CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Chemical plants like the Bayer CropScience facility in Institute should take more steps to reduce the potential for toxic disasters, according to a new report by a National Academy of Sciences panel of experts.
But 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 to workers and communities.
"The use of these techniques could benefit not only the communities at risk from safety breaches, but also the industries themselves, as decision-making techniques can help with the identification of profitable safety solutions that otherwise would be overlooked," a panel of experts from the academy's National Research Council said in a more than 200-page report.
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 facility.
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 process," 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 safe 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.