(04/24/2009)
Residents turn out to blast Bayer for explosion, secrecy

By Ken Ward Jr.

Staff writer

CHARLESTONGAZETTE

INSTITUTE, W.Va. - Donna Willis has seen it all in the 54 years that she's lived in Institute.

"I have been through the blowing out of windows by Carbide, the numerous leaks by Carbide, and by Rhone-Poulenc and Aventis and now Bayer," Willis said. "I just want to know, how much chemicals can the human body take?"

Willis was among the residents from Institute and across the Kanawha Valley who packed a public meeting Thursday night to hear what caused a fatal August 2008 chemical plant explosion and to demand the Bayer CropScience clean up its act.

Even after nearly three hours of complex presentations by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and a panel discussion of local leaders, residents still had plenty to say to board members and to Bayer.

Sue Davis, a longtime and outspoken Institute resident, said she's asked plant managers before why the facility doesn't reduce its stockpile of deadly methyl isocyanate.

"He said, 'because it's more economical,'" Davis said. "In other words, they equate money with my life and your life."

Maya Nye, a spokeswoman for the local group People Concerned About MIC, said she vividly recalled having to shelter-in-place during a 1993 incident at the plant, then owned by Rhone-Poulenc.

"While plant names and managers may have changed, the effects to our communities remain the same," Nye said. "How many times do we have to tell our story before someone in power finally listens and something is finally done?"

State Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis recalled driving through a toxic cloud in Nitro on his way to respond to last summer's incident.

"I was in a tremendous amount of smoke and was smelling stuff you don't usually smell when you go through Nitro," Lewis said. By the time he left the site the next morning, he said, he still didn't know what he was breathing in.

"At the end of the night, I knew no more than I knew driving up Interstate 64," he said.

Bayer plant manager Nick Crosby said that the company still believes no dangerous chemicals left the plant and especially that "at no time was any MIC released during the incident."

"Multiple layers of protection are in place to protect the MIC day storage tank functioned as intended," Crosby said.

But chemical board investigator Lucy Sciallo told residents that MIC could have been released a variety of ways, including in the combustion of materials in the Methomyl-Larvin waste processing tank that exploded.

And there was conflicting information about the number of chemical monitors Bayer has along its plant's fenceline.

Sciallo said the company has three such monitors, but that the safety board has only been given data for two of them. Crosby, though, said there were only two such monitors mounted around the facility.

Mike Harman of St. Albans told safety board members that the area needs a comprehensive plan to monitor chemicals in the air.

"We don't have enough information," Harman said. "We don't really know whether residents should shelter in place because we don't get that information."

Residents and emergency responders continued to harshly criticize Bayer for not providing timely information to responders and the public about the explosion. And when Crosby tried to respond to those concerns, Davis interrupted and said, "You lied to your neighbors."

Dennis Hendershot, a chemical engineer and plant safety expert, said the complaints from Kanawha County emergency officials reminded him of what the former police chief of Bhopal, India, told him it was like when MIC leaked from the Union Carbide plant there in 1984.

"It was almost the same words," Hendershot said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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