Sustained Outrage

MIC in Institute: What’s old is new again

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Reporters wearing hard hats cluster around Union Carbide officials during a tour of the MIC unit at the company’s Institute plant. Note the skull and crossbones on the “Poison Gas MIC” sign. This Dec. 11, 1984, Gazette file photo was taken less than a week after the Bhopal disaster.

I guess I’ve been around the Gazette a long time now, because the issues just keep repeating themselves.

About 15 years ago, I spent a lot of time reporting on the stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, out at the Institute chemical plant. The plant was then owned by Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co., had previously been run by Union Carbide, and is now part of Bayer CropScience.

MIC issues at the plant had become a hot issue right after thousands of people died in a leak at the sister Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. They got even hotter after 135 people were injured in an Institute leak in August 1985, and it was that leak that probably led Congress to reform chemical safety and right-to-know laws in 1986.

Recently, a couple of readers pointed out a story of mine that the Gazette published on Nov. 13, 1994, about an independent study of whether the Institute plant could — and more importantly should — reduce its MIC stockpile in the name of worker and community safety. The story said:

Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co. could eliminate the bulk storage of deadly methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant, but has never thoroughly studied methods to do so, a citizens group said in a report released Saturday.

It noted that, after Bhopal, most other chemical companies either eliminated their use of MIC altogether or switched to pesticide production methods that did not use the chemical:

DuPont Co. spent $10 million to $12 million to build a system for its LaPorte, Texas, plant that uses MIC as it is made. In such a system, there is no need to store any MIC at the site.

The Israeli pesticide maker Makhteshim-Agan has found ways to make the same products with different ingredients, thus avoiding MIC use entirely.

I was reminded of this story and the study it covered when I was blogging last night about a new piece in Chemical and Engineering News that raises similar questions about why Bayer doesn’t do something to reduce or eliminate its MIC stockpile.

I’m such a pack rat that I still had the study, stuck in a huge folder marked “MIC.” So I dug it out and scanned it, and I’ve posted the study and its appendices on our Web site. I also decided to scan and post a long Sunday story I did way back on May 8, 1994, about the Institute plant’s MIC unit. Sorry for the poor quality, especially of the photos by my old buddy Jim Noelker, who has long since left the Gazette.

In the study, chemical industry consultant Milton Lapkin (working for the group People Concerned About MIC and the Good Neighbor Project for Sustainable Industries) recommended that the Institute plan convert to a “no storage continuous feed” system for MIC-produced pesticides.

The report suggested that plant owners:

— Change scheduling of pesticide  production within the existing production configuration to minimize storage needs.

— Shift to in-line quality testing of MIC rather than testing temporarily stored batches of the chemical.

— Change pesticide production formulas, or change the products that the company makes at the site.

You’ll notice that the study is called an “interim technical report.” I’m not aware of any final such report.

bayer.jpgBut maybe that’s the sort of thing that the federal Chemical Safety Board was heading toward producing when Bayer attorneys began pressuring the agency to call of a public meeting scheduled for later this month here in the Kanawha Valley.

A detailed examination by the board’s investigators might have come up with similar recommendations to this nearly 15-year-old study. Certainly, the Institute plant has already been cited for allegedly violating U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that require detailed examinations of how chemical plant operators can run their facilities in the safest way possible.

Various Institute plant owners have been fond of pointing out that, after Bhopal, the facility reduced its MIC stockpile from more than a million pounds to about 240,000 pounds. (Though more recently, Bayer has refused to confirm that 240,000-pound number, and the only thing the public really knows is that the company reports to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it stores between 100,000 pounds and 999,999 pounds of the deadly chemical). They also like to explain the multiple layers of safety systems meant to protect against large leaks from the main MIC tank buried underground at the plant.

But the chemical board was looking into — and preparing to tell the public about — another troubling aspect of the plant’s MIC process: A 40,000-pound-capacity MIC storage tank located  50 to 75 feet from the location of the August explosion.  Board investigators are concerned about the tank’s location so close to a dangerous production unit like the one that blew up last year, and Bayer wasn’t interested in seeing those discussions held out in the open.

It’s still far from clear what the safety board will do.

bio_bresland_112wx156h.jpgThis afternoon, board chairman John Bresland told me that he still hopes to have an “interim public meeting” — one held before board investigators complete their final report — sometime in April. But it appears to depend on whether the Coast Guard (and maybe Bayer) drop their opposition to that.

Bresland said board lawyers have looked at the Coast Guard statute and regulations, but haven’t given the board its own, independent view on whether the secrecy provisions cited by Bayer should apply. Instead, the board is just trying to work out some compromise with the Coast Guard, a prospect that could lead to the Coast Guard editing what the board tells the public.

“We’re going to show them what we’re planning to say and I am optimistic we can get some agreement,” Bresland said. “We’re going to put together a presentation and see what they say about what’s in it.”