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Hillbilly Horror: Reckoning With a Genre 15 Years After ‘Wrong Turn’

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“You’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner?”

Agent Clarice Starling of the 1991 horror classic “The Silence of the Lambs” was one of the first characters in popular American film to feature a canonically West Virginia accent. Hannibal Lecter’s comment to Agent Starling a character raised in West Virginia until her father’s untimely death might strike a familiar nerve for Appalachians who similarly leave home and are forced to leave their accents behind.

American horror has historically been unkind to Appalachia. While “hillbilly” narratives bring in the big bucks, the blurring line between fantasy and reality has done no favors for popular perceptions of mountain folks.

Among classics like “The Silence of the Lambs,” newer cult horror releases set in Appalachia have entirely reshaped their respective subgenres of American Horror. The 2006 psychological horror film “Silent Hill” has grossed nearly $100 million worldwide and is widely acclaimed as one of the best video game-to-film adaptations of the new millenium. In the film, abandoned coal mines are left still-smoldering beneath the town of Silent Hill, and ash falls on the ghost town like flurries of snow. The scene harkens a reminder of the town’s fiery past. But the film’s setting was inspired by real-life Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an underground mine fire has been burning since 1962. It is a fantastical, other-worldly and Salem-esque history of witch hunts, not the real-life, equally-horrifying history of coal extraction, that haunts the fictional Silent Hill. But “Silent Hill” isn’t your typical hillbilly horror feature.

Fifteen years ago, on May 30, 2003, one of the genre’s worst offenders, “Wrong Turn,” was released in theaters, grossing more than $28.7 million. To outsiders, the film is an otherwise forgettable and generic slasher, featuring a cast of unfamiliar names, that joins a genre of early 2000’s cheap screams that are hard to beat: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Final Destination,” and “Cherry Falls.” For West Virginians, the film reinvigorated some of the most painful stereotypes the region has had to face.

The film’s portrayal of Appalachian people is greatly influenced by outsiders’ perspectives on the abject poverty imagined to live isolated in our mountains. It’s hardly an accident that the murderous cannibal clan was styled by the film’s costume directors in threadbare, dirty duds. Vignettes feature the cast lurking around in ramshackle dwellings, covered in filth and grime. The infrastructure dirt roads and deteriorating public amenities is underdeveloped and crumbling. The film’s title implies that one should only find themselves navigating West Virginia’s backroads by accident.

More than a century of cultural dialogue has led to America’s visualization of rural space in Appalachia as ground zero for American poverty. In “Wrong Turn,” the recesses of a wealthy nation’s imagination envisions unseen poverty as a nightmarescape in which a storied history of neglect makes cannibals of people who live in exiled cabin slums.

Horror, as a format and genre, has roughly 120 minutes to terrify viewers, affording limited time and space for dialogue. As a result, horror film scripts rely on some of the most reductive and othering tropes to develop plotlines and character.

Historians like Ronald D. Eller have elegantly explained the processes that have led to Appalachia’s “othering.” Eller writes, “We know Appalachia exists because we need it to exist in order to define what we are not,” referring to the greater American population’s concept of an Appalachian America. “It is the ‘other America’ because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives. The notion of Appalachia as a separate place, a region set off from mainstream culture and history, has allowed us to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable dilemmas that the story of Appalachia raises about our own lives and about the larger society.” Representation of the region in features like “Wrong Turn” have done some of that heavy lifting.

“Wrong Turn” follows a cast of bewildered outsiders some visiting West Virginia to hike or rock climb and some passing through on business as they stumble through an impenetrable forest to escape a stalking family of cannibal, film-stock “hillbillies.” Most of the murderous mountain dwellers appear horribly disfigured and the film’s intro scene flashes pages of books detailing the physiological effects of inbreeding.

West Virginia natives aren’t unfamiliar with incest stereotypes about the Mountain State. Professor Gabriel Rosenberg, a sexuality studies scholar at Duke University, told me that ideas linking rural people and supposed incestual behaviors find their way into horror film scripts due to age-old narratives that living away or far from society leads to degeneration. “Wrong Turn,” however, writes these narratives into flesh: “Three Finger,” “Three Toes,” “One Eye,” and “Saw Tooth” are characters costumed in special effects makeup created to materialize nightmarish “mutant genes” that rely on the assumption that the “incestuous hillbilly” already exists in the audience’s imagination.

The film was produced in a particular type of genre cycle in which “teenage horror” reached unseen commercial success, producing cult classics like “Scream” andI Know What You Did Last Summer.” The influence of “Scream” inspired a new crop of lookalikes, motivating producers to write screenplays that join a never-ending roster of films that abide by the ‘90s teen thrasher model: young people find themselves in a terrifying predicament, stalked by a someone or something, and everyone dies, ad nauseam. In the case of making wrong turns, the something the urbane teens were stalked by was a twisted family tree of cannibal mountain people.

Teenagers were running from masked murderers, and slasher directors were chasing after chainsaws. Professor Rosenberg sees “Wrong Turn” as a part of a larger “farmhouse horror” film family that includes works like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Along with “Massacre,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “The Devil’s Rejects” and “House of 1000 Corpses” prove Rosenberg’s theory that almost every American horror film set in a rural place features a family as the film plot’s villain. “The family that preys together stays together,” he says, noting that the “monstrous rural family” characters always stalk the protagonist as a unit.

John Boorman’s 1972 “Deliverance” introduced the ultimate backwoods terror plot archetype. A cast of city dwellers enter Appalachia’s wilderness for recreation and leave only after being stalked by murderous mountain men. One of the most notable scenes from the film has had incredible staying power in pop culture, lending itself to the butt of nearly every joke at the expense of rural people, “Paddle faster, I hear banjos!” The “dueling banjos” scene although the instrumental composition itself won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance has shaped the way Americans have relegated banjo-driven bluegrass to “backwards” and “backwoods.”

Professor Travis Stimeling, an ethnomusicologist at West Virginia University who focuses on traditional Appalachian music, believes that “Deliverance” has contributed to that stigma. He feels as though pop culture features like “Deliverance” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” have ultimately led to to the cultural association of banjos and bluegrass with white rural people, in spite of the true historical origins of the instrument.

Stimeling told me that people in the region who play bluegrass and old-time music have started to realign their relationships with the phase “Paddle faster, I hear banjos!” He says, “It’s interesting to see to see that phrase taken up by people in the bluegrass and old-time communities. Seeing that phrase reclaimed, not only in my own mind but by others, is really powerful.” Stimeling continued “You’ll see that sticker on guitar cases, banjo cases, Subarus. … It’s seen there as a source of pride. If I were someone who liked to go rafting and I heard banjos, I would also paddle faster, but in a different direction. I would paddle toward the banjos, not away.”

It’s true that our remote hills and forests can be terrifying at night. Appalachians themselves have done a far better job of capturing what lurks in the shadows of West Virginia’s wooded hills than fictional representations of hillbilly horror. A cartography of our sprawling landscape is decorated with cryptid sightings old and new hello, mothmen and some folks hang onto those stories for generations.

The second volume of the legendary “Foxfire” series provides a tell-all on Appalachia’s arcane unknown. David Wilson writes for “Foxfire’s” chapter on boogers, witches and haints, “That the people of these mountains have a rich supply of ‘haint’ tales is not at all surprising. They had conquered the land but only in a small area around their doors. No matter how friendly the woods seemed in daylight, there were noises and mysterious lights there at night that were hard to ignore if you were out there all alone.”

I peered over glossy paperbacks featuring folktales of local hauntings in my elementary school’s library, which turned into my decade-long horror habit, but I never knew my favorite films could make monsters out of people like me.  

In reality, “Wrong Turn” isn’t even filmed in West Virginia, but the franchise has lead to a 15-year legacy of urban outsiders mocking Mountain Staters. American horror has  underestimated its own reach of influence: more than a century of horror film history has redefined our fears, teaching us to always check the shower, shudder at flocks of birds, and writhe at the sight of expansive fields of corn and unending bodies of water. “Wrong Turn” has made it impossible to travel wooded hills without a foot on the gas pedal.

Following the film’s release, a popular, multinational clothing company began selling shirts emblazoned with “It’s all relative in West Virginia” and “West Virginia: No Lifeguard at the Gene Pool,” and the stereotypes persisted in horror film production well into the early 2000s.

During the 2008 production process of “Shelter,” casting director Donna Belajac posted a casting call searching for actors with physical abnormalities to extra in a scene set in a “West Virginia holler.” The call beckoned responses from extras with the features “Extraordinarily tall or short. Unusual body shapes, even physical abnormalities as long as there is normal mobility. Unusual facial features, especially eyes.” In response to public disapproval, Belajac told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “I hope it’s not an offensive thing. It’s not meant to be a generalization about everyone in West Virginia. That’s why we put that it’s in a ‘holler’ in the mountains.” Belajac was fired.

We welcome you to explore what’s out there, but “leave no trace.” Horror films like “Wrong Turn” prove that the influence of misguided visual representations of Appalachian people produced by journalists in the 1960s has extended much further than socio-political dialogue in a War on Poverty. That a “Stranger with a Camera” should betray our people and wilderness comes as no surprise. The painful legacy of these stereotypes about our region has shown us what 15 years of wrong turns can do. Appalachia is not Hollywood’s nightmarescape.

Holler-casting blackened bluegrass to you from the Ohio Valley, Liz Price studies Appalachian regional policy by day and spins mountain-metal by night.

Appalachia

Want to Tell the True Story of Appalachia? Join the Appalachian Advisors Network

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Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

During the 2016 presidential election cycle, Appalachia became the focus of an onslaught of national and international news coverage. Outlets parachuted into the region looking for stories that perpetuated generations old tropes of our communities. They got it wrong. But in 2020, we have the opportunity to help them get it right. 

100 Days in Appalachia, born out of that 2016 election, is calling on Appalachians to join us in an effort to provide greater context to media outlets who want to cover our region ahead of the 2020 election. So, we’re creating the Appalachian Advisors Network and we’re asking for your help to do it.

The Appalachian Advisors Network will help national and international news outlets better understand what is happening in our communities. The network will be made up of real people, doing real work on-the-ground.

Even though they’re important members of communities, we’re not looking for Mayors and CEOs– the kinds of people that reporters usually contact for comment. Instead, we want to create a network of workers, grandparents, students, volunteers– the people that don’t usually get a chance to shape media coverage of their communities, but whose feelings and insights are a much better representation of them.

As a member of the Appalachian Advisors Network, you’ll help the rest of America, and the world, better understand what Appalachia really is and the  issues, concerns, hopes and fears of the people who live here.

What’s required:

Be willing to answer a few questions from 100 Days in Appalachia each month about your life and your community in the lead up to the 2020 election.

Be willing to talk to a reporter if they are interested in covering what’s happening in the region.

Members of the Appalachian Advisors Network will receive a stipend.

If you’re interested, fill out this form.

Cell Preferred
Describe your work, study or activities in your community.

 

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Appalachia’s Deep History of Resistance

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Becky Crabtree sits chained in her 1971 Ford Pinto, suspended over a trench at a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site on her property in Monroe County, West Virginia. Photo: Appalachians Against Pipelines

Protest runs through the region’s veins like coal seams through the mountains.

When a group of Kentucky miners decided to block a coal-laden train from leaving a bankrupt mine in July, they weren’t just laying claim to missing paychecks.

The miners in Harlan County won attention across the United States for their willingness to put their bodies on the line for their beliefs. In doing so, they’re invoking the long-entrenched spirit of civil disobedience and direct action in the Appalachian Mountains. The mine wars of the early 20th century led to the rise of American unions in the 1930s and 1940s, but it’s not just coal miners who have laid claim to a history of activism.

The first day of the Harlan County train blockade, July 29, 2019, also marked the 89th day of a 24/7 protest in Kingsport, Tennessee, over a monopolistic health care provider’s move to downgrade a hospital’s emergency services and close its neonatal intensive care unit, where sick newborns are treated.

And July 29 was the 328th day of the Yellow Finch Lane tree-sits in Montgomery County, Virginia, where two anonymous tree-sitters and a small support camp block construction of a 303-mile, 42-inch wide pipeline being built to move natural gas from the fracking fields of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in northern West Virginia to a terminal just north of Danville in southern Virginia. From there, the gas would be sent on to the East Coast, and perhaps overseas.

These ongoing actions aren’t recent aberrations. In 2018, more than 20,000 teachers in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties went on strike for two weeks to secure better pay and benefits—and in the end were successful. That action inspired similar teacher strikes in Kentucky, Oklahoma and elsewhere.

In the mid-’00s, activists trying to stop mountaintop removal coal mining—a form of surface mining that uses explosives to blow off ridge tops to expose underground coal seams—regularly took part in direct actions, chaining themselves to equipment, disrupting stockholder meetings, and blocking access to mine sites and facilities.

These activists run the gamut in terms of age, class, race, ethnicity and hometowns. Women tend to be more prevalent in these actions than men, but everyone shares the frustration of fighting against a system that feels rigged, where other options are blocked, and the only thing left to do is to fight using one’s body.

New generations join the fight for their rights

The depth of Appalachia’s activist tradition can be seen in Becky Crabtree of Lindside, West Virginia. Crabtree grew up near Bluefield and went to work as a teacher in McDowell County in 1975. The year she started, local teachers, including her mother, went on strike for better pay, but Crabtree was afraid of losing her new job.

“When I didn’t sign to go out on strike, teachers I loved and respected circled my car and asked why I wasn’t going to go out on strike,” Crabtree said. “It was my first grown-up job, and I told them I had agreed to work. They explained to me I had to go out on strike, and I understood. We stood together and had to go out on strike.”

The teachers struck again in 1986, and Crabtree, now with 11 years of experience, became much more involved. By 2018, she was a substitute teacher, and she didn’t go to Charleston to rally with thousands of others at the State Capitol, but she watched the children of those who did. She also took to the streets with signs of support for the striking teachers, standing with her mother and her daughters—three generations of West Virginia teachers—encouraging car drivers to honk their support.

Rachel Campbell, left, and Davin Miller, elementary school teachers in Charleston, were among the thousands who demonstrated for better pay and benefits at the West Virginia State Capitol in 2018. Photo: Mason Adams/YES! Magazine

That summer, Crabtree also protested construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline across her Monroe County sheep farm by chaining herself to her 1971 Ford Pinto—the same car the other teachers surrounded in 1975—which was placed on concrete blocks straddling the pipeline trench.

“I had done all the things I knew to work the system,” Crabtree said. “I had been to town meetings. I had spoken at pipeline-sponsored gatherings. I spoke about it on TV. We collected petitions. We had a case lined up to go to the U.S. Supreme Court about eminent domain, but they chose not to hear it this year. We had done everything we knew to do. It was all I could do, was to put my body across the pipeline.”

Ultimately, Crabtree said she disrupted about a half-day’s worth of work by pipeline crews before she was arrested and removed from the Pinto. She was charged with obstruction, but the charge was eventually dismissed.

Taking a stand—or a sit—against fossil fuels

Crabtree’s action marked just one episode in a substantial campaign against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Tree-sitters placed their bodies in the way of pipeline construction in Monroe County, West Virginia, and Franklin, Giles, Montgomery and Roanoke counties in Virginia. The longest-running tree-sit is near the town of Elliston on Yellow Finch Lane, where, as of September 2019, tree-sitters and a support camp have been in place for more than a year.

On the day the Harlan County miners began their train blockade, the Yellow Finch tree-sit was preparing for the possible arrival of federal marshals, because the pipeline company had asked a judge to remove them. That morning, a bulldozer roared on the opposite slope of the narrow hollow as protesters made breakfast and talked about what might happen later. The judge ultimately declined to remove the protesters, who remain in the trees to buy time while other activists pursued legal and regulatory avenues to halt construction.

Miners and their families play cornhole while blocking railroad tracks to prevent train loaded with coal from departing a mine near Cumberland, Kentucky, until they receive pay for their work from their employer, Blackjewel, which abruptly filed for bankruptcy in July. Photo: Mason Adams/YES! Magazine

The anti-pipeline movement grew largely from organizing efforts that were developed more than a decade ago to fight mountaintop removal in central Appalachia. Erin McKelvy, who works with the group Appalachians Against Pipelines, grew up outside Blacksburg, Virginia, and took part in Take Back the Night rallies with her mother, a professor at Virginia Tech.

McKelvy found another mentor in Sue Daniels, a local mountaintop removal activist who took her along on a 2004 trip to Inman, Virginia, where a 3-year-old boy had been killed in his sleep by a flying boulder blasted from a nearby surface mine. The two joined with others to plan what became known as 2005’s Mountain Justice Summer and the beginning of a protracted campaign against coal companies.

The training sponsored by Mountain Justice taught McKelvy about direct action, preparing for legal fallout, speaking to media, and the importance of centering local leaders and voices.

Direct action, McKelvy said, “is a necessary tool in the toolbox. When regulatory agencies say yes to things that are in clear violation of the charters they have to protect air, water and the environment, and when there’s so much momentum behind the sort of toxic death culture status quo, sometimes it takes physically getting in the way of those things that are destructive and dangerous to actually get anywhere.”

Making business work for communities

Numerous Yellow Finch tree-sitters cited the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016 and 2017 at Standing Rock Indian Reservation as a galvanizing moment for them. That event also has inspired other actions, including an around-the-clock protest at a hospital in Kingsport, Tennessee, that as of September 2019 stretched beyond 140 days.

Dani Cook grew up in Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee-Virginia line, but was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, when she traveled to Standing Rock and spent five days with a group of military veterans supporting the protest. The experience left a lasting impression, so when Cook learned that the neonatal intensive care unit at Holston Valley Medical Center was scheduled to close as part of the hospital being downgraded as a trauma center, she took to the street.

“When I came out here, I was by myself,” Cook said. “I had no clue if anyone would come with me. All I knew is that what’s happening here is so wrong, we just have to do something. At first, I thought that was emails and phone calls. I thought it was 450 people showing up at the [public] hearing. I thought, surely when the state hears from nurses and doctors and the community, it will do something. When that didn’t work, all I knew to do was to make it physical.”

Dani Cook of Kingsport, Tennessee, protests the closure of a neonatal intensive care unit at her local hospital by Ballad Health, a regional nonprofit hospital company. Photo: Submitted by Dani Cook

Cook stationed herself on the sidewalk in front of the hospital and started talking about the plan set in motion by the hospital’s owner, Ballad Health. Before long, she was joined by other people, and since then they’ve been a constant presence on the road in front of Holston Valley, waving signs, asking motorists to sign petitions and waving to honking cars.

“Our protest is 90 percent women,” Cook said. “We have probably eight or so men who are here. Right now, it’s four of us women and one man out here. That’s pretty much the norm.”

Women take the lead throughout history

That dynamic—of women taking leadership roles and driving direct action—appears throughout Appalachia, both geographically and throughout history.

“Women putting their bodies on the line—because that is really what they’re doing— has been a historical pattern,” said Jessie Wilkerson, a professor at the University of Mississippi and author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice. “They always center what I and other scholars call ‘caring labor.’ They’re really emphasizing the labor that it takes to sustain life, to take care of other people, to take care of children, to take care of the environment, to take care of their communities.”

Wilkerson’s book was inspired by the Brookside Women’s Club of Harlan County, Kentucky, which played a pivotal role in the ’70s strike whose memory has been stoked by the train blockade. That’s just one example of women taking the lead in direct action.

Ollie “Widow” Combs, for example, placed her body before a bulldozer at a strip mine above her Kentucky home in 1965, leading to her arrest and inspiring future movements such as Mountain Justice, 40 years later.

Kentucky residents also picketed over potential hospital closures in Hazard, Harlan, Middlesboro, and Whitesburg in the early ’60s. Those protests eventually resulted in the establishment of numerous community-based clinics as part of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” programs.

“Often the story is told as the federal government swoops in and is telling people what to do, but in fact, this came from protests around Washington, D.C., and in the region because of the hospital closures,” Wilkerson said.

That action has echoes today in the Holston Valley protests.

Colorful signs adorn two tree-sits on property near Elliston, Virginia, where protesters have blocked construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline for more than a year. Photos: Mason Adams/YES! Magazine

Wilma Lee Steele, a resident of Matewan and a board member for the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, fought coal and gas companies as a landowner whose property was dramatically affected by both. She said that today’s activists increasingly connect their fights with the labor actions found throughout Appalachia’s history, such as the West Virginia mine wars, an escalating series of labor showdowns that culminated in a 1921 declaration of martial law when thousands of miners faced off against law enforcement and private detectives on Blair Mountain. That vibrant connection between the past and present, Steele said, is a good thing.

“There’s things happening in West Virginia,” Steele said. “You see communities doing something. It can be hard to see, but underneath is a wave.”

Crabtree, the teacher whose car was surrounded by striking teachers in 1975, remembered what she felt as she sat chained to that same car 43 years later, waiting in the early morning mists for pipeline crews to arrive.

“There’s nobody in sight,” she said. “Just the shadows of the trees. It’s not quite daylight but it’s not dark. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my life. That’s real important to me. There was absolutely no fear. I knew logically that no jury in Monroe County would convict me of a crime for sitting on my own land, and I was doing the right thing. It’s a wonderful feeling, of doing the right thing.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation. It was originally published by YES! Magazine.

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Congress Hears Testimony From Chemical Company Executives On PFAS Contamination

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The Chemours facility, formerly the DuPont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/WVPB

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Executives from three major chemical companies — DuPont de Nemours, Inc., The Chemours Company and The 3M Company — testified for the first time to Congress about widespread contamination from the group of nonstick, fluorinated chemicals broadly called PFAS.

The so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment, are linked to ill health effects, and have been found in numerous water systems in the Ohio Valley.

The hearing — the third on PFAS contamination by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment — explored the extent to which companies that make PFAS chemicals knew about its impacts on human health and the environment and how they should be held accountable. 

“These companies with us here today have screwed up and we need to hold them accountable for doing so,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California. “I hope the people representing those companies here today will admit their mistakes so that we can all move forward and achieve what I believe is our common goal: to clean up contaminated sites, stop exposing innocent people to toxic chemicals and making sure that all Americans have clean water and clean air.” 

Concern over PFAS contamination has grown nationwide. The Environmental Working Group estimates the drinking water systems of more than 700 communities are contaminated with PFAS. Perfluoroalkyl chemicals were used to make nonstick products and are found in some flame retardants including firefighting foam. 

Company executives called to testify focused on internal efforts to address concerns over PFAS in the face of major high-profile lawsuits and settlements over contamination in West Virginia and Minnesota. All expressed support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action plan.” The agency in February proposed a series of regulatory steps to address PFAS contamination and cleanup

Lawmakers in both parties criticized EPA for not moving swiftly enough. Congress is considering amendments to its 2020 defense spending bill that would speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals. 

Company executives were split over how PFAS chemicals should be regulated, although none supported broad legislative action to regulate all 5,000 PFAS chemicals. 

A representative from DuPont went the farthest. Daryl Roberts, DuPont’s chief operating and engineering officer, told the House subcommittee the company welcomed specific regulatory actions, such as listing two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law. 

“We support legislation to list PFOA and PFOS, and only those two, as hazardous substances under CERCLA. That’s further than the other companies here are willing to go today, but that’s what we believe is correct,” he said. “What we know about those chemicals is that they’re bio-persistent. That’s enough to know that there’s a clear concern for those chemicals within society at this point in time, and we feel for that reason they should be regulated.” 

DuPont no longer makes PFAS chemicals. It split off its fluorinated chemicals business in 2015 to Chemours. A representative from Chemours said that company did not support such regulation. Chemours and DuPont are engaged in litigation over the split. Chemours argues DuPont misrepresented the environmental liabilities associated with PFAS chemicals. 

3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Denise Rutherford, doubled down on her company’s claim that there are no negative health effects from PFAS exposure.

“When we look at that evidence there is no cause and effect for adverse human health effects at the levels we are exposed to as a general population,” she said. 

That didn’t sit well with some Democrats, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said this position goes against findings from government agencies and 3M’s own scientists. 

The federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says some studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown: effects on growth, learning, and behavior of infants; an increase cholesterol levels; effects on the immune system; and an increase in the risk of cancer.

The hearing began with testimony from two attorneys whose lawsuits against DuPont and 3M unearthed thousands of internal company documents that showed both companies knew the chemicals were dangerous to human health and the environment for decades, but didn’t tell its employees or federal regulators.

Rob Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney who successfully brought a class action lawsuit against DuPont for its dumping of PFOA, sometimes called C8, near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, told lawmakers he and his team for 18 years have funneled scientific studies from within DuPont to EPA that enumerated the health risks associated with exposure. 

In 2012, an independent panel of scientists — the C8 Science Panel — concluded drinking PFAS contaminated water was linked with six diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers.

The group looked at all existing studies and conducted new ones on 70,000 impacted community members from around the Parkersburg area. 

“This independent scientific review has occurred. Unfortunately EPA has not acted,” Bilott testified. “We have more than enough evidence.  We should move forward and protect the public.”

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