CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Because of poison (crude MCHM and PPH) leaking in our water beginning on Jan. 9, 300,000 West Virginians' lives have been changed forever. The security that many folks had in clean water coming out of their taps is gone. Along with that, so is their trust in our elected officials, government agencies and the West Virginia American Water Company.
The release of a coal-cleaning chemical into our drinking water should never have happened.
For example, let's look at why nine counties' water supplies come from one water intake on the Elk River. In my childhood, there was healthy water everywhere in the form of wells, streams and springs. Throughout my 45 years, I have winessed Southern West Virginia selling or giving away our local water infrastructure to the water company because of the expense or inability to deal with ever-growing coal-related pollution.
For decades, the people of Boone County, where I live, and the surrounding areas have dealt with and been exposed to water pollution, dust fallout and illnesses from the pollution of blowing up mountains over our homes, coal processing plants and associated coal impoundments that have poisoned our air and water. Plus, there's all the worry and stress associated with watching your mountains and communities disappear, with waiting for the next flood off a valley fill or the next disaster as blasting goes on around massive coal sludge dams.
In many homes, people are caring for loved ones fighting health problems associated with exposure to coal pollution such as black lung, cancers, heart conditions, COPD, drug addiction and more. Twenty-four peer-reviewed published reports indicate this association; not one of our politicians has responded to this science.
Passage of the ACHE Act HR 526, a bill before Congress, can and will confront our water and health problems head on.
West Virginia politicians pretend to care so much for coal miners and their families. Why won't they insure that these families have clean water to sustain a healthy life instead of passing laws to further pollute our water and uphold coal production at all costs? Why don't they value the coal miners as much as they value the production of West Virginia coal?
Chemical Valley and the southern mountain communities are very similar, both being controlled by out-of-control industries, politicians and regulatory agencies that firmly believe that they have primacy over our lives and our air, land and water.
West Virginia American Water shares some blame, too. It's almost unthinkable that they knowingly operated a single water intake for 300,000 people that could be impacted by what may prove to be deadly chemicals. If the water company didn't know, they should have. Three months before the spill, federal safety inspectors found that storage tanks at Freedom Industries did not meet industry standards. People depended on the water company to supply people with a product that won't risk their lives, and the company failed to do that.
Why did West Virginia American Water think it was OK to pump this poison into people's homes? If anyone was concerned about human health, it seems like they would have done everything possible to pump this away from people's homes. Now this pollution lies in our water lines, water heaters, appliances and septic fields. Over time, this chemical cocktail will probably leach back into the streams where we fish and recreate.
I don't think people will ever feel safe showering in this water, let alone drinking it or cooking with it. Their property values just bottomed out when this poisoning happened. I wonder why the citizens of West Virginia continue to agree to absorb the cost of business in this state, instead of insisting that the profiteers and polluters pay the true cost of doing business. We are constantly bearing the costs of the lack of real political leadership, regulation and enforcement, and poor decisions made by the companies that operate here. At the same time, we are getting sicker and poorer! The right thing to do now is to continue to supply these communities with clean bottled drinking water and to also offer medical monitoring.
We don't want to foot the bill to get the water company to supply us with a clean, usable product that is essential to our lives. Here's a bigger question: Can't our leaders and these utility companies supply southern West Virginia with jobs, clean water and dependable electricity without impoverishing and killing us in the process? We do deserve better and the only way we will get better is by demanding it.
When Election Day comes, West Virginians ought to flush all the state and federal career politicians out of office and give someone else a try. As voters, we have the power and an obligation to our children and grandchildren to do this. Our long-term survival and a livable future depend on it.
Gunnoe is a Boone County community organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for North America and the 2012 recipient of the Wallenberg Medal for humanitarian work in southern West Virginia.