Bayer probe shows need for local chemical watchdogs - US safety board

20 January 2011 17:02  [Source: ICIS news]

Bayer Institute unit after explosionHOUSTON (ICIS)--State and local government agencies should take a more active role in monitoring chemical plant operations, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said on Thursday.

In its final report on an investigation into the August 2008 explosion at Bayer CropScience’s Institute plant in West Virginia, the CSB noted that local programmes would “go a long way to making chemical operations safer”.

“OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] and EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] have limited resources and cannot be everywhere at once,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the CSB.

“However, local jurisdictions can put together highly effective and targeted inspection and enforcement programmes, funded by levies on the plants themselves,” he added.

Moure-Eraso cited a “highly successful” county programme in Contra Costa County, California that has the authority to inspect and regulate such plants, as well as make public its ongoing findings.

“The accident rate in Contra Costa County has dropped dramatically, and last year in fact they had no significant accidents, thanks in my view to this programme,” he said.

The CSB recommended a "Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program" be established by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

In the 2008 Bayer case, two workers died following an explosion in the plant’s methomyl unit near a large tank that held about 40,000 lbs (18.1 tonnes) of methyl isocyanate (MIC).

Had fragments from the explosion struck the methyl isocyanate tank, the damage might have rivalled the 1984 chemical spill that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, according to Congressmen who held hearings on the case.

In the final report, the CSB “found the start-up [of the methomyl unit] was begun prematurely, a result of pressures to resume production of the pesticides methomyl and Larvin, and took place before valve lineups, equipment checkouts, a pre-start up safety review, and computer calibration were complete,” it said.

“The deaths of the workers as a result of this accident were all the more tragic because it could have been prevented had Bayer CropScience provided adequate training, and required a comprehensive pre-start up equipment checkout and strict conformance with appropriate start-up procedures,” said Moure-Eraso.

“Human factors played a big part in this accident, and the absence of enforced, workable standard operating procedures and adequate safety systems meant that mistakes could prove fatal,” added CSB investigations manager John Vorderbrueggen.

Bayer also temporarily withheld critical information from emergency response agencies about what chemicals were involved, the CSB said.

Bayer responded that it had already implemented “significant measures to ensure the continued safe operation” of its facilities.

“These measures include improvements in process safety operations, communications, training, monitoring, supervision and equipment,” said Steve Hedrick, head of Bayer's Institute complex.

Bayer said it had cooperated fully with the CSB and added that Hedrick would participate in a public meeting held by the CSB on Thursday evening to listen to the board’s final report and recommendations.

Bayer announced in early January that it would cease producing the controversial methyl isocyanate in Institute by mid-2012.

“Bayer’s decision to end pesticide production using MIC was, I understand, done for its own business reasons,” said Moure-Eraso. “But for whatever reasons, the eventual elimination of this chemical will enhance safety in the Kanawha Valley, for workers and residents alike, and is a positive development in my view.”

The CSB’s Thursday meeting would include testimony from seven panelists, including industry experts, community activists and county government representatives, it said.

The Washington, DC-based Chemical Safety Board is charged with investigating accidents at US chemical plants.

It does not issue citations or fines, instead making recommendations based on its investigations.

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