Chemical Leaks: A Common Nuisance for us West Virginians

(Taking a break from my usual fiction, this story is actually true.) Leaks: A Common Nuisance for us West Virginians

–by Derek Alan Wilkinson, A Life-Long, Kanawha County Resident

I’d like to start of by saying this: Dear John Stewart: you’ve publicly mispronounced the county I live in. It’s Can-Awe, not Can-Ah-Wha.

I can’t complain, though. He wasn’t too hard on us. At least my hometown got featured in The Daily Show. But I did clench for a second when I knew West Virginia made a national news story; we all felt that same slight sting, I think, because we were all expecting those thoughtless and hackneyed hillbilly stereotypes people attribute to West Virginians to start rolling off of the tongues of comedians.

After all, Forbes did feature an article in 2013 that labeled Charleston, WV—where I’ve etched out most of my thirty-two years—among two-hundred other U.S. Cities, as “The Most Miserable City in America,” second only to neighboring Huntington, WV. They based it on a number of sociological factors, and they’re probably right.

I could almost be proud of that title; I’ve officially survived the Hell of the United States.

Current media focus on West Virginia involved recent events concerning the methylcyclohexane spill into the Elk River: occurrences that weren’t the first in a series of chemically-related semi-catastrophes to happen around here in my lifetime. A couple years back, a natural gas line exploded near Weirton, West Virginia: killing a little girl and injuring a few others. I remember I-77 traffic slowing down to a halt that day. A few of my coworkers were late for work that morning because of it.

A few years before that, another, unrelated incident near Poca, WV: some tanks containing some other shit that I’d never heard of—acetylene—burst into flames so loudly that I actually heard the explosion where I lived at the time: which was about twenty or thirty miles away.

“What the fuck was that?” I felt the room jar.

My girlfriend at the time whimsically shrugged her shoulders, her eyes keenly planted on the television screen, playing Xbox: “Fuck. We’re probably being invaded or something.”

In Belle—about ten miles from where I’m sitting now—nothing interesting has happened since I got picked on and beat up in grade school there. But, in that small, awkwardly pretentious excuse for a town, there’s a tower full of ammonia so big that—if it were to rupture—I’ve heard that the gas itself would take out half the residents of Charleston.

It sits on the riverbanks, too.

Of course, to be quite honest with you, if the breeze on a day like that were blowing southeast, and it instead demolished Belle—what can I say? I wouldn’t miss the place much. I’m sure that there are some fine people who live there, and, if you can find some, I’ll give you a dollar a head.

Here recently, the chemical that leaked, called 4-methylcyclohexane, found its way into West Virginia American Water Company’s water system—which supplies almost all of Kanawha County, where West Virginia’s capital city, Charleston, sits. Apparently, according to, they use that shit to make jet fuel.

More importantly, for us native West Virginians, it’s used to clean our goddamned, God-given coal.

A few months prior to this recent incident, I remember one day: sitting in my windowed office at work (I work in finance), and looking out the window. For some reason, with the way that the sun refracted off of the otherwise humdrum strip-mall scenery, a dust cloud passed through. It made everything outside look like a shoot for a western movie. Everything turned yellowish-green for maybe five minutes. I became disappointed when that cloud left, mainly because I didn’t see the tumbleweeds or the gunslingers show up. In fact, I didn’t think anything else of it until it slowly vanished, and the phone rang more than an hour later:

This is an emergency broadcast. There has been a shelter-in-place affecting your area. You have been requested to…

I don’t remember the whole message, but it was something akin to board up and tape the windows, steal pharmaceuticals before the bandits arrive, and arm yourself against zombies, aliens, and other unmentionables. Shortly thereafter, one of my co-workers turns on the radio—which, unless your a Led Zeppelin or Def Leopard fan (which I am, of course, of the former), was a worthless talk piece for the news information we were all desperately looking for.

Until about an hour after the phone call.

Now, I should remind everyone reading (once again) that this “shelter-in-place” call didn’t happen until long after the horrific-looking green gas had already passed through the plaza of the parking lot that I called home for forty hours a week. I could feel my eyes burning, a shortness in breath, and…maybe I was turning into the walking, flesh-eating dead….

Or maybe, being a loan officer, I was either immune, or already infected in the worst kind of way.

Shortly after the radio chimed its emergency broadcast system (which, judging by the terrible quality in the guy’s voice, must employ equipment that has been in use since the 1950’s), my mother called the office:

“Hey, have you heard? There’s a chemical leak.”

Heard? Shit, I’m right in the middle of it!

The leak happened literally next door to the plaza I worked in. I could’ve thrown a rock and hit the container that contained that gas that I’d been inhaling all morning:

It was chlorine gas.

Now, I remained safely indoors with my co-workers until the breeze carried the stuff far away—effectively diluting it—and nobody died as a result. But I feel I should mention that they used a similar agent in chemical warfare during World War I.

“I was on my way to take Rhi to school, and I had the window down. My car smells like we just came back from the swimming pool. When we got to South Charleston, the police told us to turn around and go home.” Mom was talking about Rhi—short for Rhiannon—my sixteen-year-old sister.

Outside of being a nuisance, the chlorine leak served to give my sister a vacation day from school—something she also got when the meth got spilled into the river.

“Mamaw said she’s flying us out to Florida!” She was so excited to get yet another vacation from Charleston. Who wouldn’t be?

“You spoiled little shits!” I was just jealous because I had to work, and take showers with Aquafina, while Mom and Rhi got to sunbathe, swim, and shop near Fort Lauderdale.

Luckily, for most of us, the water situation is back to normal. From what I’ve heard so far, nobody has died, a few people got the shits, and nobody wants their town to smell like a Twizzler factory.

“We’re just too spoilt these days. I used to spray that shit on coal all the time. Didn’t hurt me none” says one of our hard-boiled, sixty-something-year-old loan customers.

True, that. I admire his spirit—native West Virginian. Kick ass.

His statement reminded me of another chemical incident that happened when I was only six-years-old:

I was at my aunts house—who lived in Belle, only slightly downstream from the DuPont plant—with my two younger cousins—Travis and Natasha—and their older brother, Harold. Their mom, Rita, decided to take us all out to the river to go swimming. She went up to this old man that she knew, and politely asked him if we could use the dock in his back yard as a diving board.

“Sure, go right ahead.”

So, we went swimming for a couple hours, came back to Rita’s, and turned on the television. And, lo and behold, there was a local t.v. news anchor standing right next to that same old man:

“A recent chemical spill that occurred at the DuPont Plant facility, in Belle, may affect area residents. This gentleman stated that, just an hour ago, a family of five went swimming in this contaminated water. Sir, what did you see?”

“Well, they was just out there, playin’ in the river. They went swimmin’ offa my dock over here.” Instead of warning us, that sneaky, crotchety, awful old bastard called the news station when he heard about the chemical leak.

“Oh my God! We was that family of five!”

Yes, Rita, we “was.” There went my five minutes of fame, and I wasn’t even there to talk about it.

“You think we ought to go to the hospital?” Harold’s concern was probably a smart thing to have.

“Hell no! We ain’t got no damn car!

So, we just finished watching the news, took turns showering, and hoped for the best.

And none of us are dead, yet.

Inspired by The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Prompt:


3 thoughts on “Chemical Leaks: A Common Nuisance for us West Virginians

  1. I have noticed the overuse of the word hackneyed, I know that you are an intelligent person and am irritated by your lack of trying to use a thesaurus. There are plenty of other words that can be inserted here; cobwebby being one of my favorites. Just a suggestion….keep writing but expand your word use.

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