Sustained Outrage

Hearing set for Thursday on MIC lawsuit

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Word just in that U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin has scheduled a hearing for  tomorrow (Thursday) to consider whether Bayer CropScience should be temporarily blocked from restarting the methyl isocyanate unit at its Institute plant.

The hearing is set for 2 p.m. in U.S. District Court here in Charleston.

If you missed it, we had a story on today’s Gazette about the case, and posted a copy of the lawsuit here. As we reported:

Among other things, the suit asks for a court order to block Bayer from resuming production of MIC until comprehensive plant inspections are conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Institute plant’s stockpile of MIC — for years the plant stored a quarter-million pounds of the chemical on site — has been a focus of concern for many valley residents since December 1984, when a leak of the chemical killed thousands of people near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

Bayer is in the process of restarting the MIC unit after a significant modification project, but plans to operate it for only about 18 months before it stops making, using or storing the chemical at its Institute plant.

Photo by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail, via The Associated Press

Bayer lawyers have not yet filed any papers responding to the lawsuit, but plant spokesman Tom Dover issued this follow-up statement today:

Bayer CropScience has received a copy of the court filings, and they are under review. In the meantime, it is important that the community know about the extensive efforts we have implemented to ensure the safe start up and operation of the new production unit. First and foremost, we’ve invested more than $25 million in new production, safety and communications equipment. We have completed our planned reduction of methyl isocyanate storage by 80 percent and have eliminated all above-ground storage. The employees responsible for this operation have undergone extensive process and safety training associated with these operations. And we have established several new safety and communications processes, working closely with Metro 911, the KPEPC, and others. All of these efforts — as well as numerous process and safety reviews along the way, including one recently completed by third-party experts — have led to our assurance of a safe operation. We are fully dedicated to a safe startup of these operations and remain confident that we will meet our own high expectations, as well as those of our neighbors and community.

I asked Dover if I could interview someone from the plant who is overseeing the restart of the unit, or if the company would make public this “third party” safety review referred to in his statement. I haven’t heard back yet…

UPDATED:

I still haven’t heard back from Tom Dover on my request, but last evening Bayer lawyers filed this legal brief responding to the brief the residents’ lawyer filed in support of their motion for a Temporary Restraining Order.

Of course, the lawsuit accuses Bayer not only of  “chronically reckless operation” of the plant, but also of “admitted dishonesty in public communications” with residents of the Kanawha Valley.”

Readers may recall that Bayer CEO William Buckner testified before a congressional committee that his company tried to use homeland security regulations to avoid “negative publicity” about the August 2008 explosion that killed two plant workers:

There were, of course, some business reasons that also motivated our desire for confidentiality. These included a desire to limit negative publicity generally about the company or the Institute facility, to avoid public pressure to reduce the volume of MIC that is produced and stored at Institute by changing to alternative technologies, or even calls by some in our community to eliminate MIC production entirely.

Also, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has noted how Bayer stonewalled local emergency responders seeking information about the incident and misled local residents when company officials insisted that no dangerous chemicals were released, when in fact key monitors at the plant weren’t working the night of the incident.

CSB investigators, of course, found that the fatal explosion never had to happen, if Bayer had operated its plant properly. Here’s the agency’s video of what happened:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/lbIz3vWeqcU" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]