November 25, 2008, Coalition against BAYER Dangers (Germany)
Interview with Maye Nye, spokeswoman for People Concerned about MIC
QUESTION: Could you please describe the hazards of Bayer´s Institute plant in a nutshell? What were the most serious incidents?
ANSWER: The hazards of Bayer's Institute plant include the largest stockpile of methyl isocyanate (MIC) in the United States which has the potential to do twice to twenty times the amount of damage done in Bhopal, India in 1984. The plant changes names frequently so it is difficult to keep track of the most serious incidents. Since Bayer acquired ownership of part of the facilities in 2001, the most serious incident was the one that took place in August when 2 workers were killed during an explosion at the Larvin unit. This explosion has not yet been traced to other injuries and deaths, but we believe it will be.
Q: What´s the history of People Concerned about MIC? What are your demands and what did you achieve so far?
A: People Concerned About MIC is a community organization in the Kanawha Valley dedicated to the protection of health and safety of all who reside, work, and study in the vicinity of local chemical plants producing highly toxic chemicals. PCMIC was formed because the same chemical that killed and injured thousands in the Bhopal disaster, methyl isocyanate (MIC), was being produced in their neighborhood plant. The history of the group is extensive, for instance: its role in changing the relationships (on many levels) between Kanawha Valley chemical plants and the communities in which they are situated, its national recognition, its support of the victims of the Bhopal tragedy, its role in the support of the development of the National Institute of Chemical Studies, its long-standing Community Safety Assessment Committee, its role and support of shelter-in-place, an alternate escape route in case of an accident, etc. etc.
Q: Bayer claims that the factory has the highest safety standards. In contrast to this we have seen that Bayer is often reducing standards to cut down on expenditure. How´s the situation at Institute?
A: We've heard rumors of inadequate staffing. Other information is difficult to obtain due to the confidentiality that protects the company in a post-September 11th world.
Q: Are you in touch with the workforce?
A: Not as much as we'd like to be. The workers are not as unionized as they once were, so to speak out would mean they would do so without protection and at the risk of their livelihood.
Q: The Coalition against Bayer Dangers has been monitoring Bayer for thirty years now. Bayer is defaming us as being "radical" or "dubious". Have you seen similar claims? How does the company react when criticized?
A: Luckily most officials are upset with their recent practices. This helps deemphasize how "radical" our efforts may be. They must think we're ultra-radical because three armed guards were present at their recent community meeting. The company doesn't like to be criticized. Especially publicly. They get defensive and when criticized enough, they throw the idea of exporting jobs around which ends up pitting neighbor against neighbor. Exporting the factory wouldn't be such a scary notion if there were other jobs to replace the ones Bayer provides, but there aren't. They use that to their advantage.
Q: After accidents in chemical plants usually no longterm studies are conducted. Consequential damages for workers and neighbours are thus not detected. Is this true for Institute as well?
A: This is one of our major complaints. Our community has served as the guinea pig for the chemical industry since 1947. The fact that the United States government allows the production of chemicals where long-term health risks have not been studied is a human injustice with few comparisons.
Q: We´ve experienced that Bayer often reacts on accidents by concealing information or even misinforming the public. The cooperation with authorities is not always working well, and surrounding communities have problems to safeguard their interests. How is Bayer´s conduct in West Virginia?
A: The picture you describe is an accurate one. Bayer is quiet even when the spotlight shines on them and everyone wants answers. They provide as little information as possible in order to protect their interests, then they apologize for not giving enough detail and then they turn around and do it all over again. They are unscrupulous when it comes to protecting the community.
Q. Are aggrieved persons properly compensated by the company?
A: Simply put, no. It's difficult to put a price on the lives of the two men died as a result of the last explosion. It's even more difficult to connect all of the illnesses and deaths that have occurred since because of the lack of long term studies.
Q: How is the atmosphere towards the plant in the neighboring communities?
A: Bayer's neighbors are not happy with their lack of communication and recent safety record. Even ex-chemical industry folk and local government officials will say so. However, there will always be that contingent of loyalists who will never question the motives of the chemical industry.
Q: What is the role of the media? We´ve often experienced that Bayer puts pressure on media when they get criticized too openly.
A: It is difficult to say whether or not they have put pressure on the media recently. I'm sure they have tried, but Bayer's blatent lack of communication during the recent explosion caused our emergency responders to look ill-equipt to handle emergencies, upsetting government officials. Had this not occurred, they may have been better capable of limiting the negative publicity they have received since this last explosion. This is not to say that their publicity machine isn't hard at work to revive how they are portrayed in the media. More than anything, they seem quite good at manipulating the media. They recently informed their Community Advisory Panel (known as the Community Improvement Council) that the group would be holding a community meeting yet did not include them in the process of establishing the agenda. They also neglected to widely advertise the meeting, thus turning the event into a media spectacle. Under the guise of a "community meeting", Bayer successfully held what turned out to be a corporate press conference apologizing for the err of their ways. The sad thing is that people will end up believing them and forget the promises that they have broken the next time something happens.
Q: What needs to be done in your opinion to get public control of chemical companies like Bayer?
Until we as a society, as the human race, choose to accept that our health, environment, and general well-being to be as valued as the almighty bottom dollar, I'm not sure what kind of controls we can instigate that will protect us fully from the toxins that pervade our environment. No (environmental) justice, no peace.
Q: We discussed the safety situation at Institute in Bayer´s shareholder meeting in April, four months ahead of the recent explosion. Did the cooperation with the Coalition against Bayer Dangers help your cause?
A: We are grateful for your support in these matters. It is desperately needed.
Q: Are you aware of the Charter on Industrial Hazards and Human Rights (www.globalpolicy.org/socecon/envronmt/charter.htm)? Can this help in an international campaign for more safety in chemical factories?
Q: What are your further plans? What else can groups from outside do to support you?
A: All of our efforts are based on educating the communities being negatively impacted by the chemical corporations in order to empower them/us to take action. Specifically, we plan on developing independent scientific studies showing links between illness in our community and toxic chemicals being produces and used in neighboring facilities. We also plan on performing economic impact studies and planning as a way to promote healthier and sustainable jobs in our community.
Groups from outside can support us by keeping the pressure on. Keeping us informed on how other organizations and countries are dealing with similar issues is helpful. Other groups could assist by providing us with studies or ideas of economic alternatives to dirty jobs that would be viable in our community. One of the biggest forms of assistance from outside groups would be forming a coalition for environmental justice or maybe we just need to join the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers. Money is helpful, too.
more information: A Collection of Materials on Bayer´s Institute Plant and http://www.peopleconcernedaboutmic.com
questions: Philipp Mimkes and Axel Koehler-Schnura