A Spill in West Virginia Speaks to Inequality

27 Apr

So I read this article in an old issue of The New Yorker the other day (okay, not that old…it was from April 7th of this year but they just arrive so damn fast!) that really struck a chord.  The article was by Evan Osnos and was “Letter from West Virginia, Chemical Valley:  The coal industry, the politicians, and the spill.”  It was all about this chemical spill in West Virginia on Thursday, January 9, 2014 near the Elk River in the city of Charleston.  It was a chemical called MCHM — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol — something that the mining industry uses to wash rock and clay from coal before it is burned for energy.  Apparently, it smelled vaguely of licorice and contaminated the local water source such that people were forced to purchase bottled water or else face the possibility of rashes, headaches, and other unpleasant side effects.  Of course, the long term effects of such a chemical on the human body has never been tested, despite the fact that the drums that hold this material can be found near water sources used by nearby localities for drinking, cooking, and bathing.  Smart, right?

There were a few different quotes in the article that really stuck out to me.  The first was a quote by West Virginia Senate Majority Leader John Unger.  He said,

“Martin Luther King said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  Why should anybody care about what goes on in West Virginia?  Because it’s the canary in the mine shaft.  If you ignore it in West Virginia, it’s coming, it’s going to continue to build, and the issue is:  Should our country have the debate about our rights to the very basic infrastructure that sustains us?  Or should we continue to ignore it?”

It seems like such a simple question, you know?  That we should be able to turn on our faucet and know that what comes out does not have the potential to cause us harm or death.  We should know that our water is free of harsh chemicals and carcinogens and whatever else could be in there.  In the aftermath of the spill, the former Governor (now Senator) Joe Manchin did not do right by the people of West Virginia.  He instead did right by who it seems everyone does right by these days:  business.  Rather than beef up the state Environmental Protection Agency and say enough is enough, we need to hold these companies accountable, he decided that taking the coal industry to task for lax safety processes was just too big a risk for employment in West Virginia, despite the fact that the coal industry employs merely 3% of the state’s workforce.  What Manchin cared about was not the health of the population or their employment opportunities, he cared about his own reelection.  Lobbyists are a bitch, you know?  And here’s the thing.  Not to get preachy but we, as a species and not just as a country, are so obsessed with our own self-preservation and with gaining more power, money and influence that we are completely incapable of seeing the forest through the trees.  Ignoring the canary in the mine shaft, as Unger described it, is as stupid now as it was 100 years ago.  And yet we do it, again and again.

So the question still remains, I suppose.  How dangerous is the MCHM leak?  Well, when asked by Osnos, Dr. Rahul Gupta of the local health department had this to say about the outstanding scientific questions surrounding the safety of the still licorice-flavored water:

“What is the metabolism and excretion of this compound in humans?  Does it accumulate?  Where does it accumulate?  What is the carcinogenic potential?  What is the teratogenic potential?  What does it do to home pipes?  How does it interact, if at all, with other compounds in water, such as chlorine?  Does it form harmful or harmless products?”

The state of West Virginia told the population that the water was “appropriate” to drink without having the scientific community answer all of the pertinent questions.  They decided it was safe and that if people wanted to buy bottled water, they could, but there was really no reason to.  But what about the people who can’t afford to drive for hours to buy pallets of water because it was all sold out in local stores?  What about bathing?  What about children, the elderly, pregnant women?  What about people who no longer feel safe living near Elk River but now, after this spill, are unable to sell their homes?

For Dr. Gupta, this spill seemed like a separation from the ideals that he thought America held, ideals involving equality, safety and expected standards of living.  He said,

“The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act allows every resident of the United States to have access to safe drinking water.  So how do we say that, for three hundred thousand people in this part of West Virginia, it’s O.K. to have ‘appropriate’ water?  Do we understand the path we’re taking here, by defining two different classes of water, for two different classes of people?  Do we really want to go down that path?  In the history of this nation, it doesn’t end well when we go down this path.”

Sadly, I would say we have already gone a ways down that path.  The question I have is whether it is too late for us to turn back.

One Response to “A Spill in West Virginia Speaks to Inequality”

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  1. The Failure of Success | franklyrebekah - May 31, 2014

    […] so back when I wrote this post about West Virginia that barely anyone read (and really, who can blame you?) I said that because of the nature of my […]

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