Last Sunday, Claire Smith stopped trusting her neighbor.
For 13 years, Smith has lived in a tan house that overlooks the tanks and pipes and flickering orange smokestacks of Institute's Union Carbide chemical plant. On Sunday, the plant sprang a toxic leak.
"When you live in chemical valley, you get used to smells . . . but you trust that a company as big as Carbide would not do anything to endanger their workers or their community," Smith said. "I have never lived a day in my life in fear in this valley before Sunday. Now, I'm a nervous wreck."
The leak of the pesticide ingredient aldicarb oxime sickened 142 people and sent ripples of worry through Institute -- a town where few of the 500 residents knew what was made at the huge plant down the road until a leak last December at Carbide's Bhopal, India, plant killed more than 2,000 people.
A few families talk quietly about moving away. But for many Institute residents, their roots, their land and their jobs are stronger incentives to stay.
The elderly have no interest in starting over. "At my age, you don't run," said Paul J. Moore, 84, who can see the plant from his backyard.
The young hope to hang on to property passed down through as many as four generations. "A lot of people have a lot of stake in this area that goes back even before Carbide came in here" during World War II, Smith said.
Some residents would sell their homes, she said, but "who in the hell is going to come in here now and offer you a price for property across the street from the only place in the country that makes MIC?" That is the short name for methyl isocyanate, the pesticide ingredient that leaked in Bhopal.
Sylvia Parker, 70, said she hopes that Sunday's leak will give some urgency to the activism she has been trying for 20 years to stir up in Institute -- named for the former West Virginia Colored Institute here, which became West Virginia State College in 1929.
The unincorporated town has no mail delivery or sidewalks. Parker and others have been fighting to have Institute and two other mostly black communities incorporated; so far, Union Carbide has resisted the group's efforts to include the plant in the proposed new town.
On a good day, 15 people might come to a meeting of the planning committee for Institute and the two other towns, Parker said. While she is pleased to see a burst of interest and concern, she fears that it will fade as the leak becomes last month's news.
A few miles away in South Charleston, where 500 gallons of a nontoxic hydraulic fluid leaked Tuesday night from a Carbide tank, Betty Ray is planning a march Saturday in support of the company.
"This is not a town that gets out and marches, but I just want someone to say, 'Charleston is not so bad; Union Carbide is not so bad.' "
To people like Ray, who grew up in the region, Carbide and the other plants sprawling along the Kanawha Valley are welcome providers of jobs in a state with a 12 percent unemployment rate.
"When I was growing up . . . , Carbide was just like an institution here," Ray said. "Carbide has been a very supportive source and contributor to the economy."
For other, older residents of South Charleston and Institute, a sense of roots and trust in the company outweigh any fears about chemicals. Like city-dwellers who tune out the traffic, residents say they almost don't notice occasional odors from Carbide or other plants.
"I've lived here since I was 6," said Gloria Jones, 53. "You think, okay, it's chemical city. That's the risk you take when you live near a chemical plant. It's my home; I wouldn't live anywhere else."
Ray said she expects 500 people to march in support of Union Carbide, starting from the gate of the South Charleston plant.
Smith says she hopes that 200 or more will show up Sunday at a public meeting sponsored by People Concerned About MIC, advertised with a sign in the Institute Post Office reading, "None died this time; but what's next?"
Today Smith sat in her living room, looking out the open front door at the plant and at her sons, age 15 and 11. She and her husband, James, say they would like to pass on their house to their sons, so the family will always have a home here. But in the last few days, they agreed to start house-hunting.
"If any thing happens to my family . . . , if anything happens to my family," James Smith muttered, his voice breaking in anger.
"We're not going to wait for if," answered his wife.