My dad, a lifelong firefighter, used to teach Hazardous Materials Response and Safety classes to first responders. The first informational point he covered at the beginning of the course was how to read the classification marks on transportation tankers — the little diamond-shaped signs, usually mounted on the back of the tank, that announce via numerical code what kinds of chemicals are stored in those transport vehicles, and what levels and types of health risks would be associated with a spill in the case of a wreck. The first homework assignment he gave was for the firefighters to go home and stand on the main cross street in their neighborhoods and home towns for about an hour, and write down the numbers on every tag they saw pass through that intersection, then go look up the numbers. Dad said that the next week, when those students came back for class, invariably there’d be two or three groups of firefighters whose faces were white as flour.
This is not going to be a very cogent post, I’m afraid. We’re still in the middle of the mess that got made for us, and there are still a lot of things we don’t know, including when the water is going to be drinkable again. I’ll try to be as articulate as I can.
On Saturday January 11, I drove to Charleston, West Va., the city where I was born, and where my parents, my sister and her husband, my niece, and many of my family still live. I’m two hours north now, up in lumber country. They’re still down south in coal country. One of the ways we identify regional demarcations in this state is through industry.
I’d been talking to my folks ever since the spill at Freedom Industries on Thursday morning. Here’s what we know so far: The spill dumped 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River, a mile and a half upstream from the intake pipes for West Virginia-American Water, a company that serves nine counties. The spill was caused, according to the most reliable reports we’ve been seeing to this point, because of deterioration of Freedom Industries’ storage and transfer materials for chemicals used in coal processing. We’re talking here about your basic rusted pipes and breached concrete containment walls. Freedom Industries hadn’t been inspected by the Department of Environmental Protection in over 20 years. There was, we’re being told, no plan — no plan — on the books for procedure and protocol, should one of those containment tanks happen to be breached.
I drove down to Charleston on Saturday morning with 10 cases of bottled water, as my folks, my sister and brother-in-law, and my niece haven’t been able to use tap water since Thursday. Saturday morning it rained in Buckhannon — rained hard. It rained off and on all the way to Charleston, a sheeting, high-wind downpour that at times, through the windshield, looked like driving through a car wash.
About 10 miles out of Charleston, the rain slacked off. The temperature was mild, about 60 degrees. I drove south to the point where I-79 South ends, and you pick up I-64 West to head into the interstate exchanges on the freeway that runs the length of downtown. And there, about a mile and a half out, I smelled it, smelled the odor of the MCHM coming in through the car vents.
I keep hearing the odor described as “licorice.” That’s not quite right, at least to me. But I can see how you’d make that association. The smell was both sweet and sharp, and strangely light, at least in comparison to the smells I associated with chemical leaks growing up. But it was there, suddenly, like someone had flipped a switch. It wasn’t there, and then the next second, there it was.
I-64 West into Charleston, coming from southbound, unrolls in a big left-hand curve just after you come into the city. I’ve driven this route hundreds, maybe thousands of times. I grew up here. I recognize every building from the freeway — the banks, the hospitals, the hotels and apartment complexes, all of it. In the deepest part of that big left-hand curve, down off the freeway and to my left, there was West Virginia-American Water Company, and the smell suddenly became very, very strong.
On my way in, the rain had let up. Now there was low-lying fog, white-and-gray tufts and tendrils of vapor rising up from the street level all around the small wood-frame houses and gas stations and grocery stores. The sky was dark, and the fog was in the streets, and the smell was everywhere. I looked at the water company, and I smelled the air, and suddenly I was filled — I mean filled — with a rage that was quite sudden, very unexpected, and utterly comprehensive.
We can never predict what moments are going to affect us this way. I’m no dewy-eyed innocent about chemical leaks. They were a regular occurrence when I was a kid. On the merits, this doesn’t seem right now to be the worst industrial threat West Virginia has ever endured. Hell, it isn’t the most immediately threatening one my family has endured personally; that would be the bromine leak in my very own hometown of Malden in the 1980s, the one that forced a complete evacuation of the entire town until the leak could be contained.
But something about this confluence, the way I had to bring potable water to my family from two hours north, the strange look of the landscape wreathed in rain and mist, the stench of a chemical that was housed directly upstream from the water company — something about all of that made me absolutely buoyant in my rage. This was not the rational anger one encounters in response to a specific wrong, nor even the righteous anger that comes from an articulate reaction to years of systematic mistreatment. This was blind animal rage, and it filled my body to the limits of my skin.
And this is what I thought:
To hell with you.
To hell with every greedhead operator who flocked here throughout history because you wanted what we had, but wanted us to go underground and get it for you. To hell with you for offering above-average wages in a place filled with workers who’d never had a decent shot at employment or education, and then treating the people you found here like just another material resource — suitable for exploiting and using up, and discarding when they’d outlived their usefulness. To hell with you for rigging the game so that those wages were paid in currency that was worthless everywhere but at the company store, so that all you did was let the workers hold it for a while, before they went into debt they couldn’t get out of.
To hell with you all for continuing, as coal became chemical, to exploit the lax, poorly-enforced safety regulations here, so that you could do your business in the cheapest manner possible by shortcutting the health and quality of life not only of your workers, but of everybody who lives here. To hell with every operator who ever referred to West Virginians as “our neighbors.”
To hell with every single screwjob elected official and politico under whose watch it all went on, who helped write those lax regulations and then turned away when even those weren’t followed. To hell with you all, who were supposed to be stewards of the public interest, and who sold us out for money, for political power. To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us. To hell with you for making us the eggs you had to break in order to make breakfast.
To hell with everyone who ever asked me how I could stand to live in a place like this, so dirty and unhealthy and uneducated. To hell with everyone who ever asked me why people don’t just leave, don’t just quit (and go to one of the other thousand jobs I suppose you imagine are widely available here), like it never occurred to us, like if only we dumb hilljacks would listen as you explained the safety hazards, we’d all suddenly recognize something that hadn’t been on our radar until now.
To hell with the superior attitude one so often encounters in these conversations, and usually from people who have no idea about the complexity and the long history at work in it. To hell with the person I met during my PhD work who, within ten seconds of finding out I was from West Virginia, congratulated me on being able to read. (Stranger, wherever you are today, please know this: Standing in that room full of people, three feet away from you while you smiled at your joke, I very nearly lost control over every civil checkpoint in my body. And though civility was plainly not your native tongue, I did what we have done for generations where I come from, when faced with rude stupidity: I tamped down my first response, and I managed to restrain myself from behaving in a way that would have required a deep cleaning and medical sterilization of the carpet. I did not do any of the things I wanted to. But stranger, please know how badly I wanted to do them.)
And, as long as I’m roundhouse damning everyone, and since my own relatives worked in the coal mines and I can therefore play the Family Card, the one that trumps everything around here: To hell with all of my fellow West Virginians who bought so deeply into the idea of avoidable personal risk and constant sacrifice as an honorable condition under which to live, that they turned that condition into a culture of perverted, twisted pride and self-righteousness, to be celebrated and defended against outsiders. To hell with that insular, xenophobic pathology. To hell with everyone whose only take-away from every story about every explosion, every leak, every mine collapse, is some vague and idiotic vanity in the continued endurance of West Virginians under adverse, sometimes killing circumstances. To hell with everyone everywhere who ever mistook suffering for honor, and who ever taught that to their kids. There’s nothing honorable about suffering. Nothing.
To hell with you. This is the one moment in my adult life when I have wished I could still believe in Hell as an actual, physical reality, so that I could imagine you in it.
That was what I thought. Not in those words — it came to me in a full-body rush — but I think that’s a reliable verbal representation of the feeling.
Like I said, it wasn’t rational or cogent. I’m not an eco-warrior or a Luddite, and I’m not anti-business or even anti-industry. But for years, I’ve watched from inside and out while the place I grew up in, the place where many people I love still live, got sold out and scorched and plowed under and poisoned and filled with smoke.
There are sensible, sane ways to do things. (A mile and a half upstream from a water intake facility, for fuck’s sake. Upstream.) It’s essential for state and federal governments to consult with scientists — actual, real scientists, in spite of this area’s long and fierce tradition of anti-intellectualism when it comes to public policy — and provide a regulatory apparatus for maintaining safety standards and making sure things are up to code, and that there’s a protocol in place for when systems fail. That’s what a society does to protect the people who live in it. Or the people who live in it will — should, anyway — naturally come to the conclusion that their health and safety mean zero in the calculus of industry and politics.
Over the past couple of decades, the resource manufacturing industries have been leaving the state in a slow trickle — of their own volition, though, and not, as might have been hoped, at the end of a pike — and gradually, the state is going to have to move to a post-coal, post-chemical economy. That’s a good development, to my mind. But the history of sellout politicians and cheapjack business interests in this region keeps me on watch for the next plague of locusts.
Having been made to endure fucked up Air, Earth, and Water, we ought to be mindful of that history, and make sure that history goes with us, always, into the voting booth, into the streets, into the home, into the wider world.
Otherwise, to steal a line from the old hymn — and don’t we love our Jesus, our stories of noble suffering around here — we’ll all of us, residents and politicians and operators alike, find ourselves standing in the Fire Next Time.