The video is titled “Fire in the Valley,” a reference to the Kanawha River valley where numerous chemical facilities are located, including the Bayer plant that manufactures insecticides, near Charleston, W.Va.
The video features a computer animation showing how a series of errors and deficiencies during a lengthy startup process resulted in a runaway chemical reaction inside a residue treater pressure vessel. CSB’s investigation found that operators were not adequately trained, new computer process equipment had not been fully checked out and a critical safety interlock was bypassed to begin a chemical reaction.
“We found serious deficiencies in the company’s process safety management program,” said Investigations Supervisor John Vorderbrueggen, P.E. “This resulted in a series of critical omissions during the startup that led to a runaway reaction and violent explosion.”
These events contributed to the over pressurization of the residue treater, which ultimately exploded and careened into the methomyl pesticide manufacturing unit, leaving a huge fireball in its wake. Pieces of the vessel struck a steel-mesh covering surrounding a large tank of methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic chemical of concern to residents of the valley since 1984 when an accidental release of MIC in Bhopal, India, killed thousands.
“The communities surrounding Bayer CropScience have been concerned for decades about the MIC stored there,” CSB Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso said in the video. “Its presence added even more gravity to the series of safety lapses the CSB investigation found to have preceded the tragedy. And when the accident occurred, the company refused to give out critical information to responders and the public.”
The video features comments by county and state officials on the initial refusal of Bayer to provide information to Metro 911 emergency response operators as well as resident’s concerns about chemical plant safety in the area. “Fire in the Valley” also details the key CSB safety recommendation that Kanawha Valley county authorities emulate the regulatory regime of Contra Costa County, Calif. There, chemical process safety experts regularly inspect the multitude of facilities throughout the county in a program that is paid for by a proportional levy on the plants.
“Good communications between chemical plants, responders and community leaders can help assure the safety of workers and residents during an emergency. But preventing accidents requires companies to have effective process safety management programs. The fact that accidents continue to occur shows the need for improved inspections and oversight whether at the federal or local levels,” Moure-Eraso concluded.