The More Things Remain the Same

by Joe Fitzgerald

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The Hopewell chemical plant where Kepone was born and raised has been cited 66 times over the past eight years for releasing toxic chemicals into the air and into the James River.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch tells the story better than I do. What makes this latest stream of toxins so poignant is the release this week of the book Poison Powder: The Kepone Disaster in Virginia and its Legacy, by University of Akron history professor Gregory Wilson. (From the University of Georgia Press, or from Amazon.)

Wilson’s work is an excellent history that brings alive what so many of us remember from back then. People we knew, including my brother Tom, worked and suffered at the Kepone plant in Hopewell in the mid-1970s. The James River, the cradle of American settlement, was closed to fishing. People who couldn’t spell “ppm” could tell you how many parts per million of Kepone were in their blood.

Tom died last summer, age 67, of what some medical sites call a rare type of kidney tumor that had also attached itself to his stomach and bowel and maybe a couple of organs I’ve forgotten. Kepone? Nobody will ever know for sure. But Wilson’s book makes sure everybody who wants to will know what happened in Hopewell almost 50 years ago.

My mother came from long-lived stock, but died at age 70 of a brain tumor that one doctor said was usually a pediatric event. Anything to do with the 3 or 4 ppm of Kepone in her blood from washing Tom’s clothes? Another mystery, and one that Wilson’s intellectual heirs will have to put together one day by comparing the death certificates of the hundreds of people tested for Kepone exposure.

One of the grandfathers I was named for, Gus Crouse, survived Union Carbide’s Widowmaker Mine at Hawks Nest, WV, because a rock fall put him in the hospital before the silica dust could kill him. He made it to 56. There’s a thread running through that disaster and Kepone and whatever the Hopewell plant is dumping this week. It runs through Love Canal and through the disaster detailed in the Mark Ruffalo movie, Dark Waters.

You can’t claim America’s chemical companies haven’t learned anything. Their public relations efforts are light years beyond where they were in the ‘70s. Read The Times-Dispatch story linked above to confirm.

I won’t claim everybody should read Wilson’s book. Not those who anger easily, certainly. But if you like stories of real-life heroes, the doctors at John Randolph Hospital and the environmental officials in Richmond, that’s another part of the story. The frustrating thing is wondering if the heroes of the book would rise today, and knowing that the villains of Poison Powder just changed the name of the company.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.