On Thursday, Jan. 9, more than 7,500 gallons of a highly toxic chemical used to process coal spilled into the Elk River — just upstream of a drinking water intake serving more than 300,000 people in West Virginia. No alarm was raised until residents noticed a strange smell coming from their taps. Reports of health effects have been alarming, even after residents were given the all-clear to use their water again. Our Appalachian Water Watch team quickly arrived on the scene to assist others who were taking water samples, so critical in the immediate aftermath of such a disaster.
When the spill made national headlines, many of us thought immediately of the much bigger, longstanding problems with water pollution and politics in Appalachia that never get enough attention from the media — and how these chronic problems actually set the stage for this disaster.
Water polluted by the poorly regulated coal industry is an everyday fact of life for many in the coal-bearing parts of Appalachia, not just a one-time emergency. In addition to the severe pollution caused by mountaintop removal mining, waste from coal washing — a process that involves the chemical spilled last week — is routinely stored behind earthen dams across the region and pumped into empty underground mine shafts. Residents of Prenter, W.Va., south of Charleston, experienced years of skin rashes and tooth decay from contaminants in their wells linked to this practice. In fact, as my colleague Matt Wasson described in an article on Huffington Post, this continual contamination and destruction of groundwater by irresponsible mining and coal processing is why many West Virginians have been forced for years to stop using their well or local municipal water and rely on water piped in from what is know as the Charleston area’s “Chemical Valley.”
This disaster came about not as the result of a single mistake or oversight, but a systemic failure of regulators and policymakers to place public health above the interests of coal and chemical corporations that stretches back decades. It was as predictable as it was preventable.
Amidst the inevitable lawsuits, finger-pointing and government investigations, one thing remains clear: it will take a lot more than just a few tweaks of local, state and federal policies to truly ensure that West Virginians and other residents of Appalachia’s coal country can use and enjoy their water resources without fear of falling ill, or worse. It will take a major shift of political power away from the coal industry and to the people of Appalachia.