Thursday, January 16, 2014

First World Probs


I tried to avoid writing about the West Virginia Water Crisis, but there's too much political insanity not to address this. And to be very frank, far too many people have been affected for me not to write about this issue.

Last week, Freedom Industries, a company (associated with the coal industry) located on the outskirts of Charleston, had a storage tank leak, sending approximately 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane-methanol. This hazardous material seeped into the nearby Elk River, which is just north of the West Virginia American Water treatment facility in Charleston. The result was a contamination of the water supply of nine counties and a "do not use" order for 300,000 citizens of the Mountain State. This incident, while frustrating and dangerous, ought to serve as a hard lesson for not only the citizens of this state, but for all Americans. However, this current water problem is only the current form of a more underlying issue for West Virginia.

First, every state government and the federal government needs to take a long look at the infrastructure of this nation. Certain amenities are essential to any society, and our citizens will not tolerate, nor function in a world where basic needs are not met. It is mesmerizing to even think that a portion of American citizens in 2014 would have their lives put on hold because of the inability of government and private industry's inability to maintain a safe water supply.

The failures of Freedom Industries are obvious. There is no excuse for the delinquency demonstrated in not containing a toxic substance. As much as I would love to place all the blame on corporate neglect, the state of West Virginia and other government regulatory bodies need to bear a portion of the blame. Information released shows that storage tanks at Freedom Industries had not been inspected since 1991. One would think that having a chemical storage facility so close to a water treatment plant would warrant more scrutiny.

West Virginians in the affected counties have been unable to use the water to drink, bathe, or wash. Stagnancy has become the rule, and not the exception. Schools are closed, an overwhelming number of businesses are unable to open, and people are terribly frustrated.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with the help of numerous private citizens and generous corporate donations, has played a tremendous role in administering water to those in need. Friends and neighbors help one another out in true West Virginia fashion. However, this chemical spill has also brought out the worst in some people.

When the "do not use" order was given, people flocked to every store in a 50 mile radius of Charleston to purchase water. The result was somewhat frightening, as fights and arguments broke out over a small supply of water. Though this lasted only a relatively short period, it should serve as a warning. What if this chemical spill happened in an area with a higher population density? What if the response from the federal government wasn't as quick? I'm hoping at this point, images of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have entered your mind. Yet, there's one significant difference with this chemical spill in West Virginia – it was preventable. Hurricanes can't be stopped, but supervision of industry can stop these tragedies from occurring.

Another sad reality from this chemical spill is the opening of an old wound here in the Mountain State. One of the uglier parts of West Virginia history is exploitation, of both the people and the land. Ironically, the natural resources of the land have been both a blessing and a curse.

Coal is abundant, but since the mining of this resource began, West Virginians have lost out on the lion's share of the financial windfall from one of the most widely used fossil fuels. Corporations come to the state, take the resources from the land, and leave. Coal miners have always had a short shelf life here. While many mining companies pay more than the median salary for West Virginia, they subject workers to an extraordinary amount of danger.

How many disasters must we endure? Upper Big Branch. Sago. Buffalo Creek. That doesn't even include the number of coal miners who have suffered or died due to black lung or injuries on the job. In the meantime, coal companies continue to reap record profits and find more technical ways to extract the resources of West Virginia with less manpower. More coal is extracted today than any time in the past, and with only a fraction of the labor. Sadly, John Henry isn't here to save us in 2014.

When coal companies do find themselves in legal trouble, they file for bankruptcy or are swallowed up by a larger energy company, while finding a way to dodge their financial obligations – which often includes the pensions of retired miners.

I can't even begin to touch upon the physical blight caused by mining companies, who deceive West Virginians with promises of reclamation of the land. Landscapes, ecology, and the natural beauty of a wonderful place have been irrevocably altered.

And they never pay for what they've done.

We could probably manage to deal with the issue of a water problem on its own. But what drives West Virginians insane is that we must endure a water problem because of carpetbagging industrialists. Just one more exploitation. When the media outlets broke this story last week, Freedom Industries president, Gary Southern, didn't do his company any favors by giving an interview where he frequently drank a bottle of water on camera while attempting to dodge difficult questions. Throw in the fact that Southern is a Brit just for good measure. (We have a healthy skepticism of outsiders).

Even now, a week later, and this problem still isn't solved. Certain areas affected by the chemical spill have been cleared to drink water, and still warnings are being given to pregnant women not to drink that water! People are angry, and rightfully so. Numerous citizens have contacted media outlets venting their frustrations, and one of these letters caught the vibe of West Virginians best.

Eric Waggoner, an English professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, wrote a piece that appeared in The Huffington Post, which you can read in its entirety here. This excerpt, however, resonated with me. Waggoner wrote:

To hell with every greedhead operator who flocked here throughout history because you wanted what we had, but wanted us to go underground and get it for you. To hell with you for offering above-average wages in a place filled with workers who'd never had a decent shot at employment or education, and then treating the people you found here like just another material resource -- suitable for exploiting and using up, and discarding when they'd outlived their usefulness. To hell with you for rigging the game so that those wages were paid in currency that was worthless everywhere but at the company store, so that all you did was let the workers hold it for a while, before they went into debt they couldn't get out of.

To hell with you all for continuing, as coal became chemical, to exploit the lax, poorly-enforced safety regulations here, so that you could do your business in the cheapest manner possible by shortcutting the health and quality of life not only of your workers, but of everybody who lives here. To hell with every operator who ever referred to West Virginians as "our neighbors."

To hell with every single screwjob elected official and politico under whose watch it all went on, who helped write those lax regulations and then turned away when even those weren't followed. To hell with you all, who were supposed to be stewards of the public interest, and who sold us out for money, for political power. To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us. To hell with you for making us the eggs you had to break in order to make breakfast.

To hell with everyone who ever asked me how I could stand to live in a place like this, so dirty and unhealthy and uneducated. To hell with everyone who ever asked me why people don't just leave, don't just quit (and go to one of the other thousand jobs I suppose you imagine are widely available here), like it never occurred to us, like if only we dumb hilljacks would listen as you explained the safety hazards, we'd all suddenly recognize something that hadn't been on our radar until now.


West Virginians are tired of being exploited, ignored, and relegated to the status of a Third World nation. The issue of water just happens to be the current manifestation of an ongoing problem.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Freedom Industries owned this facility. Yes, the facility was in disrepair. However, didn't Freedom Industries just purchase this facility and set aside the funds to begin the improvements needed? I hate to see them take the fall on this and the previous owner who was so lax not.

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