Coal Tattoo

Is Marsh Fork Elementary School safe? (Part I)


Photo by Britney Williams, courtesy Coal River Mountain Watch.

We don’t look for chemicals. Which chemicals would you look for? There’s a bazillion of them.

— Bill Elswick, director of school facilities for the W.Va. Department of Education

As Marsh Fork Elementary School continues to be in the news, there’s a lot of noise out there about “tests” that Massey Energy and its supporters on this issue (including, interestingly enough, Gov. Joe Manchin)  say show that the school is perfectly safe.

In his story today, my friend Larry Messina at The Associated Press paraphrased the leader of Marsh Fork’s Parent Teacher Organization, Andrea Cook,  this way:

Cook cites the results of tests on soil and air at the school that have yet to raise red flags.

In its statement last week, Massey Energy itself put it like this:

The Goals facility has been inspected numerous times by environmental consultants and federal and state regulatory personnel whose findings have confirmed the safety of the facility.

But, it is also important to  understand why local school officials don’t think the school is unsafe — and why these “tests” haven’t shown any problems. The answer is pretty clear: Local folks think the school is safe because the Manchin administration told them so. And, the Manchin administration told them so because state and federal agencies conducted inadequate inspections that didn’t bother to actually test the quality of the air students at the school breath.

Find that hard to believe? Well, let’s rewind the story again, back to the summer of 2005.


The Marsh Fork issue was exploding. After meeting with local residents with concerns, the Manchin administration turned around and issued new permits for the facility anyway, without any of the further investigation the governor had promised. Marsh Fork grandfather Ed Wiley responded with a sit-down protest at the Capitol. The Gazette revealed that a new coal silo permitted by the state Department of Environmental Protection was built outside the permit area shown on Massey’s maps. Manchin stepped in again, and promised WVDEP, the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Education would take another look at Marsh Fork.

Fast-forward just a bit now … It’s late August. School is about to start. The Manchin administration sends a flurry of letters to the Raleigh County Board of Education, assuring local officials they should go ahead and open Marsh Fork Elementary to students.

Among the letters was this one, signed by Bill Elswick, director of facilities for the state Department of Education. Elswick concluded the letter this way:

Based upon the information collected to date from federal environmental regulators, as well as the results of the aforementioned investigation by Governor Manchin’s administration, the West Virginia Department of Education is not currently aware of any compromise to the indoor environment at Marsh Fork Elementary that may affect the health or safety of children.

In this regard, the scheduled opening of this facility should continue as planned.

What was Elswick talking about? Well, he certainly wasn’t talking about actually testing the air quality inside the school, or even outside in the playground. As I reported at the time in this story, the Department of Education didn’t do any of that kind of testing.

And the Manchin administration’s letter also included this one, signed by Loretta E. Haddy, the state epidemiologist at the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, which is part of DHHR. As  I also reported at the time, the only real scientific conclusion that can be drawn from Haddy’s drive-by analysis is that DHHR did not do any sort of real study here and that the health risks to students “remain unknown.”

Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice,  examined the Manchin administration letters for Coal River Mountain Watch, and drew the same conclusion I did:

… The evaluations … were extremely limited and did not provide a complete nor adequate assessment of the indoor [air] quality at the school.

There’s also been mention in recent days of an inspection of the school conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I’ve posted a copy of that inspection report here. Take a look at one of the key conclusions:

Excessive dust does not appear to be [a] current problem at the Marsh Fork Elementary School.

However, there has been no specific sampling for ambient particulate concentrations at the School.

In Part II, coming later today, I’ll discuss some more recent reports that have actually involved air quality testing at Marsh Fork Elementary School…