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Bayer says MIC unit training, procedures not complete

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bayer CropScience said Monday it continues to work on standard operating procedures and employee training for the reconfigured methyl isocyanate production unit it hoped to restart later this week before a federal judge blocked the move.

In a prepared statement, Bayer said it was in the final stages of a project aimed at least in part at reducing its Institute plant's inventory of the deadly pesticide ingredient by about 80 percent.

"As is normal when approaching the completion of a major construction project, there are many aspects which, though nearing completion, remain in progress," the statement said. "These include such activities as completing the standard operating procedures, training, and installing permanent lighting after all of the piping and equipment is properly installed."

Last month, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board blamed an August 2008 explosion that killed two workers in a different unit at the Institute plant in part on the company's failure to complete standard operating procedures and worker training before restarting that unit.

CSB investigations manager John Vorderbrueggen said that incident showed that "the absence of enforced, workable standard operating procedures and adequate safety systems meant that mistakes could prove fatal."

On Sunday, U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin said in an order that he found it "remarkable" that Bayer "has yet to complete a wide variety of safety measures," while still planning to restart the MIC unit this week.

Goodwin was responding to a motion Bayer lawyers filed late Saturday night asking the judge to clarify whether continuing such activities would violate his temporary restraining order prohibiting production of MIC.

In Saturday night's court filing, Bayer lawyer Al Emch said the company had, among other things, yet to finish labeling MIC unit equipment, testing the unit's fire suppression system and installing safety showers for workers in the area.

The judge declined to grant approval of specific activities, but said that as long as the company "does not engage in activities that 'in any way involve starting any part of parts of the MIC process for production,'" it would not be violating the temporary restraining order.

"We appreciate the clarification, which permits us to move forward with the commissioning activities associated with the MIC safety enhancement project," said Steve Hedrick, the Bayer plant manager. "We assured the court that these activities would not involve production of MIC."

Last Thursday, Goodwin had granted a request from 16 Kanawha Valley residents that he temporarily block Bayer from resuming production of MIC until they could get a full hearing on a lawsuit to stop the company from reopening its MIC unit.

The case over restarting the MIC unit, which has been down for a reconfiguration project since August 2010, is the latest chapter in a 25-year effort by some Kanawha Valley residents to rid the community of the Institute plant's huge stockpile of MIC. Community activists have focused their concerns on MIC since December 1984, when a leak of the chemical killed thousands of people near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

Bayer was preparing to start making MIC again within a week, following a project to remake the unit and reduce its stockpile of the chemical by 80 percent.

That project was nearly completed when Bayer announced last month that it was going to stop making, using and storing any MIC at the plant by mid-2012 as part of a corporate restructuring and an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cease sales of the pesticide Temik. At Institute, Bayer uses MIC to make aldicarb, the active ingredient in Temik. Aldicarb from Institute is shipped to another Bayer plant in Georgia, where it is used to formulate Temik. Bayer wants to restart the MIC unit so it can continue making aldicarb and Temik for another 18 months until the EPA deal takes effect.

Bayer originally said the MIC project would cost $25 million, but is now citing a figure of $36 million. Besides the inventory reduction, the project eliminated all aboveground storage or piping for MIC. Bayer says the project also included new equipment for the online analysis of MIC, new leak detection and monitoring systems, and upgraded tanks and piping.

"We will not operate until allowed by the court," Hedrick said. "When that time comes, we are fully dedicated to a safe startup of these operations and remain confident that we will meet our own high expectations, as well as those of our neighbors and community."

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


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