What the Elk River contamination tells us about a fading West Virginian mythos and the new meaning of Coal Country.
The Elk River upstream of Freedom Industry's tanks. Image courtesy of the author.
By Heather Samples
The Elk is still flowing, joining the Kanawha and then the Ohio, and the coal-processing chemical MCHM is slowly making its way to the Gulf. Taps are running again (though exactly how many people feel safe enough to drink from them is another matter). The governor has reminded us “coal and chemicals inevitably bring risk,” but that “in West Virginia, we’re willing to do the heavy lifting.” When a story grows as old as this one, when you know it by heart, and hear it in your sleep and in your bones, it tells itself. But allow, just for a moment, that this time is different.
First, though, the mythology. For what seems like every field trip, we are taken to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. In the cool underground, we shiver under our hardhats as retired miners tell us ghost stories. Waiting at railroad crossings, we count the sleeping cats painted on the Chessie System hoppers, and know those tons of coal will soon keep someone’s porch light on. In 8th grade West Virginia Studies, we watch Matewan, and read that Mother Jones promised to tell God Almighty about us when she reached the other side. In casual conversation, we quote the state motto—Mountaineers are always free.
The risks of coal and chemicals are “inevitable” but containable, nothing but a chance to be brave.
We are so proud that rather than face the shaming reality, we come to see the theft of our land and of our bodies as destiny, a dignified legacy that transcends the messiness of contemporary capitalism. The risks of coal and chemicals are “inevitable” but containable, nothing but a chance to be brave. Where once we entwined our selves with our labor, now it is our jobs and our selves that we co-mingle, and our bumper stickers proclaim us Friends of Coal.
I learned about what happened last month to the Elk River watershed and 300,000 people on Facebook, from a childhood friend who still lives in our hometown. This was early, about suppertime on January 9, and she was reposting West Virginia American Water’s first do-not-use alert.
When reports of a licorice scent brought Department of Environmental Protection inspectors to Freedom Industries that morning, what they found sounds more post-human than anyone has yet acknowledged. From the crumbling foundation of a failed containment dike, at least 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM oozed down the riverbank, a single cinderblock and one 50-pound bag of absorber standing against the current. This was not a “leak”—a small, unpredictable event—or a “spill”—an accident to be cleaned up and forgiven. This was an infuriatingly widespread contamination, the result of two layers of decay. As the abstract “coal economy” buckles, its material infrastructure has begun to die with it.
When I realized where, exactly, we were talking about, I flashed on the Pennzoil logo in exquisite detail—yellow field, Liberty Bell, text on a sloped baseline. It took a few seconds to remember that all my life in Charleston, the walls of the Barlow Drive tank farm were stamped Pennzoil.
As energy booms elsewhere in the United States, and fracking opens new veins of domestic hydrocarbons, even the beheading of our mountains won’t return the Appalachian economies we remember.
Having grown up in the Kanawha Valley, I can do the same trick with the insignia of Union Carbide (white type on Viagra-blue), Dow (a red kite lying on its side), and DuPont. I still see the backlit letters of FMC’s hydrogen peroxide plant, hovering in the dark. Sprawling tangles of pipe and furnace and drum were as iconic in my childhood landscape as the mountains themselves. For decades, publicly traded, transnational corporations ruled over the valley, counting legislators, regulators, and the public imagination among their assets.
As a result, we got the shortsighted government we deserved. But just because the plants still stand like totems in my mind does not mean they do the same on the ground. The FMC operation closed in 2003 and was dismantled nine years later. The others have shrunk considerably, and coal—without which the chemical industry would not exist—now employs only 4% of West Virginian workers, about half the numbers of my childhood. As energy booms elsewhere in the United States, and fracking opens new veins of domestic hydrocarbons, even the beheading of our mountains won’t return the Appalachian economies we remember.
Take, for example, that old Pennzoil site, where gasoline was once stored. It was sold in 2001 to a sister company of Freedom Industries for $600,000. Six hundred thousand: a sum that will scarcely buy a 2-bedroom apartment in New York. That’s not a transaction of mutually high rollers, but a still-profitable outsider cutting its losses as the locally-owned buyer takes a chance on the scraps left behind from what was once a grand buffet.
We need to understand this turn of events for the dead canary it is.
If you saw Freedom Industries’ president Gary Southern botch his one press conference, you may have heard, in his vaguely British accent, the voice of a global industrialist. We still don’t know much about Southern, but every Charlestonian old enough to have gone to Carbide summer camp knows his colleagues Dennis Farrell and Carl Kennedy. Local boys who met at West Virginia Tech, they opened and closed restaurants, traded in small-time industrial parks up and down the Kanawha Valley when the time looked right, and even shared a wife. (Kennedy’s ex is now married to Farrell, and did her part at the start of the water crisis by posting about “the boys at the plant” on her open Facebook.) Kennedy is perhaps best remembered for getting mixed up in the cocaine scandals that reverberated in Charleston all through the 1980s and into the ’90s. He faced tax evasion charges, too, and is a felon.
Freedom Industries has now filed for Chapter 11. In 1984, even Bhopal couldn’t bankrupt Carbide. In 2010, the Upper Big Branch disaster killed 29 coal miners and left Massey Energy, then the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer, susceptible to buy-out, but its former CEO Don Blankenship is a happily retired philanthropist. For Freedom Industries a bounce-back seems unlikely. In the immediate aftermath of the contamination, Freedom was cited again at its secondary location, to which the remaining MCHM was trucked. That deteriorating facility was apparently the only place on God’s green Earth—even under the greatest scrutiny in recent memory—that Freedom had to store its inventory. We need to understand this turn of events for the dead canary it is.
If you’ve ever watched someone die, you know that eventually dignity ends.
Given Big Coal’s long history of recklessness and rapacity, the Elk River contamination may go down as just another episode in a line stretching back more than a hundred years. That framing is dangerous, though. It suggests what happened is a natural adjunct to a sustainable if risky way of living. It pardons us of our responsibility to manage the irreversible changes that this industry—the one we are Friends of, remember—has visited on Appalachia. It will leave us without water for drinking, bathing, cooking, or washing, a circumstance described by one resident as the zombie apocalypse.
If you’ve ever watched someone die, you know that eventually dignity ends. Systems break down, wastes accumulate and leak, smells rise, tethers unhook. We tell ourselves a story about endurance and self-possession in the face of suffering, and when the beloved is gone, those are the parts we remember best. Here in the valley of my people, our scrappiness and resilience—who we truly are—won’t be forgotten, no matter how much we fear it might. May we also remember then how C.W. Sigman, the fire coordinator for Kanawha County, felt about the tanks at Freedom Industries, when he finally came to see them: “If it had been my home’s foundation, I would be concerned.”
Heather Samples was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia. She teaches at Baruch College.