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Community members express frustration with Bayer during public briefing

Chris Dorst
Donna Willis, center, comments on the release Bayer CropScience report as Sue Davis, right, looks on. Mildred Holt, back, and the other community members came to Saturday morning's public briefing to ask what next about a report on the use and storage of a deadly chemical at Bayer.
Chris Dorst National Academy of Sciences committee members (left to right) Michael Lindell, Michael Elliott, Paul Amyotte and Chairwoman Elsa Reichmanis lead a public discussion on the released Bayer CropScience report at West Virginia State University Saturday.

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- When Institute community members asked "What next?" during Saturday's public briefing about a report on the use and storage of a deadly chemical at Bayer CropScience, no one could give them definitive answers.

The report about methyl isocyanate, or MIC, at the Institute plant, which was written by experts from The National Academy of Sciences, moves to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board for review. The committee that wrote it dissolves.

"What happens next will depend on the political process," committee member Michael Elliott said.

Several people who helped write the report were present to take questions during the morning's briefing at West Virginia State University. The report, which was congressionally mandated, was released in May and said the chemical industry needs clearer standards for identifying safe practices. Rather than discussing the report's findings, however, the dozen community members present were more interested in expressing their disillusionment with Bayer.

The report follows a string of events that began in 2008, when there was an explosion at the plant in Institute that killed two employees, started a fire and damaged nearby structures. The incident and the resulting U.S. Chemical Safety Board inspection, drew renewed attention to the fact that the Institute facility housed of large amounts of MIC.

After a congressional mandate, the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council enlisted experts to study the use and storage of MIC at the Institute plant and detail other options for alternative modes of producing the chemical.

But in January 2011, Bayer announced it would stop making, using and storing MIC at its Institute plant because of corporate restructuring. And, in March 2011, the company said it wouldn't resume the production of MIC at the Institute facility.

Consequently, the academy's study shifted focus to use Bayer as an example for how chemical plants can reduce risks to their employees and communities.

The report specifically talked about "inherently safer processes," or tactics the chemical industry can employ to minimize or eliminate the use of dangerous substances. 

Elsa Reichmanis, committee chairwoman, said Bayer CropScience did take some steps to reduce risks from MIC, but the committee didn't find any documentation or hear anything indicating Bayer tried to systematically incorporate inherently safer processes.

The report also concluded that the chemical industry doesn't have a consistent view of what constitutes inherently safe practices. Consequently, the committee members recommended that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board or another group come up with guidelines to help chemical plants decide which alternative processing options they should use.

Reichmanis finished her brief overview of the report, and the meeting moved to the public comments and questions portion. As those in attendance hollered over the discussion's moderator, some committee members also became visibly frustrated, rolling their eyes and suppressing smirks.

Reichmanis said after the meeting that the committee members had expected to hear from people who had strong opinions, but they didn't anticipate so much discussion.

Donna Willis was the first person to voice anger during the briefing, citing a lack of governmental oversight, the need for legislation, and the hazards chemicals pose to people in the plant's surrounding areas.

"I've lived in this community for 57 years, and, believe me, I've smelled more than I wanted," she said.

Elliott explained that the committee wasn't asked to address the larger question of the effects of chemicals on the human body but that the investigation is meant to inform policy.

Committee member Paul Amyotte said there was a nuanced purpose of the report, which was talking about making things safer, not safe.

"Nothing can be made safe," he said.

Reichmanis likened it to driving a car. She said gasoline is a hazardous material, and driving a car is a potentially risky activity, but people do drive daily and feel relatively safe.

"We're never going to make a process totally safe," she said.

"Then why do we use a deadly chemical?" Willis countered.

Sue Davis, who was wearing a T-shirt with the words "CropScience lab rat" on it, said she has no problem with MIC. Her issue is with Bayer.

"Nothing you say can change my attitude about them or what I know to be true," the Institute resident said.

Davis said the report should have focused on the attitudes of people running the plant because the community needs a corporation that wants people to be safe.

In response to Davis' complaint and several others, committee members reiterated that there needs to be a partnership among the community, the corporation and the government and that the report was a step in a longer process.

Despite the tension in the room Saturday, a few people at the briefing acknowledged that the committee had done the job it was supposed to and expressed their gratitude.

Mildred Holt, who has lived in Institute for 50 years, said she couldn't thank the committee members enough for spotlighting safety concerns

"It's a very slow process," she said, "but thank God we've gotten this far."

Reach Alison Matas at alison.matas@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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