Bayer Cropscience: The Public's Right to Know

By Cox, Steven M.; Brooks, Bradley W. | Journal of Critical Incidents, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Bayer Cropscience: The Public's Right to Know


Cox, Steven M., Brooks, Bradley W., Journal of Critical Incidents


William Buckner, president and CEO of Bayer CropScience, felt pressed for time in making an unsettling decision after his company's deadly explosion. The Bayer Group had been producing and storing large quantities of lethal chemicals at its plant in Institute, West Virginia. When an industrial tank of methomyl, a chemical used in pesticides, exploded on August 28th, 2008, it flew 50 feet through a production unit. The blast had destroyed everything in its path and had killed two employees.

Since the incident, Bayer had reluctantly disclosed information about the incident only to the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), a government investigative board. On March 19, 2009, however, the CSB announced it would hold public hearings and disclose its findings. Buckner felt these open hearings could result in negative publicity about the company and/or about the Institute facility. Such publicity could lead to public pressures either to reduce or even to eliminate the production of dangerous chemicals at Institute (Buckner, 2009).

Bayer's lawyers, however, had just presented Buckner a potential legal option. If successful, the option could deter the CSB from releasing Bayer's information to the public or, at the least, it could delay the release. In reviewing the provisions of the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA), Buckner's lawyers had determined that the law could be used to disallow the CSB from discussing sensitive security information (SSI) publicly.

By using the law protecting SSI, Bayer might be able to forestall public disclosure of the hazards that existed within the plant and thereby prevent a public debate from occurring. Was this the right thing to do, did the public have a right to know about the hazards on its door step, or did Buckner have a higher responsibility to Bayer and its shareholders? What should he do?

The Institute, West Virginia Chemical Plant

The Bayer plant is a large chemical complex of more than 400 acres first constructed in the 1940s. Employing more than 500 people, the facility was located along the Kanawaha River, about 10 miles from Charleston, WV.

In the 1980s, Union Carbide owned both the factory in Institute as well as its "sister plant" in Bhopal, India (Huntington News 2009). The Bhopal plant, however, became best known for leaking 30 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) in December 1984, a disaster that exposed more than 500,000 people. MIC is considered "immediately dangerous to life and health" (IDLH) at the extremely low concentration of three parts per million in air.

The plant in Institute was not immune to Bhopal-type incidents. In August 1985, around two tons of toxic chemicals, including the highly toxic pesticide, aldicarb, were released in a burning cloud that hovered over the nearby residential area causing over 300 sicknesses. An August 1994 explosion at the Institute plant claimed the lives of two employees. Nearly two years later, a chemical leak and fire in February 1996 forced thousands of local residents to stay indoors (Newsblaze, 2008).

The plant manufactured and stored large quantities of some of the world's most toxic substances, including phosgene, a gas once used as a chemical warfare agent in World War I, and MIC, the chemical that killed the thousands of civilians in Bhopal (Bresland Testimony, 2009). It had become the only plant in the United States still manufacturing significantly high volumes of MIC (Newsblaze, 2008).

Bayer CropScience

The German based Bayer Group boasted global revenues of approximately $48 billion in 2008 (Gannon, 2009). Best known for having developed aspirin, the Bayer aspirin brand had built its strong brand equity through high consumer trust.

As a component of the Bayer Group, Bayer CropScience was a leading worldwide agrochemical company, whose primary products were industrial pesticides. In 2008, annual sales from pesticide production were over $7 billion. …

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