Another chemical explosion in our valley greeted me the morning of December 9th, 2020. Another wake-up call. In the past I have been lulled into thinking we no longer have pollution issues in our valley, that the chemical plants have been cleaned up, that most of them have moved to Houston, and that our water is clean now.
When I was a child, some days, depending on the wind direction, we would wake up in the morning to an awful chemical smell. It was just “normal”. The nickname for our area was Chemical Valley. Later when it became “not normal” we would still have alarm sirens go off every so often, and many areas of the valley had to shelter in place. Everyone acted like it was normal and being trusting by nature I asked few questions. I did not let myself feel and see the deepest issues of the harm being done, including likely to my own health as I was “sickly” as a child from age 3 to 8. It was way too big for me to do anything about and so I shoved it aside, ignored it and mostly dismissed it. Right in my own town of Charleston, WV.
A recent post by Clark Strand titled “The Summer of Love” about the Superfund site in his hometown triggered an interesting reaction. First, I felt “oh wow, how awful. Glad I didn’t grow up somewhere like that.” And then I realized I did. A vague memory of “I think we had a Superfund site here”, came first. Which we did- I googled it and the name came back to my memory – Fike Chemical.
Then, I realized another layer of the ramifications in my life of an incident here in our valley in January of 2014. That month we made national news because of a chemical spill that happened 1.5 miles upstream from the water intake for the water supply for nine counties of 300,000 people. And there was no backup intake. A bizarre licorice smelling odor came through the water pipes. We were instantly in the middle of a water crisis and had to use bottled water for drinking and bathing for weeks. The chemical was technically “non-hazardous”, as it didn’t kill fish, but several dozen people got sick, and no one wanted to drink the nasty smelling water or be a guinea pig. And we learned a lot about how little testing is done to determine a chemical is “non-hazardous”.
For me, it was more personal. I was the owner of our family insurance agency, and Freedom Industries, the owner of the tank farm that leaked, was my client. Even though I wasn’t responsible to make sure their tanks were safe, I still felt somehow guilty, like I was a bad person for insuring them and having them as a client. And while I had increased their coverage and finally got them to purchase pollution coverage a couple of years before, it was only $3 million of coverage. A drop in the bucket of the actual damages. I was also afraid I would be drawn in legally, and potentially lose our business, or that the news outlets would find out I was the agent and drag me into the news. I did have to testify in court. It was all too much, and it was the final straw in my decision to sell part of the family insurance business later that year.
I realized on a new level after Clark’s post, what a pivotal turning point that water crisis was for me. Not only did it start the process of selling the family business that was no longer viable for several reasons, but I see now, it was also the point in time where I started allowing myself to fully see the depth of the environmental problems created by so many industries, rather than only seeing the economic benefits of how many jobs it was creating and how it was helping the economy. Raised by a small business owner, a very good-hearted father, this was always gospel; people need jobs and they need to earn a decent wage, this is how the economy grows. This chemical spill allowed me to start really seeing what was still being shoved under the rug. I started really opening my eyes and asking questions. I could finally see the longer story of the Land itself that supports us only if we support Her. The Freedom Industries water crisis was a gift of new eyes for me, to see our Earth as a gift we must care for so She can care for us.
Today, December 19th, everyone has already forgotten this recent explosion, except of course, the family and friends of the man who died. It hurts to see and to be reminded of the ongoing danger some of the long-time businesses of this state still expose the land and all Her beings to. A lot of work has been done to make them safer and cleaner since the 1980’s, especially after the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984, which garnered a lot of attention because we had a plant here that produced the same chemical. But incidents continue to happen and remind us of the incredible cost to ourselves and our environment to produce these dangerous chemicals that our industrialized world requires. There is so much beauty in this state with more forests, mountains, rivers, and less people than most places these days. It is a true reservoir of natural beauty, in the middle of several major metro areas in surrounding states, a place that people from those areas can escape to and rest. We must keep healing this land for the next generations. The Earth has more capacity for healing than we know, especially with a little more help from us. I keep watching the vultures and the vines who are nature’s cleanup crew, watching how to follow their lead because they know how to dig in and clean up what has died and make it useful. And I remember that I have heard the land herself call to me, “HEAL THE LAND”. It is important to not get overwhelmed. Just one tree, one garden, one prayer at a time. It matters.