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.
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.