2008 explosion at Institute

January 12, 2011
Coalition against BAYER Dangers

BAYER to quit production of Bhopal chemical

CSB report finds multiple deficiencies led to deadly explosion

CSB study details potential MIC leak impacts

CSB safety video depicting events leading to the explosion

Bayer CropScience yesterday announced to finally stop producing the Bhopal chemical MIC at its Institute/US plant. Philipp Mimkes from the Coalition against Bayer Dangers, based in Germany, declares: "This is an important success after a quarter-century campaign! The company now has to ensure that all workers are offered adequate new jobs."

Bayer is the last major U.S. producer of the chemical that killed thousands in Bhopal, 26 years ago. MIC was nearly released in a 2008 explosion in the Institute plant. Bayer continued storing large quantities of MIC long after other companies had cut production for safety reasons.

Bayer also announced to quit production of the highly dangerous pesticides Aldicarb and Carbaryl. Both products are part of the carbamate family of pesticides and use MIC as a key ingredient.

The Coalition against Bayer Dangers had introduced several countermotions to Bayer´s Annual Stockholders´ Meetings demanding that MIC stockpiles in Institute are dismantled and the frequent spills of hazardous substances are stopped.

=> materials on MIC production at Institute
=> Letter to Bayer: Stop the sale of highly poisonous pesticides immediately!
=> CSB

January 11, 2011, Public Integrity

Quarter-Century After Bhopal, a Deadly Chemical's U.S. Production to End

The last major U.S. producer of the chemical that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, 26 years ago - and was nearly released in a 2008 explosion in West Virginia - is ceasing production of the compound.
An announcement Tuesday by Bayer CropScience, whose plant in Institute, West Virginia, stores 14,000 pounds of methyl isocyante (MIC), comes slightly more than a week before the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is scheduled to release its final report on a 2008 explosion at the plant. The blast killed two workers, and flying metal came perilously close to breaching an MIC storage tank, board officials said.
Bayer CropScience, a subsidiary of German conglomerate Bayer AG, said on its website the MIC unit in Institute would be "shut down and decommissioned in mid-2012." The company said its decision "was based on a number of factors, with both strategic and economic considerations" - notably, an agreement it struck with the Environmental Protection Agency last year to phase out production of a pesticide called Temik, of which MIC is an ingredient. The pesticide is "no longer economically viable," Bayer CropScience said.
Environmental activists claimed victory, speculating that Bayer CropScience had succumbed to pressure to stop using one of the most lethal chemicals on the planet.
"It's something we've called for for a long time," said Maya Nye, an Institute resident and a spokesperson for People Concerned About MIC. The chemical is "the worst of the worst," she said.
"The handwriting was on the wall," said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace. "They're the last man standing on a process that's infamous and connected to the world's deadliest industrial accident." The December 1984 leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal killed at least 3,000 people and injured many thousands more. The Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, once owned by Union Carbide, continued making and storing large quantities of MIC long after other companies had cut production for safety reasons.
In its press release, Bayer CropScience said the shutdown of the MIC unit in Institute and its plant in Woodbine, Georgia, would cost about 300 jobs. Hind said he was skeptical of the number. "We welcome the decision on MIC," he said, "but that should not cause any reduction in jobs." By Jim Morris

Statement Maya Nye (Spokesperson People Concerned About MIC):

While this is a monumental step in our 26-year campaign to keep our community safe, we stand in solidarity with the workers in their time of struggle. Job blackmail is a common scare tactic used by corporations to divide communities and hide the bad business practices that threaten worker safety and job security. It is this tactic that holds us economic hostages to corporations who are willing to put profits before people and that compromise our community's health and safety. Our hearts go out to the workers who, over the next several years, will be losing their jobs. Yet we must remember that these jobs were lost to them by a company that chose not to plan ahead, not to change to safer technologies, and not to ensure their future in our community.

January 11, 2011, Charleston Gazette

Bayer to phase out MIC; cut 220 jobs

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- Bayer CropScience will stop making, using and storing the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant as part of a corporate restructuring that will cost the Kanawha Valley 220 jobs over the next several years, company officials announced Tuesday.
Bayer officials said the moves are a result of the company's agreement last August to phase out the pesticide aldicarb because of concerns it posed "unacceptable dietary risks," especially to children. Company officials also cited a 1995 pledge by Bayer to move away from products that global public health officials believe are especially dangerous.

Bayer plant manager Steven Hedrick said the jobs being eliminated would include salaried and hourly positions, but that a breakdown was not yet available.

Company officials broke the news to workers in meetings Tuesday morning, though decisions about which positions -- and which individuals -- would be affected had not yet been made.
"We will work collectively with our workforce, developing a solution that is right for our people and right for the business," Hedrick said.

Bayer officials said the timing of their announcement was not related to next week's scheduled release of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two Bayer workers. The CSB's investigation and a related congressional hearing renewed public concern about the Institute plant's quarter-million-pound stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the chemical that killed thousands of people in a 1984 leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

The 220-job reduction leaves about 280 Bayer workers and 200 contract workers at the plant. Officials from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents hourly employees at Bayer, did not return phone calls.

Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper, who expressed grave concerns about the MIC inventory following the 2008 incident at the plant, said the goal of local officials should now be to work with Bayer to find other, "appropriate" businesses to provide jobs at the facility. "That is a good result, assuming that is possible," Carper said. "We have to save as many jobs as we can."

At a press conference at the plant, Hedrick said the facility would stop production of aldicarb, the active ingredient in its Temik brand insecticide, by the end of June 2012. And by June 2011, Bayer also plans to stop production of carbaryl, the active ingredient in the company's well-known Sevin brand pesticide, Hedrick said.

Both products are part of the carbamate family of pesticides, named because they are made in part with carbamic acid, and use MIC as a key ingredient. In a news release, Bayer said that such products have "in recent years ... been largely substituted by newer products," prompting a review by the company of its carbamates business.

Then, in August 2010, Bayer negotiated a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to phase out aldicarb by Dec. 31, 2014. EPA had sought the deal because of agency research that found kids could be exposed to up to eight times the level of the chemical considered safe. Aldicarb had been under EPA scrutiny for years, following the poisoning of banana workers in Costa Rica and consumers of tainted watermelons in Oregon and California in the 1980s. At the time of the EPA deal, Bayer officials said they would close an aldicarb-Temik formulation plant in Woodbine, Ga., but that they didn't yet know what impact it would have on the Institute plant.

But the facility and the products it makes with MIC were already under a variety of pressures.
Following a May 2009 ban on the use of the pesticide carbofuran in food, FMC Corp. in August 2010 stopped producing that material at the Institute site. Leasing plant space at Institute, FMC made carbofuran in part with MIC that it purchased from Bayer.

And Bayer had already announced in August 2009 that it would reduce its MIC inventory by 80 percent, in part by not rebuilding its methomyl-Larvin pesticide unit where the 2008 explosion occurred. A preliminary report from the CSB found that the explosion could have damaged a nearby tank of MIC in the methomyl-Larvin unit, causing a disaster that would have rivaled Bhopal.
"The decisions to exit Temik and to discontinue our methomyl and carbofuran production made it impossible to maintain competitive operations at parts of our Institute site and at the formulation unit at Woodbine," said Chris Evans, senior vice president of Bayer's North American industrial operations.

Maya Nye, spokewoman for the group People Concerned About MIC, said she was still learning details of exactly what Bayer had announced, but was concerned it would be depicted as a case of environmental and public safety protections costing jobs. "Instead of taking the opportunity to lead the industry in developing safer technologies, it has chosen to take a backseat to its competitors while taking the people of this valley as economic hostages," Nye said.

At the Bayer press conference, Evans and Hedrick both referred to a more than 10-year-old company pledge to move away from products listed as "Class I" pesticides by the World Health Organization, but neither would explain why Bayer made that pledge. In a corporate "Sustainable Development Report" posted on its Web site, Bayer says the company decided in 1995 to "gradually replace" such products, which WHO lists as "extremely hazardous. "Bayer CropScience has undertaken to continuously optimize the responsible use of its products," the company report says. "These principles cover the entire life-cycle of a product from development to use and beyond." By Ken Ward Jr.

A disaster waiting to happen: The Chemical Safety Board Investigation Report on 2008 Bayer CropScience fatal pesticide chemical explosion

On August 28, 2008 at 10:53 p.m., a massive explosion and fire, caused by a runaway chemical reaction, ripped through the Bayer CropScience pesticide plant in Institute, West Virginia. It killed two workers and injured eight employees, two contractors, and six fire-fighters, all of whom were treated for possible toxic chemical exposure. On January 20, 2011, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) released its investigation report. Each of its key findings points to a disaster waiting to happen.

The incident occurred at the facility's Methomyl-Larvin unit, where the pesticide Larvin is produced in a process that includes chemical reactions involving a number of highly hazardous, flammable, and explosive chemicals. Among them: methyl isocyanate (MIC) (the chemical released in the 1984 Union Carbide Bhopal disaster), phosgene (so deadly it was used as a nerve gas during World War I and was responsible for the death in 2010 of a worker at a DuPont plant in West Virginia), trichloroethane, ammonia, and chlorine. It happened when the unit that uses MIC in a series of complex reactions to produce methomyl (the base chemical of the pesticide called Larvin) was being restarted after being out of operation so that a new, computerized control system and other equipment could be installed. In its investigation the CSB discovered that realignment of personnel, employee cutbacks, extended work hours, lack of training, and malfunctioning equipment - and company failure to correct chronic safety problems - all contributed to the disaster.

Appropriate procedures not followed
The CSB found that company "pressure to resume production" resulted in the unit being restarted to soon, before the required safety review was conducted and before proper equipment installation and calibration were complete. The CSB also found that critical valves were improperly adjusted. The combination led to an uncontrolled chemical reaction that created extreme heat and pressure inside a 4,500 gallon vessel that ultimately exploded, releasing a highly flammable solvent that ignited in an "immense fireball" and burned intensely for over four hours.

In the days leading up to the incident, the CSB learned, the unit's only technical advisor had worked as many as 15 to 17 hours a day. The unit's engineer at the time had less than a year of experience and told CSB investigators he knew little about the unit's equipment and chemistry. Plant workers were unfamiliar with the new computerized equipment, which they found time-consuming and confusing for critical tasks, particularly during start-up. The unit's extremely complex standard operating procedure, whose manual was hundreds of pages long, also added to the problems.
The recent organizational changes at the plant "directly contributed to the incident causes," reports the CSB. Management did not directly advise or oversee the restart operation, the CSB wrote, and "was so far removed from the process operation that they were unaware" that operators routinely by-passed critical safety measures that led directly to the explosion.
"The deaths of the workers as a result of this accident were all the more tragic because it could have been prevented had Bayer CropScience provided adequate training, and required a comprehensive pre-startup equipment checkout and strict conformance with appropriate startup procedures," said CSB Chairperson Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso during the press conference presenting the report.

Keeping the community in the dark
The workers affected by the blast included firefighters who couldn't get accurate information about what they might be exposed to. CSB discovered that the gas monitoring system at the unit was not working. Plant workers and Bayer emergency personnel assumed it was, and therefore said no MIC had been released. Bayer's fenceline air monitors were also found inadequate. Some monitors had in fact been turned off to prevent false-positive alarms. In addition, there was initially no direct communication between Bayer emergency personnel and community first responders, which left local response agencies without immediate reliable information during the event.
"The Bayer fire brigade was at the scene in minutes, but Bayer management withheld information from the county emergency response agencies that were desperate for information about what happened, what chemicals were possibly involved," said John Bresland, CSB chairman at the time of the incident. "The Bayer incident commander, inside the plant, recommended a shelter in place; but this was never communicated to 911 operators. After an hour of being refused critical information, local authorities ordered a shelter-in-place, as a precaution."

It's fortunate that no massive release of methyl isocyanate occurred during the disaster. But Bayer initially withheld key chemical information from being released publicly, claiming it to be Sensitive Security Information (SSI) - a claim subsequently overruled. "[W]e concede that our pursuit of SSI coverage was motivated, in part, by a desire to prevent that public debate concerning the use of MIC from occurring in the first place," said William Buckner, the president of Bayer CropScience in his April 2009 testimony to Congress.
The community suffered some property damages from the explosion but no apparent MIC effects. A lack of information about potential chemical exposures caused concern among some local firefighters who complained of symptoms consistent with toxic chemical exposure on the day after the fire. And the community as a whole remains in the dark about what they may have been exposed to since no data on chemical releases was - or apparently ever will be - made available. "No reliable data or analytical methods were available to determine what chemicals were released, or predict any exposure concentrations," wrote the CSB.

A history of problems
The August 2008 explosion was not the first disaster at the Institute plant. In 1993, when the facility was owned and operated by Rhone-Poulenc, an explosion in the same methomyl unit killed one worker and injured two. Similar improper control mechanisms led to both explosions, and the problems were never fully corrected. In some cases Bayer said corrections had been made, but the fixes had not been fully implemented.
Over the years, OSHA inspections of the facility found numerous repeat violations. "At Bayer, longstanding operating procedure deficiencies played a significant role in the accident," says the CSB report. Just three weeks before the 2008 explosion, an internal Bayer review found four dozen hazards that were supposed to be corrected but had not been.
The CSB investigation found a lack of oversight not only from Bayer, but also from OSHA and the EPA. While both agencies had conducted "process safety related audits and inspections" at the Bayer facility before the August 2008 incident, "the inspections did not detect or correct all the serious, longstanding process safety problems that were revealed by investigations conducted after the incident," writes the CSB. Further, while OSHA cited Bayer for "deficient process hazard analyses in 2005," the agency never verified that Bayer had fully corrected these deficiencies - failures that ultimately contributed to the August 2008 explosion.

Planned and recommended changes
In 2010 Bayer announced it would stop storing MIC above ground at the plant and on January 11, 2011, it announced it would end production of the pesticides that require production, storage and use of MIC and phosgene at the Institute facility. That change will happen by the end of 2012 and will end all methyl isocyanate production by Bayer. It will continue to produce Larvin at the Institute plant but do so using methomyl "sourced externally."
"Bayer's decision to end pesticide production using MIC was, I understand, done for its own business reasons. But for whatever reasons, the eventual elimination of this chemical will enhance safety in the Kanawha Valley, for workers and residents alike, and is a positive development in my view," said Dr. Moure-Eraso.
The CSB report recommendations include numerous internal plant operational changes and changes to emergency communications, as well as a recommendation that the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources establish a "Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program" that would have the authority to inspect and regulate chemical plants, and make public its ongoing findings. Following its January 20 public hearing in Institute, and a public comment period, the CSB board will vote on the report conclusions and recommendations.
While the January 20 press conference was being held, the CSB website list of U.S. chemical accidents continued to lengthen. With luck, lessons learned from the Institute disaster can prompt systemic changes that will stop this daily litany of chemical releases, fires, and explosions. But among the key elements to be determined is how the kind of information Bayer initially claimed as Sensitive Security Information will be handled in the future.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.