Wednesday, January 15, 2014

West Virginia Chemical Spill Coverage (Part 2) - Why it happened?

Update(1-17-2014): WV American Water has declared the water system to be entirely safe. However, many local doctors are saying otherwise. Because of the continuing developments, part 3 of my article has been delayed to the weekend.

If you are currently unaware of the water crisis in West Virginia, see my article yesterday to get caught up.

As I continue my coverage of the West Virginia chemical spill into the Elk River, I feel it is important to give an update that most media isn't talking about. Several people in the supposed "safe zones" still have licorice smell in their water. One picture on Twitter I found showed sludge found in the bottom of a hot water heater. West Virginia American Water (which is a private, for-profit utility company) has been very unclear in what they consider safe levels of drinking water. Several residents in supposed "safe zones" are reporting their water having a thick consistency similar to motor oil even after flushing their water for 45 minutes. Most people I have talked to in WV say they will be avoiding drinking the water for some time. When you consider that most cooking requires water of some kind, this doesn't bode well for local restaurants, among other businesses that were hit hardest by this crisis. All told, the crisis is ongoing, with still no end in sight. As of today, Freedom Industries has been cited for violation at a second facility in Nitro, WV (downriver of Charleston). Freedom Industries had moved their chemical supply to the second location after Thursday's spill. Like the Elk River location, the Nitro location lacks a proper containment wall to prevent chemical spills from leaking. The Nitro location is not on a major body of water.

Today, I want people to understand how and why the coal industry in West Virginia became powerful enough that they could store chemicals near a local water supply without proper inspection for over a decade. The truth is, this is anything but a black and white issue. The state of West Virginia, as I'll show, does heavily rely on coal economically. I know most people reading this will be very pro-green liberals (I consider myself among them). Given this, I ask you to approach this article without your preconceived notions. This article does not directly address the large scale environmental impact of coal, as I will leave that for part three. I simply want people to be able to put themselves in the shoes of West Virginians, and understand that we are not uneducated dumb hicks that hate the environment. It is a complicated issue that doesn't allow for clear, clean, and easy solutions.

Welch, McDowell County, WV, in the 1940s
The southernmost county in the state of West Virginia, McDowell County, was once a major economic hotbed in Appalachia. As the coal industry boomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, so too did McDowell County. Three consecutive decades saw the population more than double each census. In the course of just 70 years, a tiny pinprick tucked away in the mountains along the Virginia border saw it's total population expand from about 3,000 in 1880 to nearly 100,000 in 1950.

For much of this time period, coal was used in transportation. The coal-fired steam engine drove the United States prior to the internal combustion engines brought about by gasoline. Steam locomotives were in use well into the early 1900s. However, as the automobile became the standard mode of transport in this country, small petroleum engines replaced large, loud, and dirty steam engines. Following World War II, post-war America became more suburban. The Interstate Highway System reduced the need to use railroads for transportation. As this came about, the coal industry shifted almost exclusively to using coal for electric production. However, there remained one major manufacturing industry that needed coal in the nation. American steel production, largely dependent on coal, still was widespread across the midwest and into Pennsylvania.  This area became known as the Rust belt.

Welch, McDowell County, WV, today. The downtown is
largely abandoned and devoid of business.
As the coal industry mechanized, young residents moved out of McDowell County in droves. In the 1970s, globalization and economic strife led to a collapse in the American steel industry. One of coal's biggest consumers entered a death spiral, taking McDowell county with it. In just one year, the total personal income of the county decreased by 66%. While jobs still existed through much of the 1960s and 1970s, by 1980, the population had nearly been cut in half, down to just under 50,000 residents. Through the 1980s, the number of people in West Virginia employed by the coal industry was cut in half. Western states, with more easily navigable terrain and massive strip mining operations, further drove down the value of West Virginia coal. The 2010 census pegs the population of McDowell county at just 22,113.

For many who were in McDowell County in the 80s and 90s, escape meant starting over completely. Without the coal industry, housing prices plummeted to fractions of their initial value. Lack of tax revenues saw McDowell county's infrastructure and quality of life decline rapidly. Today, more than one third of people in McDowell county live below the national poverty line. West Virginians all know about McDowell county, and this drives their fears, justifiably, about any anti-coal rhetoric in the state

Coal companies flood the state with advertisements,
connecting any regulations on coal with job loss. West
Virginians are inundated with such ads on TV, radio
and highway billboards.This one can be found on I-64 in
the southern coal fields of the state.
Today, the world is faced with the prospects of climate change. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is warming the planet, and has led to oceanic acidification, threatening marine life that humans are dependent upon. In many ways, globalization, which once destroyed the economy of McDowell county alongside the steel industry, now stands opposed to coal production for energy usage in the United States. This, to many West Virginians, is a threat. West Virginia ranks third among all 50 states in the nation in power production. Despite having less than one percent of the nation's population (1.8 Million people), West Virginia produces more than five percent of the nation's power, nearly all of it being through the coal industry. West Virginia is the second largest coal producing state in the nation, behind only Wyoming. When so much of the West Virginia economy is based on coal, people's fortunes and lives, even those who don't work directly for the coal industry, are dependent on its continued prosperity. It is because coal has ingrained itself so deeply in West Virginia, that West Virginians ingrain themselves into coal. However, many in the state have conflated investment in coal with trust in the coal industry.

The coal industry in West Virginia has turned economic power into unprecedented political power. Campaigns throughout the state of West Virginia for both Democratic and Republican candidates are funded largely through the coal industry. Generally, the prime difference between the political parties is that Democrats tend to be funded by coal unions, where Republicans tend to be funded by coal owners and distributors. Both of these groups have a vested financial interest in keeping coal cheap to produce, ship, and use. Only rarely do politicians make any attempt to go after the coal industry for bad business, usually when it affects the workers and unions.

Recently, a major coal company in the state, Peabody Energy, created a separate entity called Patriot Coal. Patriot Coal was in charge of 13 percent of Peabody's coal, but 40 percent of it's health liability, primarily pension obligations to former Peabody employees. Effectively, Peabody dumped it's liability into a shell company and then had the shell company file for bankruptcy, effectively freeing Peabody of it's contractual obligations to former employees. This perfectly illustrates the relationship of the coal industry to West Virginia. Most West Virginians depend on the coal industry, and support the miners and their communities. Yet despite this support, they are often shortchanged by out-of-state energy companies that often abuse West Virginia's dependency.

Cut to last Thursday's chemical spill in the Kanawha Valley. The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, is used to remove impurities from coal to create a more pure and better burning coal after a washing process. Effectively, a loophole was exploited in that because so little was known about the health effects of this chemical, it didn't qualify as a hazardous material. A 1976 law effectively "grandfathered" in 60,000 such chemicals, saying they didn't have to be proven to be safe, so long as they weren't proven to be dangerous enough to warrant further control. This meant that the last time the storage tanks on the Elk River were inspected was 2002, after being purchased by Freedom Industries and converted to store 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. Because the location served as storage, not production or processing it fell through a gap in state law where it went without inspection for the next decade. For the record, many such storage facilities exist all throughout the Kanawha River Valley, often called the chemical valley, though most of them are downriver of Charleston and West Virginia American Water's intake and treatment facilities.

So why was this chemical stored right along the water upriver of a major water treatment plant? Most likely, Freedom Industries purchased this plant in 2001 for its location (being near the Kanawha River, the major artery of southern West Virginia). This puts it relatively near a major coal power plant that is a few miles downriver of Charleston, as well as near several chemical production companies in the Chemical Valley. Keeping it near the water allows for ease of transport to and from the storage facilities. This keeps costs down, which benefits coal power production. Until the leak occurred, there was no political incentive, nor short term economic incentive, to further understand any number of chemicals used in coal production. 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is just one of an unknown number of strange and poorly documented chemicals stored throughout the state without any true oversight. Because of this lack of oversight, no one batted an eye when they saw storage units along the river. One need simply drive down Maccorkle Avenue on the south bank of the Kanawha River to see dozens of chemical plants and storage units within a few miles of where the Elk meets the Kanawha.

The economic reality of the state of West Virginia is a dependency on a coal industry that is facing increasing competition from strip mining out west and pressures from competing energy sources such as natural gas, which has taken a major toll on the coal industry in the last several years. Many in the state fear that if regulation is increased in the state, the coal industries will simply leave and set up shop elsewhere. McDowell county serves as a realization of this fear. However, this fear has been used as a political weapon to give the coal industry a demi-god, untouchable status in the state.

In a very real sense, West Virginia has become so crippled by its own poverty and lack of alternative major export, that it fears losing what little is has left. West Virginia, by median household income, ranks 49th in the nation. The nation's largest coal producing state, Wyoming, by contrast ranks 13th. West Virginians are simply getting a bad deal from the coal industry compared to other states, but because of political and cultural power, seem unable to improve their standing. In a very real way, the state of West Virginia would see it's economy dramatically affected by coal. Coal is a multibillion dollar industry in the state. If that went away, the effects would be dire. Because of this fear, the will to stand up to the coal industry is simply absent.

Will this leak change the conversation? And what about the environmental concerns of the coal industry?Tomorrow, I'll discuss West Virginia's way forward, and how it has responded to past crises.


Sophia Wright said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Bodnick said...

As a plumber, the stuff in the bottom of a hot water tank never looks good.