Multiple safety failures identified in chemical explosion

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A new report on a 2008 explosion at a West Virginia pesticide factory offers a chilling account of a near-catastrophe involving a chemical that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, in 1984 — and raises questions about safeguards at the plant.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board report details how a “runaway chemical reaction” caused a large pressure vessel to explode at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W. Va., on August 28, 2008. The blast killed two workers, injured eight others, and sent shards of metal into a large tank containing methyl isocyanate (MIC).

The report also documents the company’s delay in providing adequate and timely information to emergency responders and its failure to fix safety problems dating back to 2005. In addition, plant monitors intended to detect MIC releases weren’t working the night of the blast.

The Institute plant is the only plant in the United States that still stores large quantities of MIC, the chemical that leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in December 1984. When the pressure vessel at Bayer CropScience — known as a residue treater — exploded, pieces of the vessel were sent hurtling into a tank that contained nearly 14,000 pounds of MIC. The tank was protected by a “blast blanket” and, therefore, wasn’t penetrated.

The Chemical Safety Board concluded, however, that if the 5,700-pound residue treater had been propelled into a structure above the tank, a pipe could have ruptured and MIC could have been released into the atmosphere. The blanket would not have prevented such a rupture, the board noted. The mishap highlights “the risks of locating large vessels containing extremely toxic substances within hazardous process areas that have the potential for explosions,” the board said.

Only last week, Bayer CropScience announced that it would halt production of MIC in Institute by mid-2012, primarily because of the planned phase-out of a pesticide called aldicarb sold under the trade name Temik — of which MIC is an ingredient. In an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency last August, the company said it would stop making aldicarb, used on potatoes, cotton, peanuts and other crops, by the end of 2014. The EPA identified aldicarb as a groundwater pollutant and said that new toxicity data indicates the pesticide “may pose unacceptable dietary risks, especially to infants and young children.”

A 2008 explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in West Virginia killed two workers and could have caused the release of a chemical that killed thousands in Bhopal, India. Credit: U.S. Chemical Safety BoardHowever, the report may have larger implications. It reveals, for instance, that MIC air monitoring devices near the residue treater weren’t working the night of the explosion. It says, “More than 10 minutes elapsed before Bayer was able to alert Metro 9-1-1 and even then, the information was inadequate.” And it concludes that miscommunication by the company caused some emergency responders to be exposed to toxic chemicals.

“We hope that what comes out of this is greater attention to inherently safer technologies,” said Maya Nye, a resident of Institute, a small city west of Charleston. “By implementing safer technologies, we won’t have the potential for a catastrophic failure,” said Nye, spokeswoman for a local group, People Concerned About MIC.

The board blamed the explosion itself on, among other things, poor operator training, equipment malfunction, and Bayer CropScience’s failure to fix hazards documented in a 2005 Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection. An internal company memo written three weeks before the explosion noted that 48 action items — known as “risk sheets” — were still open, the board found.

Bayer CropScience, a subsidiary of German conglomerate Bayer AG, is expected to comment on the report later this morning. In a 2009 press release, the company said it would reduce MIC stocks in Institute by 80 percent and move all storage underground. “While MIC was not involved in the explosion at the Institute site in August [2008], we have taken seriously the concerns of public officials and the site’s neighbors, and we are making very substantial changes in how we operate our facility in the future,” Bayer CropScience President and CEO Bill Buckner was quoted as saying in the release.

In September, the Chemical Safety Board contracted with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a $575,000, congressionally mandated study of MIC at the Institute plant. The academy is to examine the feasibility of reducing or eliminating MIC storage at the Bayer CropScience plant. Board spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said in an e-mail that officials will discuss the future of the study after a public meeting scheduled for this evening in Charleston.

UPDATE — 1/20/11: In a written statement, Bayer CropScience said it has “cooperated fully with the [Chemical Safety Board] and remains committed to operating our facility with the safety of our employees, neighbors and community as our highest priority.” Steve Hedrick, a company vice president and head of the Institute Industrial Park, is quoted as saying, “We have already implemented significant measures to ensure the continued safe operation of our facilities. These measures include improvements in process safety operations, communications, training, monitoring, supervision and equipment.”