September 8, 2008

EPA to Probe Bayer’s Delay in Reporting Blast

By Ken Ward Jr.

Federal officials plan to investigate whether Bayer CropScience violated chemical accident notification requirements when it delayed reporting and withheld information about the Aug. 28 explosion and fire at the company's Institute plant.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to review Bayer's handling of the incident to see if federal reporting requirements were violated, an EPA spokesman confirmed Friday.

"We'll evaluate the incident and the information that we have and then make a decision about whether we need to take any enforcement action," said Roy Seneca, a media spokesman for EPA's regional office in Philadelphia.

One Bayer worker was killed and another seriously injured in the explosion and fire in a unit that makes the pesticide Larvin. Thousands of area residents were advised to take shelter in their homes because of possible fumes from the fire.

For at least two hours after the 10:25 p.m. blast, Bayer repeatedly refused to give Kanawha County emergency officials details about what had occurred. County officials said they lacked even the most basic information - such as where in the plant the explosion occurred or what unit was on fire - to advise the public about taking shelter or evacuating.

Bayer also did not make a required telephone notification to federal environmental officials until more than two hours after the explosion, according to government records.

Bayer officials did not return repeated phone calls last week, and the company declined to have a representative answer questions at a community meeting sponsored by the group People Concerned About MIC.

Through a public relations firm, Bayer issued a statement that said the company "shared all available information with Metro 911 as it became available over the course of the incident."

In 1986, Congress passed landmark legislation that required reporting of toxic chemical information and planning for dealing with hazardous materials accidents. Lawmakers acted after thousands of people died in a leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, and after a smaller leak at Carbide's sister plant in Institute.

The Institute plant is now owned and operated by Bayer CropScience, part of the German conglomerate Bayer AG.

Today, the plant still stores far more methyl isocyanate, or MIC, than was involved in the Bhopal disaster. At its other plants in Germany and Belgium, Bayer does not store large quantities of MIC.

Under the 1986 law, chemical companies are required to "immediately" notify state, local and federal authorities of releases of certain amounts of certain toxic materials.

The notification must include the chemical name, an estimate of the quantity released and the time and duration of the release. Companies must also include information on any known or anticipated health risks associated with the release and advice regarding medical attention for people who are exposed. Also, companies are required to provide information on the proper precautions, such as evacuation or sheltering in place, and the name and telephone number of a contact person.

Violations can draw civil penalties of up to $25,000 a day, and willful and knowing violations can draw criminal penalties of up to $25,000 a day and up to two years in jail.

Generally, the National Response Center, a federal operation run by the Coast Guard, acts as a clearinghouse for these chemical accident notifications.

Bayer official Gordon Smith called the National Response Center at 12:37 a.m. Aug. 29, more than two hours after the explosion occurred.

The NRC's report says that Smith reported "a release of material due to a fire and explosion in the water deluge system.

"The caller is not sure [of] the exact materials that were released, but they are hazardous materials that have most likely exceeded the reportable quantity," the NRC report says. "This incident is currently ongoing and there is a shelter-in-place set up."

The NRC report listed no injuries, no environmental impact and no media interest in the incident.

By the time Bayer called the NRC, the agency had already received two citizen reports about the explosion. One woman in Arizona called at 11:15 p.m., after she heard about the blast from her mother in Institute. A man in Washington state called at 11:34 p.m. after he heard about the incident from friends in the Kanawha Valley.

Andre Higginbotham, chief of the Institute Volunteer Fire Department, defended Bayer during the public meeting Thursday night at West Virginia State University.

Under the Kanawha-Putnam emergency plan, Higginbotham, as the local fire chief, was the non-plant incident commander. When chemical accidents happen inside plants, the plan makes the company's in-house fire chief the on-scene incident commander. But, the plan also allows government emergency responders and top local elected officials - in this case the Kanawha County Commission - the authority to override the company incident commander.

Higginbotham, who also works for Bayer at the plant, said company officials were providing him with regular information about the incident. But he said he didn't think a shelter-in-place advisory was warranted.

"We were constantly relaying information back and forth with each other," Higginbotham said. "[But] you've got to understand, we just had an explosion. When those things unravel, you've got to understand that people want information within 30 seconds and it takes time to gather information."

But Mark Wolford, a longtime local emergency official who represented the County Commission at the public meeting, said the information from Bayer wasn't making it to the county's Emergency Operations Center.

"We are very frustrated at that kind of response," Wolford told angry residents at Thursday night's meeting. "Something needs to be done. We have to take some kind of action. We need information to be passed on to us in a timely way so we can tell you all what you need to do."

Some residents remained confused about the explosion and fire, at least in part because of information that was released by Kanawha County's top emergency responder.

Dale Petry, the county's emergency management director, told The Associated Press in a widely reprinted story that MIC was not involved in the explosion and was stored in steel-wrapped underground containers that were far from the blast.

The main unit that makes MIC is indeed on the other side of the plant from the Larvin unit that blew up on Aug. 28. And the plant's main storage tank is located underground with a variety of protective systems.

But MIC is used in the production of Larvin, and smaller amounts used in that process are stored in an above-ground tank located 50 to 75 feet from the explosion site, said Mike Dorsey, emergency response director for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Dorsey and plant officials have said that the aboveground tank was protected by a steel "blast shield." That shield was added specifically to protect the MIC storage tank from damage if nearby units blew up, officials said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at [email protected] or 348-1702.

Originally published by Staff writer.

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