How West Virginia became the dumping ground for the nation's energy policy

Debates over green energy may seem abstract. But for the people of West Virginia, it's a question of life and death

Published January 21, 2014 4:15PM (EST)

Workers at Freedom Industries work to empty storage tanks of chemicals into tanker trucks, Charleston, Va., Jan. 12, 2014.       (AP/Steve Helber)
Workers at Freedom Industries work to empty storage tanks of chemicals into tanker trucks, Charleston, Va., Jan. 12, 2014. (AP/Steve Helber)

West Virginia is a national blind spot, defined for some by a movie caricature or thick accent on TV. It surfaces in rare moments like it did last week, when suddenly, more than 300,000 West Virginia residents found themselves without potable water. And yet, with some of the world's richest accessible bituminous coal deposits, the state is one of the most important in the country reliant as it is on coal, which supplies 37 percent of electricity nationwide.

As has been well documented, this month more than 5,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used in coal preparation, leaked from a privately owned company into a publicly owned resource, the Elk River in West Virginia's Kanawha Valley. As a result, Freedom Industries, which specializes in industrial chemical production and distribution, poisoned the water supply for more than 300,000 people for five days.

Last week the bans that stretched across nine counties began to be lifted, but the full cost of the crisis — social, economic and ecological — remains unclear. However, even as the water was deemed safe to drink and the water use bans began to be lifted, the Charleston Daily Mail reported that “emergency rooms are seeing an influx of patients reporting symptoms related to exposure to chemical-tainted water.”  More than a hundred patients exhibited symptoms over a 36-hour period, suggesting that even as officials claim the crisis is over, the effects of the chemical spill continue to mount up.

Despite the central role it plays in American life, coal — and the people who produce it and live on top of it — is nearly invisible. Gone are the days when cities stockpiled it for home use. These days, few Americans generate their own electricity, and those without electric heat generally rely on wood stoves or oil. In the cities and suburbs, where much of the nation's population lives, it can be easy to overlook that coal pollution spews from smokestacks, large equipment strips off the sides of mountains, and men and women work and die in cramped coal seams thousands of feet below the earth's surface.

Rarely do most people consider the social and environmental costs associated with burning around a billion tons of coal each year. The current debates over green energy can seem abstract. For the people of West Virginia, it is -- and has been -- a question of life and death.

Americans get occasional blips on the radar that suggest the cost of using coal may be higher than the companies suggest when they advocate for coal expansion, develop pro-coal curriculums that align with common core programs, and accept awards for conservation with a straight face. Environmental disasters like the chemical spill into the Elk River, or human disasters like the explosion at the Massey Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 that killed 29 miners, hit the conscience of the nation but quickly disappear. For this reason, we miss a repeated lesson that many West Virginians have long understood: The nation's dirty energy policies haven't been cleaned up. They've been outsourced, and the people of Appalachia are picking up the social and environmental tab. We've removed smokestacks from many of our cities, but ugliness is still there: just farther away.

This month's disaster forced us all to pay a little bit closer attention, and we need to use this opportunity to rethink our energy policy, strengthen regulation and have a serious conversation about natural resources and private ownership.

The conflicting interests of private control over utilities and public health and ecological welfare inevitably lead to ecological disaster.  The conflict can be alleviated through strong regulation, but not eliminated.  To do that, we need to get rid of private control over public resources — including energy and water.

If the stakes only affected the 1.8 million people who live in West Virginia, that would be reason enough to consider the implications of the Elk River Disaster, especially considering that the nation's obsession with cheap energy has shaped the state for more than a century. But what's at stake is nothing less than our entire future as a species, and the ability of more than 6 billion people to live on the planet we currently inhabit.

Why are the stakes so high? Why is the need for change so pressing? Because as long as the profit motive drives the development of energy technologies, utilities infrastructure and the public policy governing both, companies have incentive to continue extracting coal and burning it, selling the idea to the public by disseminating the lie of “clean coal.” The current moment is so critical because the Elk River disaster gives us the story we need to cut through that lie on a mass basis. How can a chemical that poisons the water of more than 300,000 people, with no way to clean it out of the water until it evaporates, have any place in a so-called clean energy policy? The dirty side of coal hasn't been eliminated, it's been dumped into the people of West Virginia's water. Pumped into the sides of their mountains. Spewed into the air they breathe. All leaving West Virginia with one of the highest cancer death rates in the country.

The spill in the Elk River is the latest chapter in a long story of ecological warfare, where the coal companies have attempted to crush the working people, rob them of their land, and devastate the ecosystems they rely on for survival. It’s a story that is far too familiar to the people of West Virginia.

To understand how we got to this point, we need a little history, since the coal industry claims that we have enough coal in the United States to provide the nation's energy until at least 2213 — about two more centuries. It claims it is economical, makes the U.S. energy independent, and can be made clean through technological advances.

The roots of today's disaster in West Virginia lie in this dirty history. In the last century, however — just half the time the American Coal Foundation would like us to use the fossil fuel to meet energy demands — more than 100,000 coal miners have been slaughtered in mine accidents and disasters. Each year, more than 1,500 miners die of black lung disease.  More than 500 mountains have been destroyed by strip mining, removing more than 1.5 million acres of forest (and the trees that help remove C02 from the air) and the accompanying valley fills have buried or polluted more than 2,000 miles of headwater streambeds. The incredible biodiversity of central Appalachia is threatened by such pollution as human residents struggle with contaminated drinking water and dangerous slurry dams like the one that exploded in Buffalo Creek in 1972. The 132,000,000-gallon deluge, which crested at 30 feet, killed 125 people, injured more than 1,000, and left four-fifths of the town’s population homeless. Pittston Coal Co., which owned the dam, called it “an act of God.”

And yet, for a moment 45 years ago, a different future looked possible.

Coal miners protested strip mines, nuclear power and the air pollution caused by coal.  In 1972, the Miners for Democracy said that if coal could not be mined safely and cleanly, it would not be mined at all.  Still other coal miners demanded nationalization of the coal industry.  West Virginians called the companies out for the misleading policy of land "reclamation" and the storage of dangerous chemicals and toxic coal slurry near their homes.  The people of West Virginia loaded onto buses to join marches against the development on nuclear power.  Appalachian women sat in at strip mines in order to shut them down before they were threatened by the companies and the police brutalized their supporters.

At the end of the day, West Virginians lost and the energy companies won. The people were isolated geographically, and with only a few notable exceptions, were unable to get support from other areas of the country.

And, as with the Elk Creek disaster, the state almost always failed to step in to protect residents from the destructive policies of the companies.  After the Buffalo Creek disaster, for example, the state demanded $100,000,000 for disaster relief and damages, but settled for only $1,000,000 – a settlement that reflected the power of the companies in shaping state politics and suggested that the state was less interested in winning justice for its citizens than it was in maintaining a relationship with the coal industry.

The attacks perpetrated by the companies went far beyond disasters like Buffalo Creek, extending into public policy, workplace safety, and into people's communities.  In an effort to cut costs, the companies expanded the use of strip mining after WWII.  They invested in uranium mines. They fought every environmental and safety regulation put forward by lawmakers under pressure from organized miners.  The energy companies were determined to emerge victorious in the midst of an energy crisis they had helped to manufacture.

To do so, they attacked the people of West Virginia on every front.  They harassed and assaulted residents who tried to block strip mine operations.  They attacked workers who unionized, and then fought against a union leadership that claimed “if coal cannot be mined safely and burned cleanly, it should not be mined or burned at all.”  The coal industry even went so far as to say that in lieu of sustainable energy alternatives being developed, government resources should detonate nuclear weapons underground to increase natural gas reserves.  (When they tried that, they acted shocked that the resulting gas was radioactive … and therefore unusable.)

The people of West Virginia had made clear demands: put land and people first.  The companies did neither, but continued on their profit-driven rampage destroying huge swaths of the West Virginia mountains – one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes – with mountaintop removal for cheaper access to coal, exposing residents to toxic air pollution in order to provide the rest of the nation with cheap energy.  The decisions made in the early 1970s are what got us here today, with hundreds of thousands of people spending days unsure when they would be able to drink their water again, with many remaining unsure as pipe flushing and other cleanup procedures have been ineffective.

The debates of the 1970s aren’t just the backdrop to the current crisis, but it also can help illuminate the stakes of the current moment. What happens now matters. It will determine the ability of people to halt privatization, climate change and global ecological destruction in its tracks.  But what exactly does this history teach us?

Ecological demands are of necessity social demands. No advances can be made toward sustainability without also addressing the long history of tax evasion and economic underdevelopment that has left schools, healthcare and other social services in West Virginia massively underfunded despite the massive amount of wealth extracted from the region in the form of coal.

It’s no coincidence that this disaster happened in one of the poorest areas of the country. In fact, the same companies that poison the water, decimate the mountaintops and erect dams to hold back unfathomable amounts of “mountain slurry” are also responsible for the high levels of poverty that exist throughout the region. For more than a century, minimizing access to healthcare, education and other social services has helped employers extract as much profit as possible from the region by keeping corporate tax rates low and by not requiring corporations who own operations in the state to even pay taxes there in the first place. A move away from coal must be accompanied by unionized employment with living wages and benefits for all the people economically displaced. Those jobs could be created by a national program to build a green national power grid linked into wind and solar power systems.

To do that, the generation of energy must be taken out of the hands of industry.  In the 1970s, some coal miners and their allies argued that energy resources had to be nationalized in order to not be dominated by the profit motive.  Hostility to nationalization halted the idea in its tracks, but its importance remains.  Natural resources are public resources – energy generation and control of water resources must be brought under public control and run for the public good, not for profit.

Of course, the trend is exactly the opposite.  Increasing numbers of city and regional water treatment centers are run by private companies — like the one operated by West Virginian American Water on Elk Creek — and around the world, companies like Coca-Cola have been pushing to privatize all water resources.

The energy industry remains enormously profitable.  As long as profit is the driving factor, sustainability will be impossible, and we are running out of time to replace fossil fuels with green alternatives.  Energy production must be nationalized and the masses of workers displaced from the oil, coal and natural gas industries should be given unionized employment building an infrastructure entirely based around sustainable energy sources.  Such a fight points toward a different future – one where West Virginia is not a dumping ground for the nation’s dirty energy policy, and where workers and mountain residents decide how to utilize the natural resources the land offers. It's time to work to implement a system based on meeting everyone’s needs and not, as Freedom Industries boasts, processing large amounts of destructive chemicals rapidly and cost effectively.

Much like the crisis of the 1960s and '70s, we are at a point of ecological and economic crisis. What matters now is which steps we take to change that.

By Trish Kahle

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Coal Energy Energy Policy Green Energy West Virginia West Virginia Chemical Spill