Friday, September 3, 2010

Methyl Isocyanate IST Study

As I mentioned in a blog posting yesterday, the Chemical Safety Board released a copy of their tasking document that will form the basis for a National Research Council report on the feasibility of reducing/eliminating the storage of methyl isocyanate (MIC) at the Institute, West Virginia CropScience facility owned and operated by Bayer. The CSB was directed by Congress (as part of the FY2010 budget legislation for the CSB; PL 111–88, 123 Stat 2950) to commission this study.

Congressional interest in the chemical safety aspects of the manufacturing process at the Bayer facility arise out of the August 2008 accident that killed two employees at that facility. That incident nearly damaged a nearby MIC tank that could have released up to 13,000 lbs of that toxic inhalation hazard chemical. Subsequent attempts by facility management to stonewall the CSB investigation into the methyl isocyanate process drew Congressional ire and investigation.

In April of this year the CSB published a notice in the Federal Register that included a draft of their proposed tasking requirements for the National Academy of Sciences study. That notice included a request for public comments on their proposal. The comment period ended on May 10th. The CSB has published a document on their web site compiling the comments received.

IST Policy Not Addressed

This new tasking document makes some specific changes, specifically in regards to the issue of generic application of inherently safer technology. As I noted in detail in an earlier blog, the proposed tasking included asking NAS to review and evaluate the current state of the art in IST assessments and provided a list of specific IST topics (75 FR 21224) to be covered in the report.

Yesterday’s tasking document does not even include the term ‘Inherently Safer Technology’ and certainly does not task the NRC to define the term or report on the current state of the art in IST. The closest that the new tasking comes to looking at IST policy is to ask the NRC to:

“Comment, if possible, on whether and how inherently safer process assessments can be utilized during post-accident investigations.” (pg 2)
No explanation is given in the CSB press release for the removal of this topic from the tasking. I can think of three reasonable reasons for this removal and I will list them in what I think is their order of probability (highest probability first).
1. There is no language in the Congressional authorization that could be interpreted as requiring or authorizing an IST investigation as part of the methyl isocyanate study.
2. The $600K dollar budget would not cover the IST study as well as the MIC report.
3. These topics are being covered under a cooperative effort by DHS-ISCD and the Center for Chemical Process Safety.
NRC Tasking

The current tasking document lists three areas that should be addressed in the NRC report at the end of this study. They are:

● Review the current industry practice for the use and storage of MIC in manufacturing processes, including a summary of key lessons and conclusions arising from the 1984 Bhopal accident and resulting changes adopted by industrial users of MIC
● Review current and emerging technologies for producing carbamate pesticides, including carbaryl, aldicarb, and related compounds
● Examine the use and storage of MIC at the Bayer CropScience facility in Institute, West Virginia
Detailed requirements are laid out for the last two areas to be addressed. They provide a reasonable description of IST issues that should be considered in this type of study. While some may quibble with specific wording, it looks to me like the CSB drafters took care to be expansive rather than restrictive in these requirements. That may end up being very important in silencing the various critics that will inevitably arise when this study is published in 12 to 15 months.

In the area of reviewing current and emerging technologies I think that there was a very important consideration added that many would have overlooked. The tasking document asks the investigators to look at: “Regulatory outlook for pesticides including their expected lifetime on the market.” (pg 2) The products made from MIC are all very aggressive pesticides with potentially dangerous human side effects. If the EPA looks like it is going to withdraw the registration or revoke tolerances for these products in the near future (as it did with carbofuran), then it makes little financial sense to spend much money modifying the current process.

Public Participation

The tasking document provides a broad outline of the types of participants that the CSB believes should be involved in the study process. In addition to the participants with the requisite technical background, CSB has called for substantial participation by what could generally be called ‘public advocates’. These include (pg 2):
● Community organizations (including the interests of Kanawha Valley residents)
● Environmental organizations (including environmental justice issues)
● Community emergency preparedness and response
● Labor organizations representing the process industries
These groups all have a stake in the outcome of this study. There is, however, no balancing representation of industry advocates. The inclusion of “Chemistry and chemical engineering (including carbamate pesticide manufacturing)” experts hardly counts as these are technical experts rather than policy experts. One would hope that the study design experts at NAS would recognize this problem and rectify it in their plan for the study.

The CSB clearly understands that this is as much a political study as it is a technical study. As a result they have taken care to require that the NRC study should be as open as possible. Their proposed work schedule includes at least one public meeting mid-way through the process and a public presentation of the results in Institute, WV. Additionally, they recommend the establishment of a publicly accessible web site documenting the progress of the study.

Study Results

One of the final considerations that NRC has been asked to look at in their examination of the current use and storage of MIC at the Institute facility is to compare their analysis to “to the inherently safer process assessments conducted by Bayer and previous owners of the Institute site” (pg 2). This comparison could be a very important component when Bayer, regulators and Congress decide what to do with the results of this study.

If the NRC comes up with substantially new information that supports a removal of MIC from the CropScience facility or drastically reducing the active inventory, then Bayer is going to have to work hard to justify not going along with that recommendation. If the NRC study information is essentially the same as has already been considered, then Bayer is unlikely to change anything.

In either case regulators are going to be hard pressed to find a way to force Bayer to follow any of the recommendations in this study. There is no practical way that regulators can mandate significant changes to the process under existing rules. This is the reason that IST implementation activists have been pushing so hard to get IST provisions into CFATS rules.

In the end, if Bayer refuses to implement the study recommendations it will come down to Congress to act. I can see no possible outcome for the November elections that would allow Congress to enact an industry wide IST mandate in the next session. If the NRC study were to show a clear-cut, economically viable alternative that Bayer refused to implement, there would be a remote possibility that Congress could enact a Bayer specific IST mandate.

Following the Study

I think that this study will have serious implications for the chemical process industry in general. It will also specifically affect the continuing discussion about the use of an IST implementation requirement in future CFATS authorization legislation. Both of these impacts ensure that this study will continue to receive my attention in this blog.


Anonymous said...

This chemical methyl isocyanate is extremely hazardous and the chemical companies seem to be holding back information about it. I tried to look up the heat of trimerization of MIC from independent sources but could find no direct mention. However the heats of formation of MIC is given at -92 Kj/mol and it's trimer at -677 Kj/mol which would make the heat of trimerization of mic to be -401 Kj/mol(of trimer) or around a 1000 BTU/lb. But the value given by carbide is 540 BTU/lb. Do these companies really know chemistry????

PJCoyle said...

Actually, many chemical companies forgo theoretical calculations of these values, prefering to use measured values. I have used manufacturing data to produce rough figures for heats of reaction because we did not have the laboratory tools necessary to do a proper measurement. Besides it was a more accurate measure of the reaction taking place in our equipment due to mixing and mass transfer issues. I suppose it all depends on what you want to use the data for.

Anonymous said...

Could you please point the source of the manufacturing data used by you.

PJCoyle said...

To Anonymous: I was not refering to data regarding MIC, I have never worked with MIC. What I was refering to was in other processes that I worked on as a process chemist I used data measured in process equipment to develop heat of reaction data. Sorry about the confusion.

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