CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians are, like lemmings, now rushing over a literal coal cliff in our mad obsession with the black rock.
Since the Nov. 30 Harrison County sludge embankment collapse, in which one worker died and two others barely escaped with their lives, Consol Energy has rushed through a plan to resume production and filling the slurry pond before the safety investigation has even gotten traction.
The man's body, over a week later, was still not recovered. This haste appears to lie at the root of the disaster and demonstrates our state leaders' priorities of profit and production first, safety and health last.
By stating that "accidents do occur," Gov. Tomblin has abdicated responsibility for his agencies' many failures to protect the public as well as workers. He and the majority of West Virginia's politicians rely not on the sciences that tell us that wet slurry dams collapse and mountaintop removal dust harms our health, but rather on faith. Faith that the laws of science don't apply in West Virginia, faith that coal refuse will resist that mysterious force pulling it downward, faith that toxic dust and water will recognize the boundaries drawn on a map, faith that West Virginians' bodies have divine protection from poisons we breathe, drink and eat.
If we die, it's because of the only reliable law that "accidents do occur." Belief in physics, chemistry, or medicine demonstrates heresy. If we insist that our neighbors keep their blasting dust, flyrock, boulders, seismic shock waves, toxic sludge and hazardous runoff on their own property and out of our homes, we are troublemaking, Godless extremists.
There is another way; it's called the precautionary principle. The idea is that before you can begin an activity that could harm others, you demonstrate that you can and will conduct that activity safely. For example, you demonstrate that you can drive safely and see the traffic signs before you get a driver's license. If you fail to uphold your end of the deal, such as killing someone with your car, you forfeit your privilege of conducting that activity. The coal industry in West Virginia operates by the opposite philosophy, in which citizens die first and sue later.
We could have bold leadership. Gov. Tomblin could make community safety a priority and issue a moratorium on expansion of sludge dams. Dry press methods are available and increasingly being used instead of placing billions more gallons of slurry above our communities. Our Congressional delegation could embrace the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency (ACHE) Act. The ACHE Act (HR 5959 in this Congress) would pause the issuance of new or expanding mountaintop removal permits until a thorough federal health study can demonstrate that this method does not harm our health. In the light of mounting evidence that mountaintop removal harms our health, the ACHE Act embodies the precautionary principle and prioritizes citizens' health.
We could have these kinds of leaders, but instead we have ushers directing us over the cliff with their "accidents do occur" philosophy.
Haltom is executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch.