A Small Town's Battle With Dioxin Pollution

A small town grapples with the legacy of a chemical byproduct.

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See photos of Nitro, W. Va.

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NITRO, W.VA.—Jack Woodall worked at the plant for 30 years. In his first year and part of the second, he made weedkiller. That's the way it worked. The new guys at the plant had to make the weedkiller. It was a rite of passage.

First they mixed the chemicals, then dried them to form a powder or cake. Then the powder was bagged and sent away.

At the end of each day, they had to clean. They swept the extra powder into bins so it could be taken to landfills and burned, Woodall says. They hosed the equipment from top to bottom, washing the extra chemicals into the sewer. [See photos of Nitro, W. Va.]

The fumes from the chemicals were noxious. They caused workers' skin to blister. To protect their faces, Woodall and his coworkers were given jars of cream. That didn't help very much.

This was in 1961 and part of 1962. Today, Woodall still smells the chemicals. He smells them coming from his skin when he sweats, and in the summer his pillowcases turn yellow where the fabric touches his cheek. "I know the smell anywhere," he says. "I know the old dioxin smell."

The plant was owned by Monsanto and was in a sprawling compound along the edge of the Kanawha River about 15 miles northwest of Charleston, the state capital. Monsanto made all sorts of chemicals there, including the weedkiller with the chemical name 2,4,5-T. With so many different materials being combined, there were always byproducts, and dioxin was one of them.

Dioxin is best known for being a contaminant in Agent Orange, a herbicide used in Vietnam. The military sprayed it widely to clear the jungles. The Vietnamese refer to it as "the last ghost" of the war. More than half a million Vietnamese children have been born with birth defects. Agent Orange has been linked to leukemia in American Vietnam veterans.

The United States has its ghosts, too. For the better part of 30 years, Nitro has been grappling with the legacy of dioxin. The plant is long gone, leaving a vacant lot, part gravel and part pavement, with weeds—weeds, of all things—growing here and there in the cracks. In one direction, an old water tower, once white but now covered with rust, watches over the town; in the other direction, the long smokestacks of the John E. Amos Coal Plant in the neighboring town of Poca rise in the distance.

Cleanup. The only things that hint of what was here are signs that say "No Trespassing. Solutia, Inc." Monsanto spun off Solutia as a separate company in 1997. It inherited many of the problems Monsanto left behind. Solutia is about to start work on a four-to-five-year project to keep any of the chemicals that are still in the soil at the Nitro plant site from getting into the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been in and out of Nitro for nearly half a century. In the mid-1980s, under EPA orders, Monsanto investigated part of the site and, after finding soil contaminated with dioxin, removed about 500 gallons of soil, the EPA says. More than a decade later, investigators turned to the water. The state and the EPA found that two rivers and one creek were contaminated. They homed in on a 14-mile stretch of the Kanawha near the old site. Starting in 2004, Monsanto began testing fish, such as bass and catfish and other bottom feeders, in the river and sampling the water and the sediment of the riverbed. Monsanto sent the results to the EPA last year. Now the agency has to decide what to do.

It is not just that site. There's an old landfill of the type Woodall described, where Monsanto and other local businesses dumped waste, on Heizer Creek about a mile northeast of Poca, where he lives. The company stopped using that particular site in 1960, a year before Woodall started working. The EPA investigated in the 1980s and found contamination. Monsanto tried to clean it up. In 1998, the EPA came back, sampled again, and found more dioxin. According to the EPA, the cleanup is ongoing. Altogether, this town and the surrounding area have four active cleanup sites—three from Monsanto, the other from a company called Fike Chemical.