Shepherdstown resident Tracy Danzey grew up in the Parkersburg (WV) area, in a little town called Vienna—an idyllic childhood as she recalls, suburban and wooded, with plenty of time spent outdoors and, especially, in the water.
In fact, Danzey became a competitive swimmer, and spent large portions of her young life in the waters of the area—waters now known to have been toxified with DuPont’s infamous C8 chemical—also known as perfluorooctanoic acid.
“I swam in the those waters every day—so many of us did,” she explained. “DuPont was just up the road, and was a great employer at the time—brought a lot of prosperity to the community.”
Danzey stayed in the area until she was 18, and after spending a year caring for her ailing father, chose to pursue a degree in nursing at then-Shepherd College in 2000.
But it wasn’t long into her college experience that Danzey’s thyroid stopped working. “We now know that it’s a side effect of C8 exposure,” she confirmed. “DuPont was using it as a byproduct of Teflon, and were just dumping it into the waterways. They’d known it was dangerous since the seventies, but it was profits over people.”
Unfortunately, there weren’t really any long-term studies on C8, and all anyone knew in this region was that her thyroid was diseased. Nonetheless, Danzey eventually graduated in 2004, and began work at then-City Hospital in Martinsburg as an RN. “About a year later, after dealing with what I thought might be a persistently pulled groin, I went for a run with my husband, and my hip broke. At just twenty-five, I knew something was very wrong.”
She soon learned that she had stage-four osteosarcoma, and doctors told her she had a couple of choices. “They could patch me up and I could go hang out on a beach and wait until the end, or they could attempt this radical surgery with no promises and it would drastically change my lifestyle—no more hiking, running, climbing, cycling,” she said. “They’d have to remove my leg.”
Desire to Fight
Danzey wasn’t ready to sit on that beach just yet. “So I told them to take it off,” she said.
Her husband quit his job and sat by her side for the next year and a half as she went through high-dose chemotherapy and all of the side effects that come with it. “I finally started going into organ failure,” she described, “and they had to stop giving me chemo—we just had to wait and see what happened.
Five years later, Danzey and her husband just figured the doctors got it. “So for me, I always kind of felt that this time for me is all extra, a bonus, and it gave me a really different perspective towards life and obligation and responsibility.”
Miracles being what they are, in 2011, Danzey gave birth, against most odds, to a healthy baby boy. “It was around the five-year mark, and my stomach started getting bigger,” she said, “so we thought the cancer had metastasized. But I was pregnant. Funny thing, it sort of started turning hormones back on that chemo had turned off. Believe it or not, the pregnancy was really good for my body. Indeed, quite a metaphor. Obviously, I was also terrified about how I was going to mother this kid. But we figured it out—like we did with everything else.”
Fast-forward to 2018. Danzey and her family had moved to Florida. “We were continuing to live in Shepherdstown, but had experienced some not-so-great things with the land we were living on and some local developers—and my husband needed some downtime.”
Danzey wanted to come back, but they were also considering staying in Florida. “But then Rockwool happened, and I knew I had to come back,” she emphasized. “I’ve always felt that this was my community, my people—the folks who pulled me out of places that I never thought I’d be. I felt a desire to fight for them.”
While Danzey also stresses that she realizes Rockwool is not DuPont, she believes they’re using the same tactics. “What I saw when I looked at their permits and plans, I realized they were saying one thing and doing another. They’re not being conscious of protecting our resources, of the citizens’ desires, and they’ve gone about this in a way that has been disloyal to the people their factory is going to affect. It looks very similar to what has happened throughout the state: corporate profit over the health of the people.”
The Danzey family moved back to Shepherdstown in the spring of 2019. “It had become obvious that Rockwool was heavy industry—the opposite of what they’d been promoting in the media up to that point,” she said. “And when I saw over half of the Jefferson County Development Authority resign all at once [November 2018], that to me was a sign that there were things going on that we needed to dig into.”
Danzey was also shocked at the palpable tension in the air when she arrived home. “I wasn’t accustomed to such tension; the community had divided itself and taken sides. It didn’t make sense. We have the best economy in the entire state, and that happened without Rockwool, and that’s what we want to preserve. It’s what drives the tourism. Places throughout West Virginia that are overrun with industry are working so hard to try to get back to what we already have here (without industry).”
Division had even crept its way into the Resist Rockwool organization by the time Danzey stepped back into Jefferson County, and as fate would have it, she soon found herself accepting the position of president of the group.
“Frankly, it was not a role that I wanted to take on, but I saw division happening there, and my fear was that an already-established non-profit was going to falter, and corporations love that—they’ll just wait it out,” she said. “And I literally have skin in this game.”
By early summer, Danzey began thinking of a way to explain to the Danish people what Denmark-based Rockwool was up to overseas. “There’s a European law that really limits what people can see in terms of more localized media online—other than the larger outlets—so there’s this whole Danish audience that is really environmentally conscious and socially responsible, but they don’t know about Rockwool outside of Denmark.”
In speaking with online groups there, as well as media, Danzey soon realized that the best way for her to reach the Danish people with her message in as sincere a way as possible was to show up. And thus, “Tracy’s Walk” was put into motion.
A Compelling Image
After organizing for a couple of months with the Resist Rockwool team, Danzey and her own team—consisting of Eastern Panhandlers Stewart Acuff, Mary Reed, and Emily Vaughn—arrived in Copenhagen in late October, with a plan to walk 100 kilometers (approx. 62 miles) across the Zealand island of Denmark—from Kalundborg back to Copenhagen—in opposition to Rockwool.
Before heading across to Kalundborg, the team took a few days to settle in and rest up, while Danzey also did a media tour or sorts. “We then traveled across to Kalundborg, and then Aarhus, where we did a bit of a kick-off,” she outlined.
To that end, the walk officially began on October 28. A story within the story: Danzey’s colleagues and supporters back home simultaneously staged their own 100km walk on the C&O Canal—from Shepherdstown to the Danish embassy in Washington, D.C.—to coincide with hers.
“I didn’t want this to just be a protest march of sorts,” she added. “I strike a compelling image—a woman with one leg on forearm crutches walking up the road. What is she doing? Where is she going? Why is she walking? It was a way to start a conversation. The people of Denmark are very informed—we had a lot of coverage on the ground, but they knew very little about what Rockwool is doing outside of Denmark.”
The “route” ended up being a good one—though many of the roads had been updated, and certain bike and walking lanes that showed up on Google Maps didn’t exist when Danzey and company showed up. “So we actually ended up taking some detours that led us out into agricultural areas,” she explained. “The language barrier was a little more intense out there [mostly English elsewhere] as well, but we figured it out, and truthfully, those folks new very little about me or Rockwool. So it was probably an overall positive—and it was really beautiful. But I have to credit Emily with getting us through this part; she was an absolute beast, filling in all the gaps with navigation—as well as videography and social media.”
Vaughn found the scenic route equally agreeable. “Walking those side roads, she went through more villages and local places, so it certainly wasn’t a bad thing by any means, just different. But she still walked east, which was the point.”
Though her role was mostly behind the scenes, Vaughn relished every minute of it. “Tracy did most of the press stuff, and I spoke occasionally. But mostly, I was making sure she got to her appointments on time, getting her to the route, booking places to stay, and driving the support vehicle.”
Which isn’t to say that Vaughn as well as her teammates didn’t share in opportunities to engage the locals. “We learned that people actually recognized Tracy,” she explained, “but they didn’t bombard her, which we was a cultural thing. Stewart or I might strike up a conversation with someone, and they’d acknowledge that they’d heard about it on the news—but no one argued with us, and most seemed to agree with Tracy’s position. I will say that people definitely wanted to take pictures with her.”
Ultimately, Vaughn feels confident that the trip was worth the time and effort. “I feel hopeful about the fight,” she said. “I think that it’s a case, at least in my mind, of just never shutting up about it—never stopping. We know they still have legal challenges, despite the fact that walls are going up over there [onsite]. We obviously know that many people in the Panhandle don’t want them here, and we’re learning more things every day about what their operation is going to be and look like. The fight certainly isn’t over, and having Tracy in Denmark seemed like the most effective tool that I’ve witnessed so far.”
Hard to Look Away
At once exhausting, exhilarating, and even sometimes boring, Danzey’s walk took her down main roads, side roads, through towns, up and down hills, through fields and forests, and even through rain storms that she dutifully “powered through.”
She spoke with countless Danes along the way—many of whom had heard of her—and all of whom were polite, welcoming, and eager to hear about what she had to say.
“One surprise was when we met with the Danish Institute of Human Rights, and they’d brought maybe ten people to sit in and listen,” she said. “These people were from around the world—two from their business/ethics sector—even an American lawyer. They all agreed that they saw this fully as a human-rights issue—which is very telling because that’s how we feel here—like we’re being violated. It was encouraging to hear the same from people around the world who also represent an arm of the UN and have likely seen much worse. It really legitimizes our feelings and instincts.”
That wasn’t the only surprise for Danzey and her team. “Well, we got our van stuck in the mud in the middle of a forest with no one around, but Stewart is a Tennessee guy and he just knew how to get it out—I’m not sure who could have done that other than him,” she recounted. “We also learned that you’re not really supposed to pet other people’s dogs in Denmark. But I’d say I was most surprised by the Danes’ commitment to always making the socially responsible decision—even at their own cost. And in some ways, they take it too far because maybe there’s this self-expression that gets lost. And that’s what great about the U.S., that we have that. So, it was interesting to see those differences.”
Also hard to look away from for Danzey was the difference in how both nations manage their waste. “They create way less trash than us and seemingly recycle everything,” she said. “Though they still have a problem with packaging, but they burn or recycle all of their trash—it’s just considered a social obligation: ‘If you’re going to make the trash, then you’re going to breathe in some of that trash.’ So, if you don’t want to do that, create less trash.
“Which is why I think they might just think differently about smokestacks, culturally. That said, and what both they and people here in the Panhandle, and beyond, should know is that Rockwool would never be able to build the facility in Denmark that they’re building here—based on their own modern laws and regulations. Rockwool likes to say ‘It’s the same kind of facility we have in Denmark,’ but that one was built in 1950.”
Righting This Wrong
Interestingly enough, as Danzey and her team edged ever closer to Copenhagen, the press all but vanished. “It’s important to say that Rockwool is a good taxpayer in Denmark, and Denmark has a lot of social programs and not a ton of corporations—unlike in the U.S.,” she said. “So companies that are good about paying taxes end up having a large voice—not only with the government, but also the media, which isn’t as quick to criticize them. But yes, as we reached Copenhagen nearly two weeks later, I guess the media had gotten the message, and pretty much the only group to meet us was the Green Student Movement.”
That said, student environmental groups in Denmark hold a lot more power than you might think, and participate with the government quite a bit. “They actually walked with us for the remainder of Copenhagen until the end, and celebrated with us on the final day.”
On November 9, Danzey’s crew, which had grown considerably by then thanks to the students, ended the walk at Parliament in the city square. Danzey gave a brief thank you speech (sans media), and then the four West Virginians present went looking for some food and a bed. “We stayed there and recovered for a few days,” she said. “Plus we wanted to look around a little bit.”
The 8.5-hour flight back to the States allowed for yet another nap, as well as some reflection for Danzey. “I thought about how thankful I was for Stewart, Mary, and Emily, who each went above and beyond,” she said.
As for Rockwool, they’d actually reached out to her via email when she was in the air headed to Copenhagen and offered a tour of a plant near Aarhus. “To help me better understand their technology and processes,” said Danzey. “My response to media outlets was that I don’t have a misunderstanding about their technology—I have an objection to them bringing it into our community—a factory that wouldn’t even be allowed in Denmark today by their own environmental standards. I should also say that as we were getting settled in and sorted out, they told the media that they’d repeatedly tried to talk to me here in the U.S. and I hadn’t been willing to talk to them, which is simply a lie.”
Heading into a new year, with Denmark productively behind her, Danzey’s motivation remains the same. “I’ve always felt a desire to protect the community around me and pay attention to the dangers that can affect us all. I’ve never been an activist, but I am an advocate. That’s my way of righting this wrong that was done to me. I may have been violated, but I’ll try to prevent violation from happening to others as long as I’m able to.”