Officials of Union Carbide Corp. today told local residents and a national press corps that there are several differences between its plant here, the only U.S. manufacturer of methyl isocyanate (MIC), and its affiliate in Bhopal, India, where a leak of the gas has claimed more than 2,000 lives.
Jackson B. Browning, Union Carbide's director of health, safety and environmental affairs, said that while the two plants were expected to meet identical "process safety standards," the methods of carrying out such directives varies.
He likened the situation to that of automobile manufacturers, who are required to install seat belts in cars but do not have to use the same kind.
A news conference held outside the plant's main building, where flags are at half-staff and holiday parties for the 1,650 workers have been canceled, attracted more than 125 news personnel, including a television crew from Brazil, where Union Carbide has another MIC plant.
Standing atop a 3-foot-high gravel mound that covers the plant's MIC storage tanks, Browning and other company officials repeatedly stressed differences between the plant here and the one in Bhopal and denied knowledge of safety operations at the Indian facility, owned by a subsidiary, Union Carbide India Ltd.
A second meeting and tour were held for about 50 state and local officials and some residents of nearby towns in the heavily industrialized Kanawha Valley near Charleston.
State Sen. Si Boettner (D-Kanawha) said company officials "went through all those fancy diagrams and charts, but they were very uninformed about what happens if there is a leak." Boettner added that "apparently there is no cooperation" among Carbide, du Pont, Monsanto and the other chemical firms whose plants sprawl along the Kanawha River Valley in an area known locally as "the chemical capital of the nation."
State Sen. Tod J. Kaufman (D-Kanawha) added that "they really can't say what's going on here. It's obvious Carbide doesn't know what it wants people here to know -- they're relying on corporate policy in Connecticut," where the company has its headquarters.
Boettner said he and Kaufman may sponsor legislation requiring chemical companies to disclose the effects of introducing various chemicals into the air, and to explain how the firms transport poisonous products.
Boettner said that until two years ago, when the legislature passed a law over chemical company opposition, not even the plants' workers knew what they were making, or how dangerous it was.
Frank Leone, mayor of nearby Dunbar, said it is "not probable" that an accident similar to the one in India will happen here because "our people are highly trained. They are not going to get themselves killed."
Perry Bryant, director of the 40,000-member West Virginia Citizens Action Group, said he was "not satisfied" with the company's assurances about safety at the plant here. Bryant said that although he was pleased that residents "finally get a chance to see the facility, I wonder if this openness will continue after the reporters have gone home."
Acting out of what he called "an abundance of caution," plant manager H.J. Karawan said production of MIC, an intermediary chemical used to manufacture pesticides, has been halted here pending results of the investigation in India.
Despite a "good track record" on safety at Institute, where MIC has been made for 17 years, Karawan said, "We maintain a healthy respect for this chemical."
To questions about how the plants differ -- the Bhopal facility was modeled on the one here -- Browning said repeatedly that his company does not have the specifications for the Indian plant. "We have no drawings" of it, he said, "and not enough information to describe the specific differences" between it and the plant here.
For example, he said, while both plants have scrubbers, flares and cooling systems to protect against leaks and explosions, "the choice of the coolants and the way they circulate vary."
He also said he thinks the storage tanks in India were placed horizontally, only partially buried because of a high water table, and covered with dirt; the tanks here are vertical, completely buried and covered with gravel.
But he added that Union Carbide had "assurance" that its Indian plant had "responded to safety standards identical to those we have here."
Although Union Carbide owns 50.9 percent of the stock in its Indian subsidiary, Browning appeared to be shifting responsibility for operation of the Bhopal plant to officials there.
He said the facility "was not designed after the Institute plant. There was a technology transfer to the Indian affiliate" but the responsibility for the detailed design was the Indians', he said. "A large number of American people were on the plant site during the start-up and involved in early production," he added, and many of the Indians working there were "trained here and at our other plants."
Browning said Indian officials examined the plant in Bhopal "from time to time," but the company got "no indication they were dissatisfied."
Karawan, plant manager here, said "we have had [minor] leaks into the plant" since production of MIC began here in 1967, but such incidents "never even came near impacting on the community."
Browning also said a safety team including three persons from the Institute plant "did a survey" at Bhopal in 1982 at the Indians' request and concluded that there was no situation that involved immediate danger or required immediate concern."