U.S. Rebukes, Fines Union Carbide Corp. : $1.4 Million Penalty Cites Safety Violations in W. Virginia Plant

Times Staff Writer

In the largest fine it has ever imposed, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Tuesday ordered Union Carbide Corp. to pay nearly $1.4 million for “conscious, overt and willful” safety violations at a West Virginia pesticide plant where a huge toxic-gas leak injured 135 people last August.

The fine by the Labor Department agency followed a probe that uncovered deliberate under reporting of worker injuries, sloppy maintenance of key safety devices and other “very serious” safety lapses at the Institute, W.Va., facility, Labor Secretary William E. Brock III said.

Among the 221 infractions is a charge that workers at the plant checked out suspected leaks of phosgene gas--a deadly nerve agent used during World War I--by sniffing equipment vents.

“Some people in this country simply have an attitude that accidents are a part of the production process,” Brock said at a news briefing. “I just don’t think the country thinks like that any more.”


Evidence of Violations

He said evidence of deliberate violations of the law had been given to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.

The Institute factory is the only U.S. plant that manufactures methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the corrosive chemical that killed more than 2,000 people in December, 1984, when it leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. The plant’s MIC production line was not among the five areas cited Tuesday.

Union Carbide President Robert D. Kennedy said in a statement that OSHA “has grossly distorted the actual safety conditions and attitudes in the plant” and promised to contest the government’s charges.


Social Security Number

The alleged deliberate safety violations, he noted, include the company’s omission of an employee’s Social Security number and its failure to list seven worker injuries from 1983 to 1985 that resulted in time off the job.

Acting OSHA Administrator Patrick R. Tyson called the agency’s case against Union Carbide “rock solid” and added: “Our lawyers are prepared--we are ready--to litigate the whole thing.” Previous OSHA citations against Union Carbide have been settled out of court, often for much lower fines than had been originally assessed.

The Institute factory had been touted by Union Carbide after the Bhopal accident as a model of chemical-industry safety. But it made headlines last Aug. 11 when an abandoned reactor tank, accidentally filled with toxic methylene chloride and other chemicals, boiled over and spewed 3,800 pounds of gas into a nearby neighborhood.


The accident led OSHA to commit 15 experts to a six-month “wall-to-wall” inspection of the factory that turned up 1,900 “areas of concern,” Brock said. That number later was reduced to the 221 violations announced Tuesday.

The safety agency has fallen under criticism for paring back fines and citations under the Reagan Administration in favor of “voluntary compliance” by industry. Reports of on-the-job injuries rose for the first time in four years in 1984, the last year for which data is available.

The $1,377,000 in citations levied against the Institute plant Tuesday is easily the largest fine OSHA has imposed in its 15-year history, exceeding the $786,000 originally assessed on a Virginia shipbuilder in 1979. Brock called Tuesday’s fine “necessary and appropriate . . . to correct a situation characterized by complacency and what we believe to be a willful disregard for health and safety.”

He said OSHA did not seek to make an example of Union Carbide. But “if others want to draw some understanding from this process,” he added, “I encourage them to do so.”


Of the nearly $1.4 million in fines, $810,000 stemmed from 81 failures by Union Carbide to formally report on-the-job injuries to OSHA from 1983 through last January. Another $500,000 was imposed for other injury reporting lapses.

Safety Problems Cited

The factory was cited in 91 other cases for other safety problems ranging from corroded valves to poorly designed equipment to failure to properly protect workers from toxic leaks.

Brock, who called the Institute violations “by far the worst” he has seen, said he knows of no evidence that similar lapses are “widespread” at the 5,000 other U.S. chemical factories. According to Coast Guard records, nearly 500 toxic-gas leaks were reported at U.S. chemical plants in the year that ended last July 31, some of which exceeded 40 tons of gas--more than 25 times larger than that released by the Institute plant.


“What this report really says is that the most scrutinized plant at the most scrutinized company is riddled with safety problems,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), whose House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment investigated the Institute accident. “And the threat exists not just at Institute, but at chemical plants across America.”