September 29, 2008

Bayer Blast Response Under Scrutiny

By Ken Ward Jr.

Federal investigators looking into last month's deadly explosion at Bayer CropScience's Institute plant say they are going to closely examine the company's delay in providing detailed information to local emergency responders.

"That's one of the issues we're very interested in is emergency response and community notification," said John Bresland, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Board investigators are in the early stages of a probe of the Aug. 28 explosion and fire that could last a year or more.

The board is an independent federal agency charged with investigating chemical accidents. The board does not issue citations or fines, but makes safety recommendations to plants, industry organizations, labor groups and regulatory agencies.

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 required telephone notification to federal environmental officials until more than two hours after the explosion, according to government records.

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators are looking into whether any workplace safety rules were violated. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said it will examine if Bayer violated chemical accident reporting rules.

But the Chemical Safety Board's probe will be much more broad, examining all aspects of what might have caused the explosion and fire and how company and outside officials responded to it.

During a visit to the Gazette newsroom on Friday, Bresland confirmed earlier reports that the explosion occurred in a tank where Bayer was collecting waste products from the Larvin process to be pumped to the plant powerhouse, where they would be burned.

"Some kind of a reaction took place in that tank, and the tank over-pressured and exploded," Bresland said.

Bresland said that the board would hold a public meeting when it's about halfway through its investigation, probably early next year. Residents will get to hear from board investigators, ask questions and provide information to the board, Bresland said.

Also, the board traditionally holds a later public meeting in which it discusses a draft report, considers possible changes and votes on the final version of its report.

Both meetings will be held in the Institute area.

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

Originally published by Staff writer.

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