Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Not Passing the Sniff Test

My wife and I live and work in Charleston, West Virginia and were, in fact, born and raised here. Growing up in the Kanawha Valley, we were always aware of the dangers of living in the Charleston area due to the large Union Carbide plant that loomed a few miles up the river from our homes. Over the years, there would be periodic chemical leaks and the air sirens would alert the residents to close their doors and windows and block airways into our homes for a short period of time to ensure that the air was not hazardous to breathe. To us, it seemed like a cost of living in "chemical valley", like it or love it. In 1984, a Union Carbide facility in Bhopal, India leaked an insecticide which killed 8,000 people immediately and 20,000 people since, according to GreenPeace. As Charleston residents, we have always been aware of the risk of any chemical-related accidents or problems in our area, but became somewhat complacent over the years as time went on and disaster never struck in a major way.  

The water crisis which has hit the state this week is far more serious than a twenty minute delay in keeping our windows closed and remaining indoors during a minor leak into the local environment. What we are facing now is far more devastating to residents and should be of grave concern to West Virginians and other U.S. states which rely on industry for sustenance. According to GreenPeace, "just 300 of the 6,000+ high-risk chemical sites across the U.S. put more than 100 million Americans at risk if attacked". This is an alarming albeit nebulous fact which should make one wonder: Do I live near a high-risk chemical site, and if so what can I do about it? Greenpeace has a list of the more than 12,000 chemical facilities in the United States. It is important for the citizenry to remain informed about what chemicals are being produced in their area so that they might be better informed about how to best protect themselves from possibly hazardous conditions. To some, this might sound like an alarmist or "doomer" perspective, but again, according to Greenpeace, this is a real risk to individuals and families across the United States. "One in three Americans is at risk of a poison gas disaster by living near one of hundreds of chemical facilities that store and use highly toxic chemicals" (GreenPeace.org). 

This issue of potential chemical spills and leaks is important because it can happen in rural as well as urban areas. According to the Greenpeace map, there are no less than 5 chemical sites in New York City area, 7 in the Detroit area, 9 chemical sites in the Philadelphia area, and 10 in the larger Chicago area. There is no evidence of any instances at plants in locations near these cities, but that does not mean that it cannot happen. A chemical spill in central Hubei province killed over 220,000 pounds of fish in 2013, following a spill that killed over 16,000 pigs the previous year. The BBC article noted that one man described the fish this way: "the dead fish covered the entire river and looked like snowflakes " (BBC.co.uk). The spill was responsible for $70,000 yuan  - or $11,000 - in daily earnings to the village's affected fishermen. This makes this spill not just an environmental cost. It is unclear at this point what the cost will be for the cleanup of the West Virginia chemical spill by the city and state as well as the amount of lost revenue for local businesses and individual employees - the cost could be in the millions of dollars, all told. 

According to a recent OpEd from Jeff McIntyre, the CEO of West Virginia American Water, the problem with the United States water supply is much more difficult and costly to restore than imaginable, due largely because our water infrastructure in some cases was installed over 100 years ago. According to McIntyre, "Much of our water and wastewater infrastructure in West Virginia, as well as nationally, was installed in the first half of the 20th century or just after World War II. In the oldest parts of Charleston, Huntington and other West Virginia cities, pipes [are] more than 100 years old" (WVGazette.com). Furthermore, McIntyre speculates that the cost to maintain the water supply in the U.S. going forward will run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than $335 billion is needed to replace aging water infrastructure over the next 20 years. In its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers grades both water and wastewater infrastructure at a 'D' level. In West Virginia alone, the report cites $1 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs and $3 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years" (WVGazette.com). As a result, our water system infrastructure even on its best day appears to be in fairly bad shape.

Why are we (the city, state and citizens) paying for the aftermath of a preventable disaster? The short answer is speed and cost-effectiveness, which might be partly to blame for the lax regulation of chemical and fossil fuel industries. Donna Lisenby directly links the spill of MCHM into the Elk river to the coal industry which uses the said chemical as part of the "coal cleaning" process. "Our continuing dependence on fossil fuels as a source of 'cheap' energy has many costs that are not reflected in our power bills and prices at the pump. In addition to billions of dollars in environmental damage, the Charleston [WV] spill illustrates another example of the coal industry imposing the costs of its inherently dirty practices on Americans, not to mention poisoning the water supplies of hundreds of thousands of people. This spill demonstrates yet again that 'clean coal is a dirty lie" (EcoWatch.com). This is important to note, because while the Charleston area is known as "chemical valley", the state of West Viriginia has been historically known for its coal production, a fossil fuel which powers a large part of the country's electric energy. Much has been made by the coal industry in West Virginia to buy approval from its citizens with the Friends of Coal, a non-profit marketing campaign paid for by the coal industry. While West Virginians might be the life-long friends of coal, coal is not their friend in return. According to a report produced by the National Mining Association, Wyoming has the all-time highest coal production on record in 2008 with 476,644 million tons of in 2008. West Virginia's best year of coal production was in 1947 with less than 40% of that of Wyoming, a mere 176,157 million tons and in fact, Pennsylvania beats out West Virginia in coal production with 277,377 million tons in 1918. Additionally, the U.S. Energy Information Administration gives a monthly account of coal production between the two largest coal producers (Wyoming and West Virginia) showing the disparity in production even as late as last month. According to the EIA, the state of Wyoming produced 387,000 tons of coal in the month of December 2013, while West Virginia only produced 116,000 tons, and those numbers are on track to continue to show the disparity in the industry between the two states. If that is the case, then it looks like West Virginia needs to take a closer look at who their friends are and who is going to befriend them in the future if their water supply is tainted. 

Yet another state that appears beholden to potentially dangerous industry is Louisiana, another state with limited options for making industrial friends. According to an article by Alexander Nazaryan from Newsweek magazine, Louisiana is also paying a high price for the privilege of housing potentially dangerous chemicals in an environmentally fragile area. The article is about a 750-foot sinkhole that is forming in the now deserted and unlivable town of Bayou Corne due to a mining-related disaster. While the sinkhole is a surprise to the families who have lost their homes to its increasing expansion, the potential danger has been known for quite some time. According to Nazaryan, the sinkhole is a byproduct of industry known by residents as "Cancer Alley."According to Nazaryan, "Cancer Alley, a stretch of about 100 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is home to some 150 petrochemical plants, making these swamplands perhaps the most industrialized (and polluted) region in the United States" (Newsweek.com). According to one longtime resident of Cancer Alley, "We have the best government in Louisiana that the oil and gas business can buy" (Newsweek.com). Having seen friends and neighbors live without access to potable water for the past five days (and counting), I would say that we have the best government that coal and chemicals can buy in West Virginia. 

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, "thank god I don't live in crappy states like West Virginia and Louisiana who cannot afford to say no to industry, no matter how dangerous!" But, think again! NPR and The Center For Public Integrity have produced a map of the United States which shows the more than "17,000 facilities which have emitted hazardous chemicals into the air" (NPR.org). Most of the heaviest air pollution is in the NorthEastern seaboard and running down through the "rust belt" of Pennsylvania and Ohio, but there are sites offending in every state in the continental United States. This means that while a chemically-related air- or waterborne disaster has not happened to you, it does not mean that it can't or won't in the future. 

One of the most difficult aspects of this disaster was learning that the spill was discovered ONLY because residents reported an odor akin to licorice wafting from the river. If there was no scent associated with the chemical (MCHM), then it is possible that we would not have known there was a threat to the water supply until 100,000+ residents became deathly ill. This demonstrates that there is an inappropriate and dysfunctional system at work between the private industry who is rushing to produce chemicals and energy products at high speed and state governments who cannot or will not pay to regulate and maintain necessary infrastructure to keep us safe. 

There is a well-known story retold from generations of West Virginia coal miners that in earlier mining days, the work was quite dangerous to the men who went into the mines. There were no regulatory agencies at the time to provide for their safety, so the miners would reportedly bring a canary into the mine as a safeguard against methane gas levels in the trapped environment. If the canary died while the miners were working, they would know that the methane levels were dangerously high and to evacuate immediately. 

Fortunately, mining standards have improved drastically over the past hundred years in spite of recent mining disasters in the news. In the wake of water pollution due to a coal-related chemical company, I cannot help but feel that we are living in a new age of dangerous conditions, not in the mine this time, but in the state as a whole. It seems to me that if the proverbial canary drank out of the Elk River this week, it would probably croak. Does that mean that the residents should evacuate immediately? Probably not. With a large elderly population coupled with a large rural population, many of the residents of West Virginia have no desire to leave and possibly nowhere to go. Furthermore, with the number of chemical plants numbering in the thousands in the U.S. and the rate of air pollution and lack of funding for proper state and federal regulation, it looks like we are all canaries in the continental coal mine, hoping that the air we breathe and the water we drink lasts longer than the pollutants that follow. 

1 comment:

  1. You are right on track here, Michael. It's hard to know what direction to go, as nowhere is really safe. But I do believe that we, as citizens, can do better each of us). And I also believe that we DESERVE better from our elected officials. It's time we stop electing people because they have enough industry sponsors to hang a sign in every yard. Let's educate voter's on civic responsibility and increase campaign finance information accessibility. I haven't verified this fact, but I'very heard that there are more jobs in the nonprofit sector in WV than in coal. The voice of coal and friends is disproportionate to its actual impact on our economy. What a shame that we can't shed some light on the beauty, culture and community traditions, the people coming together, the slow, steady pace of life, the art and music that makes West Virginia great. I don't have any answers, but I hope we can find some together.


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