Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–September 24, 2015. Seven years after an explosion that killed two factory workers in Institute, West Virginia, Bayer CropScience is facing federal fines. Bayer is the manufacturer of neonicotinoid pesticides that are linked to severe decline in pollinator populations.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a $5.6 million settlement with Bayer to resolve the 2008 violation of federal chemical accident prevention laws. As a result, Bayer must commit to spending $4.23 million to improve emergency preparedness and institute response measures to protect the Kanawha River, pay a $975,000 penalty, and spend approximately $452,000 to implement a series of reforms to improve safety at chemical storage facilities across the United States.
On August 28, 2008, a pesticide waste tank exploded inside the Bayer plant, instantly killing one worker and sending another to the hospital where he would eventually die. Although Bayer officials assure the public that the explosion was secure and released no chemicals, residents living near the plant complained of air pollution exposure and related illnesses. The tank contained waste products from thiodicarb, including methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK), hexane, methomyl, and dimethyl disulfide, all of which are acutely toxic to humans. In the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) analysis, assistant area director Prentice Clay stated, “We found serious issues related to process safety. There were some significant deficiencies.”
Details of the explosion in the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s (CSB) analysis reveals serious violations regarding the chemical facility’s precautionary measures and Bayer’s ability to prevent potential hazards. “Failures by a chemical manufacturer to comply with safety, accident prevention, and response requirements can have catastrophic consequences,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to worker safety. Under this judicially enforceable settlement, Bayer Crop Science will not only pay a penalty but commits to significant improvements in preparedness and response capabilities at its facilities across the country.”
Chemical plant explosions are not uncommon in the industry’s history. For decades, safety violations have led to explosions that killed and injured thousands. The most devastating explosion to date occurred in 1984 at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. Between 50,000 to 90,000 lbs of the chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) are estimated to have leaked into the air, killing approximately 25,000 people to date, according to data by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). MIC is an intermediate chemical in the production of the insecticide carbaryl (Sevin). Advocacy groups working with victims say that more than 120,000 people still suffer from severe health problems as a result of their exposure. At the time of the 2008 explosion, Bayer’s Institute plant stored MIC at four times the capacity of the Bhopal plant. If detonated, that volume of MIC could kill every resident in a 10-mile radius (about 26,000 people live within three miles of the plant). In 2012, advocates and government officials concerned about chemical safety at the Institute plane finally pressured Bayer to halt the production and storage of MIC.
Last year, four workers died when the valve on a container of methyl mercaptan, a compound used in the production of insecticides, fungicides, and plastics, malfunctioned at a La Porte, Texas chemical plant owned by DuPont. As a result, DuPont was placed on the Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which focuses agency resources on inspecting employers who have “demonstrated indifference to their OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Act] obligations by willful, repeated, or failure-to-abate violations.” The manufacturers of these deadly chemicals are still industry leaders today.
While disasters like these lead to fines and revised safety procedures, they highlight the continuous and never-ending risk that pesticides pose to workers in both production plants and agricultural fields, though in different ways. Field workers are exposed to the pesticide fumes and particles through the spraying process and often experience severe health effects due to poorly communicated directions regarding their application. According to the consent decree, factory workers harbor expectations that rules have to be broken and that they will do anything to get the job done. “The tragic accident at the Bayer CropScience facility in West Virginia underscores the need for hazardous chemicals to be stored and handled in accordance with the law to protect worker health and the environment,” said Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “This settlement will establish important safeguards at its facilities across the country and improve emergency response capabilities in the Institute, West Virginia community.”
Despite fines, safety procedure overhauls, and lengthy trials, chemical and pesticide manufacturing still poses a risk to workers, nearby residents, and consumers. Decreasing marketplace demand for noxious chemicals in favor of least-toxic biopesticides, organic, and sustainable alternatives on farms, will reduce the need to produce these chemicals. As the 2013 letter to EPA Administrator McCarthy explains, “Prevention is the only fool-proof way to ensure the safety of millions of people whose communities are needlessly in danger.” Consumers can make an impact by simply not buying pesticides and purchasing organic foods, which employ agricultural practices that do not require the use of toxic synthetic chemicals. For more information on the benefits of purchasing organic food, see Beyond Pesticides program page here.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.