Bayer cited for MIC tank violations
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Bayer CropScience has not properly maintained or tested the underground storage tank where it keeps roughly 200,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate, the deadly chemical that killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India, in 1984, state inspectors have alleged.
Department of Environmental Protection inspectors issued four citations to Bayer for alleged mismanagement of the MIC tank. Inspectors discovered the problem during a June 2009 inspection, and formal violation notices were issued in late September.
No fines have been issued, and DEP officials said last week they don’t know if Bayer has fixed the problems.
Tom Dover, a Bayer spokesman, said in an e-mailed response that the company “is in discussions” with DEP and wanted to “emphasize that the integrity of the referenced tanks is not in question, nor is the safe storage of our materials.”
But officials from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, who reviewed the DEP violation notices at the Sunday Gazette-Mail’s request, said the allegations concerned them.
“It doesn’t give us a warm and fuzzy feeling,” board Chairman John Bresland said Friday. “I would have thought if you were dealing with a tank containing methyl isocyanate, you would always want to have the best practices in place.”
CSB investigators have been examining the Institute plant’s operations in the wake of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two plant workers and forced thousands of Kanawha Valley residents to take shelter in their homes.
For years, the Institute facility has been the only one in the nation to store large quantities of MIC onsite.
Last April, congressional investigators concluded the explosion could have easily damaged a nearby MIC storage tank and triggered a disaster that would have been worse than Bhopal. CSB officials described the incident as “potentially a serious near miss, the results of which might have been catastrophic for workers, responders and the public.”
In late August, as the one-year anniversary of the deadly explosion in Institute neared, Bayer announced it was cutting its MIC storage by about 80 percent. After the changes, Bayer hopes to keep its daily maximum MIC inventory below 50,000 pounds — still far more than any other chemical plant in the nation.
The DEP violation notices concern corrosion protection systems installed on the underground storage tank where Bayer keeps most of its MIC stockpile.
According to DEP, the tank is equipped with cathodic protection, a system that is meant to control corrosion of a metal surface by making it work as a cathode of an electrochemical cell.
But DEP inspectors discovered that the contractors who installed the system in 2003 did not have proper state certification to perform that kind of work. Uncertified workers also performed required periodic tests to determine if the system was working properly, DEP inspectors found.
DEP inspectors also cited Bayer because the tests the uncertified workers performed showed the corrosion protect system wasn’t working properly. Agency officials instructed Bayer to have tests performed by qualified workers.
Mike Zeto, DEP’s chief environmental enforcement inspector, said he doesn’t know if that has been done, and that Bayer has not formally responded to the violation notices. DEP has not yet taken any further action, but Zeto said the issue is “an active matter that we are pursuing.
“The proper handling and protections associated with that material, given the nature of that material, is vitally important for the protection of the workers and the people who live nearby,” Zeto said. “These are serious issues in our mind.”
Maya Nye, spokeswoman for the group People Concerned About MIC, said she was concerned that DEP hasn’t taken additional action and also upset that the agency hasn’t told the public about the violations.
“I’m concerned about why this information wasn’t made public before now,” Nye said this week. “What gives them the right to call that confidential information? DEP is trying to keep confidential some very serious information.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw…@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.