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OSHA inspecting W.Va. Bayer plant again

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal investigators have begun a new inspection of the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute and will take a closer look at the facility's newly redesigned methyl isocyanate production unit.

It's not clear, though, if results of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspection will be made public before a federal judge rules on whether Bayer should be allowed to resume MIC production.

OSHA spokeswoman Lenore Uddyback-Fortson said only that her agency's inspection must be completed within six months, or by Sept. 2. She did not offer a more specific timetable.

Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin has scheduled a hearing for March 21 to consider a request by 16 Kanawha Valley residents for a longer-term injunction blocking Bayer from restarting the MIC unit. Last month, Goodwin issued a temporary restraining order that has since been extended until March 28.

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 toxic 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.

Residents who sued Bayer cited the findings of a January report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which blamed an August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers on repeated safety violations by the company.

The explosion did not occur in the MIC unit, but the board said it was dangerously close to a smaller MIC "day tank" and could have created a major disaster. 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. Bayer wants to resume MIC production for 18 months.

In their report, CSB investigators recommended that OSHA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conduct comprehensive inspections of the Bayer facility.

Uddyback-Fortson did not say the OSHA inspection was a response to the CSB's report. She said it was a follow-up inspection as part of an OSHA initiative that focuses on facilities that release toxic chemicals.

The inspection began Wednesday, and the OSHA team involved includes two inspectors from OSHA's Health Response Team in Utah, which can help assess the source and extent of exposure to chemical hazards.

"The entire scope of the inspection will be determined as the inspection progresses, but will include the MIC unit," Uddyback-Fortson said Friday.

Last year, Bayer agreed to pay $143,000 in fines for violations cited by OSHA after the fatal August 2008 incident.

OSHA inspectors had cited Bayer for poorly planned operating procedures, flawed emergency systems and faulty employee training, saying the violations led to a runaway reaction in the plant's Methomyl unit.

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


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