Welcome to the Hotel West Virginia.
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.” As we commemorate the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday I can’t help thinking of these words. King was doing more here than making a biblical reference. He was from the plains of Georgia, and although he grew up in Atlanta he was familiar with the mountains of Appalachia, which lay just beyond the city limits. Martin Luther King Jr had a passion for hiking hunting and fishing, instilled in him by his father and he knew something about mountains. Certainly he understood that just as with the labor struggles, many of the civil rights movements most important battles were waged in the mountains of Appalachia, and the soil here was soaked in blood. He knew the hardship of Appalachian life, and how the system was maintained by violence and corruption. He understood these mountains.
Were he alive today I believe, he would be shocked by what he would see. The mountain top is gone, the valley filled with mining waste and the water lifeless. I believe he would also be very angry about what is going on in West Virginia, and, like Mother Jones did a half a century earlier, he would have stood with those who chose to fight this injustice.
When I heard about the spill at the Freedom Industries facility in Charleston I was not surprised. The town was built to spill, and it spills every day. It is not called Chemical Ally for nothing. Every once in a while a really bad spill will happen. People will get their shorts up in a knot, they will get scared, they might even demand new regulations. And after a few months they will forget. No matter what gets dumped into the water, no matter how many of Charleston’s citizen get poisoned, no matter how much outrage is voiced by the public and the politicians, nothing ever changes.
This was no accident. The Coal and Chemical industry owns all of our crooked politicians, all of our Judges and have captured every State agency created to reign them in. They own the media. They hold their workforce hostage. Work for us or work at the Little General and make sausage biscuits for us at $6.00 an hour. There is no other show in town and they want to keep it that way. We can get a billion dollar freeway here with federal dollars but we can’t get any money to do anything other than to mine more coal. Why does a state like West Virginia, with an inordinate share of the Earth’s natural wealth, live in toxic poverty?
Will this tragedy be any different? Will West Virginians finally stand up for themselves and throw these rascals out?
It is too soon to answer that question. One thing is for certain, this spill will not easily be swept under the carpet as so many others have. We have been doing some research on the chemical, and the processes for which it is used. It is for the most part unstudied and unregulated but everyone up here in the hollers knows something about it and why it was brought in. White plastic boxes of it are located throughout the Coal River and I have spoken to neighbors who have hauled it, pumped it and cleaned up after it. A few drops a minute will clear up a muddy creek. Full strength, it will eat through your boots, and it eats through the hoses used to pump it. It is a super solvent, meant to bond with solids so that last bit of burnable coal can be separated from the slurry that would otherwise be dumped into the shaft of an old coal mine.
The chemical that leaked into the Elk River is called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or, MCHM, and is dumped by the hundreds of gallons every day on the Coal River, where the coal is cleaned, if indeed any part of this process could be said to be clean. The major difference this time is that instead of dumping it at the top of the watershed it was dumped directly into the intake pipe of Charleston’s water treatment plant. Only time will tell what effects this will have on the people or the river, but they will be long term.
MCHM is used for many purposes, mixed with other chemicals, and may bond with chorine to create chlorinated hydrocarbons in tap water. It cannot easily be flushed out of the system, some of it will remain for months. Again, the paucity of research on MCHM makes many of these questions unanswerable but in Charleston the cry for answers grows louder each day as mothers are told it is safe to drink the water but not to bathe their child in it. And then, in the next breath they are told that if they are pregnant they should not drink the water …
In Washington on Wednesday speaking to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, West Virginia’s senator, Joe Manchin was still doing the same song and dance in front of his bosses. “You feel like everyone’s turned against you.” he said to his friends who own the tanks and chemical plants in his district, clearly feeling their pain. The very next day he expanded on the theme, declaring “West Virginia is a heavy lifting state — coal mining and chemical manufacturing, if it weren’t for the resources we had here, you wouldn’t have industrial might, you wouldn’t have the middle class.”
So there you have it. We all live down stream, but the people and the mountains that are being enslaved and plundered upstream are to be sacrificed for this entitlement, the middle class, which is now itself disappearing because these same industries will go to wherever they can make the most money, and have to contend with the fewest environmental and labor regulations.
Kicking the chemical and coal habit will not come without costs. For over two hundred years an occupation as harsh and brutal as any today is still in progress. A people are held hostage. Yet as we can now plainly see this is about more than the plight of Appalachia. What happens on the Coal River does not stay on the Coal River. That chemical, that mercury, that carbon, it does not stay here. You are eating and breathing it if you live anywhere on this planet. Charleston resident Eric Waggoner in a recent blog post put it this way, explain his reaction to the leak “This was not the rational anger one encounters in response to a specific wrong, nor even the righteous anger that comes from an articulate reaction to years of systematic mistreatment. This was blind animal rage, and it filled my body to the limits of my skin….Having been made to endure poisoned Air, Earth, and Water, we ought to be mindful of that history, and make sure that history goes with us, always, into the voting booth, into the streets, into the home, into the wider world. Otherwise, to steal a line from the old hymn—and don’t we love our Jesus, our stories of noble suffering around here—we’ll all of us, residents and politicians and operators alike, find ourselves standing in the Fire Next Time.
When reasonable, law abiding citizens like Waggoner can be moved to such levels of outrage, there is hope. One gets the feeling he will never walk away from this fight. Welcome to the Hotel West Virginia. You can check in, but you can never leave. He has been to the mountain top, and it was gone, yet still he can see the promised land and can point a way forward. He understands that we will not get there without a fight.
The first step in getting rid of this deadly chemical is to stop the blasting of mountain tops for coal in the first place, and to shut these mines down for good. That is why we are working to pass the ACHE Act, http://acheact.org/ in this years congress. Together we can save the mountains we have left. Please log on and check it out.
Climate Ground Zero
Rock Creek, West Virginia