One of the most dangerous chemical plants in America sits in one of West Virginia’s only majority-Black communities. For decades, residents of Institute have raised alarms about air pollution. They say concerns have “fallen on deaf ears.”
This story was co-published with Mountain State Spotlight, a nonprofit newsroom covering West Virginia.
Every time Pam Nixon drives along Interstate 64, she sees the Union Carbide plant. Wedged between a green hillside and the Kanawha River, the sprawling facility has helped define West Virginia’s “Chemical Valley” for the better part of a century, its smokestacks belching gray plumes and fishy odors into the town of Institute, population 1,400. To many West Virginians, the plant is a source of pride — it was a key maker of synthetic rubber in World War II — and a source of hundreds of jobs. But to Nixon and others in Institute’s largely Black community, it has meant something else: pollution. The plant reminds Nixon of leaks, fires, explosions — dangers she’s dedicated most of her adult life to trying to stop.
Now, on a warm September evening, the 69-year-old retiree was at it again.
Surrounded by files, documents and reports in her cluttered home office, she turned on her computer around 6 p.m. and logged on to Zoom. On the screen were U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials from Washington, D.C., and state regulators from the capital, Charleston. She had spent weeks calling and emailing residents to convince people to attend. Her goal: show officials that her community was watching them. “You have to be persistent,” she said. Nixon watched approvingly as the audience grew to nearly 300.
The threat this time: ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical that facilities like the Union Carbide plant, now owned by Dow Chemical, make and that helps produce a huge variety of products, including antifreeze, pesticides and sterilizing agents for medical tools. The regulators, their Zoom backgrounds set to photos of pristine pine forests and green fields, shared a map of the area, a short drive west from Charleston. Institute, one of just two majority-Black communities in the state, is home to West Virginia State University, a historically Black college whose alumni include Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician made famous by the film “Hidden Figures,” and Earl Lloyd, the first Black player in the NBA. Blocks on the map were shaded green, yellow or red, from lowest to highest cancer risk. Much of Institute was bright red.
Institute is representative of Black communities across the country that bear a disproportionate health burden from industrial pollution. On average, the level of cancer risk from industrial air pollution in majority-Black census tracts is more than double that of majority-white tracts, according to an analysis by ProPublica, which examined five years of emissions data. That finding builds on decades of evidence demonstrating that pollution is segregated, with residents of so-called fence-line communities — neighborhoods that border industrial plants — breathing dirtier air than people in more affluent communities farther away from facilities.
The disparity, experts say, stems from a variety of structural imbalances, including racist real estate practices like redlining and decades of land use and zoning decisions made by elected officials, government regulators and corporate executives living outside these communities. That means that these areas, many of which are low-income, also lack the access that wealthier areas have to critical resources, like health care and education, and face poorer economic prospects.
All of the concentrated industrial activity in these so-called “sacrifice zones” doesn’t just sicken the residents who happen to live nearby. It can also cause property values to plummet, trapping neighborhoods in a vicious cycle of disinvestment. In Institute, for example, West Virginia State, starved of state funding for years, has struggled to expand and recruit students. The school is now suing Dow Chemical, the plant’s owner, and arguing that contaminated groundwater beneath the campus inhibits the school’s development plans and harms its national reputation. Dow has sought to dismiss the case, and an appeals court is considering whether the matter belongs in state or federal court.
Many of the 1,000 hot spots of cancer-causing air identified by ProPublica are located in the South, which is home to more than half of America’s Black population. “None of this is an accident,” said Monica Unseld, a public health expert and environmental justice advocate in Louisville, Kentucky. “It is sustained by policymakers. It still goes back to we Black people are not seen as fully human.”
To be sure, white communities face elevated cancer risks too, including the largely white neighborhoods across the river from the Union Carbide plant. But Institute is one of just two majority-Black census tracts in a state that’s 94 percent white, and the town contains one of the most dangerous facilities in the state and the nation. Of the more than 7,600 facilities across the country that increased the surrounding communities’ excess estimated cancer risks — that is, the risk from industrial pollution on top of any other risks people already face — the Institute plant ranked 17th, according to ProPublica’s analysis. The area within and around the plant fence line has an excess cancer risk from industrial air pollution of 1 in 280, or 36 times the level the EPA considers acceptable. Last year, a state health department investigation found communities living downwind of the chemical plants in Institute and South Charleston are seeing a spike in ethylene oxide-related cancers but cautioned that the findings were “not conclusive.”
Dow Chemical did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A company spokesperson told the Charleston Gazette-Mail this year that its plant emissions were safe, but that it was dedicated to further reducing them.
Government officials at the Zoom meeting that September night asked the crowd not to panic. Cancer risks are complicated, they said, and the plants are working to reduce their emissions. The officials also promised that regulatory agencies were considering new rules to protect public health. Nixon nodded as she listened: She had heard all of this before.
When residents got a chance to speak, Scott James piped up. The mayor of St. Albans, where many plant workers live, warned that when environmental regulators come to town, it threatens the region’s economic health. “I’m scared to death it’s going to end more jobs in the Kanawha Valley,” said James, who is white. “That’s what I’m scared of.”
But as they had so many times before, Nixon and other Black attendees pressed the regulators about protecting Institute. “I want to make sure that that is on the record that I have huge concerns about this particular community, which is largely African American. Historically African American,” said Kathy Ferguson, a local activist and community leader. “I feel like we’ve been crying out for help for so long and fallen on deaf ears.”
Throughout West Virginia’s history, political power has been concentrated in heavy industries — coal, chemical manufacturing, natural gas, steel — in part because of the jobs that flow from them. Those sectors also are among the largest sources of campaign contributions for those running for political office. Elected officials and the regulatory agencies they control face pressures to not be too tough, or even appear to be too tough, and worker safety and environmental protection often suffer as a result. Chemical plants are simply part of the landscape.
Nixon moved to Institute in 1979, just after getting married. It was an easy decision to make her home in the Black community that had formed around the college, where her husband worked as a groundskeeper. His family also owned property in town, and the newlyweds built a home not far from the campus. She worked as a medical lab technician at a nearby hospital.
At first, the Union Carbide plant was as remarkable to her as a gallon of milk. She had grown up across the river, in the east end of Charleston, not far from the water — close enough that her neighborhood caught the smell when the occasional chemical spill caused a fish kill. “They just belched out all of these chemicals into the air and water,” Nixon said. “And people would say, ‘What’s that smell? Well, it smells like money.’”
The area’s gradual transformation into Chemical Valley upended the original vision for Institute. The town began as a small Black community founded by formerly enslaved people who had been freed by a rich, white plantation owner upon his death in 1865. The journal West Virginia History has described Institute at that time as “one of the few places freed slaves could live in peace” in the state.
It later became home to the West Virginia Colored Institute — created because the federal government had ordered states to either eliminate race-based entrance policies or create separate schools for Black students. West Virginia’s leaders chose the latter, but, as they scouted locations along the Kanawha River, they encountered hostile crowds, until they reached Institute.
The town grew up around the school, becoming a center of Black life in an overwhelmingly white state. The city of Charleston later built the region’s first commercial airport, Wertz airfield, which would soon serve as a training ground for some of the nation’s first African American pilots, the forerunners of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
The company built a new plant on the site of the Wertz airport, making butadiene, the key to synthetic rubber. Carbide’s official history said the spot was “the only reasonably flat ground nearby.” After the war, Carbide developed the operation into a 400-acre manufacturing complex, which, over the years, has had several other owners, including Rhone-Poulenc and Bayer CropScience. Over time, the Kanawha Valley emerged as a home to a large collection of chemical plants, lured in part by the region’s salt deposits, river access and cheap coal for power. The plants had now-familiar names like DuPont and Monsanto, and they provided thousands of jobs, helping to usher in a middle-class life for many in the region. The national media marveled at the valley’s “chemical magic,” as The Saturday Evening Post put it.
But for the residents of Institute, the picture was far dimmer. For years, Carbide “hired Blacks in only the low-paying menial jobs, while whites were hired into better-paying positions,” according to sociologist Robert Bullard, who interviewed longtime residents there for his landmark 1990 study of environmental justice, “Dumping in Dixie.” Local residents, he wrote, made up less than 10% of the plant’s workforce.
Meanwhile, they lived under a steady stream of pollution, leaks and explosions.
Newspaper articles from 1954, for example, describe a huge explosion at the Institute plant. “58 Hurt As Carbide Blast Rocks Valley,” blared the headline across the top of the Charleston Gazette’s front page. One resident told the paper, “All I remember seeing was a big fire.” Another man, who was working at a gas station across the river, was injured when glass rained down on him from windows shattered by the explosion.
Michael Gerrard, who is white, grew up in Charleston during this period. He went on to become a professor of environmental law at Columbia University. While in college, Gerrard researched the local chemical industry for a paper that he titled “The Politics of Air Pollution in the Kanawha Valley: A Study of Absentee Ownership.”
Gerrard noted that plant managers mostly lived in one upscale neighborhood of Charleston, “far away from the sights and smells” of Carbide or other chemical companies.
But the people in Institute, like residents of other fence-line communities across the country, had little knowledge of the chemicals next door; companies were not required to disclose what they used or stored, let alone what they pumped into the air or water. “Nobody knew what was there or what was really coming out,” Nixon said.