Another Major Safety Fail

June 22, 2009
There’s No Way to Tell If the Safety System Would Have Worked, or Did Work, Because Major Parts of It Were Turned Off
This article was printed in CONTROL's June 2009 edition.
By Walt Boyes, Editor in chief

In my keynote address last September to the TÜV Rheinland Safety Symposium, I mentioned the recent accident at the Bayer CropScience facility in Institute, W.V. I pointed out that despite thousands of man-hours of standards writing, training and compliance enforcement, accidents were still happening, and people were still being killed.

Little, apparently, did I know.

On April 21, 2009, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held hearings into “Secrecy in the Response to Bayer’s Fatal Chemical Plant Explosion.” Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) paints a pretty dismal picture of Bayer’s response to what was essentially similar to the incident at Bhopal, India, which destroyed Union Carbide and killed several thousand people. If Congressman Stupak is correct, we haven’t changed much.

[pullquote]According to the subcommittee’s report, Bayer simply got lucky. Less than 100 feet from the blast site was a day tank with 40,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate or MIC. MIC is the same chemical that leaked in 1984 in Bhopal. The subcommittee’s report stated, “The explosion at the Bayer plant in West Virginia caused a 2½-ton steel vessel containing methymyl to rupture and be violently propelled in a northeasterly direction, leaving a patch of destruction. Had the projectile headed south and struck the MIC tank, the subcommittee today might be examining a catastrophe rivaling the Bhopal disaster. As it happened, the explosion caused shrapnel to damage the protective ‘blast blanket’ around the MIC day tank.”

Like I said, Bayer got lucky.

It gets worse, believe it or not. The fire department in Nitro, W.V., called Bayer and said, “We have a cloud of some type that is dark. It’s moving more towards Nitro. Can you please try to get some information, so you can tell us what it is?” Bayer refused to say what the cloud was and refused to allow emergency first responders on the plant site.

If that wasn’t enough, it gets even worse. For the first time ever, during a U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board investigation of an accident in a process plant, Bayer sought to limit the CSB’s use of Bayer’s documentation and information by labeling it “Sensitive Security Information” or SSI under the Maritime Transportation Security Act. But William Buckner, CEO of Bayer CropScience, admitted in his testimony to the subcommittee that Bayer invoked SSI out of “a desire to limit negative publicity generally about the company or the Institute facility, to avoid public pressure to reduce the volume of MIC that is produced and stored at Institute by changing to alternative technologies.”

So we have a company that admits it perverted a law designed to enhance national security, so it could cover up details of an accident just just to avoid publicity.

And if that isn’t enough, read on!

Rep. Stupak asserts, “The committee’s investigation has uncovered several troubling facts that further raise concerns about an orchestrated effort by Bayer to shroud the explosion in secrecy.” Bayer removed and destroyed important evidence, and gas sensors and video cameras were apparently not operational on the night of the explosion. There’s no way to tell if the safety system would have worked, or did work, because major parts of it were turned off.

Rep. Stupak concludes, “Bayer’s pattern of secrecy raises serious questions, not just about Bayer, but also about whether the law adequately protects the public’s right to have information about potential dangers their communities face and how those dangers might be minimized.”

Just when are we going to stop doing this kind of thing? When are we going to stop killing people?