Polluters are turning neighborhoods into “sacrifice zones” where residents breathe in carcinogens. The EPA allows it. We mapped the hot spots.

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.

Pam Nixon stands outside her home in South Charleston, West Virginia. Nixon got sick after being exposed to a leak from the Institute plant in 1985, and that spurred her to become an activist. She spent 15 years working as the environmental advocate for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Credit: Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica

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.”

Credit: Lucas Waldron and Al Shaw/ProPublica

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.”

Union Carbide’s South Charleston plant Credit: Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica

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.

As World War II heated up, though, government officials had other ideas for the land. Concerned about a potential shortage of rubber for the military effort, they turned to Union Carbide Corporation, which was already operating chemical plants up and down the Kanawha River valley.

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.

The plant in Institute is adjacent to West Virginia State University, a historically Black college. Credit: Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica

It took a chemical disaster halfway around the world for that to change. In 1984, a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked a chemical called methyl isocyanate, or MIC. Thousands of poor families living nearby woke up coughing and choking, the toxic gas burning their lungs and eyes. Estimates of the death toll vary, but range as high as 15,000. In Institute, Nixon was cooking dinner when she heard about the accident on the evening news. Her heart sank. “When I heard the acronym MIC, I remembered seeing those letters on the sides of empty 18-wheel truck tankers as they passed my home,” Nixon said.

Carbide had added a methyl isocyanate unit in Institute in the late 1960s. Made from phosgene, a toxic gas used as a chemical weapon in World War I, MIC was a key ingredient in new pesticides. The facility was the only plant in the U.S. that stored large quantities of the chemical, and within hours of the Bhopal leak, Carbide shut down its production.

The company then spent $5 million on a project that it said made “a safe unit safer.” Carbide also invited local civic leaders to tour the facility and hired a public relations firm to push the idea that its methyl isocyanate unit wasn’t a danger to the community. “We’ve looked at this facility with a fine-tooth comb,” company spokesman Thad Epps said at a press conference just before production of the dangerous chemical resumed on May 5, 1985. “We know the whole world is watching what we’re doing.”

Three months later, on a hot Sunday morning, a firetruck rolled down Nixon’s street. “Stay inside,” blared the warning from a loudspeaker. The voice announced that there had been a chemical leak at Carbide. Nixon and her family were getting ready for church as officials instructed residents to turn off their air conditioners. “I’m thinking, ‘Turn off your air conditioner? It’s August,’” Nixon recalled. She and her husband ignored the shelter-in-place warnings and rushed to their church in South Charleston, farther from the plant. Then they went to her mom’s house, a little farther away, before coming home that afternoon.

Within a few hours, though, Nixon’s throat was scratchy. She had a cough. “It was beginning to burn down my throat,” Nixon recalled. Eventually, her husband took her to a local emergency clinic. In all, 135 residents had sought medical help that day for eye, throat and lung irritation.

Her son, Eric, had been away when the leak happened, celebrating his 16th birthday with family friends. “I called and told them to keep him because we had just had a major leak,” Nixon recalled. “Of course, Eric said that he was coming home because if we were going to die, we were all going to die together.”

If Bhopal ignited environmental activism within Institute, the leak in West Virginia supercharged it. And West Virginia State became the center of the emerging movement. Leading the charge was Kathy Ferguson’s father, Warne, who had grown up in Institute and attended West Virginia State before going off to New York to teach in Harlem. He had returned home to run two youth programs at the college, and he soon joined with faculty and other residents, including Nixon, to form a new group to pressure Carbide to get rid of its huge stockpile of the deadly chemical. They called it People Concerned About MIC.

Kathy Ferguson stands outside the Union Carbide plant in Institute. Ferguson grew up in the community surrounding the plant, and her father was a co-founder of a local activism group now called People Concerned About Chemical Safety. After leaving town for college and work, she came back in 2014, when her dad was diagnosed with what she says was a rare stomach cancer. She helped take care of him until he died. Credit: Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica

“We would smell things and we would call” the plant and state regulators, Kathy Ferguson recalled. “Smell something, say something. That was the motto in our house.”

As the residents of Institute were beginning to reckon with the threats posed by their industrial neighbor, the country was becoming increasingly aware of the disproportionate risks that communities of color were facing from polluters.

In 1982, the dumping of contaminated soil in the predominantly Black community of Afton, North Carolina, prompted a landmark U.S. General Accounting Office report, which examined four hazardous waste disposal sites and found that three of them were in mostly Black communities. More activism and studies followed, including the watershed “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” Published in 1986 by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, it found “an inordinate concentration” of toxic waste sites in Black and Hispanic communities. “The possibility that these patterns resulted from chance is virtually impossible,” the paper said.

In Houston, Bullard had already finished his own study, finding that garbage disposal sites in that city were almost all in Black neighborhoods. Bullard was continuing his research when he read about Institute in the national media. “A lot of people didn’t even know there were Black folks in West Virginia,” Bullard recalled in a recent interview. “So I had to go to West Virginia.”

When he did, Bullard found a pattern that matched what he’d seen in the other communities he was studying: Black residents lived in close proximity to polluting facilities but received few of the economic benefits of those plants.

For many years, people inside the EPA did not seem to grasp that “the impacts communities said were happening were even happening,” according to Mustafa Ali, a vice president of the National Wildlife Federation and a former senior environmental justice adviser at the EPA. That dynamic started to change as the mountains of evidence from scholars like Bullard demonstrated time and again that environmental regulations were failing to protect communities of color. But the EPA did little to address the problem.

In Washington, elected officials pursued legislation that, while giving citizens more information, ultimately placed the onus for forcing change on activists instead of regulators. After the Institute leak, for example, then-U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, a Democrat who represented the Kanawha Valley, helped craft the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, or EPCRA, the nation’s first chemical right-to-know law. He told the media at the time that he had gone door to door to talk to residents after the accident. “What I was hearing was that people were smelling the gas or seeing it before they ever had a warning,” he said. Carbide later acknowledged that company officials waited 20 minutes before warning residents of the leak, potentially wasting a critical window in which the plant’s neighbors and emergency responders could react.

Passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, the EPCRA did not set up new safety regulations, nor did it require enforcement actions, like independent environmental audits or ingredient switching, that would force companies to use less toxic chemicals at their plants. Instead, the measure gave residents and first responders new tools to better understand the dangers in their communities.

The law required companies to help local emergency responders plan for accidents and “immediately” notify authorities about leaks, but it didn’t specify what “immediately” meant. The law also mandated that companies disclose their chemical inventories and emissions, but it didn’t cover all chemicals and it exempted smaller leaks. Moreover, under the law, all numbers are self-reported by the companies and not always made public in ways that are easy for people to access or understand.

In a recent interview, Wise acknowledged the law was a compromise. “There is constant tension that always exists,” Wise said. “‘Do we have a safety problem we have to do something about?’ and ‘Are we going to drive jobs out of the Kanawha Valley?’”

Just a week after the Institute leak in 1985, more than 400 people paraded through South Charleston, where the company owned another sprawling plant, in support of Union Carbide. “Hey, hey, what do you say? We say Carbide all the way,” marchers chanted, as shown in the 1991 Appalshop documentary “Chemical Valley.”

Many of the marchers worked at Carbide or had family members who did. “This is a Carbide town,” then-South Charleston Mayor Richie Robb said at the march. “There’s not a household in this town that doesn’t have a member of the family or a relative working for Carbide.”

In a front-page account of the march, the Sunday Gazette-Mail noted one sign that said, “Almost Heaven Would be Almost Hell Without Carbide.” Another said, “We Love Union Carbide,” and featured a heart with dollar signs, the paper said.

During a public appearance in the valley, Warren Anderson, then Carbide’s chairman, remained defiant, warning that calls for chemical plants to take stronger safety measures would hurt the broader economy and society. “Somebody has sold a bill of goods that this is a zero-risk world,” Anderson said at the time. “In today’s environment, you couldn’t invent the pencil. It has a very sharp point. Children use it. You can stick it in your eye or your ear. I doubt that you could get the pencil introduced in the market today.”

Meanwhile, People Concerned About MIC ratcheted up the campaign against Carbide, organizing around the idea that the 1985 leak could have been worse. “None died this time, but what’s next?” said one ad for a community meeting. Nixon and others went to shareholder meetings. Environmentalists and some chemical workers joined forces, bringing survivors of the Bhopal disaster to town. But advocates ran into practical complications: While the new law had given them more information about what the plant produced, they were on their own when it came to learning about the toxicity of the complicated chemicals, keeping logs of incidents at the facility and launching letter-writing campaigns, which they did while holding down jobs, going to church and helping kids with their homework.

“It was almost like a job for me,” said Nixon, who was also working full time as a medical technician. “It takes a lot of determination and life gets in the way.”

Moreover, the residents of Institute lacked a political champion.

Institute was an unincorporated area, meaning that it had no town council, mayor or direct representatives. The most local government body was the Kanawha County Commission. In “Dumping In Dixie,” Bullard found that in fence-line communities, “government inaction reinforces a system of exploitation” and “exposes low- and middle-income Black neighborhood residents to potential health risks.”

To enhance their clout, some residents sought to incorporate Institute with two other Black communities nearby. Carbide, however, would have been the single largest taxpayer in the new town, and the company fought the effort, which failed, leaving residents little political leverage.

With each new leak and explosion — including one in August 1993 that claimed the lives of two workers — relations between the plant and the community deteriorated. At one public meeting, longtime Institute resident Donna Willis said that when she reported an odor to the plant, “They send a person over that tells me I have a gas leak,” she said. “I live on an all-electric facility. There is no gas.” Sue Davis, another longtime resident, said “The Right to Know Act is fine. The problem is, when we call the plant to know something, they say it’s nothing to know.”

Although no official was championing Institute’s cause, some hope for change came in 1998, when Nixon, by then one of the state’s higher-profile environmental activists, took a job as the environmental advocate at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The position had been created several years before, in response to complaints that state regulators were too friendly with the industries they regulated.

The new role sent Nixon to meetings around the state, where chemical companies would meet with locals. She noticed a troubling trend. Community groups in white areas got more answers, more details, more information than those in Institute, she said. The companies “saw the people in South Charleston as their peers,” Nixon said, referring to the predominantly white area. “They saw the people in Institute as a little less. I always saw that as a racial thing.”

Still, Nixon leaned into the role and scored some victories. For example, she convinced the agency’s air-quality office to more carefully examine the existing pollution burden on the coal community of Sylvester, and officials ultimately rejected a permit for a new synthetic fuels facility there. But more often than not, Nixon felt outmatched by West Virginia’s pro-industry politics: Industry lobbyists and state lawmakers made shrinking or eliminating her job a favorite pastime.

Shortly after 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 28, 2008, a fireball shot hundreds of feet into the air above the Institute plant, which at the time was owned by Bayer CropScience. A runaway chemical reaction had caused a 5,000-pound tank to explode, sending out shockwaves that were felt as far as 10 miles away. Two plant workers were killed.

As flames licked the sky, local residents and emergency responders scrambled for information. The only Bayer employee talking to them was a guard at the plant gate who said he wasn’t authorized to provide any details. “I’m only allowed to tell you that we have an emergency at the plant,” he said.

Frantic neighbors called Nixon, but even she — working as a state official and living in South Charleston — couldn’t get information. “I knew what they were feeling,” Nixon later told lawmakers. “It is like a wave that engulfs you when you hear an explosion, when you feel your home shake, when you see the smoke and the glow of the fire go up into the sky, not knowing what will happen next and fearing for the safety of your family. When you live that close to a chemical plant, you learn that every minute counts.”

Emergency personnel only gained access to the plant after high-ranking state officials threatened to have Bayer plant management arrested.

This was precisely the type of situation that the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act was meant to prevent. But it made little difference that night. Bayer later said that its communications with emergency responders “while well intentioned, inadvertently created confusion and concern.”

Again, Washington responded, this time with a broad investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which found the accident could have been much worse. Projectiles could easily have hit a tank nearby that contained nearly seven tons of methyl isocyanate. “This was potentially a serious near miss, the results of which might have been catastrophic for workers, responders, and the public,” then-board Chairman John Bresland testified. A report from congressional investigators was more blunt: “Had this projectile struck the MIC tank, the consequences could have eclipsed the 1984 disaster in India.”

The board ultimately blamed the fatal explosion on a combination of poor safety practices by Bayer and a lack of comprehensive regulations and enforcement by federal, state and local authorities. Separately, the EPA and the Justice Department cited Bayer’s lack of transparency in a federal lawsuit that alleged a wide array of violations.

That case appeared to end with a 2015 settlement, and Bayer agreed to pay $975,000 in fines. But two years later, Bayer petitioned the government to modify the deal, which had included an additional pledge to complete a water pollution control project in Institute and another community; the company now wanted to buy pumper trucks and radio equipment for local fire departments instead. The EPA and DOJ signed off, over the objections of Nixon and other activists, and a federal judge approved the changes.

In response to questions from ProPublica and Mountain State Spotlight, Bayer spokesperson Susan Skiles Luke said that “we continue to feel for those affected” by the explosion and that Bayer “accepted and implemented all of the recommendations that the Chemical Safety Board made as part of the agency’s resulting investigations, and made additional, voluntary changes across its operations.”

But one wider recommendation went unaddressed: Looking to prevent future accidents, the chemical board called for officials from all levels of government to create a local safety program to police the Kanawha Valley’s chemical industry. Industry groups, however, opposed the proposal, saying it would create “additional economic burdens” on plants, and it went nowhere.

Meanwhile, in the state capitol, then-Gov. Joe Manchin was concerned. “On a night last August, here in the Kanawha Valley, the sky glowed orange after an explosion and a fire at one of our chemical plants,” he told state lawmakers in his 2009 State of the State address. “In the critical hours after the explosion, we had a lot of unanswered questions that left residents throughout the valley scared and wondering exactly what to do.” He urged lawmakers to pass a new law requiring that serious industrial accidents be reported to the state within 15 minutes, closing the EPCRA loophole that had left the word “immediately” undefined.

But, notably, Manchin proposed none of the things that Nixon and other vocal critics of the Institute plant really wanted: new limits on the storage and use of toxic chemicals, or additional enforcement aimed at ensuring plants operated safely and reduced pollution. The approach was in keeping with his more collaborative approach to government regulation. “Rather than going out with a ball bat and cease-and-desist orders and fines, I’d rather you spend the money to fix what’s wrong,” Manchin said during a speech to the West Virginia Coal Association in 2008.

Sitting at her desk in the Department of Environmental Protection, Nixon felt powerless. “Everyone has this perception that the agency is there to protect the public,” she said. “But I was seeing that it wasn’t. It was there to help the companies to continue to operate.”

The next decade brought a major victory but also new challenges for the people of Institute. Under pressure for its environmental record, Bayer closed its MIC unit. But soon after, political leaders joined with the owners of the Institute plant site to market the vacancy. US Methanol announced it was going to build in Institute so it could strip methanol, a building block for plastics and the chemical industry, from West Virginia’s growing supply of natural gas. Institute residents, now organized under the banner People Concerned About Chemical Safety, filed a legal challenge. But the state Air Quality Board rejected the group’s appeal. US Methanol moved forward with construction and said in a press release that it expected to open in the fourth quarter of 2021. The company did not respond to a request from ProPublica and Mountain State Spotlight seeking information about the current status of the project.

The activists also faced other challenges. After nearly three decades of campaigning in Institute, they were suffering from health problems. Warne Ferguson’s wife, Gail, had developed breathing problems and died a few months after the explosion, and he sued Bayer. But Bayer successfully argued he had filed those claims after the statute of limitations ran out. He himself died of cancer in 2014.

Nixon, who retired from the department of environmental protection in 2013, had several health issues over the years, some of which she attributed to her exposure in the 1985 leak. “My fingernails came off and my skin blistered and if I just rubbed my skin, it would come off, and I was like that all over,” she said. Nixon was treated for an autoimmune disease, given steroids and chemotherapy drugs, and she recovered. Dow, which is now Carbide’s parent company, did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2016, the EPA confirmed some of the community’s worst fears. The agency published a new analysis showing that one pollutant from the Institute plant, ethylene oxide, was more likely to cause cancer than previously thought. But it did not warn Institute or most of the other communities across the country who were facing the same risk. Only after an investigation by The Intercept and a critique from the agency’s Office of Inspector General did the EPA begin a more comprehensive outreach.

The plant in Institute Credit: Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica

In West Virginia, the outreach was further delayed, in part because state regulators asserted that the EPA’s findings were based on outdated emissions estimates and inaccurate weather data. The state pushed the EPA for time to gather new emissions data from Carbide plants in Institute and South Charleston. Those results aren’t expected until at least June 2022, and the EPA says new ethylene oxide regulations won’t be released until at least 2024.

Contacted for this story, Manchin, a Democrat who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 and has risen to become one of the most powerful voices in Washington, did not answer questions about whether he would urge the EPA to tighten toxic air emissions limits. A spokesperson said the senator supported infrastructure legislation, recently signed into law, that reinstated a chemical industry cleanup tax. The tax makes it “more costly for companies to produce and use certain chemicals like ethylene oxide.” Manchin, the spokesperson said, “continues to monitor the conditions in Institute.”

Nixon and other advocates have been pressing Manchin to support the Biden administration’s Build Back Better legislation, which would help communities like Institute, providing money for air-monitoring and pollution-reduction programs. The bill would also fund research initiatives at historically Black colleges, as well as workforce training and affordable housing resources. “We need these,” Nixon said at an October rally aimed at winning Manchin’s backing for the legislation. “These are not entitlements.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Credit: Stefani Reynolds/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

But on Sunday, Manchin announced he would not support the bill, citing concerns about the national debt, rising inflation and spiking coronavirus cases. “My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country even more vulnerable to the threats we face,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican and the state’s other senator, also opposes the Build Back Better legislation, and fellow Republican Rep. Alex Mooney, who represents Institute in Congress, voted against it in the House. Neither responded to requests for comment for this story.

What’s clear, though, is that 96,000 people in the Charleston area are living in a toxic hot spot. According to ProPublica’s analysis, which examined far more chemicals than state and federal regulators and used five years’ worth of data, those living closest to Dow’s Institute plant are, over their lifetimes, being exposed to risk levels between 2 and 9 times as high as those the EPA considers acceptable. The analysis also found that ethylene oxide is the biggest contributor to excess industrial cancer risk from air pollutants nationwide.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan told ProPublica last month that the agency has consulted the news organization’s analysis and is “incorporating much of it into our revised and refined system so we can begin to address these issues” of industrial pollution and environmental inequities.

Speaking to Institute residents in September on Zoom, EPA’s top environmental justice official, Matthew Tejada, said the agency is “going to center our mission on achieving environmental justice because of the history of systemic and structural racism in this country that has placed communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous communities disproportionately in the path of harm.”

​​Promises to address environmental justice are not new though. In 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush created the Office of Environmental Equity, now known as the Office of Environmental Justice, at the EPA. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton ordered all federal agencies to address disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards on minority and low-income people. On the 20th anniversary of that landmark order, then-President Barack Obama said his administration “is fighting to restore environments in our country’s hardest-hit places.” President Biden, too, has vowed to make racial and environmental equity a centerpiece of his administration, and the EPA now says it is taking steps to make environmental justice “part of our DNA.”

“There are super high expectations for this administration,” said Ali, the former EPA official. “People are no longer willing to wait — nor should they — for their communities to no longer be the dumping grounds or sacrifice zones.”

But those pledges from Washington have drawn criticism from officials in West Virginia, where regulators say the EPA is providing little guidance on how to apply the concept of environmental justice to actual enforcement and permitting actions. Indeed, just last month, the EPA Office of Inspector General cautioned that integrating these values into the agency’s many programs remains among the EPA’s “top management challenges.” Speaking to another community Zoom meeting in early December, Ed Maguire, the current holder of Nixon’s old environmental advocate position in the state Department of Environmental Protection, said, “On a lot of this stuff that becomes subjective, and when you’re in the regulatory business, subjectivity is not helpful. It’s got to be black and white.”

Asked whether the state Department of Environmental Protection has an environmental justice policy, he said no.

Listening from her home office, Nixon promptly corrected him. Such a policy was, in fact, approved in 2003, when she was the environmental advocate. It’s still posted on the agency’s website, she said. The policy states that the agency will “ensure that no segment of the population, because of its status as a low-income or minority community or any other factors relating to its racial or economic makeup, bear a disproportionate share of the risks and consequences of environmental pollution.”

But Nixon’s hard-fought efforts seem to exist on paper only: Terry Fletcher, a spokesperson for the department, told Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica that the policy is no longer in effect because the state believes it has no authority under West Virginia law to make regulatory decisions “based on a community’s racial or economic makeup.”

After three and a half decades of advocacy, Nixon despairs that her old agency isn’t doing more. “Hopefully, they will actually use the data and come up with some better regulations,” she said. “We’ve been talking about environmental racism for a long time.”

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Disclosure: The law firm of Bailey & Glasser represents West Virginia State University in its lawsuit against Dow Chemical. One of the firm’s co-founders, Ben Bailey, is chairman of Mountain State Spotlight’s board of directors, but he is not personally involved in the case. The law firm’s other co-founder, Brian Glasser, is the counsel of record. Glasser has donated to Mountain State Spotlight.

ProPublica’s Ava Kofman contributed reporting, Al Shaw contributed data analysis and Alex Mierjeski contributed research. Quenton King of Mountain State Spotlight contributed reporting.