December 2, 2009, Charleston Gazette
25 years after Bhopal, Institute still reducing MIC
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Twenty-five years ago Thursday, a leak of the chemical methyl isocyanate -- MIC -- killed thousands of people who lived near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. It was the worst industrial disaster in history.
Since then, residents of the Kanawha Valley have lived with and periodically complained about the huge stockpile of MIC at a sister facility, the former Carbide plant in Institute.
This year is different.
Three months ago, Bayer CropScience, the plant's current owner and operator, announced it was going to reduce its quarter-million-pound MIC stockpile by about 80 percent. It was a huge victory for Institute plant critics, and a concession Bayer made only under intense pressure from the public, West Virginia political leaders, Congress and the federal Chemical Safety Board.
Since that announcement, Bayer has said little about its work on that inventory reduction project. Tom Dover, a plant spokesman, did not return phone calls seeking an interview, but issued a short statement in response to e-mailed questions.
"Our plan to significantly reduce MIC storage and use is being implemented," the statement said. "Detailed engineering and design work is underway and the overall project remains on track."
The Bhopal leak began either shortly before or shortly after midnight on Dec. 2, 1984. Estimates of the size of the MIC leak vary, from about 50,000 pounds to roughly 90,000 pounds.
About 4,000 people are believed to have died almost immediately, and another 4,000 within a few days of the leak. Advocacy groups working on behalf of the victims say more than 25,000 people in all died from the effects of the disaster. Thousands more suffer from illness and birth defects.
Carbide continues to maintain that the leak was caused by an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee, but other independent investigations have pointed to faulty plant design, negligent operation practices and poor training by the company.
After Bhopal, other plants around the world eliminated large-scale MIC storage. The Institute facility, which Bayer took over in 2001, is the only one in the U.S. that continued to store large amounts and remains the only one nationwide that trips a 10,000-pound threshold for the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Risk Management Program.
Trevor A. Kletz, a well-known chemical safety expert at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, said the need to eliminate large stockpiles of extremely dangerous chemicals should be the lasting lesson from Bhopal.
"MIC wasn't a raw material or product but an intermediate," Kletz wrote in a recent commentary. "Storing it was convenient but nonessential. It could have been used as it was made - then the worst leak would have been a few kilograms from a broken pipe rather than a hundred tons from a tank."
But, it remains unclear what -- if any -- government agency is going to closely monitor how well Bayer lives up to its promised MIC inventory reduction.
Kathy Cosco, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said her understanding is Bayer does not need any approvals from DEP on how it goes about achieving the reduction. And federal EPA chemical storage reporting rules allow companies to report amounts in ranges so broad that it would be hard to determine the exact inventory reduction at Institute.
"Someone needs to have some major oversight over this," said Maya Nye, spokeswoman for the local group People Concerned About MIC.
When Bayer made its inventory reduction announcement, Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland issued a statement that praised the company, but noted the changes needed to be "implemented in a careful and conscientious way."
After initially backing off when Bayer invoked an obscure anti-terrorism chemical plant secrecy rule, CSB investigators then responded to local concerns and expanded their investigation of the Aug. 28, 2008, explosion and fire that killed plant workers Bill Oxley and Barry Withrow.
During a congressional hearing in April, Bresland said that explosion was "potentially a serious near miss, the results of which might have been catastrophic for workers, responders and the public." And in their own report, congressional investigators concluded that debris from that explosion could have easily hit and damaged an MIC storage tank, causing a disaster that "could have eclipsed" Bhopal.
A board spokesman said this week that Bayer has briefed the CSB on the project, but the board did not immediately answer other questions about how the work was progressing.
The inventory reduction was supposed to take about a year, cost $25 million and not result in any lost jobs at the Institute plant.
At the same time, the CSB was directed by Congress to help organize a National Academy of Sciences study aimed at studying ways to completely eliminate storage of MIC at the Institute plant -- the move that chemical safety advocates say is their ultimate goal.
"The planned changes are improvements, but an 80 percent reduction in MIC storage will still leave the amount of toxic gas that killed thousands in Bhopal, India," said Paul Orum, a Washington, D.C., activist who follows chemical safety issues. "Bayer should look further at available options that eliminate MIC storage altogether and should address other chemicals such as phosgene and chlorine gas." By Ken Ward Jr.