The Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that 28 times in the last five years, methyl isocyanate, the gas that killed at least 2,000 people when it leaked from a plant in India, leaked from the Union Carbide Corp. plant in Institute, W.Va.
It is the only place in the United States where the deadly chemical is manufactured.
"The spills that were detected, while of course a terrible concern, were not the same type of leaks" as at Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India, on Dec. 3, said EPA spokesman Dave Cohen. "Yet 28 leaks of that stuff, however minor, are unsettling. But they appear to have been dealt with in a proper manner."
Jim Makris, EPA project team leader, said Carbide "appears to be in technical violation" of federal regulations for not reporting the 16 leaks greater than one pound. The EPA has asked Carbide to answer "whether or not the releases were entirely contained within the facility or reached the environment."
If the leaks did not reach the ambient atmosphere, Makris said, the company was not required to notify the EPA. In-plant leaks are supposed to be reported to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), he said.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of a House health and environment subcommittee, said that the EPA report was "very kind" to Carbide, and that his panel is continuing its investigation.
Dick Henderson, a spokesman for Carbide at Institute, said last night that company officials have not seen the EPA report.
Failure to report all the leaks "could have been an oversight," Henderson said, "but it certainly didn't present a danger to the community."
Meanwhile, Henderson said the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources issued a permit yesterday for Carbide to convert its remaining 3,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate to a neutralized substance.
The process is to occur today, under observation by teams from the EPA and OSHA and the state Air Pollution Control Commission and natural resources department.
Henderson said the 3,000 pounds were not counted in the original inventory taken after the Bhopal incident. "It was in a different production unit," Henderson said.
Rather than transferring it to the unit where the chemical is used to make the pesticide Sevin, Henderson said, the company decided to "neutralize it in the caustic scrubber."
Henderson said sodium hydroxide, which he compared to the drain-opening product Drano, will be used to convert the liquid into demetuyl urea, which then will be transferred to the company's waste-water treatment plant.
It is "a routine operation," Henderson said, and therefore neither the plant's 1,600 employes nor nearby residents will be evacuated during the daylong process.
The Carbide plant adjoins a state institution for the handicapped and is near the 4,500-student West Virginia State College.