Sustained Outrage

Rocky IV: Jay takes on Bayer’s MIC stockpile

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rockefellercolor.jpgToday’s Gazette included a story about a letter that Sen. Jay Rockefeller signed urging the U.S. Chemical Safety Board to figure out how Bayer CropScience could eliminate the huge stockpile of deadly methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant.

Yesterday, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper was telling me that he thought this was the biggest development in years — perhaps ever — concerning chemical plant safety in the valley.

Carper can sometimes be prone to exaggerate … but as I look back on this and study it, maybe he’s right. Part of the reason is exactly what Carper said it is: Rockefeller is powerful both in West Virginia and in Washington. He’s got a lot of seniority in the Senate now, and he’s chairman of its Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

But there may be much more to it than that, if you look at Rockefeller’s history with the chemical industry. He’s their friend, their supporter, and that makes it all the more significant when he criticizes them.

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Back in 1985, Rockefeller was among the first to criticize lawyers who filed a federal court suit in the United States against Union Carbide on behalf of the victims of the Bhopal disaster. He called the attorneys “international ambulance chasers” and the lawsuits “an outrageous act,” according to press coverage at the time.

About a decade later, Rockefeller came to the chemical industry’s defense after a series of accidents at the Institute plant and at FMC’s Nitro facility. Rockefeller gave a speech to the Charleston Rotary — it was later condensed into a Gazette op-ed commentary — that took the local media to task for what he said was overly negative coverage of the local plant:

Our own people are too often painting a negative picture of the chemical industry in the state. I call on West Virginia’s editors, news directors and reporters to take another look, a more balanced look, at this incredible source of innovation, progress and potential.

This was published in early March 1997. At the time, the chemical industry (and a couple of lawsuits and enforcement actions against it) were in the news over an August 1993 explosion and fire that killed two Institute plant workers, a February 1996 leak from that same plant, then owned by Rhone-Poulenc, and a December 1995 fire at FMC.

Rockefeller’s staff did a “quick review” of Gazette and Daily Mail coverage of the chemical industry over the previous year, from December 1995 to January 1997:

We found that the number of negative stories on the industry outnumbered the positive stories by more than 2 to 1. We found few stories about the innovative products, high-paying jobs or internationally renowned scientists throughout West Virginia’s chemical industry.

Keeping an eye on the industry is an appropriate role for the media to play. But the press does a disservice to the industry and the state by ignoring the beneficial impact that chemical manufacturing has on our state.

Rockefeller’s commentary is too old to be online, but I’ve posted it — along with the details of their content analysis of Charleston’s newspapers — here.   It’s important to note that they looked only at the headlines, not at the stories themselves. And some of the headlines they listed as “negative” were kind of curious. For example, one was “OSHA to inspect Rhone-Poulenc plant wall to wall.” Wouldn’t it be good news, not bad, that federal inspectors are on the job trying to find safety problems and get them corrected?

As I’ve written on Sustained Outrage before, Rockefeller entered a prepared statement into the record last month with a House committee held a hearing on Bayer’s August 2008 explosion and fire.  But the evidence against Bayer at this hearing must have really angered Rockefeller, because he issued a follow-up statement, saying the committee’s findings were “an outrage.” Rockefeller continued:

I was expecting bad news, but this is far worse than I could have imagined and very disturbing. Bayer Chemical Company owes all West Virginia families a clear explanation for this explosion, the response, and any potential hazards, and should cooperate fully with this investigation. We must make sure this never happens again.

Even before the hearing, Rockefeller had gotten involved to push the U.S. Coast Guard and the federal Chemical Safety board into not allowing Homeland Security concerns to conceal information about the explosion and fire from the public.

But this week’s letter goes even further. In it, Rockefeller signed onto a demand by House Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., that the CSB do its own examination of how Bayer could eliminate its huge MIC stockpile:

We believe it is past time to consider whether Bayer’s continued use and storage of MIC can be justified in light of the health and safety risks it presents to the surrounding community.

I mentioned last week how both a conservative columnist at the Daily Mail and the pro-business State Journal have turned on Bayer in the wake of the revelations about how bad the August explosion could have been.

And now Rockefeller is honing in on the major point that local activists were raising years ago: When is Bayer going to get rid of the MIC stockpile?

It’s also worth noting that some of the “negative headlines” in Rockefeller’s content analysis of the Gazette were on stories in which Institute residents and environmental activists were raising that very point.

One story, headlined, “Institute activist says residents worried about more chemicals,” focused on proposals by Rhone-Poulenc to expand production at the plant, a move that would involve more deadly phosgene. In it, West Virginia State University President Hazo Carter said:

…We would like to see a significant decrease in the storage of toxic chemicals and the elimination of those that have the potential to threaten the well-being  of those who live in our communities. We would like to be assured that ‘less hazardous’ technologies have been carefully considered before any major changes in the production process are made.

I’ve written countless stories over the years about the MIC stockpile out in Institute. For the most part, mainstream political leaders and elected officials ignored the issue.

But the congressional investigation and the CSB findings seem to have provided a wake-up call. Stay tuned …