Lessons of Kepone

Some 45 years later, the people who struggled with a chemical crisis in Virginia are sharing their wisdom with France.

They’re bound together by poison, across continents and through decades. Workers got sick, food was contaminated and great bodies of water were polluted. Politicians, health officials and environmentalists struggled for answers. Headlines were generated, lawsuits were filed.

Lessons were learned, too. A tiny factory was eradicated, for the most part, into a vacant lot of land across from a gas station in Hopewell. Workers at Life Sciences Products Co. made and shipped the insecticide Kepone, created to kill fire ants, for Allied Chemical in the mid-’70s.

But when Dr. Yi-Nan Chou couldn’t figure out one of his patients’ symptoms, he had the man’s blood tested at the Centers for Disease Control. That’s when things took a turn. Safety precautions hadn’t been fully followed, and some of the waste had been dumped into the river. Gov. Mills Godwin shut down a portion of the James to fishing for several years. “60 Minutes” came calling. Scientists still study Kepone, and a professor at the University of Akron, Greg Wilson, is working on a definitive book to be published next year.

For most people, it’s a distant memory. But in the French West Indies, it’s a crisis anew. The chemical may have been banned in the United States, but it was used on banana trees until 1993. It’s present in the bodies of workers, the waters and the soil.

In search of answers, French television producers hired Belgian documentary filmmaker Bernard Crutzen. He visited Virginia for a week in late June to learn more, and I followed along as a field producer, helping with interviews and driving hundreds of miles.

Using research and direction from Richard Foster, who wrote about Kepone for Richmond magazine and now serves as editor of Virginia Business, we interviewed former plant workers, Dr. Chou, Wilson, professor Michael A. Unger, of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, former secretary of health and human resources for Virginia, Otis Brown, Michael Bishop of the bands Gwar and Kepone, and Janice Denton, a former secretary at the Kepone factory who’s now a realtor and a Hopewell city councilwoman.

The documentary is scheduled to air in November. And last week, a member of the French National Assembly, Serge Letchimy — who’s leading the official inquiry on Kepone for the French Parliament — told Crutzen he wants to bring a team to Virginia to see more.

Roop: We just wrapped four days of interviews. So let’s go back to the beginning. What brought you to Virginia with this project?

Crutzen: So there is a big crisis now in France in the French West Indies, which is Guadeloupe and Martinique — two French islands in the Caribbean where they used Kepone for 30 years, [about 1963 to 1993]. They used it against a beetle that [harms] the banana trees.

I’m a Belgian filmmaker but I work a lot for French television. And France wanted me to investigate about this and I found out that the Kepone that is used in France was first made here in Hopewell, Virginia. So I decided to come and see where this chemical monster, as some put it, was born in America.

It took place in 1975-’76. So I found an article that was telling about the flour factory and I wanted to know more. Flour is of course for the powder, white powder, which is Kepone. So I contacted the writer, Richard Foster, and asked him if he could help me with this filming. So he prepared everything. And I should mention you.

I had asked for two or three characters, but at the end we ended up filming eight people here because the story is so dense and I find it very, very interesting, because you have people on the authority side working for the governor. You have people on the health side, you have the former workers, you have a lady who worked for the staff, for the managers of the company. We have a scientist dealing with Kepone now. We have the whole spectrum of people involved in the crisis.

I’m here because the French people will be very interested to know how the city of Hopewell and the state of Virginia coped with the Kepone crisis, what they did to stop that crisis, to stop the pollution, to take care of the workers, to go to court to see who was responsible for the whole thing because those questions are now really in France: What do we have to do with the workers who are sick from Kepone? Who’s responsible? Is this thing going to go to court?

I mean the same questions are raised but on a different scale, because in France we’re talking about 800,000 people, 92 percent of whom have Kepone in their blood.

So for instance, there is no way France will give compensation for everybody. So now they’re thinking of giving compensation to the workers who actually did the agricultural work, who actually had the products in their hands, not the families and the older people who got contaminated.

You mentioned that President Emmanuel Macron was aware and involved in this. Help people here understand the level of awareness about this crisis in France.

Well, strangely enough, it’s stayed kind of like an island thing. You know France has about 12 islands where it’s France, but it’s France overseas — and sometimes very far from Paris. So during 20 years, it stayed an island thing, you know, overseas things. But now the people in Guadeloupe and Martinique brought media attention to this crisis and so President Macron had to react to the demand of the people to be taken care of.

So in 2018, he organized a big symposium with all scientists from all over the world. People came from Canada, from all different countries to talk about Kepone. Following that, one of the doctors said, “We now have evidence that Kepone is causing cancer of the prostate, which Martinique has the highest rate in the world.” And the scientists believed that it’s linked to Kepone, which is an endocrine disruptor.

This is one of the main topics that’s on the news because well, having a world record of prostate cancer for this little island is very strange. … But President Macron, because he didn’t want to pay compensation to everyone, said: “Well, we still have to prove the direct link. It’s linked but maybe not causes, so it’s an expert thing now.”

Was anyone from Hopewell or the United States involved in the symposium?

I don’t think anybody came straight from Virginia, but the Hopewell case was cited all over. During the four days of the symposium, everybody referred to what happened to the workers in Hopewell, to the scientists in Hopewell who did this and that.

So they’re still studying the issue?

Well, I first have to mention that the Kepone molecule is very persistent. It will stay there for 500 to 700 years. That’s what the scientists have calculated … because the soil of Martinique and Guadeloupe is volcanic and it keeps the Kepone in the soil.

Some of it though, through the water, through the rain, went to the rivers, polluted the rivers and polluted the sea also. So we have a fishing issue where 30 percent of the coast of Martinique and Guadeloupe cannot be fished, 30 percent of the agricultural soil — you cannot put vegetables in it because the vegetables take the Kepone out of the ground and it’s taken to the vegetable.

So the main thing that the government did is to tell people, don’t grow vegetables in the ground such as potatoes, manioc and cassava and all the types of things they used to eat. This is already an issue because the Martinique and Guadeloupe people say, “You are telling us not to eat our food because you want us to eat the food you import from France.” So that’s already a political aspect of it.

You should know that this is also a racial issue because all of the workers working in the banana fields were black. Their ancestors were slaves brought from Africa to the islands for sugar cane plantations and so on, a bit like South of America I guess. And all the people who own the lands are white people descending from the colonialist people. So that means that on this scientific and human health problem there is also a political thing with racial. … It’s complicated.

Economic, political, cultural and racial.

Yeah. Everything. Like for instance in France, there are four departments — the Health, Environment, Agriculture and Overseas Territories. There are four people who have had management of taking care of this crisis. So it’s not just one person.

What is the mission of your documentary?

I was interested to see how Hopewell coped with that crisis. So I want to bring that to the French viewer to see that there are solutions. I want to give them a message of hope also because when the crisis took place in Hopewell, some workers were told they would die very quickly from all kinds of cancers and diseases. The 150 people who were involved in that company were at risk, and I heard here that many of them didn’t have any symptoms and few of them really got sick from Kepone, so it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. So this is something I want to bring back to France.

Next thing is about the environment. People say, “We cannot do anything anymore with our island because it’s polluted.” But we know from the scientists that I met here that … nature takes over. [In Virginia, environmentalists determined that dredging the river for Kepone would be more harmful than letting time take its course, naturally buring Kepone into the bottom of the river.] It needs time because here it is more than 40 years later. So maybe the French will need a few decades to get rid of Kepone.

I know you haven’t had a lot of time to reflect on the interviews we did, but what are some of the most fascinating, surprising things you learned from them?

Well, the first thing I learned is that American people love the camera. They are very comfortable with television, with speaking to the media. Whereas in France, in this French island, I had a lot of trouble having people talking about it. They are shy. They afraid of being on TV because their neighbors might think they want to be proud or something. And it was a nice relief for me to see that everybody here was willing to give testimony about this thing.


The second is well, I think the situation maybe was made worse by the media telling terrible stories, Dan Rather [with “60 Minutes”] coming down here. … I read some articles saying how he did put some of his interviewers in trouble. Every time somebody would bring some more nuanced, balanced feelings he would cut them away from the editing, only keeping the sensational part of it. I think that’s not a good service for the people. … You know, you could get sick just before people tell you you are sick. I mean it just worsened the situation instead of giving them hope and encouragement that they will get better.

I’m surprised it’s still in a lot of people’s minds. Maybe not the young generation but when you talk to somebody like Michael Bishop who’s in the culture, he’s in a rock band [Gwar, and started the band Kepone] and he’s still remembering the Kepone crisis.

We also talked to some former plant workers, one of whom was there when he was 18 or 19. What struck you about what they had to say?

Well, they were very young and one of them said the usual pay at that time was $3.50 per hour and they offered $8 or $9, I don’t remember. So of course they would rush to that factory to work. I mean, those days you’d just … well, it’s still true today. You would do almost anything if you get well-paid. So that thing we have to keep in mind is all this is not about a pesticide, it’s about people making money with the pesticide and they didn’t want to stop. They knew it was a toxic product. They knew it was dangerous, but didn’t want to stop making things because they were making money with this.


In most of my documentaries — one about malaria, it’s called “Malaria Business” — it’s the same thing. There are people who are very cynical about the health of [others]. They don’t care. They just care about how much money they would make.

It hit me that 45 years later you could still tell that they had anger. One of them seemed to talk about dealing with that, having to deal with it to move on with his life and not feel bitter. The other person seemed to be having maybe some more issues with it.

Yeah, well, it’s sound philosophy. I mean this guy, you can tell that he probably could have been a hippy sometime in his life … because the way he reacts is, “Well, it was a bad time, but I got over that because if I kept being angry and suing people and so on, I would still be with it.” Now he decided to get over it and enjoy what life has to give him, even though he was very sick at the time.

The other lesson we heard is from former secretary of human resources Otis Brown — how the state reacted fairly swiftly to shut things down. He said they might have overreacted, but they tried to be on the safe side of things.

Yeah, I liked the way he said, “Maybe we overreact, but it’s better to overreact than to do less or not enough.” I think the lesson the French should learn is, maybe it’s better to go too far in searching for solutions than letting people doubt about the real willingness of the state to take this crisis in hand. I mean, the feeling they have over there is: “We’re black. They don’t care about us because if that would have happened in France, of course the situation would be very much different. But because we’re far away from them, because we are black people, they don’t care about us.” I think that’s because the state didn’t react fast enough when the crisis was known in 1999 because Kepone was used until 1993, but it’s only in 1999 that they discovered that the water was polluted and people had drunk that water for 30 years.


What are your next steps?

Well, my next assignment when I go back is to find out where Kepone went after it was banned in the U.S. So I’ve learned that the stock went to Germany in a salt mine. It’s buried somewhere. So yesterday night, I wrote to Germany and said, “I want to visit that salt mine and I want to see the Kepone bags being buried there.”

Then I have to investigate also in France particular people, former deputies and so on. So that would take me another three weeks. Then I will start editing in mid-August until the end of September, so for six week … Then you have the technical part, which is color correction, audio mixing, finding the music, which take another two weeks.

So it’d be ready by November I think.

Did you know anything about Kepone before you started this project?

No. When the French TV ask me to work on this project and said, “You have to do something about chlordecone,” I said, “What’s chlordecone?” I didn’t know anything about it.

And now you made a molecule of it. You know it very well.

Yeah, I think. Yeah. I’ve read a lot because when you do documentary like this, the first part is preparation. I’ve read so many pages about this in every language that I could because scientists from America and also in Europe, a lot of people have studied this and there were a lot of books, even novels about this crisis. Now there is a cartoon being made by a lady about this crisis. I’m pretty sure one day there will be a feature movie with Kepone.

Maybe you can direct?

I don’t direct the actors. Real people are good enough.


This interview has been lightly edited to account for language differences. Additional reporting by Richard Foster, whose company, True South Media LLC, also produced the “Southern Nightmare” podcast. Former Style Weekly editor Jason Roop, founder of Springstory, served as field producer on the Virginia portions of the Kepone documentary through True South Media.


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