Photo courtesy U.S. Chemical Safety Board
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board studied what would happen if 13,700 pounds of MIC were released from the Bayer CropScience Institute plant. Board contractors found that residents up to 3.9 miles away could be exposed to concentrations of the chemical high enough to cause irreversible or other serious health effects.
Read the report
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thousands of people living within four miles of the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute could have been exposed to potentially harmful levels of methyl isocyanate if the contents of an MIC tank located near an August 2008 explosion had been released, according to a government study obtained by the Gazette.
Residents closest to the plant -- those within a mile of the sprawling facility -- could have been exposed to MIC concentrations that are classified as "immediately dangerous to life or health," according to the study from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
The study, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, examined the potential toxic plume if 13,700 pounds of MIC escaped in a leak from the plant.
In the 23-page report, CSB consultants from the firm TAI Engineers concluded that a much smaller leak of 560 pounds of MIC would have created a "toxic endpoint" that was nearly three miles from the Bayer plant.
"I don't want to be living in an area that's one mile or three miles away [from where] 13,000 pounds of MIC became airborne," said Rafael Moure-Eraso, the safety board chairman.
"It would be a terrible thing," said Moure-Eraso, a chemical engineer and environmental health expert. "It would have a big impact on the public health of the community."
CSB investigators commissioned the study as part of their more than two-year probe of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers in the methomyl-Larvin unit at the Bayer facility.
Board officials and congressional investigators warned in April 2009 that the explosion and fire had occurred dangerously close to a "day tank," where MIC used in the methomyl-Larvin unit was stored.
The "day tank" has since been eliminated, and Bayer has said it plans to phase-out all manufacture, use and storage of MIC at the Institute facility as part of a corporate restructuring. But the company is battling in federal court against residents who want to block Bayer from resuming MIC production for 18 months during the phase-out period.
The case over restarting the MIC unit, which has been down for a reconfiguration project since August 2010, is the latest chapter in a 25-year effort by some Kanawha Valley residents to rid the community of the Institute plant's huge stockpile of MIC. Community activists have focused their concerns on MIC since December 1984, when a leak of the chemical killed thousands of people near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.
On Wednesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin extended his temporary restraining order on the MIC unit through March 28. The judge named a Texas A&M University chemical engineer as a court-appointed expert to examine the unit, and scheduled a hearing to consider a longer-term injunction for March 21.
Bayer officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the CSB study.
Company officials have previously said that they have added new safety features to their reconfigured MIC unit, that the plant hasn't had an MIC leak since Bayer bought it in 2001, and that the unit got a clean report from an outside consultant for resuming MIC production.
Goodwin commented in an earlier order that he found it "remarkable" that new operating procedures and employee training for the MIC unit had not been completed yet. Moure-Eraso warned the situation could be a "similar pattern" to safety lapses by Bayer that led to the fatal August 2008 incident.
The chemical board's study examined two potential scenarios: one involving the release of all 13,700 pounds of MIC in the day tank the night of incident and another in which the smaller, 560-pound amount was released.
Each scenario was studied to determine how far from the plant two different concentrations of MIC might stretch.
One concentration was the "toxic endpoint," defined as the maximum concentration below which most individuals could be exposed for up to an hour without experiencing irreversible or other serious health effects. The other was the "immediately dangerous to life or health," or IDLH, the concentration that poses an immediate danger to life, would cause irreversible health effects, or would impair an individual's ability to escape danger.
For the larger release, the toxic endpoint would be 3.9 miles from the plant, stretching into St. Albans, Dunbar, South Charleston and Nitro. The IDLH would be 1.2 miles from the plant.
For the smaller release, the toxic endpoint would be 2.8 miles from the plant and the IDLH would be 1.1 miles from the facility.
The study is similar and uses similar computer modeling to the "worst-case scenario" reports that Kanawha Valley companies made public in 1994 in anticipation of a federal requirement that they file such reports with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In their lawsuit over the MIC unit, 16 Kanawha Valley residents cited a "worst-case" report Bayer submitted to EPA, warning that 300,000 people within a 25-mile radius could have been affected by the plant's former inventory of more than 200,000 pounds of the chemical.
Bayer lawyers respond that such an incident is "both a physical and practical impossibility" because the worst-case report assumes "that none of the multiple layers of protection that [Bayer] employs to prevent precisely such an event were in place, or would function."
The scenarios in the CSB report were specifically aimed at providing some rough glimpse of how far impacts might have been felt if the MIC "day tank" had released some of its 13,700-pound contents the night of the explosion and fire.
In its final report last month, the board said that the steel "blast shield" around the day tank likely would have protected the tank itself, but that piping attached to the tank could have been damaged by debris.
John Vorderbrueggen, the board's investigations supervisor, cautioned that the study design could overstate the extent of the releases.
For example, both scenarios involved MIC piping being essentially cut in half, rather than punctured by a smaller hole. Also, the study assumed that most plant safety equipment that could control the size of a release is not working at the time of the incident.
But, the study also does not consider whether weather conditions could have blow the plume in the direction of a residential neighborhood and then kept it hugging against the valley floor and hillside, increasing exposure time. The report also does not attempt to quantify the risks of such leaks occurring or analyze in any way what the actual health impacts on residents might be if they occurred.
TAI Engineers' report to the CSB is dated April 20, 2009, or one day before a high-profile congressional hearing that examined the Institute explosion and Bayer's efforts to use homeland security rules to avoid embarrassing disclosures about the facility. Two days after the congressional hearing, on April 23, 2009, the board held its own public hearing in Institute to release preliminary findings of its investigation.
Board officials did not reveal the leak modeling report's findings at either hearing, and Vorderbrueggen told residents at the Institute hearing, "We do intend to run some air modeling to predict what kind of chemical release might occur in the impact zone."
In an interview Thursday, Vorderbrueggen said he did not remember exactly when the board received the report from TAI Engineers.
"Just because the report has that hard fast date doesn't mean it was in our office that day," Vorderbrueggen said. "What transpired exactly over the three, four, five, six days related to this April 20 date on the coverage page of this report, I'm not even sure it could be reproduced."
Board officials had originally said they would include the modeling results in their final report, but Vorderbrueggen said investigators decided not to do so when Bayer announced in August 2009 that it was eliminating the MIC day tank.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.