Corporations will go to great lengths to avoid close scrutiny of their operations, but Bayer CropScience reached a new height of brazenness in its behavior following a massive explosion (photo) last year at its chemical plant outside Charleston, West Virginia. Company chief executive William Buckner admitted in testimony the other day before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that Bayer managers invoked a 2002 law designed to protect ports from terrorists to justify their initial refusal to share information about the accident with the federal government’s Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
Apparently, what Bayer did not want the “terrorists” from the board to learn was that the company’s safety procedures were a mess. Video monitoring equipment had been disconnected, and air-safety devices were not operating. What made this disarray more disturbing was that the accident came close to causing the release of a large quantity of methyl isocyanate (MIC), the same pesticide component that killed several thousand people near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India in 1984. The explosion at the West Virginia plant (which was run by Union Carbide until 1986 and taken over by Bayer in 2001) resulted in two deaths and injuries to half a dozen emergency responders.
Shortly after the accident, Bayer managers dropped the preposterous idea that they did not have to cooperate with the safety board, but they came up with other forms of obstruction. They provided thousands of pages of documents but labeled them “security sensitive” so that they could not be disclosed by the safety board. They also claimed that the plant was under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard, given its use of barges on the Kanawha River, and thus it was up to that agency to decide which documents could be released.
Beyond Buckner’s qualified admissions, the House Energy Committee issued a report charging that “Bayer engaged in a campaign of secrecy by withholding critical information from local, county, and state emergency responders; by restricting the use of information provided to federal investigators; by undermining news outlets and citizen groups concerned about the dangers posed by Bayer’s activities; and by providing inaccurate and misleading information to the public.” Among the company documents obtained by the committee was a “community relations strategy” for dealing with a local activist group and the newspaper that diligently followed the story: “Our goal with People Concerned About MIC should be to marginalize them. Take a similar approach to The Charleston Gazette.”
All this may come as a surprise to consumers who think of Bayer Corporation as a purveyor of aspirin and other benign products such as Aleve, Alka-Seltzer, Flintstones Vitamins and Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia. But the company’s ultimate parent, Bayer AG of Germany, has one of the most shameful histories of any major corporation: During the Second World War, it was part of the notorious IG Farben conglomerate that made use of slave labor to serve the Nazi war machine and produce the lethal gas used in the death camps.
What Bayer did in West Virginia does not begin to approach its war crimes during the Nazi era, but it shows that the company still has a lot to learn about corporate ethics.
Note: For more material on Bayer’s checkered environmental record, see the website of the Dusseldorf-based Coalition Against Bayer Dangers. Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr., who has written extensively on the Bayer explosion, also contributes pieces about the accident to the paper’s Sustained Outrage blog.