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Residents sue to delay start-up of Bayer's MIC unit

Read the lawsuit here.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More then a dozen Kanawha Valley residents filed suit Tuesday afternoon to try to stop Bayer CropScience from restarting the methyl isocyanate unit at its Institute plant until new government safety reviews are completed.

The suit was filed just before the close of business at U.S. District Court in Charleston by local lawyer William V. DePaulo on behalf of 16 residents.

Among other things, the suit asks for a court order to block Bayer from resuming production of MIC until comprehensive plant inspections are conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Institute plant's stockpile of MIC -- for years the plant stored a quarter-million pounds of the chemical on site -- has been a focus of concern for many valley residents since December 1984, when a leak of the chemical killed thousands of people near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

Bayer is in the process of restarting the MIC unit after a significant modification project, but plans to operate it for only about 18 months before it stops making, using or storing the chemical at its Institute plant.

The suit accuses Bayer of "chronically reckless operation" of the plant and "admitted dishonesty in public communications" with residents of the Kanawha Valley, and says the company can't be trusted to restart the MIC unit.

"The risks associated with restarting the Bayer MIC facility far outweigh any social benefit, particularly the manufacture of no more than 18 months of one pesticide historically produced at the Bayer facility," the suit says.

Tom Dover, a spokesman for Bayer, said the company is "aware of the lawsuit and will need to review it before providing a full response.

"However, we are fully dedicated to a safe startup or our operations and remain confident that we will meet our own high expectations, as well as those of our neighbors and community," Dover said.

Plaintiffs in the suit include Maya Nye of the group People Concerned About MIC, longtime local activist the Rev. Jim Lewis, artist Paula Clendenin and author Denise Giardina. Clendenin and Giardina are both on the faculty at West Virginia State University, located adjacent to the plant. Other plaintiffs included longtime Institute residents Sue Davis, Warne Ferguson and Mildred Holt, and West Virginia State student Lisa Bragg.

The suit cited the recent findings of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which conducted a detailed investigation after two Institute plant workers died in an August 2008 explosion and fire in a unit that stores and uses MIC.

CSB investigators and a congressional committee found that the explosion and fire could have damaged an MIC tank located about 70 feet away, causing a disaster that would have rivaled Bhopal.

A year after the explosion and fire, Bayer announced it was reducing its MIC inventory by 80 percent. Last month, the company said it was doing away with MIC altogether, as part of a corporate restructuring that would end production of the pesticide aldicarb, which was made at Institute with MIC. But the company said it planned to restart the MIC unit, with the smaller inventory, and continue making aldicarb until June 2012.

The suit seeks to stop Bayer from restarting the MIC unit before a long list of conditions is met including:

-- Completion of a National Academy of Sciences study of the safety of making and storing large amounts of a chemical as dangerous as MIC near a major population center.

--  The state and county create a new chemical accident prevention program proposed by the Chemical Safety Board.

-- Local emergency planners enact all of the recommendations in the CSB report for improving their handling of toxic chemical accidents.

-- EPA and OSHA both conduct comprehensive safety inspections of the entire Bayer facility.

Along with their lawsuit, the residents filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order to block Bayer from restarting the MIC unit.

 


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