One Year Ago Today: West Virginia’s Coal Industry Water Crisis

posted by Benjamin Collins

On January 9th, 2014, over 10,000 gallons of the coal washing chemical MCHM spilled from tanks owned by Freedom Industries on the banks of the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia. The chemical spill took place upstream from a municipal water intake pipe and contaminated the drinking water of over 300,000 people. If you missed coverage of the crisis last January, Ken Ward has written an extensive retrospective in the Charleston Gazette. Overall, a year after the spill, West Virginians are still fighting to get answers about the health impacts of the spill and prevent future industry-caused water disasters. 

Last month, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Freedom Industries and its top executives for negligence that allegedly led to the leak. The former CEO of Freedom, Gary Southern, who infamously sipped from bottled water at a press conference in the aftermath of the spill, would face a maximum of 68 years in prison, if convicted. According to an FBI affidavit, Freedom had known about problems with its chemical tanks and containment dikes for years.

But the executives at Freedom Industries weren’t the only people who failed during the crisis. Charleston’s water utility, West Virginia American Water, as well as the state and federal government have faced widespread criticism for their response to the spill. And a recent study in Environmental Science and Technology concluded that initial recommendations from officials that residents flush their water systems may have exposed people to additional hazards from chemical fumes.

Janet Keating, Executive Director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition marked the anniversary of the spill with an Op-Ed emphasizing the role of grassroots citizen power, which forced a reluctant state government to respond to the crisis and safeguard the state’s drinking water:

“Yet, amidst this crisis, I sensed a political transformation — government responding to the will of the people. For example, during a press briefing about the water crisis, state and federal officials said home testing for MCHM was unnecessary. Yet within a week, citizen pressure prevailed and Gov. Tomblin announced that the state would provide $650,000 to begin home testing of MCHM.

Once the Legislature reconvened, a bill to regulate above-ground storage tanks emerged; it was quickly revealed that representatives of polluting industries had largely authored this legislation which contained a long list of exemptions. No representative of the general public who cared about clean, safe water had been invited to help craft the bill. Thankfully, for two and a half months, the outcry from ordinary citizens was loud and sustained. The public succeeded and the exemptions were removed.

Many who had never been active on environmental issues formed new groups and took part in evening conference calls to plan events. They attended meetings, they marched, they protested and they lined the halls of the state Capitol. They testified at a lengthy public hearing. They formed a broad and active coalition to help safeguard water. This is what a healthy, effective democracy looks like.”

A year later, there are troubling signs that a disaster similar to last year’s catastrophic spill could nevertheless happen again. Last month, legislators barely beat back an industry counterattack that would have rolled back the state’s drinking water safety regulations.  And this week, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection disclosed that 1,100 chemical storage tanks in the state had failed inspection and were not fit for service. So even though a groundswell of organized citizen pressure in the aftermath of last year’s spill won reforms to improve the safety of West Virginia’s water supply, there are many more battles ahead for defenders of clean water in Appalachia.