Late on Thursday afternoon, West Virginia’s Governor Earl Ray Tomblin tweeted the following: “EMERGENCY: Do NOT use tap water for drinking, cooking, washing or bathing in Boone, Lincoln, Kanawha, Jackson, Putnam counties.” That warning was later extended to a total of nine counties. The reason? A coal processing company, ironically named Freedom Industries, contaminated the water supply with the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. As a result, the governor declared a state of emergency.
When the leak started is unknown.
The leak came from a hole in the bottom of a storage tank, then bridged a concrete dike around the tank that was supposed to be a ‘secondary containment’ area. From there, it poured into the Elk River. Mike Dorsey, with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said, “Apparently, it had been leaking for some time. We just don’t know how long.” However, it is known that the distinctive odor of the chemical, which smells like black licorice, was detected by Charleston residents as early as 7:30 a.m. Thursday. That’s when they started complaining about it to Dorsey’s department.
Freedom Industries didn’t report the leak to state agencies. According to The Charleston Gazette, the DEP had to go out and find it. As a matter of fact, Freedom Industries officials refused to return The Gazette‘s calls inquiring about the leak. The affected water can’t be treated. The delivery system will have to be flushed and then certified as clear of the contaminant.
West Virginia American Water, the company responsible for providing residents with water, was busy assuring customers that they are in no danger. But they can’t currently use the water. The company’s president, Jeff McIntyre, described the chemical as “not particularly lethal”. Which is an interesting conclusion, considering that he also acknowledged, “This is not a chemical that we deal with every day. It’s not the type of thing we would see in dealing with a water treatment plant.”
The effects of the contaminant are also unknown.
Governor Tomblin said, “Nobody really knows how dangerous it could be. However, it is in the system.” The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources noted at least the following symptoms of exposure: “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”
The Toxicology Data Network lists far more, while noting under ‘Clinical Effects’ that “Data on toxic effects in humans are limited.” Any establishment in the nine counties that relies on water is essentially closed. This includes schools, restaurants, bars, nursing homes, and day-care centers. Citizens have cleaned store shelves of bottled water.
However, the federal government joined the state in dealing with the emergency situation. Water distribution centers are being set up. The state’s National Guard is transporting water into West Virginia from a FEMA facility in Maryland, by air and by tractor-trailer. As Kent Carper, an official from Kanawha County, said, “We’ll do blame-assignment later. Now we have to deal with it.”
The coal industry has exacted a heavy price from West Virginia.
There’ll be plenty of blame to go around. It’s past time for West Virginia to pay serious attention to the price they pay for hosting the coal industry. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges (along with cartoonist Joe Sacco), in his book “Days Of Destruction, Days Of Revolt” , says this about West Virgina and coal:
Jobs in the mining industry have fallen from a high of about one hundred and thirty thousand a few decades ago to about fourteen thousand workers. Once the unions were broken and the mines were mechanized, the coal companies began to strip-mine and then blast off the tops of mountains. Most ‘miners’ are, in fact, heavy machine operators. The coal companies write the laws. They control local and state politicians. They destroy the water tables, suck billions of dollars’ worth of coal out of the state, and render hundreds of acres uninhabitable. And ninety-five percent of the coal companies are not even based in West Virginia. [pg. 128]
The current emergency is far from the most critical situation the state is facing. It’s just one of many wake-up calls to its voters. The mining industry has drained away the jobs while absolutely devastating the environment. There’s not much of the natural habitat left for the state’s children to inherit. So, West Virginia, when you get around to assigning blame for this particular leak, perhaps this question should be part of the assessment: What, in return for your horrific losses, are you getting out of your marriage to coal?