September 2, 2008

Plant’s History Rocky

By Ken Ward Jr.

g ONLINE Watch a video of witnesses describing Thursday nights blast, its aftermath. INSIDE: Thursdays blast was a stark reminder of the dangers of living with chemical plants, and of the fear for many residents that a Bhopal-like disaster could strike Kanawha County. 6A

The Bayer CropScience plant where a worker died in a Thursday night explosion has a rocky safety history, including major federal violations three years ago and a state enforcement action earlier this year.

Federal, state and local officials have just begun a detailed investigation of Thursday's explosion and fire, which left a second worker with serious burns. Answers about the cause could take weeks or months.

However, workplace safety officials said their latest examinations found considerable problems at the sprawling Institute facility.

"We found serious issues related to process safety," said Prentice Cline, assistant area director for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "There were some significant deficiencies."

Two OSHA inspectors were at the plant Friday afternoon, and a five-person team from the federal Chemical Safety Board was to arrive in Charleston later in the evening.

Board Chairman John Besland said his agency would look for root causes and for flaws in programs meant to prevent such accidents.

"The issues are broader than just - something blew up," said Bresland, who by coincidence was at The Greenbrier on Friday for a presentation with state business leaders.

Witnesses to the explosion reported seeing a red fireball and feeling the blast as far away as Charleston. The explosion, at about 10:25 p.m. Thursday, was heard at least as far away as Mink Shoals.

Plant worker Barry Withrow was killed and a second employee with serious burns was transported for treatment at a Pittsburgh hospital.

"This is a very sad day for the Institute site family," Bayer said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these employees during this very difficult time."

Thousands of residents between South Charleston and the Putnam County line were advised to take shelter in their homes, and the main highways through the area - Interstate 64, U.S. 60 and W.Va. 25 - were closed for several hours.

"It was bad, but it could have been worse," said Mike Dorsey, chief of homeland security and emergency management for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Dorsey noted that the Institute plant is best known by the public for its production and use of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the chemical that killed thousands of people in a leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984.

Plant officials were quick to say that their MIC production unit and the largest storage area is on the other side of the plant - perhaps one-half mile away - from the site of Thursday's explosion. However, Bayer spokesman Tom Dover also confirmed that smaller MIC storage tanks, used to feed various pesticide production units, are located much closer to the explosion site.

Plant manager Nick Crosby said the explosion is believed to have occurred in or around a new, 4,000-gallon tank in what Bayer calls the plant's West Carbamoylation Center, in the southwestern corner of the facility.

Bayer makes the pesticide methomyl in the unit, but the company does not market it as a product. Instead, Bayer uses methomyl to make Larvin, its brand name of the insecticide thiodicarb. It is used to kill pests, particularly worms, on cotton, corn and a variety of other vegetables.

Larvin is a carbamate insecticide, a class of chemicals made from carbamic acid. Like organophosphate pesticides, these chemicals interfere with the conduction signals of the nervous system of insects, and in cases of poisoning with high levels of exposure, humans.

Earlier this month, Bayer announced that it was increasing Larvin production capacity at the Institute plant. The move, aimed at meeting growing demand, included hiring 24 new workers and spending about $3.5 million on upgrades.

By itself, Larvin does not generally burn, according to a Bayer material-safety data sheet.

But Crosby said the tank involved in Thursday night's blast contained a variety of waste products that were used to make or are created by the production of Larvin. Dorsey said officials were primarily concerned about the presence of methyl isobutyl ketone, or MIBK, a highly flammable solvent that is used to help make Larvin. The tank also contained hexane and dimethyl disulfide, Dorsey said.

"What you had was a huge amount of fuel," Dorsey said, "so there was a really big fire."

There were no confirmed reports on injuries or illnesses among residents or plant neighbors.

"This incident will be thoroughly investigated," Bayer said in a news release. "The unit is totally shut down. It will not be restarted in the future until its safe operation can be completely assured."

Joe Thornton, a spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, told The Associated Press, "They have lots of chemicals at the plant and they do take great steps to protect them. I think everything that can be done to protect those chemicals is being done, and I think the public at large is safe."

Over the years, though, the Institute plant has been the site of some of the most serious chemical accidents in the Kanawha Valley.

The last fatal accident in the area's chemical industry was the Aug. 19, 1994, explosion and fire at the plant, then owned by the French firm Rhone-Poulenc. One worker died in the blast and a second died a decade later from lung burns sustained in that accident.

That accident drew a West Virginia record $1.7 million in fines from OSHA, but federal officials later settled the case for less than half that amount. Two years later, Rhone-Poulenc paid $450,000 in fines for a leak and fire in February 1996 that forced thousands of residents to take shelter in their homes.

After the 1994 explosion, OSHA officials alleged that Rhone- Poulenc had tried to increase production at the methomyl-Larvin unit without first making sure the changes would not compromise plant safety. OSHA warned of "more catastrophic failures" if the problems were not fixed.

Far more recently, OSHA officials issued eight serious and two willful citations to Bayer after a 2005 inspection of the Institute plant.

Among other things, OSHA inspectors alleged that the company disregarded its own safety studies, failed to correct potential hazards, and ignored requirements for toxic-leak response plans. The inspection involved a different unit than the one involved in Thursday's explosion.

Bayer paid a $110,000 fine to settle the case, and promised a series of reforms. OSHA officials said the company complied and abated the violations according to the settlement. A later inspection, in October 2007, prompted no OSHA citations.

In June, Bayer agreed to pay the state DEP a $15,750 fine related to air-pollution violations that caused "objectionable" odors from the plant on three instances in November and December 2007. The DEP had cited the company for a spill, a malfunctioning vent control and the general "presence of objectionable odors," according to agency records.

Chemicals involved in the leak

Larvin: The explosion occurred in a unit that makes Larvin, Bayer's brand name for the insecticide thiodicarb. It is used to kill pests, mostly various worms, on cotton, corn and a variety of other vegetables.

Methomyl: Bayer makes Larvin in a unit that also produces methomyl. Methomyl is another insecticide, but Bayer does not market it. Instead, Bayer uses methomyl to make Larvin.

The new tank: Bayer officials believe the explosion started in a new, 4,000-gallon tank where various waste products from Larvin production are cleaned before being piped to the plant's power house to be burned for general electricity for the facility.

MIBK: Emergency response officials were primarily concerned about the presence of methyl isobutyl ketone, or MIBK, in the new tank. MIBK is a highly flammable solvent, and may have accounted for the large fire that followed the explosion.

What was released: Complete details were not available on Friday, but some MIBK, along with other waste chemicals including hexane and dimethyl disulfide, were likely released. All of these chemicals can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory system. The fire probably broke these chemicals down into other substances, and other typical products of combustion were likely also released.

The company: Bayer officials say that company monitoring "showed no chemical exposure from this incident either on or off the site." Bayer also said that workers have "assured the integrity of the piping, tanks, and equipment in and around" the plant.

- Ken Ward Jr.

Partial list of Institute plant accidents

Aug. 11, 1985: At least 135 people sought treatment at area hospitals after a leak of aldicarb oxime and four other chemicals from the plant, then owned by Union Carbide. An initial fine of $32,000 was dropped to $4,400 when the company agreed to buy an accident simulator for worker training exercises.

May 20, 1993: More than 1,000 residents of Institute and West Dunbar shelter in their homes because of a chlorine gas leak from the Institute plant's barge loading dock.

June 19, 1994: A high-tech monitoring system somehow allows a large leak of untreated wastewater from the plant to be discharged into the Kanawha River.

Aug. 18, 1994: Thousands of Kanawha Valley residents take shelter in their homes after an explosion rips through the Rhone-Poulenc facility. One worker is killed in the blast, and a second dies 10 years later from the effects of cyanide that burned his lungs. OSHA fines the company $1.7 million, but later settles the case for $700,000.

Dec. 13, 1994: A faulty chemical pump causes a leak of sulfur dichloride from the Institute plant. One worker is injured and others are forced to shelter in place.

Feb. 15, 1996: A leak and fire involving the chemical toluene prompts another widespread shelter-in-place advisory across the western part of the valley. Rhone-Poulenc pays $450,000 in fines to OSHA.

July 28, 1997: High winds and heavy rains shut down a chemical disposal system and blow out an incinerator flame, prompting the release of a tiny amount of methyl isocyanate from the Institute plant.

Oct. 15, 1999: A shelter-in-place advisory was issued for residents within two miles of the plant after a leak of the deadly gas phosgene.

Aug. 13, 2001: Ten workers received medical treatment after a chloroform leak at the Aventis portion of the Institute plant.

- Ken Ward Jr.

Bayer blast 10:25 p.m. Thursday: An explosion occurs in a 4,000- gallon cylindrical tank in a portion of the Bayer CropScience plant known as the West Carbamoylation Center, where the company makes carbamate pesticides. Around 11:30 p.m.: A shelter- in-place order is given for South Charleston and west to the Putnam County line. Around midnight: Officials confirm a plant worker suffered third- degree burns. He was taken to a Pittsburgh hospital. At 12:10 a.m. Friday: Officials said they still did not know what caused the main explosion. Around 1 a.m.: County officials are informed about what chemicals were involved in the explosion. Around 2 a.m.: The fire is put out and the shelter in place is lifted. Confirmed dead: Plant employee Barry Withrow was killed in the explosion. Friday afternoon: OSHA and federal Chemical Safety Board begin separate investigations.

History of the Institute plant

1943: The plant is built by the U.S. government for the production of rubber for World War II.

1947: Union Carbide Corp. takes over the facility for the production of agricultural chemicals.

1986: The French firm Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co. buys the plant.

1999: Rhone-Poulenc and the German firm Hoechst merge, and the Institute plant falls under the combined company, called Aventis.

2001: Bayer CropScience takes over the plant.

Today: Among the companies with operating facilities at the plant are Bayer, Dow Chemical, FMC and Praxair. About 700 people are employed there.

Originally published by Staff writer.

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