Maverick Chemist Creates Huge Headache for Environmental Agencies

Associated Press

Elmer Fike was out of town the day the federal government, not for the first time, cited his chemical plant for “recognized hazards . . . likely to cause death or physical harm to employees.”

Fike happened to be in Chicago picking up a National Safety Council award for his “outstanding commitment to safety,” as demonstrated by his zeal in promoting motorcycle helmets.

Ironies abound in the decade-long contest between Elmer Fike and the federal government.

Environmental Protection Agency workers wearing moon suits were prowling around 12 acres of rusted pipes and vats and tanks of Fike’s abandoned plant, cleaning up what they consider one of the worst toxic waste sites in the nation.

Meanwhile, Fike, wearing stained trousers and a sweater, was working nearby among beakers and test tubes and pipettes in a house-trailer lab, still brewing chemicals.


“The EPA put me out of business,” he was saying the other day, without apparent bitterness.

Grain of Truth

According to Harold Yates, an EPA spokesman, there may be a grain of truth in that.

“I feel sorry for Elmer Fike,” he said. “Fike sort of fell through the cracks. What he was doing, an operation his size, well, he really couldn’t afford to implement the required regulations.”

Elmer Fike’s operation, which employed 75 people, entailed using hazardous materials to make products in small volume that large chemical companies deemed unprofitable and too troublesome to make themselves.

He’s still doing it, as a “consultant” for somebody else.

“I used ways that nobody else used,” Fike said. “I innovated. I know how to handle hazardous material, but I am, I realize, a nonconformist.”

For their part, the residents of Nitro, who number 8,000, seem ambivalent about Fike’s fight.

At the Nitro Lounge, a gathering place for workers in West Virginia’s “Chemical Valley,” who know the risks, most say they would never have worked for Fike even though jobs in this state are scarce.

But they also call the $13-million government cleanup of Fike’s old plant a boondoggle. When the EPA called for evacuating one-third of the townspeople while they destroyed a cylinder of a lethal chemical they found at the plant, many didn’t leave.

“Chemicals are our livelihood,” said Bill Goff. “We don’t like to announce to the world that they can kill you, even though they can.”

Goff is a 35-year-old native of the valley who works at Vimasco Corp., a paint manufacturer separated from the Fike cleanup site by a corroded chain-link fence.

“I needed a job,” Goff said, “so I took the only one I could get. I cleaned out railroad tank cars. I would never do it again.”

One day his rubber boots sank through the spongy crust of asphalt residue in the bottom of a tank car. The goo acted like chemical quicksand and sucked him down. He had to be hauled out. The hair on his legs has never grown back. Other exposures have caused itchy skin rashes when he goes in the sun.

Elmer Fike will tell you that he operated his plant for nearly 30 years without accident or serious injury. But Nitro firemen will tell you that they once hauled Fike himself out of his plant, unconscious, with his hair on fire.

Elmer Fike is a 70-year-old man with eyes the color of cobalt. He earned his chemical engineering degree at Iowa State University and was offered work at Monsanto Co. in Nitro.

Can Smell It

To find Nitro, you drive west out of Charleston along the Kanawha River, past a string of 20 chemical plants, and after 15 miles, especially on a rainy day, you probably will smell it.

The town was built on river bank farmland in 1918 to make munitions for World War I. It was named for nitrocellulose, smokeless gunpowder. It grew overnight to 25,000 people, and was as quickly abandoned when the war ended, leaving behind thick concrete bunkers which remain scattered about, and great piles of sulfur which, old timers testify, stank even then.

In 1974 the Nitro Business & Professional Assn. passed a resolution asking the governor to keep his air pollution control commissioner from talking about how Nitro smells. Bad for business.

“Nitro’s low-level emissions,” the resolution said, voicing the hometown opinion that still prevails, “are less offensive to sensitive nostrils than a freshly fertilized farm.”

Since then, industries have made remarkable deodorant progress, but even fresh manure doesn’t make your eyes smart. Residents across from Fike’s plant complained to the EPA that whatever was wafting their way made the paint peel off their houses.

“Most don’t complain,” said Sharon Pfost, who writes training programs for Union Carbide Co. “That’s why they make $15 an hour.”

Elmer Fike, after 12 years with Monsanto, opened his own plant in one of those World War I bunkers and built from there. By the mid-1970s he had made quite a name for himself in West Virginia.

He headed a committee fighting for school textbooks that reflected “traditional values and free enterprise,” and became president of the West Virginia Safety Council.

He also was in the news because of a series of explosions and fires at his plant in 1976. One was caused by rainwater leaking through one of those old bunkers onto a ton of sodium waste. Instant combustion. They had to herd all the schoolchildren home because of the choking smoke blowing all over town for 12 hours.

Foe of Regulations

But mainly Elmer Fike drew attention as an uncompromising foe of what he considered wrongheaded government regulations.

He was outspoken against the Water Pollution Control Bill and the Toxic Substance Control Act, calling it, by its acronym, the Terminate Small Companies Act.

He took several trips to Washington to argue his points and was noticed by a network news program.

“I said, sure, come on down and look over my operation. They sent a crew down. I showed them everything.

“Before the show came on the air we had a meeting of the Chemical Manufacturers Assn. I told everybody there to be sure and watch the program. I guess that was a mistake.

“Here came Leslie Stahl on the TV screen and she said: ‘Now we take you to the messiest place we’ve ever been.’ And that was the nicest thing she had to say about me for the rest of the program.

“Within a week I had four government agents on my back. Worse, the industry began to desert me. I had become a pariah. They all want to keep their distance from EPA, so they turned their backs on me. I began to lose customers I had had for years.

“I was told I had contaminated the soil, the ground water, the air. They told me to dig down 20 feet, test the soil, incinerate some stuff, haul it off, all that kind of crap. It would have cost multimillions of dollars. So I said I wouldn’t do it.

“A month later I was on the Superfund list. That was the kiss of death. I lost all my customers, what few I had left. I laid everybody off. That was in 1982.”

“Fike said he’d clean up the operation,” said the EPA’s Yates. “It is our policy not to interfere with an operating business. We’re sensitive to unemployment, to what closing a business will do to a town. Moreover, if the violator will clean it up himself it will save the government money.

“Since 1982, Fike has chosen to do nothing.

“On June 11 of this year the mayor of Nitro informed us that the site had been abandoned. We had no choice but to act.”

The abandonment, Yates explained, moved the site from the “remedial” category, meaning the owner was trying to clean it up himself, to the “removal” category, meaning it was an “immediate and substantial” threat to public safety.

“What we had,” Yates said, “was a screaming emergency.”

So the EPA people moved in with their moon suits. After destroying that lethal cylinder of hydrogen cyanide, they went on to pack more than 5,000 rusted drums of chemicals into new drums to be identified and hauled away.