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New Report on Fatal Explosion Adds Fuel To Chemical Security Debate

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

An area housing the Bayer CropScience facility and other West Virginia chemical plants, shown in 2009. New findings by the National Research Council on a deadly 2008 blast at the Bayer CropScience site have produced disagreement among legislators, activists and industry insiders on the need to tighten chemical security rules (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner). An area housing the Bayer CropScience facility and other West Virginia chemical plants, shown in 2009. New findings by the National Research Council on a deadly 2008 blast at the Bayer CropScience site have produced disagreement among legislators, activists and industry insiders on the need to tighten chemical security rules (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner).

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers, activists and industry officials are at odds over whether the findings of a new National Research Council report on a fatal explosion at a West Virginia chemical plant demonstrate a need for tougher chemical security regulations (see GSN, May 9).

Released on Friday, the report focuses on an August 2008 incident at a Bayer CropScience facility in Institute that killed two workers and caused extensive damage to nearby structures. Of particular concern was the fact that one of the structures hit by debris from the explosion was a 6,700-gallon storage tank for methyl isocyanate, a volatile, toxic chemical. The 1984 release of 40 tons of the substance in Bhopal, India, killed 3,000 people immediately and seriously injured at least another 100,000, according to the report.

Following the incident in West Virginia, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), then chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, requested that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigate whether Bayer could reduce or eliminate the use or storage of methyl isocyanate by switching to alternative chemicals or processes.  The report should also address whether the company had adequately considered such options, Waxman said at the time

Waxman asked that the final report include “specific recommendations for Bayer and its state and federal regulators on how to reduce the dangers produced by onsite storage” of the substance. Waxman and others have argued for stricter security measures at chemical plants, with some groups arguing the facilities could be vulnerable to terrorist efforts to release great quantities of potentially lethal materials.

The Chemical Safety Board enlisted the National Research Council to conduct the study. The NRC panel formed to do the work offered a mixed review of the West Virginia facility’s efforts to evaluate and implement options that would be inherently safer than the conventional use and storage of methyl isocyanate, which Bayer used in the production of pesticides.

The goal of adopting an inherently safer approach to controlling hazards, the NRC panel notes, “is to minimize or eliminate the hazard, for example by replacing a flammable solvent with water to eliminate a fire hazard, rather than accepting the existence of hazards and designing safety systems to control them.”

There are four strategies to consider when making a chemical process safer, according to the panel. They are substitution -- using materials or processes that are less hazardous; minimization -- using the smallest quantity of a hazardous material possible; moderation-- reducing hazards by dilution, refrigeration or processes that involve less hazardous conditions; and simplification --eliminating unnecessary complexity and designing “user-friendly” plants.

According to the panel, “Bayer and the previous owners of the plant performed hazard and safety assessments and made business decisions that resulted in MIC inventory reduction, elimination of above ground MIC storage, and adoption of various measures, but these assessments did not incorporate some of the key principles of the inherently safer process.”

Specifically, the plant’s assessments “did not incorporate in an explicit and structured manner, the principles of minimization, substitution, moderation and simplification,” the report says.

The panel found this problematic, saying that “without an emphasis on incorporating some of the key principles of the inherently process safety management, it is unlikely that these concepts would become part of corporate memory, and therefore could be forgotten or ignored over time.”

Waxman, a longtime supporter of stricter regulations that would force chemical companies to switch to inherently safer technology, said in a statement to Global Security Newswire that the NRC findings showed that the current chemical security program administered by the Homeland Security Department is insufficient.

“This report echoes the calls of House and Senate Democrats, as well as environmental groups and labor unions, for common sense changes to chemical manufacturing processes that can reduce the risk of industrial accidents and intentional attacks on manufacturing facilities,” the lawmaker said. “Rather than extending the insufficient existing program every year, Congress should be working to strengthen our nation’s chemical facility security.”

Efforts to permanently authorize the existing DHS program have been running out of steam, in part due to concerns about an internal memo publicized earlier this year that indicated the initiative has been plagued by a litany of management issues, including a failure by department personnel to complete reviews of security plans.

Even attempts to renew the program on an annual basis have taken a hit, with the GOP leadership of the House Appropriations Committee proposing last week to provide only $45.4 million for the chemical security program in fiscal 2013, which is $29.1 million less than the Obama administration is requesting and $47.9 million below what Congress appropriated for the present budget year .

In the absence of congressional action to strengthen chemical security regulations, environmental and labor groups have turned their attention toward the Environmental Protection Agency, urging it to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to establish tougher rules. Bush-era EPA Administrator Christine Whitman recently endorsed this effort (see GSN, April 17.)

However, Bill Allmond, vice president for government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, said the NRC report makes an argument “against swift new regulatory action supported by environmental activists and former EPA Administrator Whitman.”

Industry supports the panel’s recommendation “that the Chemical Safety Board lead further discussions about inherent safety, together with experts from industry, academia, and other relevant government agencies, such as” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Allmond said in a statement to GSN.

Allmond said the new report “serves as yet another reminder about how inherent safer process decision-making is evolutionary and should not be reactionary.”  He said the report also “reminds us that these decisions are best made by OSHA, not EPA,” arguing that OSHA standards “are centered on process hazards and process safety,” whereas EPA programs “are more centered on accident prevention and managing of risk.”

Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace, rejected this position, arguing that “yet another working group . . . is not needed.” Hind, who is lobbying the Chemical Safety Board to make a recommendation for EPA action on the issue, argues that facilities such as the site in West Virginia should have made efforts to switch to inherently safer technology after the 1984 incident and not wait for further tragedies to occur.

Both Hind and Allmond were critical of the cuts for the DHS chemical security program proposed by GOP House appropriators. While Hind called the proposed cuts “hypocritical,” Allmond said they were “ill-advised.”

“The House Appropriations Committee’s haste to slash program funds undermines this important security program,” Allmond said. “Rather than allow committees properly focused on homeland security to encourage better program management, House appropriators have instead decided to send DHS a message,” a move he said “could lead some to believe that this Congress isn’t serious about security a critical sector of American infrastructure.”

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