WVWC professor’s post spanned the globe

BUCKHANNON – A local college professor’s expression of frustration about the Freedom Industries chemical spill in Charleston is traveling farther than he could have ever imagined.

When Dr. Eric Waggoner, associate professor of American Literature and Cultural Studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College, heard about the extent of the chemical spill affecting several counties and approximately 300,000 people around the Elk River, his first reaction was rage, he said.

A native of the Elk River region, Waggoner was able to find language to articulate his anger in the form of a blog post and shared it on social media websites. He had no clue what would happen next.

Within a matter of days links were circulating statewide, with his blog being reposted on West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s website. Then national mainstream media sites began sharing Waggoner’s words, reaching as far as The Huffington Post and CNN, which invited him to appear on a show.

Waggoner’s work even made its way to news outlets in India and China. His email inbox has been flooded with messages from contacts at Harvard, college presidents, scholars of Appalachian history, senior chemists at research facilities in the Northwest, workers in the extraction industry and people worldwide.

“It’s not anything anyone else hasn’t said before,” Waggoner said in an interview with The Inter-Mountain. “I am humbled and grateful for the reception. You can never tell how your words are going to affect people. These were just my thoughts. You write them down and then they go out in the world, and you go back to doing what you do.”

Waggoner said that part of the fuel for his anger came from his own experience growing up with chemical spills, claiming in his piece that he is no “dewy-eyed innocent about chemical leaks,” saying they were “regular occurrences” when he was growing up, even recalling a bromine leak that resulted in his hometown of Malden being evacuated in the 1980s.

“These spills occur semi-regularly here and a variety of people have spoken about it, from chemical engineers, miners, families, current farmers in West Virginia,” Waggoner said. “It’s very rooted in place and culture, not political ideology – it’s endemic to the region. This isn’t a partisan issue. There aren’t red and blue water taps.”

The blog post is a first-person narrative of a trip that Waggoner took to bring cases of water to his family after the spill. His thoughts and observations during the journey end up being an entry point into his feelings about the history of the area known as the “Chemical Valley.”

“It’s a complicated history,” he said in an interview with Brooke Baldwin on the “CNN News Room” show Jan. 16. “But I think there is an element of our character that for so long was in touch with this idea of sacrifice as something that was noble… what really makes me angry about this is how deeply it’s rooted in the fact that West Virginians want to go to work. Despite the ridiculous and absurd stereotypes, this is a place that has always placed a very significant value on the nature of work. Getting up, going out in the day, doing a job and making something happen.

“If an industry came in and said to the people …’We’re gonna need you to help us do this work. And in exchange for that we are gonna make sure that this is conducted in the safest possible way and we are going to look out, not only for you, but for your family and the people who live in that area.’ You have no idea what a well of good will and labor strength a company like that could call on. If you help a West Virginian change a tire, you’ve got a friend for life. That guy’s gonna send you a Christmas card, I guarantee it.”

In his blog, Waggoner even places blame on fellow West Virginians “who bought so deeply into the idea of avoidable personal risk and constant sacrifice as an honorable condition under which to live, that they turned that condition into a culture of perverted, twisted pride and self-righteousness, to be celebrated and defended against outsiders.”

“We’ve really got to change the attitude at home,” he told The Inter-Mountain. “These people represent us. They do business with us; they call us ‘neighbors.’ I’m not anti-business or anti-industry but people have to be conscientious. There are sane, safe and sensible ways to go about this and we’ve got to take care of this in our own back yard.”

Waggoner is still in shock at how many people his words have touched.

“I thought that 37 of my friends would read it,” he said. “I had no idea that it would get as far as it has.”

To read Waggoner’s post in its entirety go to culturalslagheap.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/elemental/.

Contact Chad Clem by email at cclem@theintermountain.com.