March 30, 2010, The Charleston Gazette
Bayer to pay fines over blast that killed two in 2008
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bayer CropScience has agreed to pay the $143,000 in fines proposed by federal workplace safety regulators for violations related to the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the company's Institute plant.
Under the deal, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration reclassified as "serious" one of two citations originally deemed by OSHA inspectors to be "repeat" violations. OSHA also agreed to drop four of the original 13 serious citations.
Lawyers for Bayer and the U.S. Department of Labor quietly reached the agreement in mid-February and are awaiting its final approval next month by the independent U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. Bayer had appealed the OSHA citations and fines to the commission, as companies are allowed by law to do.
OSHA inspectors had cited Bayer for poorly planned operating procedures, flawed emergency systems and faulty employee training, saying the violations led to a runaway reaction in the Institute plant's Methomyl unit.
Plant worker Barry Withrow was killed in the Aug. 28, 2008, explosion, and a second employee, Bill Oxley, died about six weeks later in a burn center in Pittsburgh. Thousands of residents between South Charleston and the Putnam County line were advised to take shelter in their homes.
The explosion occurred in a unit where Bayer makes Methomyl, which it then uses to produce Larvin, the company's brand name of the insecticide thiodicarb.
A separate investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board found that the explosion and fire could have damaged a nearby tank of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, and caused a disaster that would have rivaled the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India. After those findings were made public, Bayer announced it was cutting its MIC inventory -- long a sticking point with local residents and activists -- by roughly 80 percent.
Nearly half of the original $143,000 in fines was tied to two repeat violations that were not related to the cause of the August explosion.
OSHA had cited Bayer in January 2006 for its "failure to consider all aspects of facility siting" during a safety study of the plant's carbofuran and carbaryl units. Bayer was also cited at the time for ignoring its own 2002 study that recommended preventing certain chemical valves from being open at the same time in the carbaryl unit.
During its investigation of the fatal August 2008 explosion, OSHA found violations of the same safety rules, this time related to the Methomyl unit where that incident occurred.
Inspectors said the company had not resolved issues related to the unit's structure and equipment, and their possible vulnerability to "heat, pressure waves, overloading, chemical effects, vibration due to powered equipment, soft subsoil and climatic effects such as freezing, earthquakes and wind."
OSHA agreed to reclassify that citation from repeat to serious, and cut the fine from $35,000 to $7,000.
OSHA also alleged that Bayer was two years overdue to complete a study of whether safety valves on the Methomyl reactor "were capable of handling pressure rise from a Methomyl decomposition scenario that could result in rupturing the reactor." That citation included a long list of other similar safety studies and improvements that Bayer was long overdue in completing.
In the settlement, that citation remained listed as a repeat violation, and the fine was increased from $35,000 to $59,000. By Ken Ward Jr.