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January 14, 2014

Round-Up of WV Coal Chemical Spill News

Wsj graphic"Saying this chemical spill has nothing to do with coal is like saying the tobacco industry has nothing to do with lung cancer."

Those are the words from Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt on this morning's Diane Rehm Show. Mary Anne was on to discuss last week's Freedom Industries coal chemical spill in West Virginia, which has left more than 300,000 people without water. You can listen to the whole interview here.

While WV Governor Tomblin is trying to act as if this coal chemical spill has nothing to do with the coal industry, West Virginians know better:

"This crisis is about much more than a renegade chemical company," said Bob Kincaid, board president of Coal River Mountain Watch, an organization that fights mountaintop-removal mining and is based in Raleigh County in the state's southern coalfields. "It's about an entire state subjected day after day for more than a century to a laundry list of poisons by renegade companies. This particular poisoning happened to catch the world's attention, but for us, it's another day in the Appalachian Sacrifice Zone."

While some areas are being allowed to flush their home and business water systems now and start using their water again, a huge amount of people still do not have access to water. And we have reports from folks in Charleston that they’re not ready to trust the tap water yet.

As for those being allowed to drink and bathe in their water again, Ken Ward, Jr., of the Charleston Gazette and many others are asking, "how do they know it's safe?" From Ward's article:

(WV Governor) Tomblin administration officials continued on Monday to decline to provide detailed answers why they think 1 part per million of Crude MCHM is safe for West Virginians to drink. Federal agencies also refused to explain how they calculated that figure in the absence of any real regulatory guidelines or published health standards for the material, also known as 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol.

Water wvStories are also coming out about parents coping with the lack of clean water for special needs kids and babies. Others are wondering how long the spill had really been going on before it was discovered.

Even Erin Brockovich was in West Virginia for a meeting with affected residents Monday night. Watch her discuss the crisis in this Democracy Now interview.

The long-term effects on the environment from this chemical are uncertain as well.

Authorities are ordering Freedom Industries to preserve all evidence on site as the investigation continues, and the state Department of Environmental Protection officials, who first arrived on the scene of the spill (which, by the way, Freedom Industries did not report until after state investigators showed up) last week, say the site was not well-contained:

Freedom Industries had set up one cinder block and used one 50-pound bag of some sort of safety absorbent powder to try to block the chemical flow, state Department of Environmental Protection inspectors say. "This was a Band-Aid approach," said DEP air quality inspector Mike Kolb. "It was apparent that this was not an event that had just happened."

On top of that, the West Virginia officials admitted Tuesday that they had no plan in place for a spill of this nature:

West Virginia emergency planners never put together any strategy for dealing with spills of a toxic chemical from the Freedom Industries' tank farm, despite the facility's location just 1.5 miles upstream from a drinking water intake serving 300,000 people, officials acknowledged this morning. Local emergency official likewise didn't act to prepare for such an incident, even though they had been warned for years about storage of toxic chemicals so close to the West Virginia American Water plant serving the Kanawha Valley and surrounding region.

Others note that this lack of planning is yet another example of loopholes in current federal protections regarding chemicals. In fact, the Freedom Industries site hadn't been inspected since 1991.

What's more, as Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt again pointed out on the Diane Rehm Show this morning, this lack of protections and inspections are simply "pulling the curtain back on something people in West Virginia have been dealing with for a long time."

In this powerful piece from Al-Jazeera, West Virginians discuss the on-going legacy of coal's water pollution in the state. Some residents will lose their well water due to coal pollution and get connected to city water:

Bill Price of the West Virginia chapter of the the Sierra Club, an environmentalist group, said that’s exactly what happened to the town of Prenter in Boone County, which he said fought for years to get water from a city supplier. That supplier is West Virginia American Water, the company that has imposed the restrictions. "After losing their local water due to pollution, they were able to get a source of clean water by installing a public system with a source that is around 50 miles away, only to have that source now impacted by a spill of a chemical used in processing of coal," he said.

Meanwhile, The New Republic digs even more into coal's pollution history in West Virginia. Know why so many people relied on the Elk River for their water? Because industry has polluted the rest of the rivers in West Virginia.

Activists across, and beyond, the state point to an anti-water-protection atmosphere in West Virginia as one major reason why the Elk River spill and others like it are not prevented. One antiregulatory industry front-group, Americans for Prosperity even solicited water donations for West Virginians, which prompted this response from Beyond Coal Director Mary Anne Hitt:

"As someone who lives in West Virginia, this feels like a slap in the face. These are the same fossil fuel billionaires who've been fighting relentlessly to end protections from the kind of contamination we're seeing in the Elk River, and now they're scrambling to cover their tails while failing to even acknowledge the cause of this disaster. It's a blatant abdication of responsibility at a time when the hundreds of thousands of families affected here in West Virginia deserve answers and solutions that will prevent crises like this from ever happening again."

I'll close with these clips from the Daily Show, which always does an amazing and eloquent job saying "WTF?" when these disasters happen.


-- Heather Moyer, Sierra Club Media Team


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