West Virginia Chemical Spill Exposes Lax State Oversight of Industry Environmental Hazards

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Posted Jan. 15, 2014

Interview with Vivian Stockman, communications specialist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Last week, a 7,500-gallon chemical spill in the Elk River, just over a mile upstream from the intake for the public water supply for a large percentage of West Virginians, caused the governor to ban the use of water for any human use beyond flushing toilets. Even boiling the water was not considered safe. Three hundred thousand residents of the capital, Charleston, and several other counties were told to rely on bottled water.

The chemical, known by its acronym MCHM, is used to wash coal to remove impurities before being shipped from coal mining sites. It has a licorice smell, so the spill was readily apparent. The spill came from a storage facility owned by Freedom Industries. MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, is a mix of several different chemicals, which are toxic at different levels, but not much is known about the mixture. Many people experienced dizziness, nausea and other relatively low-level symptoms. Several people were hospitalized. The U.S. attorney for the southern district of West Virginia is now investigating the chemical spill.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Vivian Stockman, communications specialist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a group that focuses much of its work on opposing mountaintop removal coal mining. Here, she talks about how this incident exposes the lack of oversight of industry by the state's Department of Environmental Protection – and gave hundreds of thousands of West Virginians a taste of what daily life is like for people in the southern Appalachian coal fields who deal with water and air pollution on a daily basis.

VIVIAN STOCKMAN: What has come to light here is that if it's not being manufactured, then DEP is not really monitoring it. Aparently, this facility, the only permit it had was an NPDES permit – a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit – and that's basically runoff. So they weren't manufacturing the chemical, they were just storing it; so apparently it just slipped through the gaps. DEP hadn't been out to the site since 1991 and that was when it was under some different operation. And OSHA – the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – hadn't been out there at all, so they were just kind of flying under the radar. Now, the company did report to local authorities that they were storing this, as required, but nobody seemed to pay attention to that report. It certainly seems like everyone was taken off guard – "Oh, that's there, and what is this?" It's leaking and it's 1.5 miles upstream from a water intake serving a huge proportion of the population of WV.

I couldn't help but think, and I know a lot of people were thinking the same thing, as it was unfolding – and it's still unfolding days later – is that now this population area is getting a taste of what it's like to live near these coal prep plants and mountaintop removal sites and what not, in that you're living daily with polluted water, with water that's making you sick. This is just one chemical. In coal prep plants, there can be dozens of different chemicals, and all this waste, and it can be injected underground or stored in these massive unlined pits that can either have catastrophic failure or constant leaching.

That's one reason my group, OVEC, with Coal River Mountain Watch and a bunch of concerned folks – we formed the Sludge Safety Project. We're pushing for legislation that would cease all underground injection. We do have a ban on new coal sludge injection, but we want current to stop, and we're hoping to move the industry away from this wet processing of coal, to dry processing at least, which will be less dangerous. So all these toxins are leaching out, and when we're seeing what's happening with this one leak in Charleston, it really drives home how vulnerable our water supplies are to our incredible thirst for so-called cheap energy, and how much our state government has failed to really enforce the Clean Water Act and protect folks here from abuses of the coal industry. And now we have fracking coming in, too. Our water is under constant threat, and we're hoping that we pausese for a moment and take a look and say we really have to protect our water because water is life and look how terrible this has been.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Vivian Stockman, tell us about the petition that your organization and others have submitted to the federal government about the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

VIVIAN STOCKMAN: Well, first of all, researchers from Coal River Mountain Watch and some other places spent about two years gathering all sorts of evidence about how much the West Virginia DEP has failed in its mining program to enforce laws and protect the communities. And out of that research came a formal petition to the Office of Surface Mining to ask that federal office to take over the West Virginia DEP's mining program. Recently, the OSM responded to our formal petition – citizens can file this petition under federal law, called a 733 SMACRA – the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act. So under that provision, we filed this petition, and OSM has decided to at least investigate five of our 19 major points. Right now, there's a petition circulating and we sure hope folks will sign that in order to sort of underscore the lack of state enforcement here and how much the state government has failed us. This was ongoing before this particular leak happened, but the leak just helps the nation realize what is going on here, and I'm sure in other communities – the fenceline communities in Louisiana and throughout the nation where energy industries are basically given free rein by politicians that are beholden to them.

Find more information on Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition at ohvec.org.

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