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TIME magazine

1985, TIME Magazine

Under a Noxious Cloud of Fear

As dozens of golfers were enjoying their Sunday at the Shawnee Park course, they gradually found themselves enveloped by a dense, milky white cloud. About a mile away, Barbara Cyrus of Institute, W Va. (pop. 500), stepped out to pick up the newspaper and detected a strong odor that she compared to Kitty Litter. "It just hit me in the face," said Cyrus. "I knew it was coming from Carbide." It was not until 36 min. after plant operators discovered the leak that the local volunteer fire chief sounded a siren to warn the community about the cloud of toxic chemical gas. The emergency caused 135 people to seek hospital treatment for shortness of breath, a burning in the eyes and throat, and vomiting.
Union Carbide's Institute facility, one of many plants that dot West Virginia's "Chemical Valley," has been a source of public concern for almost a year. Its output includes methyl isocyanate (MIC), the gas that killed 2,500 people and injured 200,000 when it leaked from a Union Carbide unit in Bhopal, India, last December. After that horror, the manufacturer shut down Institute's MIC unit for five months and spent $5 million improving its safety and production equipment.
The noxious cloud that swept over Institute was not MIC but a combination of methylene chloride and aldicarb oxime. At the Institute facility, aldicarb oxime is mixed with MIC to form the active ingredient for Temik, a pesticide widely used on citrus crops. Last week's scare occurred when steam accidentally entered a metal jacket surrounding a tank that stored the chemicals, causing three gaskets to blow and 500 gal of the solution to escape.
West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd inspected the plant two days after the accident and pledged that "scrutiny of this whole situation will be more intense than before." Lee Thomas, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, expressed "a sense of urgency" about tightening Union Carbide's safety measures. (Two days after the Institute crisis, a company plant in South Charleston, W. Va., leaked about 4,000 lbs of an ontoxic mixture used to make hydraulic brake fluid.) The company's beleaguered chairman, Warren Anderson, traveled to West Virginia, where he announced that in the future Union Carbide would sound alarm swarning nearby residents at the first sign of any trouble. "We'd rather be accused of crying wolf," he said, "than be accused of not doing the proper thing at the proper time."
Most chemical manufacturers claim that their industry is among the nation's safest. More rigorous regulation, they argue, would send costs skyrocketing at a time when the industry is facing increased competition from producers such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico and could lead U.S. companies in the future to build plants abroad. In South Charleston last Saturday, about 500 people marched in support of Union Carbide. Yet most residents of West Virginia's Chemical Valley were caught between worries about their safety and about their region's economy. "There's a real dichotomy," said Russell Wehrle, chairman of the National Institute for Chemical Studies, a valley citizens group formed after the Bhopal tragedy. "People are saying they want the jobs, but they also want more regulation."