(Beyond Pesticides, September 5, 2008) On the night of August 28, a pesticide waste tank exploded at Bayer’s Institute, West Virginia plant. One worker was killed, another injured, and the blast was heard in Mink Shoals, more than ten miles away. Despite individual accounts of the resulting air pollution, Bayer officials assured the public that no chemicals had escaped the plant. An investigation of Bayer’s safety history and the area’s emergency response reveals a shaky safety record..
The tank involved in the explosion contained waste products from the production of Bayer’s insecticide, thiodicarb, which is banned in the European Union. Included in those were methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK), hexane, methomyl, and dimethyl disulfide, all of which are acutely toxic to humans. According to chief of homeland security and emergency response for the state Department of Environmental Protection, Mike Dorsey, “The thing that blew up was the least dangerous of the stuff that’s there.”
Jeannie Young, who lives near the plant, said that following the blast, “My daughter and I have headaches.” When taking her dogs outside half an hour following the explosion, “They acted really funny. They wanted to come right back in the house.” In spite of a noticeable odor and reactions like Ms. Young’s, Mr. Dorsey said, “People should not be concerned about coming outside.”
In response to the explosion, officials closed Interstate 64, U.S. 60, and state Route 25 and ordered a shelter in place, but a conflicting rumor of an evacuation also circulated. Complicating the issuance of emergency instructions was an initial lack of information from the plant. Kanawha County Commission president Kent Carper said, “We are getting such poor information from the plant, it’s worthless,” and County Commissioner Henry Shores said the county relies on advice on chemicals to come from the companies themselves. “We follow their lead really,” he said.
The Institute plant, formerly owned by Union Carbide, also produces methyl isocyanate (MIC), the chemical involved in the sister plant’s deadly leak in Bhopal, India that killed at least 3500 people in December 1984 and is linked to the death and maiming of tens of thousands of people since then. MIC is an intermediate chemical in the production of the insecticide carbaryl (Sevin). The Institute plant currently stores more than four times the amount of MIC than that which leaked in Bhopal. In 1994, then-owner of the plant, Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co., estimated that a worst-case leak of the MIC stockpile could kill people in a 10-mile radius of the plant. Today, almost 26,000 people live within just three miles of the plant.
In the wake of this explosion, teams of inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the federal Chemical Safety Board have arrived to reevaluate Bayer’s safety measures. In OSHA’s latest examination, “We found serious issues related to process safety,” said assistant area director Prentice Clay. “There were some significant deficiencies.” Since 2005, OSHA has issued eight serious and two willful citations to Bayer following a plant inspection.
Philipp Mimkes, spokesman for the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers (CBG), said, “Bayer managers have often enough downplayed the risks of the Institute plant. Bayer has to make clear which amounts of which substances escaped into the air. We repeat our demand that MIC and phosgene stockpiles at Institute have to be dismantled. The explosion once more shows that the neighborhood of the plant is constantly endangered.” CBG has posted a partial list of accidents at the Institute plant, including a small MIC leak in 1997.