(Beyond Pesticides, February 11, 2011) In response to a lawsuit that residents in the town of Institute, WV filed against the chemical manufacturer Bayer CropScience, Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin ordered the company to stop production of the highly toxic chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) -responsible for killing tens of thousands and chronically injuring over 100,000 people when a Bhopal, India plant leaked the chemical in 1984. Specifically, the judge issued a 14-day restraining order, explaining that the residents who are suing the company are likely to win the case and would be “likely to suffer irreparable harm” without relief from the court. Judge Goodwin also cited Bayer’s history of safety violations and misrepresentations to the public about prior incidents at the plant. The announcement was made February 10, 2010; the judges order can be read here.
Area residents filed suit on Tuesday, February 8, seeking to prevent the company from producing any MIC until the manufacturing plant is inspected for safety and environmental compliance by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
MIC is an intermediate chemical used in the production of aldicarb and other carbamate pesticides. These pesticides have been linked to such serious health risks as disruption of enzymes in the nervous system to gastrointestinal disturbances, unconsciousness, blurred vision, excessive salivation, seizures, and disorientation. The substance on its own is also highly volatile and dangerous.
The residents’ lawsuit, quoted in the Charleston Gazette, specifically states that “The risks associated with restarting the Bayer MIC facility far outweigh any social benefit.” Specifically, the suit has a list of conditions that it requires before the plant begins using MIC again. These include, according to the Gazette:
”¢ “Completion of a National Academy of Sciences study of the safety of making and storing large amounts of a chemical as dangerous as MIC near a major population center.
”¢ The state and county create a new chemical accident prevention program proposed by the Chemical Safety Board.
”¢ Local emergency planners enact all of the recommendations in the CSB report for improving their handling of toxic chemical accidents.
”¢ EPA and OSHA both conduct comprehensive safety inspections of the entire Bayer facility.”
Local residents have long been concerned about the manufacture and storage of such a dangerous chemical so close to home. This concern is partially due to the explosion at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984 which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people as a result of exposure to MIC. Bayer has used its plant in Institute as a place to stockpile large reserves of MIC, at times keeping as much as 250,000 pounds of the chemical at the plant.
On August 28, 2008, a pesticide waste tank exploded at the Institute plant killing two workers. 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; however an investigation of Bayer’s safety history and the area’s emergency response revealed a shaky safety record.
One year later, the company announced plans to reduce the storage of MIC in Institute by 80%. Even with the reduction however, 50,000 pounds of the chemical would still be allowed on site, which is similar to the amount of chemical present in the Bhopal, India explosion.
Congressional investigators reported that debris from that explosion could have easily hit and damaged another MIC storage tank, causing a disaster that “could have eclipsed” Bhopal. The explosion was “potentially a serious near miss, the results of which might have been catastrophic for workers, responders and the public,” explains the federal Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland.
Bayer had stopped producing MIC after modifying its production process, but is about to resume production in order to use up remaining stores. The company says that it plans to operate the production for no more than 18 months.
EPA announced an agreement with Bayer in August 2010 in which it said it would voluntarily cancel aldicarb. This followed the completion of an EPA revised risk assessment indicating that the pesticide did not meet the agency’s food safety standards. In October EPA announced, “To address the most significant risks, Bayer has agreed to first end aldicarb use on citrus and potatoes, and will adopt risk mitigation measures for other uses to protect groundwater resources. The company will voluntarily phase out production of aldicarb by December 31, 2014. All remaining aldicarb uses will end no later than August 2018.”
A previous announcement by Bayer suggested that company’s timetable for ending aldicarb product sales would be shortened from the initial EPA deadline of 2016. Without the production of MIC and with the closure of part of the Institute site by mid 2012, Bayer plans to stop selling products containing aldicarb by the end of 2014.
This story was updated to reflect new information.
Sources: Charleston Gazette