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CSB chairman to Valley: 'We are on the job'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The new chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board promised Tuesday that his agency hasn't forgotten about its final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute.

In a quick visit to the Kanawha Valley, board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso met with local citizen activists, Bayer plant officials and Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper.

"We wanted to show the flag and to say that we are on the job," Moure-Eraso said during an interview at the close of his trip.

Moure-Eraso planned the visit after Carper blasted the board two weeks ago for repeated delays in the release of a final investigative report on the explosion and fire.

Plant worker Barry Withrow was killed in the August 2008 incident. A second employee, Bill Oxley, died about six weeks later in a burn unit in Pittsburgh. Thousands of residents between South Charleston and the Putnam County line were advised to take shelter in their homes.

The explosion and fire took on an even bigger dimension when a preliminary CSB report -- along with a congressional investigation -- concluded a tank of deadly methyl isocyanate gas could have been damaged, potentially creating a disaster worse than the 1984 MIC leak that killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India.

Moure-Eraso noted that Bhopal was part of the impetus for Congress to create the board as part of its amendments to the federal Clean Air Act in 1990.

"MIC is a world issue," Moure-Eraso said. "In fact, the CSB exists because of the MIC disaster in Bhopal."

Moure-Eraso said the board would release its final report on the Bayer explosion sometime this fall, perhaps as early as September.

But, he said it would not examine in any detail whether Bayer's announced plan to reduce its MIC stockpile by 80 percent would make the Institute facility safe. Some local residents and the group People Concerned About MIC have pointed out even after the inventory reduction, the Institute plant could still maintain 50,000 pounds of MIC on site, more than enough to create a Bhopal-sized leak.

Moure-Eraso said the board would leave examination of those issues up to a separate, congressionally mandated study by the National Academy of Sciences.

"I share [residents'] concerns about MIC," Moure-Eraso said. "But as far as the specifics of what is being done, it would be very hard for me to comment. It's a very complicated matter."

Bayer spokesman Tom Dover issued a prepared statement that said the company gave Moure-Eraso a tour of the plant, but Bayer officials refused to be interviewed for this story.

The new CSB chairman takes over for John S. Bresland, who remains a member of the board. Unlike Bresland, a former process engineer and plant manager, Moure-Eraso does not come directly from a chemical plant or have an extensive corporate background.

A naturalized citizen from Colombia, Moure-Eraso has been a professor for more than 20 years at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell's School of Health and Environment. He has master's and bachelor's degrees in chemical engineering and a doctorate in environmental health. Prior to his academic career, Moure-Eraso worked as an industrial hygienist for union groups including the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers.

Moure-Eraso said he has "high hopes" for the scientific panel review. While eliminating the use of highly toxic chemicals is generally the safest route for chemical plants, Moure-Eraso said, it's not always possible.

"It's very hard in engineering to have a proposition that one size fits all," he said. "You choose the one that is best for your situation."

Moure-Eraso said there are a variety of reasons the board hasn't completed its Bayer report yet, including an increased number of investigations around the country and Bayer's efforts to block board access or public release of some relevant information.

"That was a bogus claim," he said of Bayer's secrecy campaign. "That didn't really hold any water."

Moure-Eraso said the board's final report is an example how the board "opens windows for communities," but that it will be up to local leaders and citizens to decide if more changes are needed at the Institute plant.

"Communities decide what is acceptable and what they can tolerate and what they can live with," he said.

For example, Moure-Eraso said, federal chemical safety laws give Kanawha County broad authority to do its own safety reviews of local facilities like Bayer, rather than just focusing on emergency response efforts. Local citizens can also have a greater say through their own groups, rather than with neighborhood groups in which chemical companies name the membership, a favored tactic of industry, he said.

"The problem with community organizations in many places is that they are dominated by the people they are supposed to be evaluating," Moure-Eraso said.

"Society is galvanized when disasters happen," he said. "It's a chance to point out things that are wrong and see that it doesn't happen again.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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