The Common Good

West Virginia: Where Energy Rules, Subjects Suffer

I’ll be upfront and admit it. When I heard about the chemical spill that shut down the water supply for 300,000 of my fellow West Virginians, I felt an odd tug of relief.  “Maybe now something will get straightened out,” I thought to myself.

Ljupco Smokovski and Adam J/Shutterstock
West Virginia has a king — name’s Coal. Ljupco Smokovski and Adam J/Shutterstock

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Sure, what I felt might sound callously unfeeling. After all, the chemical spill closed down businesses and schools, shut down bathing, and reduced populations to scrapping for potable water. Happily, thousands of neighbors and outliers pitched in to deliver water from bottles to tankers to the beleaguered people.

Welcome, world, to West Virginia, your national energy sacrifice state. Our state has a king — name’s Coal. Just as in Nebuchadnezzar’s era (Daniel 3), on cue politicians, business people, and media outlets bow their knee to King Coal lest their fates be a metaphorical fiery furnace.

Before readers think I’m off-track, let me first back up.

On Thursday January 9, 2014, residents complained of a licorice-sweet smell upstream from West Virginia’s capital, Charleston. Several hours later, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) located an estimated 7,500 gallon chemical leak of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) from a holding tank at Freedom Industries. By then the spill had long-entered the Elk River 1.5 miles upstream from the intake pipes for West Virginia-American Water, a company that provides water to 300,000 residents in nine counties. Water to customers was immediately shut down, and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin called a state emergency.

During the next several days, several disturbing facts came to light.

First, there was really little known about the toxic effects and safety measures of MCHM, as the chemical has not been adequately studied.

Second, the Freedom Industries plant had never been inspected by any regulatory agency such as OSHA or WVDEP. The WVDEP last visited the site in 1991 when it was owned by another company using the tanks for other purposes. The leak was determined to be the result of deterioration of Freedom Industries’ tanks, rusted pipes and breached concrete containment walls. There was no precautionary plan in place should a containment tank happen to be breached.

Third, there was no clear timeline as to when the chemicals had entered the customer water lines, and what negative effects there might be for people already exposed before the water shutoff.

Fourth, West Virginia-American Water Company apparently had little awareness of Freedom Industries’ operation, even though it was just upstream of its water intake.

Fifth, the decision several days later to tell people to start using their water did not seem to be based upon any objective scientific criteria.   

Almost immediately state politicians and the energy industry began their blame game, indicting Freedom Industries while absolving themselves. Politicians emphasized that Freedom Industries’ chemical spill had nothing to do with the coal industry, although the coal industry usually is prompt to add these chemical-related jobs within their total economic impact.

Ironically, the same afternoon that the spill was being discovered, the U.S. House of Representatives passedH.R. 2279 in a partisan-aligned 225-188 margin. This bill loosens required federal oversight of hazardous materials. One of the five Democrats who joined the Republican majority in passage of this act was my Congressman, Nick Rahall, whose district holds several of the counties whose water was contaminated by the chemical spill.

Now back to King Coal. MCHM is a chemical used to wash coal. Power plants need the coal for electricity generation to be free of impurities. At coal preparation plants, MCHM is used to make a froth that floats coal chunks while more dense clay, slate, and ash sink. After the coal is separated, the “dirty bathwater” slurry is then pumped into one of hundreds of multi-billion gallon, unlined impoundments in the coal producing states or injected into abandoned underground mines. Several years ago New York Times article exposed to national attention the plight of citizens in Prenter, W.Va., whose contaminated well water from nearby injected coal slurry had given rise to massive rates of cancer, gall bladder disease, and kidney ailments. The article embarrassed local authorities enough to provide city water to Prenter residents. Ironically, the recent chemical spill contaminated Prenter’s water all over again.

Coal, gas, and the carbon-based chemical industry are touted by industry representatives as West Virginia’s economic backbone. If so, then their legacy has wrought last place state rankings in all sorts of quality-of-life indices ranging from health, happinessbusiness climate, and environment, to local library funding and bicycle safety. Furthermore, many studies show that extractive-dominant boom-bust economies do not bring stable, strong economic benefits to communities. Indeed, a recent Downstream Strategies study concluded that the coal industry negatively impacts West Virginia’s economy.

Contamination happens every day. Water and air contamination by the coal, gas, and chemical industries are ongoing daily albeit scattered, unreported, and too seldom remedied. Impoverished rural communities are beholden to these industries for the only decent-paying jobs around, “making bricks for Pharaoh’s pyramids.” Last month Kentucky senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul introduced the “Economic Freedom Zones Act of 2013.” Among other things, their touted “anti-poverty bill” would exempt polluters in high-poverty regions from complying with water pollution permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act.

The national exposure of this chemical spill needs to be a catalyst for national pressure to protect our people from King Coal and his court. Just as the Civil Rights campaign leveraged local activism with national pressure, so is our struggle. That’s why, ironically, the chemical spill’s national exposure gives me a surge of hope.

Allen Johnson lives in West Virginia, where he coordinates Christians For The Mountains

Photo: Ljupco Smokovski and Adam J/Shutterstock

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