West Virginia's Toxic Waters Just Another Slight


Those of us with 1960s and ’70s coal-country union roots instantly recognized the images of hurting folk lined up in long queues, cold and desperate for their government to fix problems not of their own doing.

We cut our political teeth at simple supper tables plied with union food, prayed over by union parents who were themselves raised to believe in collective bargaining.

And more of us than we care to remember – some union-family kids included – grew up standing in line, waiting to receive the massive FDA blocks of cheese, jars of peanut butter and canisters of powdered milk to see us through another week. But the three generations of Appalachians we saw shivering in line post West Virginia’s latest chemical leaks were there not for food but for something even more basic: potable water.

Those who are familiar with the area know West Virginia’s Kanawa Valley (termed “Chemical Valley” by environmentalists) is a confluence of chronically at-risk rivers flowing through greater Charleston.

For the past 50 years petroleum- and chemical-based multinationals have taken advantage of the ready ports along the riverbanks. Add to this lax, myopic environmental oversight the state’s corporate-friendly tax abatements and spotty mainstream media reporting and one can only marvel that toxic leeching has not visited even greater misery on the area’s rivers, land and population.

The aptly named Freedom Industries is the offending party in this sordid narrative.

Because Freedom is a storage-only site, its facilities are not subject to the same inspections as those that process chemicals. (Records indicate Freedom was last inspected in 1991.) As with the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion, the company in question has been singled out as though it functioned in an industrial vacuum; but Freedom is a veritable drop in a highly polluted river valley.

Anyone familiar with the Mountain State’s industrial past knows that bigger entities such as Dow and DuPont have wreaked substantial damage Valley waterways. And received half the media coverage and public ire. Now that federal resources and EPA protocols have been brought to bear on restoring safe water to the affected 300,000 West Virginians, legislators should revisit this incident with an eye toward the big picture.

Angela Rosser, executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition had it right in a Jan. 12 New York Times interview: “We can’t just point a single finger at this company. We need to look at our entire system and give some serious thought to making some serious reform and valuing our natural resources over industry interests.”

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2014


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