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Betwixt and Between: Experiencing (Ongoing) Crises of Contaminated Water in West Virginia
Southern Anthropological Society - Annual Conference
  • Brian A Hoey, Ph.D., Marshall University
  • Luke Eric Lassiter, Marshall University
  • Cat Pleska, Marshall University
  • Laura Harbert Allen, Independent Producer and Multimedia Maker
Organized Session, Workshop or Roundtable Title
Betwixt and Between: Experiencing (Ongoing) Crises of Contaminated Water in West Virginia
Participation Type
Participant Type
Organized Session, Workshop or Roundtable Abstract

Directly affecting the drinking water of over 300,000 people in nine counties of West Virginia, the January 9, 2014 chemical spill in the Elk River at Charleston was labeled by The New York Times as “one of the most serious incidents of chemical contamination of drinking water in American history.” Organized as a forum of informal presentations and interactive dialog, this roundtable session explores the work of several participants in a collaborative oral history project sponsored by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and funded by the Oral History Association’s Emerging Crisis Research Fund. We will describe partnerships created with other researchers, scholars, documentarians, writers, students, activists and other citizens as the project continues to emerge.

Since this collective project began in earnest in the months following this catastrophic spill, several other unfolding disasters involving contaminated drinking water on a mass scale have been revealed—including, most recently, the case of widespread lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan. Against the sordid backdrop of these manifestly harmful events, as well as in the milieu of widespread concern for short and long-term impacts of hydro-fracking across the United States, this roundtable will allow for broad consideration of far-reaching social, economic, and health effects of toxic exposure as expressed in the accounts and everyday lives of local people. A physician recounts learning about the spill very late in the day and having to evacuate the hospital. An attorney and longtime activist says that he suddenly feels as though he’s living in an unfamiliar world. A pregnant woman describes the fear and unease she carries along with her baby. A home health care worker questions how this threat could have gone unnoticed for decades. A small business owner wonders if he and his family would be better off someplace else.

Seemingly having to pick between business interests and jobs, on the one hand, and overall quality of life and public safety, on the other, communities like Charleston may find themselves painfully torn as they seek to find a way forward in a world of imperatives shaped by powerful political interests and trans-local economic forces. Confronted by the possibility of a “chemical brain drain,” precipitated by emerging doubts over the attractiveness of Charleston as a place to live and do business, this session seeks to contribute to informed public dialog and policy in West Virginia and beyond. With the nuance and context provided by wide-ranging partnerships, we seek to place this project—this ongoing water crisis—within larger streams of disaster studies, oral history, and the practice of collaborative ethnography.

Brian A. Hoey, PhD
At-A-Glance Bio- Organizer
Brian Hoey is an associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Marshall University.
Presentation #1 Abstract

Given the methodological focus on capturing unadorned oral histories of a demographically varied group of persons directly impacted by the spill, Hoey’s emphasis in the project has been to facilitate analysis and interpretation of recurring thematic elements revealed in narratives accounts of the ongoing, lived experience of the water crisis. Drawing on his ethnographic fieldwork on the role of place in the construction of individual and community identity, Hoey gives special attention to emergent themes of disruption in relationship to place and the potential long‐term psychosocial impact of shifts in personal and group understandings and meaningful relationships with place.

At-A-Glance Bios- Participant #1

Brian Hoey is an associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Marshall University. His ethnographic research explores social, cultural, and personal impacts of economic restructuring through the lens of migration and community development. In addition to his work in the United States and Indonesia on the role of place attachment and displacement in the construction of individual and group identity, Hoey has longstanding interests in a broad range of environmental factors that may positively or negatively affect physical and psychological health. Hoey has published widely on these topics including a recent book Opting for Elsewhere: Lifestyle Migration in the American Middle Class.

Presentation #2 Abstract

Lassiter will briefly summarize the project, which engaged a team of 6 researchers and writers to conduct oral history interviews on the January 9, 2014, Chemical Spill in Charleston, West Virginia. He will also comment on the progress of the project and its current evolution, especially as it develops along lines of collaborative ethnography.

At-A-Glance Bios- Participant #2

Luke Eric Lassiter, director of the Graduate Humanities Program and professor of humanities and anthropology at Marshall University, has authored and edited several books on community-based study and ethnography, including The Power of Kiowa Song, Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, and the award-winning Other Side of Middletown. In 2007, he founded the journal “Collaborative Anthropologies,” and served as its editor or co-editor until 2014. His latest book, titled Doing Ethnography Today, co-authored with Elizabeth Campbell, explores the complexities of doing collaborative ethnography in dynamic and shifting fieldwork sites.

Presentation #3 Abstract

Cat Pleska experienced the water crisis from nearby; that is, although she was in the zone where the crisis occurred, she was on a different water system. She agreed to help conduct oral histories to capture the reactions of those who were directly involved via the contaminated water. Later, she became involved in the effort to create a book about the chemical spill and ensuing water crisis. In this way, she hopes that the dialogue about such disasters joins with the thousands of other stories to create a psychic load so heavy it spurs movement toward education and prevention through clearer thinking and sharpened awareness.

At-A-Glance Bios- Participant #3

Cat Pleska is a native West Virginian, a writer, educator, and occasional essayist on West Virginia Public Radio. She currently teaches in the Marshall Humanities program and at Arizona State University’s Master of Liberal Studies program. Her book, Riding on Comets: a Memoir, was published in 2015 by West Virginia University Press.

Presentation #4 Abstract

Laura will reflect upon blending the traditional public radio ethic with collaborative ethnography. The intimacy that podcasting has reintroduced to public radio, along with emerging media platforms in digital spaces provide new opportunities - and tensions - when making this kind of work. What kinds of hybrids are possible? How do we respect our partners/subjects as these projects emerge and traditional disciplinary boundaries blur?

At-A-Glance Bios- Participant #4

Laura Harbert Allen has taught 8 year-olds to make dulcimers, graduate students to make radio, and pastors to use social media. She loves making stories, primarily with audio, but writing, photography and emerging media platforms also fascinate her. Laura spent 15 years in public radio - as a host and producer, program director, and general manager. She spent 7 years as director of communications for the West Virginia United Methodist Conference. She works now as an independent producer and strategic media consultant. Her work has been featured on Inside Appalachia, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and WEKU in Richmond, KY. Current projects include a collaborative documentary project with Marshall University on the Elk River Chemical Spill of 2014. Her short audio documentary about the water crisis aired in August 2015 on Making Contact, a Los Angeles based program that airs on public radio stations in the U.S. and on radio stations in Europe and Australia. Laura will finish her certificate in documentary studies at Duke University in May.

Start Date
4-8-2016 3:30 PM
End Date
4-8-2016 5:00 PM
Citation Information
Brian A Hoey, Luke Eric Lassiter, Cat Pleska and Laura Harbert Allen. "Betwixt and Between: Experiencing (Ongoing) Crises of Contaminated Water in West Virginia" (2016)
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