How dirty coal foretold West Virginia's disaster

Residents have warned about coal-cleaning chemicals for years. Will feds finally investigate state agencies?

January 14, 2014 10:00AM ET
People wait in line for water from a tanker truck in from Washington, Pa., on Jan. 10, at a school near Charleston, W.Va. On Monday, officials began lifting tap-water restrictions for some residents.
Craig Cunningham/The Daily Mail/AP

Since Jan. 9, when a chemical used to process coal leaked into West Virginia’s Elk River, images of beleaguered Charleston residents lining up for bottles of water from National Guard tankers have dominated the headlines. With some restrictions on water use lifted on Jan. 13, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared, “We see light at the end of the tunnel.”

The tunnel of denial, hopefully. The fallout over the chemical spill from a coal-processing plant should serve as a wake-up call to the nation after years of pleas by coal-mining communities for federal invention in the state’s rogue regulatory agencies that oversee the coal industry and its chemical-industry counterparts. 

Tomblin has attempted to distance the coal industry from the nation’s latest environmental disaster. Asked if the spill was a result of the state’s heavy reliance on the coal industry, he quickly replied, “This was not a coal-company incident. This was a chemical-company incident.” But the entangled reality of dirty coal and its toxic chemical cleansers has finally arrived at the governor’s front door — and faucet. 

“This crisis is about much more than a renegade chemical company,” said Bob Kincaid, board president of Coal River Mountain Watch, an organization based in Raleigh County in the state’s southern coalfields that fights mountaintop-removal mining. “It’s about an entire state subjected day after day for more than a century to a laundry list of poisons by renegade companies. This particular poisoning happened to catch the world’s attention, but for us, it’s another day in the Appalachian Sacrifice Zone.”

The question is, Will the nation continue to turn a blind eye to the mounting toll of the aging extraction industry on the health and livelihoods of central Appalachians or take action against the growing, untenable costs of mining, cleaning, transporting and burning dirty coal? It must. It is high time for the national media and federal officials to finally turn the investigative and regulatory spotlight on coal country’s disastrous water-protection policies.

Contamination, in denial

Attempts to regulate coal mining and its various stages of processing in West Virginia, as in coal-mining regions in other states, have long met with denial, especially when it comes to inadequacies in the monitoring of water cleanliness. Whether it is a deadly coal slurry spill, coal ash pond breakage or toxic discharges of heavy metals into the waterways from strip mining, a regulatory crisis is never considered a real crisis until it is validated by a disaster.

In Mingo County, W.Va., coal-mining residents settled a major lawsuit in 2011 with the former Massey Energy coal company after the injection of 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry — waste fluid produced by washing coal with water and chemicals before sending it to market — into underground mines contaminated their aquifers, wells and other drinking-water sources. “We had some faith that if your water was contaminated, that your government would step in and do something,” former miner Brenda McCoy told visiting filmmakers in 2011. “But they didn’t.”

In Prenter, W.Va., a corridor of brain tumors, kidney and liver failure and respiratory problems finally came to light in a 2009 New York Times expose on coal companies. The series reported that the coal companies had pumped “into the ground illegal concentrations of chemicals — the same pollutants that flowed from residents’ taps.” As the Times noted, “state regulators never fined or punished those companies for breaking those pollution laws.”

This most recent spill — of the coal-cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCMH) — was not just an accident waiting to happen. It was also a bitter reminder of the myriad potentially deadly coal-related issues that daily threaten the waterways of central Appalachia. 

“The Elk River spill wasn’t an isolated accident,” Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, wrote in a Jan. 12 op-ed for the Charleston Gazette. “It was the inevitable consequence of weak regulatory enforcement over many years, made possible by our collective failure to uphold the values we profess.”

If our nation is serious about ensuring that clean water is delivered to citizens’ faucets, it cannot put clean-water regulations in the hands of the states.

Such regulatory failures have environmental consequences beyond this most recent spill. As David Biello, an editor at Scientific American, noted, there are far graver dangers to human health than MCMH waiting around the bend, such as “exposure to the slurry of water and other chemicals formed after coal is washed.” Situating the Elk River spill in the larger issue of coal-waste management, he noted the “numerous coal-slurry floods and spills in West Virginia and U.S. history.” (Perhaps the most notorious of these occurred in 1972 when the failure of a coal company’s dam in Logan County, W.Va., let loose a deluge of water and coal waste that killed 125 residents.)

And when it comes to the thousands of miles of waterways sullied by reckless strip-mining operations in central Appalachia, those poisoned waters have long acted as messengers of the extraordinary health costs of coal mining for everyone who lives downstream.

But as top West Virginia officials discussed the Elk River spill, the lack of precautionary planning for such environmental disasters was clear. They admitted they were stumbling just to figure out the basics of the spill and its health implications — and even the name of the chemical approved for cleaning coal.

As Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, told the Washington Post, “I can’t pronounce the chemical name. It’s MH, MCMH — It’s something like that.”

Breaking an outlaw mentality

West Virginians may be tough enough to forgo a hot shower, but its governor has long treated the coal industry and its chemical associates with kid gloves. According to recent reports in The New York Times, the chemical plant site had not been inspected in over 20 years.

“This is but one spill that has poisoned the water supply of hundreds of thousands of innocent people due to the outlaw mentality of the coal industry,” said longtime West Virginia activist Bo Webb, who lives below a mountaintop-removal operation.

It is a mentality that coal-country residents and environmentalists have sought to bring to heel.

Last summer coal-mining activists with the West Virginia–based group Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival paddled a boat onto a 2.8-billion-gallon coal-slurry impoundment in Raleigh County — one of the more than 100 so-called toxic lakes full of liquid coal waste that dot West Virginia — in order to draw attention to, as one participant wrote, inaction for “Appalachian people who live every day slowly being poisoned by their own drinking water.”

Protests have also centered on the Brushy Fork coal-slurry impoundment dam, one of the largest in the nation. Residents downslope from it would have less than 15 minutes to escape a 72-foot tidal wave of coal slurry if nearby mountaintop-removal blasts caused the dam to fail. (It is considered a class-C dam because if it fails, it could cause loss of human life.)

But will the state of West Virginia or federal officials ever respond beyond the shuffle of endless petitions?

On Dec. 30 the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement finally agreed to investigate five out of 19 West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection regulatory failings cited in a petition by the Citizen Action for Real Enforcement campaign. The 120-page petition, filed in June, included such issues as flooding impacts and mining-pollutant discharge violations.

For some residents, such action is welcome but far too little and too late. 

“Right now my eyes burn. I’ve had a headache for four days … because the real emergency alarm did not sound,” West Virginia poet Crystal Goodwoman told me on Sunday.

The bottom line in West Virginia and the more than 20 other states where coal is mined is this: If our nation is serious about ensuring that clean water is delivered to citizens’ faucets, it cannot put clean-water regulations in the hands of the states, as the U.S. House of Representatives did Jan. 9 by quietly passing the Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act of 2013. We also need to stop talking about mitigating the environmental and health impacts of coal mining and start investing in a transition to clean energy endeavors through a coalfields regeneration fund.

“If we are going to create safer environmental policies without jeopardizing the economy, we have to start telling the truth,” Goodwoman said. “The only way to win — and by winning, I mean staying alive — is to tell the truth and change policy. We all need water and air. We all have a job to do.”

Jeff Biggers is the author of the forthcoming “Damnatio Memoriae,” a play on immigration in Italy, among other works.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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