Chances of an uncontrolled reaction of methyl isocyanate, which killed at least 2,000 people in India, occurring in the United States are "extremely remote," the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said yesterday.
OSHA said a 10-week study of the five U.S. plants that use the highly toxic chemical found that back-up safety systems and professional maintenance "virtually removed the possibility" of a tragedy similar to the one in Bhopal, India, in December.
The Labor Department agency said all five plants "demonstrated generally rigorous adherence" to federal safety requirements, although it found violations at two of them -- FMC Corp.'s plant at Middleport, N.Y., and Union Carbide Corp.'s plant at Woodbine, Ga.
Inspectors said they found no violations at Carbide's plant at Institute, W.Va., a sister facility to the Bhopal plant and the only place in the United States where methyl isocyanate (MIC), used to make pesticides, is manufactured.
The other two plants inspected were a Dupont facility in LaPorte, Tex., and the Morton Chemical Co. plant in New Iberia, La.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of a House panel on the environment, criticized OSHA's report as "filled with a reckless optimism that gives hollow assurances without any factual basis."
But Rep. Robert E. Wise (D-W.Va.), whose district includes Institute, said "the clean bill of health" given to the MIC unit there, coupled with plans for a National Chemical Policy Institute in Charleston, "confirm my view that the Kanawha Valley can be a model for the world in the safe production, shipment and storage of hazardous chemicals."
OSHA proposed fines of $2,920 for four alleged serious violations at the FMC plant near Buffalo and $1,280 for two alleged serious violations at Carbide's Georgia plant.
FMC spokesman Richard Johnston said his company disagrees with the findings and will contest the fines, but said FMC pledges to work with OSHA to make changes "deemed advisable before it receives any more MIC." The plant, which uses the chemical to make the pesticide Furadan, exhausted its MIC supply about a month ago.
Carbide spokesman Ralph Levitan called the citations "unwarranted" and said the company will "attempt to convince the agency we have appropriate safeguards."
Production of MIC at Institute was halted after the Bhopal accident, so no production was taking place during OSHA's inspection, but the agency said it plans to be on hand when production does resume, expected in April. OSHA noted that there have been 32 inspections at the plant and that no citations related to MIC were issued.
The report noted that the U.S. plants employ a redundancy of safety systems (one or more backing up another) to avert disasters.