Bayer to phase out MIC; cut 220 jobs
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INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- Bayer CropScience will stop making, using and storing the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant as part of a corporate restructuring that will cost the Kanawha Valley 220 jobs over the next several years, company officials announced Tuesday.
Bayer officials said the moves are a result of the company's agreement last August to phase out the pesticide aldicarb because of concerns it posed "unacceptable dietary risks," especially to children. Company officials also cited a 1995 pledge by Bayer to move away from products that global public health officials believe are especially dangerous.
Bayer plant manager Steven Hedrick said the jobs being eliminated would include salaried and hourly positions, but that a breakdown was not yet available.
Company officials broke the news to workers in meetings Tuesday morning, though decisions about which positions -- and which individuals -- would be affected had not yet been made.
"We will work collectively with our workforce, developing a solution that is right for our people and right for the business," Hedrick said.
Bayer officials said the timing of their announcement was not related to next week's scheduled release of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board's final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two Bayer workers. The CSB's investigation and a related congressional hearing renewed public concern about the Institute plant's quarter-million-pound stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the chemical that killed thousands of people in a 1984 leak from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.
The 220-job reduction leaves about 280 Bayer workers and 200 contract workers at the plant.
Officials from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents hourly employees at Bayer, did not return phone calls.
Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper, who expressed grave concerns about the MIC inventory following the 2008 incident at the plant, said the goal of local officials should now be to work with Bayer to find other, "appropriate" businesses to provide jobs at the facility.
"That is a good result, assuming that is possible," Carper said. "We have to save as many jobs as we can."
At a press conference at the plant, Hedrick said the facility would stop production of aldicarb, the active ingredient in its Temik brand insecticide, by the end of June 2012.
And by June 2011, Bayer also plans to stop production of carbaryl, the active ingredient in the company's well-known Sevin brand pesticide, Hedrick said.
Both products are part of the carbamate family of pesticides, named because they are made in part with carbamic acid, and use MIC as a key ingredient. In a news release, Bayer said that such products have "in recent years ... been largely substituted by newer products," prompting a review by the company of its carbamates business.
Then, in August 2010, Bayer negotiated a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to phase out aldicarb by Dec. 31, 2014. EPA had sought the deal because of agency research that found kids could be exposed to up to eight times the level of the chemical considered safe. Aldicarb had been under EPA scrutiny for years, following the poisoning of banana workers in Costa Rica and consumers of tainted watermelons in Oregon and California in the 1980s.
At the time of the EPA deal, Bayer officials said they would close an aldicarb-Temik formulation plant in Woodbine, Ga., but that they didn't yet know what impact it would have on the Institute plant.
But the facility and the products it makes with MIC were already under a variety of pressures.
Following a May 2009 ban on the use of the pesticide carbofuran in food, FMC Corp. in August 2010 stopped producing that material at the Institute site. Leasing plant space at Institute, FMC made carbofuran in part with MIC that it purchased from Bayer.
And Bayer had already announced in August 2009 that it would reduce its MIC inventory by 80 percent, in part by not rebuilding its methomyl-Larvin pesticide unit where the 2008 explosion occurred. A preliminary report from the CSB found that the explosion could have damaged a nearby tank of MIC in the methomyl-Larvin unit, causing a disaster that would have rivaled Bhopal.
"The decisions to exit Temik and to discontinue our methomyl and carbofuran production made it impossible to maintain competitive operations at parts of our Institute site and at the formulation unit at Woodbine," said Chris Evans, senior vice president of Bayer's North American industrial operations.
Maya Nye, spokewoman for the group People Concerned About MIC, said she was still learning details of exactly what Bayer had announced, but was concerned it would be depicted as a case of environmental and public safety protections costing jobs.
"Instead of taking the opportunity to lead the industry in developing safer technologies, it has chosen to take a backseat to its competitors while taking the people of this valley as economic hostages," Nye said.
At the Bayer press conference, Evans and Hedrick both referred to a more than 10-year-old company pledge to move away from products listed as "Class I" pesticides by the World Health Organization, but neither would explain why Bayer made that pledge.
In a corporate "Sustainable Development Report" posted on its Web site, Bayer says the company decided in 1995 to "gradually replace" such products, which WHO lists as "extremely hazardous.
"Bayer CropScience has undertaken to continuously optimize the responsible use of its products," the company report says. "These principles cover the entire life-cycle of a product from development to use and beyond."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.