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Published: Friday, April 24, 2009
Page: 1A

Bypassing important safety systems "became the norm" in a Bayer CropScience Institute plant chemical-making unit that blew up and killed two workers last August, federal investigators said Thursday.

"This could have been going on for years," said John Bresland, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Bresland said the explosion and fire in Bayer's Methomyl-Larvin unit was "certainly avoidable" if the company had followed proper and accepted safety practices.

"The explosion at Bayer was a very serious and tragic event that could have had additional grave consequences," Bresland said, reading from a prepared statement.

Bresland and his investigators blamed "significant lapses" in plant safety systems for the explosion. The blast came close to damaging a nearly methyl isocyanate tank "the results of which might have been catastrophic for workers, responders and the public," Bresland said.

Safety board officials outlined their preliminary findings during a morning news conference, held to brief reporters prior to a Thursday evening public meeting to update the community and hear from residents.

Bresland had already released the board's most significant findings on Tuesday, during a congressional hearing in Washington held to examine Bayer's efforts to keep information about the explosion and fire secret under plant anti-terrorism rules.

But the press conference provided a few new details, the first public statement on the Bayer explosion by the board's chief investigator, and a glimpse at a thorough PowerPoint presentation the board planned to use during the evening meeting.

For example, board officials said they have engaged a computer contractor to model what could have happened if the MIC "day tank" - which contained 13,800 pounds of the deadly chemical the night of the explosion - had been compromised.

And board investigators supervisor John Vorderbrueggen revealed that a cooling system meant to keep that MIC tank from overheating went down after the explosion, when normal power supplies to the unit failed. Vorderbrueggen could not immediately say how long it took for emergency power to get the cooling system running again.

"There was some increase in temperature, and a slight increase in pressure, but it was well within operating limits," Vorderbrueggen said.

Also, one federal prosecutor and two officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's criminal investigations unit attended the press conference. They took notes and huddled before and after the event with safety board officials, but did not speak during the press conference.

On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Charles T. Miller said his office was going to look into the explosion, and Bayer's response, after the matter was referred to prosecutors by Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper.

At the same time, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., issued a second statement to follow up on one made prior to hearing testimony during Tuesday's congressional hearing.

"These findings are an outrage," Rockefeller said, referring to the safety board and House subcommittee reports. "I was expecting bad news, but this is far worse than I could have imagined and very disturbing."

Rockefeller said Bayer "owes all West Virginia families a clear explanation for this explosion, the response, and any potential hazards, and should cooperate fully with this investigation.

"We must make sure this never happens again," Rockfeller added.

Bayer workers Barry Withrow and Bill Oxley were killed and 40,000 Kanawha Valley residents were forced to take shelter in their homes by the explosion and resulting fire that rocked the Institute plant at about 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 28, 2008.

The explosion occurred in the Methomyl production portion of the unit that makes Bayer's Larvin insecticide. Methomyl is a key raw ingredient for Larvin.

Safety board investigators said it resulted from a "runaway reaction" in a 4,000-gallon tank called the "residue treater," used to break down Methomyl into wastes that are burned in the plant powerhouse.

Investigators said the accident occurred during the startup of the unit after a prolonged shutdown period.

That plant had just installed new and completely different computer control equipment, but had not adequately trained employees to use that equipment, investigators said. In addition, unit operators had routinely been working 12- and 18-hour days, "so worker fatigue may have been a factor," Bresland said.

Vorderbrueggen said the unit had an "undersized heater," that either would not get hot enough to properly decompose the Methomyl, or took too long to do so.

As a result, workers were forced to use a "workaround," that deactivated at least two safety interlocks controlling flow of Methomyl into the tank.

Investigators believe these lapses led to far too much Methomyl building up in the tank, causing temperature and pressure to climb out of control and produce the explosion.

"The equipment deficiencies - particularly the undersized vessel heater - had been known to the company for years, yet neither a safety analysis nor a replacement of the heater were ever made," Vorderbrueggen said. "Operators were required to do the workarounds - overriding safety devices - to get the Methomyl in the residue treater up to the correct temperature. The workarounds, which violated Bayer's operating procedure, became the norm."

Photo courtesy of U.S. Chemical Safety Board
A map shows the geographic area and the estimated population affected by the shelter-in-place prompted by the August 2008 explosion and fire at Bayer CropScience’s Institute plant.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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