Sustained Outrage

Probing the Bayer blast

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Indeed, as an alert Sustained Outrage reader pointed out, a congressional hearing will be held on April 23 to investigate the August explosion that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute.

The hearing is being convened by Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and by Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of Waxman’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The hearing is to “examine the causes of the accident, the adequacy of the response, and the scope of the information provided to the first responders, employees and the public.”

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Safety board secrecy?

bio_bresland_112wx156h.jpgIf you thought yesterday’s announcement by the federal Chemical Safety Board that the agency would hold a public hearing in the Kanawha Valley about last August’s deadly explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant meant the board was back to being open with the public, think again…

I’d like to find out more about Bayer’s claims that information from the board’s investigation should be confidential, and about board meetings with Bayer and discussions at formal board meetings on these issues.

So, I asked board Chairman John Bresland this week if I could have meeting minutes and staff notes, along with any correspondence from Bayer on the issue. And guess what?

Through a board spokesman, Bresland said I would have to file a formal Freedom of Information Act request and wait until the board’s staff gets around to processing that request.

By the way, if you want to attend the board’s public meeting on the Bayer explosion, it’s scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on April 23 at the West Virginia State University Wilson Building, Multipurpose Room, 103 University Union.

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  by April 10. 

Sound science on C8?

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DuPont’s Washington Works plant south of Parkersburg is at the center of a worldwide controversy over C8 and similar chemicals used to make Teflon and a variety of nonstick and stain-resistant products.

When I was reporting yesterday on EPA’s new C8 deal with DuPont, I stumbled across a news release issued by an organization called The Sapphire Group. If you lived near DuPont’s Wood County plant — or the company’s New Jersey facility of 3M’s plant in Minnesota — it sounded like good news. But there was a lot more to the story … stick with me here, and you’ll see what I mean.

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MIC in Institute: What’s old is new again

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Reporters wearing hard hats cluster around Union Carbide officials during a tour of the MIC unit at the company’s Institute plant. Note the skull and crossbones on the “Poison Gas MIC” sign. This Dec. 11, 1984, Gazette file photo was taken less than a week after the Bhopal disaster.

I guess I’ve been around the Gazette a long time now, because the issues just keep repeating themselves.

About 15 years ago, I spent a lot of time reporting on the stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, out at the Institute chemical plant. The plant was then owned by Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co., had previously been run by Union Carbide, and is now part of Bayer CropScience.

MIC issues at the plant had become a hot issue right after thousands of people died in a leak at the sister Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. They got even hotter after 135 people were injured in an Institute leak in August 1985, and it was that leak that probably led Congress to reform chemical safety and right-to-know laws in 1986.

Recently, a couple of readers pointed out a story of mine that the Gazette published on Nov. 13, 1994, about an independent study of whether the Institute plant could — and more importantly should — reduce its MIC stockpile in the name of worker and community safety. The story said:

Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co. could eliminate the bulk storage of deadly methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant, but has never thoroughly studied methods to do so, a citizens group said in a report released Saturday.

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Chemical board not bucking Bayer

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It doesn’t look like the federal Chemical Safety Board is ready to stand up for the public’s right to know — at least not yet.

That’s according to a new story by my fellow Society of Environmental Journalists member Jeff Johnson in Chemical & Engineering News.

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More evidence against C8

This week, I did a story for the Gazette about a new study that found exposure to the Teflon-production agent C8 could be damaging sperm and reducing sperm counts in humans.

I failed to mention a key thing in that story — that the levels of C8 involved really weren’t that high. The most troublesome part of the study is that sperm seemed to be affected by concentrations of C8 that were about what the general public is already exposed to.

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Don’t call us — not right away, at least

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Statehouse correspondent Phil Kabler reported in today’s Gazette that Gov. Joe Manchin’s bill (SB 279)  to require industrial plants to report significant accidents to authorities within 15 minutes had cleared the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee.

As Phil explained, the committee’s substitute for Manchin’s bill includes language under which failure to report incidents within 15 minutes would carry a fine of “up to $100,000.”

It’s worth noting that this change is a potentially significant weakening from the governor’s proposal. As he did with the original legislation requiring reporting of mining accidents within 15 minutes (following the delayed reporting in both the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire), Manchin mandated a fine of $100,000 for reporting violations. The committee’s version allows fines of less than that amount, at the discretion of the Director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

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Open letter to the Chemical Safety Board

Maya Nye from People Concerned About MIC passed on this Open Letter to the federal Chemical Safety Board about the board’s decision to cancel a public meeting about the deadly August 2008 explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute. The letter was signed by People Concerned and more than a dozen other citizen groups. Here’s what it says:

March 3, 2009

John Bresland, Chairman/CEO

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

2175 K. Street, NW, Suite 400

Washington, DC 20037-1809

Dear Chairman Bresland:

With the support of numerous international groups, I write to you on behalf of my community and as the spokesperson for People Concerned About M.I.C. to beseech you to hold a timely public hearing regarding the preliminary results of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) investigation into the August 28, 2008 explosion at the Bayer CropScience facility in our community of Institute, West Virginia.

As you are well aware, our community is gravely concerned about the events that occurred that night as well as the lack of corporate accountability to our community that has been consistently displayed with this facility.

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The Associated Press had a story yesterday (also see page 1A of today’s print edition Gazette) about the West Virginia National Guard trying to find some troops who may have been exposed to the toxic chemical hexavalent chromium while they were serving our country in Iraq.

The story noted that a lawsuit had been filed in December by 16 Indiana National Guard soldiers against defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root Inc., alleging the troops.
A lawsuit filed in December by 16 Indiana National Guard soldiers against defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root Inc. claims the troops now have respiratory system tumors associated with exposure at an Iraqi water treatment plant (where apparently the chemical had been used to remove pipe corrosion).

Readers who are interested in more information about this might want to check out (read, listen or watch) this edition of the show Democracy Now! The show covers the issue in much more detail and includes a link to the lawsuit against KBR. Michael Doyle, lead lawyer for the guardsman, explained:

KBR actually very clearly—and we know this from some testimony that KBR managers have already given in a kind of a suit by the civilians, that they absolutely knew that there was sodium dichromate out there at the facility. It’s absolutely also clear that that’s one of the most dangerous carcinogens. This stuff—and folks may have heard about hexavalent chromium in the Erin Brockovich, where they had relatively small amounts, very serious consequences. There were bags of this stuff. And at least some of the testing showed 1.9 percent of the soil was actually sodium dichromate around this site. And despite being paid well to do a site assessment; to do this project; to make sure that the folks out there, the civilians and the soldiers, were protected; they basically just kept ignoring it.

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