Students and faculty gathered Wednesday for a discussion about environmental justice in Appalachian Ohio led by Harold Perkins, an associate geography professor at Ohio University.
Perkins focused the event on Little Hocking, a small town about 30 minutes away from Athens with a population of roughly 260. Little Hocking is close to a power plant run by DuPont Washington Works. Headquartered in the “Polymer Alliance Zone” of West Virginia, DuPont is one of the largest polymer producers in the world and is integral to the economy of impoverished areas where job opportunities are scarce, according to Perkins.
The company is not completely beneficial to these impoverished areas, however. DuPont uses perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8, as a means of producing teflon and other polymers, Perkins said. C8 has only recently become regulated as a “probable carcinogen,” most likely causing cancer and other health issues such as birth defects, according to the National Institutes of Health.
DuPont released this chemical into the water supply near Little Hocking and then, even after testing the local area, continued to release C8 into the environment through landfills and smoke for another 20 years, Perkins said. According to Perkins, Little Hocking is now regarded as the most C8-contaminated place on earth.
Because of his interest in environmental justice, Perkins interviewed 20 Little Hocking residents. Questions were related to the perception of economic well-being, environmental justice and the idea of sacrifice zones. Sacrifice zones are regions where environmental quality is sacrificed during the extraction of resources that benefit other populations.
The most important question Perkins said he asked in every interview was, “Do you feel that the C8 contamination is an environmental injustice?” One-third of interviewees said yes.
“DuPont refused for decades to tell us what they were dumping and there’s still stuff they are not telling us they are dumping,” said one person who felt it was an injustice. “What other chemicals are in there that they’re not even telling us?”
Another third of those surveyed felt that the high C8 levels were not an injustice in any way at all. Many points were brought up by these “apologists,” as Perkins described them, but they mostly told the same story: jobs are needed in the area, and DuPont provides them.
Because of this, residents are willing to give up environmental security.
To lower class communities with poor education systems, Dupont provides an opportunity to live a life that more closely resembles the middle class. Jobs are available, schools are sufficiently funded and the economy survives. Perkins describes these results of the power plant as “provided privileges.”
Criticism of DuPont and their C8 emission has created a fear of the company moving elsewhere, which would leave many unemployed. Residents of these areas are not willing to give up their jobs and the provided benefits Perkins spoke of in exchange for better environmental treatment.
According to Perkins, “There are ‘DuPonters’ and their families who are fine with (contamination) because DuPont has given them everything they have.”
Many defenders of DuPont point to the uncertainty of C8’s environmental and health impact.
“Personally, I’ve been drinking a lot of water for a long time, and I don’t see any effects,” said one respondent. “So I don’t really think this is an injustice.”
Other defendants suggested that, although the 20 years of intentional contamination were wrong, DuPont has proven they are committed to change through a number of company reforms. Most of which, Perkins pointed out, have been court ordered — DuPont is currently fighting 3,500 individual lawsuits from the residents in areas near its power plants. The company has already spent over $100 million in legal fees and is subject to spend over a $100 million more, Perkins said.
Regardless, these respondents pointed to the permanent filtration system DuPont installed to limit C8 emission as one example of how the company has taken responsibility for their actions. One respondent felt the filtration system doesn’t go far enough in resolving the problem, though.
“To me, that filter is just like putting a Band Aid on a hemorrhage.”
Perkins said when residents defend environmental injustice in order to maintain their provided privilege, they grant big corporations even more power over them. Residents of Little Rock have trust in these corporations and believe the businesses have the city’s best interests in mind.
“I think people, for the last 40 or 50 years now, have thought of DuPont as a local business,” said another respondent. “It’s not; it’s a major, major, worldwide corporation.”
According to Perkins, Little Hocking currently lacks a sense of unified community with residents split between supporters and opposers of DuPont.
A solution to Little Hocking’s conundrum may be even more confusing than trying to understand the situation to begin with. Perkins pointed out that this is part of a much larger international problem, and he said there are “Little Hocking equivalents” all across the globe.
“The solution is way more complicated, and I don’t know,” Perkins said. “I hate to be a defeatist, but I don’t know what the fix is. How radical do you want to get?”
Despite this, Perkins still is calling for an answer.
“The stakes are super high here,” Perkins said. “It’s go hungry, or get exposed to a life-threatening chemical.”