It will be a long time before residents of the Kanawha Valley forget the terrible explosion and fire that erupted at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute in August 2008. Two workers were killed when a residue treater vessel -- designed to decompose insecticide waste -- exploded during a post-maintenance startup.
That was tragic enough. But the accident could have been even worse had flying metal debris hit piping atop an above-ground tank of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, releasing the highly toxic chemical into the atmosphere. MIC is the same deadly substance that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, in 1984 at another similarly designed, Union Carbide plant. That was the conclusion of a careful study by my agency, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which spent more than two years investigating the 2008 accident.
A question arose in our investigation: Was there an inherently safer alternative to storing and using MIC at the Bayer plant? The question of finding inherently safer materials, processes, and technology was not only applicable to Bayer CropScience, but also to the entire chemical industry as well. The principles of inherently safer technology, or IST, have the potential to make chemical production safer for workers and the public in the Kanawha Valley and across the country.
Following the Bayer explosion and the MIC tank near-miss, Congress requested the CSB commission a study on the feasibility of implementing safer alternative chemicals and processes. The NAS recently released its findings and planned to outline them to the community in a public meeting in Institute.
Although for environmental and business reasons Bayer announced earlier it would not restart MIC production at the plant, the NAS study and numerous CSB findings and recommendations show that consideration of inherently safer technology remains relevant to the workers and residents of the Kanawha Valley.
In its report on the Bayer accident, the CSB recommended the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department create a "Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program" to assure citizens that facilities are maximizing their safety efforts, including the use of inherently safer technology. The gold standard for this kind of local oversight is Contra Costa County, Calif. Like the Kanawha Valley, Contra Costa is home to numerous chemical and petroleum operations. Alarmed years ago by a high process accident rate, Contra Costa County set up a prevention program that includes requirements to consider inherently safer technology with the intent that companies "incorporate the highest level of reliable hazard reduction to the greatest extent feasible." This model prevention program has been in operation since 1999, and has -- working closely with industry -- greatly reduced the number of major accidents, reaching zero in 2009.
OSHA does the best job it can inspecting, advising, and regulating the chemical industry. It requires compliance with a preventive Process Safety Management or PSM standard for hazardous chemical processes. However, OSHA lacks the resources and the specialized inspectors to regularly audit all complex chemical plants for PSM compliance. I believe local oversight in the Kanawha Valley, as recommended by the CSB, could accomplish this goal and do much to make workers and residents safer. The CSB continues to urge the West Virginia state government and Kanawha County to establish a local chemical plant oversight program patterned after the model of Contra Costa County.
After examining the Bayer accident and community concerns surrounding MIC (and other highly toxic materials), the NAS panel of blue-ribbon experts found that inherently safer process assessments can be valuable components of process safety management. The industry generally agrees that inherently safer operations can be achieved -- where feasible -- through four principles. These are: substituting one material with another that is less hazardous, minimizing the amount of hazardous material being used, moderating process conditions by lowering pressures and temperatures, and simplifying -- designing processes to be less complicated, and therefore less prone to failure.
The NAS report found that while Bayer and previous owners of the site incorporated some considerations of inherently safer technology, these companies "did not perform systematic and complete inherently safer process assessments on the processes for manufacturing MIC or the carbamate pesticides at the Institute site." Thus large amounts of MIC, phosgene, and other toxic materials were produced or stored at the site for decades.