Last week the GCM team traveled to Kanawha Valley, West Virginia; or as the locals call it, Chemical Valley. Located just outside of Charleston, Kanawha Valley is home to multiple chemical plants and the largest storage unit of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) in the US.  MIC is a dangerous chemical used in pesticides, notoriously known for the deaths of thousands of villagers in Bhopal, India in 1984. Formerly Union Carbide and now Bayer Crop Science, this sprawling chemical plant looms over the nearby community.

Residents of Kanawha Valley are no strangers to chemical spills and explosions.  Shortly after Bhopal, Union Carbide’s Institute facility had a leak of the same deadly chemical, MIC, sending 130 residents to the hospital. The leak in Institute sent waves of fear throughout the country, sparking serious debate about hazardous chemicals.

At that time, residents and activists organized an incredible movement exposing the lack of information regarding chemical storage, leaks and accidents. Their work provided the foundation for the Community Right to Know and Emergency Planning (EPCRA, more on that later) laws and the Toxic Release Inventory: tools that are widely used today by communities across the US in the fight for clean and healthy neighborhoods.

Even with the additional information and publicity, twenty years later in Institute, odors still foul the air and accidents are still happening, which is why Global Community Monitor came to introduce Bucket Brigades as an effective community-based method to monitor air quality and develop the evidence to fight for change.

Most recently, residents are reeling from an explosion on August 28, 2008. The explosion at the Bayer facility killed two workers and shattered windows in nearby homes in the Institute community. Effects were felt up to several miles away, exposing residents to unknown amounts of toxic chemical-methomyl. Not too surprisingly no air monitoring was conducted during the explosion. The Chemical Safety Board is yet to release its final report.

The local community is intertwined with the Bayer plant. West Virginia State University’s campus and sports field are practically on Bayer’s property, with only a chain link fence dividing the two entities. A local rehabilitation center resides feet away from the facility on the other side. Restaurants, a gas station and several neighborhoods all exist within 1/4 mile of this several hundred acre plant.

And despite this proximity, there is not a well thought out emergency response and evacuation plan. Ironically, the only access out of town requires passing the Bayer chemical plant so if there is a major accident, there is nowhere to run.

Also, there is no air monitoring at either the University or rehabilitation center. Residents, students, staff and patients are likely being exposed to toxic chemicals on a regular basis without any information documenting the exposure.

Chemicals run deep in West Virginia – in the economy and in the environment. Residents shared stories about soil that has long been polluted with improper disposal of Agent Orange and a variety of other ‘secret’ chemicals buried by chemical tycoon, Monsanto.  A town in the valley still bears the name Nitro, in reference to the explosives plant that once operated there.  It has since exploded, leaving a brownfield and the town in shambles.

After decades of activism, pushing for clean air and strict safety regulations, the residents are aging, sick and losing hope.  Neighbors are sick with rare cancers than can be tied to chemical exposure and live in fear of another explosion or chemical leak.

The GCM team was welcomed with a lot of frustration and skepticism.  A long list of researchers, scientists, public relations professionals and health officials have come out for a look, but little concrete evidence is available documenting the air quality.

During the bucket brigade training, Institute neighbors eagerly jumped in taking turns in building their own air monitoring buckets. For the first time with the help of Global Community Monitor, they will have an opportunity to monitor the air during a horrible stench (think decaying animal or perm solution) or an accident.

The residents’ energy has been smoldering for 20 years and is ready to be re-ignited. Institute and nearby neighbors are trained and willing to monitor their own air! Maybe the next wave of national reforms coming out of Institute will include laws about real time air monitoring to prevent accidents and buffer zones…