TRNN’s Shaghayegh Tajvidi travels to Charleston to investigate the impacts of the massive West Virginia chemical spill
SHAGHAYEGH TAJVIDI, TRNN PRODUCER: It was a harsh start to 2014 for West Virginia, though in this state, events over the last two months have been only the latest twists in a long and familiar story.
To this day, many of the 300,000 West Virginians who were affected by the water crisis are still not drinking their tap water.
UNIDENTIFIED: Not just with water. With chemical spills. We get everything, the trash. And then they want to know why the cancer rate is so high.
TAJVIDI: On January 9, domestic and international press reeled with the news of a chemical spill in Charleston at the hands of a mining chemical supply company, Freedom Industries.
CALLIE KART, REPORTER, WCHS: Are there no systems in place to alert you of a leak at your facility other than a smell?
SOUTHERN: At this moment in time, I think that’s all we have time for. So thanks for coming. Thanks for your time.
KART: We have more questions. Hey, hey, hey!
TAJVIDI: The situation quickly escalated into a crisis, and the governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, announced a state of emergency.
EARL RAY TOMBLIN, GOVERNOR OF WEST VIRGINIA: For safety, we would just ask that everyone please do not use any tap water.
TAJVIDI: The five-day water ban went into effect, the result of 10,000 gallons of a coal-processing chemical, crude MCHM, having leaked into Charleston’s Elk River from a storage tank of the Freedom Industries site.
UNIDENTIFIED: Try drinking that. Try drinking that water. See what happens.
TAJVIDI: Two weeks later, Freedom Industries confirmed that a second chemical, PPH, had also leaked from the same tank.
RADIO HOST, METRO NEWS TALKLINE: When did West Virginia American Water learn that there was actually a second chemical in the spill, that PPH–which is not as toxic as MCHM, but PPH was in there as well as MCHM?
LAURA JORDON, W.V. AMERICAN WATER COMPANY SPOKESWOMAN: We were contacted about this late yesterday–or later yesterday, after this was disclosed to the DEP. Certainly the timing of this, coming 12 days after the initial event, is certainly troublesome.
TAJVIDI: According to spokesperson Tom Aluise of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, what spilled into the Elk River is not an easy cleanup job. The Real News contacted the DEP for further comment on the process of removing the substances from the river. Mr. Aluise replied:
TEXT ON SCREEN: “THE GOVERNOR ORDERED FREEDOM INDUSTRIES TO EMPTY CHEMICALS FROM ALL OF THE 17 TANKS ON THE SITE BY MARCH 15 … REMEDIATION EFFORTS AT THE SITE WILL BEGIN IN FULL FORCE ONCE THE TANKS ARE REMOVED. REMEDIATION WILL TAKE MONTHS.”
/l@’kriS@/ ROSE, WEST VIRGINIA RESIDENT: It’s been, you know, a couple of weeks, and it’s just frustrating. You thought there was light at the end of the tunnel.
TAJVIDI: In a new documentary entitled Poisoned, resident /l@’kriS@/ Rose reflects on the impacts that the water crisis has had on her family and the uncertainty that they, like many West Virginians, have been facing.
ROSE: But I just don’t want my kids to be subject to it. And so we’re still bathing them in bottled water or rain water or whatever kind of water I can get. I won’t bath them in the water from the water company.
TAJVIDI: This is the West Virginia Water Company, which all of Charleston and surrounding counties are dependent on for their water supply. Beside it is the Elk River. And one and a half miles upstream is Freedom Industries. Driving along I-79, the proximity of these sites is in plain view. As I was reminded more than once, this is Charleston, home of Chemical Valley. In the words of one resident, who didn’t want to appear on camera, there aren’t many places for a water company to go.
BILL HOWLEY, COEDITOR, OURWATERWV.ORG: One of the things that’s always important to point out about this situation was that Freedom Industry’s tank farm on the Elk River is only one of 51 identified point-source threats to Charleston’s water system.
TAJVIDI: Bill Howley is an editor of Our Water W.V. and a longtime activist in West Virginia who advocates for changes to the energy system.
HOWLEY: You know, many people have been saying, well, why does Charleston just have one water intake location? Why isn’t there another one? There can’t be another one, because all of the other water sources that could support the city’s water system are too polluted to use.
TAJVIDI: On February 11, news broke of yet another incident. Southeast of Charleston, a pipe rupture at a processing facility leaked more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry, which is a fluid mixture of coal, rock, and chemicals, into a local creek, damaging six miles of it. A smaller amount of the contamination made it into the Kanawha River.
UNIDENTIFIED: It smells an awful lot like the MCHM spill that happened in Charleston. It has that same kind of sweet–some people describe as licorice scent. See, it’s sort of liquidy, soupy sort of a [inaud.] It’s a lot thinner than the riverbank mud that’s this light brown over here.
TAJVIDI: Pollutants and slurry have been said to include arsenic, among a wide range of chemicals. This spill, which involved 90,000 gallons more contamination than what leaked into the Elk River has received little coverage.
Slurry spills, like other industry accidents, are all too commonplace in West Virginia, as people living in the coal fields can attest.
UNIDENTIFIED: People in the West Virginia mountain areas, they’re very familiar with problems with chemicals for a long time. Isn’t that right?
UNIDENTIFIED: That’s correct. You know, we’ve had a long-going history of having water issues and problems, you know, within our communities. It takes so much water to clean–it takes 95 gallons of water to clean one ton of coal. So there is an amazing amount of waste that’s being pumped in behind these man-made dams. Some of them are–as you know, they hold billions of gallons of sludge. In the coal fields, that what we’re saying, that we live with this every day and have been for many, many years.
TAJVIDI: Just as this piece was wrapping, I was informed of two more mining-related incidents on the same day. On February 19, DEP inspectors were both in Boone and McDowell counties. In the Boone area, an unspecified but large quantity of polluted water escaped from a mining site, where in McDowell County, runoff from melting snow flooded a control pond and sent black water, or coal waste, into a local creek. Officials maintain that such accidents do not pose a threat to public health.
RANDY HUFFMAN, CABINET SECRETARY, W.V. DEPT. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION: Prolonged contact will not likely cause skin irritation. The amount that likely was in that slurry is so low that we don’t believe that that particular chemical will have an impact that far away.
TAJVIDI: Now two months since the spill into the Elk River, the only major change appears to be the dying media attention around the ongoing crisis.
BOBBIE WISNIEWSKI, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR ONLINE LEARNING, WVU: When it first happened, you know, we did get some national media coverage, but it very quickly tapered off.
TAJVIDI: A native of West Virginia, Bobbie Wisniewski lives in Charleston with her husband and young children. As residents of Kanawha County, which is dead-center of the crisis, everyone in her family fell sick after the spill.
WISNIEWSKI: And it’s one of those stories, like, you would–you know, it’s something you hear in a Third World country. It makes you kind of angry, because you see how kind of other Appalachia is, or West Virginia in particular. You know, who are these people? They’re not really part of our state. They support us in some way. They provide us with resources. You know, we have an interest there. But they’re not really important enough to be part of the, you know, mainstream culture.
RACHEL MADDOW, TV HOST, MSNBC: You are not going to believe this, but they closed another school in Charleston, West Virginia, today. Teachers at Grandview Elementary today reported smelling that licoricey odor of the chemical that spilled into the local water supply last month.
TAJVIDI: Despite school closures well into February due to the presence of that familiar toxic odor, cameras and agencies that first responded to the situation have been disappearing, as is Freedom Industries, who filed for bankruptcy in January and announced recently that it will be shutting down.
INTERVIEWER: They say the water’s safe now.
UNIDENTIFIED: No, the water isn’t safe, because you can still smell that stuff in that water. I don’t see why we have to pay for any water.
UNIDENTIFIED: We pay our water bill, and we thought we was getting good, clean water to provide for our families. There’s no longer that.
UNIDENTIFIED: And now they’re going to tell us the water’s good. How many times they told us it was bad since they told us it was good?
TAJVIDI: As the media falls silent and public officials fail to address the many questions that still linger, frustration is mounting. People here are growing more vocal.
HOWLEY: Unfortunately, the way the crisis unfolded was such that nobody had an answer to the question: is my water safe to drink? And people have to live with that. And it goes on for days and weeks now, where people are lining up for hours waiting to get clean water when they could be at work, taking care of their kids, going about their normal lives. They can’t do that right now.
TOMBLIN: Growing up, I learned that coal is how towns like ours survive.
TAJVIDI: In following segments, we will look at the relationship of the coal industry to politics in West Virginia and how the Elk River spill has reawoken a spirit of mobilization in the state.
UNIDENTIFIED: We must be willing to start something.
TAJVIDI: For The Real News Network, Shaghayegh Tajvidi, Charleston.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.