“It’s Not an Accident, It’s a Disaster:” The Water Crisis in West Virginia

by Wiley Cypress / Earth First! Newswire

[Earth First! Journal editor’s note: The Elk River chemical spill is not a past crisis. The water supply for thousands of Appalachians is still poisoned and friends at West Virginia Clean Water Hub have been working tirelessly to meet demands for clean water. See how you can support them regionally by volunteering or donating water, or from afar by donating cash.]

Contaminated water from the kitchen taps at Midland Trail Elementary School in Riverside, WV Monday. Photo: Rachel Molenda / WV Gazette

Contaminated water from the kitchen taps at Midland Trail Elementary School in Riverside, WV Monday. Photo: Rachel Molenda / WV Gazette

Only a month has passed since Freedom Industries spilled 7500 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol into Elk River, poisoning the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians. Yet mainstream media coverage of the disaster has almost disappeared. This week, for example, MSNBC pulled a story on the chemical spill to make room for more newsreel about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s traffic scandal.

Still, on the ground, “The overwhelming reality is that the water is not safe,” said Gnat, a volunteer with West Virginia Clean Water Hub (CWH) in an interview with Earth First! Journal yesterday. “It’s not an accident, it’s a disaster,” said Gnat.

West Virginia Clean Water Hub (CWH)—one of the only remaining organizations distributing potable water in the spill zone—is a loosely formed collective of volunteers that have been distributing donations from Appalachian environmental coalitions and individual donors to impacted communities. CWH has seen a recent spike in requests for clean water and reports of chemical related illness. This week in Kanawha County, at least five schools closed to protect students from contaminated water. At Midland Trail Elemenatry School, a student and teacher were both hospitalized after inhaling toxic fumes when the school tried to flush the pipes with school still in session.

“I talk to people on a daily basis who say ‘I tried to take a shower and now I have blisters and burns,’” said Gnat. By mid January, American Water Company, the corporate municipality in control of the pipes, declared the Elk River water safe to drink for most of the nine counties dependent on the poisoned municipality. By January 17, the color-coded system that American Water set up to notify residents about water safety labeled all nine counties blue (“go ahead and drink it”), though the safety assurance was quickly rescinded for pregnant women. “At this point the red/blue thing is a little bit irrelevant,” said Gnat, “because people know that you should smell your water and decide for yourself.”

Chemical spill related E.R. visits doubled in the week after the “do not use” ban was lifted. In a condescending statement from the Bureau of Public Health, Dr. Letitia Tierney seemed to blame the spike in E.R. visits on hysteria. “Anxiety is a real diagnosis and it can be really hard on people and it’s OK to be seen by a health professional to ensure you’re OK.”

Business as usual on the WV American Water Company page.

Business as usual on the WV American Water Company page.

On the ground, however, it appears that the relationship between illness and lingering chemicals in the water is actually under-reported. Gnat has one friend whose two-year-old child started “coughing up foam” last week after exposure to contaminated water. When they visited the hospital the doctor was dismissive of the the link to the spill and referred to the symptom as “vomiting.” “There are a lot of politics about reporting health impacts,” said Gnat, who referred to the crisis as “a 300,000 person lab experiment.” “People are getting sick on a massive scale.”

The most obvious and frightening consequence of American Water preemptively lifting the “do not use” ban on Elk River water is that people drank poison and bathed their children in it believing, with all assurances from the authorities, that it was safe. Big picture, the declaration of safety meant that FEMA, Red Cross, and other emergency response organizations abandoned the crisis when thousands of people still lacked access to safe water. (Hey FEMA, stop stalking Florida protestors and get back to your real job.) The declaration of safety meant that MSNBC could go back to talking about traffic jams while the crisis in West Virginia persisted. This initial declaration was not made by public health officials, but by a for-profit water company.

A neglected aspect (among many) of this story is the overall impact of 7500 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol on the Elk River watershed and all connected ecosystems. If, weeks after the spill, Elk River water could cause someone to cough up foam, what could that water do to the critters that live in it—the tad poles, the river otters, and everything in between? Impacted residents and grassroots activists on the ground understandably have no capacity to assess the ecocidal nature of this disaster if they are busy providing mutual aid for rural West Virginians who have been abandoned by state politicians, emergency response services, journalists, and municipalities.

Who is Responsible?

State politicians have moved on to talking about regulating chemical companies, in many cases actively denying the relationship between this spill and the omnipotence of the coal industry in Appalachia. “This was not a coal company. This was a chemical supplier where the leak occurred. As far as I know, there are no coal mines within miles of this particular incident,” said Governor Tomlin at a news conference after the spill.

Besides the most obvious link to coal—that 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol is a chemical used solely by the coal industry—the spill was also a massive demonstration of how dependent folks in coal country have become on municipal water sources because of local water contamination from mountain top removal runoff and coal slurry.

“The coal companies have been poisoning local water sources for 125 years,” said Gnat. “That is the reason that nine counties were put on the American Water municipality.”

For example, Gnat said that the people of Prenter, WV fought for years to have pipes built from the American Water Company after they found out that coal companies had contaminated all of their ground water by injecting coal slurry into decommissioned mines. The issue only came to light after Prenter residents experienced a proliferation of brain tumors, kidney and liver failure and respiratory problems. In “the cruelest of ironies,” Prenter has again been screwed over by the coal industry. This time there is no recourse besides bottled water.

What Can We Do?

Reminiscent of post-Katrina and Sandy solidarity efforts (though admittedly at a much smaller scale) mutual aid activists in West Virginia have banded together to replace the government-sponsored support systems that withdrew after after American Water arbitrarily decided 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol was safe to consume at one part per million. Currently Clean Water Hub is using a facebook page and google voice number to match water donations with requests from the nine counties. Until last week, Gnat said, they were getting two to three calls a day from communities (families, schools etc.) requesting water, but that number has spiked as the crisis continues and word spreads about the organization.

Water drop on February 4th. Photo: West Virginia Water Hub

Water drop on February 4th. Photo: West Virginia Clean Water Hub

Recently they’ve been contacted especially by low income public housing projects in Charleston. The water crisis in both rural and urban areas is exacerbated by poverty. “To force people to begin paying for their water by the jug […] is out of the range of possibility for so many West Virginians,” said Gnat, who also mentioned the added cost of paper plates, plastic forks, hand wipes and sanitizer.

In the short term, CWH is constantly in need of more donations to meet requests for water and sanitation. Volunteers are needed to move water and check up on water distribution points that have supposedly been reinstated by the governor. “We really need people who can stay for more than just a single water drop,” said Gnat.

Long term, the collective seeks grant funding for rain water catchment systems. The bottled water system is “unsustainable,” said Gnat, so they are attempting to partner communities that have clean water with those who still have water contamination.

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