THE ACCIDENTAL RELEASE of poisonous gases from a Union Carbide plant in West Virginia last week, which left 40 unsuspecting people injured, may seem quite removed for most Cantabrigians. And so might a similar industrial disaster in Bhopal, India which killed 2000 and injured 200,000 more last December. In both cases, Union Carbide officials had repeatedly assured local residents that a release of toxic chemicals into their communities was highly unlikely.
A little bit closer to home, officials at Arthur D. Little (ADL), a Cambridge-based research firm testing chemical warfare agents for the Department of Defense, have been trying to convince local residents that their research poses no threat to the community's safety. And Cantabrigians aren't believing a word they say. The substances ADL is working with are 10,000 times more lethal than any other chemical currently being tested within Cambridge, one of the nation's leading research centers.
Much to its credit, the City of Cambridge courageously imposed a ban on the testing, storage, and transportation of nerve gas agents within the city limits. Last month, a Middlesex Superior Court judge upheld Cambridge's ordinance, ruling that it was both "reasonable and enforceable." Yet ADL has filed an appeal and could drag the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Due to the potential threat of leakage into the atmosphere and a serious erosion of public confidence in its ability to safely test chemical warfare agents. ADL should agree to either forfeit its five contracts with the Department of Defense or get out of Cambridge.
Officials at the company, located less than two miles from the University, have said that they would voluntarily cease this sort of testing if there was sufficient community opposition. So what are they waiting for?
From neighborhood meetings with company officials in nearby Arlington and Belmont to the chambers of the Cambridge City Council, a chorus of politicians and citizens alike have echoed one resounding sentiment the risks associated with the testing of toxic nerve agents far outweigh any benefits to the third a densely population populated city in America.
Cambridge has correctly asserted its right as a community to determine what risks it is willing to take. This is not to say that ADL's research does not have some redeeming social value. By testing-hazardous substances, ADL is trying to develop ways to detoxify nerve gas agents and assist in the safe removal of the nation's chemical warfare arsenal. In addition, increased knowledge about chemical warfare agents has led to medical advances in treating various cancers.
The security precautions installed in ADL's new one million dollar state-of-the-art laboratory are impressive. Undoubtedly, ADL is competent to build high security laboratories but the fact remains that not even the safest laboratories in the world are accident-proof.
BUT SOMEWHAT MORE DISTURBING than the likelihood of a nerve gas leak is the bad faith ADL has fostered in its dealings with the community. From the very beginning of the project, ADL neglected to tell the appropriate city officials about its intentions to test nerve gas in the city until after the million dollar Levins Laboratory was completed. Moreover, company spokesmen have consistently been inconsistent in their explanations about how much of the substances are being tested and what the purpose of the testing really is. Finally, ADL even went so far as to inform the city that if an explosion takes place at the Acorn Park facility, firefighters should not enter the building unless ADL personnel are on hand. How unfortunate that a firm which has acted responsibly in Cambridge for almost 100 years now refuses to be a good neighbor.
It took Union Carbide two days before realizing that it was responsible for last week's accident in West Virginia. With ADL's recent record, how long would it take the company to inform the proper authorities in the event of a spill of toxic substances?
The need for reasonable regulations regarding commercial and academic research on nerve gas will remain long after the ADL question is settled. In fact, these highly toxic substances are currently unregulated by any local, state, or federal public safety statutes except by Department of Defense standards. In the absence of reliable regulations, it is no wonder that Cambridge residents are wary about ADL's nerve gas testing. ADL's should need public sentiment which indicates that nerve gas is not something Cambridge wants next door.