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Why So Many West Virginians Relied on Water from the Elk River: Industry Already Polluted the Others

Tom Hindman/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When a faulty storage tank flooded West Virginia’s Elk River with a coal-processing chemical last Thursday, it left more than 300,000 people without access to water they could safely use to drink, cook, bathe—anything other than to flush the toilet. Sixteen percent of the state’s population was stranded. But just a decade ago, the number would have been far smaller.

The coal industry, which is behind the spill, is also responsible for the scope of its impact: The Elk River branch of the state’s largest water utility, West Virginia American Water, has gained up to 100,000 customers since the mid-2000s, according to the estimate of environmental consultant Rob Goodwin. That’s because mountain top removal and the disposal of coal mining waste (buried underground in a muddy form called slurry) have contaminated local water sources throughout the state’s southern and central regions, driving more and more West Virginians to board up their wells and lay pipe to the Elk River.

“It’s really an extra smack in the face to these community members, when they already did not have safe water due to this same chemical and others being leaked from coal slurry,” said Johanna de Graffenreid, coordinator for the CARE Campaign.

The state’s dependence on the Elk reveals the dark side to its reliance on the energy industry. “The coal industry holds sway over elected politicians,” said Bill Price of the Sierra Club. “They just push the legislature around.” Companies with expansive holdings in the state poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into politics in the off-year of 2013 alone, as the Center for Responsive Politics has documented. (Alliance Resource Partners: $424,000; Alpha Natural Resources: $244,975, and so on.) There are currently 17 coal industry lobbyists registered in West Virginia, according to the Sierra Club.

It’s almost impossible to pass safety regulations that would cut into the industry’s profits, creating a political climate in which the facility holding the ruptured tank had gone without inspection since 1991—without breaking the law. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection said the company in question, Freedom Industries, didn’t even need a permit because it stores chemicals rather than producing them.

After a chemical plant exploded in 2008, killing two, The New York Times held an investigation of regulation in the state. As the paper recalled Monday, the reporters

found that hundreds of workplaces in West Virginia had violated pollution laws without paying fines. In interviews at the time, current and former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection employees said their enforcement efforts had been undermined by bureaucratic disorganization; a departmental preference to let polluters escape punishment if they promised to try harder; and a revolving door of regulators who left for higher-paying jobs at the companies they once policed.

In recent years, environmental activists have given up on state agencies, circumventing them for the federal government. In 2009, four groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to take over for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, writing, “The state’s capitulation to the industries it is obligated to regulate under the Clean Water Act and its resulting failure to enforce or maintain its [National Pollution Discharge Elimination System] program leave EPA no choice but to withdraw its approval of that program.” That request went unheeded, but this summer another environmental coalition tried again, petitioning the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, part of the Department of the Interior.

Meanwhile, lawsuits over water contamination have sprung up in southern communities where mining is concentrated—areas that sit on the Elk River, downstream of Thursday’s spill. Residents sue to force the county or the coal company to pay for the pipes that must connect them to West Virginia American after their wells become unfit to drink from. The Coal River, a former water source for southern counties, is now a regular fixture on the list of America’s most-endangered rivers.

Writing about a settlement last June in the town of Seth in Boone County, Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. noted: “West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection officials have said they have not found connections between slurry disposal and contaminated water, but a review by West Virginia University researchers said the DEP had required inadequate monitoring over the years to allow any real conclusions.” Ironically, this slurry often contains 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, the chemical now flowing through the Elk.

It may be difficult for the residents of one of America’s poorest states to see their way out of this bad marriage with the coal industry. “I think people feel like we have to make sacrifices to our water quality in order to keep our coal jobs,” said Angela Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. But as this week’s calamity demonstrates, the state is stuck in a catch-22: The more water it sacrifices to industry, the more vulnerable it becomes to the riskiness of coal.