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Questions remain on eve of final Bayer report

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week's announcement that Bayer CropScience will stop making, using and storing the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate, or MIC, may have taken some of the air out of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's release Thursday of its final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at Bayer CropScience's Institute plant.

But unanswered questions remain about the CSB's investigation of that fatal incident, and major recommendations by the board -- including for the creation of new chemical safety rules in the Kanawha Valley and across West Virginia -- have some local chemical industry watchdogs paying attention.

"MIC is not the only dangerous chemical in the valley, and it is not the only chemical that some people living on the fence-line feel causes their ill health," said Maya Nye, spokeswoman for the group People Concerned About MIC. "We still have chemicals like ammonia and chlorine stored in quantities upwards of 20 million pounds that could cause a Bhopal-like disaster."

Nye and other residents will get a chance Thursday to hear the CSB's final word on the Aug. 28, 2008, incident that killed Bayer plant workers Barry Withrow and Bill Oxley. Board members will brief the media on their findings Thursday morning, in preparation for a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the Wilson University Union in West Virginia State University's Sullivan Hall.

In a preliminary report released in April 2009, board investigators blamed the explosion and fire on a "runaway reaction" inside a waste treatment tank in the plant's Methomyl-Larvin pesticide unit.

Release of the preliminary report, along with a related congressional hearing, refocused the public, the media and political leaders on Bayer's storage of large quantities of MIC, the chemical that killed thousands of people when it leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984.

Board investigators and congressional staffers warned that the waste treatment tank explosion could easily have damaged a nearby MIC storage tank and created a disaster that could have rivaled Bhopal.

But the preliminary CSB findings raised major questions about the Bayer plant's general safety practices, citing overworked employees, poor worker training, faulty equipment, broken chemical monitors, and poor accident prevention planning.

And a host of questions remains for the board to answer in its final report:

  • Exactly what monitoring devices did Bayer have in place and operational at the time of the 2008 explosion, and what sort of improvements in the monitoring system are needed?
  • Was a steel "blast blanket" installed around the MIC tank located near the explosion strong enough to protect the tank if a large piece of debris had hit it?
  • What chemicals were released into the air, and possibly into nearby residential areas, by the explosion and the resulting fire?
  • What did board-contracted computer modeling show about the potential public health impacts of a release of MIC that could have resulted from the 2008 incident?
  • During long fire that night, what temperatures and pressures were reached in the MIC tank, and how close did they come to reaching a dangerous level?
  • Are more changes needed in the Kanawha Valley's emergency response plans and procedures to ensure better communication that what occurred the night of the explosion?
  • Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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