By Matt Wasson, Ph.D.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — What do January’s Kanawha Valley chemical spill, the Exxon Valdez spill and the Deepwater Horizon incident have in common? All were man-made environmental disasters, disrupting the lives of thousands of people, and all cracked open for public view astonishing examples of corporate and regulatory dereliction.
What don’t they have in common? The Exxon Valdez oil spill was 11 million gallons. The Deepwater spill was 210 million gallons. The Freedom Industries spill was something on the order of 10,000 gallons — less than 1/10th of a percent of the Valdez. How could a relatively small chemical spill in one river cut off drinking water access to 300,000 people — 16 percent of the state’s entire population — scattered across nine counties?
The first step to understanding this riddle is understanding what many Appalachians know first-hand already: Coal industry activities have been polluting their water supply for a long, long time.
Take, for example, the residents of Prenter in Boone County, W.Va. A few years ago, elevated levels of lead, nickel, arsenic and other chemicals in the tap water was causing skin rashes and dental decay, which could portend kidney and nerve damage and cancer. Residents and scientists believed the pollution came from coal slurry — the waste by-product of removing impurities from coal — being dumped into abandoned mine shafts, where was free to flow through cracks in the earth into groundwater and ultimately the wells of local residents.
Enter the West Virginia American Water Company, which operates the water treatment plant and distribution network that was shut down Jan. 9. In 2010, Boone County partnered with West Virginia American Water on a multi-million dollar project to run fresh water lines out to Prenter and other communities. The project was mostly paid for by a federal grant, with Boone County and the water company making up the difference. Not a penny was paid by the coal companies that polluted the water in the first place.
A paper trail of Public Service Commission filings reveals similar stories happening again and again, as West Virginia American Water gobbled up one municipal utility after another. In one instance in 2004, the state gave approval for the water company to develop the Sharples Water Line Extension in Logan County because a coal company’s mining plans were likely to destroy the well water of nearby residents, which had provided a reliable supply of clean water for generations.
According to the PSC documents: “Arch Coal’s proposed Mountain Laurel Mine … will potentially de-water the aquifer that is the source for [Logan County’s] Sharples system.”
While the documents sought to justify the expense on the grounds that the extension would “eliminate the use of local groundwater and provide a more than adequate supply of drinking water that will sustain the expected growth in the project area,” nobody seriously expects growth near a massive mining complex in Logan County, where population has been declining for decades. The real motivation for the project is found in the expected economic development benefits section, which reads: “The extension Project will help satisfy mine permitting requirements for Arch Coal’s proposed Mountain Laurel mine.”
Similar evidence of how public money has been used to benefit the coal industry while expanding the customer base of a private water company runs throughout PSC documents. And so it came to be that West Virginia American Water, consolidating its infrastructure as any profit-driven entity would, wound up with a single water intake on the Elk River — a mere mile and a half downstream from a coal-chemical storage facility — to serve 300,000 people in nine counties.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has been quick to absolve the coal industry of culpability, instead blaming the chemical industry and a particularly bad company. But any attempt to decouple the coal industry from this disaster will surely fail the laugh test, given that the spilled chemical was not only used by mining companies to wash coal, but also had already been leaking into West Virginians’ water supply long before Jan. 9, as residents of Prenter and other communities near coal preparation plants can attest.
The fact that so many people are dependent on one facility that is run by West Virginia American Water, a huge multinational corporation focused on increasing its own bottom line, is a central factor in the scale of this disaster that simply cannot be ignored. And, as many West Virginians know and the PSC paper trail demonstrates, the coal industry plays a major role in that as well.
Matt Wasson is program director with Appalachian Voices and holds a Ph.D. in ecology from Cornell University. This op-ed was first published in The Charleston Gazette on Jan. 18, and his commentary regarding the spill has appeared on NPR, MSNBC and The Huffington Post.