This column was written by Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.
As a West Virginian, this has been a sad, frustrating, and infuriating time for me, though I do not live in the area affected by last week's coal chemical spill. More than 300,000 people in the WV capital of Charleston and downstream counties have been without water for eight days and counting.
The chemical that spilled is used to process coal after it's mined, to separate the coal from other substances before it’s carried away on trains or river barges. A tank of this chemical, located immediately above the largest drinking water intake in WV, leaked. Very little is known about the chemical and its health effects - and WV officials are saying they also don't know where else in the state this chemical is stored.
Some residents have been told they can start flushing out their water systems while others are still using bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Even where the water is back on, it’s undrinkable, forcing residents to continue their reliance on bottled and shipped in water -- an especially heavy burden on the areas poorest residents. In fact, "do not use" orders are being reissued in some places.
Now the CDC is saying the test it used to determine "safe" levels of the leaked chemical humans can drink focused on the wrong chemical!
What's more, on Wednesday, six days post-spill and after the water had been deemed "safe" in some areas, officials issued an advisory urging pregnant women to drink only bottled water. As the mom of a three-year-old, I can only imagine what a scary time this must be for all the new and expecting moms in the middle of this crisis.
Earlier this week, I appeared on NPR's Diane Rehm Show to talk about the spill, along with the head of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, a Washington Post reporter, and a staffer from an anti-regulatory think tank. A few people have told me that they were shocked and even brought to tears by the program, which you can listen to here.
The Sierra Club has a long-time organizer in Charleston -- Bill Price -- and, in the immediate aftermath of the spill, he has been working closely with allies on relief efforts to provide people with water. In some rural communities, volunteer water distribution has been the only relief for residents, believe it or not. Earlier this week we profiled one West Virginian who is part of that effort, Dustin White, to underscore that this crisis is a long way from over, and frankly highlight the continuing failure of the state to safeguard the health of its people.
If you want to make a donation to help support the volunteer water distribution efforts still under way, you can donate to the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and make a note that your gift is for the WV water crisis.
As I described on the Diane Rehm Show, this tragedy is a direct product of a regulatory system held hostage by the coal industry for decades. The site where the tank leaked hadn't been inspected by the state since 1991! In the state of the state address just days before the accident, the governor vowed to "never back down from the Environmental Protection Agency because of its misguided policies on coal." In the immediate wake of the disaster, the governor has repeatedly asserted that the coal industry had nothing to do with this spill - which is like saying the tobacco industry has nothing to do with lung cancer.
This spill pulls the curtain back on water problems that people in the Appalachian coalfields have been pleading for decades to have addressed. Each year, after this chemical and others are used to "wash" coal, billions of gallons of leftover slurry - a witches brew of chemicals and water - are typically either injected into old underground mines (which leaches into groundwater) or stored behind earthen dams, some of which are larger than the Hoover Dam.
You can read more about the coal industry's threat to water in this article and others in the Charleston Gazette, whose reporter Ken Ward Jr. has been doing Pulitzer-caliber reporting on the spill, in my estimation. And I urge you to support the West Virginia-based organizations fighting this battle for clean water -- Keeper of the Mountains, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and Sierra Club West Virginia.
It's time to hold these polluters and decision-makers accountable, and to work to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again. A candlelight vigil is being planned for next Tuesday in Charleston, and allies around the country are planning their own events in solidarity.
Finally, you can take action now to tell President Obama that West Virginia leaders cannot be trusted to regulate the coal industry.
This spill only underscores the coal industry's widespread use of dangerous chemicals, and the cost to Appalachian communities and mountains. If the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) continues to turn a blind eye to polluters, President Obama should direct federal agencies to do the job the DEP will not do.