Coal Tattoo

Freedom to spill: Coal must take bad with good

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Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

My apologies for not having much to say on Coal Tattoo the last few days, especially given the huge coal-related story that’s been breaking here in Charleston and the surrounding region in West Virginia. I’ve been focusing on helping with our daily Gazette coverage, and doing several broader examinations of the underlying issues involved in the chemical spill at Freedom Industries (see here, here, here and here).

One of the really unbelievable things it that there is even a debate about whether this is a coal-related story … I mean, take a look at what we reported about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s comments on this:

Also at the Saturday briefing Tomblin pushed back at a reporter who connected the ongoing water crisis to the coal industry.

“This was not a coal company incident,” the governor shot back. “This was a chemical company incident.”

On Sunday night he did the same.

“This was not a coal company, this was a chemical supplier, where the leak occurred,” he said. “As far as I know there was no coal company within miles.”

In an Associated Press account, a coal industry lobbyist took up where the governor left off:

“This is a chemical spill accident. It just so happens that the chemical has some applications to the coal industry, just that fact alone shouldn’t cause people to point fingers at the coal industry,” said Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Bostic said the coal industry is very carefully regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection and several federal agencies that ensure it is safe from the very first step in opening a mine to ongoing operations.

“The environmental risk that’s associated with coal mining, we feel it’s well regulated,” Bostic said.

One problem with all of this, of course, is that the coal industry is always very insistent that every single job — direct, indirect, induced, whatever — be counted whenever anyone discusses the positive economic impacts of the coal-mining business to West Virginia. If that’s the way the industry and its political supporters want the discussion to go, then they’ve got to own this sort of accident as well.

Chemical Spill

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin discusses the chemical  spill that led to state of emergency and water ban in the state capital and surrounding areas on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington)

The other thing, though, is that there are other clear connections between this chemical spill and its impacts and what the coal industry’s effects on West Virginia are like all the time. Plenty of West Virginia communities have watched their drinking water supplies be either polluted or dried up because of coal (see here, here and here). Me and my neighbors are getting a taste right now of what some coalfield residents live with all the time.

And then there’s this, explained most clearly on Friday by the folks at Appalachian Voices:

News reports of Thursday’s spill of a coal-processing chemical into West Virginia’s Elk River—and emergency orders to thousands of people to not drink or use their tap water—are currently focused on the still-unknown potential for direct harm to human health.

But the widespread disruption caused by the spill raises other important questions, including: How could a relatively small-volume spill in one small river cut off drinking water access to roughly 300,000 people across eight counties—16% of the state’s entire population?

An increasing number of private wells in southwestern and central West Virginia, where the spill occurred, have been contaminated by decades of coal mining and processing. One result has been an ongoing expansion of municipal water systems to rural communities that would otherwise rely on well water.

At the same time, shrinking tax revenue and declining investments in public infrastructure have compelled localities to contract with private companies like American Water to provide drinking water services. Driven by profit margins, companies have aggressively consolidated their businesses, leading them to serve ever larger distribution networks from only a handful of treatment plants and drinking water intakes, as is the case with yesterday’s spill.

The fact that Gov. Tomblin wants to evade the truth so hard that he wants to ignore any connections between this crisis and the coal industry doesn’t bode well for us seeing any meaningful state-level reforms come about as a result of the Freedom Industries spill.