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I was born in Flint, Michigan. I lived there until I was 11, when we moved to Parkersburg, West Virginia. I lived there for three years and then moved to Beckley, West Virginia where I graduated high school and got married. When people ask me where I’m from I usually say Beckley, but I’m a Flint native and consider Flint, Parkersburg and Beckley to all be my home. They all took their turns and played their part in forming me and making me the person I would eventually become.
I had a good childhood. A happy childhood. I was lucky in that my parents always had stable jobs and a stable income. Such things were not necessarily the norm in Flint or West Virginia. Our society is so socially and racially segregated and we rarely see or acknowledge people in different classes than our own, but it was always a bit easier to see it in places like Flint and West Virginia. Those places were smaller and are poorer than most places with fewer school districts and neighborhoods and clubs and restaurants which allow people to keep their distance from those who are different and poorer than they are. I had a good and happy childhood but I grew up with and was friends with people who didn’t. I saw people who worked their asses off, had almost nothing to show for it and had no one listening to them when they were faced with hard times or injustice.
In Flint, factories closed and no one cared. In fact, people mocked those who were put out of work and blamed them for their own misfortune. In West Virginia people were lucky if all the coal mines did was close. If they stayed open a long time, way worse things could happen. Over time people in Flint and West Virginia would come to accept this as normal. An implicit social contract was torn up by one party to it without the other party knowing, but eventually it was just accepted that factories and mines closed and hard work took its toll because that’s just how things go. Hell, if it wasn’t part of the deal, wouldn’t someone be held accountable for it? No one was ever held accountable, so it must simply be the way things are.
But putting people out of work or putting them at risk in jobs everyone knows, on some level, to be dangerous is one thing. Actively poisoning them and killing them has to be something else though, right?
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In 2000 I worked at a law firm in Columbus, Ohio with a sophisticated environmental practice. I didn’t do that stuff, but the woman in the office next to me did. I heard her mention Parkersburg one day and asked her about it. It seems the firm represented DuPont and they had some issues down at their Washington Works facility just south of the place I lived from the 6th to the 9th grade. A toxic chemical known as C8 had poisoned the water supply – Lubeck water, which is the water which came to my house – and people were getting sick and dying. Babies were deformed. DuPont had known about it since the 60s. The water had been known to be contaminated since 1984, the year I moved there. It was “under control,” the woman in the office next to mine told me. I took that to mean legally under control, not environmentally, because that’s what “under control” means to a lawyer.
I thought of all of the times I drank that water out of the tap of my South Parkersburg home or out of the drinking fountains at Blennerhassett Junior High. I thought back to my Little League team which played at DuPont field, smack right dab in between the DuPont Washington Works plant and the Borg Warner chemical plant right next door. Like the Pittsburgh skyline is to the outfield of PNC Park where the Pirates play the smoke stacks and cooling towers of those chemical plants were to my Little League field. And there was a smell to the place. Not necessarily an unpleasant smell. Nothing that would drive people away. But certainly a unique smell. An unnatural one which to this day I can immediately bring to mind. Thank goodness, I thought in 2000, that all of that was “under control.”
I moved down to Beckley in 1988. My ex-wife and all of her family is from down there and it was down there where I truly grew up and where I truly began to understand and appreciate how hard some people worked and how hard some people’s lives were. My wife’s grandfather had black lung from years in the mines. My father in-law was a construction worker who inhaled crystalline silica for years and whose death from respiratory failure can likely be traced back to that. On April 5, 2010, Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, not far from Beckley, blew up. Twenty-nine out of thirty-one miners at the site were killed. One of the 29 miners killed was the father of one of my other in-laws.
On January 9, 2014 something called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol was released from a facility run by a company called “Freedom Industries” straight into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia. It contaminated the water of nine nearby counties, all now home to people I knew and loved back then or, at the very least, home to people like the ones I knew and loved. 300,000 people in a state with a population of only 1.85 million people were told to avoid using their water for cooking, drinking, or bathing for an extended period. Schools and businesses were closed. Hospitals activated emergency measures.
In 2014, in a cost-savings move, Flint’s water supply was changed from the long-used, long-reliable Detroit water system to a new system drawing water directly from the Flint River. After the change Flint’s water was suddenly riddled with lead contamination. Between 6,000 and 12,000 residents were found to have severely high levels of lead in the blood, leading to serious health problems. It’s also suspected that the water change is the culprit behind an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 10 people and affected another 77. As I write this the politicians involved are shifting and denying blame. No one seems to have a plan about how to deliver non-toxic water to the people of Flint.
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Things were under control down in Parkersburg, but only for a while. In 2015 DuPont’s release of C8 into the Lubeck water supply finally came to be known by a great number of people and only then did DuPont start facing some modicum of legal judgment for it. Not much of one – their settlements and the jury awards so far have been dwarfed by even a partial year’s worth of revenue from DuPont – but, for the first time in 50 years of knowingly poisoning their own workers, their families and their neighbors, something was being done about it, however small.
Black lung settlements come and go in West Virginia. Some families count on them as part of their basic economic plan and many miners affected by it simply pass on the money to their children and grandchildren in order to help them put food on the table and to keep them out of the mines themselves. As for Upper Big Branch, it was eventually ruled that the explosion was entirely preventable but the unlawful policies and practices of Massey Energy made it inevitable. Practices which were deemed to be intentional and knowingly dangerous and were designed to save money. The government issued 369 citations. Millions in fines were leveled and millions in settlements were paid. One superintendent was convicted of a crime. Fraud. The fines and settlements were small compared to Massey’s revenue, however, and are generally considered a cost of doing business Massey willingly accepted. The criminal sanction was nearly nothing in the face of 29 deaths which were eminently preventable.
My ex-in-law whose dad died in the blast got a sizable settlement. It’s all gone now. I’ve lost touch with him, but from what I hear he’s leading a aimless and sad existence. Massey Energy can put a cost on human life and budget around it, but the son of a dead coal miner can’t do that as easily. As for my father in law: I miss him every day and wish my children got a chance to know their grandfather. Especially my son, his namesake, who was born five months after he died.
Up in Charleston, due to 30-some years of a certain sort of person and a certain sort of politician demonizing government regulation, the chemical spill into the Elk River was deemed to not legally be “hazardous,” thereby preventing all manner of EPA measures designed to be triggered by hazardous situations. Days afterward “Freedom Industries” declared bankruptcy to avoid any liability. A new company working with the same chemicals and with the same phone numbers and addresses registered to do business there soon after. It still operates today and similar, albeit smaller spills of the same chemical happen from time to time. No one was ever held accountable for the big spill.
Up in Flint? Well, that’s still going on, but so far it looks like much the same thing will go down. The politicians currently shifting blame are mostly hiding behind their curious and rare immunity from Freedom of Information Act responsibilities and so who knew what and when about the deadly poison sent through the taps of the people of Flint may never be known. If I were a betting man I’d not lay much on anyone truly responsible for this disaster to have their political or business careers ended and even less on anyone going to jail over it. Meanwhile, I expect many more people will die in Flint because the water they need to drink to survive is toxic. Lead has a way of lingering.
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I don’t pay close attention to what has gone on in Flint and in West Virginia because I’m an environmental activist or a good person or some committed social justice warrior. I’ve only paid close attention to it because, at some point, the names of the places where these crimes have occurred are familiar to me and caught my attention when they hit the news. Such things happen all over the place all the time and they’re lost on me or at least quickly forgotten, just as what’s going on in Flint and what has happened in West Virginia may be lost on you either now or eventually. It’s human nature, I suppose. Our lives are busy and full and the world is a big place filled with all manner of injustice. We only have the capacity to see so much of it or, even if we do see it, we only have so much capacity to care.
But this stuff happens every day. It happens in marginal places which are, invariably, home to poor people. People who don’t fund political campaigns or sit on boards of directors or play golf with those who do down at the club. For most of us, these people are abstractions or stereotypes. Poor blacks who, to some, are a demographic category more than they are actual people. Or dumb rednecks who are easily written off unless or until some regulation-hating politician needs them to bring their guns and trucks and bibles to a campaign stop so he can show just how much he loves freedom and the common man. They’re used at best but usually ignored and are always, always the victims of these atrocities.
I’d wish that we can do better. But after all of this time, I doubt we can. And I doubt most people care. They don’t care about Flint. They don’t care about Parkersburg. They don’t care about Beckley or Charleston or the Elk River. And thus such things will happen again and again and again.