Nitro and Monsanto: A love-hate relationship
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gertie Estep says, even though some of her family members might have died from working at the Monsanto Chemical Co. in Nitro, they lived a good life.
"Two-thirds of the families here in Nitro were raised from Monsanto money," said Estep, 79, a former city councilwoman who has lived in Nitro all her life.
Now, residents in and around the town who have benefited from jobs the company provided will be tested for diseases they might have contracted because of the company.
Estep's husband, Kenneth, worked at the company for about a month -- not a long time, especially compared to his father and three brothers, who worked at Monsanto for decades.
"It provided a lot of jobs -- my husband's dad, his brothers and their uncles all worked there," said Gertie Estep. "Some of them died from working over there, probably, but they lived a good life, and you can't say that was exactly why they died -- but it was probably part of it."
In a class-action lawsuit filed in 2004, residents alleged that Monsanto dispersed dioxin, exposing them to unsafe levels of the toxic chemical. They asked for medical monitoring for at least 5,000 -- and perhaps as many as 80,000 -- current and former Nitro residents.
The lawsuit was tentatively settled Friday. Monsanto agreed to provide a 30-year medical monitoring program with a primary fund of $21 million for testing, and up to $63 million in additional funding if necessary. The company would also pay $9 million for professional services to have class members' homes cleaned.
Between 1949 and 1971, Monsanto manufactured Agent Orange, a defoliant deployed widely in the Vietnam War. For years, Monsanto disposed of wastes containing dioxin into dumps at Manila and Heizer creeks in Putnam County, north of Nitro.
Chemical plants such as Monsanto's provided Kanawha Valley residents with thousands of good-paying jobs for decades. The industry has been in a long decline, though, and the bulk of those jobs have disappeared. The Monsanto plant, which opened in 1934, went through several ownership changes and eventually closed in 2004.
Keith Estep, Gertie's brother-in-law, worked at Monsanto for 35 years, starting while he was a student at Nitro High School.
He wrote the book "Growing Up In Nitro," which briefly describes what Monsanto meant to the small town when his father left his longtime job at an ice plant to join his other son at the company.
"Hearing about men who got hired at the new chemical plants, made him envious of them and angry at himself." Keith Estep wrote. "My brother started off making more money at Monsanto than Dad did [at the ice plant]."
In an interview with the Gazette-Mail, Keith Estep said he doesn't believe Monsanto polluted any more than other chemical companies in the area, and that "people are just jumping on the bandwagon to get money.
"All chemical plants put out pollution of some type. I can't say Monsanto was any better or any worse," he said. "I never had any ill effects and I have no sympathy whatsoever for the people trying to sue Monsanto."
Keith Estep, now 77, lives in Hurricane, but spends winter months in Florida. After working for the company several years in his prime, he moved to Monsanto's headquarters in St. Louis, Mo.
"I was a country boy, I had never been any place except Myrtle Beach -- maybe once," he said. "Going somewhere else really made me realize what else was out there, and to come back to Nitro and West Virginia was fairly depressing."
His father worked at Monsanto for 17 years, his oldest brother worked there about 30 years, and another one of his brothers for more than 10 years, in Nitro and at the company's headquarters.
"Not too many people thought about college back then. What your ambition was, was to get a good job in one of the chemical plants," he said. "If you did, you were home free. You had it. You could buy a car, a house -- do anything -- that's the way it was back then."
During the years the Nitro plant produced Agent Orange, Keith Estep said he was "in and out of that department at least once a week for five years."
"It didn't cause any harm to me," he said.
He acknowledged, though, that he might be disposed to look favorably on the company that provided his family with jobs, sponsored dances, parties, baseball and other sports teams in the community, provided one of his first trips out of the state and still makes sure he lives comfortably today, at an old age.
Considering the possibility that residents in surrounding areas of the plant could have been exposed to dioxin, he said the company always tried its best to control things.
"There are different stages of the process. . . . Some stuff might have got out in the air, as hard as we tried to contain it," he said. "Whether it was dangerous or not I don't know. It all stank, as far as I'm concerned."
Longtime Nitro attorney Harvey Peyton is a former law partner of Charleston attorney Stuart Calwell, the lead plaintiffs' lawyer in the class-action lawsuit.
Twenty-eight years ago, Calwell and Peyton were among the lawyers who lost in a landmark effort to get jurors to hold Monsanto responsible for dioxin-linked illnesses among Nitro plant workers.
"All industrial work has a love-hate relationship with almost every employer," Peyton said. "I represent people who love railroad work but hate the railroad.
"Sometimes, what controls your paycheck doesn't seem to care a lot about you - there's a disconnect."
The lawsuit tentatively settled Friday asks that Monsanto bear the cost of periodic medical testing to determine whether residents' exposure to the harmful chemicals caused any one or more of 12 diseases, which they say are caused by exposure to dioxin.
Dioxin has been linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, endometriosis, infertility and suppressed immune functions. The chemical builds up in tissue over time, meaning that even small exposures can accumulate to dangerous levels.
Ramona Dent, 60, lived in Nitro until she graduated from high school and went to college. She wonders if growing up there caused the health problems that have plagued her for decades.
As a teenager, Dent said, she had thyroid cancer. In her 30s, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She is still undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which she was diagnosed with about six years ago.
"I don't know what causes MS, but they say that it's environmental," she said, "and I know -- through most of my childhood -- the smell was so bad in Nitro that you had to go indoors."
According to the federal Veterans Affairs website, there is no "demonstrated connection between Agent Orange and MS." However, the website lists non-Hodgkin's lymphoma as an illness or disease recognized by the VA as connected to Agent Orange herbicide exposure.
Dent returned to Nitro about a year ago, and said she is curious if her health problems could be linked to the Monsanto plant.
"When I heard about the Monsanto lawsuit," she said, "two and two just clicked."
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.