I'm Afraid of That Water
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I'm Afraid of That Water

A Collaborative Ethnography of a West Virginia Water Crisis

West Virginia University Press
On January 9, 2014, residents across Charleston, West Virginia, awoke to an unusual licorice smell in the air and a similar taste in the public drinking water. That evening residents were informed the tap water in tens of thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses, and dozens of schools and hospitals—the water made available to as many as 300,000 citizens in a nine-county region—had been contaminated with a chemical used for cleaning crushed coal.
This book tells a particular set of stories about that chemical spill and its aftermath, an unfolding water crisis that would lead to months, even years, of fear and distrust. It is both oral history and collaborative ethnography, jointly conceptualized, researched, and written by people—more than fifty in all—across various positions in academia and local communities. I’m Afraid of That Water foregrounds the ongoing concerns of West Virginians (and people in comparable situations in places like Flint, Michigan) confronted by the problem of contamination, where thresholds for official safety may be crossed, but a genuine return to normality is elusive.
A great example of a multiauthored and intersubjective ethnography of toxic suffering, this book is a model for future disaster ethnographies.’
Peter Little, Rhode Island College
A unique, moving, and highly readable account of community reactions to a technological disaster. Authors weave together powerful and highly personal narratives that reveal the tensions of coping with ongoing environmental uncertainty. With a novel, collaborative approach, they make meaningful connections between the experiences of local residents and the systems and institutions that produce and perpetuate disasters and their aftermaths. Readers of all stripes will find it as enlightening as it is poignant.’
Melissa Checker, coeditor of Sustainability in the Global City: Myth and Practice
In a perfect world, I'm Afraid of That Water would be required reading.’
​​​​​​​Journal of Appalachian Studies
Luke Eric Lassiter is a professor of humanities and anthropology and director of the graduate humanities program at Marshall University. He is the author of Invitation to Anthropology, The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, and, with Elizabeth Campbell, Doing Ethnography Today.
Brian A. Hoey is a professor of anthropology and associate dean of the honors college at Marshall University and author of Opting for Elsewhere.
Elizabeth Campbell is chair of the department of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University. She is the coeditor of Re-imagining Contested Communities and coauthor of Doing Ethnography Today.
Chapter 1
The Elk River Spill: On Water and Trust
Luke Eric Lassiter
“I’m afraid of that water. I’ve never had anything that’s happened in this chemical valley affect me the way this has affected me.”[i]
It was late September 2016, and Sue Davis, a local activist in the Kanawha Valley—the region in and around Charleston, West Virginia—was addressing the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), which was meeting in downtown Charleston. The CSB had just released their long-awaited investigation report of a chemical spill that, more than two and a half years earlier, had contaminated our drinking water here.[ii] During a public comment period, Davis delivered her thoughts in a defiant tone, making many in attendance visibly uncomfortable. Many looked down as she talked, as if embarrassed. But her words also resonated with many others in the room who seemed to share her anger; they nodded their heads in approval as she spoke. Indeed, as others would make clear that evening, the memory of the event was still fresh in many people’s minds, including mine. A resident of Charleston then, I also remembered the event well.
On January 9, 2014, residents across Charleston awoke to an unusual licorice smell in the air and a similar taste in the public drinking water. Though some would later say they had noticed the smell many days prior, on the evening of January 9, residents were informed that the tap water in tens of thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses, and dozens of schools and hospitals—the water made available to as many as three hundred thousand citizens in a nine-county region—had been contaminated with MCHM (4-methylcyclohexanemethanol), a chemical used for cleaning crushed coal.[iii] State officials traced the contamination’s source to an aboveground storage tank owned by Freedom Industries, which eventually leaked an approximated ten thousand gallons of the chemical into the Elk River, just one and a half miles upstream from the intake of West Virginia American’s water treatment plant in Charleston. The spill (or, perhaps more appropriately, “release”) rapidly overwhelmed the plant’s filtration purification system. By day’s end on January 9, West Virginia American Water had issued a “do not use” water order—a ban restricting the use of water to toilet flushing and firefighting that remained in effect for as many as nine days in parts of the plant’s service area—and the governor had declared a state of emergency. By the next day, President Barack Obama had declared the nine counties a federal disaster area. An article in the April 2014 issue of the New Yorker described the event as “one of the most serious incidents of chemical contamination of drinking water in American history.”[iv] The Chemical Safety Board’s investigation report echoed this point by noting how the event highlighted a broader and critical necessity to assess similar risks across the country.[v]
As both the New Yorker article and the CSB report make clear, however, the event was far from over after the “do not use” order lifted. Detectable traces of MCHM remained in the water supply for weeks after the spill, as state and federal health officials struggled with (and dodged) definitions of just what could be called “safe” when describing the public drinking water—in large part because of the lack of toxicological data for MCHM. For example, a full three months into the crisis, Dr. Rahul Gupta, then head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, reported that he and his family still were not drinking from their home’s water taps. Too much about MCHM was unknown, he said.[vi] A survey conducted at the time, in April 2014, confirmed that, like Gupta, most people did not trust their water: only 36 percent of residents reported they were using their tap water for drinking.[vii] For months after that, the local newspaper continued to report on residents who harbored reservations about their tap water.[viii] And long after the water crisis was declared over, many residents continued to question their water’s safety.[ix] To be sure, at the time of the CSB report, Sue Davis wasn’t the only one who still had serious concerns.
In his book Disaster Culture, Gregory Button argues that the media, government agencies, and others commonly single out disasters, be they “natural” or “unnatural,” as isolated or unique occurrences. While such descriptions can often have the effect of bringing immediate attention to an event (such as when a disaster is described as the “worst of its kind”), and while they may underline the need to generalize lessons learned (as in the CSB report), they can also have the perhaps unintended effect of making a disaster seem outside the realm of what is normal. In actuality, argues Button, events like the Elk River spill—such as the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, that began in 2014—are increasingly common and not in any way unusual. Importantly, the lingering everyday uncertainty—in our institutions or in our government or in basic services, like having clean drinking water—that these disasters can leave us with can have lasting impacts far beyond any given disaster or incident itself.[x] The uncertainty associated with disaster is also fast becoming endemic in modern society.
Button’s meaning of “uncertainty,” I should make clear, involves much more than how any given disaster may leave in its wake a sense of doubt about institutions or basic services; it includes a broad range of “discursive practices” involving complex constellations of suspicion, ambiguity, misgivings, and distrust “shaped by political, economic, bureaucratic, ideological, and cultural concerns” that get tied up in disasters as they emerge as sociohistorical, cultural, and political events. Button illustrates, for example, how corporations and public agencies often mobilize uncertainty to deflect blame or downplay a disaster’s impact, such as when they use the “inconclusiveness” of scientific studies to “retard liability or protect polluters from government regulation or cast blame and responsibility on others.”[xi] The production of that uncertainty (in carefully orchestrated public relations campaigns, such as in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill) often masks the underlying structural problems of so-called manmade disasters, in particular—structural problems that are often either ignored or glossed over by the media and by the governmental agencies meant to protect us from such catastrophes in the first place.[xii]
Part of that glossing over is a topic we will return to often in this book (in chapter 2, for instance): namely, the on-the-ground experience of the spill’s effects that would come to inform persistent uncertainties about safe water that still surface in conversations here in the Kanawha Valley in and around Charleston. Why do people continue to have concerns about the safety of their water, even years after the spill? What experiences inform this uncertainty, and how are they relevant to understanding the lasting impacts of this disaster—to Charleston and the Kanawha Valley, to the state and nation, and beyond? How can we understand such concerns as a critical part of this disaster’s analysis, rather than as marginal or insignificant?
In sum, what if we take Sue Davis’s comments—and the direct experience that informs her sentiment—seriously? Button points out that in many analyses of disasters small or large, “uncertainty is too often relegated to the realm of the irrational. At times it is dismissed by analysts, policy makers, and politicians as some kind of free-floating anxiety whose pursuit is fruitless and threatens to undermine rational discourse.”[xiii] Currently, comments like Davis’s are considered by many in the Kanawha Valley to be reasonable and well within the norm when conversation turns to infrastructure, particularly to public drinking water. Conversations about this uncertainty have spilled over into larger “discursive practices” between and among the local privately owned water company, government agencies, local and state government representatives and their constituencies, activists, and citizens’ groups—all of whom are now pushing in various directions for control of water and how water should be viewed and understood (as safe or unsafe), owned and regulated ( privately or publicly), or consumed and disbursed (as a basic right or a privilege).
But I’m getting way ahead of myself here. Before we explore this problem in more depth in this and the following chapters, I need to first take a moment to sketch the history behind this event, elaborate how it unfolded into a water crisis, and explain how all of us involved in this book project came to do oral history and collaborative ethnography.
Making Soup and Its Aftermath: A Brief Overview of The Elk River Spill
As I pointed out earlier, I remember the day of the spill quite well.[xiv] On the morning of January 9, I noticed a licorice-like smell in the air around 7:30 a.m. when, as I did each morning, I opened the back door to let out our outside cat, Uncle Henry. I remember, vividly actually, stepping out the door and into the yard to get a better whiff of what I thought at the time was one of the oddest aromas that I had ever encountered while living in Charleston the past nine years. It was quite unlike others I had inhaled in the night or morning air. My wife, Beth Campbell—who, like me, also at the time worked at Marshall University—noticed the smell, too, when she stepped outside to retrieve the morning paper. We conferred on the smell over coffee that morning, comparing it to those we’d experienced before—rotten eggs, fish, burning rubber, bleach, musty garlic. We came to the eventual conclusion that this smell was a new one.
Clearly, it’s not unusual to catch a strange smell from time to time here, especially at night, when these traces seem to materialize most often. Many simply chalk it up to part of what it means to live in Charleston and the Kanawha Valley, a place folks here often call “Chemical Valley.” How the Kanawha Valley became a chemical valley—eventually hosting various chemical manufacturers from Bayer to DuPont to Union Carbide to Dow—is a long and complicated story beyond the scope of this relatively brief introduction. Suffice it say, though, that historians often trace the development of Charleston’s chemical industry to the growth of salt production in and around Charleston in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before the American Civil War, salt production became heavily dependent on industrial-based slavery; by the end of the war (during which Lincoln famously admitted West Virginia to the Union as a new state in 1863), industrial salt production in the Kanawha Valley, absent that slave labor, declined dramatically. The First and Second World Wars, however, brought a new demand for products incorporating chemical building blocks found in abundance in the Kanawha Valley, such as chlorine found in salt, together with other feedstocks like coal, oil, and natural gas. Diverse manufacturers fixed their sights on the Kanawha Valley again, and by the mid-twentieth century, the city of Charleston and surrounding area had emerged as a major hub for some of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers. Though that growth was relatively short-lived—the Charleston-based chemical industry began a slow decline in the second-half of the twentieth century (many manufacturers, for instance, relocated to the Gulf Coast where natural gas and oil-derived feedstocks were more abundant and affordable)—today it still remains a vital part of the local economy.[xv] More than a few students in the graduate program I direct have been associated with the industry in one way or another. And as we will see, a chemical engineer—married to one of our graduates—inspired the research behind this book.
In any case, I was rather disconcerted by the morning’s air quality, but admittedly, I had all but forgotten it by the time I left for the office. That evening, Beth and I were both a bit late in coming home from the Marshall University Graduate College campus in South Charleston. We had been absorbed in various faculty and student meetings most of the day—it was the week before the beginning of spring semester classes—and had heard nothing about the emerging crisis. We arrived home and headed straight for the kitchen without turning on a radio or television and decided to make a soup, a butternut squash soup to be precise. Some time later, we had just finished a second bowl each of what we decided must be one of the best soups we had ever made: sweeter, richer, more complex. And then the phone rang. We don’t usually answer the phone during dinner, so we let the answering machine pick up. As we finished the last of our soup, we listened while an automated recording announced the “do not use” advisory, that West Virginia American Water customers should not drink, cook with, bathe, or wash with their tap water. One of our neighbors called next, curious to know if we had heard the news (dinner abruptly over, we answered that call). We turned on the television and learned of the day’s extraordinary events.
Local citizens, closer to the spill site, were the first to respond that morning of the ninth, several calling 911 and reporting the strange licorice-like odor to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). In the late morning around 11:00 a.m., WVDEP personnel arrived on the site of the aboveground storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries, where they discovered a “fountain-like flow” of what they were told was MCHM leaking from tank 396 into the Elk River. The Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River, is the sole source of potable water for most residents living here and in surrounding communities. It sources the Kanawha Valley Treatment Plant, privately owned by West Virginia American Water (WVAW) and regulated by the state’s Public Service Commission. Subsequent investigations confirmed that WVAW had known chemicals were stored in aboveground storage tanks one and a half miles upstream from their raw water intake for more than ten years but had not inquired as to their contents, and so had not developed ways to detect their presence in the river or in their water treatment system. By early afternoon, WVAW employees had started to notice a strange odor inside the treatment plant. Based on what they were told at the time WVAW attempted to remove the water’s licorice-like odor and taste but were unsuccessful, as the agent overwhelmed their treatment process by the late afternoon. Their information was incomplete, however: for twelve days, for example, Freedom did not tell WVDEP or WVAW that their mixture of crude MCHM also contained other chemicals. In communication with the governor’s office, WVAW officials decided not to close the treatment plant’s water intake (per the impact that would have on sanitation and fire protection) and issued a “do not use” order at 6 p.m. By late evening the governor had also issued a state of emergency and encouraged citizens to use the water only to flush toilets and put out fires.[xvi] “Do not drink it,” he said at a press conference. “Do not cook with it. Do not wash clothes in it. Do not take a bath in it.”[xvii] I went to the kitchen and ran the water. I put my nose near the tap: the origin of the licorice-like odor I had detected in the morning air was clearly in the water itself, and in its source, the Elk River. And for the first time, I also noticed that the water seemed to have a darker tinge than normal, albeit very slight, and a somewhat slick feel. Just an hour or so earlier, going about our routine dinner preparation and evening conversation, Beth and I hadn’t noticed any of these characteristics, including the odor when we made our soup.
Others throughout the valley would report similar experiences. “You could say I was probably the later bloomer when it came to finding out about the water crisis,” local physician Shelda Martin, would report. “I had worked all day. I came into the hospital early that morning and had worked all day until about 5:00 p.m. in the evening. I hadn’t eaten, hadn’t taken a break to go to the restroom, was walking across the hospital to get to my office, and I realized I was dying of thirst. So I stopped at the nurses’ station on 3-South at [the Charleston Area Medical Center] Memorial Hospital to get a drink of water. I got a drink of ice water from the patient’s ice machine and noticed it was a yellow brown color.
“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s probably just some particulate matter, right?’ I drank it because I hadn’t drank anything all day, and I’m like, ‘man, this is the nastiest tasting stuff I’ve ever smelled!’ I said, ‘Who is your charge nurse?’ I asked the nurses at the station, because I said, ‘you need to call maintenance up here and get the ice machine and the water machine fixed—something’s wrong.’ And they said, ‘oh, okay.’ They didn’t know about the water problem either. So . . . I walked over to my office . . . and I was working in my office. It’s now like 6:30, quarter to seven, and one of the girls in student services came out in the hallway and said, ‘Dr. Martin, I smell something burning in the building.’ She and I walked the whole third floor and second floor looking for it. The smell was like a melted vanilla candle that somebody was burning, an electric candle. I can’t describe the smell, but we knew something was wrong. We couldn’t find it, and we called security. They came up to the third floor of our building and said, ‘you ladies need to leave the building, there’s a water crisis and we’ve had to shut the building down.’ And so, it’s what, 7:00 at night, and apparently this had been going on all day, and I had no idea!”[xviii]
The “do not use” order affected a nine-county region, which included homes, schools, hospitals, restaurants, and even the Charleston’s State Capitol Complex (where the legislature had just begun its 2014 regular session the previous day).[xix] At first, panic set in, with thousands of people clearing out bottled water supplies in convenience, department, and grocery stores throughout the affected region. Beth and I, for example, decided to search for bottled water soon after 8 p.m. We drove through several nearby towns and cities and then further and further out; it wasn’t until late in the evening that we found water in a grocery store outside the affected region about sixty miles from our home—and even then, we found only soda water on the shelves. (We bought about two dozen liters, which we used for drinking, cooking, and bathing for several days.)[xx] By the next morning, thousands of gallons of clean water—in water buffalos (a type of water tank) and as commercially bottled water provided to residents at no cost—began arriving at water distributions centers throughout Charleston and the surrounding counties. We had seen some of those trucks driving along Interstate 64 during our hunt for water that evening, a sight we found simultaneously comforting and eerie. That seemed to ease the alarm that many understandably felt, though the water distribution was not without tension, as some people’s patience wore thin or tempers flared. For the most part, water distribution—managed by various state agencies, the West Virginia National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others—seemed, at first, to be well organized and executed (though many eventually pointed to notable exceptions in some areas of high-density residency and low average incomes [see, e.g., chapter 9]).[xxi] This relatively swift distribution of potable water was fortunate, given that the State of West Virginia admitted that it had no emergency plans in place for a chemical spill of this type.[xxii] Kanawha County “emergency officials, who are charged by law with chemical accident planning,” the local newspaper reported, “didn’t act to prepare for this type of incident, even though they had been warned for years about storage of toxic chemicals so close to the only water treatment intake serving hundreds of thousands of people.”[xxiii]
The spill itself was just the beginning of the crisis. Very little was known about MCHM at the time of the spill, especially its potential health risks.[xxiv] And as the chemical now contaminated the entire water system, state officials and emergency responders struggled to deal with the emergency “on the spot,” as it were. A growing number of people began to report various physical symptoms such as nausea, rashes, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.[xxv] Based on physician reports and community surveys, some officials estimated that, by the water ban’s end, more than one hundred thousand people had suffered some sort of physical ailment.[xxvi] Many more are expected to have not reported their symptoms and thus were not included in these numbers, of course. Beth was among these. After returning home from our search for clean water, she started experiencing abdominal pain that, as she described it, “felt like needles in my small intestines.” She assumed the symptoms were related to stress, but by the next morning, her symptoms expanded to include nausea and diarrhea.
Beyond the spill’s effect on community health, its economic impact was also acutely felt in Charleston and the surrounding region. One preliminary report estimated that the spill cost businesses $61 million in the first four days after it occurred and at least $19 million each business day over the course of the entire water ban—though, as noted by the report, these conservative estimates did not include ripple effects such as costs for cleanup or emergency response. Of the estimated seventy-five thousand affected workers, among the hardest hit were “the lower-wage, service-producing sector,” especially in the “restaurant and lodging industries [which were] . . . less likely to recover lost revenues.”[xxvii] Take, for example, those working in restaurants, which were ordered to cease operations immediately. To reopen, each restaurant had to submit written plans to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department for how it would obtain and use bottled water for cleaning, hand washing, cooking, and drinking. Inspections accompanied plan reviews, so this took time. Over the course of the initial nine-day ban, various restaurant workers—servers, cooks, dishwashers—lost up to fifty hours of work.[xxviii] Though several local restaurants participated in popular initiatives to help their employees recover lost wages (one, for instance, encouraged patrons to “turn up the tips”), many workers still struggled to rebound, even long after the spill incident itself was over.[xxix]
Restaurant owners, too, took a significant hit. Several reported that they did not receive insurance coverage. And costs for providing bottled water to customers—which many restaurants continued to do for months after the spill—were prohibitive.[xxx] A Charleston-based Italian bistro, for example, was still assuring customers as late as May 2014 that they were “cooking with bottled water,” a promise that the restaurant owner estimated that had “cost $10,000 over four months in extra bottled water and ice.”[xxxi] Despite these obvious challenges, though, many restaurants did recover; one of our favorite eateries, for example, added a water surcharge for the many months (over a year) that it continued to use bottled water for cooking and drinking. Others did not recover. A café near our offices in South Charleston, for example, closed its doors during the spill and never reopened. Although our favorite Japanese restaurant did reopen, it never overcame the loss of revenue and increased expenses that resulted from the spill. Within three months, it closed down for good.
While restaurants and other service industries (like hotels) were busy trying to find ways to continue operations, state officials struggled with reckoning how to remove MCHM from the water supply and get safe-to-use water back to almost three hundred thousand people. At the time of the spill, the available safety data sheet for MCHM provided “little information that could be used to determine an exposure threshold.” Eastman Chemical Company—the manufacturer that sold MCHM to Freedom Industries—provided several “proprietary toxicological studies,” from which the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined a “short-term screening level of 1 ppm.”[xxxii] But several chemists and other independent scientists immediately called foul, questioning how the CDC had arrived at their conclusions and noting that, even with the Eastman studies in hand, too much was still unknown about MCHM and that the lack of clear MCHM data raised questions about whether such an exposure threshold was actually safe for consumption.[xxxiii] “The data needed to make that assessment,” pointed out one chemist, “simply do not exist for this chemical.”[xxxiv]
Given these shortcomings and disagreements, state officials proceeded with one part per million as the temporary threshold to begin the testing and subsequent flushing of the entire water system. After testing water samples at points throughout the region, four days after the spill, on January 13, West Virginia American Water began flushing its system by zones. When water tests showed MCHM at or below one part per million in a particular zone, that zone’s customers—residents, businesses, hospitals, schools—were instructed to begin flushing their water lines. (The zone in which Beth and I lived, on Charleston’s West Side, was within a few miles of the water treatment plant and was among the earliest slated for flushing.) The three-part process took a little more than fifteen minutes and involved the flushing of hot- and cold-water taps, outside faucets, and appliances. This process proceeding zone by zone, taking several days, and ending for some as late as January 18, when the Do Note Use Order was finally lifted for all affected areas.[xxxv]
The flushing process was not without problems, however. Some zones, for example, had to undergo additional flushing due to MCHM levels remaining at or above one part per million after the first attempt.[xxxvi] And numerous residents reported further physical symptoms during the flushing process, according to a telephone survey conducted by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.[xxxvii] “So we followed the procedure,” recounted Saint Albans resident, Carla McClure. “Phillip, my husband, was sitting in the living room in his recliner in his usual position as I did the flushing procedure, and he encouraged me from the sidelines. So they said be sure to also go outside and flush your outside taps. I did the whole thing. Well, at the point where I had the indoor water running, and I started to go outside, I realized I’m short of breath. I’m dizzy and I think I’m going to faint. So I sat down quickly on the porch steps just for a few minutes. It still didn’t occur to me that this could be the water because no one had mentioned anything about inhalation at that point. It had all been about drinking. And I sat out there in the fresh air for a few minutes. It was very cold but I got able to go and finish up but came back in and was just sick—nausea hit me. And Phillip also. I mentioned it to Phillip, and he was also having symptoms, and that was when we realized this is connected to the water. . . . That night Phillip started this twenty-four-hour period of being just very, very sick. But we still thought maybe it was the flu because I wasn’t sick like he was. But he was throwing up. He was having heart palpitations. He was sweating. You know, it was like flu symptoms we thought, but he didn’t go to the doctor, and after twenty-four hours it started to clear up. That was the sickest I’ve seen him since . . . years earlier.” [xxxviii]

Elizabeth Campbell, Brian A. Hoey, and Luke Eric Lassiter
Part I. “I’m Afraid of That Water”: A West Virginia Disaster and Water Crisis
1. The Elk River Spill: On Water and Trust
Luke Eric Lassiter
2. Exploring the (Human) Nature of Disaster
Brian A. Hoey
3. Toward a Collaborative Ethnography
Luke Eric Lassiter
4. Chemical Spill Encountered
Trish Hatfield
Part II. On Place: To Stay or Not to Stay
5. Blues BBQ
Jay Thomas
6. Citizen Response: On Leaving and Staying
Cat Pleska and Joshua Mills
7. In and Out of Appalachia
Emily Mayes
Interlude. Exploring the (Human) Nature of Disaster—Impact and Responses
Brian A. Hoey
Part III. On Making and Remaking Community
8. Activism and Community
Jim Hatfield
9. WVWaterHistory.com and Producing Digital Resources on a Water Crisis
Gabe Schwarzman
10. What Does a Water Crisis Sound Like?
Laura Harbert Allen
11. Can We Trust the Water System Now? Some Updates
Jim Hatfield
Luke Eric Lassiter
Angie Rosser
List of Contributors
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