Behind West Virginia’s Massive Chemical Spill, a History of Poverty and Pollution
January 24, 2014, 1:00am

By Katie Valentine and Emily Atkin, ThinkProgress

Maria Gunnoe remembers a time when the rivers in Boone County, West Virginia ran clear.

“In my childhood, I fished these streams, I spent time in these streams,” Gunnoe, who lives in Bob White, a town in Boone County, said. “That’s what we did. Nobody needed a pool; the streams were our playground.”

In September, the stream where she used to fish and play as a child turned white. The culprit was 2,400 gallons of a chemical called DT-50-D, which is used to cover coal and rail cars to cut down on dust. It had leaked into the river from the Eastern Associated Coal prep plant, and to Gunnoe, it was just one more example of how the coal and chemical industries have polluted West Virginia – the second poorest state in the nation – over her lifetime.

Industrial pollution, like what turned the Pond Fork River white, is a constant worry for many West Virginians, but Gunnoe said it took a major chemical spill like the one that polluted the water of 300,0000 West Virginians to get the nation to notice.

“This happens all the time. The coal companies are using stuff here that would absolutely eat the skin off of your body,” she said. “This time, it ended up in the water supply, and the world knows about it now. But it happens all the time.”

A Culture Of Poverty And Pollution

In a state where 17.8 percent of the population lives in poverty and 47 percent of children live in low-income families, many West Virginians depend on jobs from the chemical or coal industries – the same industries responsible for polluting the state’s water. Coal mining in West Virginia, a state that in 2011 ranked 49th out of 50 in terms of median household income, supports more than 88,000 jobs, while the chemical industry supports about 12,000.

Any attempt to put strict regulation on those industries is therefore met with hostility from those whose families have for generations depended on the jobs to get by, Paula Clendenin, a lifelong West Virginia resident, said shortly after the spill. Without that strict regulation, she said, spills become more likely.

“If you keep people poor, you keep them desperate,” Clendenin said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

The poorest in West Virginia are those who live in rural counties, which house much of the state’s coal mines and associated jobs. In those counties, like Boone, the poverty rate is 20.4 percent, five points higher than the urban poverty rate. Out of the nine counties affected by last week’s chemical spill, six are considered rural. Four of those rural counties are considered “mostly or entirely” hosts to mountaintop removal activity – a process largely considered to be the most efficient, but also the most destructive method of extracting coal.

“[Poverty] goes hand-in-hand with the fact that it’s the coal industry that’s polluting,” said Laura Merner, who has spent the last five years at the Alliance for Appalachia testing groundwater in West Virginia and surrounding states.

Merner tests groundwater across southern West Virginia for communities reliant on coal fields. She’s seen faucet water run black year-round, and bathtubs filled orange. She’s measured water with high levels of lead, arsenic and strontium. The media generally focuses on isolated areas of West Virginia when reporting on contamination, she said, but the reality is that one in every five streams she tests have been spoiled.

“People who have their water running orange year round, you internalize that pollution as something that’s OK because you’ve been in it your entire life,” she said.

Lida Shepherd, who runs a youth group for low-income teenagers in Boone county, said many of the kids she works with live “literally right below” mountaintop removal sites. Their communities have significantly higher total poverty rates and child poverty rates every year compared to other counties, according to a recent peer-reviewed study from Michael Hendryx, a professor at West Virginia University. Shepherd’s kids, she said, weren’t surprised to hear of the water ban that was enacted January 9.

“These kids are no strangers to not being able to drink their water,” Shepherd said. “These kids deal with this kind of thing on a pretty regular basis just because they live in very heavily mined areas.”

Because their water is so often contaminated, Shepherd said some of the kids were not taking last week’s ban on potable water very seriously.

“One of my girls, she was saying she was taking a shower in it anyway,” Shepherd said. “And that could be a product of just, ‘Hey, we hear this all the time, and we’re still alive. We haven’t died yet.'”

Christina Rhodes, another one of the girls Shepherd mentors, lives in Seth, in Boone County. Before she moved there, she said, the county used well water. That was until mass injection of coal slurry made the well water there run yellow, orange and black, and water testing revealed concentrations of iron, manganese, lead, aluminum, and arsenic that were sometimes hundreds of times over safe drinking water limits, according to the Sludge Safety Project. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enacted new regulations on coal slurry injection in 2009, including requiring companies to regularly test water in injection site mines, as well as nearby groundwater, for contamination.

“My family went through the issues with the well water, and found [the chemical spill] situation just as stressful as when we had to stop using the wells,” Rhodes told Climate Progress in an email.

On top of the water pollution from the mountaintop removal sites, Shepherd’s kids – all born into poverty and first-generation college bound – live in the same valley with some of the nation’s largest coal slurry impoundments, which are massive toxic lakes used to dispose of coal waste. West Virginia has more slurry impoundments than any other state, and in 2011, residents of Mingo County settled a seven-year lawsuit with Massey Energy company that alleged that the company had injected 1.4 billion gallons of coal slurry into underground mines, and that the slurry had leached into aquifers, waterways, wells and drinking water.

“We had some faith that if your water was contaminated, that your government would step in and do something,” West Virginian and former miner Brenda McCoy said in 2011. “But they didn’t.”

Treating the Cause

Gunnoe has been a community organizer in West Virginia for 19 years, fighting to get lawmakers to recognize the threat industry poses to citizens’ water and the need for stronger regulations in the state. She said the state of West Virginia has been “held under the thumb” of the coal industry for the last 150 years, and that this month’s chemical spill should be a wake-up call for West Virginia and the world to how dependence on coal is hurting people and the environment.

“The water infrastructure has been polluted, and it’s because of mountaintop removal, underground injection and basically coal production. Period.” she said.

Several of West Virginia’s top politicians have been adamant about denying the recent chemical spill’s link to the coal industry. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in particular asserted last week that the incident was chemical-related, and had nothing to do with coal. “As far as I know, there are no coal mines within miles of this particular incident,” he said. “This was not a coal company.”

To Merner, Tomblin’s statements show a groundwork already in place to prevent real reform to the industries that she has witnessed polluting the state for the last five years. The government needs to protect the coal industry, she said, because every coal mining job brings in more jobs for the transportation and chemical industries.

“There’s not a true separation between coal and chemicals anyway,” she said. “The wall that the media has perpetuated is that there’s some some of separation, but it’s not true.”

Merner and Gunnoe are pushing for more regulation of the coal and chemical industries – something many of the state’s environmental leaders have long said is needed.

“Freedom Industries should be held accountable, but that won’t fix the problem,” Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition in Charleston, wrote in the Charleston Gazette. “That’s because the Elk River spill wasn’t an isolated accident. It was the inevitable consequence of weak regulatory enforcement over many years, made possible by our collective failure to uphold the values we profess.”

Like Gunnoe, Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies in Morgantown, West Virginia, said he hopes the spill will serve as a wake-up call for state and national lawmakers. But he said the first thing that needs to happen for any regulatory changes to be made in West Virginia is for the governor and the DEP to acknowledge the link between clean water and a healthy economy – something he said they have yet to do.

“They have been very clear that their number one priority is protecting jobs and the fossil fuel industry, no matter the environmental consequences,” he said.

Until they decide to acknowledge that link, those who live in the poor areas housing West Virginia’s mountaintop removal communities have little choice but to deal with their white or orange or chemical-laced water. Or, as West Virginia resident James Simon has put it, they could hit the road.

“The environmental protection [agency] won’t help us … the law won’t help us. Nobody on earth wants to help us,” Simon said. “My only solution is to get out of here.”