Press Release, March 23, 2009
Coalition against Bayer Dangers (Germany)

Bayer Institute: Flawed emergency systems

Congress and Chemical Safety Board investigate fatal explosion at Bhopal “sister plant” / Countermotion to Bayer shareholder meeting

The safety situation at Bayer's facilities in Institute, West Virginia, remains critical. Large quantities of highly toxic chemicals such as methyl isocyanate (MIC) and phosgene are produced and stored. Serious accidents occur on a regular basis. The Coalition against Bayer Dangers, based in Germany, now introduced a countermotion to Bayer´s Annual Stockholders´ Meeting which demands not to ratify the board until the MIC stockpiles are dismantled and the frequent spills are stopped. The countermotion, which also has been published on Bayer´s website, will be discussed in the meeting at Duesseldorf/Germany on May 12.

In the 1980s, the factory belonged to Union Carbide and was regarded as the "sister plant" to the infamous factory in Bhopal, India where in December 1984 thirty tons of MIC leaked and at least 15,000 people died. Today, nowhere else in the United States such large quantities of MIC are produced and stored.

At last year's shareholder meeting, Bayer CEO Werner Wenning rejected any need for action. He said that the plant conformed to the "latest safety standards" and had an "excellent incident rate". Despite these mollifications, the next serious accident in the plant happened just four months later, on August 28, when a storage tank at Institute exploded. Two workers lost their lives and thousands of residents were not allowed to leave their houses for several hours. The tremors were felt in a radius of more than 10 miles. Eye witnesses talked of "shockwaves like an earthquake". A nearby highway was closed.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), after analyzing the incident, criticized "faulty safety systems, significant shortcomings with the emergency procedures and a lack of employee training". In total, OSHA identified 13 serious violations of safety regulations and imposed a penalty of $143,000.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper sharply criticized Bayer on the night of the accident: “We are getting such poor information from the plant, it's worthless." For several hours, the rescue teams had tried to obtain information on the leaked substances, but had been turned away by the gatekeeper (!). In a letter to the Chemical Safety Board, the rescue services complained that they would not have been able to help the residents in the event of an escape of MIC or phosgene. The governor of the state of West Virginia issued an order, specifically on account of this accident, stating that serious incidents have to be reported to the authorities within 15 minutes.

Bayer endeavored to placate everyone after the explosion by maintaining that the large MIC tanks were accommodated in another part of the factory. Weeks later it emerged that one MIC tank containing up to 20 metric tons of the deadly gas is located above ground less than 20 meters from the explosion. If it had been damaged, the lives of other employees and residents would have been in extreme danger. Although the plant management apologized for the communication breakdowns, the company is still not taking any fundamental consequences, and production based on MIC and phosgene is to continue.

Bayer meanwhile opposes a full clarification of the accident and has especially hired PR consultants and an army of attorneys. A public hearing by the Chemical Safety Board scheduled March 19 was called off following threats from Bayer. Attorneys from Bayer referred to the Maritime Transportation Security Act that was passed after September 11 – a law to protect ports and ships, even though the plant is around 500 km from the sea. It is evident that the company intends to use legal tricks to prevent safety problems from being discussed in public.

Only after an Open Letter by twelve environmental groups and pressure from the media the CSB re-scheduled the meeting for April 23. John Bresland, Chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, says he wants to discuss in particular the safety of the MIC tanks. On the same day the Congress Committee on Energy and Commerce will investigate the causes of the accident and the adequacy of the response.

Axel Koehler-Schnura from the Coalition against Bayer Dangers says: “Highly hazardous substances such as phosgene and MIC do not belong in mass production, and certainly not in the vicinity of residential areas. The company's practice of preventing public debate through legal loopholes should be condemned. Ever since the company became established, Bayer has endeavored, by exerting pressure and making threats, to suppress information and criticism. It uses its economic power indiscriminately in order to protect its profits. The truth and the interests of humans and the environment are left by the wayside.”

The Board of Management and the Supervisory Board have not taken any steps to substantially improve the safety situation in Institute or to enlighten the general public. The Coalition against Bayer Dangers will therefore urge the shareholders not to ratify them.

More information: A Collection of Materials on Bayer´s Institute Plant