The Occupational Safety and Health Administration charged Union Carbide Corp. yesterday with six "willful" and "serious" violations of federal safety standards in the chemical leak that hospitalized more than 130 people in August in Institute, W. Va., and proposed $32,100 in penalties.
The OSHA citations accuse the chemical company of knowingly neglecting proper safety procedures before the Aug. 11 emission of a toxic pesticide cloud. The citations provide a detailed account of a series of at least six separate safety lapses over an 11-day period that combined to cause the accident.
OSHA said Union Carbide's pesticide plant used an inadequately designed storage tank for toxic mixtures, failed to properly monitor the heat and pressure of volatile chemicals, neglected to fix a malfunctioning computerized alarm system, operated an improperly designed control room with an air conditioner that brought fumes inside, and failed to provide a sufficient number of respirators for its employes.
"It is unusual for OSHA to cite willful violations. We do not do it very often," said agency spokeswoman Chriss Winston, "The definition of willful is that they knew about a hazardous condition and did not make an effort to eliminate it."
Company spokesman Thad Epps in West Virginia said Union Carbide would contest the OSHA citations. "Union Carbide has received the citations related to the Aug. 11 incident. Union Carbide operates all of its facilities in compliance with all government laws and regulations, and we intend to contest these citations. Beyond that, we have no comment," Epps said.
OSHA penalties are limited to a maximum of $10,000 per violation, but sources familiar with the Union Carbide case said that the finding of "willful" violation of safety standards -- if upheld -- could as a side effect greatly increase the company's liability in more than $85 million in lawsuits that have been filed in the West Virginia case.
Public attention has been focused on the West Virginia facility since the December, 1984 disaster at Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India, where 2,000 people were killed and thousands more injured in a leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC). MIC is an intermediate ingredient in the pesticide marketed as Temik.
The August leak in West Virginia also involved the production of Temik, but the toxic ingredient that leaked was aldicarb, which is later mixed with MIC.
The OSHA citations allege a series of errors that began Aug. 1 when workers were mixing two pesticide ingredients, aldicarb oxime and dichloromethane. Because of a faulty liquid gauge, the tank was filled beyond its 60 percent safe capacity, OSHA inspectors said.
Discovering the over fill, workers then set up a pipe to pump out 10,000 pounds of excess chemical into a second 40,000-pound-capacity storage tank that was not designed for that purpose, and had not been used in 10 months, Winston said.
According to Winston, the company had failed to conduct a "safety survey" of the second tank, which held the excess chemical for seven days until it was pumped back to the first tank.
But when company personnel thought the second tank was empty, Winston said, its gauges failed to indicate it actually still held 4,000 pounds of toxic mixture. For unexplained reasons, according to OSHA Director of Field Operations John Miles, steam leaked into the jacket surrounding this tank, heating the mixture. Employes failed to detect this, and a chemical reaction then ruptured gaskets and emitted fumes. Alarms sounded, but employes "didn't heed the warnings, because they had been having false alarms" for several days, Winston said.
When employes followed safety procedures and reported to the control room, they encountered fumes brought in by the air conditioner. They then tried to get respirators, she said, but for six employes, there were only three respirators, including two with limited air supply, Miles said.
Following the leak, Carbide officials were criticized for waiting about 20 minutes to warn residents. The company announced that in the future it would provide quicker warnings.
In Institute, where public opinion has long been split between critics and supporters of the company, reactions yesterday were predictably divided. "I'm not surprised, said Charlotte Fuller, a 20-year resident, "There have been so many leaks here, and it takes some kind of federal agency to push for things to get them to clean up."
But Homer Coombs, director of the physical plant at West Virginia State College said the OSHA finding "really surprises me. I toured the plant, and from my knowledge, it seems Union Carbide has gone more than the extra mile in safety matters, and I question these citations."
Each of the three willful violations carry $10,000 proposed fines, and the three serious violations carry $600 to $800 fines.