When the first petrochemical plant came to West Virginia in 1920, the locals found themselves on the cutting edge of this newfangled industry. Union Carbide had chosen Clendenin, West Virginia for this honor…and the people rejoiced.
Five years later, when the plant’s needs grew so large that they had to relocate, operations moved to South Charleston’s Blaine Island area adjacent to the Kanawha River, seemingly the ideal spot for a petrochemical company to do its thing and continue to expand.
“Major corporate products were produced at the plant and, over time, other major technological advances developed here, including olefin gas separation techniques and vinyls technology,” notes Dow Chemicals, which now owns the site. Hundreds of local residents were employed, mostly men for the first 15 or so years until the Second World War brought women into the workplace as well.
It wasn’t unusual to find two or three generations from the same family all working together at South Charleston’s 200-acre Union Carbide plant. It provided a steady income and benefits, and those who worked together became like brothers, even if they weren’t related.
But like most petrochemical plants, there was a dark side of Union Carbide that no one knew about…or did they? It was clear from the start, of course, that working with certain chemicals could be very dangerous. After all, over the years, more than 400 different chemicals, plastics, and other such materials were manufactured there. High-temperature processes were used on a daily basis, so the potential for burn-related accidents and fires was very real.
Through the years, Union Carbide workers around the world, including at South Charleston, were sickened or died for a number of reasons. In some cases, it was silica poisoning. Others succumbed to gas leaks. A few were electrocuted. In 1984, a gas-related disaster at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India killed thousands. In 1991, a chemical tank explosion killed a South Charleston employee.
Most of these events were widely publicized and employees became well aware of some of the most imminent dangers of working for Union Carbide. However, some workers were facing a different silent killer every day…asbestos.
It’s hard to predict just how many South Charleston West Virginia Union Carbide workers were exposed to toxic asbestos materials because they were just about everywhere inside this massive plant, until new laws in the late 1970s demanded that companies stopped using these asbestos-containing products.
Chemical technicians, millwrights, insulators, machinists, pipefitters, steamfitters, electricians….so many of these tradesmen worked with asbestos products without knowing of the danger they faced. Today, so many have died due to mesothelioma, and others are now fighting the fight against this aggressive form of cancer.
Families have been left in ruins because no one told these workers that they were likely to become sick if they inhaled those tiny asbestos fibers that were often floating through the air at Union Carbide. Some workers have alleged that Union Carbide officials had full knowledge of the health hazards related to asbestos but failed to warn workers.
As a result, many former South Charleston employees have filed suit against the company and those who made the products.
Did you work for Union Carbide in South Charleston? Have you been diagnosed with mesothelioma or lung cancer due to asbestos exposure while employed there? If so, it’s time to take stock of you options. Consult a local attorney who’s familiar with the facility to determine whether or not you have a viable case against this chemical giant.