Sustained Outrage

Bayer, MIC and the future of the Kanawha Valley

Photo via AP by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail

Over on the Gazette’s Web site, we’ve gotten a fair number of reader comments responding to Tuesday’s bombshell announcement that Bayer CropScience is stopping the production, use and storage of deadly methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant.

The comments, as you might expect, run along the lines of folks who say things like this:

This sucks not just for those who lose there jobs its going to affect everyone who lives in the kanawha valley whether you know it or not. With the loss of all this revenue who do you think will have to pick up the tab. Me, you, and everyone else in the valley. Just another blow the people of this valley didnt need. I for one will not be voting for Kent Carper again.

To people who say:

The rights of the many outweigh the jobs of the few. This is a public safety issue. The citizens of the Kanawha valley have rights to clean air. If Bayer was smart, they would have shifted production to environmentally safe products long ago.

I also wanted to pass along a formal statement issued by Maya Nye of the group People Concerned About MIC, responding to the Bayer announcement:

Bayer’s removal of MIC and phosgene is a monumental step in our 26-year campaign to make our community safer. We all regret that there is job loss associated with this decision. As a daughter of an ex-Carbider, I know from personal experience what it’s like to be part of a family worried about job security. Our hearts go out to the workers who will be losing their jobs over the next several years.

Yet, we must remember that these jobs were lost to them by a company that chose not to change its business model, not to change to safer technologies, and not to act strategically to ensure their workers’ jobs in our community.

It’s also interesting to take a look at the remarks from a couple of our local politicians.

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W.Va. updates fish consumption advisories

I’m not sure why they decided that the day of the State of the State address was a good time to get the word out, but the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has announced updates of its statewide fish consumption advisories.

The press release is here, and this is a summary of the changes:

—  Fish Creek – Advisory limiting consumption of smallmouth bass (less than twelve inches) for one meal a month has been changed to all sizes due to new information indicating higher mercury levels.

—  Potomac River and the North Branch of the Potomac – Advisories for all nongame fish have been removed due to new information indicating lower dioxin levels. The 2011 statewide consumption advisories should be followed.

— Shenandoah River – Advisory for channel catfish (greater than seventeen inches) has changed from do not eat to one meal a month due to new information indicating lower polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) levels.

—  Shenandoah River – Advisory for smallmouth bass (all sizes) at one meal a month has been added due to new information indicating an increase in mercury levels.

—  South Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac – Advisory for smallmouth bass (less than twelve inches) at one meal a month has been dropped due to new information indicating lower mercury levels. The 2011 statewide consumption advisory for smallmouth bass should be followed.

— Summersville Lake – Advisory for walleye (all sizes) for six meals per year has been changed to one meal a month due to new information indicating lower mercury levels.

It doesn’t appear that the entire database of advisories has been updated, but the 2010 version is online here.

Study: Asbestos disease significantly underreported

A new study being published today by the journal Environmental Health Perspectives has some important findings about asbestos disease:

For every four to five reported cases of mesothelioma worldwide, at least one case goes unreported. This study is the first to provide a global estimate of unreported mesothelioma cases based on the collective experience of countries with available data on asbestos use and the disease.

According to a summary of the study:

Malignant mesothelioma is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. The disease is difficult to diagnose until it is far advanced, and the prognosis is usually poor. In the current study the authors used numbers of mesothelioma deaths as a proxy for numbers of cases because mesothelioma patients usually die shortly after diagnosis. Also, in many countries deaths in general tend to be more uniformly and accurately reported than diagnoses.

The authors assessed the relationship between country-level asbestos use from 1920 through 1970 and mesothelioma deaths reported between 1994 and 2008. Cumulative asbestos use in 89 countries, which accounted for more than 82 percent of the global population in the year 2000, totaled more than 65 million metric tons during 1920–1970. The United States, Russia, United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan led the group in asbestos use, defined as production plus import minus export. For the 56 countries also reporting mesothelioma data, there were approximately 174,300 such deaths during 1994–2008.

Mesothelioma typically develops 20–50 years after exposure to asbestos. Accordingly, a country’s cumulative use of asbestos in prior decades was found to clearly and reliably predict numbers of recent mesothelioma deaths in the countries reporting mortality data. When the authors extrapolated this finding to the 33 countries not reporting mesothelioma data, they estimated 38,900 additional cases may have occurred in these countries during that same 15-year period.

Co-author Ken Takahashi of the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Japan said:

Our most important finding is the magnitude of unreported mesothelioma in countries that use asbestos at substantial levels but report no cases of the disease.

Such countries include Russia, Kazakstan, China, and India, which rank in the top 15 countries for cumulative asbestos use.

The authors propose that every country ban the mining, use, and export of asbestos because, Takahashi says, mesothelioma can be prevented by eliminating exposure to asbestos. They also propose that developed countries share experience and technology to help developing countries better diagnose, report, and manage mesothelioma cases.


There are a couple of reports out today about last night’s meeting of the city council in New Cumberland, W.Va., where three workers died last month in a chemical plant explosion.

Keri Brown of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports:

More than a dozen residents packed into the small city council chambers. None of them addressed council members directly during the meeting, but those who attended said they want to know why the explosion occurred.

Ursula Williams-Greenwood said she can’t stop thinking about it.

“I have two children under the age of two who are completely terrified and this time when the doors blew and fire was raining down it was a very terrifying situation for everyone that lives near that plant,” said Williams-Greenwood, who was at her father’s home when the blast occurred.

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Chemical Safety Board sets Bayer meeting

The U.S.  Chemical Safety Board today announced the time and place for its Jan. 20 public meeting for the release of the CSB’s final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at Bayer CropScience’s Institute, W.Va., plant.

In a just issued news release, the board announced:

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the West Virginia State University Wilson Building, Multipurpose Room, 103 University Union, Institute, WV, 25112. The meeting is free and open to the public. Pre-registration is not required, but to assure adequate seating, attendees are encouraged to pre-register by emailing their names and affiliations to publicmeeting@csb.gov by January 15.

Also, the board said:

At the meeting, the CSB investigative team will present its findings on the root causes of the accident to the five CSB board members and the public. The Board will ask questions of the team in front of the audience and will then invite comments from members of the public. Following the presentation of the CSB’s findings and safety recommendations, a panel of outside witnesses will be invited to speak on a number of issues related to the board’s findings and recommendations.

The Board will then vote on the report and its recommendations. The meeting will be videotaped and an official transcript will be included in the investigative file.

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EPA cuts pre-Christmas deal with DuPont

Just days before Christmas — with the press and the public occupied with holiday events and family obligations — the Obama administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a fascinating new legal settlement with chemical giant DuPont Co.

The EPA press release announced:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced that DuPont has agreed to pay a penalty of $3.3 million to resolve 57 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) violations. DuPont failed to immediately notify EPA of research indicating substantial risk found during testing chemicals for possible use as surface protection, masonry protection, water repellants, sealants and paints. The Toxic Substances Control Act requires companies to inform EPA when they have research demonstrating that a chemical could pose a substantial risk to human health and the environment.

I’ve posted a copy of the settlement here. If you look closely, you’ll notice one interesting thing regarding the timing of this deal: DuPont officials and at least one EPA official signed off on it way back in September. A final EPA signature was added on Dec. 6. But, an EPA announcement was withheld until the middle of the busy holiday week. And perhaps I’ve missed it, but I haven’t been able to find much media coverage of the deal. If a quiet announcement was intended, then EPA and DuPont succeeded.

Keep in mind now that it was just five years ago that EPA announced what it said at the time was “the largest civil administrative penalty EPA has ever obtained under any federal environmental statute” — a $10.25 million fine to be paid by DuPont for covering up studies about the potential dangers of the toxic chemical C8. As part of that deal, DuPont also agreed to spend $6.25 million on “supplemental environmental projects,” including an investigation of  the potential of some DuPont products to break down into C8 and a “green chemistry program” at Wood County, W.Va., schools.

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Policing the police: More on the video and timeline

Twelve minutes is a long time to sit and watch a video of anything, let alone just a guy sitting at a table and talking. But that’s the video you’ll find at the top of my story about the West Virginia State Police today. The video is of an interview with Roger Wolfe, who says he was beaten at the hands of State Police.

I don’t think I’ve ever had an interview where I needed to ask fewer questions (most of which were edited out helpfully by Douglas Imbrogno, who produced the video.) Mr. Wolfe simply sat down and told his story.

The reason it’s so long is to give you, the reader, a chance to listen to Mr. Wolfe tell his own story in its entirety.

People call me all the time with stories of how one police officer or another hurt them or abused their authority. Not even half of those stories are believable, and only a small percentage of the ones that are ever have a chance of becoming something you’ll read about in the paper.

In Roger Wolfe’s case, from the beginning we had a Kanawha County Magistrate and his lawyer, Ben Bailey, who were willing to go on the record about the incident, not to mention his mug shot. It was an easy decision to print the first story back in 2007. I didn’t even talk to Mr. Wolfe until earlier this year.

But most of the time the decision to print one of these stories is not easy. When someone calls me with some horrible tale of police brutality, the first thing I do is try to decide whether that person and their version of events is believable or not.

Even if I do think they might be telling the truth, that doesn’t mean they are and it doesn’t mean it’ll ever make the paper – but you have to start somewhere.

I also wanted to give you a little more information about the timeline by Gazette Graphic Designer Kyle Slagle that goes with the State Police story.

In Monday’s story police accountability expert Sam Walker said, “We have news stories about a particular officer when misconduct results in a very serious problem. We don’t really have a professional system to prevent these kinds of problems.”

That’s exactly what I found when I started researching this stuff.

The single best source for information has been newspapers, especially the Gazette’s archive. To assemble the timeline, I asked Steve Campbell, who takes care of the Gazette’s electronic library, to run a special search giving me listings of stories mentioning the State Police. The lengthy files aren’t perfect, but they give me just about all of the stories mentioning the State Police in chronological order going back to 1985.

I took those files and put them in DocumentCloud, a really neat tool that helps journalists examine and share documents. From there, I just had to pick out the most important dates and edit the information down to something someone other than me wouldn’t mind reading.

Below I’ve embedded the DocumentCloud files, which list in chronological order stories about the State Police going back two-and-a-half decades.You can make the document full-page by clicking the box in the bottom right-hand corner. The notes you’ll see to the right are my own and mostly just list what certain stories are about.

State Police stories from 1985-1989

State Police stories from the 1990s

State Police stories from the 2000s

FBI: Hate crimes down in West Virginia

Late last month, the FBI released hate crime statistics for 2009. Happily, hate crimes in West Virginia are way down from last year, from 43 total in 2008 to 24 in 2009.

Broken down by type of offense, 18 were motivated by race, three by sexual orientation, one by religion, one by ethnicity and one by disability.

The FBI breaks down its numbers by jurisdiction, so here’s a list of places where hate crimes occurred: Buckhannon, Clarksburg, Fairmont, Huntington, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Moundsville, South Charleston, Weirton (which had four total) and Wheeling (at the city level) and Berkeley, Jefferson, Kanawha, Monongalia, Summers and Upshur Counties.

Interestingly, Marshall University was the site of two hate crimes in 2009, both racial incidents.

Here are the FBI’s bullet points, which indicate that hate crimes were down nationwide in 2009:

  • Of the 6,598 single-bias incidents, 48.5 percent were motivated by a racial bias, 19.7 percent were motivated by a religious bias, 18.5 percent were motivated by a sexual-orientation bias, and 11.8 percent were motivated by an ethnicity/national origin bias. Bias against a disability accounted for 1.5 percent of single-bias incidents.
  • There were 4,793 hate crime offenses classified as crimes against persons in 2009. Intimidation accounted for 45.0 percent of crimes against persons, simple assaults for 35.3 percent, and aggravated assaults for 19.1 percent. Other offenses, including nine forcible rapes and eight murders, accounted for the remainder.
  • There were 2,970 hate crime offenses classified as crimes against property; most of these (83.0 percent) were acts of destruction/damage/vandalism. The remaining 17.0 percent of crimes against property consisted of robbery, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, and other offenses.
  • An analysis of data for single-bias hate crime incident victims revealed that 48.8 percent were targeted because of the offender’s bias against a race, 18.9 percent because of a bias against a religious belief, 17.8 percent because of a sexual orientation bias, 13.3 percent because of an ethnicity/national origin bias, and 1.2 percent because of a disability bias.
  • Of the 6,225 known offenders, 62.4 percent were white, 18.5 percent were black, 7.3 percent were groups made up of individuals of various races (multiple races, group), 1.0 percent were American Indian/Alaskan Native, and 0.7 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander. The race was unknown for the remaining known offenders.
  • The largest percentage (31.3 percent) of hate crime incidents occurred in or near homes. In addition, 17.2 percent took place on highways, roads, alleys, or streets; 11.4 percent happened at schools or colleges; 6.1 percent in parking lots or garages; and 4.3 percent in churches, synagogues, or temples. The remaining 29.7 percent of hate crime incidents took place at other specified locations, multiple locations, or other/unknown locations.


December 1984: Remembering Bhopal

Elderly victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy participate in a protest demanding better compensation to victims and the arrest of Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide, among other demands, on the eve of 26th anniversary of tragedy in Bhopal, India, Thursday, Dec.2, 2010. On the morning of Dec. 3, 1984, a pesticide plant run by a Union Carbide subsidiary leaked about 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas into the air, quickly killing about 4,000 people. Lingering effects of the poison raised the death toll to about 15,000 over the next few years, according to government estimates.(AP Photo/Prakash Hatvalne)

While we hope for some good news about the two DuPont Co. workers hospitalized after a leak last night at the Belle, W.Va., plant, it’s worth remembering that today is the 26th anniversary of the world’s worst chemical disaster.

A leak of methyl isocyanate gas — it started either shortly before or shortly after midnight on Dec. 2, 1984 — killed thousands of people who worked at or lived near the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

Longtime Kanawha Valley residents, of course, know that the former Carbide — now Bayer CropScience — plant in Institute, W.Va., is the sister facility to that Bhopal plant.  And the Institute plant has long maintained a huge and controversial inventory of MIC on hand, despite repeated protests from area residents.

After the fatal explosion and fire in August 2008 — and following federal investigations that warned a Bhopal-like disaster was possible — Bayer promised in August 2009 to complete a one-year, $25 million project that would reduce its MIC inventory by about 80 percent.

Tom Dover, a Bayer spokesman, told me today that the inventory reduction project is underway, is on schedule, and that the company looks forward to resuming production activities in January.

Also, I’ve learned that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board plans to release its final report on the August 2008 fire and explosion sometime the week of Jan. 17, during a public meeting here in the Kanawha Valley.

Stay tuned …

Gazette photo by Chris Dorst

We reported a little while ago on the Gazette’s Web site about an overnight chemical leak that injured two workers at DuPont Co.’s sprawling plant out in Belle, W.Va.

Here’s how DuPont spokesman David Hastings described what happened:

At approximately 2:23AM this morning at the DuPont Belle plant there was a release of monomethylamine (MMA) from a railcar sample line while an operator was collecting a sample for product quality. The plant fume alarm was sounded and the Belle plant emergency response team responded to contain the release. The Belle Fire Department also responded to the plant gate as a precaution per our protocol. Two DuPont employees involved in the railcar loading process have been transported to a local hospital for evaluation as a precaution. The plant’s all-clear was sounded at 2:46AM.

UPDATED, 12:30 p.m.:

DuPont has issued an update regarding the two workers —

When the two DuPont employees left the plant and were transported to a local hospital for observation, they did not have any apparent respiratory symptoms.  Our latest information is that they are still under observation at the hospital and have been treated for some small burns but still have not shown any respiratory symptoms.  We understand the hospital will continue to observe the employees as a precaution for as long as they determine necessary.

The chemical involved — also known as methylamine — is an organic compound and a derivative of ammonia. Made by combining ammonia and methanol, methylamine is sold in an anhydrous form in pressurized railcars or tank trailers.  It has a very strong odor similar to fish, and is a building block for making many other compounds.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:

It has been reported that transient irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat has resulted from brief exposures to concentrations of 20 to 100 ppm; the odor was intolerable at 100 to 500 ppm [Clayton and Clayton 1981]. Inhalation of methylamine vapors (at concentrations greater than 100 ppm) has caused irritation of the nose and throat, followed by violent sneezing, burning sensation of the throat, coughing, constriction of the larynx and difficulty in breathing, pulmonary congestion, and edema of the lungs [Deichmann and Gerarde 1969].

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