25 years after Bhopal, U.S. plant still using same toxic chemical

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Earlier this week, seven former executives of Union Carbide India Ltd. were convicted of “death by negligence” and sentenced to two-year jail terms for their roles in the release of a chemical that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, more than 25 years ago. Regulators in the United States, meanwhile, are still grappling with how to handle the same chemical -- methyl isocyante, or MIC -- at a pesticide plant in West Virginia.

The Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va., is the last facility in the U.S. to store large quantities of MIC, used to manufacture carbamate pesticides and, to a lesser degree, rubber and adhesives.

Congress last year ordered the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to study the use of MIC after a 2008 explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant threatened to release 14,000 pounds of the chemical. The blast, which killed two workers, occurred within 80 feet of the MIC storage tank.

“During the explosion, metal projectiles weighing up to a hundred pounds flew in all directions,” Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland said in congressional testimony last year. If the tank had been pierced, “There might have been a catastrophic impact on workers, responders, and the public,” he said.

After the accident, Bayer CropScience promised to reduce its MIC storage by 80 percent and move it underground. “We believe our manufacturing process coupled with the change we’re implementing will provide the highest levels of safety for our work force and the community,” said company spokesman Jack Boyne.

But there are skeptics.

“BP believed their processes were safe, too,” said Maya Nye, one of Institute’s 10,000 residents and a spokeswoman for People Concerned About MIC. “That doesn’t make the seafood farmers of the Gulf Coast feel much better. I don’t think anyone with any sort of common sense can feel secure by that company line anymore, especially coming from a company that nearly caused another Bhopal to happen in our community.”

Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace in Washington, said the company’s plan to cut its inventory did not go far enough. “They’re still going to have the largest [MIC stockpile] in the country, more than 25 years after Bhopal and decades after everybody else has gotten out of this,” Hind said.

The Chemical Safety Board has been soliciting public comments to prepare for a National Academy of Sciences study of MIC and perhaps other highly toxic chemicals. John Vorderbrueggen, an investigations supervisor with the board, said he hopes the scope of the study will be defined and a contract with the academy signed within the next eight weeks.

Greenpeace’s Hind questions the need to study MIC, whose hazards are well documented, and worries that it will allow Bayer to keep using the chemical indefinitely.

The study, however, could lead to broader safety reforms that go beyond MIC.

“Although [the 2008] incident is specific to one type of chemical, the CSB’s goal is to get the message out to industry of the importance of safely managing all toxic chemicals,” Vorderbrueggen said. “The ultimate goal is to continue to improve the operating safety of any toxic chemical operation.”

Earlier this year, Bayer CropScience, a division of the German conglomerate Bayer AG, was fined $143,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the 2008 explosion.

The same West Virginia plant has had a series of owners and a variety of other accidents over the years. Rhone-Poulenc, the French company that owned the plant before Bayer CropScience, agreed to pay $700,000 in fines in connection with an August 1994 explosion that killed one worker. Two years later, Rhone-Poulenc paid $450,000 in fines following a chemical release.

In August 1985, only eight months after the Bhopal disaster, a cloud containing acutely toxic aldicarb oxide and four other chemicals leaked from the West Virginia plant, then owned by Union Carbide. The accident sent 135 people went to the hospital. According to a 1993 report commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency, the release went undetected by workers because a high-temperature alarm was out of service, a level indicator in the tank was broken, a newly installed gas detection system had not been set to test for aldicarb oxide, and a water-spray system that was supposed to keep the gas from going offsite wasn’t up to the task.

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