Saturday, Mar 19, 2011
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 a tiny West Virginia town won what had seemed like a never-ending battle to get the same toxic chemical, methyl isocyanate, out of their backyard.
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 would begin dismantling 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 Monday on the remaining issues.
But Bayer’s decision erases a threat that loomed over the people of Institute for a generation.
The company will no doubt 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.
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 former Nitro City Councilwoman Brenda Tyler, a retired chemical worker’s wife 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.
The odds of victory had long been stacked against Institute, a modest, unincorporated and mostly black community of 1,500 that grew up around the college. But lately, things had begun to change.
A 2008 accident 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.