Chemical plants can reduce dangers, NAS report says
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Chemical plants like the Bayer CropScience facility in Institute should take more steps to reduce the potential for toxic disasters, according to a new report by a National Academy of Sciences panel of experts.
But industry officials need more guidance from regulatory agencies or the U.S. Chemical Safety Board about how to analyze what materials and manufacturing processes would best cut back on risks to workers and communities.
"The use of these techniques could benefit not only the communities at risk from safety breaches, but also the industries themselves, as decision-making techniques can help with the identification of profitable safety solutions that otherwise would be overlooked," a panel of experts from the academy's National Research Council said in a more than 200-page report.
Congress mandated the study three years ago, in response to public and political pressure following an August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at Bayer's Institute facility.
CSB investigators found that incident occurred dangerously close to a tank where Bayer stored methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the chemical responsible for thousands of deaths in a 1984 leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.
Originally, the study was to focus on whether Bayer could reduce or eliminate its huge stockpile of MIC, a longtime concern for plant neighbors. But Bayer announced plans to cut its inventory and then, in March 2011, to eliminate MIC from the plant entirely. That decision was prompted by a shift in corporate product lines, and hastened the elimination of more than 200 jobs.
In response to Bayer's moves, the study was somewhat reworked, with a focus on Bayer as an example of what chemical plants across the country could or should do to reduce hazards to their neighbors and workers.
A panel of engineers, safety experts and economists examined ways in which the chemical industry does -- and doesn't -- consider whether it can use "inherently safer process," in making its products. Generally, inherently safer processes involve using fewer toxic materials or eliminating altogether the use of the most dangerous chemicals.
The panel said using inherently safe processes is more complicated than it might seem, because eliminating one dangerous ingredient might necessitate using two others, or starting and stopping units more frequently, or transporting hazardous materials longer distances.
"Inherently safer process assessments can be valuable components of process safety management that can help a facility consider the full range of options in process design," the report said. "However, inherently safer process assessments will not always result in a clear, well-defined, and feasible path."
At Bayer, for example, the panel noted that one option for eliminating the plant's MIC stockpile would have been to make the chemical as it was needed, rather than in large batches that would be drawn down on over time. But doing that, the report said, would have meant starting and stopping units more frequently, which creates a different set of risks, especially for workers.
The panel noted that Bayer actually made some strides over the years in reducing its MIC inventory and in adding additional safety features to its MIC-related units. But, the panel report said, the notion of switching away from a dangerous chemical like MIC altogether is something that often goes against the traditional way companies make decisions.
"This bias in favor of an existing production process is not surprising and may even reflect the optimal decision, especially from the company's point of view," the report said.
"'Steel in the ground' is a powerful motivator," the report said. "It avoids the up-front capital costs of a new process, along with any uncertainties about how well the process will operate or what its operating cost will be. Critically and objectively reviewing a process that has been in operation for many years can be difficult for those working at a chemical production facility."
The panel recommended that the Chemical Safety Board "or other entity" convene a working group "to chart a plan for incorporating decision theory frameworks into inherently safer process assessments."
In a prepared statement, board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso did not indicate if the board would follow that recommendation, but said he hopes the new report "will serve as an important model for both Bayer and the chemical industry sector about how to assess and reduce toxic chemical hazards and build effective relationships with the surrounding community."
Bayer spokesman Greg Coffey said the company is reviewing the report.
The environmental group Greenpeace said another working group is not needed and that the CSB should instead press the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to use existing authorities to require companies to use safer chemical-making processes.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.