Poisoning our water supply is not ok

March 4, 2014
Everybody in this industry has heard many times, I would hope, that only 2.5% of the water on earth is fresh water and most of that is frozen into ice caps and glaciers. Less than 1% is available in surface water and aquifers for us to drink. Despite having so little, there are people reckless enough to poison what little we have.

Everybody in this industry has heard many times, I would hope, that only 2.5% of the water on earth is fresh water and most of that is frozen into ice caps and glaciers. Less than 1% is available in surface water and aquifers for us to drink. Despite having so little, there are people reckless enough to poison what little we have.

I believe that Federal regulations don’t come out of thin air — some moron decides to dump arsenic in the creek and, bam, you end up with regulations. That being the case, it looks like we either don’t have enough or the ones we have are not being enforced.

On January 9, 2014, a storage tank at a company called Freedom Industries holding 48,000-gal. of the coal-washing chemical 4-methylcyclohexene methanol, or MCHM, ruptured right next to the Elk River, less than two miles from the intake to the water treatment plant for Charleston, W.Va. Approximately 10,000-gal. of the chemical spilled into the river. The water supply for 300,000 people was put out of commission for everything except flushing toilets. West Virginia has regulations for chemical processing facilities but not for chemical storage facilities like the Freedom Industries facility. The storage site had reportedly not been inspected since 1991.

A month later, people in Charleston were still dealing with the spill. There were reports of the telltale strong licorice smell from the water, reports of illnesses, and schools were closing. Oddly, lab tests of the water did not always show high amounts of MCHM even though the odor was present. Many people in the region trusted their noses rather than the test results.

A little more than a month later, on Feb. 11, 108,000-gal. of coal slurry spilled from a Patriot Coal processing facility into the Kanawha River, reported the Charleston Gazette on As the coal slurry was being pumped a valve failed. Next the alarm that was supposed to alert operators of the valve failure itself failed. The coal slurry soon overwhelmed the containment wall until the slurry flowed into Fields Creek, which flows into the Kanawha River.

Coal slurry is nasty stuff. It contains mercury, arsenic, chromium, manganese, boron, and other heavy metals.

On Feb. 2, a pipe under a coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy ruptured, sending 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of tainted water into the Dan River, upstream from Danville, Va.

My colleague Sandy Smith at EHS Today (as in environmental health and safety) has done some outstanding reporting on Duke Energy’s lack of responsibility for its coal ash ponds. The EPA issued a report in 2009 calling Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds “significant hazard potential structures.” So what did Duke Energy do about them? Nothing.

The reason Duke Energy has done nothing is that the administration of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years, has been protecting Duke Energy. That’s coming to an end, Smith reported.

“Federal prosecutors on Feb. 19 disclosed that 19 employees of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources have been asked to produce documents in what U.S. Attorney Thomas G. Walker called a ‘criminal investigation of a suspected felony.’ These documents should include but are not limited to ‘cash, check wire transfer and stock transfer’ allegedly received from Duke Energy. They also are expected to testify before a grand jury on March 18.”

Spills like this are not something new. In 2008, five million cubic yards of coal ash sludge buried hundreds of acres in eastern Tennessee from a Tennessee Valley Authority storage facility. What’s been done about that? Nada. It took until August of 2012 for a U.S. District Judge to rule that TVA was negligent and responsible for cleaning up its own mess. Not that it has. In December 2013 — two and a half months ago — USA Today ran a story headlined, “5 Years After Coal Ash Spill, Little has Changed.”

What has the EPA been doing about this? Not a damn thing. EPA has been sitting on draft coal ash standards for four years. It sounds like EPA is way more in thrall to the coal and electric utility industries than it is to the environmentalists. Now that EPA has been sued — and lost — in federal court, it will finally issue those draft standards.

“For the last four years, the EPA has been sitting on a coal ash standard that could have prevented this disaster in North Carolina — if sufficiently strong, it would put an end to the open pits, the leaking ponds, and the abandoned toxic coal waste,” the Sierra Club said in a press release. “EPA has also proposed protections for toxic water pollution from coal plants, but that draft standard has also not been finalized, and it includes several weak options that would let polluters off the hook.”

In January, EPA reached a settlement of a lawsuit for its failure to enforce environmental law after a Federal judge ruled last October that the agency has a mandatory duty to issue coal ash regulations under the Resource and Conservation Recovery Act. EPA said it would issue the proposed rules by December 19 of this year.

This is not ok. The speed at which these incidents have been forgotten is unconscionable.

I was dismayed at how little news coverage these events got. The Freedom Industries spill was a big deal for a couple of days and then it faded from view. The coal ash spills received little press coverage and you had to go looking for it to find it.

Those people are just poor white trash so I guess it doesn’t matter now, does it?

We’re not talking about protecting the habitat of some inch-long fish or an owl or some frog that nobody has heard of. We’re talking about the elderly or pregnant women drinking chemicals.

“We are one month into the disaster and our water, like the water of thousands of others in our area, still smells of MCHM,” said Jeff Haynes, who lives less than a mile from the Elk River, according to a report in the N.Y. Times from Feb. 9, 2014.

This time more people than just the Sierra Club or the Waterkeeper Alliance care about the fate of the water supply. The companies that poison the water supply must be held accountable. Cleaning up your own mess is stuff you learned in kindergarten.

If you look online for ongoing news coverage of this story from local news sources, the people most affected by these spills are still dealing with the consequences and they’re still angry. Here’s hoping that West Virginia citizens can put that anger and resolve to good use and get some real, loophole-free protections for their drinking water passed by the legislature.


Here's an update thanks to from Organized Voices and Empowered Communities. The subhead, "Wake up and smell the water," is really appropriate. People in West Virginia are angry. OVEC linked to this editorial from the normally pro-coal Morgantown Dominion Post that says:

"The problem is the Jan. 9 chemical spill and the resultant publicity was no isolated instance. Chemical spills, sludge and slurry dams leaks and breaks, fracking fallout, acid mine drainage, mountaintop removal mines and any one of a dozen other such environmental hazards are virtually the norm in West Virginia. ... until we get serious about enforcing regulations and hiring enough inspectors, and empowering them to do their job, it will happen again."

It's long past time to get serious.


Another update. There's a quotation that may or may not have come from Stalin, "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Picking out what has happened to a single person or family is always effective way to tell a story. A Rolling Stone writer has done that pretty well.

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About the Author

Robert Mader Blog | Editor in Chief

Bob Mader is the editor of CONTRACTOR magazine, Green Mechanical Contractor magazine, and Radiant Living magazine. He has been writing about plumbing, mechanical, green building and HVACR topics for more than 25 years.

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