February 27, 2009, The Charleston Gazette
Bayer cited, fined in fatal explosion at plant in August
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Poorly planned operating procedures, flawed emergency systems and faulty employee training at the Bayer CropScience Institute plant led to a runaway chemical reaction that killed two workers in August, federal investigators have concluded. Read the OSHA citations (Download: OSHA_Bayercitations2009.pdf)
U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials cited Bayer for 13 serious and two repeat violations, following a six-month probe of the explosion and fire in the plant's methomyl unit.
OSHA proposed $143,000 in fines, about half of which was for the two repeat violations of rules that require detailed analysis of the potential hazards of complex chemical manufacturing units.
"Bayer CropScience's failure to conduct the proper hazard analysis of its methomyl unit and failure to properly prepare for emergencies left employees exposed to unnecessary risk and contributed to this unfortunate tragedy," said Jeffrey Funke, area director of OSHA's Charleston office.
In a prepared statement, Bayer plant manager Nick Crosby said the company would be studying the OSHA citations and "dealing with them appropriately."
Bayer has 15 business days to contest the citations before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Maya Nye, a leader of the local group People Concerned About MIC, said, "These citations are on par with what we expected. They indicate that the company cares about their employees about as much as they do for the community."
Plant worker Barry Withrow was killed in the Aug. 28, 2008, explosion, and a second employee, Bill Oxley, died about six weeks later at a burn center in Pittsburgh. Thousands of residents between South Charleston and the Putnam County line were advised to take shelter in their homes.
The explosion occurred in a unit where Bayer makes methomyl, which it then uses to produce Larvin, the company's brand name of the insecticide thiodicarb.
Plant officials had previously said the explosion occurred in a tank that contained a variety of waste products used to make or created in the production of Larvin. The tank was used to recycle these products, with most of them being sent to the plant power house to be burned for energy.
Funke said OSHA investigators found that those chemicals were supposed to be added to the tank in a certain order and in certain amounts. But they were added in the wrong order, and too much methomyl was added, generating more heat and pressure than the tank could withstand, Funke said.
"They refer to it as a runaway, exothermic reaction," Funke said in a Thursday interview.
OSHA investigators found that Bayer had not evaluated what would happen if too much methomyl were added to the tank, and what to do if that hazard occurred. Plant managers never wrote procedures to tell operators what to do "to mitigate a hazardous, uncontrolled decomposition of methomyl" inside the tank, OSHA investigators concluded. The company also did not train employees on how to deal with such an incident.
OSHA also cited Bayer because employees who were assigned after the explosion to clean out equipment that had contained methyl isocyanate, or MIC, were not trained to wear respirators during such work. Also, OSHA cited the company because it did not require air sampling for MIC during this work.
Federal investigators also issued two repeat violations that were not related to the cause of the August explosion.
OSHA had cited Bayer in January 2006 for its "failure to consider all aspects of facility siting" during a safety study of the plant's carbofuran and carbaryl units. Bayer was also cited at the time for ignoring its own 2002 study that recommended preventing certain chemical valves from being open at the same time in the carbaryl unit.
During its investigation of the August explosion, OSHA found violations of the same safety rules, this time related to the methomyl unit.
Inspectors said that the company had not resolved issues related to the unit's structure and equipment, and their possible vulnerability to "heat, pressure waves, overloading, chemical effects, vibration due to powered equipment, soft subsoil, and climatic effects such as freezing, earthquakes and wind."
OSHA also alleged that Bayer was two years overdue to complete a study of whether safety valves on the methomyl reactor "were capable of handling pressure rise from a methomyl decomposition scenario that could result in rupturing the reactor." That citation included a long list of other similar safety studies and improvements that Bayer was long overdue in completing. By Ken Ward Jr.
Major Institute plant OSHA cases
Here is a list of significant workplace safety cases involving the Institute chemical plant and its various owners:
- August 1985 - Union Carbide pays a $4,400 fine to settle violations cited after a leak that injured at least 135 people. OSHA originally fined the company $32,100. As part of the settlement OSHA changed the designation of three of the citations from willful to serious.
- November 1988 - Carbide pays $242,610 in fines to resolve a long list of violations cited after a "wall-to-wall" inspection launched by OSHA after the August 1985 leak. Originally, agency officials had fined the company $1.38 million. The settlement dropped 15 citations.
- August 1993 - After an explosion and fire kills two workers, OSHA fines Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co. a West Virginia record $1.59 million. In a settlement reached in August 1996, OSHA accepted fines of $700,000 and dropped 11 of the original 27 citations, including 10 that had been listed by inspectors as willful.
- February 1996 - After a leak forces thousands of residents to take shelter in their homes, Rhone-Poulenc agrees to pay a $450,000 fine for 14 willful violations.
- July 2005 - Bayer CropScience is fined $135,000, but settles the case in February 2007 for $110,000. OSHA drops eight of its citations, including two that were listed as willful.
A Collection of Materials on Bayer´s Institute Plant
Charleston Gazette Blog, March 11, 2009
MIC in Institute: Whats old is new again
by Ken Ward Jr.
I guess Ive been around the Gazette a long time now, because the issues just keep repeating themselves.
About 15 years ago, I spent a lot of time reporting on the stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, out at the Institute chemical plant. The plant was then owned by Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co., had previously been run by Union Carbide, and is now part of Bayer CropScience.
MIC issues at the plant had become a hot issue right after thousands of people died in a leak at the sister Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. They got even hotter after 135 people were injured in an Institute leak in August 1985, and it was that leak that probably led Congress to reform chemical safety and right-to-know laws in 1986.
Recently, a couple of readers pointed out a story of mine that the Gazette published on Nov. 13, 1994, about an independent study of whether the Institute plant could and more importantly should reduce its MIC stockpile in the name of worker and community safety. The story said:
Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co. could eliminate the bulk storage of deadly methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant, but has never thoroughly studied methods to do so, a citizens group said in a report released Saturday.
It noted that, after Bhopal, most other chemical companies either eliminated their use of MIC altogether or switched to pesticide production methods that did not use the chemical:
DuPont Co. spent $10 million to $12 million to build a system for its LaPorte, Texas, plant that uses MIC as it is made. In such a system, there is no need to store any MIC at the site.
The Israeli pesticide maker Makhteshim-Agan has found ways to make the same products with different ingredients, thus avoiding MIC use entirely.
I was reminded of this story and the study it covered when I was blogging last night about a new piece in Chemical and Engineering News that raises similar questions about why Bayer doesnt do something to reduce or eliminate its MIC stockpile.
Im such a pack rat that I still had the study, stuck in a huge folder marked “MIC. So I dug it out and scanned it, and Ive posted the study and its appendices on our Web site. I also decided to scan and post a long Sunday story I did way back on May 8, 1994, about the Institute plants MIC unit. Sorry for the poor quality, especially of the photos by my old buddy Jim Noelker, who has long since left the Gazette.
In the study, chemical industry consultant Milton Lapkin (working for the group People Concerned About MIC and the Good Neighbor Project for Sustainable Industries) recommended that the Institute plan convert to a “no storage continuous feed system for MIC-produced pesticides.
The report suggested that plant owners:
– Change scheduling of pesticide production within the existing production configuration to minimize storage needs.
– Shift to in-line quality testing of MIC rather than testing temporarily stored batches of the chemical.
– Change pesticide production formulas, or change the products that the company makes at the site.
Youll notice that the study is called an “interim technical report. Im not aware of any final such report.
But maybe thats the sort of thing that the federal Chemical Safety Board was heading toward producing when Bayer attorneys began pressuring the agency to call of a public meeting scheduled for later this month here in the Kanawha Valley.
A detailed examination by the boards investigators might have come up with similar recommendations to this nearly 15-year-old study. Certainly, the Institute plant has already been cited for allegedly violating U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that require detailed examinations of how chemical plant operators can run their facilities in the safest way possible.
Various Institute plant owners have been fond of pointing out that, after Bhopal, the facility reduced its MIC stockpile from more than a million pounds to about 240,000 pounds. (Though more recently, Bayer has refused to confirm that 240,000-pound number, and the only thing the public really knows is that the company reports to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it stores between 100,000 pounds and 999,999 pounds of the deadly chemical). They also like to explain the multiple layers of safety systems meant to protect against large leaks from the main MIC tank buried underground at the plant.
But the chemical board was looking into and preparing to tell the public about another troubling aspect of the plants MIC process: A 40,000-pound-capacity MIC storage tank located 50 to 75 feet from the location of the August explosion. Board investigators are concerned about the tanks location so close to a dangerous production unit like the one that blew up last year, and Bayer wasnt interested in seeing those discussions held out in the open.
Its still far from clear what the safety board will do.
This afternoon, board chairman John Bresland told me that he still hopes to have an “interim public meeting one held before board investigators complete their final report sometime in April. But it appears to depend on whether the Coast Guard (and maybe Bayer) drop their opposition to that.
Bresland said board lawyers have looked at the Coast Guard statute and regulations, but havent given the board its own, independent view on whether the secrecy provisions cited by Bayer should apply. Instead, the board is just trying to work out some compromise with the Coast Guard, a prospect that could lead to the Coast Guard editing what the board tells the public.
“Were going to show them what were planning to say and I am optimistic we can get some agreement, Bresland said. “Were going to put together a presentation and see what they say about whats in it.