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TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE: Making sense of the first Chemours town hall

Chemours’ people just didn’t get it: They can’t fill our water and air with chemicals for 30 years and expect forgiveness and thankfulness just because they’re forced to stop.

Gary Jebsen, the Chemours toxicologist

It was 9 o’clock at night and I was sitting at a table with five other people, the only humanities major in a group of scientists, at a Huddle House in St. Pauls, North Carolina. Sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it? We all had come from the first public town hall meeting hosted by Chemours, held in the green-carpeted sanctuary of the Faith Tabernacle Christian Center, full of pews and potted plants and frustrated people. Over coffee and French fries, we tried to reckon with what we had just seen.

BREAKING THE SILENCE: Paul Kirsch, Chemours’ head of the fluoroproducts division, addresses last week’s town hall. Photo by John Wolfe.

BREAKING THE SILENCE: Paul Kirsch, Chemours’ head of the fluoroproducts division, addresses last week’s town hall. Photo by John Wolfe.

“Where in the hell did they find that moderator?”

“They kept saying, ‘It’s the right thing to do…’”

“That and, ‘We own this issue…’”

“One study in one journal is not a body of peer-reviewed literature.”

The town hall had been tragic, deeply unsatisfying and hard to describe. It left me feeling somewhere between grief and simmering anger. Almost 200 people came from the area surrounding the Fayetteville Works plant, searching for answers from a company which had held its tongue for the past year—a company which lowered their property values and polluted their air and river and wells with substances, of which Chemours kept insisting were perfectly safe. And they, err, we got nothing but a bunch of slick double-talk, feigned concern and insultingly artificial sincerity.

The company representatives stood up, in a space typically used for joyful worship, and told half-truths and full lies, talked around the questions, which were submitted beforehand on written cards, and lumped and butchered and softened by the poor hapless cherub-faced moderator.

Chemours representatives let the justified anger of a community, which felt it had been poisoned for 38 years, slide off them all, well, like Teflon. It was a complete farce, and it might have been funny if the stakes weren’t so high—if we all weren’t drinking the water.

The people who were taking most of the heat weren’t the ones responsible for what had been happening for 38 years. The people who made the decisions—which had led to the deliberate emissions of a host of horrifying chemical compounds—were probably on a beach somewhere, with millions of dollars bulging in their swimsuit pockets. The people in front of us were sacrificial lambs, hired to take the heat. The whole Chemours company really is nothing but chaff for DuPont, jettisoned to attract the public outrage and ire so the mothership can keep profiting and poisoning. Call me cynical, but when a barely 3-year-old company, represented by a plant manager hired last February, stands up in front of citizens and says, “We’re owning this problem,” a problem which had been happening since 1980, what am I supposed to think?

Sure, now they’re spending $100 million on a state-of-the-art system, which will reduce their air emissions by 99 percent by the end of next year (but only because last Monday DEQ issued a court order requiring it to happen, by the way). I played my part and meandered through the narthex before the meeting began. Men in button-downs with the sleeves rolled up (adopting the “we’re working hard for you” look, favored by politicians everywhere) showed me schematics of something called a “thermal oxidizer.” It works with something else called a “carbon absorption unit” to heat up the compounds until they break down before releasing them into the environment. It all looks very expensive and high-tech and I’m sure it will work—it’ll have to, with the eye of the DEQ on them now.

But where was all of this before?

Everything they’re doing now is too little, too late. Even if they started on this a year ago, when we first found out about it, and had told us they were working on it (instead of staying silent like a horrible faceless monolith), I would feel slightly better about it. As is, we are basically getting bullied again, like in elementary school. It happened everyday until fifth grade. Then, suddenly, freshman year of high school, the bully offers you a band-aid and an ice pack but no apology.
Chemours didn’t apologize.

There was no mea culpa, not even any real human emotion connecting with the suffering of the 200 people in attendance. They spout a bunch of empty phrases, like, “We have over a decade of scientific evidence and study that suggests, at the levels we’re talking about, GenX does not cause a health risk.”

Or, “I care deeply about the concerns of this community, and so does the Chemours company. You’re important to us.”

People can tell when they’re being lied to; the audience’s attitude was tense, bordering on downright hostile. Honestly, I thought they behaved remarkably well. I was expecting pitchforks and torches. Instead it was hisses and boos, shouts of, “You’re defiling the house of God!” “Shame, shame!” and “What’s more important to you, people or profit?”

There were signs: “Brian Long [the plant manager] is a Liar and a Puppet” and “Chemours: Chemical Terrorist.” People walked out, uttering, “I can’t take this shit anymore.” Two people were forcibly removed by sheriff’s deputies for shouting questions and being ignored, including Beth Kline-Markesino, who oversees the local Facebook group NC Stop Gen-X in Our Water, and a Fayetteville minister Jonathan Webb.

The last question read was actually one of encore’s—one of only three submitted to be asked, despite the company’s promise they would address every question. “How, given all that has happened in the last year, can you possibly hope to regain the trust of the public?” asked the moderator.

“Good question,” Brian Long said. “I’ve thought a lot about that. You know, I’ve talked about our plans tonight. Somebody earlier mentioned you don’t believe we’ll do these things. You may question our resolve. I can promise you we will; I believe in my heart and I know that we will. But the reality of it is, you have to watch us. The regulators will regulate us and check on us. We will go out and implement these plans. So, I’m not asking for your trust. I’m asking you watch us, and then you make your mind up.”

I stood up. “That was my question, and I’d like to follow up.” Every eye in the room turned to me; I felt my heart pounding in my chest. For the first time in a year I had the undivided attention of the chemical company dumping toxic chemicals into my beloved river.

“I have been watching you for the last year,” I said. “And what I’ve seen is coming 38 years too late.” Murmurs of “exactly, exactly” emerged the audience.

“It’s too little, too late, man.”

“Can I maybe just wrap it up?” interjected Paul Kirsch, the president of the fluoroproducts division, the number-three guy in the whole company. “Thank you, everyone, for your participation, and thank you all again for the energy you’ve brought to this meeting…”

They were drumming me out, as they have with everyone else who had asked something tonight.

“As I was listening and reflecting,” he continued, “it’s blindingly obvious we have a trust problem.”

“Gee, I wonder why?” I said under my breath.

“It leaves me with a bit of a sad heart here because I feel your anxiety, and I know you can’t have a relationship with anybody if you have no trust. I get all the age-old concerns about what’s been going on for the last 30 years—I honestly can’t speak to this, I have not been with the company but for two years. Since I’ve got here, we’ve done everything we can to put us in a position where we can spend money to make these improvements, and I leave here, as Brian said, with the same resolve and same commitment I spoke of at the beginning—that we will fix the problem. That’s what I can commit to. I’m not asking for your trust. My dad used to tell me, deeds not words, and it’s got to be about deeds. What we committed to is what we will execute. It’ll be a world-class facility. It may sound absurd right now, but my sincere hope is, at one point in the future, you guys are proud to have us in the community again.”

From the audience came laughter and jeers, exhalations of derision, but mostly frustration. The Chemours people just didn’t get it: They can’t fill our water and air with chemicals for 30 years and expect forgiveness and thankfulness just because they’re forced to stop. One woman, older and maternal-looking, shook her head and spoke for us all.

“Never,” she said. “Never, never, never.”

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