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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thousands of people living within four miles of the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute could have been exposed to potentially harmful levels of methyl isocyanate if the contents of an MIC tank located near an August 2008 explosion had been released, according to a government study obtained by the Gazette.
Residents closest to the plant -- those within a mile of the sprawling facility -- could have been exposed to MIC concentrations that are classified as "immediately dangerous to life or health," according to the study from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
The study, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, examined the potential toxic plume if 13,700 pounds of MIC escaped in a leak from the plant.
In the 23-page report, CSB consultants from the firm TAI Engineers concluded that a much smaller leak of 560 pounds of MIC would have created a "toxic endpoint" that was nearly three miles from the Bayer plant.
"I don't want to be living in an area that's one mile or three miles away [from where] 13,000 pounds of MIC became airborne," said Rafael Moure-Eraso, the safety board chairman.
"It would be a terrible thing," said Moure-Eraso, a chemical engineer and environmental health expert. "It would have a big impact on the public health of the community."
CSB investigators commissioned the study as part of their more than two-year probe of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers in the methomyl-Larvin unit at the Bayer facility.
Board officials and congressional investigators warned in April 2009 that the explosion and fire had occurred dangerously close to a "day tank," where MIC used in the methomyl-Larvin unit was stored.
The "day tank" has since been eliminated, and Bayer has said it plans to phase-out all manufacture, use and storage of MIC at the Institute facility as part of a corporate restructuring. But the company is battling in federal court against residents who want to block Bayer from resuming MIC production for 18 months during the phase-out period.
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.
On Wednesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin extended his temporary restraining order on the MIC unit through March 28. The judge named a Texas A&M University chemical engineer as a court-appointed expert to examine the unit, and scheduled a hearing to consider a longer-term injunction for March 21.
Bayer officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the CSB study.
Company officials have previously said that they have added new safety features to their reconfigured MIC unit, that the plant hasn't had an MIC leak since Bayer bought it in 2001, and that the unit got a clean report from an outside consultant for resuming MIC production.
Goodwin commented in an earlier order that he found it "remarkable" that new operating procedures and employee training for the MIC unit had not been completed yet. Moure-Eraso warned the situation could be a "similar pattern" to safety lapses by Bayer that led to the fatal August 2008 incident.
The chemical board's study examined two potential scenarios: one involving the release of all 13,700 pounds of MIC in the day tank the night of incident and another in which the smaller, 560-pound amount was released.
Each scenario was studied to determine how far from the plant two different concentrations of MIC might stretch.