Sunday, January 12, 2014
As most everyone knows by now, there was a chemical leak into the Elk river in Charleston WV that led to a state of emergency in 9 of our 55 counties.
First, some clarification and geographical grounding.
Here are the watersheds in the state. I live up in the corner near the only straight lines in the state outline, in Monongahela county in the Monongahela watershed. (We’ve biked into PA along the local rail trail.)
Here are the affected counties:
So you can see that despite the fact that the Monongahela river flows north, we’re nowhere near the chemical spill.
This picture shows you the location of the spill, and the affected counties:
Since Thursday afternoon, we’ve had constant updates, notification that for the nine counties, Boone, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, Roane, and Cabell, were under a state of emergency, and residents were not to use water except for flushing toilets and putting out fires.
I was initially confused by the “putting out fires” bit until I realized that some chemicals can lead to water that could, in fact, catch fire. So it would be best to clarify that putting the contaminated water on a fire wouldn’t cause an explosion.
So what did this mean to those in the affected counties? It meant that all schools, hotels and restaurants in the area had to close.
Stop for just a second, and think of all the times during the day you reach out and turn on a faucet. Can you count the number of times today you turned on the tap and water came out? All those times you went to the faucet without thinking, someone in those counties was attempting to do the same thing, and then remembering they can’t turn on the water.
In the affected areas, you can’t wash clothes, dishes, or your hands. You can’t shower or bathe. You can’t drink the water or cook with it.
All those little thing you do every day without thinking, they can’t do.
In West Virginia, most of us get our water from our rivers.
And our treated sewage goes right back into those same bodies of water.
Well, it’s treated most of the time. In Mon county we historically had problems with heavy rains overwhelming our sewage treatment plants and putting untreated sewage directly into the river. But they changed the storm drains to go directly into the streams and river, which is good, because the amount of new construction–the amount of concrete and asphalt where there used to be woods and fields–in Morgantown has led to more and more run off. Has led to flooding where before the ground would just soak up the water.
When I was growing up, most of the local creeks looked like this:
Does this help at all?
Most streams and creeks were orange from acid mine drainage. Water from mines went straight into nearby streams and creeks.
Streams and creeks that fed into the rivers from which got our water.
So, you see, water quality has always been a problem in West Virginia. Big companies, often with out-of-state owners, would come in to take our resources–our forests, our coal, our natural gas–and leave the forests and creeks and streams and rivers damaged.
Why would they care? The owners didn’t live here.
If we didn’t like it, they’d just take their jobs and leave.
So, we took the short end of the stick, and, well, we took it. And our streams were polluted and our forests cut and our mountains flattened.
So when I heard about the chemical spill into the Elk river, I didn’t imagine an isolated incident.
I was instead reminded of how what happens in West Virginia doesn’t matter, unless it gets in the way of taking our resources so they can be used in other, more important, areas of the country.
Oh, just came across this, which made me feel ALL the better.
So yeah, keep those dirty lights on.
ADDENDUM the First:
I forgot to point out that more than 300,000 people were affected by the chemical spill. That’s more than 16% of the population of West Virginia. So although it was only 9 of our 55 counties affected, it is still a large percentage of our population.
ADDENDUM the Second:
Critics Say Chemical Spill Highlights Lax West Virginia Regulations (NY Times)
I heard (but don’t have a link right this second for verification) that the plant was known to be in poor condition.