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Panel Finds Safety Lapses Led To Bayer Explosion

Wed, 05/06/2009 - 5:06am

By Tom Breen, Associated Press Writer

Manufacturing.Net - April 23, 2009

INSTITUTE, W.Va. (AP) -- Safety lapses that led to a runaway chemical reaction caused a fatal blast at a Bayer CropScience chemical plant last August, federal investigators said Thursday.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board's preliminary report came two days after a congressional inquiry into the Aug. 28 blast that killed two people at the sprawling plant west of Charleston.

A congressional committee report for that inquiry said the explosion came close to compromising a tank holding methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the chemical that killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India, when it leaked from a former Union Carbide plant in 1984. Carbide once operated the West Virginia plant, which is now owned by Bayer CropScience.

The tank holds about 13,000 pounds of MIC, according to Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland. The board does not know exactly how much MIC is stored elsewhere at the plant. No other facility in the U.S. stores MIC in such amounts, he said.

Bayer CropScience said in a statement Thursday that it had made improvements since the explosion and that it's top priority remained the safety of workers and the nearby community.

One worker died in the blast and the second died several days later from burns. Eight others, including several volunteer firefighters, reported symptoms of chemical exposure.

The board planned to share its findings with area residents during a public meeting Thursday night. The briefing was expected to also focus on local emergency responder complaints that Bayer didn't provide timely details the night of the blast.

The explosion occurred as workers were attempting to restart a unit that had been closed for extended maintenance. The unit contained methomyl, which is used to produce the pesticide Larvin.

"There were significant lapses in the plant's process safety management, including inadequate training on new equipment and the overriding of critical safety systems necessitated by the fact the unit had a heater that could not produce the required temperature for safe operation," Bresland said.

Worker fatigue, brought on by 12- and 18-hour shifts over a three-month period, also could have contributed to the blast, Bresland said.

"Blame is not the issue," said John Vorderbrueggen, the board's lead investigator into the blast. "The Chemical Safety Board never puts blame on a single person. This is a management system failure."

Bill Buckner, President and CEO of Bayer CropScience, said in a statement that the company was committed to meeting or exceeding safety standards. He said the plant had made "several improvements" since August but did not elaborate.

"We are determined to be great neighbors in our community," Buckner said.

Bresland called the explosion a tragic event that could have had even greater consequences if the tank of MIC had been damaged.

The board noted that other chemical companies have adjusted manufacturing processes to eliminate the need to store the toxic chemical on site.

During Tuesday's hearing before a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, members said it was time to explore whether it made sense for Bayer CropScience to continue producing and using MIC.

Bresland noted that the MIC tank was surrounded by a wire-rope protective mesh designed to protect the tank. But the force of the nearby explosion twisted steel beams, broke pipes and sent a piece of equipment 50 feet into the air.

"As our investigation continues, we will look further into the issues surrounding the safe placement of the tank and its potential vulnerability," he said.

Bayer CropScience spokesman Bryan Iams said the company keeps a "minimal level" of MIC on hand and had multiple layers of protection around the tank.

"These layers of protection worked as intended during the August 28 incident," Iams said.

The board's investigation became a question of homeland security after Bayer officials invoked a 2002 terrorism-related law to limit public access to details about the 400-acre plant. The company said it was responding to Coast Guard comments. The Coast Guard oversees the law since it deals with maritime transportation. The plant has a barge loading facility.

The Coast Guard and the Board reached an agreement on what information could be released to the public. Bayer, however, maintains that some 2,000 documents are sensitive material.

"This issue of sensitive security information has basically brought our investigation to a halt in the last 10 weeks," Bresland said. "I'm deeply disappointed with Bayer's conduct on this issue."

On Wednesday, the president of the Kanawha County Commission asked the U.S. Attorney in Charleston to investigate whether the company violated safety protocols or federal regulations for how such accidents should be reported.

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