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Explosion rocks Institute agrochemicals plant

01 September 2008

An explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, West Virginia, rocked homes several miles away and resulted in a blaze that burned for several hours as firefighters battled it into the early morning. Emergency sirens could be heard from the plant across the river in Jefferson where many had gathered to observe.

Fire at Bayer CropScience
Fire at Bayer CropScience

Billowing clouds of smoke hung over the skies of western Kanawha County as firefighters worked to contain the blaze. A five-member investigation team from the US Chemical Safety Board was dispatched to the scene immediately. CSB Chairman and CEO John Bresland, who served as the principal spokesperson, accompanied the team.

One man died in the disaster and he has been officially identified. Another man was hurt in the blast and taken to the West Penn Burn Center for emergency treatment.Thousands of people in the area took refuse in their own homes as a shelter-in-place order was put into effect. Several nearby road were closed for much of the night.

The explosion and fire occurred at the West carbamoylation unit at the Institute plant. According to Bayer officials there was a chemical release in the immediate area of the structure, which developed into a fire several minutes later. The fire was brought under control by emergency response personnel from the site, and was extinguished at about 2:00am after operations employees completed the isolation of the operating equipment.

This incident will be thoroughly investigated, a company statement made plain. The unit is totally shutdown and it will not be restarted in the future until its safe operation can be completely assured.

Institute site leader Nick Crosby said air quality tests conducted around the site determined that no harmful chemical exposure resulted from the blaze. He added that people in the area may smell a foul odour, but there are no harmful effects.

Crosby said the plant was awaiting Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors to determine what caused the blast. "There's significant damage to the unit," he said. “The important thing is that there's no way we'll restart that unit until it's been fully investigated.”

The main chemical involved in the explosion was methomyl, an insecticide used to produce a pesticide and that Bayer had only recently restarted these operations at the Institute site. The process is usually conducted at the plant seven or eight months a year before the unit is shut down for a few months and then inspected before the process starts up again. The methomyl plant had been restarted about a week before the incident. The explosion started in a residue cleanup section of the plant.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, methomyl is a highly toxic pesticide but Crosby suggested that no toxins were exposed to the air because of a decomposition reaction. Other chemicals involved in the explosion were dimethyl disulfide, methylisobutylketone and hexane. All three are are used to make methomyl but are thought to be harmful irritants.

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