The National Institute for Chemical Studies was organized in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1985 by a group of Kanawha Valley community leaders seeking ways to reduce risks posed by chemical plant operations while preserving jobs and supporting economic growth. They believed the public has an important role to play in understanding and helping to manage chemical risks.
The effort to establish NICS as a nonprofit organization began soon after the tragic chemical release accident in Bhopal, India, and the subsequent release of another chemical at Union Carbide's Institute, West Virginia, plant. Businessman Russell S. Wehrle led the organization effort. Joining him were representatives from the chemical industry, labor, education and government. Lending his advice and counsel was William J. Ruckelshaus, former administrator of the USEPA.
The founders' vision was for NICS to be a bridging institution between the general public and the chemical industry. NICS was to:
- Serve as a catalyst in bringing together the general public and the chemical industry to jointly identify safety, health or environmental risks and what is being done, or should be done, to control or minimize them;
- Foster support for the continue growth and economic development of the chemical industry consistent with protecting public health, safety and environment, and
- Serve as a national model in demonstrating ways the chemical industry and American people can work toward solutions to the complex problems posed by living with toxic and hazardous chemicals.
NICS has initiated a number of projects and activities to support the founders' intentions. Among them:
- Various studies relating to the safety and health of Valley residents, including: (1) the best way for emergency responders to protect the public in a chemical emergency; (2) the flow of hazardous chemicals through the Kanawha Valley, and (3) the effects of chemical plant emissions on residents' health.
- The annual West Virginia Scorecard which compares discharges of toxic chemicals to a 1987 benchmark;
- Creating community-industry forums in Nitro, Institute, South Charleston and Belle, West Virginia, for addressing issues of public concern with chemical plant operations;
- Encouraging Kanawha Valley chemical plants to make public their "worst-case scenario" accident possibilities. Based on this highly successful effort, public disclosure of accident scenarios is now a requirement for major industrial facilities around the country under the federal Clean Air Act;
- Developing and promoting sheltering in place as an alternative to evacuation during chemical emergencies;
- Publication of the Citizen's Guide for Environmental Issues, [now out of print] a booklet intended to inform and help create dialogue;
- Production of Shelter-in-Place videos to help the public take appropriate protective steps in a chemical emergency;
- Conducting workshops around the nation on topics that include: protective actions for emergency responders to consider; risk management planning, and Toxic Inventory Release reporting requirements;
- Distributing to the emergency response and emergency planning community throughout the nation a free training program on "Protecting the Public in a Hazardous Materials Emergency."
- Providing objective, third-party review and analysis of documents prepared by lawmakers, regulators and military officials in various parts of the country, and
- Facilitating implementation of the state's Brownfields program to encourage redevelopment of under-used and abandoned industrial sites. NICS manages a Brownfields Assistance Program under contract by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Through research, information-sharing and consensus-building programs, NICS has contributed to the public's ability to participate effectively in a constructive dialogue on the risks, benefits, and choices that are a part of daily life in the region.
Thanks to support and advice from U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd and other distinguished members of a national advisory board, NICS has been able to clearly demonstrate a continuing need for this type of objective, science-based, collaborative approach to sustainable development.
In 2008, NICS became part of the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center (MATRIC). The merger of these two non-profits will result in stronger organizational capabilities. Keith Pauley, President of MATRIC announced, "MATRIC is highly committed to continuing the important mission of NICS to make communities surrounding chemical facilities safe,secure and environmentally healthy".
To take advantage of the considerable expertise resident at MATRIC (e.g., process engineering, environmental engineering, chemical safety, explosives, and plant management and operations) the NICS mission is being expanded to cover other environmental issues as well as laboratory safety, process operation safety, chemical risk analysis, incident investigation and safety audits within the chemical industry.