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Toxic pollutants in 'Chemical Valley'.

West Virginia's Kanawha River tumbles through one of the most highly industrialized valleys in the United States. Almost 200 facilities, including several giant chemical plants run by major producers such as Union Carbide Corp., dot this long narrow "Chemical Valley," as it is known locally. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a study suggesting that the 220,000 people living in the valley are not adequately protected from toxic pollutants in the air and water.

This study, started in July 1983 and completed a year later, focuses on the chronic release of various hazardous substances from area plants and abandoned waste dumps. Although substantial improvement has occurred since 1977 when the last study was done by EPA's National Enforcement Investigations Center, the report says, "Toxic substances continueto be released to the environment in wastewater discharges and air emissions and are present in large volumes in hazardous waste disposal sites." Furthermore, it states, "Toxic substances in the air pose potential health risks at some locations under adverse meteorological conditions."

The EPA report, however, says nothing about episodic releases of toxic substances, which have also become a major concern in the area. Since last December, a great deal of attention has focused on the Union Carbide chemical plant in Institute, W. Va., a small town in the Kanawha Valley. This plant is very similar to the one in Bhopal, India, where a leak of methyl isocyanate vapor led to the death of thousands of people (SN: 12/15/84, p. 372).

Last month, a special EPA investigation revealed that Union Carbide employes failed to report, as required by law, at least 28 methyl isocyanate spills at the Institute plant. These spills, mostly small, took place over a five-yer period. One spill, however, allegedly involved 840 pounds of methyl isocyanate, but Union Carbide officials later drastically lowered their estimates of how much material had leaked. They admitted making mistakes in compiling the information for EPA.

This and other discrepancies prompted Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and James J. Florio (D-N.J.) last week to ask the General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate EPA's data gathering methods. Their letter to GAO says that the discrepancies raise serious questions about the reliability of any data given to EPA, especially because Union Carbide has a reputation for being one of the more safety-conscious chemical companies. This spring, Congress also faces a slew of committee hearings and bills that address issues raised by the Bhopal disaster.
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Title Annotation:West Virginia
Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 16, 1985
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