Camden County, Ga., and Kanawaha County, W.Va., are worlds apart in many respects: The former is Deep South coastal, flat and rural; the latter is Appalachian inland, hilly and urban. But when the subject is Union Carbide Corp. and the deadly chemical methyl isocyanate, many residents in both areas agree that the biggest danger to them from the pesticide ingredient that killed at least 2,000 people in India is economic.
Woodbine, Ga., and Institute, W.Va., are the only places in the United States where Union Carbide uses methyl isocyanate. Suggestions that the chemical is too dangerous to continue to be used are scoffed at in both places.
Workers in both communities point out that they are experienced in working with dangerous products, and many of them say an accident of the magnitude of that in Bhopal, India, is unlikely because American chemical workers are more skilled than those at the Indian plant were.
With the exception of a telephoned bomb threat at the plant here 10 days ago, protests here have concerned the announcement by Union Carbide that up to 80 temporary employes may be laid off when its supply of methyl isocyanate runs out. (About 40 workers in the methyl isocyanate unit in Institute have been transferred temporarily to other departments.)
Today, workers at the Union Carbide plant here, which uses methyl isocyanate to make agricultural pesticides, unloaded 68 drums, each containing 55 gallons of the liquid chemical, that were rejected by Brazil. A shipment turned away by France is expected to be brought here soon.
Eudell Gooding, who owns a Woodbine restaurant, said the Union Carbide plant here has been handling 70 to 80 truckloads of methyl isocyanate a week without incident.
"If you're going to shut down every manufacturing plant that's a danger, you wouldn't start with Carbide," she said. "The chlorine over at the paper mill bothers me a lot more."
"If they shut the plant down, that would be a tragedy," said her nephew, Chip Gooding, 19, a construction worker at the Navy's Kings Bay nuclear submarine base here. He added, "If the base blew, this whole county would go."
Morris Peeples, a grocer who is chief of the Kingsland volunteer fire department, says he is confident that Union Carbide employes are well trained.
One of the members of the plant's emergency response team is his son, Wayne.
Peeples was among area officials who attended a special meeting at the plant called by Union Carbide safety officer Bill Hubbs after the Bhopal tragedy. He said Union Carbide officials "ran a tape" of Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson's statement of concern about the accident.
Peeples was among the first firefighters to respond to an explosion on Feb. 3, 1971, at the site of what is now the Union Carbide plant. The plant, then owned by Thiokol Chemical Co., was manufacturing magnesium trip flares for military use in Vietnam when an explosion ripped through the plant, killing 28 workers and injuring 100 more.
Danny Daniels, chief of Camden County's emergency response team, said "the government didn't even bother to tell those workers they were making plastic explosives." In contrast, Daniels said, Union Carbide workers have been instructed to handle dangerous materials "in a professional manner."
Daniels added, however, that response team volunteers have not had training in how to deal with methyl isocyanate, "although we have now formed a committee to set up a protocol on that."
Nonetheless, some people are concerned. At the town dock in St. Mary's, the conversations between two of the town's activists, a restaurant dishwasher and a tourist-boat deckhand, include the Union Carbide plant, along with pollution from a paper mill and antinuclear protests at the sub base.
And at the Gilman Paper Co. today, maintenance worker Charles Green, 19, of Brunswick, posed this unanswered question to a security guard: "If that stuff is so bad that it killed all those people in India and those other places won't take it, why do we need it?"