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Do West Virginia Politicians Value Coal Mining Companies More Than Public Health?

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Do West Virginia Politicians Value Coal Mining Companies More Than Public Health?
On January 9, 2014, Freedom Industries located near Charleston, West Virginia, released crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) into the Elk River.

The chemical spill occurred upstream from the “West Virginia American Water (WVAW) intake and treatment and distribution center”.

However, once discovered, Freedom Industries failed to notify the WVAW of the leak.

As a result, the spill contaminated the water supply of nine counties and affected 300,000 residents. 169 people were treated for some form of related illness including nausea, vomiting and rashes.

Washing and Cleaning Coal

Crude MCHM is used to wash the impurities from the coal in the form of a chemical foam. Five days later, the company admitted that 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM had leaked from the plant. However, instead of just MCHM, “a mixture of glycol ethers known as PPH” were also leaked. PPH (polyglycol ethers) are another type of coal cleaning chemical.

The Elk River is a tributary of the Kanawha River and the January spill was the third chemical accident in five years to pollute the Valley. That morning in January, the residents of Charleston, West Virginia suddenly noticed a sickly sweet aroma that reminded many of licorice.

Freedom Industries claimed that two employees found the leak in a stainless steel tank around 10:30 am and began cleanup immediately. However, the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) disputed the company’s claim, stating that their team of inspectors found the leak in a concrete containment dike. Furthermore, the company was not in any cleanup process at the time.

To make matters worse, the WVAW “assumed” they could simply allow their carbon filtration system to filter out the poisonous toxins. They hadn’t taken into account how large the spill was and by late afternoon, the WVAW had to issue a “Do Not Use” warning to residents. The water was unsafe to wash, bathe, cook or drink.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the company that informed the WVAW of the spill and contamination, but the DEP.

2014 elk river chemical spill affected counties

West Virginia House and Senate Investigate

Five days after the spill, the West Virginia House of Delegates and the West Virginia Senate investigated the processes and asked what loopholes had allowed Freedom Industries not to immediately report the spill. Senator John Unger (Chairman of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on State Water Resources) “proposed amending the current State Water Resources Management Plan”.

Governor Tomblin requested DEP Secretary Randy Huffman to examine new regulatory methods found in similar chemical facilities and to establish an “inventory of similar facilities across West Virginia”.

When the crude MCHM and PPH poisoned West Virginia’s water, 300,000 people lost one of the most common and necessary things – clean water for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing.

After the crisis and as life attempted to return to normal, people realized that something intangible had been lost – trust. They couldn’t trust the coal processing plants; the spill had been the latest in three during the past five years. Many felt they could no longer trust those they’d elected into various government offices to oversee and protect them from such neglect.

It appeared to many people that the spill was avoidable had the EPA inspections addressed the odors being reported, or perhaps the EPA had failed to conduct proper inspections. The list of questions and re-examining agencies, politicians and government officials began to grow.

Much of the population felt that those they’d place in office to protect them from the very thing they had suffered through had failed them. The pollution of this and other spills are serious health risks that can impact the residents of the nine affect counties for the rest of their lives.

Some of the prices people pay for living in a coal mining region include heart conditions, COPD, cancer and, of course, the more widely known disease, black lung. But, to those suffering with these health conditions, they seem to be in a “Catch 22”. They live where they work and they work in a coal mining region.

wv state capital

Politicians Letting Constituents Down?

But, many people are fighting back by supporting and pushing their politicians to vote for a bill currently before Congress. It’s the ACHE Act HR526. The bill would place a “moratorium on permitting for mountaintop removal coal mining until health studies are conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, and for other purposes”. It has a 13% chance of getting past committee and a 7% chance of being enacted if it does.

Those odds may sound impossible to overcome, but there’s one woman who gives hope to those feeling as though they’re fighting an uphill battle. Kimberly Wasserman began fighting at age 21 against two coal plants in order to save her infant child from suffering with severe asthma due to the dirty air he breathed in their Chicago Latino neighborhood, Little Village.

She fought for 15 years to shut down the two coal plants that were “exempt from emissions standards of newer plants” because they were too old. Over the years, scientists and community groups began to support her efforts.

In 2012, new mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an ultimatum to the Midwest Generation company (owner of the two plants) to “clean up or get out”. In August 2013, the company shut down both plants. Wasserman was one of six 2013 winners of the annual Goldman Environmental Prize that awards $150,000 to each winner.

The solution to coal mining pollution seems to be a fairly straightforward answer to the ever-growing problems that arise out of coal mining processes. It’s easy to lump all politicians together as undervaluing those who live in coal mining regions.

Advocates of clean air and water advise the public to use their right to vote as a weapon against politicians who refuse to live up to their promises to protect their constituents from companies and weak laws that prove harmful to them and the environment.

Image Credits:

(1) Wikipedia: Kanawha River Charlestown
(2) Wikipedia: 2014 Elk River Chemical Spill Affected Counties
(3) Wikipedia: WV State Capitol Building

Originally published on

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