, the entire system of legal responsibilities and jurisdictions over major industrial disasters seems to have been greatly expanded and become more global in light of the events at Seveso, Bhopal, and Chernobyl.

In summary, compared with other hazardous events, industrial disaster surprises have the capacity to affect more people in more places at more times, thereby greatly complicating the task of hazard management. The implications are striking. Not only are individual problems unprecedented, but involvement of more people raises the demand for protective services; involvement of more places increases the number and variety of environmental factors that must be taken into account; and involvement of longer time horizons exposes the limitations of conventional public decision-making that is typically keyed to short-term returns on investment, short-term plans, and short-term election cycles. Given the complex, pressured setting in which recovery takes place, it is no wonder that the process is impaired and that industrial disaster surprises continue to pose severe policy problems! How can we do better?

Responding effectively to industrial disaster surprises


The resolution of any public policy problem, including industrial disaster surprises, is a function of three main variables - awareness, information, and action. Decision makers, lay as well as expert, must be aware that a problem exists, they must know what to do about it, and they must (be willing and able to) act.


The events examined in this book are among the most newsworthy of recent times, so it is probably safe to say that people in the affected areas and public leaders elsewhere were aware of them. Yet, despite the notoriety of these cases, most of the disasters did not long remain in the forefront of public attention. A census of mass media reports illustrates this point. Only a handful of stories about the early disasters - Minamata, Centralia and Seveso have appeared in US newspapers and magazines during the past decade (tables 9.1 and 9.2). Even Bhopal, which was once regarded as a herald of industrial disasters in the third world, no longer attracts much attention from American mass media. The Iran-Iraq war was a hot topic for North American media while hostilities continued but - like most "other people's wars" - it quickly disappeared from public view once peace broke out. Only recent events - Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez have retained a significant hold on popular consciousness in America: the former is a simmering issue in a volatile stew of Eastern European politics at the end of the Cold War, while the latter is periodically resurrected by high-stakes legal battles in US courts (New York Times, 13 June 1994).

Table 9.1 Numbers of articles in US newspapers,a 1988-1994

  Period (month/year)
Event 1/88-12/88 1/89-12/90 1/91-12/91 1/92-12/92 1/93-2/94 Total
Minamata 0 3 2 2 2 9
Centralia 0 0 0 1 0 1
Seveso 1 0 0 0 1 2
Bhopal 163 99 12 15 4 293
Chernobyl 252 111 86 46 47 542
Iran-Iraq War 2,799 71 43 27 6 2,946
Exxon Valdez 0 540 122 39 39 740

a. New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today.

Table 9.2 Numbers of articles in US magazines,a 1986-1994

  Period (month/year)
Event 1/86-12/89 1/90-12/91 1/92-2/94 Total
Minamata 0 2 1 3
Centralia 1 4 0 5
Seveso 4 0 3 7
Bhopal 59 21 14 94
Chernobyl 294 118 89 501
Iran-Iraq War 283 45 14 342
Exxon Valdez 57 56 58 171

a. Approximately 1,000 general reference periodicals.

Transient public interest is not a promising foundation for the resolution of any policy problem that involves long-term effects. Indeed, the history of successful disaster legislation and other social guides for coping with disaster is that they are usually enacted during the weeks and months immediately following particularly severe disasters, when the heaviest losses are fresh in mind. A high level of public awareness about hazards or disasters has been a sine qua non for the emergence of new planning and management systems.

Of course, the fact that journalists no longer write stories about certain industrial disasters does not mean that others - such as victims and stakeholders - have forgotten them. A vast number of people are intimately associated with the aftermaths of all the disasters examined here. Apart from a few communities that have been abandoned (e.g. Pripyat) or are disappearing (e.g. Centralia), most affected places still function as active human settlements and are likely to continue to exist, despite the fact that residents are surrounded by potent reminders of hazard. Minamata's experience is kept fresh in mind by the presence of the Chisso Corporation's plant, disease museums, and a waterfront landfill. The people of Ukraine, Belarus, and western districts of Russia are aware of contaminated zones that are closed to the public; they also know that several of Chernobyl's reactors are still intact and may yet be brought back into production. Many are also cognizant of the fact that perhaps 16 per cent of the territory of the former Soviet Union can be classified as a disaster area because of chronic environmental despoliation - some of it attributable to Chernobyl (Girardet 1992:114). Large numbers of oil tankers continue to ply Prince William Sound in full view of fishermen and other coastal residents whose livelihoods depend on the health of surrounding waters. For these people, at least, lack of awareness of hazard is not an important issue.

For the larger public that is not aware of disasters from first-hand experience, a die-off of media interest is more important because it may reduce pressure to keep the disasters on national political agendas. However, a lack of media coverage need not spell the permanent departure of these events from public discourse and an end to prospects for coping with their impacts. There remain at least four different means for reviving lost awareness of a specific disaster that can be used by victims and stakeholders who are in pursuit of solutions to lingering problems.

First, new scientific or technical information may emerge. Examples include the finding of possible unanticipated cancer clusters around Seveso, decades after the accident; the belated discovery that Chernobyl's meltdown may have been much more serious than first assumed; and the mid-1983 report that confirmed the failure of all previous attempts to stem Centralia's fire. These are representative of scientific findings that effectively refuelled old controversies and sometimes became turning points in subsequent debates. As long as scientists continue to reassess the consequences of past industrial disasters, the verdicts on disaster impacts and management efforts are likely to remain provisional. Eventually, repeated confirmations of hazard or lack thereof will be self-limiting and no new investigations will be mounted. We do not know how long this process of scientific truth-seeking may take but - for industrial surprise disasters - it is likely to be quite lengthy. Twenty years have elapsed since Seveso and closure on the scientific issues that were raised there is not yet complete!

Second, legal actions often resurrect an industrial disaster as a public issue. Such mechanisms reminded affected groups about disasters at Minamata, Bhopal, and Prince William Sound (Exxon Valdez). It is not simply that lawsuits provide forums in which to re-examine the events of each disaster: they also hold out the possibility of establishing responsibility, fixing blame, and mitigating disaster impacts via compensation awards or punitive damage payments. However, legal suits frequently truncate the range of disaster issues by giving pride of place to those that can be accommodated by the legal system. Moreover, the favoured legal mechanism of financial compensation is often inadequate for qualitative losses such as those that affect personal health, collective security, and community well-being. Finally, unless there is a direct link between blame-fixing by the courts and reform of the industrial disaster-management system, impacts may be compensated but not undone and prospects for future recurrences will remain strong.

Third, attempts to memorialize past disasters can revive dormant or otherwise hidden issues and reposition them on the public agenda. For some residents, the creation of disease data centres, museums, prizes, conferences, and commemorative bamboo gardens might signal Minamata's willingness to ring down the curtain on past losses. However, for others, these same facilities serve to perpetuate painful evidence and to "freeze" conflicting interpretations of past events. The capacity of humans to reconstruct their own pasts selectively is well known and the potential for misusing memorialization as a tool for attracting attention to unresolved impacts of past disasters is considerable. None the less, in this context at least, George Santayana's observation remains valid: " Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness... Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (Santayana 1905).

Whereas scientific research, legal proceedings, and memorials are tools that can be used in every era and most societies, the same cannot be said of the fourth mechanism for reviving interest in resolving the lingering impacts of past disasters. Changes in the general institutional arrangements of society offer opportunities for reappraising previous decisions and actions. This occurs on a small scale when the previous activities of outgoing governments or departing boards of directors are subject to scrutiny - and sometimes to reversal - by incoming ones. Much greater scope for unearthing past issues arises when regimes and entire systems of governance are overturned. The post-1989 collapse of the Soviet system is a classic example. The full extent of the losses associated with Chernobyl and the blundering attempts to mount an effective response were not clearly revealed until after Ukraine and Belarus came into existence as independent republics separated out of the former Soviet Union. Likewise, the lessons of Seveso could not have been so widely learned and applied throughout Europe if the European Community had not grown beyond its original conception as a customs union and trading bloc to take responsibility for "harmonizing" a wide range of regulations among the 12 member nations.

It should be noted that these awareness-reviving mechanisms are more available in some places than in others: third world countries may be at a particular disadvantage. For example, in Iran, industrial hazards of the war with Iraq are not likely to persist for long as a major public issue. Several factors support this conclusion: there has been little scientific inquiry into the effects of such industrial hazards; legal mechanisms for ensuring compensation are overshadowed by bureaucratic ones that are less open to outside inspection; memorialization is largely left to affected localities that have more pressing priorities; and the Islamic Republic has resisted fundamental institutional changes since it came into being after the fall of the Shah. This is not to say that long-term recovery will be impossible in Iran within the lifetimes of the victims. Perhaps there are traditional measures that can substitute for the four processes noted here, although that seems unlikely, given the novelty of the hazards that occurred there. Whether the Iran case is typical of other developing countries is impossible to determine at present but, if it is typical, it implies that industrial disaster surprises may widen the development gap between rich countries and poor ones.

All other things being equal, enhancement of public awareness leads to better decision-making about environmental risks. But this should not blind us to the fact that there are also costs associated with each of the four awareness-reviving processes. Legal recourse is an obvious example. Litigation is already an important element of public policy for industrial disaster recovery in the United States. Elsewhere, its popularity is growing in response to the global expansion of American-style business practices with their supporting legal regimes and to the accompanying laissez-faire philosophies of governments that rely on courts for the resolution of disputes. But there are clear drawbacks to seeking redress through the courts. First, legal action is usually slow; many plaintiffs continue to suffer - and sometimes to die - before their cases come to trial. The definition of victims is subject to political manipulation, and the lure of compensation payments can attract spurious claimants. The fact that deserving victims wait years in the hope of compensation is an index of their desperation and their moral outrage, as well as an indictment of the lack of alternative systems for funding disaster recovery. Second, lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits often deter scientists from investigating certain aspects of industrial disasters or publicizing the results of their work. Such paralysis of scientific inquiry cannot be advantageous to the larger public because it deprives disinterested persons and organizations of information that might help to improve hazard planning and management. Third, resort to legal action encourages the use of blunt decision-making instruments. The resolution of complex, and often fluid, environmental disasters tends to be reduced to a matter of artificial and rigidly constrained legal choices. For these reasons, alternatives to litigation-driven recovery systems need to be preserved and fostered (Gaskins 1989).

In summary, awareness of the industrial disasters surveyed here seems to be high among victims and other directly affected groups, but the declining newsworthiness of such disasters greatly increases the difficulty of mobilizing support from national governments and other non-local institutions for programmes that address lingering or late-blooming problems. The mechanisms for reviving attention to dormant issues offer only uneven and incomplete avenues of redress and mitigation. The search for additional alternatives for raising dormant awareness of "past" industrial disasters may be worth pursuing. However, strengthening linkages between revived awareness and better decision-making is more important. There is considerable scope for improving coordination and feedback from awareness-reviving mechanisms to the entire process of industrial investment, facilities planning, and management.


Scientific information is rarely the only basis for public decision-making but it has traditionally been a cornerstone of hazard management. Broadly speaking, information about industrial disasters can be divided into two subsets - analytic information and prescriptive information (i.e. knowing how or - sometimes - why something happens, and knowing what to do about it).

Much analytic information about the case-studies is now available. We know, for example, that impacts are frequently severe, diffuse, delayed, and prolonged; public interest dies off rapidly after the acute stages of disasters; recovery is slow and incomplete; major postdisaster institutional innovations and rearrangements are common; and outcomes are frequently paradoxical (see below). However, the picture is far from complete: much still remains to be discovered.

Key data on the effects and consequences of industrial disasters are often missing. For example, there is no agreement about numbers of people who were affected by Minamata, or Bhopal, or Chernobyl, or who were casualties of the Iran-Iraq War. This is because of different definitions of victims, failure to conduct comprehensive loss assessments, misreporting of known losses, and other factors. Nor can we always be sure about matters like the identity of hazard agents, levels of environmental impact, or the dimensions of affected areas. Thus, the composition of Bhopal's gas cloud and the relative contributions of different oil spills in Prince Edward Sound are still matters of conjecture. Likewise, we know far too little about the interaction of new industrial disaster agents and the physical environment. As the experience of Chernobyl shows, a combination of airborne radiation dispersal plumes, topography, soils, vegetation, hydrology, and farming operations produced complex unforeseen patterns of radiation uptake and contamination that jeopardized the effectiveness of risk-management zones established by hazard managers.

The research community is also hampered by a lack of reliable explanatory models for disaster surprises. As several of the authors in this volume point out, cyclical models of crisis and response that posit a return to "normal" seem to be of little help here. Models of disaster recovery provide frameworks for interpreting empirical data and gauging the effectiveness of different measures. Without them, the task of hazards management is slowed and rendered less effective.

A further broad informational issue is that much of what is known about industrial disaster surprises is highly provisional and subject to fundamental reinterpretation - sometimes decades after the primary event. For example, earlier explanations of Minamata "disease" have been revised on several occasions after later investigations. Likewise, new and contrary information about the toxicity of dioxin has recently emerged in Seveso. Changes of interpretation occur both because contemporaneous scientific investigations of acute-stage hazards are rarely exhaustive and because latent impacts are slow to emerge. Indeed, "lagging indicators" of industrial disaster surprises are often transgenerational and global in scope. The typical postdisaster reviews and assessments carried out by public agencies and other bodies usually pick up only immediate, clearly detectable, short-term effects and issues.

Important as they are, analytic information gaps may not be the most important ones. Prescriptive information knowing what can be done to improve recovery from industrial disaster surprises - is, in many ways, the most difficult challenge for public policy makers. If the disasters are truly unprecedented, then knowledge useful for guiding action is limited. But there are degrees of surprise: for example, improperly managed, worst-of-a-kind events (level 1 events) are likely to be easier to cope with than unsuspected, one-of-a-kind surprises (level 3 events) because they are nearer to familiar experience (table 9.3).

We know that surprises that were studied here elicited some responses that were familiar to public decision makers, if not always entirely appropriate or successful. (These might be labelled "habitual responses.") For example, the Iranian government did what it is accustomed to do: it began a programme of centralized economic and community planning to guide recovery from war. Likewise, in predictable fashion, legal actions were begun against those allegedly responsible for Minamata, Bhopal, and the Exxon Valdez. Other responses were clearly of an ad hoc, trial-and-error nature ("experimental responses"). Examples of these include attempts to tunnel under and shore up the Chernobyl reactor after it threatened to collapse into the ground water-table when a concrete sarcophagus was being constructed above ground. Efforts to clean the shores of Prince William Sound with various media such as steam, chemicals, and paper towels also belong to a class of experimental responses. A third set of responses included novel but well-thought-out measures that were designed in light of the disaster experience and put into practice after much consultation among governments and other parties. The Seveso Directive is a prime example of what might be called "innovative responses."

Table 9.3 Levels of difficulty in recovering from surprises

  Potential degree of control
Remoteness from experience Unsuspected Improperly managed Instrumental
One of a kind     Iran Iraq war
  - - - - - - - - - Level 3 - - - - - - - - -  
First of a kind Minamataa    
  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Level 2 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Worst of a kind Minamata Bhopal  
    Exxon Valdez  
  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Level 1 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

a. Minamata appears twice because it was originally the first significant event of its kind (level 2) but later became only one of at least thirty known sites of methyl mercury contamination worldwide (level 1).

Unfortunately, beyond these anecdotal examples, information about decision makers' knowledge of adjustments to surprise is highly incomplete. We do not know much about how the mix of habitual, experimental, and innovative responses varied among the different cases. It would be valuable to know whether hazard managers, victims, and other stakeholders knew and canvassed the full range of existing possibilities for speeding recovery and avoiding a repetition of disaster. Presumably, a population that knows what might be done is in a better position to cope with disasters than one which lacks that information. But such a statement implies that a reliable body of knowledge about appropriate coping behaviour exists, at a time when there is reason to doubt that it does - at least for unprecedented industrial surprises. However, it might be possible to answer less exacting but none the less illuminating questions: are managers, victims, and stakeholders aware of the experience of other communities that have been affected by similar industrial disasters? What do the leaders and citizens of southern Iran know of recovery in Viet Nam or other war-ravaged societies? What do the residents of Prince William Sound know about recovery from oil pollution in places that experienced similar disasters (e.g. the shores of Brittany affected by the Amoco Cadiz oil spill)? Are they also aware of the accumulated expertise about recovery from other (non-industrial) types of disasters (e.g. earthquakes, cyclones)? Have they made use of such borrowed experience? Since none of the case-studies (and few other accounts) have explicitly addressed these questions, it is not possible to provide clear answers. The investigation of awareness about alternative adjustments to major industrial hazards is a much-neglected field in the professional literature.

A fast-breaking emergency may not be the most appropriate time for public decision makers to canvass the experience of others. However, that does not excuse the failure to undertake post hoc assessments of the long-term recovery process. The principle of interrogating the performance of human and engineered systems in response to extreme natural events is well established in the United States. Socalled "quick-response" investigation teams are routinely sent to the scenes of hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and similar events by many agencies of the US government. The National Transportation Safety Board performs in a similar role for transportation accidents. Most of the impacts of natural disasters and transportation accidents show up within hours to months of the events, whereas many of the impacts that have been discussed in this book involve much longer periods. In light of these differences, perhaps it is time to extend the general principle of post hoc disaster assessments to include longer-term evaluations of recovery from industrial disaster surprises.

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