Issue Date: September 7, 2009
Bayer CropScience has pledged to cut 80% of its inventory of methyl isocyanate (MIC) used and stored at its Charleston, W.Va., plant over the next year, Bayer officials announced late last month (C&EN, Aug. 31, page 21).
The announcement comes on the one-year anniversary of a plant accident that killed two workers. It occurred on a production line that used MIC as an intermediate to make Bayer’s methomyl-based pesticide Larvin. MIC is a highly toxic and reactive compound that drew the world’s attention in 1984, when a release at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, resulted in the deaths and injuries of thousands.
The Bayer plant fence line abuts a college and a freeway, as well as the homes of residents who are separated from the plant by the Kanawha River. The 2008 accident led to a shelter-in-place call that affected several thousand residents, shut down the nearby freeway, and refired community concerns about plant safety and MIC use. The accident, which did not involve release of MIC, and Bayer’s reluctance to provide accident information to the public triggered investigations by the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board and a congressional committee. Spurred by Congress, CSB is examining alternatives to MIC use and storage, as well as probing the root cause of the accident, the board’s primary charge.
Historically and throughout the investigations, the company has stressed that its use of MIC is safe and carefully controlled, and it has opposed efforts to lower MIC inventories. However, the Charleston plant is the only U.S. chemical facility to use MIC in quantities that require reporting to the Environmental Protection Agency. It is also the only Bayer plant in the world to store MIC (C&EN, May 11, page 25).
“While MIC was not involved in the explosion last year, we have taken seriously the concerns of public officials and the site’s neighbors, and we are making very substantial changes in how we operate our facility in the future,” said Bayer CropScience President and Chief Executive Officer William Buckner in a statement.
To achieve the 80% reduction, Buckner said, Bayer will not reconstruct the methomyl production line that exploded and will end production of a similar MIC-derived carbamate pesticide near the accident location at the plant site.
MIC will be used for two other production lines, however, explains Bryan Iams, head of strategic and external communications for Bayer. This will result in reduced MIC levels overall at the plant. MIC “will be used as needed to meet real-time production needs,” and it will be kept underground in “downsized, double-walled storage units,” Iams explains.
In all, MIC inventories will be reduced from about 240,000 lb to 48,000 lb at a cost of $25 million. Buckner said that no jobs will be lost in the transition, and Bayer intends to “maintain a substantial business presence in the Kanawha Valley.” The company will additionally work with state and federal officials to attract new business to the site, he added.
CSB Chairman John S. Bresland calls the change “a positive development,” and “if implemented in a careful and conscientious manner,” it will lessen risk to the public and to the workforce. He also notes that CSB will continue its examination of the feasibility of switching to alternative chemicals and processes that don’t required MIC use or storage. CSB will release its report early next year.
“This has been a long time coming,” says Maya Nye, a local resident and the head of People Concerned About MIC, which was formed 25 years ago, after the Bhopal accident. The Charleston plant is a sister to the Union Carbide plant in India. “I want to give credit where credit is due, however, and this is a good step forward,” Nye says. But, she adds, quantities stored at the plant after the change will still approach levels leaked at Bhopal.
Buckner noted in his statement that Bayer “will continue to evaluate the feasibility of further measures, which may also include the use of alternative process technologies.”
The company has also greatly improved its emergency response system after the accident and criticism by the community and CSB, Buckner added. During the accident and for hours afterward, local and state emergency response officials were blocked from entering the plant and kept in the dark about the accident’s extent and whether a plume seen exiting the plant contained toxic gases. As a result, the state passed legislation requiring companies to publicly notify emergency response officials of an accident within 15 minutes of its occurrence.
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