BELPRE, Ohio — On a cheerful playground outside the local elementary school, a bench commemorates the brief life of Emma Grace Hemsilen Hess, a bubbly 12-year-old who died in July after a long battle with congenital heart ailments.
No one knows what ultimately caused Emma’s heart problems. One of her doctors suggested an obvious suspect: C8, a chemical once used in the making of Teflon, which has been found in the region’s water supply. But “that’s not a road we want to go down,” said Emma’s mother, Christina Hess, 51.
Casting blame is “not what Emma was about,” said Hess, whose relatives and neighbors have long worked in the chemical plants that line the nearby banks of the Ohio River. “She was about loving life and loving God.”
Loyalty to the plants runs deep in Belpre, one of several towns strung along the “Chemical Valley” on the Ohio-West Virginia border. For decades, the plants have provided good jobs paying as much as $35 an hour in a hard-luck part of Appalachia where people have few other prospects for employment.
But in October, a jury blamed C8 for causing kidney cancer in a woman who lived downriver in Coolville and ordered the chemical giant DuPont to pay her $1.6 million. A second case is set to go to trial in March and, with 3,500 other plaintiffs waiting in the wings, the verdict has sparked less hope for the environment than anxiety about the region’s future.
“I’m not trying to put economy over health, but if DuPont would close, people will leave,” said Belpre Mayor Michael Lorentz, 65. “With this C8 case, no one wins, everyone loses.”
The sense of unease has been stoked by an unnerving development: On July 1, DuPont spun off a separate company to run its sprawling Washington Works across the river from Belpre, near Parkersburg, W.Va. For the first time in most people’s lives, the iconic DuPont sign is gone, replaced by a flimsy banner that advertises the new company name, Chemours.
Many suspect the move is aimed at helping DuPont limit the economic fallout from the coming Teflon trials, though Chemours spokeswoman Janet Smith denied that is the case. Smith also said Chemours has “no plans to stop our operations at the Washington Works site” — one of the region’s largest employers, with about 1,700 workers.
“Chemours is confident that DuPont acted reasonably and responsibly at each stage in the long history of C8, placing high priority on the health of its employees and the community,” Smith said. “DuPont never believed that the extremely low levels of C8 that reached the community would cause any harm.”
Still, people are nervous. And tension between the broader populace and those who say their health has been compromised by C8 is palpable in bingo halls, diners and beauty parlors throughout the valley.
“It’s a West Virginia coal-miner mentality that you have to sacrifice your health to have a good job,” said Callie Lyons, a local environmental activist.
Belpre is a contraction of “Belle Prairie,” which means “beautiful meadow,” a name bestowed on the town of 6,000 by French trappers. After the Civil War, it became home to the longest bridge in the world at the time, a span across the mighty Ohio River that permitted coal to be carried by rail to the East Coast.
Chemical companies began locating here after World War II, attracted by cheap land, an industrious workforce and ready transportation. The DuPont Washington Works opened in 1948 and began using C8 in 1951 in its expansive Teflon production unit.
C8 is shorthand for perfluorooctanoic acid, an artificial compound that is exceptionally slippery. It has thousands of applications and has been used in products such as Gore-Tex fabric, communication cables and pizza boxes.
Evidence began to emerge that C8 could cause health problems as early as the 1960s, and tests found high levels of the chemical in water discharged from the Washington Works in 1984. But the negative effects of C8 didn’t become apparent locally until the late 1990s, when livestock began to fall ill after drinking from a polluted stream in Lubeck, W.Va., just south of the plant.
In 2005, DuPont paid $16.5 million to settle a federal complaint that it had concealed health information about C8. In 2012, the company released the results of a federally mandated study, which found a probable link between C8 and six different maladies: testicular cancer, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension and kidney cancer.
It was kidney cancer that struck Carla Marie Bartlett, then living in Coolville. Bartlett joined about 3,500 plaintiffs suing DuPont in a class-action lawsuit in federal court. Her case, the first to go to trial, led to a jury verdict against DuPont on Oct. 7.
During the three-week trial in Columbus, Bartlett’s attorneys argued that her tumor, removed in 1997, was caused by drinking water contaminated with C8. DuPont’s attorneys argued that Bartlett’s exposure was insufficient to cause cancer and that other factors, such as obesity, played a larger role. But in a Perry Mason moment, DuPont’s plant manager revealed that he had a suspicious spot on one of his own kidneys.
The jury ordered DuPont to pay Bartlett $1.6 million but declined to assess punitive damages, finding that the company had not acted maliciously.
For many in the Chemical Valley, the verdict was an affirmation of years-long suspicions. Among them is Jenifer Auld, 44, a nurse who lives in Lubeck. Auld was seized five years ago by abdominal cramping that “felt like labor.” A series of colonoscopies revealed a softball-size tumor.
Colon cancer is not among the ailments linked to C8. It is linked to smoking, and Auld is a smoker. But, she said, “I think it’s DuPont and the water.”
Auld’s husband, meanwhile, one of the class-action plaintiffs, is battling thyroid problems. The couple have thought about moving for the benefit of their three children, the youngest of whom is 12. “But it’s not that easy,” she said.
Another plaintiff, Jim Dornan, 34, lives off of DuPont Road in Lubeck in a clutch of ramshackle homes and trailers. Dornan has high cholesterol, as does his mother, Elizabeth Williamson. Her boyfriend, John Mark Miller, has kidney disease.
“I didn’t have any of these health issues until I moved down here . . . to this Valley and drank the water for 20 years,” said Miller, 51, a registered nurse originally from Sandusky, Ohio.
Kelly Guy blames her autoimmune disease on the water in Parkersburg, where she grew up. She now lives in Portland, Ore., and has made YouTube documentaries about the effects of C8. She has no patience for those who oppose the lawsuit.
“Why is everyone going to defend DuPont? That is what pays their bills and gets them through life,” said Guy, 46. “DuPont is putting bread on your table and killing you at the same time.”
Whether or not that’s true, Lorentz and others say the trial verdict is bad news, another misguided step in an adversarial process that could lead inexorably to the region’s ruin. Lorentz spent a lifetime working in the chemical plants, including 26 years at Shell Oil’s expansive Belpre factory. The facility, now known as Kraton Corp., makes polymer plastics and rubber.
“I believe in my heart that if I got sick, and they cut me open and found I was full of crude oil, that that corporation would take care of me,” Lorentz said. “You get better results working with a company than by filing a lawsuit.”
Lorentz said there isn’t “a neighborhood in Belpre that doesn’t have a DuPont employee or retiree in it,” but he doesn’t know of a single soul “who has an illness or ailment linked to C8.”
“I’m not taking anything away from [Bartlett],” Lorentz said, “but I think if someone was affected by C8, then they had underlying health issues.”
Across the river, the Lubeck Public Service District has posted a letter on its website warning new customers that “If you elect to drink the water . . . you do so at your own risk.” Still, manager Randy Atkinson, 58, said district officials “do everything we can do to make sure people have safe drinking water.”
“I drink the water every day,” he added, “and make coffee with it.”
If anyone should be sick, Dave Lawson says, it should be him. Lawson, 74, was born in Lubeck on land that now belongs to DuPont. He lives closer than anyone to the Washington Works, and his backyard springs, he said, have “tested higher than any other water around” for the presence of C8.
Lawson continues to drink the water, he said, with no ill effects. Meanwhile, he counts DuPont as “a terrific neighbor, an asset to the community.”
“When DuPont came in here, we had mud roads. When they came in here, the economy started to go up. People had more money to spend. Without DuPont, this place would have been pretty much of a disaster.”
Lawson says “the C8 thing has been overdone” and that it’s “the lawyers” who will ultimately benefit from the Teflon trials.
As for the plaintiffs, “people are living longer, and people have health issues,” Lawson said. “I don’t blame C8 for them.”
Williams is a freelance writer.