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Bayer to pay $5.8 million over deadly Bhopal plant blast

Bayer CropScience has agreed to pay a $975,000 fine and spend $452,000 on a series of measures to improve chemical storage facilities across the United States over allegations of serious safety violations that helped cause a massive explosion that killed two workers at the company’s Institute/WV plant. Bayer will also spend $4.23 million to improve emergency preparedness in Institute and to protect the Kanawha River.

Flames shot 50 to 100 feet into the air at the Bayer Plant in Institute as explosions rocketed the valley in 2008
Flames shot 50 to 100 feet into the air at the Bayer Plant in Institute as explosions rocketed the valley in 2008

Federal investigators found that safety lapses led to the deadly runaway chemical reaction in 2008. A congressional investigation even stated that the explosion “came dangerously close” to compromising an MIC storage tank 80 feet away. Had the residue treater hit the tank, “the consequences could have eclipsed the 1984 disaster in Bhopal/India.”

Environmental groups from the US and from abroad demanded for decades to dismantle the methyl isocyanate (MIC) stockpiles at the plant. MIC killed thousands in a 1984 leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. By then the Institute factory also belonged to Union Carbide and was regarded as the “Bhopal sister plant”. After Bhopal, other chemical companies stopped storing large quantities of MIC, switching to making the deadly chemical as it was needed.

Prior to the 2008 explosion the Coalition against Bayer Dangers, based in Germany, introduced several counter motions to Bayer´s Annual Shareholder Meetings demanding to stop MIC production in Institute. However, when the Coalition spoke up on the issue four months ahead of the explosion at the shareholder meeting, Bayer CEO Werner Wenning rejected any need for action. The plant allegedly conformed to the “latest safety standards” and had an “excellent incident rate”/Axel Koehler-Schnura from the Coalition against Bayer Dangers comments: “Highly hazardous substances such as phosgene and MIC do not belong in mass production, and certainly not in the vicinity of residential areas. Ever since the company became established, Bayer has endeavored, by exerting pressure and making threats, to suppress information and criticism – also at Institute. The truth and the interests of humans and the environment are left by the wayside.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice announced the settlement on Monday. The proposal would resolve allegations contained in a 13-count civil complaint, filed Monday in federal court in Charleston, that accused Bayer of violations that “caused or contributed to conditions that” led to the explosion and “released extremely hazardous substances into the atmosphere.”

EPA alleged in its complaint that “numerous problems” occurred at the Bayer plant when the company did not comply with its “risk management plan” to prevent chemical releases. For example, EPA said, a new digital control system was installed, but a safety interlock associated with it was not properly engaged at the time of the explosion. Employees were not fully trained to understand or operate the system, and failed to follow procedures for sampling, temperature control and flow safeguards, EPA said.

“The result was an uncontrollable buildup in a treatment unit causing a chemical reaction resulting in the explosion, fire and loss of life,” EPA said. “During the incident, the company delayed emergency officials trying to access the plant, and failed to provide adequate information to 911 operators.”

“The multiple safety failures that existed at this facility that led to a loss of life, demonstrates why safeguards are necessary to protect people’s health and the environment,” said Shawn M. Garvin, administrator of EPA’s Mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia.

The 173-page settlement document outlines seven “supplemental environmental projects” that Bayer will undertake at a total cost of $4.23 million. The largest of the projects is a $3.1 million “West Sump Expansion” to provide additional storage capacity to prevent untreated chemical process wastewater from overflowing into the Kanawha River during heavy rain events, fire-fighting emergencies and chemical process upsets. Other projects aim to improve communications between plant personnel and local emergency responders during plant incidents, provide better training for local firefighters, and ensure proper handling of hazardous materials at local schools.

In its press release, EPA said Bayer will also take “a series of steps to prevent future chemical releases” in West Virginia, Texas, Missouri and Michigan “by improving inspections to identify potential safety issues and standardise safe operating procedures at its facilities…!”

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