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Bayer Pesticide Plant Disaster, 2008, Institute, West Virginia

Biot Report #619: May 01, 2009 Printer Printer Friendly

Bayer CropScience, a component of German chemicals and pharmaceuticals giant the Bayer Group, owns and operates a 56-year-old chemical plant located along the Kanawha River in Institute (population 1,500), West Virginia. Approximately 500 people work at the plant. Institute is about 12 miles from downtown Charleston (population 50,000; metro area 310,000), WV, Charleston is the county seat of Kanawha County, West Virginia. The Kanawha River is part of the Ohio River basin. Bayer CropScience ranks as the #2 “crop protection” firm worldwide, behind Syngenta. The headquarters of Bayer CropScience is the Agricultural Center in Monheim, Germany. (1-3)


Map of the USA showing the location of Institute, West Virginia. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


Map of West Virginia, showing location of Kanawha County. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


Ohio River drainage basin showing location of Kanawha River in red. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.

  River basin of Kanawha River, West Virginia. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.
Charleston, WV, on the Kanawha River. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.    

On August 28, 2008, at around 10:35 p.m., an explosion occurred at the Bayer CropScience plant when a violent runaway reaction ruptured a 5,000-pound vessel filled with Methomyl waste, sending the vessel “careening through the production unit, breaking pipes and equipment, leaving a 50-foot-long swath of destruction.” (4) The explosion killed two employees.


Bayer CropScience carbamate plant, Institute, WV. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


Fire the night of the Bayer CropScience carbamate plant explosion in Institute, WV, on August 28, 2008. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.

About 80 feet to the southwest of the Methomyl vessel sat a 37,000-pound capacity methyl isocyanate (MIC) storage tank, which contained almost seven tons of MIC on the night of the accident. MIC is a raw material used to make Methomyl. The MIC storage tank did not sustain damage even though metal projectiles weighing up to a hundred pounds flew in all directions, some of them landing near the MIC storage tank.

MIC is the same chemical that killed and injured thousands of people, livestock, and domestic animals and wildlife in the chemical plant toxic gas explosion in Bhopal, India on December 2/3, 1984. In fact, the Union Carbide India Limited Bhopal pesticide plant was the sister plant of the Union Carbide Corporation pesticide plant in Institute, West Virginia, which Bayer CropScience later purchased, i.e., the one that exploded on August 28, 2008 (more below).


Aerial view of Bhopali Union Carbide India Limited carbamate pesticide plant. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


Dead Bhopalis after Union Carbide India Limited toxic pesticide gas leak in Bhopal, India, December 2/3, 1984. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.

In addition to Methomyl and methyl isocyanate, the Bayer CropScience plant at Institute, WV, handles large quantities of phosgene, a gas once used as a chemical warfare agent.

After the Bhopal, India, catastrophe, the U.S. Congress created an independent federal agency, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), as described elsewhere, to investigate chemical accidents in the U.S. This group, currently led by Chief Executive Officer John S. Bresland, is investigating the August 28, 2008, Bayer CropScience facility explosion in Institute, WV (more below). Mr. Bresland was appointed by President George W. Bush to his current position in March 2008. Mr. Bresland graduated in chemistry from Londonderry Technical College, Northern Ireland and from Salford University, England. He and his wife live in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Some 225 miles from Institute, WV, as the crow flies. (4-9)

John Bresland, CSB Board Chairman, speaks Thursday, April 23, 2009 at a news conference regarding an explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va. Source:  testifying; accessed May 1, 2009.

  1. Description of Methomyl/Larvin
  2. Methomyl is an intermediate chemical compound in the production of Bayer’s Larvin brand insecticide/ovicide. Methomyl is a monomethyl carbamate insecticide that is highly toxic by the oral and inhalation routes for mammals (including humans), birds, honeybees and aquatic species. When applied correctly to crops, it kills Lepidoptera insects (moths and butterflies) such as Heliothis that eat crops and are resistant to pyrethroids and organophosphates. Pyrethoids are manmade chemicals used to kill mosquitoes. Organophosphates are manmade chemicals used in insecticides, herbicides, and nerve gases (nerve agents). Organophosphates have many other industrial applications, such as use in solvents, plasticizers, and extreme pressure additives.


    Tobacco budworm (Heliothis virescens). Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


    Moth stage of the tobacco budworm (Heliothis virescens). Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.

    “Corn earworm [Heliothis zea] is the major problem of sweet corn, the same insect attacking other plants such as tomato, pepper, beans, cabbage and cotton. Worm feeding results in the production of brown ‘frass’ that makes product un-marketable. Larva germinate from eggs.” Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.   Heliothis “tobacco budworm” damage. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.

    Heliothis eats cotton, tobacco, soybean, pigeon pea, sweet corn, leafy vegetables, and other plant species. Use of Methomyl on these crops does not trigger secondary pest flare-ups such as aphids, asserts Bayer CropScience’s website. “Due to avian, aquatic and small mammal toxicity Larvin is a “restricted use pesticide.” (10-12)


    Heliothis damage. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


    Larvin container. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.

  3. History of the Bayer CropScience Facility at Institute, West Virginia
  4. The U.S. government originally built the 400-acre Institute facility now owned by Bayer CropScience in 1941 as one of a group of the first synthetic rubber plants in the US. (13) The natural rubber supply from Southeast Asia had been cut off at the beginning of World War II, causing a shortage of the material for the U.S. and its allies. “With U.S. Government sponsorship, a consortium of companies involved in rubber research and production united in a unique spirit of technical cooperation and dedication to produce a general purpose synthetic rubber, GR-S (Government Rubber-Styrene), on a commercial scale.” (14) In addition to styrene, the plants produced butadiene. Fritz Hofmann, working at the Bayer & Company laboratory in Elberfeld, Germany, in 1909 first succeeded at polymerizing isoprene, thereby creating the first synthetic rubber. (15)

    Union Carbide Corporation then purchased the plant where it produced carbamate pesticides continuously from 1947 to 1986. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) originated in 1886 when “the National Carbon Company was formed to commercialize the electric arc for street lights and carbon electrodes for electric furnaces,” notes D’Silva. (16) “This new technology gave birth to another company started by Thomas L. Wilson and James Turner Moorehead, called Union Carbide, which converted aluminum oxide to aluminum by using the electric arc furnace. In 1898, Union Carbide Company also started producing acetylene by the calcium carbide process.” On November 1, 1917, these two companies merged to form Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation. (17)

    In 1920, Union Carbide entered the chemical industry by establishing Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Corporation, which built the first commercial ethylene plant in Clendenin, WV. This plant started the petrochemical industry in the U.S., according to Union Carbide. Clendenin is 27 miles east of Institute, WV, as the crow flies. In 1947, Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation purchased the rubber plant at Institute from the U.S. government. In 1957, Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation changed its name to Union Carbide Corporation. In 1984, the Union Carbide India Limited plant disaster occurred. In 1986, Union Carbide Corporation divested its agricultural products business. On August 4, 1999, Union Carbide became a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company. (17)

    Who purchased Union Carbide Corporation’s Agricultural Division, which included its Institute, WV, carbamate plant, when the Union Carbide Corporation divested its agricultural products business in 1986? Rhone-Poulenc Agro purchased the Agricultural Division of Union Carbide, Research Triangle Park, NC (USA) in 1986. (2) Rhone-Poulenc Company is a French chemical and pharmaceutical company founded in 1928 through the merger of Société des Usines Chimiques du Rhône (Society of Rhône Chemical Factories) from Lyon and Établissements Poulenc Frères (Poulenc Brothers Company) from Paris founded by Étienne Poulenc, a 19th century Parisian apothecary. (18-19)


    Institute carbamate pesticide plant tanks alongside the Kanawha River when Rhone Poulenc AG owned the plant. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


    DuPont chemical factory on the Kanawha River, WV. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.

    In January 1999, Rhone-Poulenc Agro merged with AgrEvo to form Aventis CropScience. (2,20) (AgrEvo was formed by a merger of Hoechst and Schering in 1994.) (2) In 2002, the Bayer Group acquired Aventis CropScience and changed its name to Bayer CropScience. With this acquisition, Bayer CropScience became owner and operator of the Institute, WV, pesticide plant. (2)

    Indeed, “e]arlier this month, Bayer announced that it was increasing Larvin production capacity at the Institute plant. The move, aimed at meeting growing demand, included hiring 24 new workers and spending about $3.5 million on upgrades,” notes Ken Ward, Jr., reporter for The Charleston Gazette. (21)

  5. What Caused the Explosion?
  6. The following information about the explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, WV, on August 28, 2008, comes from

    • John S. Bresland, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, who testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on April 21, 2009, and
    • Ken Ward, Jr., reporter for the Charleston Gazette Bayer. (4,22)

    On Thursday, August 28, 2008, at 10:35 p.m., writes Mr. Bresland,

    A powerful explosion occurred within the Methomyl/Larvin unit at the Bayer plant. The explosion occurred during the restart of the Methomyl section of the unit. The startup followed an extended maintenance shutdown of the entire unit. On the night of August 28, a vessel known as a residue treater experienced a runaway chemical reaction, which produced tremendous heat and pressure.

    The residue treater was an eight-by-ten foot cylindrical steel pressure vessel with a capacity of about 4,500 gallons. When empty, it weighed more than 5,000 pounds. It stood vertically on steel supports, and it had just been replaced during the maintenance shutdown, although we do not believe that contributed to the accident.

    About ten minutes prior to the explosion, two unit operators – Barry Withrow and Bill Oxley – were asked to go and check on the residue treater because of abnormally high pressure readings. They were in the vicinity of the treater at 10:35 p.m., when the emergency pressure relief valves opened. However, the pressure relief system was not sized or designed for a runaway reaction involving large amounts of Methomyl, and pressure continued to build inside the vessel. Moments later, the vessel suddenly ruptured. The entire vessel was violently propelled in a northeasterly direction into the production unit – demolishing process equipment, twisting steel beams, and breaking pipes and conduits. The vessel finally came to rest about 50 feet away, grossly deformed and flattened. In its wake, it left a continuous swath of destruction.


    Locations of key vessels at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, WV, following the explosion on August 28, 2008. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


    Bayer CropScience plant, Institute, WV, showing ruptured Methomyl vessel and equipment destruction along trajectory of explosion. Source: “Oral Testimony of John S. Bresland, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer U.S. Chemical Safety Board Before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, April 21, 2009.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.


    Damage at Bayer CropScience carbamate plant following August 28, 2008 explosion. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


    Mr. Withrow and Mr. Oxley were caught by the explosion, chemical release, and fire and were both fatally injured. Mr. Withrow died at the scene; Mr. Oxley died after 41 days in a hospital burn center in Pittsburgh.

    A blast wave propagated outward from the epicenter of the explosion, causing damage in the control room hundreds of feet away, breaking windows and cracking walls and ceilings at homes and businesses up to several miles away. (4)

    Methomyl is a highly toxic substance that is sold as a pesticide and is also used as a feedstock to produce the pesticide Larvin. Methomyl can be highly reactive. When heated in solution, Methomyl breaks down chemically, producing heat. The residue treater was designed to decompose Methomyl at a concentration of less than 1% in solution. However, during the startup on August 28, the Methomyl concentration in the treater vessel reached a very high concentration, potentially as high as 20% or more.

    In the production process, Methomyl is synthesized from MIC and other chemicals and then crystallized from a solvent solution. The solid Methomyl is separated out using centrifuges, leaving behind liquid residue that still contains some Methomyl. Most of the solvent is then recovered by distillation and reused, leaving behind a concentrated liquid waste stream that contains as much as 40% Methomyl. This liquid waste stream was sent to the residue treater, which was intended to decompose most of the Methomyl prior to incineration in a boiler.

    The fact that high concentrations of Methomyl could cause a violent reaction or explosion in the residue treater was known to plant managers and operators and was described in the unit operating procedures. Bayer’s process hazard analysis and the operating procedures for the unit warned against exceeding a Methomyl concentration of 0.5% in the residue treater, due to the danger of an explosion.

    The explosion occurred because of “significant lapses in process safety management,” says CSB CEO Bresland. He continues,

    Bayer had recently upgraded the computer control system for the unit, replacing an older Honeywell system with a more modern system purchased from Siemens. The control screens and commands were completely different with the new Siemens system; yet our investigation found that the unit operators received inadequate training on the new system. Furthermore, the written operating procedures for the unit were significantly out of date – still describing the use of the Honeywell control system – and were in some cases incorrect.

    As early as October 2007 – ten months prior to the accident – Bayer assigned priority action items to correct deficiencies in the unit operating procedures, but the action items remained incomplete by the time of the explosion. The incorrect and inaccurate operating procedures are one example of a number of priority action items left undone by Bayer. In fact, Bayer’s own process hazard analysis for the unit, which was prepared in 2004 to comply with OSHA process safety standards, contained some 25 action items that still remained open in August 2008, four years later.

    In addition, we found that the steam heater used to heat the contents of the residue treater during startup was deficient: it was undersized and could not produce a sufficient amount of heat. As a result, it was simply impossible for operators to start up the residue treater in the way prescribed by the written operating procedures. The heater could not heat the solvent in the treater to the minimum temperature needed to ensure controlled decomposition of the Methomyl. Since the temperature always fell about 10 degrees Centigrade below the required value, a safety interlock would block the flow of Methomyl into the residue treater, making it impossible for operators to complete the startup of the unit.

    The heater deficiency was a longstanding problem, was known to management, and had persisted throughout a number of previous startups. As a result of the heater problem, operators regularly performed a work-around to start up the residue treater. This involved defeating three safety interlocks controlling the operation of the Methomyl feed valve.

    Defeating the feed valve interlocks allowed Methomyl to be pumped into the vessel during the startup sequence even though the minimum operating temperature had not been reached. The Methomyl would begin to decompose and release heat, bringing the temperature up into the required range and allowing the startup to proceed, and thereby compensating for the known problem with the undersized heater.

    The practice of bypassing the safety interlocks was longstanding and was known to Bayer managers and engineers. But bypassing the safety interlocks made it much more likely to overcharge the vessel with Methomyl, which could lead to a catastrophic runaway reaction.

    On the night of the accident, not only were the three safety interlocks bypassed, but the residue treater was not properly filled with solvent and preheated to the maximum achievable temperature.

    As the result of these multiple actions and omissions, the residue treater received hundreds or possibly thousands of pounds of excess Methomyl, which decomposed in a sudden and violent runaway reaction.

    We also learned that a valve was missing from equipment related to the residue treater feed stream, causing abnormal conditions in a solvent distillation column. This and other column operational control issues diverted the attention of unit personnel, potentially making it more likely to inadvertently overcharge the residue treater with Methomyl.

    The heater deficiency, routine procedural deviations, and routine bypassing of safety interlocks were never subjected to formal management-of-change reviews to assess their impact on safety – a key requirement of the OSHA process safety management standard. These deviations likely contributed to the runaway reaction and the resulting explosion. Understanding why all these factors came together on August 28 remains a focus of our investigation. We learned that unit operators had very high overtime levels during the three months prior to the accident, averaging almost 20 hours a week of overtime. Operators worked 12-hour shifts for many consecutive days, with few days off, and sometimes worked up to 18 hours in a row. So we are concerned about the potential for fatigue, which can of course be an important factor in major accidents. (4)

  7. Bayer Emergency Response, Communications, and Reporting Performance Poor
  8. Serious shortcomings were evident in the response to the disaster. Bresland notes,

    When the explosion occurred at 10:35 p.m. on the night of August 28, the flammable and toxic contents of the residue treater, amounting to about 2,500 gallons, were suddenly ejected and a major fire erupted in the unit. Chemical pipes and venting systems were broken open and their contents released to the atmosphere. Projectiles were hurled in all directions.

    Shelter in place zone in the aftermath of the Bayer CropScience pesticide plant explosion on August 28, 2008. Source: f; accessed May 1, 2009.

    …The county’s 9-1-1 call center was told, fifteen minutes into the response, that no dangerous chemicals had been released. That information came from Bayer’s incident commander and was relayed by the Institute volunteer fire chief, who was also a Bayer employee.” (4) Bresland continues,

    That statement is clearly incorrect, since Methomyl is toxic, and its uncontrolled decomposition may release highly toxic byproducts. According to publicly available material, safety data sheets for Methomyl, those decomposition products may include highly toxic chemicals such as methyl isocyanate, hydrogen cyanide, acetonitrile, carbon monoxide, dimethyl disulfide, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and methyl thiocyanate

    In addition, it is likely that hazardous substances were released from the broken chemical pipes and vent systems.

    It was more than half an hour later that Bayer recommended to the 9-1-1 center to issue a shelter-in-place advisory for surrounding communities. This was actually some minutes after local authorities had already decided on a shelter-in-place order, after observing what they feared might be a hazardous chemical haze drifting from the plant.

    It was more than two hours before Bayer reported the accident to the National Response Center, and that notification erroneously omitted the fatality and the critical injury [The National Response Center is the sole federal point of contact for reporting oil and chemical spills. (23)] The report did state that “hazardous materials” exceeding the reportable quantities were likely released and noted that a shelter-in-place action was underway…

    There were well-publicized problems with the content of Bayer’s communications relayed by a front gate guard to the 9-1-1 center. For a period, the guard – evidently following instructions from Bayer – declined to identify to 9-1-1 officials even where in the 400-acre facility the explosion, release, and fire had occurred. All of these observations point to serious deficiencies in internal communications, coordination, and emergency response planning on the part of Bayer.

    Ward of The Charleston Gazette reported on September 18, 2008, the following:

    “It was mass chaos," said Joe Crawford, police chief of St. Albans, a city of more than 11,000 located just across the Kanawha River from the plant. Newly released emergency radio recordings, command center reports and public statements by responders all paint a frightening picture of the 3 1/2 hours following the explosion.

    Local firefighters and police didn’t know what to do. Some were preparing to copy evacuation plans, fearing a catastrophic leak that threatened thousands of lives. Others were scrambling to figure out which roads to close down and at which intersections. “That information needs to be relayed to Metro so we know what to do to protect our citizens,” said Dunbar Mayor Roger Wolfe. “We're a community and it takes everybody working together.”

    Authorities resorted to all sorts of back-channel communications. They tried to call plant workers and retirees. They reached out to local industry experts, even asked the media for whatever rumors were out there. Decisions about where emergency personnel should stage were made based on smells and visible observations, not on chemical monitoring results or computer modeling data available to officials inside the Bayer plant. County officials ended up with command centers set up at three different locations - four, if you count the Metro 911 Operations Center. It wasn't clear who was in charge. (24)

    Another report notes, “Kanawha County’s emergency services director says he should have been informed about a minor situation involving the chemical MIC at the Bayer CropScience Plant in Institute. In fact, county officials say the first they heard about it is when contacted them about it…Workers took action after smelling the odor of MIC, which Dover says has a strong smell even at very low levels.” (25) More information on the smell of various gases associated with pesticide production is available. (26)

  9. The MIC Tank Issue
  10. Bresland noted his concern about the nearby MIC tank.

    When the residue treater ruptured it was hurled with tremendous force in a northeasterly direction. This trajectory took the vessel through a highly congested section of process equipment, where it left a wide, long swath of destruction. As far as we can determine, the direction the residue treater traveled was a matter of random chance. The violent rupture of the vessel might have propelled it horizontally in any direction or upward on an arc-like trajectory.

    Approximately 80 feet to the southwest of the location of the residue treater, there is a 37,000-pound capacity tank of methyl isocyanate. This tank provides MIC feedstock to the Methomyl unit and to another pesticide unit located at the complex, a unit that is owned by FMC Corporation. [23] During normal production, this tank is filled once a day via pipeline with product from the MIC production unit, which is located several thousand feet away. The tank is actually a refrigerated pressure vessel that stands 19 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter. At the time of the explosion on August 28, the tank was about 30% full, containing a total of 13,800 pounds of MIC.


    Bayer CropScience plant, Institute, WV, showing view of MIC tank covered with steel blanket. Source: “Oral Testimony of John S. Bresland, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer U.S. Chemical Safety Board Before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, April 21, 2009.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.


    CSB photo: Explosion debris was found at the base of the blast blanket surrounding the Bayer CropScience Institute plant’s MIC day tank. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


    CSB photo: MIC tank at Bayer CropScience Institute plant shown with its protective blast blanket removed. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


    In 1982, prior to the Bhopal disaster, then-owner Union Carbide equipped the tank with what the facility refers to as a “blast blanket.” The blast blanket is a steel mesh that hangs from a steel framework and was presumably installed to try to protect the MIC tank from accidental process-related explosions. In 1994, then-owner Rhone-Poulenc installed a second section of the blast blanket above the top of the MIC tank.

    On the night of August 28, 2008, the rupture of the residue treater sent metal projectiles in all directions. Some of these projectiles weighed up to a hundred pounds. When our investigators arrived at the site, they observed explosion debris near the base of the MIC blast blanket.

    We are still awaiting from Bayer any written documentation to indicate the design basis of the blast blanket, the standards to which it was constructed, and the scenarios it may be designed to withstand. Without that information, it is difficult to draw any conclusion about how much danger the tank might have been exposed to on August 28. Subsequent to the August explosion, Bayer removed the blast blanket from the tank and installed a new blanket constructed from heavier steel cable.

    Although the MIC tank and the blast mat escaped serious damage on August 28, there is reason for concern. This was potentially a serious near miss, the results of which might have been catastrophic for workers, responders, and the public.

    MIC is considered “immediately dangerous to life and health” (IDLH) at the extremely low concentration of three parts per million in air. At ordinary temperatures, MIC is a liquid but it evaporates very rapidly to form a heavier-than-air vapor cloud, which is obviously very dangerous.

    Bayer’s plant in Institute is the only manufacturing site in the United States that continues to produce and store more than 10,000 pounds of MIC, which is the EPA threshold under the Risk Management Program (RMP) rule.

    There are hypothetical scenarios where the MIC storage tank could have been compromised during the August 28 explosion, either by powerful projectiles or by a collision with the residue treater vessel, had it traveled in that direction. Any release of MIC into the atmosphere is cause for great concern, even if it is far smaller than the 200,000-pound RMP worst-case scenario reported by Bayer to the EPA.

    Speaking more broadly, there is the issue of whether it is necessary to keep large inventories of MIC in order to produce pesticides like Methomyl. Following the Bhopal tragedy, DuPont and other companies moved promptly to eliminate the storage of MIC and develop manufacturing processes where this highly toxic intermediate is consumed as soon as it is made. In this manner, the maximum release is limited to the contents of a short length of pipe, instead of the thousands of gallons contained in a large storage tank. (4)

  11. Institute Pesticide Plant’s Rocky Safety History
  12. An astonishing partial list of Institute Plant incidents compiled by The Charleston Gazette (27) follows:

    Aug. 11, 1985: At least 135 people sought treatment at area hospitals after a leak of aldicarb oxime and four other chemicals from the plant, then owned by Union Carbide. An initial fine of $32,000 was dropped to $4,400 when the company agreed to buy an accident simulator for worker training exercises.

    May 20, 1993: More than 1,000 residents of Institute and West Dunbar shelter in their homes because of a chlorine gas leak from the Institute plant’s barge loading dock.

    June 19, 1994: A high-tech monitoring system somehow allows a large leak of untreated wastewater from the plant to be discharged into the Kanawha River.

    Aug. 18, 1994: Thousands of Kanawha Valley residents take shelter in their homes after an explosion rips through the Rhone-Poulenc facility. One worker is killed in the blast, and a second dies 10 years later from the effects of cyanide that burned his lungs. OSHA fines the company $1.7 million, but later settles the case for $700,000.

    Dec. 13, 1994: A faulty chemical pump causes a leak of sulfur dichloride from the Institute plant. One worker is injured and others are forced to shelter in place.

    Feb. 15, 1996: A leak and fire involving the chemical toluene prompts another widespread shelter-in-place advisory across the western part of the valley. Rhone-Poulenc pays $450,000 in fines to OSHA.

    July 28, 1997: High winds and heavy rains shut down a chemical disposal system and blow out an incinerator flame, prompting the release of a tiny amount of methyl isocyanate from the Institute plant.

    Oct. 15, 1999: A shelter-in-place advisory was issued for residents within two miles of the plant after a leak of the deadly gas phosgene.

    Aug. 13, 2001: Ten workers received medical treatment after a chloroform leak at the Aventis portion of the Institute plant.


    Bayer CropScience plant, Institute, WV, showing location of Methomyl/Larvin unit. Source: “Oral Testimony of John S. Bresland, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer U.S. Chemical Safety Board Before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, April 21, 2009.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.


    Bayer CropScience plant, Institute, WV, showing location of Methomyl/Larvin unit in relation to MIC “day tank.” Source: “Oral Testimony of John S. Bresland, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer U.S. Chemical Safety Board Before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, April 21, 2009.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.

  13. Bayer’s Response to the Institute Plant Incident Investigation
  14. Mr. Bresland notes, “In early February [2009], Bayer officials and attorneys requested a meeting with the CSB to discuss concerns about the public meeting. That meeting occurred on February 12 at the CSB’s headquarters in Washington. At the meeting, Bayer contended that a large number of documents they had already submitted to the CSB investigation should be treated as “sensitive security information” (SSI) under the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) of 2002.” (4) Why? “As a facility that operates a barge terminal, the security of the Bayer Institute complex is regulated under MTSA rather than under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS), a program established by the Department of Homeland Security following Congressional action in 2006. (4)

    As a result, Bayer claimed that certain information should not be discussed or disclosed to the public. Bayer specifically cited documents relating to MIC use, storage, and process safeguards as potentially being SSI. (4)

    Following that meeting, Mr. Bresland postponed a planned CSB public meeting to evaluate Bayer’s claims. Following discussions with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)—both of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the CSB decided to proceed with the public meeting and to review our presentation in advance with the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard reviewed a draft of our presentation (in the form of a PowerPoint slide show), and determined that apart from one or two narrow issues, it did not contain any potential SSI. (4)


    William Buckner, president and CEO of Bayer CropScience LP and member of the Executive Committee of Bayer CropScience AG. Source:$file/William_Buckner.jpg; accessed May 1, 2009.


    Doug Jones, the new emergency services leader hired on April 24, 2009, for Bayer CropScience Institute, WV, pesticide plant. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.

    Mr. Bresland notes that Bayer continues to be intransigent in sharing information about the disaster:

    In response to recent requests from the CSB, Bayer has resubmitted all of its previously provided documents, marking those portions that Bayer believes to be SSI under the company’s interpretation of current MTSA regulations. According to our initial estimates, Bayer has marked approximately two thousand pages of investigative information as containing SSI – a number that is likely to increase significantly as our investigation continues.

    In addition, we have no real way of knowing whether the thousands of pages of interview transcripts, notes, and photographs generated in our investigation may later also be claimed to contain SSI.

    Bayer has provided us with a “protection log,” which is merely a list of document titles that the company claims contain SSI. This log itself runs to 24 pages in length. It includes such items as process hazard analyses and standard operating procedures for the Methomyl/Larvin unit, surveillance videos that may depict the accident, insurance audits, and even a map of the facility.

    As Bayer attorneys told me on February 12, the company believes that even documents that were originally prepared in order to comply with various OSHA and EPA safety regulations can be now protected from public disclosure or discussion, if those documents are merely referenced in the facility’s MTSA-required security vulnerability assessment.

    Mr. Chairman, it requires little imagination to see the potential for misuse if such an interpretation prevails. In the future, companies may be able to delay our investigations for years while complex claims and counterclaims under MTSA or CFATS are painstakingly resolved between the CSB and various homeland security agencies. Public confidence in the independence, thoroughness, and efficiency of our critical life-saving work may be undermined.

    For these reasons, I believe it is vital that Congress work with the CSB, the Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, and other affected agencies to develop an efficient system for conducting public safety investigations while protecting legitimate security interests. The starting point for such a system should be a reaffirmation of the public’s fundamental right to know about major accidents and about the safety of the communities in which we all live and work.

    The security precautions at chemical plants are beyond the scope of the CSB’s mission.We don’t investigate how many guards a site has, how personnel access is controlled, or what type of fencing is used. We defer those and other more complex security issues to the experts at DHS.

    We do, however, conduct critical investigations of process safety issues that are essential to saving the lives of workers and the public from chemical disasters. I ask your support, Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, to preserve and strengthen that authority.

    Under the Clean Air Act, the mission of the Chemical Safety Board is, quite simply, to“investigate … determine and report to the public in writing the facts, conditions, and circumstances and the cause or probable cause of any accidental release resulting in a fatality, serious injury or substantial property damages.”

    In response to your request, Mr. Chairman, we recently submitted to the committee a list of such serious accidents since 2004 – a list that includes hundreds of accidents. As an agency with fewer than 40 employees and an annual budget of $10 million, we are hard pressed to perform in-depth investigations of even a fraction of these accidents.

    Extensive secrecy claims from companies – which I believe are destined to occur unless the current issues are constructively resolved – have the potential to undermine the CSB’s effectiveness as a public safety agency. (4)

    Reporter Ken Ward, Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes on April 21, 2009 (about two weeks ago) the following about the Bayer response to the Institute Plant explosion investigation (28):

    Since the August incident, congressional investigators said, "serious questions have also been raised" about Bayer's handling of key evidence about the explosion and fire:

    • Critical video footage of the explosion is missing because an unidentified contractor disabled the recording function from surveillance cameras inside the Larvin unit;
    • Air monitors designed to detect MIC inside the Larvin unit were "out of service for maintenance" at the time of the explosion;
    • A protective “blast mat” around the MIC tank was removed and destroyed after the explosion, foreclosing further analysis of damage caused by shrapnel and debris.

    Testimony and committee evidence also outlined how Bayer officials and attorneys tried to use plant security secrecy rules to hide information about the incident, and revealed efforts by Bayer public relations agents to try to discredit local citizens and The Charleston Gazette.

    "Evidence obtained by the committee demonstrates that Bayer engaged in a campaign of secrecy by withholding critical information from local, county and state emergency responders; by restricting the use of information provided to federal investigators; by undermining news outlets and citizen groups concerned about the dangers posed by Bayer's activities; and by providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public," said the 20-page report by congressional investigators.

    In one memo, Bayer public relations consultant Ann Green outlined the company's strategy for dealing with the group People Concerned About MIC and with the Gazette.

    “Our goal with People Concerned About MIC should be to marginalize them,” Green wrote. "Take a similar approach to The Charleston Gazette."

    William Buckner, Bayer CropScience’s CEO, conceded in his prepared testimony that his company had hoped that a set of obscure Coast Guard secrecy rules for plants along waterways would allow it to avoid the explosion probe turning into a debate on the Institute plan’s huge MIC stockpile.

    “There were, of course, some business reasons that motivated our desire for confidentiality,” Buckner said. "These included a desire to limit negative publicity generated about the company or the Institute facility, to avoid public pressure to reduce the volume of MIC that is produced and stored at Institute by changing to alternative technologies, or even calls by some in our community to eliminate MIC production entirely.”

    On April 21, 2009, a congressional hearing was held titled “Secrecy in the Response to Bayer’s Fatal Chemical Plant Explosion” by the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.” A rich cache of resources from this hearing, including statements from Bayer executives, is available. (29)

    The Congressional investigation of the Bayer Institute Plant explosion continues as of this writing.

  15. Criminal Charges?
  16. On April 22, 2009, writes tenacious Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr., “Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper called for a federal criminal investigation of Bayer CropScience’s actions related to the August 2008 explosion that killed two plant workers. In a letter, Carper urged U.S. Attorney Charles T. Miller ‘to take the appropriate and necessary steps to review the conduct of Bayer CropScience relating to the August 28, 2008, explosion.’ Miller confirmed that Carper had referred the matter to prosecutors, and said his office plans to look into it.”

    “‘We always do if we get a referral,’ Miller said. ‘From what I read in the paper, some things don’t look right. But it's an area where we need to have an agency do some investigating.’ Carper cited a congressional report that he said ‘demonstrated willful conduct on the part of Bayer CropScience, which included circumventing the safety protocol, directly causing the August 28, 2008, explosion, which resulted in the deaths of two employees’…Also, Carper said he believes Bayer violated the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act’s requirements for providing state and local officials information about chemical accidents. That law, called EPCRA, contains criminal penalties for willful violations. Carper noted that Bayer officials repeatedly stonewalled county and local emergency responders the night of the explosion, and then told government agencies and the public there had been no release of hazardous materials.” (30)

  17. Summary
  18. The explosion at the Bayer CropScience Institute Plant in West Virginia killed two workers and had the clear potential to rupture the nearby MIC tank, which was the culprit in the Bhopal, India, disaster in 1984. Bayer CropScience is in deep trouble because of its behavior before and especially following the incident.

    Major chemical plants and terminals of the Ohio River basin. Source:; accessed May 1, 2009.


  1. “Bayer CropScience Company Description.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  2. “Bayer CropScience History.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  3.  “The Monheim Site.” Bayer CropScience brochure. Available at$file/Monheim_Flyer_EN.pdf; accessed May 1, 2009.
  4. “Oral Testimony of John S. Bresland, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer U.S. Chemical Safety Board Before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, April 21, 2009.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  5. US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board website is available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  6. CSB” “In Preliminary Findings, CSB Investigators Report Bayer CropScience Explosion Was Caused by Runaway Chemical Reaction; Cite Significant Lapses in Process Safety, Outdated Operating Procedures.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  7. U.S. Chemical Safety Board Statements: John Bresland, CSB Chairman, John Vorderbrueggen, CSB Lead Investigator: News Conference, April 23, 2009, Institute, West Virginia.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  8. SEMP Biot Report #511: “What is the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board?” April 17, 2008. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  9. “Methomyl: Health and Safety Guide.” IPCS International Programme on Chemical Safety. Health and Safety Guide No. 97, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 1995. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  10. Bayer CropScience: “Larvin” website. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  11. Larvin label information. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  12. For more information on Heliothis genus, see; accessed May 1, 2009.
  13. “West Virginia History Timeline.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  14. “United States Synthetic Rubber Program, 1939-1945.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  15. LanXESS: 100 Years of Synthetic Rubber: “Biography Fritz Hofmann.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  16. Themistocles D’Silva: The Black Box of Bhopal. Victoria, BC, Canada: Trafford, 2006, pp. 27-28.
  17. “Union Carbide History.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  18. “Rhone Poulenc.” Available at:; accessed May 1, 2009.
  19. “Rhone-Poulenc.” Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  20. Fred Aftalion: A History of the International Chemical Industry. Translated by Otto Theodor Benfey. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, p. 41.
  21. Ken Ward, Jr.: “Institute plant’s safety history is rocky.” The Charleston Gazette, August 30, 2008. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  22. The Charleston Gazette “Bayer explosion” archive is available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  23. National Response Center website is at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  24. Ken Ward, Jr.: “Bayer delays triggered response “chaos.” The Charleston Gazette, September 14, 2008. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  25. WSAZ TV: “Bayer communication issues continue, county officials say.” October 27, 2008. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  26. The partial list of Institute Plant safety incidents is available at; accessed May 1, 2008.
  27. SEMP Securitas Magazine, Jan/Feb 2004, Volume 3, Issue 1. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  28. “Bhopal: The Four Scent Disaster thousand people and a large number of cows, buffaloes, dogs and goats in the City of Bhopal, India, died at five past midnight on December 3, 1984, when the Union Carbide Corporation’s “Sevin” pesticide plant accidentally belched 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas into the atmosphere. Existing atmospheric conditions caused the methyl isocyanate to convert in part to hydrogen cyanide, which killed the majority of Bhopalis who died that night (cyanide poisoning). Phosgene and monomethylamine, two components used to make methyl isocyanate, also escaped from nearby reactors at the plant to further foul the air and sicken people and animals.

    Each of these four chemicals has a distinct odor, which makes this particular disaster an excellent teaching case for firefighters, police officers, paramedics, emergency department staff, and private citizens in the know. Methyl isocyanate smells like boiled cabbage. Phosgene smells like freshly cut grass. Monomethylamine smells like ammonia. Cyanide has a faint bitter, almond-like smell.

    Union Carbide was well intentioned in undertaking construction of a Sevin plant in Bhopal in the 1970s. India’s large population needed food, pests regularly devastated crops, and people needed jobs. Construction of a Sevin pesticide plant seemed to be a great solution.

    The plant was modeled after the mother Sevin plant in South Charleston, West Virginia, which had been designed to produce 30,000 tons of Sevin a year. Three huge tanks stored the methyl isocyanate needed to supply the plant’s 24 hour-per-day operations. Union Carbide officials believed that the same size tanks were appropriate for the Bhopal plant, which would also need to operate 24 hours per day to meet the demand the officials optimistically predicted.

    Eduardo Munoz provides one of the most interesting lines in the book, Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (published in 2002 by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro), which nicely recounts the Bhopal tragedy. Munoz, an Argentinean agronomic engineer and Union Carbide employee, advocated producing methyl isocyanate in small batches as needed at the Bhopal plant (justin- time technology). The toxicity of methyl isocyanate itself was relatively mild—similar to tear gas; but under certain conditions, the methyl isocyanate could convert to hydrogen cyanide gas, which asphyxiates those who breathe it within minutes.

    Munoz’s interesting remark was: “I quickly realized that my proposal ran counter to American industrial culture. In the United States, they love to produce around the clock, in large quantities. They’re besotted with enormous pipes running into giant tanks. That’s how the whole of the oil industry and many others work” (page 101).

    The Bhopal plant was built to exacting safety standards. However, when it failed to stimulate anticipated demand for the Sevin product, Union Carbide officials at headquarters in Danbury, Connecticut, in August 1984, decided to break the plant apart and distribute its physical assets to other factories they owned and operated throughout the world. Indian nationals had taken over the plant’s operations in 1982, the same time that American engineers stopped going to the plant.

    The plant had known safety problems. The problems became worse when critical safety systems were discontinued by the Indian operators to reduce costs. Water somehow got into one of the three huge tanks containing methyl isocyanate the night of the disaster, which caused a heat reaction and the ensuing explosion that spewed the four gases into the atmosphere. Finger pointing as to the cause of the explosion continues to this day. This disaster needs a root cause analysis, if it hasn’t had one already. An extradition order issued by the Indian government is still out for Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s CEO in 1984, who remains in seclusion somewhere in Florida even to this day.

    Most of the afflicted were poor and lived close to the Bhopal plant in shanty neighborhoods called bustees. Those that made it to Hamidia Hospital surprised the physicians in the emergency department. When the Union Carbide physician responsible for the Bhopal plant was contacted about the possible identity of the gases, he remarked that methyl isocyanate exposure is generally mild, like exposure to tear gas. Surprised by this answer, physicians autopsied several bodies. They smelled the bitter odor of almonds and diagnosed cyanide poisoning, which has a known antidote, but which they lacked. The hospital was overflowing with casualties. A makeshift hospital was created outdoors in front of the hospital by the collective behavior of Bhopalis to care for the thousands of people affected by one or more of the four gases in the air. Union Carbide engineers quickly flew to Bhopal after the tragedy to find out what had happened. They found that two of the huge tanks still contained methyl isocyanate. To get rid of the chemical, the engineers decided to convert it into Sevin. But first they had to bring the plant up to safety standards, which took two weeks. Bhopalis evacuated the city in horror when the Americans said they were going to deliberately start up the plant. The conversion went well and as planned. Today the weed overgrown Sevin plant remains in Bhopal. A visit there would make an interesting trip.

    Union Carbide’s name is forever associated with the Bhopal disaster. Union Carbide’s adroit departure from the pesticide production business after 1984 did not remove it from the public eye. In 2001 it merged with Dow Chemical, Inc., but continues to operate its huge plants in places like West Virginia, Louisiana and Texas. A list of products for which Union Carbide supplies intermediate products is mind-boggling. We need chemical giants like

    Union Carbide to make products for us to use, but we also need them to practice smart and ethical management. Smart and ethical managers would not have allowed the Bhopal plant to fall into disrepair even for two years, given the hazardous nature of the Sevin production business.”

  29. Ken Ward, Jr.: “Bayer safety lapses ‘could have eclipsed Bhopal,’ Firm ‘engaged in a campaign of secrecy,’ documents show.” The Charleston Gazette, April 21, 2009. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  30. U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations: “Secrecy in the response to Bayer’s fatal chemical plant explosion.” April 21, 2009. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.
  31. Ken Ward, Jr.: “Federal prosecutors look into Bayer explosion. The Charleston Gazette, April 22, 2009. Available at; accessed May 1, 2009.