Baytown Sun, April 15, 2007

Baytown: Lawyers prep case against Bayer

Attorneys for 30 contract workers who claim to have been injured in an explosion last year at the Bayer Material Science facility in Baytown have begun to build their case against the plant.

Houston-based firm Williams Bailey Law Firm started taking depositions of operators and shift supervisors at the plant last week, in preparation of a Nov. 26 trial.

Because the explosion was on a smaller scale than other recent plant blasts and caused no fatalities, the court case has the potential to fall through the cracks, lead attorney David Alexander said.

"The plaintiffs are entitled to a speedy resolution," he said. "We have been pushing the court to set a trial date this year. We originally were looking for September, but the judge set it for November, which we thought was fair."

The Sept. 26 explosion in one of the plant's toluene diiocynanate units sent 21 workers to San Jacinto Methodist Hospital for decontamination and treatment for exposure to toluene. Another was sent to Memorial Hermann Hospital for treatment for second-degree burns.

A lawsuit filed in October alleged the explosion was caused by Bayer's unsafe practices and indicated that plant officials were having problems with the TDI unit before the explosion but didn't warn contractors.

Initially, the suit listed only two named plaintiffs - a contract worker for Jacobs who lives in Baytown and a contract worker for Bay Ltd. who lives in Pearland - but has since been amended at least three times to add additional names, Alexander said.

As many as 54 workers have filed or plan to file suits against Bayer through various law firms, he said.

"The major injuries our clients have are thermal burns, where people were exposed to material released in the explosion, and orthopedic injuries, from trying to escape and being thrown about by the force of the explosion," Alexander said.

Some of the plaintiffs have also complained of respiratory problems from the inhalation of gases released during the explosion, he said. Although most of the plaintiffs have returned to work, he said, all remain under medical care.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for lost earnings as well as past and future pain and suffering and mental anguish. Bayer Material Sciences LLC, plant manager James Newport and Jacobs Field Services North America are the named defendants.

The complaint states that the process vessel was being used to mix toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, and orthodichlorobenzene and alleges that phosgene - a highly toxic gas - was being mixed with the two at a very high temperature.

"When I look at this, I see a loss of control that should not have occurred in a plant that is handling such dangerous chemicals," Alexander said. "The community needs to be aware of what kinds of chemicals are being handled in their backyards."

In its final air emission event report to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Bayer reported 5,563 pounds of ammonia and 272 pounds of orthodichlorobenzene released in the incident.

Although Bayer does not comment on pending litigation, spokeswoman Cherie Laughlin said, an investigation into the cause of the explosion determined it was the result of "over pressurization" within a process vessel.

"There was a loss of cooling to the process vessel designated for residue," she said. "This allowed an exothermic reaction that led to overheating and over pressurization."

TCEQ classified the event as "moderate" and assessed a fine of $5,080, which Bayer paid this month, Laughlin said. The TDI unit was restarted in December.

"We fully understand the circumstances that led to the incident and have implemented the appropriate safeguards into the redesign and rebuilding of the system," said James W. Newport, site manager at the Bayer Baytown Industrial Park.

New operating parameters have been implemented with the newly designed portion of the unit, Laughlin said, along with additional process control instrumentation.

The safety team of professionals within the Bayer NAFTA region has also been reorganized to include a separate branch in Baytown dedicated to process and operational safety, she said.
By Jessica Robertson

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