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Explosion rocks Institute agrochemicals plant

01 October 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. 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. CSB is also investigating the storage tank explosion that killed three workers and injured a fourth at the Packaging Corporation of America corrugated cardboard mill in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, on July 29.

This accident occurred as workers were performing welding to repair a flange fitting on top of an 80-foot-tall storage tank, which contained recycled water and paper fibre. The three workers were standing on a catwalk above the domed, cylindrical tank performing welding when an internal explosion ripped open the tank lid. All three workers died of traumatic injuries. A fourth, survived with minor injuries.

Large storage tanks at paper mills - especially those that are stagnant, poorly mixed, or have long material retention times - are at an elevated risk for the growth of anaerobic bacteria. Recycled process water, known as 'white water,' contains nutrients that promote growth of the organisms, producing hydrogen or other flammable gases that can be ignited by hot work or other sources of ignition.

The cause of the explosion remains to be determined; the CSB plans to conduct microbiological and chemical testing to understand what fuelled the blast.

“The CSB has noted that there have been previous tank explosions at paper mills during hot work and we will be closely examining the tragedy in Wisconsin to determine if there are similarities,'” said CSB chairman John Bresland.

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