- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Bayer CropScience withheld information from emergency responders after a deadly explosion at a West Virginia chemical plant last summer, and has since used a terrorism-related law to keep some documents secret, a congressional committee said Tuesday.

The staff report by the House Energy and Commerce Committee said its investigation revealed that Bayer CropScience “engaged in a campaign of secrecy by withholding critical information from local, county, and state emergency responders … and by providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public.” The Aug. 28 explosion and fire at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va., killed two people.

The explosion came close to compromising a tank holding methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the report said. The same chemical was responsible for the deaths of thousands in Bhopal, India, when it leaked from a former Union Carbide plant in 1984. Carbide operated the West Virginia plant which is now owned by Bayer CropScience.

Had a projectile from last summer’s explosion hit that tank, the consequences “could have eclipsed” the 1984 disaster, according to the report, which was presented at a House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee hearing.

Subcommittee chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said that the investigation “has uncovered several troubling facts that further raise concerns about an orchestrated effort by Bayer to shroud the explosion in secrecy.” He said that the company removed and destroyed a “blast blanket” that surrounded the MIC tank, and that video cameras had been disconnected.

The report said that the Bayer CropScience facility is the only U.S. site that produces and stores large amounts of MIC.

“I think it’s finally time to ask whether it makes sense to allow Bayer to continue producing and storing such massive amounts of this highly toxic chemical,” said the committee chairman, Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

William Buckner, president and CEO of Bayer CropScience, told the panel that the company regrets “that the community did not promptly receive assurance that they were not in danger.”

“Our initial communication with Metro 911, while well-intentioned, inadvertently created confusion and concern,” he said, adding, “We will do better.”

Emergency responders have said Bayer gave them little information until nearly two hours after the explosion. The company waited more than two hours to formally report the accident to the federal government’s National Response Center.

The chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is conducting its own investigation, told the subcommittee that “significant lapses in process safety management” probably played a role in the accident.

John Bresland, the safety board chairman, said plant operators had received inadequate training on a new computer system, which was being used for the first time, and that written operating procedures were outdated. In addition, he said, operators at the plant _ acting with the knowledge of management _ bypassed critical safety interlocks in the heated tank that wound up exploding.

Earlier this month, Bresland had said that Bayer CropScience told the board that some of the information about the plant couldn’t be disclosed because it was deemed security-sensitive by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard announced at that time that it would clear the release of the information.

But Bresland said the company has still stamped about 2,000 pages of documents as “sensitive security information,” under the 2002 Maritime Transportation Safety Act. He said it was the first time that a company had cited this law in a board investigation.

In his written testimony, Buckner said that the company had several reasons for citing confidentiality under this law, including “legitimate security concerns, the proper scope of the CSB’s investigation, and, we frankly admit, the desire to avoid making the controversial chemical MIC part of the public debate regarding the incident. There were, of course, some business reasons that also motivated our desire for confidentiality.”

The Chemical Safety Board will hold a hearing in Institute, W.Va., on Thursday. Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission, questioned how much information would be forthcoming then.

“What kind of meeting will that be if certain information is being withheld from the public?” he asked.

Meanwhile, the committee report said documents it obtained showed how the company tried to undermine local community groups and news outlets. The committee cited an internal “community relations strategy” that stated, “Our goal with People Concerned About MIC should be to marginalize them. Take a similar approach to The Charleston Gazette.”

The committee also released transcripts of emergency responders trying to get information about the blast. The transcripts show first responders saying things like, “they’re not giving us anything. To be honest with you, I don’t even know if anybody’s even called in from there,” and, “I’ve tried calling Bayer and nobody answers the phone. They called us, and I talked to the call taker, and they’re not releasing any information.”

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