Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Up the Nose, Into the Lungs

Kepone: local band, song by the Dead Kennedys and, today, topic of a lunchtime talk at Library of Virginia.

When speaker Dr. Gregory Wilson inquired of the nearly full room who didn't know about the local Kepone crisis in 1975, only one woman raised her hand.

"Then this is for you," he joked of his lecture, "Toxic Dust: The Virginia Kepone Disaster." It's impossible now to fathom how it was ever considered okay to dump such a thing in our creeks, rivers, or even bury in on land, but there you go, it was a different time.

And while I knew of the insecticide, I didn't get to Richmond until '88, the year the ban on fishing the James River was finally lifted, so I definitely needed a remedial course on what went down in Hopewell that kept people out of the river I'm now devoted to

And this being 2016, the audience could collectively watch a YouTube video originally made by OSHA, with interviews with workers from Hopewell's Allied and Life Sciences Product Company who'd inhaled the dust - or even eaten it by inadvertently placing their lunch on kepone dust-covered tables - for so long and were then paying the price with their health.

Just as damning was footage of wives testifying at the Senate hearings about how even though they washed their husband's work clothing separately, the poison lingered in the washing machine and then contaminated the rest of the family's clothing, affecting them as well.

The best thing to have come out of all that, besides the obvious, closing the kepone plant, was that $8 million of the $13 million settlement went to the establishment of the Virginia Environmental Endowment to hopefully prevent such a debacle happening again.

Wilson was adamant that the kepone issue had been uncovered at exactly the right moment in time, namely the '70s, not long after the EPA had been created and the first Earth Day had brought together people to address environmental concerns. Had kepone come to the fore in the '50s, he thought it might have been swept under the carpet.

And while his talk was interesting for bringing me up to speed on local environmental history, I was probably even more fascinated to get a little Hopewell history.

Like that it had been developed in 1914 by Dupont Company to house dynamite and gunpowder factories for WW I. He even showed us a postcard image from 1914 boasting, "Hopewell, toughest town north of hell!"

This is a tourism slogan?

And that signs leading in and out of town used to read, "Chemical Capital of the South," as if it were a point of pride, at least until vandals scratched through chemical and wrote "kepone" and through South and wrote "world." Wilson assured us that those signs were subsequently removed.

Damn. You just never know what you don't know until you learn it.

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