US chem safety board probes safer methyl isocyanate storage

23 April 2009 15:42  [Source: ICIS news]

John Bresland, US CSB chairmanHOUSTON (ICIS news)--The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said on Thursday that the investigation into last August’s deadly explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant near Charleston, West Virginia could yield a recommendation for alternative methods of producing and storing methyl isocyanate.

Storage of the toxic petrochemical at the plant has been one of the focal points of the CSB probe.

Speaking in advance of a CSB-led public meeting on Thursday to discuss current investigation findings, CSB chairman John Bresland said his team of investigators would look further into the potential vulnerability of methyl isocyanate storage.

Other chemical companies no longer store large quantities of methyl isocyanate at their facilities, Bresland said.

“We are looking into technology used by some companies, notably DuPont in LaPorte, Texas, that produce and use methyl isocyanate as needed immediately for production, eliminating the need for storage,” Bresland said.

A Bayer executive, however, testified at a US House hearing on Tuesday that his company had examined alternative technologies in studies and had determined that the company’s current process “is as safe as those other technologies”.

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 plant occurred near a large tank that held about 40,000 lb of the chemical.

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

Bayer, which uses the chemical in the production of insecticides, said on Tuesday that it was concerned over a public debate on the issue and said it sought “to avoid public pressure to reduce the volume of [methyl isocyanate] that is produced and stored by changing to alternative technologies”.

To that end, the CSB’s Thursday hearing was delayed from its initial date of 19 March after Bayer claimed that discussing investigation results publically would violate security regulations.

Bresland said on Thursday that he was “deeply disappointed” by Bayer’s efforts to hide investigation results by claiming the information was security sensitive, and said the CSB would conduct a thorough investigation and recommend whatever changes would best protect the workforce and the public.

Bresland’s comments echoed his assessment to the House committee on Tuesday. In addition to attempting to keep the information confidential, he said the CSB had found “significant lapses” in the plant’s process safety management and that he was “very troubled” by the inadequacy of Bayer’s emergency response.

“For example, the county’s 911 call center was told, 15 minutes into the response, that no dangerous chemicals had been released,” Bresland said. “That statement is clearly inaccurate, since methomyl is toxic, and its uncontrolled decomposition may release highly toxic byproducts.”

Moreover, Bresland said it took more than 30 minutes for Bayer to recommend issuing a shelter-in-place advisory for the surrounding communities, and only after local authorities had already done so on their own.

It also took more than two hours before Bayer reported the accident to the National Response Center, and that report “erroneously omitted” the fatality and the critical injury, Bresland said.

After hearing testimony from Bresland and CSB investigators as well as Bayer executives and plant personnel, the US House accused Bayer of using a "campaign of secrecy” and providing “inaccurate and misleading information” regarding the incident.

Bayer was also accused by CSB investigators of destroying potential evidence, including the disabling of plant surveillance cameras.


For more on Bayer visit ICIS company intelligence
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By: Ben DuBose
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