October 9, 2008

Bayer Admits ‘We Fell Short’ in Fire Response

By Ken Ward Jr.

Bayer CropScience's plant manager apologized to Institute residents Wednesday night, conceding for the first time that company officials botched their communications with local emergency responders after the Aug. 28 fire and explosion that killed one Bayer worker.

"I'm sorry," said plant manager Nick Crosby. "We fell short."

Crosby said Bayer did not give local emergency crews or Institute- area residents enough detail in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, a move that firefighters and others complained later hampered their response.

"We could have communicated, and we should have communicated, much better with the community that night," Crosby said.

Crosby spoke during a 90-minute community meeting sponsored by the Institute-Pinewood-West Dunbar Sub-area Community Improvement Council, a Bayer-sponsored group that says it works to improve plant- community relations.

Crosby and other Bayer officials had refused to attend an earlier community meeting on the Aug. 28 incident sponsored by the local citizen group People Concerned About MIC.

And Wednesday's meeting, held at the West Virginia State University student union, was closely scripted by Charles Ryan Associates and Ann Green Communications, public relations firms hired by Bayer CropScience.

Attendees were told they had to sign in before entering the meeting room, and instructed that they had to register at least 15 minutes before the meeting if they wanted to speak. Publicists from the two firms monitored who was signing up to speak and what topics they wanted to discuss.

Also, citizens were allowed only to ask questions. No comments or statements from members of the public were allowed.

When several residents tried to offer comments or follow-up questions, an Ann Green publicist passed scribbled notes to Community Improvement Council Chairman Walter Greenhowe, who then interrupted and said such actions weren't permitted.

"Please let it be a question, instead of a bunch of statements," Greenhowe said.

Outside the meeting room, several People Concerned About MIC members held up signs and posters encouraging attendees to remember Bhopal, the 1984 chemical leak that killed thousands at the Institute facility's sister plant in India.

Just before the meeting, People Concerned About MIC and five other groups released a letter they sent to Bayer, demanding that the company eliminate storage of large amounts of the toxic chemical methyl isocyanate, or MIC, from the Institute plant.

Crosby conceded that other Bayer plants in Germany don't store large amounts of MIC, and instead make the deadly chemical as they needed it.

But those plants use MIC for only one process, he said. At Institute, MIC is used in several different pesticide units, and plant officials have long argued that it's too complex to make MIC for each as it's needed.

Crosby said that Bayer typically keeps a two- to three-day supply on MIC on hand, but refused to say how much of the chemical that amounts to.

Bayer reported to federal authorities that it stores an average of between 100,000 and 999,999 pounds of MIC on site every day. Previous plant owners have but the exact amount at closer to 250,000 pounds, or more than four times the amount that leaked at Bhopal.

The letter to Crosby cited a list of previous incidents at the Institute plant, including one in December 2007 that prompted similar complaints about the lack of public notification.

"Bayer's actions to these recent events are inexcusable, intolerable and exhibit vast irresponsibility to the communities surrounding the plant," the letter said.

In the Aug. 28 incident, one Bayer worker was killed and another seriously injured when an explosion and fire ripped through 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.

Crosby said Wednesday night that Bayer has designated new site security leaders responsible for notifying emergency response officials of incidents. Company officials have rewritten their emergency plan to provide "an increased level of detail" to Metro 911 dispatchers, Crosby said.

Crosby also revealed that plant workers noticed an increase in pressure inside the chemical waste tank where the explosion occurred, and had been working to fix the problem. He did not say how long the over-pressure had been going on before the blast.

"They knew there was something going on, but they couldn't figure out what," Crosby said.

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

Originally published by Staff writer.

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