I could never hold my breath for long enough.
No matter how many times I made the drive between my parents’ home in Ravenswood, WV and my college in southern Virginia, I invariably had to spend a few minutes trying not to gag on the stench that overwhelmed a section of the West Virginia Turnpike.
The area around Charleston, WV was then known as “Chemical Valley.” The area’s abundant oil, natural gas, and salt brine, as well as its proximity to the river and to established railways made it a natural for a chemical industry that was just coming into its own. At its peak, a small stretch of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers was home to plants operated by Union Carbide, Dow, DuPont, Westvaco, Monsanto, and Bayer. Antifreeze was invented in the valley. The town of Nitro earned its name from the nitrocellulose plant that was built to produce various explosives for WWI.
It was also a dangerous place to live. A 1991 film, appropriately entitled Chemical Valley, pointed out that the local Union Carbide plant produced the same chemicals that killed several thousand people in Bhopal, India and left half a million with various injuries.
So I was horrified but not particularly surprised to wake up this morning to the news that residents in eight WV counties (including those in my hometown) have been told not to use their water following a massive chemical spill into the Elk River.
The irony here is that West Virginians hate the sorts of environmental protection laws that are put in place to prevent this very sort of thing from happening. This is a state that sued the Environmental Protection Agency and issues official Friends of Coal license plates.
West Virginians’ support for companies and industries that seem perfectly willing to kill them isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Here’s the New York Times:
Sociologists have long noticed two stubbornly opposite traits in West Virginians: fatalism and optimism. Before the carnage in underground coal mines finally forced passage of an enforceable Federal mine safety law in 1970, many rank and file miners opposed changing the old, lethal ways. Until regulatory laws were passed later in the 1970’s, the uncontrolled strip mining that ravaged the green mountains here in the 1950’s and 1960’s was the focus of a similar, often angry, public debate.
That’s a piece from 1985.
Most of us will have forgotten about West Virginia’s latest environmental catastrophe by this time tomorrow. Meanwhile, a lot of West Virginians will be dealing with the fallout of this spill for weeks and months to come. That’s the nature of these sorts of events. It’s easy to pull out a cork, but it’s terrifically difficult to put the genie back into the bottle afterward.
It’s an important reminder to us all that for all the grief it gets these days, the EPA really has done a marvelous job in making this sort of thing rare enough to be newsworthy.
And one can hope that as FEMA and the EPA rush in to clean up the mess from the latest round of Big Industrial Company Destroying the West Virginia Environment, my fellow native West Virginians will start to ask themselves who it is that really has their backs.