Posts Tagged ‘ecosocialism’

This is Part 2 of a 2 Part Series examining the political and social ramifications of the chemical spill in West Virginia last Thursday in the context of Appalachian history and struggle.  Part 1 can be read here.

On the third day after 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked from a storage facility into West Virginia’s Elk River, little has changed for 300,000 West Virginians who remain without water.  The estimated size of the leak remains unclear.  Freedom Industries’ President Gary Southern could only say for certain that less than 35,000 gallons leaked out, but West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin claims the spill did not exceed 5,000 gallons.  No one can say for sure when the water will be safe to use for even the most basic daily tasks–brushing teeth, washing hands, clothes, and dishes, and, of course, drinking.

Finally, the EPA issued an order forcing Freedom Industries to close down its operation and drain any remaining chemical in the tank.  While the site cannot accept any new materials for storage, they will not be required to remove other chemicals from the site.  Instead they have been ordered to test the integrity of all other above ground tanks and secondary containment systems.  But it comes too late.  The Department of Environmental Protection had no jurisdiction over the site since the chemical was only stored–not produced–there, meaning that hazardous chemicals stored in close proximity to major water source had no state or federal oversight and were supposed to self-report EPA violations.  OSHA has also launched an investigation into potential violations of worker safety, but their statement also highlighted further oversight and negligence–OSHA has no past relationship with Freedom Industries.  Yet another workplace containing dangerous chemicals went uninspected.

Those defending the company because it has no record of violations entirely miss the point: after all, you can’t find violations that you aren’t even looking for.

The state has launched an investigation into the disaster, and by Friday afternoon, at least six lawsuits had been filed against Freedom Industries and West Virginian American Water, two of which are seeking class action status.  But these lawsuits primarily focus on economic “damage” to businesses over water contamination–and not on the hundreds of thousands of people who may have been exposed to toxic water and who have lost access to the most important public resource as a result of Freedom Industries’ negligence.  The state is also investigating price gouging on the part of businesses that had stockpiles of bottled water at the time of the spill.

More than 16 trucks of relief water have arrived, but distribution remains uneven as nine counties remain without water. And, perhaps more importantly, no one seems to be asking the questions that should have been prompted by this disaster.

Why, for example, in a water-rich area in the country with the fourth largest renewable water supply in the world, are hundreds of thousands of people forced to rely on water brought in from other states?

Why is a chemical company allowed to store 4,000,000 gallons of chemicals with varying levels of toxicity only a mile upstream of a water treatment facility that serves hundreds of thousands of residents and is connected to the water table that supplies well water for many more?

How can a chemical that cause headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, skin rashes, damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs, possibly resulting in death be considered part of a “clean” energy source?

Why, in the middle of a state emergency, is the government allowing water to still be sold in stores under police guard and not allowing for free community distribution to anyone who needs it?

Why aren’t the people being kept from working–people who are disproportionately low-wage workers in restaurants, food service, schools, and hospitals–being paid to help with emergency relief?

These are the questions that most people aren’t grappling with, because they call into question the country’s energy policy, economic and social inequality, the notion of private property.  They call capitalism into question, and the media can’t respond.  But ecosocialists can.

Every disaster–from the BP oil spill to the fertilizer explosion in Texas, from the Massey mine disaster to “development” of the tar sands as a oil resource–underscores the increasing urgency of our project.  Capitalism is destroying our planet faster than we can study the effects of that destruction.  Increasingly, the fundamental conflict emerges with astounding clarity–capitalism and the world’s more than six billion people are accelerating on a collision course.

The people of West Virginia probably understand this conflict better than most people in the United States.  Central Appalachia contains some of the world’s largest accessible deposits of bituminous coal, and coal drives the region’s economy.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coal mines were owned by railroads, then by steel companies, and in the 1960s, began to transition to being owned by large energy conglomerates–usually oil companies, but coal has been an important part of the American economy for more than a century, and as capitalists rushed to exploit the region’s natural resources, they also subjected the people who lived in the region and worked in the mines to countless ecological disasters and deadly explosions and cave-ins in the mines, all while keeping the region in poverty by keeping businesses located out of state.

And West Virginia found itself at the center of a similar debate nearly 45 years ago, as the nation grappled with the rise of nuclear power, increased development of strip mining, and decline of oil and natural gas being used as source fuels in the generation of electricity.  As operators pressed for ever-increasing levels of productivity in the nation’s coal mines, increasing numbers of miners died in workplace accidents.

Then in 1972, the Buffalo Creek disaster happened.

One of the coal slurry dams owned by the Pittson Coal Company burst, releasing 132,000,000 gallons of the black liquid.  The deluge, which crested at thirty feet, killed 125 people, injured more than 1,000, and left four-fifths of the town’s population homeless.  The company called it “an act of God” but residents knew that, yet again, the companies had put profits ahead of the lives of local residents.


Aftermath of the Buffalo Creek Disaster

The state demanded $100,000,000 for disaster relief and damages, but settled for only $1,000,000–a settlement that reflected the power of the companies in shaping state politics and suggested that the state was less interested in winning justice for its citizens than it was in maintaining a relationship with the coal industry.

But the ecological attacks perpetrated by the companies went far beyond disasters like Buffalo Creek.  In an effort to cut costs, the companies expanded the use of strip mining after WWII.  They invested in uranium mines.  Tooth and nail, they fought every environmental and safety regulation put forward by lawmakers under pressure from organized miners.  In the midst of an energy crisis–the energy companies were determined to emerge victorious.

To do so, they attacked the people of West Virginia on every front.  They harassed and assaulted residents who tried to block strip mine operations.  They attacked workers who unionized and fought against a union leadership that claimed “if coal cannot be mined safely and burned cleanly, it should not be mined or burned at all.”  The coal industry even went so far as to say that in lieu of sustainable energy alternatives being developed, government resources should detonate nuclear weapons underground to increase natural gas reserves.  (When they tried that, they acted shocked that the resulting gas was radioactive…and therefore unusable.)  The people of West Virginia had made clear demands: put land and people first.  The companies did neither, but continued on their profit-driven rampage destroying huge swaths of the West Virginia mountains–one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes–with mountaintop removal for cheaper access to coal, exposing WV residents to toxic air pollution in order to provide the rest of the nation with cheap energy.  The decisions made in the early 1970s are what got us here today, with hundreds of thousands of people unsure when they will be able to drink their water again.

The debates of the 1970s aren’t just the backdrop to the current crisis, but it also can help illuminate the stakes of the current moment.  What happens now matters.  It will determine the ability of people to halt capitalism, climate change, and global ecological destruction in its tracks.  But what exactly does this history teach us?

Ecological demands are of necessity social demands.  Some coal miners and their allies argued that energy resources had to be nationalized in order to not be dominated by the profit motive.  Hostility to nationalization halted the idea in its tracks, but its importance remains.  Natural resources are public resources–energy generation and control of water resources must be brought under public control and run for the public good, not for profit.  Of course, the trend is exactly the opposite.  Increasing numbers of water treatment centers are run by private companies, and companies like Coca-Cola have been pushing to privatize all water resources.

The energy industry is enormously profitable.  As long as profit is the driving factor, sustainability will be impossible, and we are running out of time to replace fossil fuels with green alternatives.  Energy production must be nationalized and the masses of workers displaced from the oil, coal, and natural gas industries should be given unionized employment building an infrastructure entirely based around sustainable energy sources.  Such a fight points toward a different future–one where West Virginia is not a dumping ground for the nation’s dirty energy policy and one where workers and mountain residents decide democratically how to utilize the natural resources the land offers and work collectively to implement a system based on meeting everyone’s needs and not, as Freedom Industries boasts, processing large amounts of destructive chemicals rapidly and cost effectively.

Much like the crisis of the 60s and 70s, we are at a point of ecological and economic crisis.  We must choose between the destruction of our planet and the revolutionary transformation of society, and the steps we take now to begin that process matter.  Join the fight for ecosocialism, and in the meantime, demand that Freedom Industries pay for the costs of the chemical spill and be held criminally accountable to the people of West Virginia.


This is Part 1 of a 2 Part series that will examine the political and social ramifications of the chemical spill in West Virginia and the history of Appalachian struggle against human and ecological destruction.  Part 1 will focus on the spill and its aftermath.  Part 2 will put this disaster in historical context and discuss what the legacy of ecological and class warfare in central Appalachia can teach ecosocialists today.

Imagine living in the rugged countryside of the Appalachian mountains.  You have no source of income or means of transportation, and you find your water has been poisoned and cannot be used–even after being boiled–until further notice.   Imagine trying to run a hospital when none of the city’s water can be used–even for hand-washing.  Imagine having to ration drinking water to school age children in the fourth most water-rich country on earth.

All of these stories and more came true in West Virginia on January 9, after residents reported water that tasted like licorice.  The contamination turned out to be 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used to produce the misleadingly named “clean coal” through the froth flotation process which “scrubs” the coal prior to burning in power plants.

A Freedom Industries worker places boom in the Elk River at the site of the chemical spill

As of this writing, an unknown amount of the substance had spilled from a 48,000 gallon container located along the Elk River, owned by Freedom Industries (FI).  Despite being located only one mile upstream from the water treatment plant where drinking water was contaminated, Tom Aluise of the West Virginia Environmental Protection Association noted that the chemical cannot actually be removed from the water–and residents will simply have to wait for more than 60 miles of pipelines to be completely flushed before water safety can be reassessed.  “This material pretty much floats on the water, and it’s floating downstream, and eventually it will dissipate, but you can’t actually get in there and remove it,” Aluise said.

FI claims they don’t know how the hole which caused the toxic substance to leak into the containment area and then into the river got there, but then, according to its own website, FI keeps maintains bulk quantities of not only 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, but 5 other flotation reagents–not to mention the other products stored on site, which include other specialty chemicals including freeze conditioning agents (used in deicing), dust control palliatives, water treatment polymers, and other mining chemicals.  “With 4,000,000 gallons of storage capacity,” boasts the Freedom Industries website, the Elk River terminal “can process large volumes of chemical rapidly, and cost effectively.”  Processing them safely, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be a primary concern.

Although air-quality officials began receiving odor reports about the facility as early as 7:30 a.m., the emergency response chief of the Department of Environmental Protection didn’t receive word of the spill until noon.  The Charleston Gazette reported that the company had failed to report the spill to the self-regulation agencies, which raises the question why a chemical corporation more interested in efficiency than the safety of hundreds of thousands of people is allowed to regulate itself anyway.  A search of the Environmental Protection Agency’s facility compliance reports found no record of inspections at the facility for available years, presenting a striking parallel with low OSHA inspection rates that resulted in a deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant last year.

And, of course, with no way for the chemical to be removed from the water through a clean-up operation, it remains unclear what the short and long term effects will be beyond contaminating the water supply of the Kanawha Valley, West Virginia’s most populated region.  The materials safety data sheets, compiled by OSHA, lists little information about the effects of the chemical, and many emergency officials say they know little about the potential effects of the chemical.  West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre did little to reassure residents when he refused to get specific about possible effects, only saying that “it’s not particularly lethal in its usage form.”  And while not completely sure how the contamination will affect residents, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said that possible effects of ingestion or inhalation could include “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”

In addition to the human effects, it’s not clear what the ecological consequences of the spill will be.  The Elk River is a major tributary of the Ohio River, and the Appalachian mountains–as well as the valleys downstream–are home to ecosystems already under threat from more than a century of burning coal, mountain-top removal, strip mining, deforestation, and more.  Many people rely on these rivers for water supplies, irrigation, and leisure.

Empty shelves at a Charleston area store.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are without water in one of the poorest rural areas of the country, and the government has no idea when the water will be safe to drink again.  The emergency response has been entirely inadequate, leaving those who could afford it–and who had transportation to get to a store–scrambling to buy rapidly disappearing supplies of bottled water.  The Health Department closed all restaurants, tattoo parlors, and schools, and many businesses will remain closed.

Nursing homes and hospitals, while also under the advisory, must still struggle to provide basic services.  According to the Charleston Gazette, however, some nursing homes will shut down, leaving elderly and disabled people without vital access to care at a critical time.  The Charleston Area Medical Center has canceled all procedures until the water use ban is lifted.

West Virginians were quick to point out on social media the failure of the government and the water company in warning people about the danger.  As Teresa Boggs Meadow noted, “already cooked, ran the dishwasher, done laundry and drank it.  If it happened so early why did you put the warning out so late?  It happened at 10:30 AM!”

Soon after the announcement, stores began to run out of water supplies.  Residents tweeted out that stores were gouging prices, trying to make some extra money from people’s fear.  As of Thursday evening, the state had asked for help in acquiring and distributing more bottled water from FEMA.

Yet no amount of feigned concern from state and national officials can cover how badly the situation has been handled.  Once again, the companies have engaged in ecological warfare against the people of the Appalachian mountains.  Once again, the state was negligent in the enforcement of regulations and colluded with company officials to assert control over the situation and avoid the companies being held meaningfully accountable for their actions.  Once again, the lives of working people and the health of the land and resources they rely on have come second to the demands of capitalism.  The latest spill in the Elk River is the latest chapter in a long story of ecological and class warfare, where the coal companies have attempted to crush the working people, rob them of their land, and devastate the ecosystems they rely on for survival.  It’s a story that is far too familiar to the people of West Virginia.  As Marilyn Mullens of Cool Ridge W.Va. noted:

“Just for the world to know. This is the same chemical they use to “clean the coal.” The same chemical that is pumped into billion gallon earthen dams that litter the Appalachian mountains. The chemicals have been seeping into the streams and groundwater of coal field residents for years. Some of us have been pleading with our elected officials to stop this but they are paid off by the coal companies. The same coal companies that are on record as saying my people are “collateral damage” and “expendable.” Now this chemical spills into their drinking water and they tuck tail and run. Go figure.”

So-called “Clean Coal” is a dangerous myth.  It can be easy, sometimes, for those of us who don’t live in coal producing areas of the country, to forget the social and ecological toll coal burning and production takes on land and people.  For the most part, away from smokestacks and slurry dams, we can forget that at the other end of the energy production chain, all the ugliness is still there.  People often claim sustainable energy alternatives–solar panels and wind turbines, for example–are a blight on the landscape.  Not only is this untrue, but it ignores the real blight–the one we have outsourced (or perhaps, insourced) to the Appalachian coalfields and imposed on the people who live there, impoverished and murdered by the same energy companies who are destroying the entire planet.

It’s no coincidence that this happened in one of the poorest areas of the country.  In fact, the same companies that poison the water, decimate the mountaintops, and erect dams to hold back unfathomable amounts of “mountain slurry” are also responsible for the high levels of poverty that exist throughout the region.  For more than a century, minimizing access to health care, education, and other social services has helped employers extract as much profit as possible from the region by keeping corporate tax rates low and by not requiring corporations who own operations in the state to even pay taxes there in the first place.  It is in this context we must comprehend the utter failures of state departments to respond to the chemical spill crisis.

What should have been the alternative to leaving those who were able scrambling to find water supplies?  How could hospitals and other medical facilities been prioritized to receive water so the most vulnerable among us would be in less danger?

Instead of closing the schools and other public buildings, these facilities should have been opened to the public as emergency relief centers.  Available water supplies should have been centralized, assessed, and distributed according to need, with special attention to vulnerable populations.  Communication check-ins should have been established to make sure people in more remote areas got the message to discontinue use of the water, and to make sure those people had adequate supplies on hand.

Instead, the people of West Virginia have been left, for the most part, to fend for themselves.  Even as we organize to send them what aid we can to get them through the crisis, the need for a systemic change has never been more urgent.  Capitalism is killing us, and our planet.  In the grand ways–the super storms, extended fire seasons, rising ocean temperatures, and skyrocketing extinction rates–yes.  But also in small ways,  a river here, a person there.  A person who could have been part of helping build a solution.

Look for Part II on Saturday.