I grew up in Hopewell, Virginia, a small industrial town near Richmond. While its roots go back to the 17th century settlement of City Point, Hopewell boomed in the early 20th century because of a DuPont factory. Eventually large factories there included Allied Chemical, Continental Can, Firestone, Hercules, and National Aniline, as well as smaller independent suppliers that provided different materials to the large manufacturers. Hopewell designated itself as “The Chemical Capital of the South.” To this day when I meet another Virginian and respond to the “where are you from” question, I hear a bit of doggerel: “I smell, you smell, / We all smell Hopewell.” In A World Worth Saving, I describe some of the ethnic representation in the town. Despite the reputation and the aroma, Hopewell proved to be a place where people could provide well for families.
Then came Kepone.
Kepone (chlordecone) is an insecticide used to control fire ants. If fire ants ever sting you, then you understand the desire to eliminate them.
Kepone is so dangerous that the nations of the Western hemisphere prohibit it—and it should be banned, like DDT, throughout the world. The 2009 Stockholm Convention on organic pollutants bans production and use of chlordecone.
From 1966 until 1975, the company making Kepone, ironically named Life Sciences Products, dumped the chemical into the James River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
Some of my peers worked in the manufacture of Kepone. They experienced convulsions, cancers, and organ failures because of exposure to the chemical.
Discovery of the dumping of Kepone into the river happened in 1975. Ownership closed the plant. Legal liabilities and responsibilities came next. Eventually the James River and the Bay became cleansed of Kepone.
The West Virginia chemical disaster resulting in toxic water reminds me of the Kepone chapter of Hopewell’s story.
As individuals many of us do all that is possible to exercise stewardship of the environment. We care for the earth. We want to improve the condition of the earth for generations yet unborn. Here’s a gentle leap: If individuals have a responsibility to care for the earth, then corporate entities have similar responsibility for the environment. Too often corporate entities plead ignorance of environmental impact and responsibility as they pursue corporate goals.
I support better regulation and inspection of all manufacturing facilities—not to interfere with business, but to ensure that all manufacturers follow proper procedures throughout the process—including storage. Despite the lobbying efforts of manufacturers and the 1% industrialists, I hope that the vision of legislators and lawmakers will improve so that they will see what is good for the environment and that these lawmakers will rise to the greater task before them.