Drinking Water and the “War on Coal”

WVA chem spillBy Peter Galuszka

It’s curious against whom the “War on Coal” really is.

You might ask the 300,000 residents of Charleston, W.Va. who are being trucked emergency bottles of water because the spill of a toxic chemical used to help prepare coal has polluted their drinking water.

As many as 5,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol or Crude MCHM leaked from a tank owned by Freedom Industries just up the Elk River from the treatment plant where Greater Charleston gets its drinking water.

Executives of the chemical plant have apologized but, hey, it’s just another instance of raw environmental disregard in the Appalachians, including West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia. About 15 years ago, then Richmond-based Massey Energy ended up with an underground spill at an abandoned mine in eastern Kentucky that fouled the Tug Fork and then the Ohio Rivers.

One lawyer told me the spill was four times that of the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico four years ago. But the British Petroleum disaster got a lot more media attention. So did the fact that it killed 11 people. About three weeks before, a blast at an underground mine at Upper Big Branch owned by Massey Energy in West Virginia killed 29 miners, but, hey, they’re miners and as such, didn’t get as much attention.

If you want to see one of the crudest collection of pollution potential in this country, head west on Interstate 64 on the West Virginia Turnpike. Once you get over the mountains and into the Kanawha River valley, you’ll see mile after mile of chemical factory and coal prep plant lining the narrow river.

West Virginia got into chemicals because it was a natural fit with coal and the steel industry nearby. The valley was also a favorite place to make munitions in World Wars I and II since it was far from ocean shores and considered safe.

Corrupt politicians were more than willing to look away when it came to dumping the plant stuff (the Elk River flows into the Kanawha at Charleston). It goes for mountains, too, if you consider the devastation of mountaintop removal.

The irony of it all is that King Coal and its minions have been screaming about the “War on Coal” waged by Barack Obama for his supposed over-regulation.

If anything,  Obama and Mountain State regulators haven’t regulated enough, as the spill tends to show.

Imagine if Greater Richmond or Northern Virginia could not drink tap water because it might cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. You see an outcry everywhere. But hey, it’s West Virginia we’re talking about.

Galuszka is author of “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

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9 responses to “Drinking Water and the “War on Coal”

  1. My late father always said West Virginia was a great place to be from. And he never went back.

    The Deepwater disaster started with 11 killed in an explosion and fire, and I believe a bit more than 5,000 gallons was released. It’s not too surprising it has received more news coverage. Of course crude oil is 100 percent organic and natural, not a manufactured chemical, and will degrade eventually. Don’t know about this crap. You make it sound like the company responsible for the spill can issue an apology and just move on but I have a feeling the consequences are just starting.

  2. WVA has two awful choices. either take the worst of the worst chemical companies and related or suffer profound and massive generational unemployment.

    God did not build WVA to be a NoVa or a Chicago or NYC.. it’s just too mountainous and once all the trees were cut to build East Coast homes, coal was the alternative…

    WVA is an interesting and beautiful place. The school buses out in the country are 4-wheel drive!

    More than a few of it’s rivers are devoid of life and will be for generations because of acid runoff from abandoned mines…and leeching of tailings from mountaintop removal.

    WVA is an example of what happens when the people are generationally poor and uneducated and the parents don’t cannot assist their kids in learning – like we see in poor urban locales.. the malady is very similar.

    as bad as it is.. it would be worse without those jobs…

    I’m amazed that initially the folks at their public water plant said things were okay..just bad smell… You can bet in NoVa or Henrico a major freak-out would have resulted.

    Why a public water intake is downstream from such a plant handling such materials to start with is a puzzle..

    Of course if the EPA goes snooping on this it’s gonna rile up a bunch of folks.

    • The topography of WVa has nothing to do with why it hasn’t developed as a center. See plenty of German cities like Heidelberg as examples of how you can create urbanity in the mountains. It has been bad choice after bad choice that has plagued the people of West Virginia and companies that care more about whats in the ground there than the people who take it out of the ground.

      You can say coal and the paper mills and the other industries there creates jobs etc but they also create indentured employment in the crap conditions, crap pay, and eventual abandonment of a community once they have tapped that areas commodities.

  3. Perhaps TE but let me ask – do you see any similarities between WVA and the surrounding states similar Appalachian locales and terrain?

    Virginia, West, NC, West Md, southern Pa andOhio… north-eastern Kentucky/Ohio?


    any further thoughts?

    • Yes, all of them have been abused by massive corporate and industrial interests that have gone unchecked since the start of the American industrial revolution. Sure there we some hiccups for them along the way, but for the most part they got 99% of whatever the heck they wanted due to the money in politics (and now they even get to be called people too!)

      Someone tell Massey energy we want to charge the company with murder and sentence it to life in prison (oh wait, the company isn’t a person when that happens, just when it wants to affect elections of course).

      Sorry tangent

      Back on subject, see Asheville NC, see Pittsburgh. There are examples of areas that can diversify economically and thrive as urban centers in the Appalachian/Allegheny. Both of those areas saw collapses when the commodity industries took a nose dive (and to a great extent Pitt is still obviously connected to those industries) but they have turned a corner now and hopefully for good.

  4. Larry,
    Strongly disagree with concept that God intended West Virginia to get screwed over, speaking as a former resident. WV’s succession was part of a trade off by Northern industrialists to get WV resources and block the South. They then exploited like hell.

    WV is incredibly rich. Why isn’t it an over-sized Dubai and what did the Lord say about that?

  5. it’s not just WVA Peter.. it’s most of Appalachia but WVA is the poster child for sure.

    I don’t know the answers .. I just know it’s more than WVA.. there are parts of Southwestern VA that look much like WVA.

    Part of it is a history of poor education… and part of that is due to the difficulty of getting kids to school in mountainous terrain.

    Compare WVA to the coal mines in Eastern Europe and China… and I think it’s more similar.

    ” Beginning in about 1960, the Council of Appalachian Governors, a group of the ten governors of the Appalachian states of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, united to seek federal government assistance for the

    mountainous portions of their states, which lagged behind the rest of the United States in income, education, health care, and transportation.

    During the 1960 Presidential campaign, candidate John F. Kennedy met with the governors to hear their concerns and observed living conditions in West Virginia that convinced him of the need for federal assistance to address the region’s problems.[2]
    Another catalyst that helped lead to the creation of the ARC was the 1962 book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill on the poverty and history of the Cumberland area of Appalachia, predominantly in Kentucky. This book brought the situation in Appalachia to national attention.[3]
    In 1963 President Kennedy formed the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission to assist in advancing legislation to bring federal dollars to Appalachia. This legislation, the Appalachian Redevelopment Act, was enacted by Congress in 1965, creating the ARC as a federal agency.[2] It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on March 9, 1965.[4]”


  6. Larry thanks I know this is history and it is al in my book

  7. I heard on the national news tonight that the State of West Virginia had not inspected the chemical plant since 1991. It’s hard to blame that on anyone but the State, its elected officials, and those who voted for them.

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