They poisoned the river for a “clean coal” lie

January 13, 2014

Trish Kahle explains how a chemical used by the coal companies spilled into the Elk River, causing a crisis affecting hundreds of thousands--with no end in sight.

IMAGINE YOURSELF in the rugged countryside of the Appalachian Mountains, where you and your neighbors have lived with a history of poverty and lack of economic development--and you learn that the water piped into your home has been poisoned and can't be used, even after it is boiled, until further notice.

Imagine trying to run a hospital when the city's water is unusable--even for hand washing. Imagine having to ration drinking water to school-age children in the fourth most water-rich country on earth.

All of these nightmares and more came true in West Virginia on January 9 after residents reported that their tap water tasted like licorice. The contaminant turned out to be 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCMH--a chemical used to produce misleadingly named "clean coal" through a froth flotation process that "scrubs" the coal prior to burning it in power plants.

The chemical spilled into the Elk River from a 48,000-gallon tank owned by Freedom Industries. The full extent of the leak remained unclear over the weekend. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin claimed the spill didn't exceed 5,000 gallons, but Freedom Industries President Gary Southern could only say for certain that less than 35,000 gallons leaked out.

The Elk River in West Virginia
The Elk River in West Virginia (Vicky Somma)

Tom Aluise of the West Virginia Environmental Protection Association noted that MCMH cannot be removed from the water--and residents will simply have to wait for thousands of miles of pipelines to be flushed before water safety can be reassessed. "This material pretty much floats on the water, and it's floating downstream, and eventually it will dissipate, but you can't actually get in there and remove it," Aluise said.

That begs the question of why a hazardous chemical that is impossible to clean up if spilled was being stored near a river only one mile upstream from a treatment plant providing water to West Virginia's capital of Charleston and nine counties that span the surrounding area.

FREEDOM INDUSTRIES claimed it didn't know how a toxic chemical could leak from its tank and the containment area around it, and then into the river. But state investigators said they were able to trace the leak to a hole in the storage tank--the chemical apparently breached a second containment barrier and flowed into the Elk.

According to its website, Freedom Industries supplies bulk quantities of numerous hazardous chemicals used by the mining industry, among others. "With 4,000,000 gallons of storage capacity," boasts the website, the Elk River terminal "can process large volumes of chemical rapidly, and cost effectively." Processing them safely, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be a top concern.

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) started receiving odor reports about the facility as early as 7:30 a.m., according to the Charleston Gazette. But the department's emergency response chief didn't receive word about the spill until noon. The Gazette reported that the company failed to report the spill to regulatory agencies.

DEP officials said they had no jurisdiction to inspect Freedom Industries' terminal because chemicals were only stored--not produced--at the site. A Gazette report later quoted a DEP official stating that the department last inspected the site in 1991, when it was a different kind of facility and owned by a different company.

As for federal oversight, my search of agency records found no recorded inspections by either the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The lack of inspections by OSHA was confirmed in an agency statement saying OSHA personnel were now investigating, but had "no previous history" to go by. An EPA spokesperson told CNN that its inspectors hadn't ordered any enforcement actions at any Freedom Industries facility in the past five years.

The DEP did finally issue an order forcing Freedom Industries to close down its operations--and later to drain remaining chemicals from 11 above-ground storage tanks. The facility may be allowed to operate again, however, after the equipment is tested.

As if to underline the disastrous response of regulatory agencies to the Elk River disaster, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to undercut existing environmental standards...on the same day that thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical leaked out of Freedom Industries' terminal. The "Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act," sponsored by Colorado Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, would, among other provisions, get rid of the requirement that the EPA review solid waste regulations every three years.

IF REGULATORY negligence is an old story--especially in West Virginia, where the coal industry is concerned--it really doesn't convey the human costs of this disaster.

With no way for MCMH to be removed from the water, it remains unclear what the short- and long-term effects will be. Safety data sheets for various materials compiled by OSHA list little information about the effects of the chemical, and many emergency officials say they know little about how exposure to it would effect humans, animals, plants or the overall ecosystem.

Jeff McIntyre--president of the West Virginia American Water Co., which runs the treatment facility polluted by the Freedom Industries' leak--did little to reassure residents when he refused to comment specifically about possible effects, saying only that the chemical is "not particularly lethal in its usage form."

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said possible effects of ingestion or inhalation MCMH include "severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation, such as skin blistering." To this list, the National Library of Medicine web page on the human health effects of methylcyclohexanol adds headaches and damage to the heart, liver, kidney and lungs, possibly resulting in death.

Scientific American reported that the chemical was "an obscure compound" that hasn't received many safety reviews because it has little use in consumer applications. The chemical "adheres to some of the compounds in soil," the magazine reported. "It is poisonous but only at relatively large doses; in rats it killed half of the animals tested at concentrations above 825 milligrams per kilogram of body weight."

While concentrations in the West Virginia water aren't that high, it's not clear what the ecological consequences of the spill will be. The Elk River is a major tributary of the Ohio River, and the Appalachian Mountains, as well as the valleys downstream, are home to ecosystems already under threat from more than a century of burning coal, deforestation, strip mining, mountaintop removal and more.

For now, hundreds of thousands of people are without water in one of the poorest areas of the country, and the government has no idea when tap water will be safe to drink again. The inadequate emergency response sent people--or at least those who had transportation to get to a store and money to afford it--scrambling to buy rapidly disappearing supplies of bottled water.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources closed restaurants and schools. Nursing homes and hospitals, while also under the advisory, struggled to provide basic services. There were, however, reports of some nursing homes that had to close, leaving elderly and disabled people without access to care.

On social media, West Virginians were quick to point out the failure of the government response. Teresa Boggs Meadow noted, "already cooked, ran the dishwasher, done laundry and drank it. If it happened so early why did you put the warning out so late? It happened at 10:30 AM!" Other residents tweeted that stores were gouging frightened customers by raising prices on bottled water.

THE SPILL in the Elk River is the latest chapter in a long story of ecological and class warfare in West Virginia--where the coal industry and other companies have attempted to rob working people of their land and livelihoods and devastate the ecosystems they rely on for survival.

It's an all-too-familiar story to residents. For Steve Pauley, a former chemical plant worker, the disregard for workers, the community and the environment--and the negligence of companies and the government alike--was just more of the same. As he described on the West Virginia Water Crisis blog:

One day I was up on a tower cleaning up some waste material that had leaked out...While I was up there, the chemical alarm sounded for a gas leak of...the same stuff that killed all those people in Bhopal, India in 1984. During the alarm, everyone else sheltered in place, but I was up on a tower and couldn't get down, so I was left there while all these chemicals swirled around me.

Once the emergency was over, someone finally came to get me down, but only after they had me finish the job that I was doing up there. I sent letters to OSHA and my congressman about the incident and was assured that there would be a "thorough investigation." That was in 1991, and I'm still waiting to hear anything further about it.

In her comment on an Al Jazeera America blog, Marilyn Mullens of Cool Ridge, W.Va., made the direct link back to the coal industry--the reason that MCMH exists in the first place:

This is the same chemical they use to "clean the coal." The same chemical that is pumped into billion-gallon earthen dams that litter the Appalachian Mountains. The chemicals have been seeping into the streams and groundwater of coalfield residents for years. Some of us have been pleading with our elected officials to stop this, but they are paid off by the coal companies. The same coal companies that are on record as saying my people are "collateral damage" and "expendable." Now this chemical spills into their drinking water, and they tuck tail and run. Go figure.

Mullens' comment raises an obvious question: How can a chemical that causes "damage to the heart, liver, kidney and lungs" possibly be considered part of a so-called "clean" energy process?

In reality, "clean coal" is a dangerous myth. As writer Jeff Goodell put it, it is "not an actual invention, a physical thing--it is an advertising slogan. Like 'fat-free donuts' or 'interest-free loans'..."

It's no coincidence that this disaster happened in one of the poorest areas of the country. The same companies that poison the water, decimate the mountaintops and erect dams to hold back huge amounts of "mountain slurry" are also responsible for the high levels of poverty that exist throughout the region.

For more than a century, minimizing access to health care, education and other social services helped employers extract as much profit as possible from the region by keeping corporate tax rates low--when the corporations that own operations in the state pay taxes at all.

This is the context we must understand to comprehend the failure of the state government's response. Why, in the richest country in the world, were people left to scramble to find supplies of bottled water? Why weren't hospitals and other medical facilities prioritized to receive water so the most vulnerable would be in less danger? Instead of closing schools and other public buildings, why weren't these facilities opened to the public as emergency relief centers?

Instead, the people of West Virginia, especially those who live outside the cities, were left to fend largely for themselves.

By Friday afternoon, there were at least six lawsuits filed against Freedom Industries and West Virginian American Water Co., two of which are seeking class-action status. But these lawsuits focus primarily on economic "damage" to businesses over water contamination--and not on the hundreds of thousands of people who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals.

ALL THE ecological disasters we see around us--from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to the fertilizer explosion that leveled the town of West, Texas, to the disaster at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, to the "development" of Canadian tar sands as an oil resource--underscore the increasing urgency of the ecosocialist project.

Capitalism is destroying our planet faster than we can study the effects of that destruction. Increasingly, the fundamental conflict emerges with astounding clarity--capitalism and the world's more than 6 billion people are on a collision course.

The people of West Virginia understand this conflict better than most people in the U.S. Central Appalachia contains some of the world's largest accessible deposits of bituminous coal, and coal drives the region's economy. Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coal mines have been owned by the most powerful sections of the corporate elite--the railroads, the steel companies and, more recently, the energy conglomerates.

As capitalists rushed to exploit the region's natural resources, they subjected the people who lived there and worked in the mines to countless ecological disasters and deadly explosions and cave-ins in the mines, all while keeping the region in poverty by keeping businesses located out of state.

The people of West Virginia have made clear demands through the years: put the land and people first. The companies did neither, but continued on a profit-driven rampage, destroying huge swaths of the West Virginia mountains--one of the world's most beautiful landscapes--with mountaintop removal for cheaper access to coal, exposing West Virginia residents to toxic air pollution and inflicting deadly explosions and cave-ins in the mines and anti-union violence against any miners who fought back.

The priorities set years ago by the corporations are what got us here today, with hundreds of thousands of people unsure when they will be able to drink their water again. Which is why the debates of the past aren't just the backdrop to the current crisis, but can help illuminate the stakes of the current moment.

Ecological demands are, of necessity, social demands. In the past, some coal miners and their allies argued that energy resources should be nationalized so production and use wouldn't be dominated by the profit motive. Hostility to nationalization stopped the idea from ever getting a hearing, but its importance remains.

Natural resources are public resources--energy generation and control of water resources must be brought under public control and run for the public good, not for profit. The trend, however, is in exactly the opposite direction. Increasing numbers of water treatment centers, like the one affected by the Elk River spill, are run more and more often by private companies--and companies like Coca-Cola have been pushing to privatize water resources in areas around the world.

Energy production must be nationalized and any workers displaced from the oil, coal and natural gas industries must be given unionized employment building an infrastructure based around sustainable energy sources.

Such a struggle points in a different future--one where West Virginia is not a dumping ground for the nation's dirty energy policy, but where its workers and residents decide democratically how to utilize natural resources and implement a system based on meeting their needs and not, as Freedom Industries boasts, processing large amounts of destructive chemicals rapidly and cost-effectively.

This article was adapted from two posts published at I Can't Believe We Still Have to Protest This Shit.

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