West Virginia voices: The Mountain State Crisis

by Guest Blogger

January 13, 2014

Underground Coal Miner in U.S.

A coal miner after his underground mining shift in West Virginia.

© Greenpeace

Water. It is the worlds most abundant resource. It is a necessity for every aspect of life. But many take it for granted. But recently, the people in West Virginia, my home, have come to realize just how much of a necessity clean, available water really is.

Since the chemical know as 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol leaked from its storage facility at Freedom Industries into the Elk River in Charleston, WV, West Virginians face a terrible crisis. The chemical made its way into the intake for West Virginia American Water just downstream; contaminating the public water for more than 300,000 people in an area covering nine counties prompting a state of emergency and a water use ban. It is my hope to share with you some insight on what this disaster has been like as a West Virginian.

“I have lived in the mountains of West Virginia all 30 years of my life and have a long ancestry in the Appalachian region. I wouldnt call any other place home. But if you know anything about the region, you know that the coal industry has been dominant, particularly in West Virginia, for more than 150 years. West Virginia has become little more than a resource colony where profit often trumps public health.”

When the news broke about the spill, I was on my way back home with my father, a retired coal miner who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, from a doctors appointment outside the impacted area. We had not yet heard the news and were about to use the water when a family friend informed us of what had happened and that we could not use the water.

For decades much of West Virginian relied on ground water for use. We once had some of the cleanest on Earth. So pure, in fact, that at one time aristocrats would pay to drink it. The inception of the states chemical industry and the growth of the coal industry with its mountaintop removal strip mining and coal slurry injection diminished the quality of ground water, especially in southern West Virginia. This forced many residents to stop using wells and rely on public water for daily use. And now, thanks to this spill from chemical company Freedom Industries, thousands cannot use their water for anything but flushing their toilets or putting out a fire. Now, even care for my ailing father has become more difficult.

This incident has crippled rural and urban areas alike. It has even brought our capital city, Charleston, to a standstill. Businesses and restaurants have shut down. Children cannot go to school. Hospitals, clinics, and elderly care centers are barely functional with little access to water. People cant bathe or wash clothes without having to travel outside the impacted area and can barely prepare meals. Stores began running out of water immediately after the state of emergency was issued. The President has declared federal aid to the area and FEMA and the National Guard are working to bring water into the area to distribute. However, in the more rural areas, the supplies and water trickle in and are gone as quickly as they arrive. People are frightened, confused, and angry. Many feel helpless. Some have even felt the health effects of this toxin, being exposed to it before the alert was even issued.

One might ask, Where are the state leaders and officials who are supposed to protect the people and prevent such things from happening?

We have a saying in West Virginia: We have the best politicians money can buy.

The industry has worked hard to establish a political system that is skewed in its favor. Its hard to find an elected official in the State Capitol or in Congress that doesnt claim to be a Friend of Coal. Many of which have led a campaign against the EPAs regulatory authority. Our state regulatory agency, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, sides with the coal industry more often than not. At each press conference we get little more than an I dont know when asked how long this will last and what are the long term effects.

Our pro-coal Governor Earl Ray Tomblin even dodged questions about this chemicals relationship to the coal industry. And for the most part our other elected officials have been mute. Knowing the impact coal has already had on our water they often say without jobs, we would have nothing. But now we are getting a firsthand look at what we have without access to water.

This spill happened less than 24 hours after our Governor gave his 2014 State of the State Address. He compared running a state to tending a garden and claimed it was flourishing. But the economic and environmental impact of this spill may be felt for a while. And you cant grow a garden with poisoned water.

There is currently no end in sight for us during this travesty. It has already been 3 days plus since the 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol devastated a large area of the Mountain State and we are told it may still be days before they can flush the chemical from the public water system and people can have access again. Where does this chemical go once its flushed? What didnt leak into West Virginia American Waters intake is making its way from the Elk River down the Kanawha River and into the Ohio River.

No one can tell us what if any impact it will have as it continues to the Ohio. And since the chemical is used in the cleaning process, does that mean it is sitting in these giant unlined earthen dams called slurry impoundments? There are hundreds of these impoundments inside the state alone, some holding billions of gallons of coal slurry, that could be leaking 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol and other chemicals into the ground water and streams.

If anything, this crisis should prompt others to act and realize just how valuable clean water really is. Can we really afford to keep damaging our water resources in the pursuit of growth and profit?

We are extremely thankful to those who have already stepped up to help those in need. Many are buying water and supplies out of their own pocket just to help. But West Virginia cannot continue to damage its already impaired waterways.

Let this disaster becomes a wakeup call to others. West Virginians are already paying the price. If these companies are willing to let this happen to our state, they will let it happen to you. Water is life and we all live downstream.

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