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Bayer Unit To Cut Storage Of Toxic Chemical

Chief of Bayer CropScience says its West Virginia plant will reduce storage of deadly chemical, methyl isocyanate, by 80 percent.

INSTITUTE, W.Va. (AP) -- Bayer CropScience said Wednesday that a West Virginia plant will reduce its storage of a toxic chemical that was in danger of being released in a deadly explosion nearly a year ago.

The company will cut storage of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, by 80 percent and build an underground storage tank to hold it within the next year, said Bill Buckner, Bayer CropScience's president and chief executive. The changes are part of a $25 million safety upgrade at its Institute plant, which is the only U.S. site that produces and stores large amounts of MIC.

An above-ground storage tank with the capacity to hold 40,000 pounds of the chemical was near the site of a blast that killed two plant employees last year. The blast didn't cause the release of any MIC, but it raised concerns about what could happen if a future mishap were to damage the storage tank.

The MIC tank was surrounded by a wire-rope protective mesh designed to protect the tank. But the force of the nearby explosion twisted steel beams, broke pipes and sent a piece of equipment 50 feet into the air, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said in a preliminary report.

The deadly consequences of MIC exposure were demonstrated in a disaster that killed thousands in India 25 years ago.

A congressional investigation of the West Virginia blast said if the explosion had ruptured the MIC tank, it "could have eclipsed" the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, that killed 2,000 and harmed thousands more. The India plant was operated by Union Carbide, which once owned the Institute plant.

Chemical Safety Board Chairman John Bresland said any move to reduce the storage of MIC would be a "positive development." Bresland was briefed on the company's plan on Tuesday.

The board will continue to explore options for the company to switch to alternative chemicals to produce its agricultural products. A final report on the explosion won't be ready until next year.

The Institute plant is located about 12 miles from Charleston in the heavily populated Kanawha River Valley. Nearby residents and local officials have expressed concern about the use and storage of MIC at the plant for years and opposition increased after last August's explosion.

"The big statement here is we are eliminating all above ground storage of MIC," Buckner said during his announcement that came two days before the anniversary of the Institute explosion.

MIC is used in the manufacture of insecticides at four different units at the sprawling 465-acre plant. One unit, the methomyl unit, was damaged in the explosion.

Buckner said the company will reduce its need for MIC because it will not rebuild the methomyl unit. Methomyl will be produced by a third party and shipped to the plant for final production.

Layoffs are not expected because of the move, he said.

During an April hearing, members of U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Bayer CropScience should explore if made sense to continue making and using MIC.

Bucker said until new developments in technology occur, MIC will continue to be used at the plant to produce products because it remains the most effective ingredient.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper was among those who questioned whether Bayer CropScience needed to continue using the chemical.

"From what I've heard and seen so far, I'm very supportive of their decision," said Carper, who has asked U.S. attorney's office in Charleston to investigate Bayer CropScience's handling of the explosion.

People Concerned About MIC spokeswoman Maya Nye called the announcement "fabulous news ... for the community that's been 25 years in the making."

The group was created after the Bhopal release to push for greater controls on MIC at the plant and else where.

"I'm glad to see they are addressing the concerns of the community," she said.

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