INSTITUTE, W.Va. — Bayer CropScience reported last month that a West Virginia plant will reduce its storage of a toxic chemical that was in danger of being released in a deadly explosion nearly a year ago.
The company will cut storage of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, by 80 percent and build an underground storage tank to hold it within the next year, said Bill Buckner, Bayer CropScience's president and chief executive. The changes are part of a $25 million safety upgrade at its Institute plant, which is the only U.S. site that produces and stores large amounts of MIC.
An above-ground storage tank with the capacity to hold 40,000 pounds of the chemical was near the site of a blast that killed two plant employees last year. The blast didn't cause the release of any MIC, but it raised concerns about what could happen if a future mishap were to damage the storage tank.
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, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said in a preliminary report.
The deadly consequences of MIC exposure were demonstrated in a disaster that killed thousands in India 25 years ago.
A congressional investigation of the West Virginia blast said if the explosion had ruptured the MIC tank, it "could have eclipsed" the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, that killed 2,000 and harmed thousands more. The India plant was operated by Union Carbide, which once owned the Institute plant.
The Institute plant is located about 12 miles from Charleston in the heavily populated Kanawha River Valley. Nearby residents and local officials have expressed concern about the use and storage of MIC at the plant for years and opposition increased after last August's explosion.
"The big statement here is we are eliminating all above ground storage of MIC," Buckner said during his announcement that came two days before the anniversary of the Institute explosion.
MIC is used in the manufacture of insecticides at four different units at the sprawling 465-acre plant. One unit, the methomyl unit, was damaged in the explosion.
Buckner said the company will reduce its need for MIC because it will not rebuild the methomyl unit. Methomyl will be produced by a third party and shipped to the plant for final production.
Layoffs are not expected because of the move, he said.
During an April hearing, members of U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Bayer CropScience should explore if made sense to continue making and using MIC.
Bucker said until new developments in technology occur, MIC will continue to be used at the plant to produce products because it remains the most effective ingredient.