Bayer tried to prevent public debate in US blast probe - exec

21 April 2009 21:52  [Source: ICIS news]

US House panel probes Bayer blastHOUSTON (ICIS news)--The head of Bayer CropScience's North American operations said on Tuesday that limiting negative publicity and avoiding public pressure to reduce production were among the reasons why the company tried to keep confidential the investigation results of last August’s explosion that killed two workers.

“We concede that our pursuit of [sensitive security information] coverage was motivated, in part, by a desire to prevent that public debate from occurring in the first place,” CEO William Buckner said in testimony to the US House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The committee chairman accused Bayer of conducting a “campaign of secrecy”, destroying potential evidence such as disabled plant surveillance cameras and withholding information from emergency responders after the explosion.

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) had initially scheduled a public meeting for 19 March to discuss related investigation findings, but that was postponed until Thursday, 23 April after Bayer claimed that discussing such results publically would violate security regulations.

Buckner said business reasons motivated the desire for confidentiality, including a “desire to limit negative publicity” as well as “to avoid public pressure to reduce the volume of [methyl isocyanate] that is produced and stored by changing to alternative technologies, or even calls by some in our community to eliminate methyl isocyanate production entirely".

Methyl isocyanate, a toxic petrochemical often used in the production of rubber and adhesives, was involved in the 1984 chemical spill that killed thousands in Bhopal, India.

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records show the company has stored 100,000-999,999 lb (45-453 tonnes) of methyl isocyanate at the plant. The explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant near Charleston, West Virginia. occurred near a large tank that held about 40,000 lb of the chemical.

Had fragments from the nearby explosion struck the methyl isocyanate tank, the committee “might be examining a catastrophe rivaling the Bhopal disaster,” said US Representative Bart Stupak (Democrat-Michigan).

Buckner, however, said that methyl isocyanate is the “primary and integral building block of virtually all of the company’s insecticide units” at the plant, and that “public discussions and CSB recommendations about alternative technologies and inventory amounts would be a sensitive matter for the company”.

Buckner said his company had examined alternative technologies to methyl isocyanate and had determined that the company’s current process “is as safe as those other technologies”.

In response to accusations that Bayer withheld critical information from emergency responders after the explosion, Buckner said his company’s actions were “well-intentioned” but “inadvertently created confusion and concern”.

In addition, he said that the company had taken steps since the 28 August incident to improve its emergency communications system.

“Based on the findings, we have implemented a number of measures - including safety improvements, additional operational procedures and safeguards, and an extensive training and compliance regime - to ensure that this kind of incident cannot occur again,” Buckner said.

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By: Ben DuBose
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