In the wake of Elk River, a West Virginia native outlines the seven phases of Appalachian industrial disaster.
In sixth grade, Trip Jones brought a deer’s heart to my Charleston, West Virginia elementary school. We used plastic cutlery from the Dollar Store to slice it into chunks, exposing hard white veins and a red mealy flesh. It was gross, and I was annoyed. Just because a popular boy went hunting, we had to experiment with dissection. I tried to imagine the thing functioning as an organ inside a chest, something vital and alive, but instead could only see raw meat and thin pooling blood on a formica desk. How did this fit within the sleek body of a deer, like the ones we saw every morning? You can only recognize a heart, or anything else vital and alive, it turns out, if you’ve been taught its shape and function. There is nothing obvious about guts.
Twenty years later I’m a New Yorker watching our intelligentsia dissecting West Virginia in the wake of the January 9th chemical leak that spilled an estimated 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River. Freedom Industries poisoned the drinking water for 300,000 people, including those in the state capital. The industrial chemical is poorly regulated, so long-term effects are unknown, but immediately authorities rushed to assuage fears without much evidence. In their hurry to declare victory they did not properly flush the system, so the chemical continues to circulate 34 days later. It’s an epic disaster, even by Appalachian standards.
The questions asked, both inside West Virginia and nationally, are good ones: Why did this happen? Who is responsible? What can we do about it? It’s possible you haven’t heard any of these questions asked. In a 24-hour news cycle, this is a story of generations of neglect and violence. Without a soundbite or a brand it is easy to stare at red meat and pooling blood, and think: That does not look like an organ that I know. This is something else. Something disgusting.
There is nothing obvious about guts.
You’re not supposed to read the comments, but it’s hard to ignore the trolls calling out what so many seem to be thinking: Why don’t the people of West Virginia vote the crooks out of office? Why don’t they demand better regulations? Why don’t they quit smoking, boozing, and snorting pills? Don’t they know you’re supposed to try to live longer, not try to die sooner? Hell, Jamie Oliver went in there on TV to fix them, and those hillbillies are still refusing quinoa and kale chips. Even progressives, protective of blue state indignation, have blamed the victims as though what’s happening there is a choice instead of a system.
In West Virginia, fatalism is our survival strategy.
You only clamor for what you can imagine. And in Appalachia, most can’t imagine anything differently. Not because they’re ignorant, but because they’re wise. While the rest of America might believe the political and economic system serves them, in West Virginia we know better. Our experience has been downright colonial for generations.
If you look closely you’ll discover an overdetermined plot for industrial disaster in the region, backed by a legacy of physical and economic thuggery. It has seven phases:
Phase One: The company and authorities immediately downplay the consequences, to the detriment of victims. (See recent NY Times piece for full details.)
Phase Two: The company’s lawyers and the authorities claim the incident was “an act of God” and they can’t be held responsible. Usually they blame the weather. (Freedom Industries claims cold caused the spill.)
Phase Three: It might be arranged for a small company take the fall, perhaps by declaring bankruptcy. This helps protect profits from larger, name-brand companies that might otherwise be liable. Sometimes the larger company will just pay a small fine. (Freedom has chosen bankruptcy.)
Phase Four: The industry closes ranks around their beleaguered peer. Together they fight existing regulations at the local level. Nationally, they mobilize their resources to prevent any new regulation. When bills come forward as a result of public outcry, the industry will have managed to actually weaken existing regulations through the new legislation. (The Governor already excluded community members and let industry write the bill in response to the crisis.)
Phase Five: The subsidiary gets a new name and continues operations, usually by the same owners. (We’re still working out the mystery of who owns Freedom at the moment.)
Phase Six: When the lawsuits roll in, they settle with the victims, usually for far less than they should, and always after a substantial length of time has passed. (Plenty have been filed, none have been settled. My favorite so far requires state agencies to explain why they ignored recommendations that would have prevented the spill.)
By the time they get to step six there have been so many new celebrity scandals and iPhones released that no one outside the impacted region and immediate activist community remembers that a disaster even happened.
Phase Seven? Rinse and repeat steps one-six.
It’s always the long dark tea-time of the Appalachian soul. Did you notice that nowhere in those seven steps did the victims see justice, alterations in the company’s operations, prison sentences for those responsible, or remediation for the area? Did you notice no one got moved someplace nicer, or received treatment for the inevitable black lung or cancer or broken body? No one’s kid got a scholarship out of it, let alone a better school. Nothing. Keep in mind we’re usually coping with more than one disaster at a time, too, going back generations. West Virginians are just abandoned, always paying physically, financially, and psychically for the externalities that the system carefully eliminates from corporate spreadsheets. While the storage tanks, slurry ponds, and mine shafts aren’t hermetically sealed, the legal case for why shareholders aren’t responsible for their companies’ activities in West Virginia certainly is.
Which, in the end, is why West Virginia’s disasters and the toxic fatalism of its people matter. The destructive force of capitalism and renegade market mechanisms generates the likes of Buffalo Creek, Upper Big Branch, and Elk River, yes, but it also generates Bhopal and Triangle and Exxon Valdez, and if we’re really being honest, Katrina and Sandy. You might begin to notice an eerily similar pattern when externalities catch up with industry, no matter where it is based or what the nature of the disaster, pioneered by the robber barons in West Virginia. And in that sense, the heart on the plate isn’t so different from your own. Think about it: do you have the power needed to prevent industry–whether extractive, financial, chemical, or otherwise–from destroying your home? What do you need to do to get it? A bloodletting downstream soon circulates upstream, one way or another.
Photo from Outside Magazine.