Details continue to emerge about the spill of approximately 75000 gallons of crude MCHM (4-methlcyclohexanemethanol), a chemical used to prepare coal for power plants, into the Elk River in southern West Virginia last week.
For several days, the spill left over 300,000 residents across the Kanawha Valley (a region which includes the state capitol Charleston) with tap water that is unsafe to drink, bathe in, cook or wash clothes with.
are relatively minor when
compared with the cumulative
health and environmental impacts
of mining in the region even
when everything goes right.
The crisis resulted in drinking water shortages across the state, leading to the deployment of National Guard troops to distribute safe water. Aside from the hardship imposed on households, several schools, government offices, and businesses were also forced to shut down causing further damage to the region’s struggling economy.
Coal-fired power plants produce nearly one-quarter of the electricity in the Unites States, and West Virginia’s economy has been tied to coal for nearly a century. MCHM is just one of many chemicals used to process coal for use by power plants.
Environmental and social injustice
While the presence of a mildly toxic, licorice-scented chemical in drinking water supplies may seem small on the scale of energy related disasters in the past few years, such as the catastrophic failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, it does demonstrate a larger pattern of environmental and social injustice that is pervasive throughout Appalachia.
For those of us that have come to maturity in the more liberal enclaves of the post-9/11 world, the ubiquity of the word Freedom has been written off as almost a joke, a sad reminder of when Bush-era “Freedom fries” became a menu item.
But in Appalachia and throughout rural America, traditional values are looked upon with pride, and words like freedom carry real weight. Cynically or not, the Coal Industry and its allies often use the language of freedom as a tool in the pursuit of radical agendas to deregulate industry and marginalize any who oppose the exploitation of the region’s environment and labor.
For this reason, it is not at all surprising that the company responsible for the spill is named “Freedom Industries” or that the company has ties to people like the archconservative Koch brothers.
Similar relationships are common in the coal industry. In 2009, then CEO of industry powerhouse Massey Energy, Don Blakenship, organized a “Friends of America” Labor Day Rally in Holden, WV (located in Logan County, one of 9 counties affected by the spill.) Right-wing rocker Ted Nugent emceed the rally, and Blakenship himself spoke at the rally literally draped in the red, white, and blue of the American flag.
Blakenship, an outspoken critic of the Obama administration, unions and regulation, was still active as CEO at Massey a little over a year later, when poorly maintained ventilators in the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch Mine led to a build-up of methane and an explosion that resulted in the death of 29 miners.
Friends of Coal
Analysis by the Center for American Progress’s Action Fund estimates that pro-coal, gas and oil groups spent nearly $400 million in the 2012 elections to unseat President Obama. State and local elections can often be even uglier, with pro-industry groups such as “Friends of Coal” hosting rallies and campaigning against candidates they deem to be “against coal”.
Groups like these have extensive resources and have a pervasive presence throughout communities across central Appalachia, filling the void once held by civil and labor organizations such as the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
These campaigns have been highly successful in removing important environmental and safety protections and at creating an atmosphere where incidents such as the Elk Creek spill are inevitable. Inspectors from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, who discovered the leak after receiving complaints about the smell, described the containment dike at the Freedom facility as being ‘full of cracks and holes.’
There are reports that the company’s only effort to contain the four foot flow of chemicals after the spill involved only one cinder block and a fifty pound bag of absorbent material.
Spills, floods, and mine disasters
The Freedom Industries spill is only the most recent episode in a long, and often tragic, history of spills, floods, and mine disasters in southern West Virginia, which have been environmentally devastating and have too often taken a toll in human life. These impacts, however, are relatively minor when compared with the cumulative health and environmental impacts of mining in the region even when everything goes right.
Extreme mining practices such as Mountain Top Removal (MTR) routinely devastate entire landscapes and introduce heavy metals and other toxins into waterways while remaining within the boundaries of federally issued permits.
Cultural and ecological treasure
West Virginia, and the Appalachian region as a whole, is a cultural and ecological treasure that is being burned, blown up, and sullied in the name of cheap energy and profits. True freedom is the freedom to share your heritage with your grandchildren, not the freedom to pillage it wholesale.
West Virginia is truly a wild and wonderful state, and it deserves much better.
Chris Clark served as Director of The Clinch Coalition, a grassroots organization dedicated to preserving public lands and watersheds in southwestern Virginia from 2011-2013. During his time in Appalachia, he made frequent trips to southern West Virginia. He is currently a graduate student in Environmental Policy in Seattle, Washington.