Union Carbide Corp. today began producing methyl isocyanate (MIC) at its plant here for the first time since a leak of the chemical killed an estimated 2,000 people in Bhopal, India, in December.
The resumption of production began without incident at 4:05 a.m. A series of technical problems forced Union Carbide officials to delay repeatedly the original startup date of April 1.
As recently as Thursday, Union Carbide officials called a news briefing to announce the MIC startup for Friday, only to report the next morning that more problems -- including a newly discovered oil leak -- had forced another 24-hour delay.
"There's no question that we're being extra careful," said Union Carbide spokesman Thad Epps. "We know the whole world is watching what we're doing."
The Institute plant, a few miles west of Charleston, is the only place in the United States to produce MIC -- a highly toxic chemical used as an intermediary compound in the production of about one-fourth of the world's pesticides.
Since the Bhopal disaster, when the company shut down MIC production, Union Carbide has invested $5 million in new safety equipment, invited local leaders inside the plant, commissioned a safety test by an independent consulting firm and hired a local public relations firm to persuade the community that MIC production poses no threat to health.
Still, some residents who live near the plant have not been reassured. On Thursday afternoon, about 20 members of a group called "People Concerned About MIC" formed a car caravan in front of the plant carrying protest signs that read "Remember Bhopal," "Safety Before Profit" and "Aren't 2,500 Lives Enough?"
"I'm absolutely worried," said Paul Nuchims, a West Virginia State College art professor who lives about 300 yards from the plant and who sent his wife and two children away for the weekend. "There's been a smooth and calculated public relations campaign by Carbide . . . . But the safety procedures they have there are loose. And their evacuation plans are ludicrous."
One of the biggest concerns of Nuchims and other Union Carbide critics is the company's siren designed to warn the local community in case of an emergency, such as a leak at the plant. A few weeks ago, Union Carbide tested the siren full-blast for the first time and, according to Nuchims, it was barely heard.
"They told everybody it was going to be earth-shattering, but it failed miserably," Nuchims said. "It sounded like a ruptured duck."
Epps confirmed that the test siren had a relatively low frequency that "didn't get through concrete walls too well . . . . Some people couldn't hear it."
As a result, the company donated a new $10,000 siren to the Institute volunteer fire department that Epps said will be much more effective in alerting the community if a problem develops.
But even the critics acknowledge that most residents in the Kanawha Valley are behind Union Carbide's decision to resume production.
Frank Leone, the mayor of Dunbar, which borders on Institute, said Friday, "We don't know why it took them so long to get started. They've got the best people in the business working at that plant."