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Chemical board chairman to visit valley, talk about Bayer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The new chairman of the federal Chemical Safety Board is coming to the Kanawha Valley next week to address concerns that his agency is stalling the release of final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire at Bayer CropScience's Institute plant.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso scheduled the trip after Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper wrote to the board last week to complain about the board's repeated delays.

"We want to let the people of the valley know we are concerned about these issues," Moure-Eraso said in an interview. "I want to meet with Mr. Carper and explain to him what we are doing and where we are in the process."

Moure-Eraso said board members and staff are reviewing a draft of the agency's final report and will release it during another public meeting in the Institute area sometime this fall.

During his visit next week, Moure-Eraso said he would also meet with representatives of the Institute group People Concerned About MIC and hopes to meet with Bayer plant officials.

Moure-Eraso, a chemical engineer with a Ph.D. in industrial hygiene, was previously chairman of the department of work environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He was appointed to the board chairmanship by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in late June.

In Monday's interview, Moure-Eraso said he has long studied the 1984 chemical disaster that involved a leak of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, and is therefore very interested in safety issues at the Bhopal facilities' sister plant, now owned by Bayer, in Institute.

"I am personally concerned about the continuing use of MIC anywhere, especially in the Kanawha Valley," Moure-Eraso said.

In the Aug. 28, 2008, explosion and fire, Bayer worker Barry Withrow was killed. A second worker, Bill Oxley, died about six weeks later in a burn center in Pittsburgh. Thousands of residents between South Charleston and the Putnam County line were forced to take shelter in their homes.

The explosion occurred in a unit where Bayer makes Methomyl, which it then uses to produce Larvin, the company's brand name of the insecticide thiodicarb.

In March, Bayer agreed to pay $143,000 in fines to settle allegations by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration that the company had poorly planned operating procedures, flawed emergency systems and faulty employee training.

A separate CSB probe found that the explosion and fire could have damaged a nearby tank of MIC, and caused a disaster that would have rivaled Bhopal. After those findings were made public, Bayer announced it was cutting its MIC inventory, long a sticking point with local residents and activists, by roughly 80 percent. Critics note that Bayer could still store enough MIC to cause a Bhopal-sized leak.

Moure-Eraso said he expects the board's final report to confirm its initial findings about the potential dangers from the August 2008 incident. But, he said, more details about issues surrounding the continued use and storage of MIC in Institute will be the focus instead of a congressionally mandated National Academy of Sciences study.Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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