Press Release, August 29, 2008
Coalition against BAYER Dangers (Germany)

US: Explosion rocks Bayer Plant in Institute

one worker killed / "sister plant" of Bhopal / frequent spills of hazardous chemicals already discussed in Bayer´s shareholder meeting

An explosion Thursday night at the Bayer chemical plant in Institute/West Virginia sent a fireball hundreds of feet into the air and could be felt miles away. Thousands of nearby residents were urged to stay indoors. According to WCHS Radio News authorities confirmed one worker was killed and a second worker was severely burned. Emergency officials temporarily closed Interstate 64, U.S. 60 and state Route 25.

The blast raised fears about the air quality in the area since the plant produces highly dangerous crop-protection chemicals. Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper criticized Bayer's officials: “We are getting such poor information from the plant, it's worthless.” The blast occurred in the methomyl production. Methomyl is a highly toxic pesticide.

At Bayer's Institute/West Virginia plant large quantities of highly dangerous chemicals like methyl isocyanate (MIC) and phosgene are produced and stored. MIC is also used for methomyl production.

Philipp Mimkes, spokesman of the Coalition against Bayer Dangers: “Bayer managers have often enough downplayed the risks of the Institute plant. Bayer has to make clear which amounts of which substances escaped into the air. We repeat our demand that MIC and phosgene stockpiles at Institute have to be dismantled. The explosion once more shows that the neighbourhood of the plant is constantly endangered.” The Coalition had introduced a countermotion to Bayer´s Annual Stockholders´ Meeting in April demanding not to ratify the board until MIC stockpiles in Institute are dismantled and the frequent spills of hazardous substances are stopped. Bayer´s CEO Werner Wenning rejected the countermotion in the meeting as “without substance”.

Bayer took over ownership of the factory in 2001. In the 1980s, the factory belonged to Union Carbide and was regarded as the "sister plant" to the infamous factory in Bhopal, India. In December 1984, 30 tons of MIC leaked from the Bhopal plant and at least 15,000 people fell victim to the worst chemical accident in history. After the catastrophe in India, public attention focused on the pesticides factory at Institute, because the same safety regulations applied as in Bhopal and large quantities of MIC were stored there.

Major incidents happened at Institute in August 1985 and again in August 1994 when an explosion destroyed part of the pesticides production plant. One worker was killed immediately and at least one other died later from the consequences. In 1994 a worst-case scenario analysis came to the conclusion that, in the event of a Maximum Credible Accident (MCA), cases of fatal poisoning could occur over a radius of several kilometers. In February 1996 again a leak and fire occurred and forced thousands of residents to take shelter in their homes.

Today, Institute is the only place in the United States where MIC is produced and stored in such large volumes. At least twice the amount of MIC that escaped at Bhopal is constantly present in the factory. In the eighties Institute residents formed the group People Concerned About MIC. For more than a decade, they demanded that various plant owners reduce the MIC stockpile or take other steps to make the facility safer.

Even in normal operation, large volumes of hazardous substances are released from the factory. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the plant released more than 300 tons of chemicals and pollutants into the air in 2006, including 200 kg of MIC and four tons of chlorine. The plant accounts for 90% of the stored MIC and 95% of the MIC emissions in the whole United States.

The most recent incident at Institute occurred on December 28, 2007, when several drums containing the pesticide thiodicarb burst. Dozens of residents had to be treated for headache and respiratory problems. The World Health Organization (WHO) describes the thiodicarb as extremely toxic and potentially carcinogenic. Thiodicarb has been banned in the European Union.

=> A Collection of Materials on Bayer´s Institute Plant

August 28, 2008, The Charleston Gazette

Blast rocks Bayer plant in Institute

One plant worker injured, another missing

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- Witnesses reported seeing a red fireball and feeling a blast as far away as Charleston, after an explosion was reported at the Bayer Crop Science Plant in Institute at 10:35 p.m. Thursday. The explosion was heard at least as far away as Mink Shoals.
One Bayer employee has been transported to a burn center in Pittsburgh and another is still missing, said Bayer official Mike Wey. Earlier reports that one person had been killed could not be confirmed.
As of 2 a.m., Kanawha officials lifted the shelter-in-place for western Kanawha County.
South Charleston, Nitro, Cross Lanes, Institute, St. Albans and Dunbar -- just about everything from the Charleston city limits west to the Putnam County line -- had been put under a shelter-in-place starting at about 11 p.m. Thursday.
Police also opened Interstate 64, U.S. 60 and W.Va. 25 in western Kanawha County shortly after 2 a.m. The fire at the plant was extinguished at 2:10 a.m., according to the Kanawha emergency operations center, which officials planned to keep open throughout the night.
Some local officials weren't satisfied with Bayer's response. "We are getting such poor information from the plant, it's worthless," Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said around 12:45 a.m.
The chemicals involved in the explosion were dimethyl disulfide, methylisobutylketone and hexane, a Bayer official told Kanawha County officials at about 1:30 a.m. All three are "harmful irritants," according to information provided to Kanawha officials.
The three are used to make methomyl, which is a highly toxic pesticide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was not clear if any of the pesticide escaped.
Some waste residue inside the plant was what caught fire and burned, Wey said.
Kanawha officials said they were prepared to evacuate residents if necessary, but they were told by Bayer representatives that would not be necessary. They were told that the fire inside the plant was contained and that the possibility of a secondary explosion in the plant was "low."
County officials consulted the state fire marshal and their own responders at the scene before making the decision not to evacuate the area, Carper said.
The main explosion started in the plant's Larvin unit, Pauley said. Larvin is a pesticide brand name.
The unit houses multiple chemicals, and officials didn't know which ones were involved, Pauley said, so they issued the shelter-in-place as a precaution.
No flames were visible in the area as of midnight, but a thick haze had settled over the area.
"The fire is pretty much contained at this stage of the game, but we need to know what's in the air," Pauley said.
As for the explosion, it was felt miles away.
"We live two miles away and it blew all the curtains in. It was a force through my window that was pretty incredible," Dunbar resident Gail Ferguson said.
WVSU Patrolman Robert Flinn was parked in his cruiser with his back to the plant. "It was like someone shot a giant spotlight on us," he said. "There was a giant mushroom-type cloud about 100 feet high and flames shooting from the building."
"I was just waiting on a customer and all of sudden I felt a big boom, like an earthquake-type deal," said Sue A. Royal, an attendant at the Go-Mart across W.Va. 25 from the Bayer plant. "It looked like lava exploding out of a volcano."
"I could feel the explosion then I stepped out on the deck and could see the sky had lightened up," said Bill Raglin, a Kanawha County school board member who lives about a mile outside Institute.
Raglin retired from the Bayer plant in 1995, after 35 years. He estimated the plant employs about 500 workers.
"There's a crew that works there 24 hours a day," he said. "The chemical units have operators round the clock."
"When you're working in a chemical plant you don't look forward for something like this but it certainly is a possibility when you're working with great volumes of chemicals."
"It's not the first time we've ever had an explosion or an release or a fire," he said. "People in the plant are generally trained to deal with it."
There are usually eight people in the area where the explosion happened, Wey said. Six of them were in a safe area and were not harmed by the explosion, he said. Plant officials had not talked with them as of 2 a.m. about the explosion, he said.
The building where the explosion happened was about 30 feet by 30 feet and was four stories high, Wey said.
A Bayer firefighter was treated for heatstroke while fighting the fire, he said.
Located along the Kanawha River about 12 miles from downtown Charleston, the Institute plant site covers about 350 acres. The facility was built in 1943 by the U.S. government for the production of rubber for World War II. The plant was then bought and operated by Union Carbide in 1947, until 1986, when it was purchased by the French firm Rhone-Poulenc for the production of agricultural chemicals. The German company Bayer bought it in late 2001.
The plant is best known for making, using and storing large amounts of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the chemical responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in a huge leak at a Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in December 1984. Eight months later, 135 people were treated in Kanawha Valley hospitals after a leak of the chemical aldicarb oxime from the then-Carbide plant in Institute.
On Aug. 18, 1994, an explosion ripped through the methomyl-Larvin pesticide unit of the plant, then owned by Rhone-Poulenc. One worker was killed and several others seriously injured. One of the seriously injured workers died a decade later from the effects of cyanide that burned his lungs in the blast. Initially, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Rhone-Poulenc $1.7 million for willful safety violations. OSHA settled the case for $700,000 in fines.
In 1996, Rhone-Poulenc paid $450,000 in fines for a leak and fire in February of that year that forced thousands of residents to take shelter in their homes.
Earlier this month, the plant announced plans to increase capacity and hire 24 new workers to meet growing demand for Larvin.
Larvin is Bayer's brand of the insecticide thiodicarb. It is used to kill pests on cotton, corn and a variety of other vegetables. Larvin is a carbamate insecticide, a class of chemicals made from carbamic acid. Like organophosphates pesticides, these chemical interfere with the conduction signals of the nervous system of insects, and in cases of poisoning with high levels of exposure, humans.
By itself, Larvin does not generally burn, according to a Bayer material safety data sheet.
Federal workplace safety officials last inspected the plant in October 2007 and found no violations, records show.
Prior to that, the most recent OSHA review of the plant was in July 2005. Inspectors cited the plant for eight serious and two willful violations.
Bayer paid a $110,000 fine to settle the matter, which included violations of rules governing the management of highly hazardous chemicals, according to OSHA records.
Federal workplace safety officials last inspected the plant in October 2007 and found no violations, records show.
Prior to that, the most recent OSHA review of the plant was in July 2005. Inspectors cited the plant for eight serious and two willful violations. Bayer paid a $110,000 fine to settle the matter, which included violations of rules governing the management highly hazardous chemicals, according to OSHA records.
Staff writers Gary Harki, Tara Tuckwiller, Veronica Nett, Ken Ward Jr., James Davison and Greg Moore contributed to this report.