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The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has commenced a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study on the feasibility of reducing or eliminating the inventory of highly toxic methyl isocyanate stored at the Bayer CropScience pesticide manufacturing complex located in Institute, W.Va., near Charleston.
The 12-month, $575,000 study was mandated by Congress late in 2009 as part of the fiscal year 2010 CSB operating budget and resulted from the tragic August 2008 explosion at the Bayer facility that killed two plant employees and endangered a nearby aboveground storage tank containing approximately 13,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate or MIC. The CSB and a Congressional committee investigated the accident and its aftermath.
In December 1984, a sudden release of MIC vapor from a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of residents and injured thousands more, leaving many with permanent disabilities. The Bhopal plant was shut down, but Union Carbide’s larger sister plant in Institute, W.Va., has remained in operation and was acquired by Bayer in 2002.
After sustained public attention to the dangers of MIC after the 2008 accident, in August 2009 Bayer announced measures to reduce the hazards of MIC, including an inventory reduction of approximately 80 percent. In August 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced an agreement with Bayer to phase out production of one of two remaining MIC-derived pesticides made at the plant (aldicarb) due to toxicity concerns. That action followed a December 2009 EPA ban on carbofuran, another MIC derivative made in Institute.
“As long as MIC continues to be stored and used at the Bayer plant in any significant amount, the surrounding community and the workforce have a legitimate right to know whether everything possible has been done to reduce or eliminate the potential hazard,” said CSB chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso. “We hope the National Academy study will serve as an important model for both Bayer and the rest of the chemical industry for how to assess and reduce toxic chemical hazards.”
The CSB published a draft task statement in April 2010 and then revised the proposal based on numerous stakeholder comments.
“The final agreement between the board and the National Academy reflects the views and opinions of community, labor, environmental, and business leaders,” Dr. Moure-Eraso said. “It ensures a diverse study panel that will include independent community organizations, environmental justice interests, and workforce representatives as well as the best experts from industry and academia. The study will carefully and independently examine the many benefits of safe technology choices – including potentially reduced spending on compliance, liability, and emergency preparedness – as well as the implementation costs involved. We hope the study benefits industry in its efforts to ensure the highest levels of process safety and provides Institute community members with effective tools to promote their well-being.”
Bayer CropScience stated to the board in a May 2010 letter that it would “strive to cooperate fully with the [NAS] panel as the study progresses.”
The CSB’s investigation of the root causes of the August 2008 explosion at the Bayer plant is nearly complete; the final report and recommendations are expected to be considered by the board at a public meeting in West Virginia in the fall.
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The agency's board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical accidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.
The board does not issue citations or fines but does make safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups, and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and EPA. Visit the CSB Web site at www.csb.gov.