Judge Forces Chemical Plant Safety Assessment

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 @ 06:03 PM gHale

A federal judge extended an order temporarily preventing Bayer CropScience from using a West Virginia plant to restart production of a chemical that could be toxic if released into the atmosphere.

After extending that order, the judge, U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin, also appointed a chemical engineering expert to assess safety at the Bayer CropScience chemical plant in Institute, 10 miles west of Charleston.

Texas A&M professor Sam Mannan has until March 14 to assess the chances of a catastrophe involving methyl isocyanate at the plant. The order requires Mannan to inspect records at the plant to decide whether Bayer’s processes for making, storing and transporting MIC are safe. The order also requires Mannan to assess the risk of a catastrophe involving the chemical.

Bayer CropScience and previous owners have made MIC, a chemical used to make pesticides, in Institute for decades. Production stopped last August, but Bayer CropScience said in January it would start making the chemical again this year and continue through mid-2012, when it would halt the production permanently.

Concern about the chemical struck home after an explosion in a unit near where they produce and store the chemical killed two plant workers in 2008.

Two workers died when a waste tank containing the pesticide methomyl exploded, damaging a process unit at the Bayer CropScience chemical plant. As a result, the Chemical Safety Board issued recommendations and just produced a video on what happened to cause the explosion.

So Mannan has time to finish his work, Goodwin extended the temporary restraining order until March 28.

Bayer CropScience wanted to resume producing MIC, before residents filed suit. A 1984 MIC leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people.

“We supported the decision to delay the hearing so that the court has the opportunity to obtain answers to all of its questions,” Bayer Vice President Steve Hedrick said in a statement. “It is our hope that this matter will be successfully resolved and that we can resume our safe production soon after March 28.”

Attorney William DePaulo said the decision is welcome “to the extent that it makes a level of industry technical expertise available to the judge that might not otherwise be available.”