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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cautious Lessons at Institute, West Virginia

Air Date: Week of

John Gregory reports from this college town that houses an industrial plant similar in design and production to the one whose leak devastated Bhopal in 1984. Gregory talks with residents about their concerns around living near the plant.


CURWOOD: The chemical released in Bhopal, methyl isocyanate, or MIC, is used to make everything from plastics to pesticides. The common insecticide Seven, which many gardeners use on tomatoes, corn, and roses, is made using MIC. The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal was modeled after the company's other MIC facility, located in Institute, West Virginia, a small college town 10 miles outside of the state capitol in Charleston. It wasn't until after the Bhopal disaster that many of the people in the area learned that MIC was being produced in their community. Two years after the Bhopal accident, Union Carbide sold its West Virginia plant to the French-owned Rhône-Poulenc, A.G. company. From Institute, reporter John Gregory continues our story.

GREGORY: The Rhône-Poulenc facility in Institute, West Virginia, is sandwiched between the Kanahwa River and Interstate 64, in a narrow valley of the Appalachian foothills. Although a variety of potentially dangerous chemicals are used and produced here, it is the lethal and highly volatile MIC that is most feared by the local community.

(Factory floor sounds; large fans)

GREGORY: The 460-acre plant is a maze of silver pipes, duct work, and tanks, some of which are labeled in bright orange.

DeLESCIO: See the orange, it has MIC up there? Basically those are steel barriers that protect the MIC transfer lines within the plant. Cranes are not allowed to use...

GREGORY: Tom DeLescio is the public affairs manager for Rhône-Poulenc A.G. Company. The steel barriers surrounding the double-walled MIC pipes are some of the numerous safety improvements Rhône-Poulenc has made since buying the facility in 1986. The company has also dramatically reduced the amount of MIC stored at the plant from over 1 million pounds to about 180,000 pounds per day. All of the MIC produced here is used by Rhône-Poulenc and 3 other chemical companies located within the Institute complex. DeLescio says keeping the producer and users in one facility has made it easier to control the MIC. In the event of an accident, Rhône-Poulenc has installed a series of flares and scrubbers.

DeLESCIO: The flare would burn off any release of MIC should that escape. Basically make it black smoke rather than a harmful gas. And that scrubber basically would collect any release and neutralize it with caustic material.

GREGORY: Even with this increased scrutiny, Rhône-Poulenc has had a series of problems at the Institute plant. A fire and explosion in 1988 damaged a pipe reportedly containing MIC. In 1990, an MIC leak injured several plant workers. And in 1993, one worker was killed when an explosion damaged a tank containing 30,000 pounds of MIC. That brought a $1.6 million Federal fine for alleged safety violations. The company is appealing the ruling. But the penalty and the safety improvements the plant has made has done little to calm the fears of the neighboring communities.

BELLER: In August of 1993, while we were having registration here, there was a major explosion at the plant. And these kinds of concerns have led us to worry about the future of the college.

GREGORY: Jerry Beller is the chairman of the political science department at West Virginia State College in Institute. The school, with its 4,600 students, sits right next door to the Rhône-Poulenc complex. Beller is a founding member of a local citizens' group called People Concerned About MIC. He admits that a major accident is less likely to happen here than it was in Bhopal, but he's concerned that the average amount of MIC stored daily at Institute is 2 to 3 times the amount that was released in India.

BELLER: We want some way of the plant working with us on a level playing field, where we're all equals in the sense that we can look at the kind of dangers that they have and know what they know about the dangers there.

GREGORY: The citizens' group has asked Rhône-Poulenc to reduce its storage of MIC to near zero. Such production techniques already exist and are used by chemical giants DuPont and Bayer. But Rhône-Poulenc says that since they have 4 on-site customers with 4 different production schedules, that it's virtually impossible not to keep some stockpile of MIC. However, the company plans to review their production and storage system next year.

(Student conversation in hallways; musical instruments being practiced)

GREGORY: Just before noon, students begin trickling out of the lecture hall in the Fine Arts Building at West Virginia State College. This classroom is one of several places on campus where students are told to take shelter in the event of a chemical release. The Fine Arts Building is about 300 yards downwind from Rhône-Poulenc's primary MIC storage tank. David Heath and Kim Fisher are seniors at the college.

HEATH: And I grew up in the area; I just take it as a, we live there and that's one of the facts of living there, you know? We just have to hope that it doesn't happen. And if it does, I hope that I'm not around, or in a place where we can get to a shelter.

FISHER: I think, though, that they should have some kind of precautionary measures. You know, send out some kind of literature to the public to let them know just in case; because how are you going to let them know once it's happened?

GREGORY: The telephone book for Greater Charleston does contain 5 pages of emergency instructions, and the community does have monthly tests of its emergency systems, although officials still have problems getting all the sirens to work. After months of negotiating, activist Jerry Beller says Rhône-Poulenc has tentatively agreed to an independent review of plant operations and emergency procedures.

BELLER: It's important, I think it's a worthwhile thing to do. But it still angers me. I mean, they don't have to concern themselves over there with the running of the college and the teaching of classes here, but we feel that we have to do this because they're a threat to us.

GREGORY: Beller says he fears Rhône-Poulenc may, quote, "talk the proposal to death." But company officials say they hope to strike a deal for an independent audit some time during 1995. For Living On Earth, I'm John Gregory.



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