The town that would not die

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Eight years ago, this postage stamp town, tucked away in the Appalachians, was supposed to die. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered Saltville's main employer, the Olin Mathieson Corp., to clean up its act by halting the seepage of tons of mercury into the nearby Holston River -- or get out.

Olin got out.

At first it looked like just another Appalachian death-of-a-town story: polluting industry rapes, ruins, and runs from the land when the damage is done. Jobless townfolk trudge to the industrial cities of the North. Bluegrass composers write sorrowful songs to a ghost town crumbling in the shadow of the mountain.

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But there'll be no sad songs for Saltville. Almost all of its 2,300 citizens refused to budge from their isolated Rich Valley in southwest Virginia. After a few months of panic, when stores offered 50 percent discounts for purchases paid in cash and the men lined up for unemployment checks, Saltville learned to play the federal and state loan and grant game. And it benefited from the then recently passed environmental laws that obliged Olin to clean up the deadly mercury already in the river and near the plant site.

When Olin first announced it was leaving, Saltville felt orphaned. Since 1984, when the Mathieson Alkali Works built its first soda ash plant of what would become a major national chemical industry on the banks of the Holston, the company and the town had been synonymous.

Mathieson built and owned the churches, the schools, the water works, the bank, and the hospital. On the ridges at both ends of Main Street, Olin built white frame houses that the workers rented at nominal rates -- $10 a month in the 1960s. Mathieson, and later Olin Mathieson, employed virtually every man and like a grand patriarch, did everything for the residents except mend screens and screw in new light bulbs.

During the Depression the plant stayed open. The loyalty to Olin was such that when new factories opened a few miles away in Chilhowie and Rural Retreat, the workers refused to leave the company.

When the EPA chemists found Olin in violation of new water pollution standards in the late '60s, the company assured the workers they would have a two-year period to get new jobs and gradually get used to independence.

But 10 months later, Olin suddenly announced it was pulling out, and threw the town into a state of shock, to the point that many of the workers became ill. "When the company announced it was moving out, we didn't believe it, not even when they took the machinery out in boxes," said Dorothy Gillenwater, a town council member whose husband had worked for the company from the age of 12, as had his father, and grandfather.

The national press swooped into Saltville. Life magazine posed Dorothy Gillenwater and the rest of the town council on a hilltop with the town cemetery in the background, predicting the death of the town.

"They said we were dead," recalls Gillenwater. "They wouldn't 've said that if they knew us."

Food stamps (still widely used) and unemployment checks to got people over the first traumatic months. Rather than relocate with the company in plants in other states, most men accepted lower paying jobs in coal fields across the mountains or with small industries attracted to Virginia for its workers' distrust of unions and its open shop labor policy.

The women, most of whom had never given a thought to working outside the home , took jobs in hosiery and clothing factories to make up the difference in their husbands' paycheck.

"I seen women going to work you never would'a thought would work," says Dorothy Roberts, who took a job sewing collars and working a hot head press in a shirt factory for $1.80 an hour and now works a night shift sewing toe seams on knee-high hosiery.

After long weeks of negotiations, Saltville wrested from Olin 3,708 acres of land, the company's plant, many of the community buildings built by the company, and a cash settlement of $600,000 to make up for the loss in taxes from the company.

The town sold off some of the land to new industries it attracted and turned the cash into investments that give it all but $32,000 of its nearly one half million dollar budget. Saltville now has a half dozen small manufacturing firms which make everything from coal mining machinery to sweaters.

"We got more industry comin' in here than you can shake a stick at," boasts Frank B. Perry, former mayor and self-appointed local historian.

On advice from the Tennessee Valley Authority (the Holston waters flow into TVA reservoirs), Saltville got grants to raze the old Olin plant. It got money to build apartment units from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). It got funds to upgrade the railroad from the Virginia Economic Development Authority (EDA). And Saltville now has an application pending for more housing money from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

As Mayor Frank "T-bone" Lewis puts it, Saltville has done "right well" for itself.

"Sometimes you ask and you get. Sometimes you ask and you don't get. We asked and we got," explained Mr. Lewis, a former athletic coach who works as a guidance counselor at R.B. Worthy High School.

Saltville takes its name from the vast deposits of underground salt and saline springs, which drew prehistoric animals there 15,000 years ago.

During the Civil War, or the War Between the States, as it is still called here, North and South fought over Saltville for possession of the South's salt supply.

Early salt producers dug shafts 200 feet deep to mine the salt. But when water seeped into the shafts, they were forced to pump the salt water brine and boil it down in large kettles to recover the salt. Saltville still has some of the original kettles on display at its "Salt Park," one of the old mine sites the town had hoped to turn into a "major tourist attraction of the south."

The park never drew big crowds of tourists, but its Salt Kettle Theater, where local high school students performed "Little Nell," and a musical comedy called "there's Money in Hawgs," lifted sagging spirits in the early '70s.

"We went to two performances on Saturday. There was nothing else to do, and it was good to be together," says Dorothy Roberts. "We could've gone to Lake Charles [Louisiana] with the company, but we didn't want to move. There's no better place to live anywhere."

Today, eight years later, the why's and how's of the Olin pullout are still a subject of debate.

At the OK Barbershop on Main Street, the men suspect Olin used the EPA's ultimatum to clean up or leave as an excuse to abandon an obsolete plant where production was falling and where labor was becoming more militant. (In 1967, the United Mine Workers struck the plant for seven weeks, a strike which left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth.) "If the EPA ordered them out, Olin could write off a good deal of the losses and settlement," contends Milton Smith, the barber.

Charles C. Norris, Olin's Representative in Saltville, insists that state and federal water pollution standards of the '60s made it unprofitable to operate the plant.

"Twenty-five years ago, everything was lovely. In the late '60s and early ' 70s, they [the federal government] started slapping our hands," says Norris at one of the tables at the town's only restaurant, the Salina. Norris insists that the company was motivated to give the town the cash settlement, land, and plant out of a sense of responsibility and generosity.

"Olin felt obliged to take care of the people. . . . We passed $1 million long ago cleaning up," says Mr. Norris, referring to the work the company had done to keep mercury deposits under the old plant site from seeping into the river.

But officials at the EPA's Toxic Substances and Hazardous Materials Department are less convinced of Olin's sense of duty.

"They were dragging their feet just issuing report after report until we set up a watchdog task force," says Gary Gardner, Deputy Director of the EPA's Regional Office in Philadelphia.

However much disagreement there is about the past, there is little argument that Saltville is better off now than it ever has been.

Business at Goodman's Jewelry and Musical Instruments Shop is running well ahead of inflation, reports Roy Cullop, the owner.

Tom Schlegel, an ex-back-to-the-lander from Chicago, has come down from his mountain home to open a stereo and television outlet and says he is doing a good business on his most expensive turntables.

There are now two drug stores instead of one, not an empty house to rent, and the land is being cleared for a 29-house subdivision on the edge of town.

"If they sell well, we'll go for another 150 houses," says Mayor Lewis.

Saltville's worries are not over yet. Although the pollution in the river has lessened, and fishing for the redhorse, the turtle, and the basis is allowed again, eating the catch is still prohibited until the company completes its cleanup, hopefully next year.

On the slope at the far end of town, the 140 acres of muck ponds where Olin dumped its chemical waste and which caused a landslide that killed 19 people Christmas Eve, 1926, has yet to be cleaned up.

But most officials are sure the company will comply with state and federal regulations.

"It'll cost about $1 million, and I'm sure they'll do it. If they don't, we'd undoubtedly take them to court," said Larry Owens, Regional Director of the State Water Control Board in Abington. "The law's on our side now, and the company knows it."

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