On January 9, 2014, residents in Charleston, WV reported to the state’s Environmental Protection Agency a licorice odor in their tap water (Moore, 2014). After an investigation, it was determined that tanks containing chemicals used to clean coal were leaking into the Elk River. This discovery led to the governor declaring a state of emergency for 300,000 people in nine counties who were informed they could not bathe, drink or otherwise use the tap water coming into their homes. The water was declared safe only for flushing toilets or extinguishing a fire. The chemical spill also closed schools, restaurants and other businesses that relied on tap water and directly impacted those living in and around Charleston, the state’s largest city and capital (Moore, 2014). The water ban was eventually lifted five days later although the Center for Disease Control has stated the water is not safe for pregnant women (Ward, 2014).
Initially, the company Freedom Industries reported that 7,500 gallons of the chemical methylcylcohexane methanol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean coal, had been released into the Elk River (Sheppard, 2014). However, on January 21, 2014, the company admitted to leaking 10,000 gallons of MCHM and a second chemical, a polyglycol ether mixture or PPH, into the Elk River (Huffington Post). Why the delay in admitting to the second chemical? Freedom Industries considers their particular mixture of PPH a trade secret causing the company to drag its feet in disclosing what chemicals are included. This is particularly disturbing since we know very little about how this chemical mixture impacts humans (Barrett, 2014b).
Freedom Industries refusing to release the chemical content of their secret compound is only a symptom of the much larger problem of the continuing story line of chemicals, colonialism and corporate greed in West Virginia. It’s just another chemical company owned by people who do not reside in the area or have any tie to the region except for profit, where the money is made by making or storing the product at the expense of the environment and the health of the people who reside there. While those who are in charge of regulation and oversight only superficially complete their duties as their jobs in the end depend upon the very company they are tasked with overseeing (Davenport & Southall, 2014).
Freedom Industries, for example, is owned by J. Clifford Forrest who resides in Pennsylvania. The company does not make the chemical in West Virginia, but stores it in one of the company’s 17 tanks, which were placed a mile and a half upstream from the intake to the public’s water supply, the largest water treatment plant in the state (Barrett, 2014a). The site had not been inspected by either the state or federal government since 1991 because West Virginia law only requires regular inspection of chemical production and not chemical storage (Davenport & Southall). Therefore, no one can truly be sure how long the chemicals have been leaking into the water.
Freedom Industries, who has already been sued by dozens of businesses who were forced to close during the water ban, declared bankruptcy on January 21, 2014 to avoid damages. They have since been given a line of credit of 4 million dollars in bankruptcy court to continue paying employees and for the cleaning and dismantling of the remaining tanks. Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Southern West Virginia is exploring filing criminal charges and the famous consumer advocate Erin Brockovich works to empower and rally the people of Charleston (Davenport & Southall, 2014; Brockovich, 2014).
I wish this brought me comfort or hope for change, but instead it’s just another chapter in the assault on the environment and people of West Virginia. In 2008, for example, the Kanawha Valley experienced a chemical explosion at the Bayer Crop Science plant. Two employees were killed in the blast and it was later discovered that managers at the plant attempted to cover up the explosion and prevent evidence from being gathered. This led to experts from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigating the explosion and later providing recommendations for future accident prevention to the state. However, these measures were never implemented, yet this same team of experts is being gathered to investigate the current chemical leak (Davenport & Southall, 2014). And this is just one example, the list could go on and on — Dupont dumping C8 into Parkersburg’s drinking water, the Shell plant explosion in 1994, the mine explosion in 2009 where 29 miners died at the Upper Big Branch mine (Myers, 2013; Times Wire Services, 1994; Davenport & Southall, 2014).
The people of West Virginia have paid the ultimate price time and time again through the loss of their life and health. It’s time for the rest of America to acknowledge this debt and stand in support with West Virginians as we demand the state and federal government do their jobs and enforce the laws that were put in place to protect us from corporate greed.
Danielle McDonald, Ph.D. (West Virginian currently living in Kentucky)
Associate Professor, Criminal Justice
Northern Kentucky University
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