Behind a chain-link fence in a far corner of Nitro, workers continue to tear down and clean up what is left of the former Monsanto Co chemical plant.
A month ago, rusted old chemical tanks littered the site along the Kanawha River. Today, it is mostly piles of concrete and other rubble.
Across town, other remnants of Monsanto's 50-year history remain hidden in the dust inside residents' homes and in the dirt of their backyards.
Dozens of homes in this community are polluted with what residents fear are dangerous levels of the toxic chemical dioxin, according to records filed in court and with government agencies.
Tests also show that some longtime residents have measurable amounts of dioxin in their blood.
"The town of Nitro is contaminated," said Charleston lawyer Stuart Calwell.
In December, Calwell sued Monsanto and several related companies to try to force a cleanup.
Calwell also is trying to get medical testing and compensation for people like Jimmy Agee, a 69-year-old former Union Carbide worker and lifelong Nitro resident.
"My house is basically worthless," Agee said. "It's full of dioxin.
This place is eaten up with it. Who wants to buy a house with this stuff in it?" Nobody knows what this dioxin contamination is doing to residents.
Nobody has really tried to find out.
In Minnesota, federal regulators found much lower levels of dioxin in household dust near a former wood-treatment plant. Two months ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the company to clean up the homes.
But in Nitro, nobody has done anything - until now.
Last week, the EPA asked another federal agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, to study the matter.
EPA officials also said their staff scientists will examine dioxin samples that Calwell provided after collecting them as part of his lawsuit against Monsanto.
"We're concerned about people's health," said David Sternberg, a spokesman for the EPA's regional office in Philadelphia.
"If data comes in, we would evaluate it to determine if we have to take action or perform more evaluation," Sternberg said.
A new molecule is born On Dec. 23, 1917, Nitro was born as a literal World War I boomtown.
That day, the federal government broke ground on the first of 27, 200-bed barracks at the site of the present Nitro city park, according to a history of the town by William D. Wintz.
The site, about 15 miles from Charleston, became home to one of the War Department's large gunpowder plants. The name "Nitro" came from the chemical term Nitro-Cellulose, which was the type of gunpowder to be produced.
When the war ended, private companies took over the government buildings, and converted them into chemical plants.
Monsanto Co. acquired its Nitro site from Rubber Services Industries.
The company made rubber chemicals for the tire industry.
In about 1947, Monsanto's agricultural division designed a new molecule. In its pure form, this molecule was called 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacidic acid, or 2,4,5-T. This new substances killed plants. It made their roots outgrow their leaves. Plants destroyed themselves through defoliation.
In 1949, Monsanto started making this powerful herbicide ingredient in Nitro.
Workers cooked batches of it in large pots, called autoclaves, rather than making it through a continuing production stream.
Monsanto made 2,4,5-T in Nitro for more than 30 years.
In its best-known use, the federal government bought 2,4,5-T to make Agent Orange, the defoliant deployed widely in the Vietnam War. About 11 million gallons of Agent Orange was sprayed on the jungles of Vietnam, Vietnamese citizens and U.S. soldiers.
But 2,4,5-T was contaminated. Every batch of it contained 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin. This chemical is also known as 2,3,7,8 TCCD - or, more commonly, as dioxin.
Dioxin has been linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, endometriosis, infertility and suppressed immune functions. The chemical builds up in tissue over time, meaning that even small exposures can accumulate to dangerous levels.
In the December lawsuit, filed in Putnam Circuit Court, Calwell explained that much of the dioxin waste from the Monsanto plant made its way into the Kanawha River. Residents are urged not to eat certain fish because they contain unsafe levels of the chemical.
But, the lawsuit alleged, Monsanto also was the source of dioxin-contaminated dust. Once airborne, the dust "was carried by prevailing winds over the town of Nitro, surrounding communities and the plaintiffs' homes and businesses," the lawsuit alleged.
Residents have sought to have their case declared a class action on behalf of more than 25,000 current or former Nitro residents.
No 'big alarm' In May 2004, Calwell hired a contractor to collect dust samples from Nitro homes. He hired a lab to test those samples for dioxin. The contractors tested more than a dozen homes. They found levels of dioxin that ranged from 16 parts per trillion to 1,210 parts per trillion.
There are no regulatory standards for dioxin in indoor dust. But the EPA's recommended cancer guideline is 4.3 parts per trillion. The state's cleanup trigger for residential soils is 3.9 parts per trillion.
In February, Calwell sent the EPA and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection letters about the test results.
Randy Sturgeon, an EPA chemical engineer and project manager, said the data did not "raise a big alarm" inside his agency.
"We came to the conclusion that it was not a health threat that warranted further investigation on our part," Sturgeon said in mid-June.
At the DEP, officials have decided to let federal regulators handle the situation.