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March 19, 2009
Also appeared in print Mar. 23, 2009, p. 10


Accident Briefing Back On Tap

Chemical safety board resets public meeting that was blocked due to terrorism concerns

Jeff Johnson

The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) will move ahead with a previously canceled community meeting in Institute, W.Va., where it will present preliminary results of its investigation of last August's fatal accident at the Bayer CropScience plant.

INVESTIGATION An explosion destroyed parts of the Bayer facility in West Virginia in August 2008.

CSB routinely holds such community hearings to explain its findings. But this meeting put the independent board between community members concerned about their safety and the accident's cause and Bayer officials who say the meeting might release facility-specific, "sensitive security information" that could aid terrorists. The plant is covered by the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA), a 2002 antiterrorism law that Bayer cited when it urged CSB to cancel the meeting (C&EN, March 16, page 40).

CSB agreed at first, CSB Chairman John Bresland explains, but upon closer examination found that MTSA regulates transportation, not plant-specific processes, which are CSB's concern.

Potential conflicts between a community's right to know and a company's right to protect information reach beyond this accident—some 3,200 facilities are regulated under MTSA, 320 of which are chemical and petrochemical companies, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees MTSA.

After negotiations, CSB and DHS developed a procedure for releasing information that allows DHS to review CSB PowerPoint slides that will be used at the meeting.

"We have been told by DHS officials that chemical plant safety will outweigh security issues unless there is a clear security issue that should not be disclosed," Bresland says. "We are confident we can work this out with DHS, but we want to be transparent to the public about what we can and can't show," Bresland says. Hence, he says, if DHS objects to information in the slides, CSB will black out parts of the actual slides used at the meeting.

The heightened concern over the Bayer accident is due to methyl isocyanate, an infamous toxic chemical used in the Bayer process line that exploded. Bayer stores as much as 20 tons of MIC in its process line, an amount near levels released in India's 1984 Bhopal plant explosion, which injured and killed thousands.

When told of the CSB-DHS negotiations, a Bayer spokesman says the company would support the review process.

Still, it is unlikely the CSB-Bayer conflict is settled. On March 13, Bayer attorneys requested that CSB allow them to examine some 48 documents the company submitted to CSB to see whether the material should be restricted. The board won't comply, Bresland says.

"Our main judge on sensitive security information will be DHS," Bresland says. "And our main mission is to do good independent investigations. It will be difficult for us to do so if someone is always looking over our shoulder and telling us what we can and can't say in our reports."

CSB has set the public meeting for April 23 in Institute.

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ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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