The last major U.S. producer of the chemical that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, 26 years ago – and was nearly released in a 2008 explosion in West Virginia – is ceasing production of the compound.
An announcement Tuesday by Bayer CropScience, whose plant in Institute, West Virginia, stores 200,000 pounds of methyl isocyante (MIC), comes slightly more than a week before the U.S. Chemical Safety Board is scheduled to release its final report on a 2008 explosion at the plant. The blast killed two workers, and flying metal came perilously close to breaching an MIC storage tank, board officials said.
Bayer CropScience, a subsidiary of German conglomerate Bayer AG, said on its website the MIC unit in Institute would be “shut down and decommissioned in mid-2012.” The company said its decision “was based on a number of factors, with both strategic and economic considerations” – notably, an agreement it struck with the Environmental Protection Agency last year to phase out production of a pesticide called Temik, of which MIC is an ingredient. The pesticide is “no longer economically viable,” Bayer CropScience said.
Environmental activists claimed victory, speculating that Bayer CropScience had succumbed to pressure to stop using one of the most lethal chemicals on the planet.
“It’s something we’ve called for for a long time,” said Maya Nye, an Institute resident and a spokesperson for People Concerned About MIC. The chemical is “the worst of the worst,” she said.
“The handwriting was on the wall,” said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace. “They’re the last man standing on a process that’s infamous and connected to the world’s deadliest industrial accident.” The December 1984 leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal killed at least 3,000 people and injured many thousands more. The Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, once owned by Union Carbide, continued making and storing large quantities of MIC long after other companies had cut production for safety reasons.
In its press release, Bayer CropScience said the shutdown of the MIC unit in Institute and its plant in Woodbine, Georgia, would cost about 300 jobs. Hind said he was skeptical of the number. “We welcome the decision on MIC,” he said, “but that should not cause any reduction in jobs.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Bayer CropScience stores 14,000 pounds of MIC at its West Virginia plant. In fact, it stores 200,000 pounds. The 2008 accident referenced in the story nearly led to the breach of a tank that held 14,000 pounds of MIC.