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Bayer Suppresses Details and Hazards of Plant Explosion

(Beyond Pesticides, April 2, 2009) Last summer, when a pesticide tank exploded at a Bayer chemical plant in West Virginia, comparisons between the site’s potential risk and the 1984 Bhopal disaster, in which an explosion and leak at the Bayer site’s sister plant killed thousands, were drawn. The investigation into the West Virginia incident is ongoing, but recent reports show that Bayer is using every means to prevent full disclosure of the potential for a similar disaster to occur in the United States.

Like Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant, Bayer stores stockpiles of the highly toxic chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) in Institute, West Virginia. The U.S. plant has the capacity to store more than twice the amount of MIC that was leaked in Bhopal. The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, a nonregulatory agency, is conducting an investigation into the cause of last year’s explosion, emergency response coordination, and future prevention measures. However, Bayer has invoked the 2002 federal Maritime Transportation Security Act because its campus is attached to a dock on the Kanawha River, claiming the Act exempts it from sharing “sensitive security information” due to potential terrorism.

The board has already canceled one public meeting on the investigation, the first in its 49 investigations conducted to be canceled due to company pressure. “I don’t like the idea that if we went to a meeting in West Virginia and someone asked a question, we’d have to say, ‘Sorry, we can’t talk about it,'” said John Bresland, board chairman. “We don’t think any other agency should have the right to tell us what we can put in our reports.” A new meeting has been scheduled for April 21, pending the Coast Guard’s decision on Bayer’s security claim.

Congress may get involved in the dispute as well, as Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said, “We are concerned about the way that Bayer may be misusing terrorism laws to suppress information relating to the incident.”

Another issue raised by Bayer’s case is that threats, whether terrorist or environmental, are caused by the storage of such dangerous chemicals. Daniel Crowl, Herbert H. Dow Professor for Chemical Process Safety at Michigan Technical University, said, “If companies didn’t have this inventory, they wouldn’t have the terrorism concern.” Gerald E. Butler, chairman of West Virginia State University’s political science department, noted that “One of the ironies is that in the late 1980s, one of the demands we [in the local group People Concerned About MIC] had was that Carbide should act mor elike Bayer did in Germany and not store the MIC at the plant and just make it when it needed to use it.”

The Chemical Safety and Hazardous Investigation Board’s full report is expected this summer. For more information, visit their Bayer investigation page.

Images from Bhopal:

Bhopal plant control room

Bhopal plant control room. (Photo by Jay Feldman, Beyond Pesticides)

Bhopal procedures for an emergency

Bhopal procedures for an emergency. (Photo by Jay Feldman, Beyond Pesticides)

Sources: The New York Times, Chemical & Engineering News, The Charleston Gazette, CBG Network


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