Sustained Outrage

Chemical board not bucking Bayer

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It doesn’t look like the federal Chemical Safety Board is ready to stand up for the public’s right to know — at least not yet.

That’s according to a new story by my fellow Society of Environmental Journalists member Jeff Johnson in Chemical & Engineering News.

As we reported in the Gazette last month, the board has called off a public meeting scheduled for later this month to brief the public — and hear citizen concerns — about the August 2008 explosion that killed two workers and forced thousands in the Kanawha Valley to take shelter in their homes. Board members did so under pressure from Bayer, whose lawyers claimed information the board wanted to tell the public — especially about a tank of deadly methyl isocyanate located dangerously close to the explosion — was covered by an obscure Coast Guard law about maritime security.

Jeff Johnson quotes a Coast Guard official as saying her agency was working with the chemical board to “reach a process by which “transparency can be sustained without undue compromise of national security information.” ” The story says chemical board Chairman John Bresland thinks the secrecy issues will be sorted out as CSB prepares and releases the Bayer report next summer — apparent confirmation that the board doesn’t plan the initial public meeting that would have allowed more citizen input into the areas board investigators examined.

And importantly, Jeff Johnson explains:

Among the 49 investigations that the board has completed, this is the first public meeting canceled for security reasons or due to company pressure. It raises questions about whether terrorism fears can be used to blunt CSB accident investigations. Although the board has no regulatory authority, its accident reports and videos have had wide influence on companies encouraging them to improve their safety performance, eliminate dangerous practices, and better control use of toxic chemicals.

The story provides great background on the history of MIC, and how other plants around the world stopped storing large amounts of it after the December 1984 leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people.

For example:

ONE COMPANY that has done this is DuPont. Within months of the Bhopal accident, DuPont ended on-site MIC storage at its facility in LaPorte, Texas, that makes the insecticide Lannate. Until that time, the DuPont plant had been buying MIC from the Union Carbide’s Institute plant and transporting the material to LaPorte for storage and use.

According to a DuPont report, its engineers developed and deployed an “inherently safe, point-of-use process” to create MIC, based on air oxidation of monomethyl formamide (MMF), a nonhazardous material that was made in a DuPont facility in West Virginia and shipped to Texas. The MIC unit sits next to the Lannate unit, the engineers wrote, and the only MIC onsite is in a short transfer line. DuPont accomplished this shift within six months, including creating an MMF production line. For this effort, DuPont’s team of chemical engineers received a 2003 Industrial Innovation Award from the American Chemical Society.

And finally, the story includes this gem about efforts to get Bayer to explain itself:

Despite repeated requests, Bayer would not respond to direct questions about the accident from C&EN, nor would the company discuss its storage and use of MIC. Instead, Greg Coffee, a company spokesman, offered a statement, saying Bayer has and will continue to cooperate fully with CSB regarding the August accident at Institute.

“All decisions concerning the public meeting were made entirely by the CSB and Bayer has no influence on the content or the timing of the board’s activities.”