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Ask a random West Virginian over the age of 55 who the greatest President of their lifetime was and I’d bet you whatever money I had in my wallet that they’d tell you it was Jack Kennedy. Hell, ask their grown children who weren’t so much as twinkles in their daddy’s eyes back in 1960 and they might pick JFK too, if for no other reason than they spent their childhood hearing stories about how Kennedy went to the school they attended or the coal mine their dads and their uncles worked at and spent hours listening to their stories and their needs. From the outside, it seems absurd that an intensely Protestant, blue-collar, insular state like West Virginia would choose a glamorous, well-to-do Catholic as their Presidential adopted son, but to anyone who has any familiarity with West Virginia and her history, it makes perfect sense. In essence, John F. Kennedy was the last (and maybe only) President who let West Virginians know through both word and deed that he cared about their well-being and, as a result, Kennedy’s time in office was the last time that the people of West Virginia actually mattered in our nation’s capital.
During the 1960 Democratic Primary season, West Virginia was thrust into the national spotlight when a too-close-for-comfort victory for Kennedy in the Wisconsin Democratic Primary over Hubert Humphrey, his chief rival for the nomination, turned West Virginia into the final litmus test for Kennedy’s presidential aspirations. In Wisconsin, Kennedy had culled much of his vote total from areas of the state that were heavily Catholic and there was still a question in the national press and the Democratic Party leadership as to whether JFK would be able to carry largely Protestant portions of the country. With a population that was extremely religious and 95% Protestant, West Virginia would turn out to be the perfect proving ground for Kennedy. Almost as soon as the results from the Wisconsin came in, Kennedy began setting up his campaign team in West Virginia, well over a month before the primary was to take place. With the help of his brother Bobby and his campaign director Larry O’Brien, Kennedy set up what was, at the time, the most sweeping and intensive primary campaign in the institution’s then short history.
By the time Kennedy arrived in West Virginia, the halcyon days of the coal boom were but a memory and the state had entered full-fledged economic free fall. During the 1950s, oil and natural gas supplanted coal as America’s main source of energy, leading coal mine operators to invest heavily in technological advancements that could increase production while simultaneously cutting back on workforce costs. The result was that from 1949 to 1960, the amount of coal produced in West Virginia remained roughly the same while the number of employed coal miners was cut by 60 percent, a state of affairs that led to massive profits for coal manufacturers and abject poverty for those who lost their jobs. Witnessing it for the first time as an outsider there to cover the primary races, the journalist Theodore H. White was taken aback by the conditions that many West Virginians were living in at the time, writing that the simple fact, “that they should live as they do is a scar and shame on American life, an indictment of the national political system as well as their own.”
Kennedy’s reaction to the living conditions of average West Virginians was very similar, if not more pronounced than White’s. Born into a family that occupied the rarefied air reserved for the top one percent of the top one percent, JFK had never been exposed to communities like the ones he would visit in the southernmost crook of West Virginia. In places like McDowell and Logan Counties that had most deeply felt the effects of the coal industry cutbacks, Kennedy was astounded by what he saw, almost unwilling to believe that many of the people he met with had been forced to live off of the dry food rations that were then being provided to them by the government. The story has it that, one night in his hotel room, Kennedy turned to one of his aides after another day of talking with more parents and children who were forced to live off these meager rations and said, “Imagine…just imagine kids who never drink milk.” Reading those words over and over again, it seems as if Kennedy had never even considered the fact that a child might be so poor that his parents could not afford milk. Maybe he had considered such a thing but never taken it out of the realm of the theoretical and into that of the practical. It’s one thing to study economic theory and to write out massive budgets for allocating food assistance for millions of people who live their lives well outside your ken. It is quite another to sit with someone in their home or by the side of the road and listen to their individual experience; to hear that powdered milk is the most their children can hope to drink.
The plight of the people of West Virginia became real to Kennedy in the spring of 1960, which is perhaps the principal reason why he never forgot about them during his 1,000 or so days in office. It would have been easy enough for any candidate to forget about West Virginia after the primary was over and done with and they had sealed up the nomination. As a matter of fact, that’s pretty much been the modus operandi for all presidential candidates not named Franklin Delano Roosevelt over the past 150 years, so Kennedy wouldn’t have been straying from tradition if he promptly forgot the Mountain State as soon as he got what he wanted from them. But, as it turned out, Kennedy didn’t forget. During the now epochal televised debates with Nixon, he told the nation about his experience in West Virginia watching children saving portions of their lunch to take home to help feed their families, using it to bring attention to the ways in which government was letting down its citizens.
Once he had been sworn in as the President of the United States, Kennedy’s first Executive Order was to expand the federal food distribution program for needy families and he had his newly minted Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman go down to Welch, WV and hand out the first $95 in food stamps in our nation’s history to an unemployed miner trying to support 13 children. And, on the occasion of West Virginia’s centennial celebration in the summer of 1963, President Kennedy came back to the state capital in Charleston and, just days before he would give his historic Ich Bin Ein Berliner speech, told the gathered crowd that he saluted and joined the people of West Virginia and would, “carry on…to Europe the proud realization that not only mountaineers, but also Americans, are always free.”
Five months later, Lee Harvey Oswald fired two bullets from his 6.5 mm Carcano carbine into the back of John F. Kennedy’s head and neck, killing the President along with any favor West Virginians might have hoped to gain in Washington. The state’s residents would certainly benefit from the sweeping anti-poverty legislation passed during Lyndon Johnson’s time in office, but they could no longer say that they had a true advocate and champion in The White House. Ultimately, Kennedy’s 3 years as Commander-in-Chief proved to be little more than a blip in West Virginia’s inexorable decline into deprivation and national irrelevance. Now, I realize it might sound exceedingly harsh to say that the Mountain State has become of little to no consequence to the rest of the nation, but I feel that recent events can point towards few alternate conclusions. For example, Jack Kennedy managed to visit the small mining town of Welch, WV (Pop. 1960: 5,313) three times over the course of his Presidential campaign in 1960. That’s essentially one visit for every 1,150 Welch residents who were of voting age. Contrast that with what took place during the 2012 election, when neither Barack Obama or Mitt Romney made so much as one appearance in West Virginia during their Presidential campaigns.1 As a matter of fact, neither candidate could even be bothered to send their spouses or running mates for a token appearance to give the illusion the cared about the state and its people.
If you had any doubts concerning the veracity of Washington’s disinterest in the well-being of the West Virginian people, their response to last month’s Freedom Industries spill that funneled 10,000 gallons of coal cleaning chemicals into a water treatment plant intake that provides water to hundreds of thousands of West Virginians should quell them. President Obama, for his part, signed an emergency declaration on the day after the spill enabling the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to “identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.” Since then, he has not gone so far as to publicly acknowledge that the spill occurred, giving West Virginians a particularly egregious snub during his State of The Union address when he touted his commitment to, “strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities,” while neglecting to mention the fact that the water supply of the largest city in West Virginia had just been tainted by thousands of gallons of two relatively unknown industrial chemicals. Our nation’s Congress hasn’t faired much better, as Senate party leaders neglected to mention the chemical crisis in West Virginia during their regular press briefings on the Tuesday after spill, while House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) used this disaster, which was the direct result of a gargantuan gap in regulatory policies concerning the storage of chemicals, as another opportunity to insist that we didn’t need to enact any new regulations.
What little that has been proposed in the way of new legislation over the past few weeks can be categorized as either unscrupulous or unlikely to pass. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has been quite active since the chemical spill was discovered, sponsoring numerous purportedly eco-friendly bills while attending coal industry fundraisers as an anti-regulatory force of nature in his off time. Manchin’s biggest legislative darling is the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (TSCA), a piece of legislation which was designed to reform the ancient and woefully ineffective Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976, which it does. The only problem is that many of the reforms proposed by the TSCA—like labeling all chemicals as high and low priority, with the former subject to EPA review and the latter exempt from it2—actually weaken the existing chemical safety laws and doing nothing to ensure that a disaster like the one on the Elk River wouldn’t happen again.
The other piece of environmental legislation being sponsored by Manchin, along with fellow West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller and Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Barbara Boxer (D-CA), is the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014, a not terribly sexy—but altogether necessary—piece of legislation that would amend the Safe Water Drinking Act to mandate things any sane person would expect government and the chemical industry to already do, such as regular inspections of above ground chemical storage facilities like those that caused the Freedom Industries spill and a requirement that the chemical industry develop state-approved emergency response plans for use in the event of another spill. Naturally, because this bill provides a very feasible solution to an eminently fixable problem, it isn’t likely to pass. The Chemical Safety Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014 is currently languishing in the legislative purgatorial chamber that is the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and is estimated to have a 12% chance of being enacted into law by this Congress. As has so often been the case during its sesquicentennial existence, West Virginia could not look over the Alleghenies at their federal neighbors for assistance. They would have to do it on their own.
To be clear, when I say that West Virginia would have to solve their water crisis on their own, I was referring specifically to the West Virginian people and not—I repeat—not to their representatives in state government, who have historically been about as useful to their constituents as a boll weevil in a cotton field. In chronicling Kennedy’s West Virginia primary campaign, Theodore H. White had an opportunity to get an up close and personal look at the way the state’s government conducted itself and his conclusions were far from laudatory. In The Making of the President 1960, White lumped in West Virginia with a handful of other states as representing, “the most squalid, corrupt and despicable” political environments in the United States, a categorization that applied to much of the state’s early history and hardly requires revising today. Allen H. Loughy, a native West Virginian who quite literally wrote the book on his home state’s depraved, graft-ridden political past, remarked that, “If political corruption were an Olympic event, West Virginia would be a strong contender for the gold medal.”
Those unfamiliar with the state might interpret such a statement as being tongue-in-cheek, but West Virginia’s record says otherwise. It would take entirely too much time and space to give anything like a comprehensive overview of just how rotten West Virginia’s government has historically been, but I would also be remiss if I didn’t at least give you a taste of their organized and often illegal political dysfunction, so I’ll leave you with this: Between 1984 and 1991, the Southern District of West Virginia (which includes Charleston and all areas affected by the Freedom Industries spill) could boast of more than 75 public officials who were convicted on a variety of corruption charges, with the motley crew of political convicts including two members of the West Virginia Legislature, two Presidents of the West Virginia Senate, three mayors, six sheriffs, eleven deputy sheriffs, eight police officers, two county prosecuting attorneys and a former governor.
Remember Rob Blagojevich—the stoat-faced, money-hungry enemy of the people who is still serving out a 14 year sentence for attempted extortion of the US Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was Governor of Illinois in 2008? Yeah, three-term West Virginia Governor Arch Moore (1969-1977, 1985-1989) managed to successfully defraud his home state of nearly $2 million through an impressive array of criminal activities which include the receipt of more than $130,000 in illegal campaign contributions, illegal distribution of cash to swing elections and, most spectacularly, the extortion of $573,000 from a coal operator in the town of Beckley by promising that he would secure a $2.3 million refund for the company from West Virginia’s Black Lung Disability Fund.(7) Oh yeah, and when 125 residents in the hollow of Buffalo Creek were killed by a 132 million gallon river of coal slurry that burst out of a shoddily built Pittston Coal Company impoundment dam, Moore signed a settlement agreement with the company—with whom he had a pre-existing relationship—excusing them from further liability in exchange for $1 million, a pittance for Pittston that worked out to $8,000 per fatality. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s awfully hard to have much faith in your state’s elected leaders when they have historically valued the lives of their constituents as being worth about as much as a new mid-size sedan.
While the West Virginia legislature did just prove it had some utility by passing WV Senate Bill 373, a decent piece of legislation that will help regulate above-ground storage tanks and endure medical monitoring of those affected by the spill, people aren’t exactly expecting the state government to ride to the rescue. Most folks were well aware that the lion’s share of comfort, respite or relief that could be gleaned from the Freedom Industries spill and the ensuing water crisis would have to come from the collective and individual actions of West Virginia’s people and her friends outside of the state. Sadly, as has so often proven the case in Appalachia, the citizens have found themselves battling and benefiting from government responses to the spill in equal measure.
The food court at the Charleston Town Center Mall looks like pretty much any other mall food court you’ve ever been to, which is kind of the whole point of a mall food court. The Charleston Town Center has a few of your big chain restaurants like Subway and Taco Bell, which I would imagine are their big sellers because if people trek out to a mall, they’re usually looking for some mixture of convenience and familiarity. After the big boys, you’ve got you large chain restaurants like Sbarro’s Pizza that seem to be run exclusively out of malls, followed by a few under-the-radar fast food franchises that inevitably sell Cheap Chinese or something involving Bourbon Chicken, a pretzel place, a cookie place, an ice cream place and a Starbucks. The only things that were there to remind me of what part of the country I was in were the West Virginia Aging & Disability Resource Center located opposite the food court—on the 3rd floor of the mall, ironically—and a few signs posted outside some of the vendors that said, “Yes, We’re Using Bottled Water.”
Had I been walking around the Charleston Town Center in the first days following the massive chemical spill, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of such signage. In the immediate aftermath of an environmental disaster that compromises the potability of the water supply for the largest metropolitan area in all of West Virginia, it seems perfectly natural that local businesses would seek to assure their customers of the safety of their product by advertising their use of bottled water. But, I hadn’t come to mall in the during the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The date of the day that I drove 3 hours from my home in Cincinnati to the Charleston Town Center was February 19th, which meant that businesses were touting their use of bottled water more than 6 weeks after the spill had taken place, 1 month after the West Virginia American Water Company had removed the “do not drink” advisory for the last of their customers and a fortnight since the Center for Disease Control’s Dr. Tanya Popovic told West Virginians in areas affected by the spill that they were free to use the water however they please. The stock response of government agencies and for-profit industries with a vested interest in getting those faucets running again and sweeping whatever incriminatory debris was left under the rug has been, “Trust us; the water is alright to use again,” and the stock reply of most West Virginians has been, “That’s nice. We’ll start using it when you do.”
With the dearth of coverage in the mainstream press3 surrounding the Freedom Industries spill and the water pollution that came as a result of it, I had been getting much of my news from friends and random men and women who I got in touch with over social media. One of these women, who I had never met and wouldn’t have recognized from Eve, was Billinda Chevalier, a Charleston resident and mother of three who worked in the mall and was willing to sit down for an hour or two and talk to me about her experience during the water crisis. Like many of the people I’ve talked to whose lives have been impacted by the Elk River spill, Billinda had no compunctions about sharing her experience.
Although the first isolated reports of the by now all-too-familiar licorice smell of the Crude MCHM leaking from Freedom Industries’ tanks were fielded by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection by 7:30 on the morning of January 9th, Billinda wouldn’t find out about the spill until around 6:00 that night, shortly after the West Virginia American Water company announced an emergency news conference concerning the incident. Upon hearing the news, Billinda’s store promptly closed its doors before sending her and the rest of her co-workers home for the evening. “At the time, I didn’t really think much of it,” she told me. “We get boil-water advisories pretty frequently down here, so getting sent home early like that didn’t really raise any red flags. When you live in a place that’s called the Chemical Valley, that sort of thing is normal.”
Billinda figured at the time that the spill probably wouldn’t be that big a deal so she stopped off at Kroger’s to get a few things for dinner that night. It wasn’t long after she had pulled into the grocery store parking lot that Billinda began to suspect that she might have underestimated the severity of the problem. By the time she walked into the store at 6:30pm—just half an hour after she and the rest of the state found out about the spill—the shelves were already bereft of water. Store employees had started handing cases of water out to people directly off of pallets in the back of the store and people were lined up out the front doors waiting to get their share. Swept up in the mass hysteria that had taken over much of the store and coming to the realization that this chemical spill wasn’t just another minor inconvenience, Billinda quickly got into the water line, but was a hair too late. She ended up being 4th from the front of the line when the store finally ran out of water and went back out to her car empty-handed.
As she was walking out of the store, Billinda caught sight of a young woman with an infant in her arms, weaving through the store and pleading for help: “It was just awful. This poor thing was just going around the lines as people were checking out, begging folks for water and offering to buy individual bottles from them for 50 cents. One of the guys in the line told her to take her baby and, ‘put its ass on your tit.’” Slightly incredulous, I asked Billinda if what that guy said was a direct quote. “That’s a direct quote,” she told me. “Once I saw all that, I knew this was for real.”
After getting blanked at the Kroger’s, Billinda thought she’d swing by “Magic Mart”, a small, local grocery store nearer to her house to see if they had any water left. She searched all of the aisles where water was supposed to be to no avail, but finally spotted a few bottles in one of those small refrigerators that stores always have beside the registers to try to squeeze one last impulse buy out of you before you head home. Billinda tried to get over to the mini-fridge as nonchalantly as possible so as not to give away the location of the straggling bottles, but by the time she was halfway there folks had already started closing in behind her in hot pursuit of the water. “I kneeled down and was trying to grab as many of the waters as I could, but as soon as I opened the refrigerator door this swarm of people just descended on me,” she said, still astonished in retrospect at how quickly everything escalated. “I just got so overwhelmed and freaked out that I only took 2 of the bottles and left the rest for the others to fight over.”
Billinda’s experience during the immediate wake of the Freedom Industries spill was not anomalous.According to the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office, there were 27 calls made to Metro 911 to report incidences of people fighting over water in the 48 hours following the spill. It had only taken 20 or 30 minutes from the first public announcement that the water was contaminated and undrinkable for a full-fledged panic to grip the Greater Charleston area. What the people of West Virginia needed was calm, accountable and trustworthy leaders in government and private industry who would be able to keep them informed about ongoing developments with regards to the crisis and to provide them with clear, scientifically sound paths of action. What the people of West Virginia actually got was a long, seldom broken string of half-truths and down and out lies from an assortment of mendacious politicians, government officials and business owners who treated the average citizen with same amount of respect a dog does a fire hydrant.
As the days and weeks passed by, it started to seem like water company and government officials were actively trying to eliminate any semblance of trust that was left between the general public and themselves. Shortly after they publicly declared that their water was not safe to use, West Virginia American Water began providing residents in affected areas with large tanks of supposedly potable water from outside of the area affected by the spill that they could use until the water system was deemed safe again. Thousands of West Virginians lined up outside these tanks—known colloquially as “water buffaloes”— to get their water, but Billinda was still wary of the safety of any water coming from the water company, regardless of the source, and didn’t use any of it. Within a couple of days her caution was justified when people started complaining that the tanker water they received reeked of the licorice smell that was characteristic of the MCHM-tainted water coming out of their taps. As it turns out, West Virginia American Water hadn’t been filling up the tankers with clean water from areas unaffected by the chemical spill, but were in fact filling them up near the water company’s Charleston plant with the same toxic water that was being pumped into peoples homes.
Despite all of her precautions about using the tainted tanker water, Billinda’s family was still adversely affected by it when her teenage son began complaining of flu-like symptoms and irritated skin after helping dole out water at one of the distribution sites. “He came home one night and his hands and his arms, they had this weird pattern on them,” Billinda told me, rolling up the sleeves of her work coat to show me where the rash was on his arms. “I mean, you could just see that the rash had formed in the same places that the nozzle of the water buffalo was spraying.” She showed me a picture of the rash, which extended from the underside of his forearm all the way to his elbow, and it looked unpleasant, but not too severe, like the sort of blistery rash one might get from mild case of Poison Ivy.
The rash, in combination with the recent shutdown of her son’s high school when an attempt to “flush” the water system of Crude MCHM propelled so much of the noxious chemical into the air that one teacher actually passed out, has, in Billinda’s words, “changed the whole dynamic of how [her] family operates.” On the first night of the water crisis her husband spent several hours repeatedly “flushing” the water lines in their house, a process that exposed him to contaminated hot water vapor for an extended period of time and led to the development of a pretty severe cough. The next morning, he asked about the cough when he went down to the VA hospital for a routine checkup and was told that he was presenting as an asthmatic and needed to be put on an Albuterol inhaler, despite having no previous history of asthma. A combat wounded veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, her husband started having night terrors shortly after the spill happened and has been struggling as of late. Unfortunately for Billinda, the recently acquired maladies of her husband and her son have not been harmful enough to make either of them the family member most adversely affected by the spill. That lamentable distinction falls on the shoulders of her oldest daughter, Kami.
Kami’s problems began in earnest about 3 years ago when she took a job at the Charleston Town Center Mall. Almost immediately after starting her job, she became anemic and exhausted, exhibiting a range of bizarre symptoms that ran the gamut from nosebleeds and nausea to light-headedness. Upon accepting a job located in the mall’s far west end, which is only a block or so away from the Elk and the Kanawha Rivers, Kami’s condition progressively worsened until this past September, when she found herself in the Charleston Area Medical Center ER having one of what was very likely a succession of Transient Ischemic Attacks or “mini-strokes.” What had started off as another in a long series of on-the-job nosebleeds took a sudden turn for the worse when Kami began having difficulty breathing, at which point her co-workers called 911 for help. By the time the EMTs had shown up at the mall and gotten Kami into the ambulance, she started exhibiting stroke-like symptoms. When Billinda finally made her way to the hospital to be with her daughter, she was horrified by what she saw. Kami’s body was rigid; her 21-year old arms and legs sporting the purplish, turgid veins of someone 4 times her age; the sallow sickness of her face punctuated by the milky blackness of her crossed and dilated pupils.
Initially, after doing a neurological workup and finding nothing amiss, Kami’s doctors tried to discharge her with a diagnosis of Conversion Disorder, which is essentially the medical community’s official way of saying, “we have no idea what is wrong with you, but we need you to get the hell out of our hospital.” Billinda wasn’t having any of it and demanded that the hospital look for non-neurological causes of her daughter’s symptoms. Within a few days, Kami’s doctors had diagnosed her withPostural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a type of autonomic dysfunction that’s primary symptom is the appearance of an abnormal jump in a person’s heart rate when moving from a supine position (laying down with the face up) to an upright one. Essentially, it’s like the dizzy feeling you or I get when we stand up too fast times 1,000. When people go from laying down to sitting up, our Autonomic Nervous Systems are supposed to tell all of our blood vessels to contract so that the blood flow to our brains stays at a normal level. The problem with folks suffering from POTS is that their blood vessels don’t get the neurological memo to contractso all of their blood heads south and starts pooling in their legs rather than circulating up to the brain and upper body.
It would be bad enough if the increased heart rate and blood pooling were all there was to POTS, but that’s only a portion of the disorder. POTS isn’t so much a clearly outlined disease as it is a constellation of symptoms clustered around an autonomic dysfunction. In just the past 6 months, Kami has suffered from severe nosebleeds, nausea, vomiting, light-headedness, dizziness, syncope (fainting), diarrhea, extreme fatigue, incontinence, tachycardia, kidney stones, enlarged kidneys, blood in her urine and ovarian cysts. There is no known cure for POTS and the best that most people can hope for as of right now is a diminution of symptoms and an increase in their quality of life. There are many different treatments for POTS and, while none is completely curative, some have more evidence in favor of their utility than others. It is only fitting, considering the Jobian degree of misfortune that has followed Kami these past 3 years, that the simplest and most effective way to treat POTS is by drinking lots of water.
After we had talked for two hours or so, Billinda decided she wanted me to get an idea of what the licorice odor of the water smelled like and led me through a service entrance to the bottom floor of the mall parking garage where she said there were some cross winds that often drove the fumes there from the river. Once we had gotten out of the building proper and into the garage, where neither of us could smell anything unusual, Billinda asked me if I had any more questions for her. I thought for a moment and could only come up with one question and that was if there was anyone she still trusted in the wake of this water crisis. Without hesitation, Billinda looked over at me and said, “trust is not a word we use around here.”
Technically speaking, the town of Culloden, West Virginia isn’t even a town. With a total population that clocks in at a little over 2,900 residents, Culloden is officially listed as an “unincorporated community,” which just means that it’s an area where a bunch of folks decided to live that is too small to have any kind of municipal organization. Culloden is just one of nearly 3,000 unincorporated communities in West Virginia and normally I wouldn’t have cause to pay it any mind, but as misfortune would have it, Culloden happens to occupy the westernmost edge of the area affected by the chemical spill. By virtue of its size and its distance from the center of water relief efforts in Charleston, places like Culloden inevitably struggle with crises such as this more than their metropolitan neighbors because they lack the preexisting infrastructure to deal with them. When it comes to sidling up to the federal and state government teats for disaster aid, distant and unincorporated communities like Culloden will always end up with the other runts at the back of line, hoping the big boys leave them a little something once they’ve gotten their fill.
Once I had finished up with Billinda, I made the 30 minute drive out west on I-64 towards Culloden where I was scheduled to meet up with Charlene Anteman and her husband Paul at their home in the little subdivision of Whispering Pines, which was located on the outskirts of town. Despite sporting the a name that sounded like it should belong to a $100 a round golf course, Whispering Pines had more in common with Levittown than it did your average country club community. One plot of land looked more or less like the one on either side of it, with a small-to-medium sized ranch style house plopped down in the middle of it, replete with a one or two car garage, ample front and back lawns and the sort of gabled roofs that make each of them look like Monopoly houses when you look at them from the sky. All of the streets had generic, ho-hum names like Jane Dr and Steve St that made the subdivision seem even more fabricated than it already was, as if the developers couldn’t be bothered to come up with proper street names. Instead of using asphalt, the subdivision was paved exclusively in paired rows of concrete blocks, making the roads look more like overgrown sidewalks than a regular streets.
It was perilously close to dinner time when I parked my car behind the Dodge Caravan in the Anteman’s driveway and started walking to their door. The last time I had walked so purposefully to the door of a relative stranger’s home was almost 10 years ago, when I was canvassing door-to-door for a “non-partisan” non-profit in Cincinnati, polling households around the city to see which way the political winds were blowing during the summer before the 2004 presidential election. I learned a lot of things that summer, but far-and-away the most important and widely applicable bit of wisdom I managed to glean was that you never, ever want to ring someone’s doorbell and ask them for something while they’re eating dinner. The chances that someone will stop having dinner with their family or their significant other so that they can talk with you about whatever product or service you happen to be hocking is somewhere between “slim” and “get the hell off my porch before I throw you into oncoming traffic.” If I had the time to do so, I would have turned my car around and found a coffee shop to chill out in for an hour or two before calling on the Anteman’s at their house, but I still had to drive three and a half hours home after the interview was done, so I didn’t have the luxury.
As it turned out, the Anteman’s were just about ready to sit down to dinner when I showed up, but—because of the fact that we had spoken via email beforehand or perhaps by dint of their West Virginian hospitality—they responded to my arrival by inviting me in and asking if I would like to join them for dinner. I declined their offer as politely as I could, not because I wasn’t hungry, but because I had no way of knowing whether or not they genuinely wanted me to eat with them or if it was standard practice for folks around here to ask random visitors if they’d like something to eat with the full expectation that they would acknowledge the nicety and say no thank you. Seemingly not offended by my decision not to dine with them, Charlene told me to have a seat in the dining room while she went to grab her husband.
After I had taken a seat, I found myself looking over at the small, gingery crown of a boy’s head, which happened to belong to Charlene’s grandson. He looked to be focused intently on a tablet that was lying on the table in front of him and emitting the sorts of hellish shrieks and earth-shaking thuds that can only come from a video game of the violent persuasion. Almost as soon as I sat down, he motioned me over to his side of the table and began explaining to me in great and incomprehensible detail all of the special moves he was using with his T-Rex to kill the evil T-Rex he was fighting, only to be interrupted by his grandpa and grandma’s arrival in the room, which he took as his cue to go play outside.
Once her grandson had left the room, it didn’t take Charlene long to work herself up into a bit of a lather over the handling of the water crisis. Most of the folks I had talked to in West Virginia had been visibly upset at one point or another while they were telling me about their experiences during the previous month and a half, but they usually needed to ease into it with a bit of small talk or some guarded criticism. Charlene wasn’t one for dancing around the issue and it wasn’t more than 15 or 30 seconds into our conversation before she started letting me know what she really thought of most of the central players involved in the bungling of the recovery effort, from the bottom all the way to the very top: Charlene was pissed off at President Obama for flying all the way out to California to declare their drought a national emergency while not saying word one about West Virginia. She was upset at the national media who had a conniption fit when the journalists in Sochi started tweeting out pictures of yellow tap water that looks like what had been in West Virginia for months. And she had some especially choice words for West Virginia’s Public Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Tierney, who had recently told a Congressional committee that it was hard to say whether or not West Virginia’s water was safe because, “everybody has a different definition of safe.”
Basically what it came down to was the fact that she was one fed up woman who was going to say whatever the hell was on her mind and if you didn’t like it, then tough shit. The best way I could describe Charlene Anteman is to say that, if I were setting up a town hall meeting or debate where questions were being fielded from area residents in attendance, I would make damn sure that she was as far away from a microphone as possible. I might even try to find a way to get the woman kicked out of the building before the meeting even started because there isn’t a damn bit of good that can come to a public official from her being in the audience.
In Charlene’s eyes, much of the Culloden’s problems rest in the fact that the community sits astride two separate West Virginia counties and neither of them want to claim it as their own. The bulk of Culloden’s populous resides in Cabell County, whose county seat lies half an hour away in the city of Huntington, while the community’s eastern tip lies within the boundaries of Putnam County, one of West Virginia’s most affluent areas and home to the upper-middle class Charleston suburb of Teays Valley. Without any municipal government to call their own, Culloden residents are left as little more than an afterthought of the two counties they reside in, a state of affairs that is made painfully visible during any sort of environmental crisis.
“Culloden is the bastardized child of Cabell County,” Charlene told me while her husband was grabbing me a Diet Pepsi and a glass filled with ice cubes, which he assured me without provocation, were made from bottled water. “Nobody ever said a thing about Culloden once the spill hit. Not the news stations, not the county, not the state…nobody. Do you want to know how we found out the water was tainted?”
“Tell him how we found out about the water, honey,” said Paul.
“What did you think I was just about to do?” Charlene asked him with the measured impatience attendant to the perpetually married, before going on to explain to me that they had found out about the water contamination through their neighbors, who had gotten a call from West Virginia American Water at about six on the evening of January 9th saying that there had been some sort of spill and that they probably shouldn’t drink the water for a while. However, when Charlene called up the water company and asked them if their water was fine to drink, the person on the line told her that they were alright because their house was receiving water from the uncontaminated Huntington plant and not the one on the Elk River. Charlene wasn’t buying it.
“As soon as I got off the phone with the one water company rep, I called up again and was transferred to someone else and I was told the water was fine again,” Charlene said. “That’s when I started pressing the woman about how she knew it was safe and what our neighbors said to us and eventually she told me that our water did come from the Charleston plant. So, I said to her, I said, ‘would you drink this water?’ and she told me that she wouldn’t. Not 5 minutes after that, our neighbors who had gotten the first call from the water company about the contaminated water called us again to say that they had been told that the water was fine, only to call them right back and be told that it wasn’t fine.”
“Of course it wasn’t fine,” Paul said quietly, slowly shaking his head and fiddling with his wedding ring. “We know a least a hundred folks or more that smelled the licorice smell a week before the spill was made public. God knows how long that stuff has been sneaking into the water supply.”
For Charlene, Paul and thousands of other West Virginians like them, the worst part of the Elk River spill wasn’t coming from the things they were hearing on the news or through state and federal agencies, but from all of the things that they knew they weren’t hearing. They knew they were being lied to and they knew this from hard-lived experience. Sometimes the lies were pushed out there to cover the asses of the big coal and chemical companies who had all of sad little money-grubbing men in the state capitol sewed up in their coat pockets. Other times, the lies were only there to smear vaseline over the public’s eyes so that they couldn’t see that their government officials and the private industries that lobbied them hadn’t any more clue what was going on than they did.
“I’m a big girl,” Charlene told me in between drags of her extra-long Virginia Slims-style cigarette, which she was holding out through a slight gap in her back patio door, turning away from me every few seconds to blow smoke into the cool night air. “I can take the truth. If you don’t know, so you don’t know.”
While Charlene was talking, her phone rang and she had to cut off the conversation to take the call. Paul, who was an engineer by trade, took this as his opportunity to draw me a diagram in an effort to explain to me his various theories as to how the crude MCHM was moving about in the water supply, but I was only half paying attention. Most of my energy was spent trying to pick up what Charlene was saying over the phone, as the sudden evenness of her voice and posture made it look like she was trying to calm somebody down and game plan for how to deal with some sort of problem. As soon as she got off the phone, Charlene looked over at Paul and told him that their son had just called and that their daughter-in-law—who was a little over 8 months pregnant with their 3rd grandchild—thought her water may have just broke and that they were waiting to hear back from the doctor concerning what to do next. Reflexively, Paul got up from his chair and started putting his coat on before Charlene told him they didn’t have to go right now. Personally, I was with Paul and the moment I heard the words “water” and “break” in immediate succession, I put my notepad back in my pocket as I figured the interview would come to an understandably abrupt end.
We all talked as normally as could be expected in such a situation for another 5 or 10 minutes before I finally left. Most of the talk centered, predictably, around their daughter-in-law, who had gone through a pretty rough pregnancy, especially since the chemical spill. In the 6 or so weeks since the Elk River spill occurred, she began having bloody noses fairly regularly and sometimes even coughed up blood. The Antemans were told by her doctor that those sorts of things sometimes happen during pregnancy, but that did little to put their fears at ease.
“There’s a lot of stress,” Charlene told me as she walked me to her front door. “A lot of stress. They just tell you one thing, then another and another until you don’t know which way is up. It’s been a month and a half and people still don’t trust the water. I don’t know if I ever will, frankly. Some people are switching back to using well water again and some are melting snow… I wish I could tell you I thought this was all going to end soon, but I can’t. I grew up in the 60s and 70s—the Vietnam Era; you are talking to a jaded cynic. Well, some people might call it cynicism. It’s realism to me.”
After a little more small talk, we said our thank yous and goodbyes and I climbed back into my car to make the midnight run back to Cincinnati. It was a pretty straightforward route home from Culloden, with the bulk of it on largely vacant roads and highways so I had plenty of time to think back on what I had seen and heard that day. I had a lot of stuff sloshing through my mind at the time, but two things kept rising to the surface:
One is an image of Kami that I had in my mind’s eye. I had never seen her, but I know that I’ve known a thousand Kami’s in my life and I can easily imagine her as she was three years ago. The girls I used to see walking across the quad in college with purposefully messy hair and PINK brand sweats on; they were Kami’s. The girl I’d see working the register at the supermarket who wasn’t 21 yet so she needed to call her supervisor every time she needed to scan a bottle of wine; she was a Kami. All of those Kami’s have since gone on to become wives and mothers and supervisors and graduate students and junkies and all the myriad things most of our lives eventually turn out to be. I cannot picture Billinda’s Kami as she is now. I can see her Kami being rolled into a restaurant in a wheelchair by her boyfriend on her birthday—same as my own sister’s birthday—to celebrate the progress she has made in physical therapy and the fact that she can go out to eat again. I can hear her sobbing softly after she realizes that she wet herself again and I can see the boyfriend slowly wheeling her out of the restaurant, but I cannot, perhaps will not, see her face.
The other is of the nursery at the Charleston Area Medical Center. The nursery is filled with newborn babes in their bassinets with little knit caps on their heads and blankets swaddling their tiny bodies. Somewhere in that room, among all of those babies, is Paul and Charlene’s 3rd grandchild. Hopefully he’s healthy and happy and they can take him home the same night he was delivered, but what then? How will you bathe him? Once he’s no longer and infant, when will it be safe to let him drink tap water? Will it ever be safe? How will we know if the Crude MCHM is gone? How can we know that the chemicals aren’t laying dormant in our pipes? Will we ever be able to trust anybody when they tell us that the water is safe? As I drove across the Kentucky/West Virginia line I realized that I didn’t have definitive answers to any of those questions. If it were me in their shoes, I didn’t know if I would ever feel safe drinking the water in southern West Virginia again. And I thought to myself: imagine…just imagine kids who never drink tap water.
If you want to contribute the phenomenal grassroots organizing efforts going on in West Virginia right now, please go visit the websites and Facebook pages of eco and citizen-friendly groups like West Virginia Clean Water Hub, Friends of Water, Aurora Lights, and the Keeper of The Mountains Foundation.
It’s been over two months since the Elk River spill happened, but the threat to the well-being and water supply of West Virginians (and, in many ways, all of us) has not dissipated one bit. The people of West Virginia need your compassion and support, but most of all, they simply need your attention. Please, help us ensure that corrupt, criminal corporations like Freedom Industries and West Virginia American Water, along with their equally deplorable counterparts in government, are held accountable for the damage and pain they have brought to bear on hundreds of thousands of people.
1Campaign appearances are being calculated using data from between June 2012 and election, when the primary season had ended and Mitt Romney had officially gained enough delegates to be assured of the Republican nomination.
3I am not saying that there hasn’t been any substantive news coverage of the West Virginia Water Crisis–note the word “mainstream”–but rather that the only decent and prolonged coverage has come from non-traditional outlets and local papers. Al Jazeera America and a host of British media outlets (BBC News, The Guardian, etc…) have provided great reports on the effects of the spill, as have a small number of environmentally-minded community bloggers at sites like DailyKos and The Huffington Post, all of which is published in the shadow of The Charleston Gazette, which should be considered for a Pulitzer or a Peabody for the breadth and depth of their coverage over the past 2 months. Oh, and by way of illustrating the mainstream media’s general avoidance of this story, it’s worth noting that none of the major three networks—NBC, ABC, or CBS—devoted a minute of air time to the chemical spill on their evening news broadcast on the say it happened.