CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Bayer CropScience has decided not to restart the unit that makes the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant, officials revealed today.
Al Emch, a lawyer for the company, told a federal judge that Bayer officials in Germany did not want to restart the MIC unit while there was an ongoing government inspection of the facility.
U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials are conducting a broad review of the plant, including the MIC unit, and have said they may not complete their work until September.
Emch said that timeline made it impossible for Bayer to resume producing the pesticide Temik, which is made with MIC, until after the 2011 growing season had ended.
The move ends a quarter-century effort by some local residents to rid the Kanawha Valley of the Institute plant’s stockpile of MIC, the chemical best known for killing thousands of people in a 1984 leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.
“I am heartened with Bayer’s decision and believe that we are safer as a result,” said Maya Nye, a leader of the local group People Concerned About MIC, and one of 16 residents who had sued to block Bayer from restarting the unit.
But Bayer’s decision will also likely hasten the elimination of 220 jobs that the company had planned to phase out over the next two years.
Bayer issued a news release confirming the decision, which Emch announced publicly during a hastily called hearing before Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin.
“This was a very difficult decision, particularly as our employees did everything possible to ensure the operational safety of our newly constructed MIC unit during the remaining production period,” said Achim Noack, a member of Bayer’s board of management. "Our business case was based on our ability to supply the market needs beginning in 2011, and with the recent delays, that plan is no longer economically viable."
Emch told Goodwin that Bayer’s decision was made following a series of “high-level meetings” at the parent company’s corporate headquarters in Germany Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“Ultimately, the precipitating factor was this: Bayer determined that it was not beginning the restart while there was an ongoing or open inspection going on by a government regulatory agency,” Emch said.
Already, Goodwin had blocked Bayer from restarting MIC production for a month, with a Feb. 10 temporary restraining order in a case brought by residents who wanted to stop the company from ever making the chemical again. The judge had scheduled a hearing to start Monday to consider whether he would grant the residents a long-term injunction.
OSHA launched its inspection on March 2, at least in part in response to a recommendation made in January by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board as part of its final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two Bayer workers. The explosion and fire was not in the MIC production unit, but CSB investigators warned that it came dangerously close to an MIC storage tank, and could have created a Bhopal-scale disaster.
Bayer was preparing to start making MIC again as early as Feb. 17, following a project to remake the unit and reduce its stockpile of the chemical by 80 percent. That project was nearly completed when Bayer announced in January that it was going to stop making, using and storing any MIC at the plant by mid-2012, as part of a corporate restructuring and an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cease sales of Temik because of concerns the product could make food unsafe.
At Institute, Bayer uses MIC to make aldicarb, the active ingredient in Temik. Aldicarb from Institute is shipped to another Bayer plant in Georgia, where it is used to formulate Temik. Bayer wanted to restart the MIC unit so it can continue making aldicarb and Temik for another 18 months until the EPA deal takes effect.
Friday’s announcement also comes as Bill DePaulo, a lawyer for the residents, sought to have Goodwin disqualify the judge’s own expert witness, Texas A&M University engineer Sam Mannan. DePaulo alleged in a court filing that Mannan had based his report to Goodwin largely on a study prepared by Bayer.
In a response filed just before Friday’s hearing, Bayer lawyers said DePaulo simply didn’t like Mannan’s conclusions that a catastrophic MIC accident at the Institute plant was extraordinarily unlikely to ever occur.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw…@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.