Environment

Obama’s failure to mention water crisis disappoints West Virginians

President's confidence in fracking, expressed in his State of the Union address, has Appalachians worried

West Virginians line up to get free water during a tap water ban earlier this month. Residents are still worried about the public water supply.
Craig Cunningham/The Daily Mail/AP

With their FEMA-supplied emergency water rations having run out on Monday, some West Virginia residents whose tap water remains chemically tainted feel their plight has been overlooked by the federal government. And President Barack Obama's State of the Union address did little to change that.

The president's speech Tuesday night covered topics from the minimum wage and technology investment to Hezbollah, Iran and the diplomatic legacies of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, but omitted any reference to a crisis that has raised health and safety concerns for hundreds of thousands of Americans in West Virginia.

Despite an all-clear from the local water supplier, some residents around the Charleston area remain skeptical of drinking water contaminated by 10,000 gallons of coal-cleaning chemicals stored near the Elk River, a major source of drinking water in a state where coal mining pollution has already poisoned wells for many who live near mines.

Even as Obama touted the promise of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas — which have raised massive environmental concerns — as ways of battling the country’s energy and economic woes, he made no mention of the Jan. 9 West Virginia environmental disaster, in which a Freedom Industries tank leaked 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol, along with another substance called PPH, contaminating the water of about 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties in and around Charleston, the state capital.

Members of the oil and gas industry responded positively to Obama's inclusion of natural gas drilling in his speech.

“If President Obama has decided to take unilateral action, he can fight income inequality by seizing this once-in-a-lifetime energy moment by allowing more oil and natural gas jobs that pay seven times the minimum wage," said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, in a news release issued after the speech. He also called for quick approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. 

"The American energy renaissance gives us a unique opportunity to revitalize our economy and become a global energy superpower while helping Americans get back to work," he said.

West Virginia, with large natural gas deposits, plays a big role in the rebirth of American fossil fuel output. 

Many in the state would welcome a job at a natural-gas drilling rig. And an October 2013 editorial in the Charleston Daily Mail hails the rise of "Saudi Appalachia" as having no foreseeable downside. 

But serious environmental concerns linger for many residents amid the gas boom. Reports of rashes, nausea and a strange licorice smell continue to keep many away from their regular sources of water — collateral damage from an accident caused by a chemical that is key to cleaning coal, the state's classic fossil fuel. 

I don’t feel snubbed, but maybe it’s because I’m Appalachian. I’m used to it.

Maria Gunnoe

Environmental activist

To some West Virginians, Obama’s failure to mention their continuing plight is a letdown but doesn’t come as a shock for people who say they’re accustomed to seeing their part of the country ignored.

“As a native West Virginian and Appalachian scholar, I am disappointed but unsurprised that President Obama did not mention the West Virginia water crisis in his State of the Union,” said Krista Bryson, from Winfield, W.Va. Bryson is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Ohio State University, studying the culture of the region where she grew up.

Winfield is northwest of Charleston in Putnam County, one of nine affected by the crisis.

“Unfortunately, the federal government’s dismissal or willful ignorance of serious problems in West Virginia and Appalachia has been the norm for decades. Appalachian problems are not prioritized in the scope of national politics,” said Bryson, who started a blog to keep track of the water crisis.

She also blames what she calls more than 100 years of discrimination against people from the impoverished mountain region, long a source of raw resources including coal and timber.

“And because this discrimination has gone completely unchecked in the public sphere, it persists,” said Bryson, “blinding people to the many problems Appalachians face every day, problems that are not of our own choosing but part of an inescapable system of inequality that the rest of the nation is blithely inattentive to.”

Dustin White, an environmental activist, echoed Bryson’s view, saying he was disappointed in Obama's failure to mention the issue.

“It seems the plight of West Virginians and others throughout the Appalachian region is still not even a blip on his radar,” White said.

But Obama did talk at length about issues that affect West Virginians, in particular natural gas and alternative energy; he just didn’t call out the state by name.

Most of West Virginia lies inside the Marcellus Shale, a massive area of gas deposits targeted for hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking — which critics say is often responsible for water contamination. White worries that the location of the deposit will deepen his state’s economic dependence on fossil fuels and threaten water resources.

The fracking process not only uses local sources of fresh water — it pumps chemical-laced fracking fluid water into the ground, much as coal mining involves storing huge reservoirs of coal and chemical “slurry” underground or in aboveground impoundments. Environmentalists blame that practice for contaminating water in wells and streams.

Obama, in his speech, hailed $100 billion in natural gas investment as a bridge between carbon and solar energy, saying, “If extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change ...

fracking
A fracking rig in Pennsylvania. Like West Virginia, Pennsylvania is part of the Marcellus Shale.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty

“I’ll cut red tape to help states get those factories built, and this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas ...

“Taken together, our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet.”

Vivian Stockman, spokeswoman for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, praised some parts of Obama’s speech but sharply criticized his views on fracking.

“I’m glad the president mentioned solar energy and emphatically stated that climate change is already causing dire problems and we must answer to our children for our actions now,” Stockman told Al Jazeera.

“I agree we should cut subsidies to fossil fuel industries, but it’s wrong to claim natural gas (fracking) is a bridge fuel. Fracking, like mountaintop-removal coal mining, is poisoning our water.”

Mountaintop-removal mining is widespread in Appalachia. It involves blasting off the top of a mountain to get to the coal inside, and environmentalists blame it not only for destroying the landscape but also for introducing chemicals into local wells and streams.

“Every action the president wants to take depends on clean water, for without that we cannot live,” said Stockman. “Americans have come to take easily accessible, potable water for granted.

“What’s happened here, with the chemical-laced, licorice-smelling water, is a wake-up call. I wish the president had said, ‘We all need to wake up and smell the water.’”

To White, Obama’s climate-change-conscious energy policy aimed at increasing all sources of power to combat carbon emissions, from natural gas to solar power, rings hollow.

“Natural gas, like coal, is a finite resource that will create nothing but a boom-and-bust economy for areas, and neither can be extracted without impacting human health,” White said, referring to the "resource curse" of coal that some scholars say likely keeps Appalachia poor. 

Maria Gunnoe, also with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said Obama’s support for fracking sounded to her like an “eviction notice,” but the lack of mention of the state’s water woes was worst.

“I just feel like he’s so disassociated from what’s happening in West Virginia,” said Gunnoe, who is from Bob White, a small town in Boone County that was under a water-use ban.

“He said nothing about 300,000 people without good water."

A letter to the editor published Sunday in The New York Times called for the president to invite Gunnoe to the State of the Union because of her record of environmental activism and the fact that her hometown was in the path of the water ban.

She didn’t get the invitation.

“I don’t feel snubbed, but maybe it’s because I’m Appalachian. I’m used to it.”

‘Great speech’

Not everyone who lives in West Virginia expected Obama to bring up the issue, however, nor did they all fault him for it.

One of those people was Karen Kunz, a professor of public administration at West Virginia University in Morgantown, a city that was not directly affected by the water ban.

Kunz studies the effect of corporations on public finances. She said that many elected leaders in West Virginia are “blatantly beholden to the fossil fuels industry,” with a few exceptions, adding that the cozy relationship has done harm to residents’ water resources.

To Kunz, "natural gas is picking up where the coal companies left off, in terms of potential pollution, but without all the local jobs created by coal."

Despite her misgivings about fossil fuels, Obama's not mentioning the water crisis did not disappoint her. 

“I thought it was a great speech. The president was relaxed and witty,” said Kunz, who said she appreciated how Obama touched on a variety of issues like “raising the minimum wage, vowing to promote immigration reform, bring our troops home and close Guantanamo.”

“He never mentioned the water disaster in Charleston — or Hurricane Sandy, for that matter. They were not appropriate topics for this speech; the State of the Union traditionally is broader — national — in scope.”

‘Plenty to vent’

But for Charleston, a fear of what's coming through faucets remains. 

Although a drinking water ban has been lifted by the water supplier, West Virginia American Water, many residents are still afraid of drinking it, complaining of the lingering licorice smell that makes them wary of using what comes out of the tap.

“Still not drinking (the) water. Mine still has a smell sometimes,” said Melissa Harper, 33, mother of a 2-year-old with an immune deficiency disorder requiring access to water and a particularly hygienic environment.

Harper lives with her husband in Elkview, near Charleston, and attends nursing school. Just as Obama didn’t mention her region’s plight, life got in the way of her being able to catch the president’s speech.

“I will be missing it,” she told Al Jazeera on Tuesday night.

“I have two classes on Tuesday evenings. I hate that I’m missing it.”

Weeks ago, when the water ban was first lifted, Harper had been excited to start using the tap again. That enthusiasm faded as the MCHM scent stuck around. 

As for enduring the continuing ordeal of trying to raise her child without access to water she considers clean, Harper says she's upset. 

"I have plenty to vent about." 

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