The U.S. Chemical Safety Board's public meeting on the Bayer CropScience Institute plant explosion will begin at 6:30 p.m. today at the West Virginia State University Wilson Building
in Multipurpose Room 103.
Reducing the stockpile of deadly methyl isocyanate at Bayer CropScience's Institute plant is a "feasible, but costly" project that Bayer has never fully examined, according to internal documents obtained by congressional investigators.
Bayer officials briefly studied the idea after buying the Institute plant in 2002, but were not able to produce evidence to show "the extent to which the company analyzed the costs and benefits of changing its storage or inventory procedures," a House subcommittee report issued this week concluded.
During a hearing Tuesday, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., recalled investigating the Institute plant - then owned by Union Carbide - just after a leak of MIC killed thousands at a sister facility in Bhopal, India.
"Twenty-five years after the catastrophe in India, I think it's finally time to ask whether it makes sense to allow Bayer to continue producing and storing such massive amounts of this highly toxic chemical," Waxman said in opening the hearing.
Despite objections from Bayer lawyers and executives, both Waxman's committee and the federal Chemical Safety Board are examining the Institute plant's MIC stockpile as part of separate probes of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers.
Committee staff and safety board investigators remain unconvinced that storing large amounts of MIC is a good idea, or that Bayer has done enough to reduce or eliminate the practice.
After hearing the evidence uncovered so far, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said Wednesday it's clear what needs to be done.
"There has to be a radical change," Carper said. "It is time to reduce the amount of MIC. The risk to the community is just too great."
For nearly 25 years - since learning about MIC in the days after Bhopal - residents of Institute and nearby communities have urged various plant owners to eliminate the chemical stockpile.
MIC is considered "immediately dangerous to life and health" at the extremely low concentration of three parts per million in air. At ordinary temperatures, MIC is a liquid, but it evaporates rapidly to form a heavier-than-air vapor cloud that hugs the ground.
Currently, Bayer reports to federal officials that it stores a daily average of between 100,000 pounds and 999,999 pounds of MIC at the plant.
Previous plant owners said the average daily amount was closer to 240,000 pounds. But Bayer has since late 2004 refused to be more specific than the disclosure it files listing 100,000 to 999,999 pounds.
Most of the plant's MIC stockpile is tucked away on the eastern side of the facility, in an underground tank system that was improved after Bhopal and that plant officials insist is perfectly safe. But up to 40,000 pounds are also stored in a smaller "day tank" just 80 feet from the site of the August explosion and fire.
According to the safety board, Bayer's plant in Institute is the only manufacturing site in the United States that continues to produce and store more than 10,000 pounds of MIC, which is the threshold for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "risk management program" rule.
John Bresland, chair of the safety board, told lawmakers that after Bhopal, "DuPont and other companies moved promptly to eliminate the storage of MIC and develop manufacturing processes where this highly toxic intermediate is consumed as soon as it is made."
"In this manner, the maximum release is limited to the contents of a short length of pipe, instead of the thousands of gallons contained in a large storage tank," Bresland said. "As ... leading process safety authorities have frequently pointed out, 'what you don't have can't leak.'"
Institute plant operators have always said that the number and variety of uses for MIC at Institute hampers their ability to further reduce stockpiles of the chemical.
But at its own plants in Germany and Belgium, Bayer never stockpiled large quantities of MIC. Instead, Bayer made and used MIC as it was needed. When it argued in a 1994 report that then-plant owner Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co. should reduce MIC stockpiles in Institute, the Good Neighbor Project for Sustainable Industries cited Bayer as an example.
"Rhone-Poulenc's Institute plant lags behind other firms in MIC reduction," the group's report said. "No other plants in the U.S. continue to stockpile MIC."
In their report, congressional investigators cited Bayer documents that showed the company formed a team in 2002 to "review the overall safety and handling for methyl isocyanate."
As part of this review, Bayer officials apparently "evaluated existing literature relating to alternative methods of producing MIC" and concluded, "The current process appears to be as safe as the other alternative methods to produce MIC at Institute."
This conclusion was mentioned in a May 2003 memo that "did not explain which alternative methods Bayer considered or whether the 'closed-loop' process implemented by Bayer was among them," the congressional report said.
"The memo also did not discuss the extent to which the company analyzed the costs and benefits of changing its storage or inventory procedures," the report said.
Congressional investigators also cited a Bayer PowerPoint presentation dated August 2003 that described various scenarios for reducing MIC inventory at the facility. It concluded only that "forcing MIC inventory levels down appears to be feasible, but costly."
William Buckner, Bayer CropScience's CEO, told lawmakers Tuesday that his company cited plant security secrecy rules in the hopes that it could avoid the probe of the August explosion turning into a debate about the MIC stockpile. And, Buckner said, those same secrecy rules now prohibit the company from giving the public details about why it can't reduce the MIC stockpile.
"In any such debate, we believed that because of security concerns, we would have been prevented from a full disclosure of our safety and security measures and the multiple layers of protection we employ for our MIC processes," Buckner said.
"We have examined alternative technologies for MIC and determined that our process is as safe as those other technologies.
"Our MIC processes at the Institute facility employ multiple layers of protection that, working together, protect our employees, our neighbors, and our community from a harmful release of MIC," Buckner said.
"While it is our understanding that the Maritime Transportation Security Act may prevent us from describing many of these layers of protection publicly in detail, we have disclosed them to the Coast Guard, the CSB, the Subcommittee's staff, and other government officials, and we would welcome the opportunity to discuss them further with the Subcommittee in executive session."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com
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