UpdateCSB seeks Coast Guard advice in Bayer confidentiality claim

25 February 2009 23:28  [Source: ICIS news]

(Adds responses from CSB chairman and Greenpeace, updates throughout)

HOUSTON (ICIS news)--The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said on Wednesday that it will ask the US Coast Guard to interpret an argument from Bayer CropScience, which says that discussing the investigation results of a plant explosion could violate a maritime law.

The law is intended to keep security-sensitive plant information confidential.

As it is, the agency called off a 19 March public meeting that would analyse the results of an August explosion at Bayer CropScience's West Carbamoylation Center plant near Charleston, West Virginia, said Josh Bresland, chairman for the chemical board. By calling off the meeting, the board will have more time to take a closer look into Bayer’s confidentiality claims, he said.

“We’re committed to public outreach, and this is the first time this type of concern has been expressed to us in any of our investigations,” Bresland said. “We feel we have a right to disclose certain information about the facility that is relevant.

“But we’ve been told that a certain federal rule applies to this situation, and we want to be absolutely sure about what kind of information we can disclose,” he said.

Board members had scheduled the March meeting to reveal the investigation's findings while addressing concerns surrounding a methyl isocyanate tank located near the site of the blast.

Bayer uses methyl isocyanate, a toxic petrochemical often used in the production of rubber and adhesives, to make methomyl. The methomyl unit at the West Virginia facility has a tank located near the explosion point that can hold up to 40,000 lb (18 tonnes) of methyl isocyanate.

But according to Bayer lawyers, the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act protects the company from public disclosure of information related to the plant’s security detail, and the lawyers said information related to the CSB investigation fell into that category. The law is overseen by the Coast Guard.

Bayer declined to comment on the link between methyl isocyanate storage and deterring terrorist attacks, but company spokesman Tom Dover did confirm that the company believes its plant is covered by the law.

However, some were disappointed both by Bayer’s claim and by the board’s decision to postpone the meeting.

“It’s outrageous and amazing,” said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace. “The regulating community should not get to intimidate the chemical safety board, which is supposed to be independent, and it’s especially disappointing to see the CSB cave to a chemical company.

“All roads point to a company [Bayer] that is embarrassed and instead of responding responsibly, it is attempting to hide its possible negligence and possible greater liabilities. The CSB has an obligation to inform the public on it,” he said.

But Bresland said the board was not caving, pointing to the meeting the CSB has set up with the Coast Guard, where it will ask whether the law is applicable to the Bayer situation. Afterward, the CSB will take the Coast Guard's interpretation “under advisement” and decide whether to reschedule the public meeting, Bresland said.

“We’ve already scheduled the meeting with the Coast Guard, and we’re moving along as quickly as possible,” he said. “We want to alleviate the public’s concern that we’re not going to do this. We’re committed to letting the public know as much as possible.”

Bresland said that Bayer officials were also concerned over possible negative media coverage, as well as the possibility that the meeting could transform into a debate over the plant’s methyl isocyanate storage.

"When we hold a public meeting, it's not to say everything's hunky-dory at that facility," he said. "Something bad has happened. Companies don't expect to come out of these meetings with a lot of good publicity."

EPA records show the company stores 100,000-999,999 lb of methyl isocyanate at the plant.

For more on Bayer visit ICIS company intelligence
To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Ben DuBose
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