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.