Forbes, August 29, 2008
1 killed, 1 injured in West Virginia chemical plant blast
INSTITUTE Federal officials are investigating the cause of a plant explosion that rocked an area west of Charleston, hurling a fireball hundreds of feet into the air, killing one worker and injuring a second.
Among many other chemicals, the Bayer CropScience plant produces methyl isocyanate, which killed at least 15,000 people in the infamous leak at a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India in 1984. But the chemical was not involved in the explosion, Kanawha County Emergency Management Director Dale Petry said, and was stored in steel-wrapped underground containers that were far from the blast.
State Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said the primary chemical involved, methyl isobutyl ketone, is highly flammable but not especially toxic.
"They have a lot of chemicals at the plant and they do take great steps to protect them," said Joe Thornton, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. "I think everything that can be done to protect those chemicals is being done, and I think the public at large is safe."
Air monitoring found no sign of chemical exposure, either on or off the site about 10 miles west of Charleston, Bayer said.
The methyl isocyanate, though, did prompt a German group called the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers to call on the company to dismantle its stockpile of the chemical in West Virginia.
"Bayer managers have often enough downplayed the risks of the Institute plant," said Philipp Mimkes, the group's spokesman. "Bayer has to make clear which amounts of which substances escaped into the air."
At Bayer's annual stockholder meeting in April, the group unsuccessfully tried to block the ratification of the company's board of directors, citing safety concerns at the West Virginia plant.
A call to Bayer seeking comment on the group's statement was not immediately returned Friday.
A five-member team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, planned to deploy at the site Friday.
The explosion occurred about 10:25 p.m. in a section of the plant where waste products are treated before disposal, Bayer spokesman Mike Wey said. The unit had been closed for maintenance and was restarted earlier in the week, he said.
A worker who had been counted as missing was killed in the explosion, Petry said Friday. Petry identified the worker as Barry Withrow, but did not know Withrow's age or hometown.
"He had worked in that unit for many years," plant manager Nick Crosby said in a news conference Friday. "He was a model employee."
Wey said the injured worker suffered burns and was transferred to a Pittsburgh hospital. A company emergency responder was treated at the plant infirmary for heat stress, Wey said.
Six other workers who normally work the unit were not injured, Wey said. About 700 people work at the plant.
Emergency crews extinguished the fire at about 2 a.m. Friday, Bayer said.
"This isn't a normal event for Bayer," Crosby said. "We're devastated by what's gone on here."
Bayer said the cause of the explosion has not been determined. The unit was shut down and will not be restarted until the company determines that it can be safely operated.
Inspectors from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration were at the site Friday morning, Crosby said.
Methyl isobutyl ketone and another solvent in the unit, hexane, are used to produce the insecticide Larvin, which is made only at the Institute plant. The accident is expected to create a shortage of Larvin, which has seen growing demand from the global agricultural economy, Crosby said.
Residents miles away from the facility reported hearing the explosion.
West Virginia State University Police Department patrolman Robert Flinn said he felt the blast as he was sitting in his cruiser on the school's campus near the plant.
"Our back was turned, and it was like somebody shined a giant spotlight on us," he said.
Warne Ferguson lives less than a mile from the plant and the explosion shook his house.
"It scared my wife to death," said 81-year-old Ferguson. "I thought my house was falling down on top of me. That's how hard the vibration was."
Crosby said the company received several reports of broken windows from nearby residents. //By TOM BREEN, printed in: Forbes, Boston Globe, Bismarck Tribune, Jackson Sun, The Canadian Press//