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Decades-old threat from toxic gas drifts away

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- For the first time in 26 years, Barbara Oden can let go of the image that has haunted her -- poisonous gas leaking from a Union Carbide tank and killing thousands of people in Bhopal, India, in the world's deadliest industrial disaster.

On Friday, she and other residents of the tiny Kanawha County town of Institute won what had seemed like a never-ending battle to get the same toxic chemical, methyl isocyanate, out of their back yard.

In a surprise move in U.S. District Court in Charleston, attorneys for Bayer CropScience announced they were dropping plans to resume production of the chemical, commonly called MIC, and will dismantle the unit.

That ends the key part of the latest lawsuit in a nearly three-decade battle. Claims for property damages and medical monitoring remain, and Judge Joseph Goodwin has scheduled a hearing for Monday on the remaining issues.

Bayer's decision erases a threat that loomed over the people of Institute for a generation.

The company no doubt will replace MIC, which is used to make a pesticide, with some other chemical, but nothing could be as bad, said Oden, a retired biology professor at West Virginia State University who still lives next to the plant.

"Chemicals don't have to kill," she said.

Oden was shocked by Bayer's announcement but, even before it came, she had been hoping that, for once, a judge would side with the plant's neighbors.

"There were so many questions that weren't answered," she said, "and I know there's no such thing as foolproof, because look at the situation in Japan. There's no safe, foolproof ways for doing most of what we do."

Even as some residents celebrated, though, others bemoaned the loss of 220 jobs associated with the MIC unit.

"We knew those jobs were gone. Now they're going to be gone faster than we'd expected," said Brenda Tyler, a retired chemical worker's wife and former former city councilwoman in nearby Nitro who organized a vehicle parade to the state Capitol last week in support of Bayer.

As many as 1,000 jobs across West Virginia could be lost, she said, citing industry claims that every chemical plant job supports five others.

"It's not a celebration," she said. "It's a terrible day for the state of West Virginia."

The odds of victory had long been stacked against the MIC opponents in Institute, a modest, unincorporated and mostly black community of 1,500 that grew up around the university. Lately, though, things had begun to change.

A 2008 incident that killed two workers and sent projectiles dangerously close to an aboveground MIC storage tank brought new scrutiny from Congress and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

The explosion also showed larger, more affluent communities in the Kanawha Valley that they, too, could be in danger -- towns that the folks in Institute can't help but notice are whiter. In all, about 300,000 people live in the 25-mile MIC "vulnerability zone," which includes the capital.

MIC is a colorless chemical used to make pesticides, polyurethane foam and plastics. It attacks the respiratory system and, at low levels, can irritate the eyes and throat. High concentrations can cause serious lung damage, hemorrhaging and death.

Several companies manufacture it, but the Institute plant was the last in the nation to store it in large quantities.

Bayer has said it spent $36 million to improve safety and upgrade equipment after the 2008 incident, and that it eliminated all aboveground MIC storage. It had planned to reduce future stockpiles by 80 percent, but company spokesman Tom Dover said Friday there has been no supply onsite since last August, when the overhaul of that unit began.

Bayer had planned to phase out MIC production next year as part of a corporate restructuring after meeting the demands of growers this season. On Friday, however, it said "uncertainty over delays" made it unlikely it could resume production in time.

For many Americans, Bhopal is a faded memory. The disaster killed about 15,000 people and sickened half a million. The victims clawed at their throats, frothed at the mouth, bled from their eyes and choked on their own vomit.

For Institute, it has been impossible to forget.

The sprawling, 460-acre Institute chemical complex is the first thing residents see when they turn off Interstate 64. From their modest homes, the view of the plant is blocked only by the taller buildings of the university.

Less than two years after Bhopal, Congress passed the federal Right-to-Know Act, to help the thousands of people around the country who live in the shadow of industry know what chemicals are made and stored in their neighborhoods. However, that openness began to diminish after the al-Qaida terrorist attacks of 2001. Chemical plants became viewed as potential targets. Reports on the toxic inventory of industries no longer were as readily available to the public.

"It made us less safe," said Pam Nixon, environmental advocate with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Bayer was widely criticized for failing to communicate details of the 2008 explosion to emergency responders and the 40,000 neighbors ordered to stay indoors - a secrecy its chief executive later testified was intended solely to prevent debate over MIC.

"Ten years later, they're still in that 9/11 mindset," Nixon said, "trying to keep it secret."

Institute residents say money, power, race and the influence of the chemical companies all help explain why the fight over MIC lasted so long. The community has no government, no official leaders and no political champion.

For decades, the chemical industry provided thousands of good-paying jobs. Regardless of who owned the Institute complex -- first Union Carbide, then Rhone-Poulenc, then Aventis, now Bayer CropScience -- managers and employees were involved in their communities. They wielded influence and social connections the people of Institute couldn't match.

There were protests against MIC, but the companies could muster larger rallies in less time. Just as miners are quick to fight for their employers in the coalfields, employees eager to keep their jobs were quick to defend the chemical plants.

All along, Institute folks say, race was among the factors working against the community.

"There certainly was a perception that, because it was a poor black neighborhood, no one cared," said Gerry Beller, a longtime activist and political science professor at West Virginia State.

Bayer denies any racial link. The company has operations in more than 120 countries and is "committed to the communities where we work and live," Dover said.

Nixon can't help but wonder.

The former West Dunbar resident was injured in August 1985 when a leak of aldicarb oxime and methylene chloride from the plant sent 135 people to hospitals. Other communities, she said, have had far more success fighting industry.

Take, for example, lawsuits against DuPont in the Parkersburg area over a chemical used to make Teflon. Plaintiffs there have won court orders for scientific health studies and more.

"Then you look at the demographics," Nixon said. "Race is part of it."


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