Almost heaven? For some, it feels more like purgatory.

Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.

Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads.

All my memories gather round her, miner’s lady, stranger to blue water.

Dark and dusty, painted on the sky, misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads.

I hear her voice in the morning hour she calls me, the radio reminds me of my home far away.

And driving down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday, yesterday.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads.

Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.

West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads

 John Denver, Taffy Nivert, and Bill Danoff, on his 1971 breakout album, Poems, Prayers, and Promises.

Want a West Virginian, regardless of age, caste or gender, to break into song? Just a hum a bar or two of this iconic John Denver tune. Its provenance is fascinating, as you’ll learn from the link, and its uptake by West Virginians is enthusiastic and virtually total. The University of West Virginia uses it for occasions of every stripe. So does the state legislature[1].

The music and the lyrics strike a responsive chord in the hearts of all Americans, regardless of the state we call home. That’s because the state it calls us to is not just a geospatial location but a rather state of mind. It evokes the Earth as unspoiled environment that stirs our soul as nothing else can: Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze... and maybe suggests we lost a little something when we started constructing the virtual environment most of us live in today.

Then there’s the concatenation miner’s lady, stranger to blue waters. For forty years these lyrics have reminded us that West Virginia is mountain country – mining country – and landlocked to boot, isolated from the ocean coastline that has shaped differently the culture and values and destiny of the states to the east.

But after this past week’s tragic chemical spill, West Virginians – and you and I, for that matter – might be excused for reading a little different meaning into those words.

For a summary, one of many, here’s some of what Ann Moore of Reuters reported on January 10:

Up to 300,000 West Virginia residents were told not to drink tap water on Friday after a chemical spill called its safety into question, and health officials said water in the affected area should only be used for flushing toilets and fighting fires.

“We don’t know that the water’s not safe, but I can’t say it is safe,” Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co, told a televised news conference. The company runs the state’s largest water treatment plant.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties, and President Barack Obama issued an emergency declaration on Friday. The spill forced the closure of schools and businesses in the state capital.

Tests were being done on the water, McIntyre said, but he could not say when it would be declared safe for normal use.

The spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in the coal industry, occurred on Thursday on the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia’s capital and largest city, upriver from the plant run by West Virginia American Water. Water carrying this chemical has an odor like licorice or anise, McIntyre said…

…The spill originated at Freedom Industries, a Charleston company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries.

Freedom Industries President Gary Southern said in a statement the company was still determining how much Crude MCHM had been released…

…Emergency workers and American Water distributed water to centers around the affected area. Residents formed long lines at stores and quickly depleted inventories of bottled water…

…The Kanawha-Charleston and the Putnam County Health Departments ordered the closure of all restaurants and schools receiving water from the West Virginia American Water company.

Schools also were closed in many counties, including Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Pocahontas and Putnam.

The spill was discovered after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection received a report of a strange odor on Thursday morning and visited the Freedom Industries site, where they found a leaking storage unit, a spokeswoman for Governor Tomblin said.

The story will focus minds in the mining industry, in federal and state government, and across the public for some time. But it’s just the latest chapter in one of the 21st-century’s transcendental lead stories: belatedly emerging, unintended consequences of our quest for resources. The Freedom Industries event will find its place alongside the BP oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear power plant breakdown following the tsunami, and other tragedies. With each passing day, thousands of such stories are 24 hours closer to making tomorrow’s headlines.

That said, these problems are nothing that the seven billion members of the human race can’t handle, provided…

…provided that we view each such incident as a lesson to learn, and take to heart and act upon those lessons. Frankly, we do a better job with nuclear accidents, chemical catastrophes such as this one, and airplane crashes than we do from so-called natural disasters, where we tend to repeat our mistakes: rebuilding as before, subsidizing repetitive loss through both direct payments and inappropriately-priced insurance, and in many instances, doubling down by putting more property and lives at risk.

These days, thousands of West Virginians who’ve had to put their lives on hold are in our thoughts and prayers. We’re all hoping those country roads will be taking people home again soon.

Oh, and that magical music? You might want to give it a listen. Here’s one version.

[1]Failed to gain status as the state song, but it might as well be.

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5 Responses to Almost heaven? For some, it feels more like purgatory.

  1. Bill:-

    Plenty of things went wrong in this incident, but the chemical in question isn’t all that harmful, thank goodness. What concerns me though is the potential unbalanced response – more regulation, more complexity, more rigidity ultimately meaning less resilience. We have become so risk-averse AND government-centric that too often our reaction to incidents like these is another government program.

    It has become a truism that our world is becoming more and more connected and interdependent. We know that these interdependencies give rise to new vulnerabilities in which a failure in one area cascades into another and another and another (good example is the BP oil spill – an environmental event cascading into an economic disaster that in turn wreaked social havoc). What we all too often fail to recognize is that the spread of federal tendrils into every aspect of our lives greatly accentuates these interdependencies.

    If we look at our economy, domains that once were completely uncorrelated are now much more so due to federal involvement; I (and those a lot smarter than I am!) will argue that this was a cause of the Great Recession. The Common Core educational standards mean that the school systems in South Carolina are now much more likely to be impacted by something that happens in California. And we’re beginning to reap the whirlwinds in health care (an insurance company bailout down the road is beginning to look quite possible). And my [least-]favorite example – what the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing is doing to the savings of retirees.

    So as we look at the incident in West Virginia, let’s learn from it but not overreact to it. Why didn’t the local and state authorities know what was in those tanks – did anyone think to ask (Maybe we don’t need new laws but just people with common sense)?
    Why were the communications so botched, at all levels (No law or regulation is going to fix that – the pictures of the head of Freedom Industries at the news conference drinking water? – oh, Lord!)?

    Thanks for a reasoned take on a bad situation!

  2. Lisa Anich says:

    I admire WH’s courage in saying that earth’s current population can handle these problems. A similar courage asserts that Mr. Plodinec, me, and a few million other people who are interconnected because we are citizens of the U.S. can find answers even though our perspectives differ.
    I do not understand why anyone would fear “federal tendrils” but be unconcerned about the inherent conflict between profitability and corporate accountability. We may agree that regulations can never take the place of citizenship and concern for the common good. Perhaps we differ in how much we trust corporations. Abdication of political power to corporations is at best the path of least resistance. A cost-benefit analysis that accounts for the full costs of pollution, poverty, and exploitation lends credence to my faith tradition’s warnings against putting wealth ahead of well-being. As John Denver sang on Poems, Prayers and Promises (the same album that includes Take Me Home Country Roads) “some men worship a golden calf, while others are bought and sold – and if we live like that, brother, we pay the toll”.
    I agree with WH’s comment about “subsidizing repetitive loss”. I am employed as a watershed coordinator and I work with citizens who are upset about flood insurance cost increases. But our watershed council is also hopeful that the flood insurance issue will lead to a better-informed, interconnected, and interdependent community, in the best possible meaning of interdependency.
    I must also confess that I’m a resident of California. Should the Common Core Standards ever afford me the opportunity to have a pleasant conversation with a resident of South Carolina, my grandmother’s beautiful and gracious home-state, I’ll consider myself blessed.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Lisa.

    • Lisa:-

      I appreciate your rejoinder. As a believer in the power of conscious capitalism, I don’t see an inherent conflict between the profit motive and accountability. When I was just starting my career my company had a small release of a slightly corrosive gas late one afternoon. By 7 pm, company reps were ringing doorbells in surrounding neighborhoods signing checks on the spot. The company could have waited but it recognized that not only was it the right thing to do, but it was good business.

      What I do see is a lack of integrity – an inability to own up to the truth, whether it’s Gary Southern incoherently mumbling through impossible explanations of what happened at Freedom Industries, or Ted Cruz cynically trying to shut down the government, or our President refusing to admit he misled the American people about what would happen with their insurance. Unfortunately, business has no corner on mendacity; unfortunately we seem to be living in an era of Lilliputian leadership.

      And what I know is that the more correlated the parts of a complex system become, the more likely the system will experience cascading failures and “unintended consequences” from even seemingly benign actions.

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