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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It has been more than five months since a leak at a chemical storage facility left more than 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water. Today voters across West Virginia are heading to the polls for the first time since the spill to participate in the state’s primary elections.
In the immediate aftermath of the leak, some West Virginians, including Benjamin Seebaugh, believed its devastating impact would serve as a wake-up call for the state, which is known for its lax regulatory environment. Now they’re not so sure.
“Many of us truly believed this would be the impetus for tangible change in West Virginia relating to environmental regulations and the energy industry,” says Seebaugh, 22. A lifelong West Virginia resident and a Democratic Party activist, he felt that the proximity of the incident to the state’s seat of power was also significant. “Even though West Virginia is no stranger to environmental disasters, Charleston is usually removed from them. This time, it happened right in the heart of Charleston, in the face of our legislators. They had to do something about it.”
Last month, Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill, which passed unanimously in the state legislature, tightening regulations on above-ground storage tanks. The source of the spill — which flooded the nearby Elk River with 10,000 gallons of a chemical mixture used to process coal — was a tank that had not been inspected by state officials since 1991.
I think members of both parties were careful not to associate this incident with the coal industry.
professor, West Virginia University
Critics have dismissed the bill as a reactive measure that does not address the state’s historic resistance to environmental regulations and falls well short of the needed rethink of West Virginia’s cozy relationship with the coal industry.
“I think members of both parties were careful not to associate this incident with the coal industry,” says Neil Berch, a professor at West Virginia University and an expert on the state’s electoral politics. He believes that state leaders were motivated to pass these incremental regulations out of a desire to head off calls for federal oversight. Now that the bill addressing storage facilities is law, there has been no talk of further regulations.
With the election cycle now in full swing, it’s becoming increasingly clear that elected officials’ attitudes toward coal have not substantially changed. “We’re hearing the same tired rhetoric from our politicians that we’ve always heard,” says Seebaugh, who just graduated from West Virginia University. “It’s incredibly frustrating, especially for it to be coming from the Democrats just as much as the Republicans.”
Indeed, the pro-coal rhetoric has been as loud as ever during this campaign season, with Democrats trying especially hard to prove their loyalty to King Coal as they struggle to distance themselves from President Barack Obama, who is wildly unpopular in the state. In 2012 he lost in all 55 counties in West Virginia — a first in the state’s 150-year history.
“Democrats in West Virginia are on the defensive,” Berch says, as they face accusations of being complicit in what the coal lobby deems Obama’s anti-coal agenda.
Although the state has long been a Democratic Party stronghold, a number of factors are contributing to historic gains for the state’s Republicans, who could hold a majority of the state’s congressional seats after this year’s general election.
“Sometimes people give the simple explanation of God, guns and gays, and that’s certainly a part of it. West Virginia is still more liberal than average on economic issues, but social and military issues have clearly played a greater role in recent elections,” Berch says.
Critics have dismissed this bill as a reactive measure that does not address the state’s historic resistance to environmental regulations and falls well short of the needed re-think of West Virginia’s cozy relationship with the coal industry.
Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat who has been in office since 1977, is believed to be facing the most significant electoral threat of his career this fall. West Virginians will also be electing a replacement for Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring later this year, with Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, the favorite to win that race. According to Berch, the vulnerable position in which Democrats have found themselves is making them more determined than ever to secure the support of the coal lobby, which continues to dominate the state’s political landscape.
Congressman Nick Rahall, a Democrat who has been in office since 1977, is believed to be facing the most significant electoral threat of his career this fall. West Virginians will also be electing a new senator to replace Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring later this year, and Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, a Republican with deep family ties to the coal industry, is currently the favorite to win that race. According to Berch, the vulnerable position Democrats find themselves in is making them more determined than ever to secure the support of the coal lobby, which continues to dominate the state’s political landscape.
If our state capital losing something as essential as its water supply doesn’t cause us to re-evaluate our addiction to coal, is there anything that could?
Democratic Party activist and West Virginia voter
The influence of big out-of-state donors is also having a significant impact on this campaign. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative super PAC founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, has targeted Rahall with a series of ads attacking him for his support of the Affordable Care Act. Rahall has responded with an ad touting his continued support for the coal industry and boasting that he “took on the Environmental Protection Agency to save West Virginia jobs.”
Meanwhile, in Charleston and the surrounding areas that were affected by the chemical spill, many residents still avoid drinking from their taps, even though it has been more than two months since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the water safe. Last month the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health released a report that confirmed 369 emergency room visits due to exposure to the contaminated water. Symptoms included diarrhea, headache, nausea, itching, rash, vomiting and stomach pain. In January one of the state’s leading public health officers, Dr. Letitia Tierney, downplayed the surge of ER visits as a result of the leak, saying that they could be attributed to the flu season and anxiety.
For Seebaugh and other West Virginians who have grown skeptical of the state government’s motives, such statements only cement the perception that their leaders are protecting industry at the expense of the environment and public safety.
“There is definitely a lack of faith that our state political leaders are ever going to confront this problem at a systemic level,” he says. “If our state capital losing something as essential as its water supply doesn’t cause us to re-evaluate our addiction to coal, is there anything that could?”