Bayer CropScience's Institute plant will eliminate 80 percent of the huge methyl isocyanate stockpile that has fueled public safety concerns in the Kanawha Valley since a leak of the chemical killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India, a quarter century ago.
Bayer officials announced the plan just two days before Friday's one-year anniversary of the Aug. 28, 2008, explosion and fire that killed Institute plant workers Bill Oxley and Barry Withrow.
The one-year project will cost $25 million and shut down production of two MIC-based pesticide ingredients, but is not expected to cost any workers their jobs, Bayer officials said.
Bayer officials said they planned to eliminate all above-ground storage of MIC and produce the chemical only on a "make-and-use" basis. After the changes, Bayer hopes to keep its daily maximum MIC inventory below 50,000 pounds - still far more than any other chemical plant in the nation.
Bill Buckner, Bayer CropScience's president, said the decision isn't an admission the plant's MIC stockpile was unsafe, but is an effort to address continued concerns from the public and local government officials.
"I don't think the public should have had a reason to feel unsafe before, but we need to continue to earn our right to operate in the community," Buckner said.
A variety of longtime and more recent Institute plant critics praised Bayer's decision as a major public safety improvement for the region.
"I was pleasantly, pleasantly surprised," said Pam Nixon, a former leader of the group People Concerned About MIC, who now works as the state Department of Environmental Protection's Environmental Advocate. "It will dramatically reduce the risks to the community and the workers."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the MIC inventory reduction "an enormously important step by Bayer."
John Bresland, chairman of the federal Chemical Safety Board, said board staffers were briefed Tuesday on Bayer's plans and were generally pleased with what they heard.
"Any measures by Bayer to reduce the inventory of MIC at the facility are a positive development, provided that the safety and environmental risk is truly mitigated," Bresland said. "If implemented in a careful and conscientious manner, the steps Bayer has outlined will lessen the risk to the public and the workforce from an uncontrolled release of MIC."
In December 1984, a leak of MIC - estimates vary from 50,000 pounds to 90,000 pounds - killed thousands of people who lived near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. The incident focused attention on the Institute facility, a sister plant also then owned by Carbide.
After Bhopal, other plants around the world eliminated large-scale MIC storage. The Bayer facility is the only one in the U.S. that continued to store large amounts and remains the only one nationwide that trips a 10,000-pound threshold for the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Risk Management Program.
Currently, Bayer reports to EPA that it stores a daily average of between 100,000 pounds and 999,999 pounds of MIC at the plant. But, given the size of its known MIC storage tanks, the maximum amount is closer to 240,000 pounds.
For years, most of the MIC has been tucked away on the eastern side of the facility, in an underground storage tank system that was improved after Bhopal and that plant officials have always insisted was perfectly safe.
But up to 40,000 pounds are also stored in a smaller "day tank" located 80 feet from the site of the August explosion and fire.
In April, congressional investigators reported that debris from that explosion could have easily hit and damaged the MIC day tank, causing a disaster that "could have eclipsed" Bhopal.
Those disclosures, coming after Bayer officials assured the public there was no danger to valley residents from the explosion and fire, prompted a firestorm of criticism.
In the past, Bayer and previous Institute plant owners always maintained they could not reduce MIC storage because of the complicated timing involved in the chemical being used in four different units that make pesticides or pesticide ingredients.
But during Wednesday's news conference, plant officials said the methomyl unit, where last August's explosion occurred, will not be rebuilt. The company will buy methomyl from outside sources to continue making its Larvin brand of the pesticide thiodicarb.
Also, Bayer will by July 2010 stop producing MIC for its Institute plant tenant, FMC Corp., to use in making the pesticide carbofuran. Earlier this year, the EPA announced it was revoking approval for the use of carbofuran because of health risks associated with eating contaminated food and drinking polluted water.
Together, those two steps will eliminate the need for Bayer to transfer MIC through above-ground pipes from the MIC production unit on the east side of the plant to the west end, where the "day tank" storage facility is located.
Bayer will continue to make MIC and use it for production of aldisol, a key ingredient in the pesticide Temik, and carbaryl, a key ingredient in Sevin.
Institute plant manager Nick Crosby said MIC storage for those processes would be reduced by "closely aligning rates of production of MIC with rates of consumption."
Crosby said the 80-percent-figure is reached by comparing daily maximum storage, currently about 243,000 pounds, to Bayer's goal of getting maximum daily storage "well below 50,000 pounds."
Bayer officials told the CSB the project would reduce daily MIC storage to between 10 and 20 metric tons, or about between 22,000 and 44,000 pounds.
"An 80 percent reduction is a decent good first step in addressing the dangers that exist in the facility and we look forward to seeing more progress," said Maya Nye, a spokeswoman for People Concerned About MIC. "The 20 percent that remains will still be capable of causing the amount of damage as happened in Bhopal, so we need to remain vigilant about these dangers that still exist."
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said he was pleased Bayer was reducing the MIC inventory without eliminating jobs, but said the public safety issues involved were a bigger concern.
"I'm glad this isn't going to cost any jobs, but even if it had, the cost-benefit analysis wasn't even close," Carper said. "The risk was just too great."
Chris Dorst | Gazette
Bayer CropScience President Bill Buckner briefs the media on the company's MIC stockpile reduction plan.
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