Time Magazine, Dec. 17, 1984
Could It Happen in West Virginia?
Residents of West Virginia's Kanawha Valley complain about the putrid smell that sometimes hangs over the area, comparing it to the odor of dead rats and rotten cabbage. But to many locals the sulfurous aromas spewing from a dozen plants spread along a 30-mile section known locally as Chemical Valley are still "the smell of meat and potatoes." That is because these factories pay the wages of 10,000 people in a state that suffers the highest unemployment rate in the nation (16%). Says Bob Harbert, 36, a cab driver in Nitro, W. Va. (named for a plant that produced nitroglycerin during World War I): "Jobs are scarce here. Nobody thinks about the dangers. If something's going to happen, it's going to happen."
That hearty fatalism is typical of Institute, W. Va., an unincorporated town eight miles west of Charleston. Most of its 500 permanent residents are black; an additional 300 people are handicapped and live at a local rehabilitation center; and 4,000 students attend nearby West Virginia State College. The town has three restaurants, two gas stations, one barbershop and a sprawling Union Carbide plant. It is the only site in the U.S. that produces methyl isocyanate, the deadly chemical that wafted through Bhopal, India.
Until last week, few people in Institute knew exactly what Union Carbide was producing just a short walk from their homes. Only a handful of residents are among the plant's 1,450 employees, though most of the town's modest frame homes have views of the plant's towering smokestacks. Even after the chemical's horrible effects were demonstrated half a world away, residents rarely referred to it by its proper name, preferring to call it "that stuff." Says Charles White, 59, a college official who lives a quarter-mile from the Union Carbide facility: "Most of us have lived around the plant forever. It's something we've grown to accept. We have been so used to hearing the sirens at the plant that they have sort of lulled us to sleep. A lot of times things get out in the air around here, and our eyes burn and our throats get scratchy. But we never thought they were making anything so deadly as that stuff."
The sirens that sound two or three times a week are usually minor alarms. "If someone falls down the stairs, an alarm goes off," says Plant Spokesman Dick Henderson. "It's just our way of communication." But real emergencies in the valley have occurred. Chemical plant explosions have killed 14 people since 1941. At various other times over the past 17 years, thousands of residents have had to evacuate their homes because of lethal gas leaks. In 1978, one plant worker in Institute was hospitalized and 88 others were examined by doctors after a leak of phosgene.
More worrisome in the long run, reports by the West Virginia state health department show that the incidence of respiratory cancer is higher in Chemical Valley than in the nation as a whole. Says Wayne Ferguson, a West Virginia State official: "My father, who never smoked or drank in his entire life, had cancer of the larynx. He was a professor at the college. His classroom window looked out at the plant." Ferguson would "love to see the plant close," but adds, "I'm probably in the minority around here."
Many of the town's residents and plant workers praise Union Carbide for its safety record. They speak glowingly of how the plant was one of the few in the region that did not lay off workers during the recession. The news from India did not trigger panic. Says Nelljean Holmes, whose husband has worked at the plant for the past 24 years: "The first thing I thought of was that maybe they didn't have qualified workers at the plant in India. I just don't think what happened in India could happen here." Standing outside the plant during a shift change last week, Union Carbide Worker Gary Bailey said, "I don't think there would be a disaster here. This plant knows enough about safety, and they check everything on a regular basis. It doesn't scare me a bit." Said Longtime Resident Tracy Howard, 80, the town's unofficial historian: "Shucks, you can walk into the street and get hit by a car. I've built houses all my life. I could have fallen off a roof at any time. You just have to watch out."
Some residents are less sanguine. Says Gilbert Flores, director of security at West Virginia State: "What happened in India has made everybody aware that it could happen here. It's got some people upset. There's no direct emergency network between the plant and the school. There has never been a practice evacuation. There is no evacuation plan for the town."
If an immediate full-scale evacuation were ever needed, it might well prove to be disastrous. "If everyone got into their cars and tried to leave the town by road, there'd be a massive traffic jam," says Plant Spokesman Henderson. "That's the way the valley's built." Henderson quickly points out, however, that because of the plant's safety features, such an evacuation would be very unlikely. Nonetheless, he says that in response to the growing concern, Union Carbide plans to work with the residents in devising an escape plan.
Still, Institute has no police department, only a volunteer fire department. There are wind socks at the plant to indicate the direction taken by an inadvertent leak, but none in residential areas. And the present plant warning system has left many people utterly confused. Says White: "If there are two blasts from the whistles that means a fire or emergency in the plant. If there are three blasts that means a gas release in the plant. If there are blasts every three seconds that means there's a danger for the people outside the plant. Now I ask you, how many people are going to sit there with stop watches and time the blasts?"
American flags at the Institute facility were flying at half-staff last week in memory of the dead in Bhopal. Union Carbide has suspended production of methyl isocyanate and halted shipments until officials are able to determine what went wrong at Institute's sister plant. The company has also canceled all Christmas parties. Says Henderson: "We just feel it's inappropriate at this time.'' By JAMIE MURPHY