After the move to Baltimore in the 80s, we drove to Kentucky at least six times a year to visit family. I remember the landscape and skyline of Kanawha River Valley, now appropriately called Chemical Valley, and of course that stretch of interstate highway carved into towns that include Nitro, Institute, and Charleston. Remember because of the odor. Ashland, Kentucky’s across the state line, another area where haze drifted through the air, settling in and on the ground, water, clothing, skin, and mucous membranes.
I don’t know if the images in my head are accurate. Nor do I know when Chemical Valley acquired its name. It’s been years since I drove the route. But I see a confluence of metal, concrete, and plumes of white, billowing steam from shapes resembling huge planters. And I remember the smell, especially in Nitro. The odor entered the car, invaded the car. “I couldn’t live here,” I’d say. Not because of that smell. Olfactory fatigue would put that to sleep. I was thinking about the children. Their health.
Less than a month ago on January 9, a steel storage tank at Freedom Industries near Charleston, W. VA. leaked 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River a mile and a half upstream from the intake pipes for West Virginia-American Water. This spill contaminated the water supply of 300,000 residents. Then, on January 21, officials announced that another chemical, PPH, also leaked from the tank. Little research is available these chemicals, their effects years after exposure. The Department of Environmental Protection hadn’t inspected Freedom Industries in over 20 years.
So Freedom Industries not only had freedom from scrutiny but it also now has freedom from accountability. The company has filed for bankruptcy.
In the last five years, there have been three toxic spills in Chemical Valley. A woman spoke about this, mentioned her bathtub. That toxins in the water have eaten the enamel off the tub. She wondered what it’s doing to teeth. Yes, I get the connection, but I’m thinking that teeth wouldn’t be among my top concerns in what essentially is a human-subject experiment. But then our planet is a vast laboratory—always has been. Now, the mad scientists employed by trans-national corporations write the grants.
Can you picture the boardroom decision makers, bereft of empathy, laser pointing essential territory? No land or body of water is beyond exploitation in this limitless polluting that renames real estate—like that valley in W. VA. Whether it’s a toxic spill that leaks into a water supply in the US or an unleashing of DNA-changing weaponry in another country whose resources are coveted by big business, it’s all the same, a violation of the sacred. Think of Fallujah now as Birth Defect City, a model illustrating the efficacy of depleted uranium, where babies are born with six arms or two heads. (Here’s a link to Earth’s arms manufacturers with further links demonstrating their contributions to inhumanity and ecological apocalypse.)
Another red dot shines on Fukushima—and suddenly there’s a new acceptable level of cesium in the Radiation Poisoned Pacific. Meanwhile Monsanto has its very own genome project. Perhaps it should be recognized as Monster Mapping. And there’s the oil-rich Gulf Coast where British Petroleum’s deep-water drilling hemorrhage and use of chemical dispersants threaten multiple life forms. Someday it may be known as Corexit Extinction Corridor.
On and on, avarice and sociopathy are destroying our ecosystem. And the catastrophe profiteers with almighty god complexes operate without conscience. Some of us wonder if they care about the future of Earth even for their own children and grandchildren. Apparently not.
Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.