Chemical company wants to limit disclosure on plant explosion

Published 31 March 2009

An explosion in a chemical plant in West Virginia plant killed two employees and raised fears about the safety of chemical plants located near residential areas; the plant owner, citing a terrorism-related federal law, is trying to limit what the federal chemical safety agency can disclose to the public

Last August, an explosion tore through the Bayer CropScience chemical plant here in Institute, West Virginia, killing two employees and raising the fears of residents in what has long been known as Chemical Valley. Now, a federal agency wants to hold a public hearing to lay out its preliminary findings about what caused the accident. Bayer, however, citing a terrorism-related federal law, is trying to limit what the agency can disclose.

The New York Times’s Sean Hamill writes that Bayer contends that because it has a dock for barge shipments on the adjacent Kanawha River, its entire 400-acre site qualifies under the 2002 federal Maritime Transportation Security Act. It has asked the Coast Guard, which has jurisdiction under the act, to review the public release of “sensitive security information.” The agency that wants to hold the hearing, the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, says it is the first time in its eleven years of operation that a company has tried to limit what could be discussed publicly, and the first time the maritime act has been invoked this way. “I don’t like the idea that if we went to a meeting in West Virginia and someone asked a question, we’d have to say, ‘Sorry, we can’t talk about it,’” said John Bresland, the board chairman. “We don’t think any other agency should have the right to tell us what we can put in our reports.”

Hamill writes that, in particular, Bayer appears to want to limit discussion about the potential hazards posed by a chemical produced and used by the plant — methyl isocyanate, the same chemical responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in Bhopal, India, after a Union Carbide plant leaked there in 1984. Until 1986 Union Carbide owned the plant here, which was considered the sister plant.

The chemical safety board believes that if Bayer is successful, it will set a precedent for other companies to limit the release of information. The board was modeled on the National Transportation Safety Board. Like the transportation board, it has no regulatory power, so it cannot fine a company or order changes in operations. Its power comes from revealing its findings and making recommendations. “We have a bully pulpit,” Bresland said, “and we use it by going out in public and talking about what we’ve found.”

After Bayer invoked the maritime act in February, the chemical