Bayer CropScience Hearing Today As Pressure Mounts

Today's public meeting by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board at Institute, W.Va., will include the release of the board's preliminary findings about the cause and damage done by an Aug. 28, 2008, explosion of a residue treater vessel at the 400-acre Bayer CropScience chemical plant in Institute. Two workers died in the explosion, and eight people suffered chemical exposures during the response, CSB Chairman John Bresland explained in dramatic testimony Tuesday before the U.S. House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The pressure is mounting on Bayer, both because of CSB's investigation and disclosures in the case -- Bayer has tried to prevent disclosure of many documents, Bresland pointed out Tuesday -- and because Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. has been relentless in his coverage of the matter. The plant is located about 10 miles west of Charleston, the state capital.

Ward reported today on his newspaper's site that Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper has asked federal prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation of Bayer CropScience's actions, which included not fully informing local fire departments during the event about what had exploded, and that congressional investigators discovered chemical monitors at key locations weren't working or were missing on Aug. 28, 2008, at the plant.

The most important portions of Bresland's testimony are his discussion of process safety deficiencies known to Bayer management that contributed to the runaway chemical reaction -- the two workers who died had been sent to investigate abnormally high pressure readings on the vessel and were near it when it exploded -- his warning that extensive secrecy claims from companies could compromise CSB's effectiveness as a safety agency, and his discussion of the methyl isocyanate (MIC, the chemical that was catastrophically released from a chemical plant at Bhopal in 1984) used at the Bayer plant. About 13,800 pounds of this chemical were in a tank 80 feet from the vessel that blew up, and investigators found explosion debris at the bottom of the MIC tank, which was protected by a steel mesh blast blanket that Bayer replaced with a stronger one after the Aug. 28 explosion, Bresland said.

"Although the MIC tank and the blast mat escaped serious damage on August 28, there is reason for concern. This was potentially a serious near miss, the results of which might have been catastrophic for workers, responders, and the public," he said at the hearing before the subcommittee chaired by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. Stupak said in his opening statement that video cameras inside the plant "did not record the time period of the explosion because they had been disconnected from the recording unit."

The CSB public meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. local time today at the West Virginia State University Wilson Building, with testimony scheduled to be offered by Nick Crosby, Bayer CropScience's vice president of Institute Site Operations, and Dale Petry, the Kanawha County Commission's director of Emergency Services.

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