Rocky IV: Jay takes on Bayer’s MIC stockpile

May 5, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

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.


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 …

10 Responses to “Rocky IV: Jay takes on Bayer’s MIC stockpile”

  1. […] This post was Twitted by Kenwardjr – […]

  2. funfun says:

    Senator Jay Rockefeller has taken a commendably aggressive and independent pursuit of this critical matter.

    All too often, politicians and regulators have been deputised into being puppets for BIG CHEMICALS, to the detriment of children and families living in West Virginia.

    Who can forget the Chairman of the disreputable DuPont Company secretly calling up Governor Manchin in November of 2007, and corrupting the Governor’s Office into colluding with DuPont on a landmark pollution case against DuPont? That secret call by Chad Holliday was followed by a visit to the Governor’s Office by DuPont’s shadowy lawyers and lobbyists. The separation of state government powers between the judiciary and executive branches was blatantly subverted. Joe Manchin effectively became a mouthpiece for DuPont on an appeal before the State Supreme Court.

    See “Files Show Governor Intervened With Court,” by Ian Urbina, NEW YORK TIMES, 08-12-08.


  3. the rest of the story says:

    More appropriately Jay has taken a politically expedient position in an attempt at damage control for his knowing that “water-boarding” was being used in U.S. interrogations while he was on the Intelligence committee.

  4. Mark Bradley says:

    As a employee of Bayer and a fire-fighter that responded to the incident,I would like to know the significance of showing our location of the MIC Tank to the world in your photograghs.The Media must think that the War on Terrorism is over and key targets like this will be overlooked by our enemies.WHAT ARE YOU THINKING? The key difference that you all seem to forget when you compare our operation to the Bhopal incident is” WE” have operational safeguards that wont allow this to happen. Bhopal didnt have vent scrubbers or flare towers,they were out of service, or any trained emergency response to their plant and we do.You intentionally scare readers with your speculation of the treater careening into the MIC tank when actually the tank is surrounded by a four foot high,twelve inch thick concrete wall and a steel wire mesh blast mat.The statement made by Mr.Bresland that the explosion could have eclipsed Bhopal is the most irresponsible statement yet,and it makes me wonder why he would say this being a very educated man in the chemical industry. Mr. Bresland forgot many key things. The MIC in the tank that night was much less in quantity than the tank at Bhopal had. The Tank was refrigerated and under low pressure. the Tank had an Emergency tank to transfer to. The Tank has a vent scrubber and flare tower, and many safeguards the Bhopal tank did not have. There is no way that a worse case scenerio involving MIC that night could have “eclipsed” the events at Bhopal in 1984. There are legitimate questions that deserved to be asked about the incident. Keeping the facts straight without Grandstanding, Posturing, and sensationalizing unrealistic possibilities around the incendent, will go a long way toward getting them answered.

    The Insititute site has manufactured, stored, and used MIC at the Plant for over 40 years without incident. The safeguards in place are extensive since the Bhopal incident. The Insitute site Employs directly around 700 people and has well over a 100 Million Dollar economic impact in the Kanawha Valley each year. MIC is a major raw material used at the site. Without MIC, there is no more Institute site. There is too much at stake here to not keep the facts straight. I hope we do moving forward.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Mr. Bradley,

    Thanks for your comment. I’ll try to respond to your concerns.

    First, showing that photo is important — people who live in this valley need to understand how close that MIC tank was to this explosion — how close it is located to a very dangerous process unit that has had two major explosions in the last 15 years that killed a total of four workers.

    Second, we now know — no thanks to Bayer, which left this information out of its comforting press statements — that some pretty important safety equipment (MIC monitors) wasn’t working the night of the explosion. As we reported on Sunday, Bayer officials knew this, but started up this dangerous unit anyway.

    Just as key safety equipment wasn’t working at Bhopal, key safety equipment wasn’t working at the Institute plant the night of Aug. 28, 2008.

    Third, it was not John Bresland of the CSB that said this incident could have ended up worse than Bhopal. That statement was contained in a Congressional staff investigative report. We’ve correctly reported their statements, and it would have been irresponsible for the Gazette — the largest paper in West Virginia — to not report such statements by a congressional committee.

    You are correct that the MIC day tank contained less MIC than was involved in Bhopal. As we’ve reported several times, the day tank contained about 13,800 pounds of MIC the night of the explosion. At Bhopal, estimates of the amount of MIC involved ranged from 40,000 pounds to 100,000 pounds (and some estimates I’ve seen show slightly more than that).

    Federal investigators are still trying to obtain complete information about the ability of the blast mat to withstand a direct hit from the residue treater. Because we don’t know those specifications, we don’t know what would have happened.

    In addition, the refrigeration unit for the MIC day tank was down for some period of time — Bayer hasn’t publicly disclosed how long — the night of the explosion, because power went out. And, the CSB has learned that the day tank’s contents were heating up. This is another example of a critical safety system that wasn’t working at Bayer on Aug. 28, 2008.

    Also, as we’ve reported, the CSB has contracted with a firm that is going to examine what would have happened to local residents if the MIC day tank had been destroyed and its contents released. I for one am interested to see the results of that study.

    Finally, you write that, “The Insititute site has manufactured, stored, and used MIC at the Plant for over 40 years without incident.”

    What do you mean “without incident”? There have been a number of unplanned leaks of MIC over the years, and there have been incidents were plant workers were exposed to MIC on the job.

    Do you mean — as another Bayer employee wrote in a recent letter to the editor — that there has never been a “catastrophe” involving MIC? If so, I’m not sure that most people in the Kanawha Valley that I talk to take much comfort in the fact that Bayer employees seem to think that the test for whether a chemical plant is safe is whether it’s ever had a Bhopal-size disaster.

    I appreciate you reading Sustained Outrage, and hope you’ll be kind enough to response to my comments.


  6. Mark Bradley says:

    In response to funfun : We have’nt forgotten at all the terrorist threat of a lethal explosion here at the plant, but the media has. And we dont ignore your elementary mentality concerning Homeland Security. You flag our site for a response from terrorist retaliation . Your twisted rhetoric is sad. And one last opinion of mine and listen good ;How distainful it is to read your accusations concerning how we feel about our fallen workers, they remain in our hearts and minds everyday, not to have you use their memory for your tasteless comments. I did’nt think this site would allow for personal attack such as this. I knew both these gentlemen over twenty-five years and considered them close friends and ‘plant family’. Their response to the incident “admirable” not hapless , and finally they are “special” not just regular.

  7. Mark Bradley says:

    I’ll try to address your concerns also by paragraph, you keep comparing Bayer Site to Bhopal which indicates to me you aren’t wanting your reader to gain any factual information to make an intelligent interpretation of the situation, you just have an agenda. You want sensationalism, blow everything out of proportion and perspective, that’s an editorial isn’t it? Not reporting fair and balanced. To display the location of the MIC day tank using photos, maps and directional coordinates is about as responsible as someone flying a jet airliner over New York City at 1000 feet. It wasn’t enough to give measurements, no you want sensation. I felt like a New Yorker with a big target on my back. It benefits terrorists only. The Gazette readers didn’t gain anything more by seeing these photos than they would have by reading the measurements. West Virginians that read your paper were done more of a disservice by this irresponsible act than any gain. Ok, that said. “Key safety equipment” not in service, the MIC monitor, in my opinion, as these are analytical measurement devices, doesn’t stop, direct, or impede MIC. It doesn’t scrub, filter, dilute or incinerate MIC. Key safety equipment in the chemical operating world consists of vent scrubbers, flare towers, refrigeration machines, etc. which were all functioning the night of the incident. Finally, your statement about John Bresland, the Congressional advisors used his investigative report to which that statement was contrived there were no congressional advisors in the plant, they got that from the CSB. And if I’m wrong I’ll apologize to John next time I see him.

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I appreciate you taking the time to comment and response.

    You’re certainly welcome to your opinion about our publication of the photos. But I believe that these photos help readers understand how close the MIC day tank was to the explosion site. Many casual readers of our paper have told me that they appreciated seeing the photos, rather than just having measurements.

    I’ve been at the Gazette for nearly 20 years, and we’ve had numerous serious leaks, explosions and fires at Institute in that time. We haven’t had one terrorist attack. That tells me that the risk of safety violations at the plant causing a major accident are much greater than that of a terrorist blowing something up.

    Next, I agree that funfun is going too far, and I’ve asked that reader to tone it down — and I’ve taken several posts by that reader down. Hopefully, funfun will get the hint and tone it down.

    You state that the MIC monitors were not key safety equipment … there are a couple of things for readers to keep in mind about that:

    First, our stories about this issue have contained Bayer’s position, which is that those monitors were not key safety equipment and did not have to be on during the unit re-start. See the story at this link: Bayer’s position on this is mentioned in there twice.

    Second, OSHA’s Process Safety Management rules cover such monitors and required them to be fixed in a timely manner.

    Third — and this is really a key thing — Bayer continually told the public in the valley that no MIC (or other dangerous chemicals) were released by the explosion and fire. But when saying so, Bayer officials didn’t bother to tell us that some of the monitors weren’t working. It’s clear now, and Bayer officials admitted this, that they have no idea what was released, because the monitors weren’t working.

    Finally, you need to get ready to apologize to John Bresland … I’d refer you to page 2 of the congressional committee report, which is available here:

    See the first paragraph, where it says, “Committee staff also inspected Bayer’s plant in West Virginia, and interviewed more than 20 Bayer employees, first responders, elected officials and concerned residents.”

    Mark (and everyone else at Bayer), you’re free to criticize my reporting all you want. I’d suggest two things, though:

    1. Folks from Bayer who are commenting on this site should disclose their employment at Bayer.

    2. Don’t try to mislead readers by making false allegations about what the Gazette has and hasn’t reported, and don’t otherwise misstate the facts.


  9. funfun says:

    To “moderate” and clarify the first point of my suppressed post:

    The terror from these toxic chemicals for the people of this Valley, such as methyl isocyanate and phosgene, emanates more from the questionable operation of this plant, arguably slovenly from the evidence adduced to date, than from some outside terror group. That’s my individual opinion.

    And I’m not about to “moderate” my other point of opinion: Had all the touted “layers” of security and SAFETY “safeguards” and “measures” of “protection” been properly engineered and operated competently that fateful day in August, two hapless non-executive and innocent Bayer workers might be alive today! This explosion and ensuing inferno could have been prevented. I’m not about to apologise for this individual observation or viewpoint…funfun..

  10. LongTime Coming says:

    Just to make things a little clearer, just because the MIC monitors may or may not have been working doesn’t prove or disprove that they didn’t know whether MIC was released or not. In a industry like this, there are always checks and balances and I am sure that Institute is no different. There had to be a way to make sure what was in the tank before the explosion was still in the tank after the explosion. As far as the tank heating up because the chiller system was down, again the checks and balances comes into to play. There had to be something in place to keep the tank at a safe operating temperature, being that close to that large of fire would make me believe that it would heat up rather quickly, but there where no problems that I have read about it getting to hot cause of the chiller being down. I have worked in this industry for many years and all over the world and one thing that is present in all plants like this is backup plans. These people are highly skilled and knowledgeable and they know how to handle the situations that arise. That’s my two cents for what it is worth.

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