Sylvia Parker marched into the office of the manager of Union Carbide Corp.'s plant here Wednesday and asked that she or one of her fellow citizens be sent to India, at the company's expense, to join the investigation of the disaster at Union Carbide's plant there.
"It's not that we don't trust them," Parker, 70, said today. "It's just that we have different interests."
Her immaculate, yellow cinderblock house is just east of Union Carbide's agricultural-products plant here -- the only place in the United States that manufactures methyl isocyanate (MIC), the poisonous chemical that leaked from Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India, killing at least 1,600 people.
But there is no hysteria here, partly because Union Carbide has a long and good safety record, and partly because it and the other giant chemical firms -- du Pont, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, FMC -- whose plants line both sides of the Kanawaha River Valley around Charleston have been islands of high pay and steady employment in a state that has the nation's highest jobless rate. (Union Carbide has 13,000 applications for jobs at its three plants here, where hourly workers earn $12.50 an hour.)
While nearly everyone who lives here knows that the plant used toxic chemicals to make pesticides and herbicides, few had ever heard of MIC before this week. Now many residents are concerned that if such an accident could happen in the plant in India, which was modeled on the one here and built with the help of the workers here, the same thing could happen in Institute.
Few of the plant's 1,400 workers live in Institute, a town that took its name from the West Virginia Colored Institute, which is now West Virginia State College.
Parker, who like nearly all of the residents of this unincorporated town of 500 is black, is well known to Union Carbide plant manager H.J. Karawan for her efforts to have Institute and two other predominantly black communities incorporated. Union Carbide, which would become the new town's principal taxpayer, has fought hard and, so far, successfully against being included in the town.
So when Parker and two of her neighbors met with Karawan Wednesday, the meeting was, by all accounts, cordial, ending with Karawan promising to relay their request to officials at corporate headquarters in Danbury, Conn.
Dick Henderson, Union Carbide's public relations spokesman here, said today that while the request was relayed, "it's probably not realistic." He noted that one of the company officials dispatched to India to investigate the leak is the medical director of the Institute plant, Dr. Bhipin Avashia.
Henderson, who directed a procession of reporters today to the shutdown MIC unit, said the plant will not manufacture more MIC until the investigation is completed. It is "consuming" its 2 1/2-week supply of MIC by using it to manufacture pesticides, instead of shipping it elsewhere.
Another concern voiced by residents -- that an existing evacuation plan be improved -- is getting attention from the company. "This is a time for serious, responsible action," Henderson said.
The company periodically sends notices to residents about the plan; the most recent one is dated Sept. 17. William Holland, who has his copy pasted inside the door of a kitchen cabinet, said, "It's so esoteric that there's probably not two people in Institute who understand it."
Example: "Plant steam whistle: two blasts then stop, fire or emergency in plant; three blasts then stop, gas release in plant; continuous blast every three seconds for two minutes, then blasts every 30 seconds, fire or gas release of such magnitude it could affect people outside the plant. If you hear continuing blasts: 1-check wind direction; 2-if wind blowing from your location to plant, do nothing, but continue to be alert for wind direction change; 3-if wind blowing from plant toward you, immediately evacuate by going crosswind . . . . "
Warne Ferguson, 57, a former teacher from Harlem who operates two programs for disadvantaged youths at the college, scoffed at that advice. "Who's going to stand around and take wind directions? Everyone is going to run like hell and there's going to be one huge traffic jam. There's only one way out of here, and the ramp onto the interstate is right in front of the plant," he said. "We'd have to run into the fire to get out of here."
Ferguson, sipping coffee this morning at Andy's Grill, remembers the night in 1955 when an explosion and fire at the plant "lit up the sky the color of the orange on that jukebox. . . . " Eight workers were hurt in the blast.
Ferguson admits to some "hostility" about the location of the plant, which was opened in 1943, when "nobody ever dreamed there would be white folks" in town.
Ferguson, Parker and others also worry about what they perceive to be a high incidence of various diseases, including cancer of the larynx, cataracts and glaucoma. "Seems like we're all the time rubbing our eyes or clearing our throats," said Ferguson.
Company spokesman Henderson said he knows of "reports about cancer, but we haven't seen any epidemiological studies" linking anything to the plant. He acknowledged that plant emissions have damaged automobile finishes, but he said such incidents have been "rare" in recent years.
Parker, who said she developed a lump in her throat and an eye irritation after she moved here in 1959, said she is worried that "if that stuff is taking the paint off our cars, what's it doing to our lungs?"