Scores Hurt by Leaking Chemicals : Faulty Valve Cited at Union Carbide's West Virginia Plant

Times Staff Writer

A giant cloud of gas derived from the chemical that killed thousands last year in Bhopal, India, escaped Sunday from Union Carbide's plant here, injuring six employees and causing almost 200 nearby residents to seek medical treatment for respiratory and skin irritation.

Union Carbide blamed the leak of aldicarb oxime, the main ingredient in the popular farm pesticide Temik, on a valve failure after a buildup of pressure in a storage tank containing 500 pounds of the chemical. Carbide spokesman Dick Henderson called the chemical an "eye and lung irritant." The leak began about 9:25 a.m.

Gas Rolls Over Towns

The 200-yard-wide cloud of yellowish gas rolled over the towns of Dunbar, Institute, Nitro and St. Albans before dissipating around noon. "It sort of moved in like a fog," said Pat Baciu, a service station attendant at Dunbar. "It had a sort of sulfur smell to it, just sort of stunk. My eyes got a little bit red and I got a little sick at my stomach."

The leak also closed roads in the narrow Kanawha River Valley, including Interstate 79 and West Virginia 25, for up to an hour. Stranded motorists reported a choking and burning sensation from the fumes, which smelled "strong, bitter, kind of like gasoline," according to one driver.

Henderson said aldicarb oxime is made from MIC--the deadly pesticide ingredient that spewed from a pressure relief valve at the Bhopal plant, killing more than 2,000 persons--but does not contain any MIC itself.

Small Amounts Seen

"At most there might be a few parts per billion because a few molecules didn't react fully, but that would be all," he said.

Temik poisoning can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and blurred vision. Severe cases may result in damage to the central nervous system and death.

Suspected Temik residues figured in last month's watermelon pesticide scare in California. State officials ordered grocers and wholesalers to destroy all their melons after about 180 persons in four Western states and Canada became ill.

The Institute plant was shut down after the Dec. 3 Bhopal leak because of fears about the safety of its MIC unit. It resumed production May 4 after installation of $5 million in new safety equipment that company spokesman Thad Epps said made "a safe unit safer."

Henderson insisted that the aldicarb oxime leak on Sunday "never was a threat to the community." A company statement said that much of the chemical "was neutralized through venting to a scrubber and flare."

But Kanawha County officials declared an emergency when the leak was reported. They advised the 3,100 residents of Institute to stay indoors and told those outside to cover their eyes and mouths and seek shelter.

The emergency declaration was terminated shortly before noon.

"We activated our computer tracking and it showed most of the material went back over the plant, southwesterly," Henderson said.

Sheriff's Lt. I.D. Burdette said the area of the plant where the leak occurred was flooded with water to contain fumes.

Warning Siren Sounded

Carbide officials said they sounded the warning siren as soon as they knew of the leak. But some residents complained that the chemical cloud had already sickened them before they heard the siren.

Kanawha County Sheriff Danny Jones said his department was not alerted until at least 12 minutes after the leak occurred and possibly not for as long as 24 minutes.

"I didn't know what it was when I saw that white cloud go up, disperse and spread out," said Crawford Willis, a custodian at nearby West Virginia State College. "I just locked the building, picked up my wife and took off."

Barbara Cyrus, who lives 500 yards from the plant, said the first thing she noticed was a strong odor seeping into her house.

"I thought maybe it was the cat litter," she said. "But then I opened the door to pick up the paper and it almost knocked me down."

Her husband, Clifford Cyrus, said he immediately thought of leaving the house "but I didn't hear no whistle so I didn't know what to do. About 10 minutes later we heard the whistle and then we headed toward Charleston."

Broadcast Alerts

The plant siren tells residents to seek information on the radio or television. County officials broadcast alerts telling residents to remain indoors.

Paramedic supervisor Phurman Williams, who helped treat people at the emergency center, said residents were "very disturbed--very. What I've heard is that the warning to the surrounding communities wasn't relayed as quickly as what they thought it should have been."

Henderson disagreed. He said the plant's emergency siren was sounded as soon as the leak occurred. "Most everyone stayed indoors and it's good to see that the system worked," he said.

Major highways near the facility were blocked, and almost 200 persons streamed to a makeshift treatment center that officials set up in the parking lot of Shawnee Golf Course several miles away. Not all were suffering ill effects from the fumes.

Jones said that as he drove to the site, he saw "a pretty big cloud, which was to the east of the plant. It came through my air conditioner and smelled pretty badly of rotten eggs."

Sheriff Recovered

The sheriff said he felt ill after inhaling the whitish gas, but recovered after lying down for several hours.

Dozens of those treated at the temporary center were taken to five local hospitals by ambulance and bus. Others drove themselves for further treatment.

Dr. David Seidler, vice chief of emergency services at Charleston Area Medical Center, which coordinated radio communications during the incident, said only 25 of the approximately 140 treated by the local hospitals required hospitalization. He said the medical center also received calls from hospitals as far as 60 miles away for information on treating patients exposed to the gas while driving near the plant.

"They're all doing quite well at last report," he said of those who were hospitalized, adding that none is expected to stay more than three days.

One Worker Admitted

Only one of the six plant workers who were treated was admitted to a hospital, Sheriff Jones said.

Seidler said the medical center received calls from hospitals as far away as Gallipolis, Ohio, 60 miles to the west, and Montgomery, 30 miles to the east, asking for information on treating patients exposed to the chemical while driving by the plant on Interstate 64.

Late Sunday night, the sprawling Institute plant, which produces agricultural chemicals around the clock, was brightly lit, and a security guard said it was functioning normally. The town was quiet. A Union Carbide statement said: "An immediate investigation will be made--to determine why pressure in the storage tank built to the point that the valve failed."

The West Virginia facility, virtually identical to the plant in India, is the only U.S. chemical complex manufacturing methyl isocyanate. It was sharply criticized earlier this year by California Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House subcommittee on the environment, who released an internal company report critical of the Institute plant, saying he has "come to the point where I don't think I can take Union Carbide's word for what's happened."

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