I have followed the news coverage and felt sorry for the large number of seriously inconvenienced residents. How much leaked into the Elk River? Don't know. When did it start? Don't know. How dangerous is it? Don't know. Why were all the antique tanks not inspected? Don't know. Why no secondary containment? Don't know. Why was it located upstream from the water supply intake? Don't know. And why, if some industry group says a chemical is not categorized as hazardous, do we think it is therefore benign?
Here in the frenzied Wild West fields of Marcellus shale gas operations, we really cannot worry too long about you folks in Kanawha County. Sure, we sort of feel bad for all of you, but, you know, we have our own assortment of community hazards, and they do not make the national news. They don't make the Charleston news.
We have many hundreds of Marcellus shale gas tanker trucks marked "residual waste" or "brine." What exactly is in all of them, we don't know. Not hazardous, they say.
And, speaking of non-hazardous, last year, our state-supported natural gas industry generously provided to our local landfill more than 250,000 tons of uncharacterized horizontal drill waste material. That is a lot. It is ours to keep. Forever.
And if you read the fine print on the non-existing label, it also comes with some miscellaneous heavy metals and radioactive constituents. The effluent from the landfill goes to the river. Our river is handy for disposing of waste isn't it?
And across many counties, we have more than our share of pipeline ruptures spilling contaminants into our surface waters. On a regular basis, we have our explosions, fires, fatalities, injuries, spills, flares and air pollution.
Why do we as a state keep doing the same dumb things over and over?
Why do we always favor, support and encourage commercial, big industry interests over safe water and environmental protection? Why do we not always consider the long-term best interests of all our grandchildren? Why have we, the voting, taxpaying citizens for decades, allowed our politicians to routinely gut environmental regulations and strip authority and resources from our regulatory agencies to defang them into innocuous enablers?
In recent years, residents in the very active newer Marcellus gas well fields have come to the same conclusion that residents in the southern coalfields did decades ago. There is some Jekyll and Hyde quality at the DEP. The Department of Environmental Protection has many state employees truly committed to protecting the environment. They are knowledgeable, responsive and dedicated, and true public servants, working against restraints and with limited resources and minimal political support. So some times when I, or my neighbors call, we get lucky, and we are fortunate and very grateful when we actually get someone from the Department of Environmental Protection. But at other times, when a concerned citizen has a serious and urgent or chronic and routine problem related to the coal, oil, or especially a Marcellus gas well operation, they call the same number and get someone from the Division of Energy Promoters.
It seems that as a state, we continue to choose ingrained, intentional, culturally reinforced ignorance. We are collectively and politically choosing to stay ignorant. We do not seem to have learned from our mistakes. We do not do our homework. We forget our history. Really now folks, leaky storage tanks upstream of the city water intake. Think again. We can do better. But, on new well pads we still put gas well condensate and flowback storage tanks, in the floodplain, on a stream bank with no liner under them. We should know better.
Let us try to start over again. We must compel our elected political leaders to keep our collective grandchildren foremost in our minds. Because if we don't, the chemical and energy companies surely will not. It is not their priority. Their job is to mine coal, and get more gas and make more money. West Virginia Wild and Wonderful or industrialized and polluted -- it's our choice.
Good luck to Kanawha and Tyler ounties. We all share many risks.
Hughes is chairman of the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority.