February 26, 2009 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

By Celeste Monforton

Last August 28, Bill Oxley and Barry Withrow, 45 were working at the Bayer CropScience’s plant  in Institute, WV when a massive fireball erupted in an area where methomyl for the carbamate insecticide thiodicarb (Larvin) is produced.  Mr. Withrow was killed immediately in the blast, and Mr. Oxley died after 43 days in a Pittsburgh burn center.   When I first wrote about this disaster, in “911 operator: “I’m only allowed to tell you we have an emergency,” I focused on reporting by the Charleston-Gazette’s Ken Ward, who used excerpts from the 911 emergency call transcripts to demonstrate Bayer’s dangerous tight lips about the explosion.  They refused to give adequate details to the 911 dispatcher, complicating the situation for local officials responsible for citizen’s safety.  For a time, a “shelter-in-place” order was made for local residents.

BayerCrop Science’s secrecy continues, at the expense of the public’s right-to-know.  The U.S. Chemical Safety Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is investigating the incident and had scheduled a public meeting on March 19 to brief residents openly about the Board’s work.  Ken Ward reported yesterday that the company’s lawyers warned the CSB that information about the blast should not be discussed in a public forum.

“Bayer lawyers cited an obscure maritime law that was intended to keep confidential documents prepared by Bayer for the specific purpose of deterring terrorist attacks on the Institute plant’s barge loading facility.”

As I thumb through the 72-page Maritime Transportation Safety Act of 2002,  (MTSA) I see loads of terms like “ports,” “cargo,” “cruise ships,” and “entry points,” as well as references to ports as international boundaries that are:

“(A) are particularly vulnerable to breaches in security; (B) may present weaknesses in the ability of the U.S. to realize its national security objectives; and (C) may serve as a vector or target for terrorists attacks.” (Section 101(12)).”

Despite what BayerCrop Science’s creative lawyers want to believe, Institute, WV on the Kanawha River hardly constitutes an international port as defined in the MTSA.  I’d love to be a fly on the wall listening to the company’s attorneys make this case to the CSB.  (For a bit more insight on the MTSA and Bayer’s confidentiality claims, read Tony Rutherford of of HuntingtonNews.net.)  Ken Ward’s piece yesterday offers reaction from local leaders, such as Maya Nye of People Concerned about MIC, who he quotes:

“I don’t understand why this is top-secret information. But this seems to be consistent with Bayer’s lack of communication with the community.”

Corporate secrecy.  Disrespect for a community’s right-to-know.   Here you have a company that stores, as Ward reports:

“…between 100,000 and 999,999 pounds of MIC at the plant.  And for years, local and international activists have urged various plant owners to reduce that stockpile, as other chemical makers and some other Bayer facilities have done.”

They have a massive explosion at their facility, in which two workers are killed by a blast described by witnesses as a red fireball that sent shock waves as far away as Charleston, and yet, they are unwilling to have their dirty laundry aired in public.  Not just any public, the local residents who are potentially most affected by their business practices?

When I hear corporate claims of confidentiality like this one, I’m often compelled to visit the firm’s website and see how they promote themselves as responsible corporate citizens.   Trust me, they always do.  Just as I suspected, Bayer CropScience’s website has all the corporately-correct rhetoric:

  • “a trustful partnership with our suppliers and local communities” [emphasis added]
  • “Integrity, openness and honesty”
  • “Accepting accountability for actions…giving candid and timely feedback; having the courage to tell the truth…”

But, I also noticed one other “corporate value” that smacks in the face of these others:  “keeping information confidential.”    I guess that tells us all we really need to know:  when faced with competing corporate values, secrecy wins out.

In a related move, Walt Williams of the State Journal (Charleston WV) reports that WV Governor Joe Manchin announced in his State of the State address a legislative proposal to require industrial facilities to report major emergency incidents within 15 minutes to the State’s official accident call center.  This law change might not have made any particular difference in the Bayer CropScience incident because the firm did call 911 (about 14 minutes after the blast.)  The problem there was their refusal to provide useful information.  About Governor Manchin’s proposal, Williams writes:

“The  bill is a reaction to Bayer CropScience plant explosion in Institute last year.  State and local officials criticized plant managers for not providing emergency responders information about what was taking place at the plant, saying they couldn’t make a conclusion whether the public near the site was in danger as the disaster unfolded.”

Williams reports that a legislative committee was considering the proposal this week and examining a provision to assess facilities, defined as “any factory, mill, plant or refinery, no matter the size,” a penalty of $100,000 for failing to comply with the 15-minute notification.   A similiar requirement and penalty was put in place in June 2006 for all U.S. mining operations, following the Sago mine disaster.

In addition to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s investigation of the Bayer CropScience explosion, OSHA has until February 28 to meet its six-month statutory deadline for issuing citations and penalties.  Although the CSB’s chairman John Bresland called off for now the public meeting in Institute, I’m betting my marbles that the agency will examine Bayer’s confidentiality claims and determine they are without merit.  I have a good feeling that the spirit of Carolyn Merritt is alive and well at the CSB.

One thought on “Bayer’s Secrecy Started with Their 911 Call

  1. Celeste, do yo know if the EPA has the right to shut them down until everything is fixed and what ramifications would this hold do you know (as far as the chemical containment)?

    Seems to me that this company is more dangerous and likely to cause serious harm than a terrorist threat may be.

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