West Virginia’s water has been poisoned for years because of coal mining operations in the hills and valleys of America’s “Mountain State.” Joe Stanley was ready when toxic methylcycohexane methanol (MCHM) was dumped into West Virginia’s Elk River recently. While over a quarter million people were without water to drink or wash, Stanley had already stopped using the water, except for flushing, years ago. He also wasn’t surprised that 7,500 gallons of the chemical had found its way into the watershed
Stanley, 64, was an employee at the West Virginia’s coal mine named Marrowbone for fifteen years. Massey Energy, the energy conglomerate, owned Marrowbone mine. Massey Energy also owned the Upper Big Branch mine that left 29 miners dead and CEO Don Blankenship fleeing West Virginia across the border to Kentucky.
Stanley was fired after he had some conflict with mine management. As president of the local union, he demanded research into the many chemicals used at Marrowbone. He reported that mine workers, especially pinners and electricians, were getting ill far beyond what the numbers said should have been happening.
Stanley witnessed the poisoning of West Virginia’s water supply for years. The mine owners had been instructing workers to dump the chemicals into ponds that were not lined as required. He also had firsthand knowledge of the toxic soup being pumped into abandoned mines. MCHM was only one of hundreds of chemicals dumped into holding ponds, and it’s been oozing into the aquifer for years.
Blair, West Virginia, is a small spot on the highway from Charleston to Logan County; a few houses, a couple of dogs laying in the gravel at a boarded up gas station, and cats wandering around an abandoned grocery. Blair has been at the center of much of the mining controversy for most of West Virginia’s history. In 1921, 15,000 miners set out from Marmet, West Virginia, to march to Logan. It was the home of some of the largest coal mine operations in the state. Sheriff Don Chafin, enlisting the help of the Army and volunteers, set up an ambush on top of Blair Mountain. For five days the battle raged on the mountain top and valleys surrounding it. Desperate, Chafin called in air support. The Battle of Blair Mountain remains the largest armed conflict in the U.S. since the Civil War, and is the only time that American bombers were used against American civilians.
Ten years ago, the tiny town of Blair, which sits at the base of Blair Mountain, had 4,500 residents. Today, it has 45. The creek running through the town, supplying drinking water, has been polluted for years. One man said there were so many fish when he was a boy he could grab them bare handed. Now, fish are largely gone from the stream and those that remain are not eaten by anyone because of the toxins.
According to activists for alternate energy, coal mining has been proven to have numerous effects on the environment, and none of them good. Surface mining, otherwise known as strip mining, destroys vegetation and destroys wildlife and their habitat. Air quality indexes go down when mining comes to a region and the lay-of-the-land is permanently altered when mining operations take over.
While rehabilitation, or reclamation, is required by US Federal Law under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, more than one activist has asked how it is possible to dig up a mountain, sift it for coal and put it back as it was.
Ned Doyle, environmental activist and CEO of Our Southern Community put it succinctly.
” This is yet another example of how corporations privatize the profits above all else, then socialize the damage caused by that profit above all motive. Who pays for the emergency relief?” he asked, “Taxpayers. Who pays for the health impacts? Taxpayer and citizens personally. Who pays for the damage to waterways and groundwater? We all do. Until we recognize full cycle costs of fossil fuels and nuclear, the 1% will continue to reap obscene profits, while the 99% pay the price.”
West Virginia’s contamination affects 75 percent of the American population. Water from the Elk River flows into the Ohio which flows into the Mississippi. West Virginia isn’t the only state whose water has been poisoned for years.
By Jerry Nelson
Greed and Death in the Mountains