December 02, 2004, Charleston Gazette (USA)

Chemical concerns

Bayer plant still home to MIC stockpile / MIC killed thousands in Bhopal

Pam Nixon still remembers the first time she heard of a place called Bhopal. She was in the kitchen of her home on King Street in Institute. The story came on the television, about a disaster on the other side of the world. "They talked about this place called Bhopal, India, and showed the videos," Nixon recalled. "And then, they said that MIC was also being made at this sister plant in Institute, West Virginia."

That was 20 years ago, early December 1984. A leak of methyl isocyanate gas, or MIC, from Union Carbide's Bhopal plant had killed thousands of people. Today, the former Carbide plant in Institute - now owned by Bayer - still stores roughly four times the MIC that leaked at Bhopal. It is one of only three U.S. facilities that store the chemical. It accounts for more than 90 percent of the stockpiles and 95 percent of the emissions nationwide, according to disclosures filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Most of the chemical is tucked away in an underground tank. Institute plant officials have always insisted that the storage system is safe. Another Bhopal could never happen here, they say.

Such promises do not always comfort local residents, who live in a narrow river valley with little hope of escape from a huge poison cloud. A worst-case leak scenario, published in June 1994, found that a disastrous leak of all 253,600 pounds of MIC - the most the tank could store at the time - could kill people nearly 10 miles away from the plant.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about the amount of chemicals being stored in this valley," said Wendy Radcliff, a Charleston lawyer who has followed chemical industry issues.

Not long after Bhopal, Nixon and other Institute residents formed the group People Concerned About MIC. For more than a decade, they agitated various plant owners to reduce the MIC stockpile, or take other steps to make the facility safer. But for the last five years or so, things have been quiet. No big leaks. No massive orders for residents to take shelter in their homes. No angry meetings, with residents shouting down plant managers. "It usually takes a big event to galvanize people, to bring them together and try to remedy a situation," said Nixon, who is now an environmental advocate for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "When you don't have an incident, it just sort of fades out of the conversation."

'Poison gas'

MIC is an isocyanate, part of a family of chemicals that reacts very vigorously with other substances. This reactivity makes MIC useful in producing other chemicals, but also tricky to deal with. If inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin, MIC can kill or cause permanent injury. MIC can be dangerous in concentrations lower than those humans can smell coming.

Bayer makes MIC by combining chlorine with carbon monoxide to make phosgene, a poison gas used during World War I. Phosgene is then added to a substance called monomethylamines to make MIC. At the Institute plant, the MIC unit is a maze of pipes and valves. Gravel crunches under your shoes when you walk on top of the buried MIC tank.

For years, one thing made it stand out from the miles of piping and dozens of tanks across the sprawling facility: A large sign, painted with a skull-and-crossbones logo and the words, "Poison Gas" and "MIC."

Earlier this week, Bayer officials refused to answer any detailed questions about plant safety, the MIC unit, or the legacy of Bhopal. Chris Evans, a Bayer vice president and Institute plant manager, would not say how much MIC the company currently stores. Evans declined to comment beyond a three-paragraph statement he read to a reporter over the telephone. "The safety record for the Bayer CropScience Institute site is very good," Evans said. "Technical experts, highly trained chemists, engineers, technicians and operators help ensure that this facility and all Bayer CropScience facilities meet high standards of safety.

"Moreover, the safety, risk management and production systems in place today at the Institute site are some of the most advanced in the industry, and they are applied to all of our manufacturing operations."

Could it happen here?

When the Bhopal leak began, either shortly before or shortly after midnight on Dec. 2, 1984, it was about 2 p.m. back in West Virginia. The incident hit the news in the following afternoon's paper. The story, an Associated Press dispatch from New Delhi, did not mention the Institute plant.

But the next morning, on Dec. 4, the headline blared across the top of The Charleston Gazette. "Carbide quits making gas at Institute plant," it said. Company officials conceded that the Bhopal plant had the same safeguards as the one in Institute. They promised not to resume production here until they figured out what caused the leak in Bhopal.

"The news out of India just kept getting worse and worse," said Bill Case, a spokesman for West Virginia University Hospitals who covered the events as a Gazette reporter. "You think about it - Sept. 11 killed 3,000 people. This killed two or three or who knows how many times more."

At the time, area residents and news media asked for and got little information about what happened behind plant fences. "There was this culture that these guys are smart, they're engineers and they know what they're doing," Case said.

Within a day, the valley made international news. Scores of reporters swarmed around the Institute plant. Regulators promised tough inspections. Lawmakers called public hearings, and demanded safety reforms. But four months later, EPA declared that the plant was safe and MIC production could resume.

On a Sunday morning four months after that, while area residents were preparing for church, a choking, burning cloud of gas drifted out of the plant. In about 15 minutes, 500 gallons of a toxic mixture of aldicarb oxime and four other chemicals escaped into the community. At least 135 people were treated at local hospitals and another 175 by paramedics. Many victims complained of nausea, vomiting, sore throats and shortness of breath. Initially, Carbide was fined $32,000. The fines were dropped to $4,400 when the company agreed to buy an accident simulator for worker training exercises.

The day of the Institute leak, Aug. 11, 1985, was Pam Nixon's son's 16th birthday, and she was among those injured by the toxic gas. Nearly a decade after the leak, Nixon was diagnosed with a rare immune disorder that she blamed on the exposure. "They told us it couldn't happen here," Nixon said in an interview last week. "Oh no - it does happen in the United States."

Pushed by Bhopal and the Institute leak, Congress in November 1986 passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know-Act. The law required companies to disclose details of the types and amounts of chemicals stored at their facilities. It required better planning by industry and local officials to respond to chemical leaks when they do occur. And, it created the Toxics Release Inventory, the successful program to force reductions in chemical emissions by publicizing emissions data from local plants.

"This was a series of events that was a real wakeup call," said Case, the former Gazette reporter. "People no longer thought that the people running these plants were infallible."

An 'ominous threat'

The Institute plant sits between the Kanawha River and W.Va. 25, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Charleston. Opened in 1943, the facility now covers about 460 acres. Next door, about 2,500 students attend classes every day at West Virginia State University. Hazo Carter has been president of the school since 1987.

In the early- to mid-1990s, Carter wrote a series of strong letters to plant officials. He joined in demanding independent safety and environmental audits - demands that plant officials have consistently ignored. One letter, written in September 1995, asked state environmental regulators to consider rejecting any new permits for the plant until a third-party audit was conducted.

"History has shown that the most professional and dedicated management teams cannot guarantee the complete safety of those living in neighboring communities where the ominous threat of large-scale accidents exist," Carter wrote. "We need to remove the very possibility that an accident could destroy or gravely harm the people who live, work and study here."

Mid-1990s dark days for Institute plant

On Aug. 18, 1994, an explosion ripped through the methomyl-Larvin unit of the facility, then owned by Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co. One worker was killed and several others seriously injured. Just last week, one of the seriously injured workers - Ernest Woodall Jr. of Poca - died from the effects of cyanide that burned his lungs in the blast. Initially, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Rhone-Poulenc $1.7 million for willful safety violations. OSHA settled the case for $700,000 in fines.

In 1996, Rhone-Poulenc paid $450,000 in fines for a February leak and fire that forced thousands of residents to take shelter in their homes.
Today, Carter has kind words for current plant officials. There seem to be fewer major leaks, he said. Plant officials are open and accountable to the public, he added. "My perception is that the plants have been taking the safety of the people who work in the plants and who live and work in this community very seriously," Carter said.

'The sleeping giant'
The faint smell of mothballs hangs over the MIC unit at the Institute plant. That smell comes from naphthalene, which, along with MIC, the Institute plant uses to make carbaryl, a primary ingredient in the insecticide Sevin.

In the past, MIC was also used to make Larvin, a brand of the pesticide thiodicarb, and Furadan, a brand of the pesticide carbofuran. It was also used to make aldisol, a key ingredient in the pesticide Temik.

This week, Bayer declined to provide any updated information on its uses for MIC.

In the decade after Bhopal, plant officials reduced their average MIC inventory by about 90 percent. Last year, Bayer reported to EPA that it stores between 100,000 and 999,999 pounds of MIC every day at the Institute plant. Federal right-to-know laws allow such information to be reported in broad categories, so a more concrete number is not publicly available.

Plant operators have always said that the number and variety of uses for MIC at Institute hampers their ability to further reduce stockpiles of the chemical. But at its own plants in Germany and Belgium, Bayer never stored large quantities of MIC. Instead, Bayer made and used MIC as it was needed.

When it argued in a 1994 report that Rhone-Poulenc should reduce the MIC stockpile in Institute, the group Good Neighbor Project for Sustainable Industries cited Bayer as an example. "Rhone-Poulenc's Institute plant lags behind other firms in MIC reduction," the group's report said. "No other plants in the U.S. continue to stockpile MIC."

Nixon said that reducing the MIC stored on site is the only real solution to eliminating risks of a Bhopal happening here. "We should not forget that the risks are still there," Nixon said. "Even if we don't hear about it, it's still the sleeping giant in our community."
staff writer Ken Ward Jr.,

New York Times, June 4, 1994

Bracing for the Worst in Chemicals

This metropolitan area of 252,000 people, nestled in the Kanawha River Valley and bracketed by the Appalachian Mountains, has few natural evacuation routes. And today, in an extraordinary doomsday discussion, the chemical industry described for the people of Charleston and the surrounding area just how potentially dangerous a place they live in.
A dozen of the world's biggest chemical companies have factories here or nearby, producing some of the most caustic and volatile man-made substances on earth -- including methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the same gas that killed more than 3,000 people in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Although the MIC plant, operated by Rhone-Poulenc, has never had a leak anywhere near the scale of Bhopal, its operators acknowledged that a major leak of the same chemical could put this city at risk of similar or worse casualties.
Operators of 11 other chemical plants made similarly dire disclosures here today, as part of a projection of a worst-case scenario that will probably be required of thousands of other American companies in the next few years if the Environmental Protection Agency has its way.

Enlightening, -- and Chilling
Local citizens called this unusual town meeting today an enlightening, if chilling, exercise that should help them assess the risks posed by the region's largest employers and help them draw up disaster plans.
"We hope over time that this will result in reductions in the amount of hazardous materials kept on site," said Pam L. Nixon, chairwoman of People Concerned About MIC, a local group. She said she was among 145 people hospitalized in 1985 by a leak of a different chemical from a plant in nearby Institute, W. Va.
A rule is pending at the E.P.A. that would require any company in the nation that makes or uses any of a long list of hazardous chemicals to disclose how much of the material it has on hand and to indicate the health risks if an accident allowed the material to escape into the environment through a leak, spill, fire or explosion.
"The goal is prevention," said Craig Mattiessen, director of the chemical accident prevention staff at the agency in Washington, who also spoke at the meeting at the Charleston Civic Center, which was attended by some 500 residents. "Any facility that handles hazardous materials has a fundamental responsibility to know how to handle them safely."
Just as the disclosure of toxic emissions in the Toxics Release Inventory, which the E.P.A. has conducted each year since 1989, has prompted many companies to reduce these emissions, environmentalists and community activists here hope the worst-case disclosures will increase pressure to reduce inventories of toxic chemicals stored in plants.
Officials of the chemical industry here in the Kanawha (pronounced keh-NAW) Valley said they were making their worst-case disclosures even before the E.P.A. rule became final because of concerns raised by local citizens.
"Those who share risk, should share knowledge of that risk," said Paul L. Hill Jr., president of the National Institute for Chemical Studies, a nonprofit research group based here that helped coordinate the companies' disclosures.
Besides Rhone-Poulenc, the participating companies included Du Pont, Union Carbide, Olin, ARCO Chemical and FMC.

The Worst Case
By making their public presentation ahead of the final E.P.A. rules, the industry was able to set its own guidelines for today's event. For instance, the companies decided that the standard for the "worst case" would be the complete failure of the biggest vessel holding toxic chemicals that are used in large volume. It is not certain that Federal agency would accept this; it could require the study to include associated pipelines and equipment as well.
At the Rhone-Poulenc plant, the worst-case assumption was that all 253,600 pounds of MIC in underground storage would escape. Using studies of prevailing winds, the company projected that the toxic plume would generally drift eastward, enveloping Charleston in a concentration that could be fatal if the exposure lasted for an hour.
But Van G. Long, the manager of the plant, hastened to point out that the plant did not have a single leak of more than one pound of MIC in the last five years. The other companies also took pains to play down the potential dangers, saying that the worst case was also the least likely.
Nevertheless, there appears to be a sense of unease in the valley. The chemical plants are being hooked up to a series of sirens that sound when a toxic leak has occurred. And residents are being encouraged to seal their houses and to prepare kits with radios and supplies similar to the civil defense kits of the cold war era.

'A Long History of Spills'
Because of the compact geography of the valley, much of the housing is in close proximity to the plants, which can cause problems if corrosive or flammable chemicals leak out.
"The homes there butt right up to the fences; the people are really close," said David S. Bailey, a lawyer and scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. The chemical plants there "have a long history of spills," he said, "and they put people in the hospital."
He added that the geography of the region tends to trap air in the valley, which means that gases emitted by the plants are not quickly dispersed by air currents.
"What you have here is aging facilities with people close by," said David Grubb, a state senator from Charleston and director of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group, an advocacy organization. "There was a leak of ammonia at Du Pont recently and a series of leaks that have rocked the credibility of the companies."
The importance of having the companies outline the worst-case scenarios, he said, is so legislators can determine if laws need to be tightened to protect the public.

Guidance for Companies
The chemical industry's attitude is that today's voluntary exercise will give guidance to other companies expecting to face the E.P.A. rules, although not even officials of the agency are certain when the final rules will be issued.
"In three or four years everyone is going to have to do this anyway,' said John Holtzman, a spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers Association in Washington, whose members include most American chemical manufacturers. "There is a certain amount of tension," he said. "We hope the companies can take the issue and present solutions in such a way that people can make informed judgments."
But focusing on the worst possible, yet least likely, type of accident may provide less protection to the public than concentrating on those more likely to happen, said David Webb, an industrial safety specialist at Arthur D. Little, the consulting firm.
As currently drafted, "the E.P.A. rules assume that everything is released at once," Mr. Webb said. "That may grossly overstate the impact," he said, "and cause emergency services people to assume they will be overwhelmed." And so, he said, local emergency officials may assume no plan is workable.
Still, Mr. Webb said, there was value in forcing plant operators to list the amounts of chemicals they have on site and to induce them to develop methods of dealing with leaks and spills.