In a densely populated valley in the Appalachian Mountains, late on a hot night in August, 2008 the pesticide unit of the Kabot Agronomy chemical plant explodes. The plant, formerly owned by Union Carbide, uses highly toxic MIC in pesticide production. The blast kills two workers. The moment of the explosion, Julie, a newspaper reporter, and her fiancee, Ben, a public relations middle-manager at the Kabot plant, are in bed at her home. Having just made love, they are drifting into sleep. The explosion rocks the house. They are jarred by radio and TV announcements of the explosion and frantically place unanswered calls to the newspaper and Kabot.
An hour after the explosion, widespread fear of a MIC gas release triggers a valley wide shelter-in-place. Sirens wail, TV and radio stations instruct residents to stay inside, tape windows and doors shut.
They seek shelter in the basement. Ben tapes cracks around windows. Immobile, Julie experiences a flood of paralyzing fear-laden memories. At age eleven, she had been home alone during a toxic gas release and a shelter-in-place. She hid in the darkness of a basement closet, clutching her dog, Sparkle, terrorized by a fear of toxic MIC. For nearly twenty-five years the community has lived in but rarely talked about a widespread fear. In 1984, at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, a twin sister to the local plant now owned by Kabot, a release of toxic MIC killed thousands of residents. The world’s worst industrial disaster.
Julie’s deep concern about Ben’s responsibility for spin control on the explosion strains then leads her to break their relationship. A few days later, Julie is promoted to lead the paper's investigative reporting on the fatal explosion. Julie's mother worked in the Kabot plant's finance division. Her father was a city police detective. They died of cancer.
Ben's father headed the plant's financial division. Shortly after retirement, he died of cancer. Ben's older brother, Roger, a child-prodigy pianist, was hemophilic. At the 1976 Jackson Bicentennial Concert, Roger, age seven, was soloist with the local symphony – a recorded and indelibly memorable event for Ben and Julie’s families. In 1983 Roger became ill with AIDS. School officials, citing Indiana school officials' refusal to allow Ryan White, then suffering from with AIDS, to attend schools, did the same to Roger. At age 16 Roger died of AIDS. Roger's mother, Mary, continues to feel somehow responsible for Roger's AIDS and death.
As Julie's investigations uncover the causes of the fatal explosion, Ben's spin control seeks to minimize the explosion's economic and political after-shocks. They find themselves on opposite sides of post-explosion issues. Kabot seeks to marginalize critics and withhold blast information. During a visit to the corporate office, Ben begins an affair with a woman executive in corporate public relations. Ambitious, she seeks to use her relationship with Ben to access advanced information on Julie’s stories. Then report her findings to Kabot.
Julie's neighbor, Don, a plant operator seeks her out. Burdened with guilt, he tells her that prior to the explosion he performed a work-around – a violation of safety procedures - in order to more rapidly heat a tank, speed up production. Inside that tank a runaway chemical reaction occurred. His work-around caused the explosion. Moments before the blast, he had sent two men to check the overheating tank. They died. He confesses to her that the work-around was standard practice. Managers and senior executives knew about and approved it. After the explosion, they covered it up.
Don connects Julie to plant workers who disclose more inside information to Julie. The night of the explosion the company had turned off MIC sensors on the perimeter of the plant, removing a vital source of information to trigger community protection. Moreover, Kabot is using post-nine-eleven national security laws to illegally withhold facts about the blast from investigators; all part of a Kabot cover up. Julie writes the story without discussing it with Ben. The Post publishes the story early the morning of the Kabot Agronomy CEO's testimony before a congressional investigating committee in Washington, D.C. Confronted with the Julie's story, he admits the truth: Kabot withheld facts and evidence from investigators.
In her investigations, Julie has worked closely with Harrison, the paper's editor. He is divorced. They are attracted to each other. Julie's now uncertain but lingering feelings about Ben prevent the relationship from developing. Julie reports on END MIC, a citizen based group attempting to stop Kabot’s production of highly toxic MIC. The group goes to federal court and files for an injunction against Kabot's MIC production.
At an End MIC meeting, Julie meets John Delbarton, a retired and disgruntled former Kabot executive. He becomes a source of insider information on Kabot's dark corporate history: the company's development of poison gas in WW I, its active role in the Third Reich and medical experiments at Auschwitz, and the production and international sale of fatally flawed drugs, including an AIDS-contaminated drug for hemophiliacs. Later, when Julie attempts to follow up with John Delbarton, she finds he has disappeared. Harrison contacts the Jackson police. A few days later, jogging early one morning, Julie narrowly escapes an attempt on her life. Julie moves to a Jackson hotel and receives police protection. She wonders to Harrison, is there a shelter-in-place to protect her?
The pace quickens as Julie wrestles with the truth about Kabot, the truth about the cause of Roger’s death – and discovers the truth about herself.
Read Valley at Risk: Shelter in Place – discover the living truths faced by 100 million Americans who live in close proximity to chemical plants.