By Dr. John P. David
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The cost of Freedom in the nine-county area served by the Elk River intake of investor-owned West Virginia American Water has brought into focus that clean water is essential for life, clean water is essential for the economy, and clean water must be protected by rigorous oversight.
Over 40 years ago, Republican President Richard Nixon signed an Executive Order creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Eighteen years later, Newsweek startled many with the cover story "Don't Go Near The Water." This was a wake-up call that reckless industrial usage, extensive chemical use in agriculture, irresponsible run-off from surface mining and careless waste management have caused significant health problems as well as major damage to the earth's essential aquifers.
Like oxygen, the value of water has long been considered by many in the industrialized world as practically a free good. Water is both hungrily and cheaply used by industry for leaching, processing, flushing and everything else imaginable that impacts its quality. Yet in much of the world, drinkable water is a prized and scarce resource.
Even in America, people in some places in Arizona are advised to not buy a home unless it comes with assigned water rights from a Colorado River aqueduct. According to USA Today, drought "now afflicts about one-third of the contiguous U.S., including part of the upper Midwest" and in the West most of the region's 11 states were either in drought or abnormally dry, nearly double the area previously affected. In California and Arizona "about 50 percent of each is in some stage of drought." According to World Water Council, 1.1 billion people, a sixth of the world population, do not have an adequate supply of pure water.
As a consequence of poor oversight and management, the continued reliance on water from surface sources has become risky. Contamination is prevalent and additional chemicals are extensively needed to treat surface water.
While MCHM and PPH are currently the contaminants of concern, other dangerous substances such as selenium prevail as well. For example, at about the same time as the Freedom incident, the Kraton Polymers plant in Belpre had two process leaks into the West Virginia-owned Ohio River that resulted in at least a "minor fish kill."
We have now learned that MCHM is a proprietary Eastman (formerly Eastman Kodak) chemical that is commonly used to wash coal of impurities. Freedom Industries, a firm owned on paper by Chemstream Holdings, is really Rosebud Mining, the third largest coal mining company in Pennsylvania and a major player nationally. Owner Cliff Forrest mines and washes coal. He lives in a million dollar Pittsburgh home and also owns the lavish Lodge at Glendorn, a place for the wealthy "to escape from the demands of modern life." Freedom Industries was a business expansion move for Cliff Forrest.
MCHM and PPH were stored in a 1928 vintage tank on an old tank farm that had a history of problems when owned by Pennzoil/Quaker State as Elk Refining Company, which operated the site from 1913. As a result, Pennzoil/Quaker State and the WVDEP's Office of Environmental Remediation negotiated a remediation agreement that included provisions for identifying human health and ecological risks associated with current and future use of the site.
The intent of this remediation, if in fact it occurred, was to create a location of no potential contamination, which certainly should have included monitoring wells in addition to the welding and adequate secondary contaminant provisions for the ancient riveted tanks if they continued to be used.
The third player is West Virginia American Water along with overall public policy. WV American Water, after a brief period when its private parent was foreign-owned, was enamored with building huge regional water systems usually using, as the case in Mercer and Fayette counties, a small non-functional Public Service District as a conduit for major public funding. To create economies of scale and enhance profits, WV American Water also pressed the state Public Service Commission to advocate elimination of pesky public service districts. The fact that a huge multi-county system tied to a single risky surface water intake source was allowed to function is an example of public policy running amok.