CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gertie Estep says, even though some of her family members might have died from working at the Monsanto Chemical Co. in Nitro, they lived a good life.
"Two-thirds of the families here in Nitro were raised from Monsanto money," said Estep, 79, a former city councilwoman who has lived in Nitro all her life.
Now, residents in and around the town who have benefited from jobs the company provided will be tested for diseases they might have contracted because of the company.
Estep's husband, Kenneth, worked at the company for about a month -- not a long time, especially compared to his father and three brothers, who worked at Monsanto for decades.
"It provided a lot of jobs -- my husband's dad, his brothers and their uncles all worked there," said Gertie Estep. "Some of them died from working over there, probably, but they lived a good life, and you can't say that was exactly why they died -- but it was probably part of it."
In a class-action lawsuit filed in 2004, residents alleged that Monsanto dispersed dioxin, exposing them to unsafe levels of the toxic chemical. They asked for medical monitoring for at least 5,000 -- and perhaps as many as 80,000 -- current and former Nitro residents.
The lawsuit was tentatively settled Friday. Monsanto agreed to provide a 30-year medical monitoring program with a primary fund of $21 million for testing, and up to $63 million in additional funding if necessary. The company would also pay $9 million for professional services to have class members' homes cleaned.
Between 1949 and 1971, Monsanto manufactured Agent Orange, a defoliant deployed widely in the Vietnam War. For years, Monsanto disposed of wastes containing dioxin into dumps at Manila and Heizer creeks in Putnam County, north of Nitro.
Chemical plants such as Monsanto's provided Kanawha Valley residents with thousands of good-paying jobs for decades. The industry has been in a long decline, though, and the bulk of those jobs have disappeared. The Monsanto plant, which opened in 1934, went through several ownership changes and eventually closed in 2004.
Keith Estep, Gertie's brother-in-law, worked at Monsanto for 35 years, starting while he was a student at Nitro High School.
He wrote the book "Growing Up In Nitro," which briefly describes what Monsanto meant to the small town when his father left his longtime job at an ice plant to join his other son at the company.
"Hearing about men who got hired at the new chemical plants, made him envious of them and angry at himself." Keith Estep wrote. "My brother started off making more money at Monsanto than Dad did [at the ice plant]."
In an interview with the Gazette-Mail, Keith Estep said he doesn't believe Monsanto polluted any more than other chemical companies in the area, and that "people are just jumping on the bandwagon to get money.
"All chemical plants put out pollution of some type. I can't say Monsanto was any better or any worse," he said. "I never had any ill effects and I have no sympathy whatsoever for the people trying to sue Monsanto."
Keith Estep, now 77, lives in Hurricane, but spends winter months in Florida. After working for the company several years in his prime, he moved to Monsanto's headquarters in St. Louis, Mo.
"I was a country boy, I had never been any place except Myrtle Beach -- maybe once," he said. "Going somewhere else really made me realize what else was out there, and to come back to Nitro and West Virginia was fairly depressing."
His father worked at Monsanto for 17 years, his oldest brother worked there about 30 years, and another one of his brothers for more than 10 years, in Nitro and at the company's headquarters.
"Not too many people thought about college back then. What your ambition was, was to get a good job in one of the chemical plants," he said. "If you did, you were home free. You had it. You could buy a car, a house -- do anything -- that's the way it was back then."