Delay in Giving Alarm in Gas Leak Is Charged : Fumes in W. Va. Not Linked to Bhopal Chemical, Firm Says
Union Carbide officials, seeking to quell widespread fear and anger in this community, which has coexisted with the chemical industry since the turn of the century, insisted Monday that they had acted quickly and responsibly in dealing with a chemical leak that hospitalized 28 persons the day before and made hundreds ill.
But, as the company offered its account of events, many area residents told versions that were at odds with what Union Carbide said. Several insisted that they had heard the plant’s internal alarm system go off more than a half hour before the time Union Carbide said it first learned of the leak at 9:24 a.m. The company denied the allegation.
Meanwhile, clearing up earlier confusion, company spokesmen said that aldicarb oxime, the chemical that was released accidentally, was not a derivative of MIC (methyl isocyanate), the deadly gas that killed thousands when it escaped last December from an almost identical Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.
Instead, they said, the chemical in the Institute leak was a raw material intended to be combined with MIC to make the widely used agricultural pesticide Temik.
Nonetheless, criticism was intense as residents accused the area’s largest employer of waiting too long to alert them to the danger.
In addition, they were angry that the gas leak occurred despite the system of scrubbers and flares that the company had assured them would protect them from aldicarb oxime and the far deadlier chemicals produced at the plant. The Institute facility, the nation’s only MIC producer, installed $5 million in safety equipment after the Bhopal disaster.
Criticism by Fire Chief
“It was really pathetic the way Carbide handled it,” said LeRahn Guthrie, a 10-year Union Carbide employee and chief of the Institute Volunteer Fire Department, who ultimately activated the siren designed to alert residents to the leak. “If it would have been a strong concentration of chloride or MIC, it would have killed everybody. And then they tell you to trust them.”
More troubling, many residents insisted, was that there were signs of the leak before the time that Union Carbide said it occurred.
Guthrie said that his sister, who lives near the eastern edge of the plant, toward which the gas was blown, smelled a strong odor at 8:45 a.m.--about 40 minutes before the 9:24 a.m. time that Union Carbide said its computers first detected a release. She called the plant a half hour later and was told there was no leak, Guthrie said.
Similarly, Barbara Clark, who was returning home Sunday from walking her dog, told a hastily called meeting of Institute residents Monday night that she had heard the company’s internal alarm system go off at 8:50 a.m. Several others at the meeting said they had also.
Rep. Bob Wise (D-W. Va.), who had walked door to door in the surrounding neighborhood hours after the leak, said: “What I was hearing was that people were smelling the gas or seeing it before they ever had a warning. . . . What I heard last night suggests there was too long a lapse between the incident occurring and the warning going out.”
Charleston Mayor Mike Roark, whose city is the closest equipped to deal with large-scale medical emergencies, said that he and the city’s emergency services director could not get through the company switchboard.
“We were told they would get back to us when they could,” he said, adding, “We were never officially notified.”
He said he was particularly concerned that the lapse occurred after an incident in March, in which residents around Union Carbide’s nearby South Charleston plant fell ill. The company originally denied that it could have been responsible for the illnesses, the mayor said, but two days later acknowledged that some chemicals might have leaked as it started a new process.
“As a result of that, I thought we had an understanding” that Union Carbide would make someone “available and accessible” to local officials during such an incident, Roark said.
Institute plant manager Hank Karawan said that the plant’s internal alarm had been activated within 60 seconds of the leak’s being discovered at 9:24 a.m, but he told reporters that there had been a 19-minute lapse between the time the leak was first detected and the time that procedures to alert nearby residents were started.
He cited two reasons for the delay: Sophisticated computer tracking equipment originally indicated that the fumes would spread no farther than the south boundary of the sprawling agricultural chemical plant, and employees were preoccupied to some extent in caring for six persons who had been working in the unit where the leak occurred.
He insisted that the company followed all emergency response procedures that had been agreed on with local officials.
Karawan took reporters to the site of the incident: a 500-gallon storage tank, which is one of several embedded in a 40-foot-tall honeycomb of pipes.
Although the company is still investigating the leak, officials suspect that it began when steam entered a jacket on the storage tank, building pressure that overheated the chemical. Three gaskets on the tank failed, and a safety valve discharged the chemical into an emergency vent system. A ruptured disk in the system allowed the chemical to discharge into the atmosphere, bypassing the scrubbers and flares.
13 Still Hospitalized
After the gas escaped, thousands stayed indoors for two hours, and more than 300 were checked at an emergency medical center set up two miles away. More than 130 were treated at hospitals for burning eyes, noses, throats and lungs, and 13 remained hospitalized Monday.
Doctors predicted quick recovery, but Stanley Miller, 30, one of the six Carbide workers injured, was in serious condition Monday with eye injuries. The rest were in satisfactory condition.
This smoggy, humid area proudly claims to be the birthplace of the modern U.S. chemical industry. The tall spires of the nine chemical plants that carpet the Kanawha Valley are as much a part of the scenery as the maple trees that cover the slopes of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountain foothills.
And, at a time when the state is suffering the nation’s worst unemployment rate, the chemical industry provides the area with about 10,000 relatively high-paying jobs. Union Carbide employs about 7,000.
‘Close the Plant Down’
But, despite their great need for the industry, “a lot of people that I’ve talked to wish they would close the plant down,” said Wanda Blaney, who was walking with her 6-month-old baby in the lower-middle-income, largely black neighborhood near the plant.
Gail Ferguson, who said that her husband was hospitalized, added: “We don’t want Carbide to produce toxic chemicals, at least not in Institute. (They should) transfer their facilities to Danbury, Conn.,” where the company is headquartered.
Still others were more resigned to the danger. “Ain’t nothing I can do about it,” said Earl Davis, who moved to Institute six months ago from Texas. But he added, “I wouldn’t want to make this my permanent home.”
Thad Epps, a company spokesman, conceded that it has some fence-mending to do. Since the Bhopal tragedy, “we’ve spent a lot of time trying to reassure our neighbors that we run a safe plant,” he said. “The incident (Sunday) can do nothing but shake their confidence.”
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