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Hearing on chemical plant safety report scheduled

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The National Academy of Sciences has scheduled a public meeting in the Kanawha Valley this weekend to discuss a recent study that found chemical plants can do more to reduce the potential for toxic disasters.

Several authors of the May report are expected to attend to present their findings and take questions from the audience.

The meeting will start at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in room 135 of the Wilson Student Union at West Virginia State University in Institute.

The academy's panel of experts reported that chemical plants such as the Bayer CropScience facility in Institute should take more steps to reduce the potential for toxic accidents that could harm workers and plant neighbors.

But the report also said industry officials need more guidance from regulatory agencies or the U.S. Chemical Safety Board about how to analyze what materials and manufacturing processes would best cut back on risks.

Congress mandated the study three years ago, in response to public and political pressure following an August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at Bayer's Institute plant.

CSB investigators found that incident occurred dangerously close to a tank where Bayer stored methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the chemical responsible for thousands of deaths in a 1984 leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

Originally, the study was to focus on whether Bayer could reduce or eliminate its huge stockpile of MIC, a longtime concern for plant neighbors. But Bayer announced plans to cut its inventory and then, in March 2011, to eliminate MIC from the plant entirely. That decision was prompted by a shift in corporate product lines, and hastened the elimination of more than 200 jobs.

In response to Bayer's moves, the study was somewhat reworked, with a focus on Bayer as an example of what chemical plants across the country could or should do to reduce hazards to their neighbors and workers.

A panel of engineers, safety experts and economists examined ways in which the chemical industry does -- and doesn't -- consider whether it can use "inherently safer processes," in making its products. Generally, inherently safer processes involve using fewer toxic materials or eliminating altogether the use of the most dangerous chemicals.

The panel said using inherently safer processes is more complicated than it might seem, because eliminating one dangerous ingredient might necessitate using two others, or starting and stopping units more frequently, or transporting hazardous materials longer distances.

At Bayer, for example, the panel noted that one option for eliminating the plant's MIC stockpile would have been to make the chemical as it was needed, rather than in large batches that would be drawn on over time. But doing that, the report said, would have meant starting and stopping units more frequently, which creates a different set of risks, especially for workers.

The panel noted that Bayer made some strides over the years in reducing its MIC inventory and in adding safety features to its MIC-related units. But, the panel report said, the notion of switching away from a dangerous chemical like MIC altogether is something that often goes against the traditional way companies make decisions.

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


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