Sustained Outrage

It’s been a busy first few weeks for Rafael Moure-Eraso, the new chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, as a story in the latest issue of Chemical and Engineering News (subscription required) explains:

Just four days after taking the helm of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), new chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso found himself in Portland, Conn., running a nighttime community meeting. There, he presented the final report on CSB’s investigation of an explosion that took place in February at the construction site of the Kleen Energy power plant where six workers died.

It was Moure-Eraso’s first CSB public meeting, as well as fellow new board member Mark A. Griffon’s. Neither of them even had time to unpack his Washington, D.C., office before leaving for Connecticut. With their arrival on the board, CSB will have its full complement of five members, which hasn’t happened in three years.

The two hit the ground running, and the pace is unlikely to slow for them, the other board members, or CSB’s 40-person staff as they face a record number of active investigations. The most recent addition to the board’s docket came in late June, when it accepted a congressional request to investigate the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. This study promises to be one of CSB’s largest: Moure-Eraso estimates that it will take two years to complete and will cost $2.5 million.

Still, Moura-Eraso made time to visit the Kanawha Valley this week, meeting with officials from Bayer CropScience, citizens from People Concerned About MIC, and with Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper. It was Carper, of course, whose complaint that the CSB was stalling its final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire at Bayer’s Institute plant prompted Moura-Eraso’s visit.

Moura-Eraso stopped by the Gazette newsroom this morning, and told us:

We wanted to show the flag and to say that we are on the job.

Again this morning Moura-Eraso promised the board would have its final report on that 2008 explosion and fire — which killed two plant workers — ready for release at a public meeting in the Kanawha Valley this fall, probably in September, according to Carper.

Moura-Eraso reminded us that it was the MIC disaster at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant in 1984 that helped prompt Congress to include creation of the CSB in the 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act.

But, he also stuck to the CSB’s new line that any detailed findings about the safety threat from continuing to use and store large quantities of MIC at the Institute plant would be left to the National Academy of Sciences study, and not be addressed in the board’s final report.

Of course, we know that Bayer has announced plans to reduce its MIC inventory by 80 percent. But folks from People Concerned About MIC point out that still leaves significant quantities of MIC — as much as leaked at Bhopal — at the Institute plant.  But Moure-Eraso said the question of whether that’s a good idea is better left to the NAS study, rather than the board:

I have high hopes that MIC inventory reduction will be discussed in great detail in the NAS study. It’s very difficult for us to evaluate this one way or the other. The NAS study might take more time, but it has to be given time to run its course.

As for Bayer … has the Institute plant’s new management truly moved away from the communications policies that had the company trying to “marginalize” local citizens and refusing to tell emergency responders what was going on at the plant?

Well, the folks from the CSB had barely walked out the door after our Gazette interview and Bayer spokesman Tom Dover e-mailed me this note:

We wanted to provide our perspective regarding the visit to the Kanawha Valley by Chemical Safety Board Chairman Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, and would appreciate the opportunity to have our comments included in any story you print.

Their comments? Here they are:

Steve Hedrick, Vice President and Head of the Bayer CropScience Institute Industrial Park met with Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) and then hosted him on a tour of the Bayer CropScience Institute Industrial Park yesterday.

“We were very pleased to host the newly named chairman of the CSB today and to show him our facilities,” said Mr. Hedrick. “During our discussion, I reconfirmed our commitment to continued, full cooperation with the CSB as they bring their investigation of the August 2008 incident to a close.”

Additionally, Dr. Moure-Eraso was briefed on the latest information concerning the project to reduce MIC inventories. He then spent about an hour at the site where he was afforded the opportunity to see firsthand the progress being made with the project

“The focus of the tour was reinforcing our commitment to the safety of our employees and the community,” said Steve Hedrick. “Dr. Moure-Eraso was able to see the equipment we have in place to safely store and handle MIC today, as well as the plans we are implementing for the future.”

I asked Tom Dover if someone from Bayer would make themselves available for a quick interview … among other things, I wanted to ask Bayer officials how far along they were toward meeting their inventory reduction timelines, and for more details about how they planed to make those reductions … But Tom responded:

We just wanted to provide our perspective on the visit and have included it in the statement. We don’t have anything further to add at this point.