Giving Birth During the Water Crisis: A Mother’s Story

I’m so excited to share this new story today. Since I’m finishing up my doctorate (I’m defending next week!), I will have time to publish new videos regularly, so stay tuned!

This story is a particularly moving one, and I hope it provides some insight into just how frightening the water crisis was for so many West Virginians.

Kelly was in the hospital after giving birth to her daughter Anna during the Freedom Industries chemical spill and was in recovery when the Do Not Use Order was issued. Kelly shares her story about being in the hospital without access to running tap water, her fears for her newborn daughter, and what she feels she lost as a result of the water crisis.

New Article On Tap Water Contamination and Health Impacts by Dr. Andrew Whelton, et.al.

Dr. Whelton standing in a basement beside a hot water heater.

Last month Dr. Andrew Whelton, environmental engineer and member of the West Virginia Testing and Assessment Project,  published an article on the tap water contamination that occurred as a result of the Freedom Industries chemical spill last year. Importantly, the article connects his team’s findings on the water contamination to the findings on health effects, which by several accounts affected up to 100,000 people in West Virginia.

As I’ve been interviewing those affected by the water crisis this week, many have mentioned that they are unaware of the study, so I promised them I would post a link to the article on my blog. So please, check it out. You may have to skim over some of the engineering terminology and data, as I did, but their findings are clear: the flushing procedures caused chemicals to be volatilized, further exposing residents who flushed according to the official flushing instructions; flushing did not effectively remove the chemicals from the plumbing systems of all homes; and science-based flushing protocols need to be developed.

Click the link below to read the full article.

Residential Tap Water Contamination Following the Freedom Industries Chemical Spill: Perceptions, Water Quality, and Health Impacts by Dr. Andrew Whelton, et. al.

(Because he believes the public deserves access to this article, Dr. Whelton was generous enough to pay a fee to have the article, which was published in an academic journal, to be made open-access.)

Here is a short summary of the article (the abstract):

During January 2014, an industrial solvent contaminated West
Virginia’s Elk River and 15% of the state population’s tap water. A rapid in-
home survey and water testing was conducted 2 weeks following the spill to
understand resident perceptions, tap water chemical levels, and premise
plumbing flushing effectiveness. Water odors were detected in all 10 homes
sampled before and after premise plumbing flushing. Survey and medical data
indicated flushing caused adverse health impacts. Bench-scale experiments and
physiochemical property predictions showed flushing promoted chemical
volatilization, and contaminants did not appreciably sorb into cross-linked
polyethylene (PEX) pipe. Flushing reduced tap water 4-methylcyclohexane-
methanol (4-MCHM) concentrations within some but not all homes. 4-
MCHM was detected at unflushed (<10 to 420 μg/L) and flushed plumbing
systems (<10 to 96 μg/L) and sometimes concentrations differed among
faucets within each home. All waters contained less 4-MCHM than the 1000
μg/L Centers for Disease Control drinking water limit, but one home exceeded the 120 μg/L drinking water limit established by independent toxicologists. Nearly all households refused to resume water use activities after flushing because of water safety concerns. Science based flushing protocols should be developed to expedite recovery, minimize health impacts, and reduce concentrations in homes when future events occur.

The West Virginia Water Crisis: One Year Later

One-year birthday party hat and bib in pink and gold, sitting on a baby's high chair.

The thing about environmental crimes that affect hundreds of thousands of people is that they aren’t resolved in a single year (or ever). So although there are many commemorative events today on the one year anniversary, the West Virginia Water Crisis is not yet just a memory. It still lives on each day that the federal government doesn’t acknowledge their mistakes, each day the criminals that contaminated our drinking water don’t pay for knowingly poisoning us, each day legislators try to circumvent their commitment to protecting our water. We are responsible for making sure we are not forgotten, we are not ignored, we are not treated as irrelevant.

We must keep reminding people of the human story that is the water crisis. Yesterday I filmed the birthday party of a beautiful one-year old girl who was born the day of the crisis and bathed in the contaminated water immediately after birth. At the time, no one knew the water was unsafe. Thankfully, the baby exhibited no immediate health effects, but because we have no funding for long-term medical monitoring, we may never know if being exposed to the water will affect her or hundreds of thousands of other people in the future.

We still have work to do. We must keep going. Please join us today not only in remembering, but demanding redress:

WV Rivers Coalition Actions

OVEC Actions

People Concerned About Chemical Safety Actions

Please stay tuned as I cover the events and collect interviews over the next week.

Filming for the WVWC Anniversary Jan. 8-17

I know it’s been some time since my last post, but don’t think it’s because I haven’t been working on the water crisis! Over the last few months, I’ve been doing speaking engagements about the crisis, mostly to engineers at different universities. I also produced a new short video for one of my speaking engagements (see below), and shared some of my footage with LiveScience for a segment they’re producing on the water crisis.

Part of my grant work also involves researching and writing about the water crisis in my dissertation and in a journal article, so I’ve been hard at work on those projects. Parts of that scholarly research will also be included in the final documentary project and are influencing how I represent the event historically.

As you know, this week is the one-year anniversary of the West Virginia Water Crisis. There will be numerous commemorative events over the next two weeks, so I will, of course, be there to film most of them. I’m excited to capture the incredible work that activists have been doing over the last year to organize the community and lobby for better regulatory legislation.

Lastly, and most importantly, I am excited to interview more West Virginians after they’ve had a year to reflect on the crisis. So please contact me if you are interested in doing an interview at wvwatercrisis@gmail.com. There are still stories to be told, and they are just as important to tell now as they ever were.

On the river, Charleston, WV

Filming in West Virginia next week

Friends, I’m conducting more interviews in West Virginia next week (Monday, August 18-Wednesday, August 20). Please email me at wvwatercrisis@gmail.com if you are interested in being interviewed about the water crisis for the National Science Foundation-sponsored research and documentary.

 

My plan is to finish filming for the project by the beginning of October and spend the rest of the grant period (through April 15, 2015) editing the documentary and writing. So now is your chance to make your voice heard!

 

As always, thank you for your continued support and diligence.

 

Note: This project is now approved by the Ohio State University Institutional Review Board (IRB) and your participation will be protected by the IRB guidelines.

 

Protocol #: 2013B0601

Appalachiamap

The West Virginia Water Crisis in Context (Part 4 of 4 in the Water Crisis Continues)

 

Between the struggle to finally get the health effects of the 4-MCHM contaminated water tested by federal authorities, the six month long process of getting the site of the spill demolished, and thousands of West Virginians who still don’t trust their water, the water crisis continues in West Virginia. And now, a similar and even wider-reaching water crisis is bringing Toledo, Ohio to its knees. I hope that Toledo can take some lessons from what we went through in West Virginia and be more efficient and successful in remediating the contamination and helping Toledoans during and after the crisis. I believe I can speak for those affected by the West Virginia Water Crisis when I say that our thoughts are with Toledo, and I, for one, am willing to help in sharing your stories and providing information and advice for recovery.

To follow the water crisis in Toledo, search #toledowater or #ToledoWaterWarning.

The new water crisis has prompted me to post a portion of the introduction to my dissertation on the rhetorics of advocacy and activism in Appalachia, in which I use the water crisis to explain why we need to change how many think and talk about the region of Appalachia. This is just a short excerpt, and I will be posting more at a later time, but I hope it prompts discussion about why recovery from the water crisis in West Virginia was so slow, arduous, and mishandled. Hopefully, Toledo can learn much from West Virginia.

Appalachia is not a place the majority of Americans think about with much frequency – either as a region or in its constituent parts. However, there are times when catastrophic events on a large enough scale may garner some national attention, even if only with the same morbid curiosity that causes one to slow down to glance at a car wreck or take a few minutes to observe a sideshow. As I recently learned from the public reaction to the West Virginia Water Crisis, there are many sympathetic to Appalachia because they either have family or friends from the region, or perhaps they drove through it once and found it remarkable in its beauty. But on the whole, when something terrible happens in Appalachia, only a small percentage of outsiders become personally invested. Much more often the public wonders at the ignorance, neglect, and laziness of Appalachians that undoubtedly led to the situation, and usually indictments of the region and its people follow. Unfortunately, these public reactions don’t simply live on in news interviews looping on national television or in the comment boards of news websites. They live on in the minds of Appalachians and in the minds of those making decisions that affect Appalachians’ lives. In the case of the West Virginia Water Crisis, these opinions affected West Virginians’ most basic right to health and safety.
On January 9, 2014, Freedom Industries, a chemical storage facility in Charleston, West Virginia spilled 10,000 gallons of chemicals, including 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (4-MCHM), into the Elk River, the main water
source for 300,000 West Virginians. After discovering the contamination, West Virginia’s governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, declared a State of Emergency and West Virginia American Water issued a Do Not Use Order for the tap water in nine counties in West Virginia. The order lasted for one week, but because West Virginians were presented with numerous conflicting orders and an absence of information about the health effects of the chemicals and since the tap water was still observably contaminated (by the smell, taste, and physical interaction between the water and water vapors with skin, eyes, and lungs), many refused to use the water for several weeks and even months after the order was lifted.

These missteps by government officials and agencies also discouraged residents from following the official flush orders that were meant to eliminate the contamination from drinking water pipes, putting their health in even further danger. In addition to these immediate causes for the public’s distrust, West Virginians were deterred from believing official advice about their health and safety by a history of fraught relationships with industries fiercely protected by the local government to the detriment of the people who must live, work, and play in the resulting severely damaged and dangerous environments. Governor Tomblin, and former West Virginia governor, now U.S. Senator, Joe Manchin, both fiercely oppose stricter environmental regulations on industry yet were major players in the handling of the water crisis fallout.

West Virginian and Appalachian historian Shirley Stewart Burns explains the politician in the pocket nature of industry in her home state, “West Virginia policymakers have a history of favoring big business over other citizens” since the Supreme Court of Appeals shifted to an industry-favoring judgeship in the 1890s (1). West Virginia’s preferential treatment of industrial endeavors began to take advantage of the rich natural resources of the state that were still untapped by the fin de siècle. However, by relying on one industry, Burns explains, West Virginia leaders “ensure[d] the state’s status as a bit player in the national economy” (2). This single-industry economy has remained since then, growing with a political system that reinforces a “power structure . . . assured to only benefit the mine operators” and making West Virginia a “peripheral region within the American and global market system” where “power resides in the core, and resources from the periphery flow in that direction” (2). Thus many West Virginians feel disenfranchised by their own local government, as well as state and national representatives.

However, West Virginians are understandably in a double-bind. The coal industry provides many of the jobs in West Virginia, and is believed by many to keep the state economy afloat. Thus despite the flow of resources away from the workers that supply them, many West Virginians are fiercely protective of industry. They are told in massive public relations campaigns by the American Coal Council that “Coal Keeps the Lights On” and school children are taken on field trips to coal mines. However, this campaign belies the truth of the overall effect of the coal industry on West Virginia’s economy. The New York Times pointed out in an article on the Water Crisis on January 18, 2014, titled “Chemical Spill Muddies Picture in a State Wary of Regulations,” coal only employs nine percent of the state’s population. And the overall economy of West Virginia is not benefiting from coal: in 2012, West Virginia ranked forty-ninth in the nation in per capita GDP. However Appalachian region counties with the highest scores on the Toxic Release Inventory, which indicates more toxic pollution, are the most economically well-off in Appalachia, posing what Nancy Irwin Maxwell calls “a different brand of injustice, a forced choice between pollution and poverty in a disadvantaged region of the American landscape” (in Morrone and Buckley 76). During the Water Crisis, West Virginians were publicly critiqued for their unflagging loyalty to the very industry that caused this environmental disaster and the structural inequality and complete lack of federal oversight without which the crisis never would have occurred were mainly mentioned only by more progressive news media and a few vocal activists.

There are activists who used this crisis as an opportunity to speak out through social media against the destructiveness of the coal industry. Yet there is a real struggle between these environmentalist rhetorics and those of people immediately affected by the water crisis who may not identify as anti-coal or pro-regulation but are speaking out against the mishandling of this water disaster. Thus in an attempt to avoid divisive rhetorics pertaining to the spill, organizations that have formed in response to the disaster, like Friends of Water, discourage discussion of politics, especially those relating to the coal industry, on their Facebook forum. Limitations on what is publicly acceptable to discuss about the chemical spill while still garnering support for stricter regulations on the chemical industry in particular, are understandable, yet they limit public discourse on warranted overarching concerns about deregulation of all industry in West Virginia, as supported by Tomblin as recently the day before the crisis.

Another no less concerning issue raised by the events surrounding the crisis is the distinct lack of national media attention devoted to the water disaster. Although scientists now recognize this as the largest instance of a chemical contamination of drinking water in U.S. history, it has taken a dramatic backseat to many other national news stories such as Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal. The Nation reporter Reed Richardson provides the most telling account of the media’s lack of coverage of the crisis of a continually overlooked state: on the last day of the “Poop Cruise” on which 3,000 Americans lost drinking water and the use of bathrooms when their cruise ship lost power, CNN devoted over twelve hours to the debacle, but as of the first five days West Virginia Water Crisis, only gave the story thirty minutes of air time. Many, including the Huffington Post declared the crisis over only a few days in, while water was not officially declared safe for months. Very few have done investigative reporting and political commentary until a few weeks into the crisis when circumstances predictably worsened. Many residents I spoke to were outraged by the nearly non-existent media coverage but expected no better. One West Virginian suffering from the water crisis said, “They don’t care about us. They don’t care about West Virginia.”

West Virginians’ reaction to the media’s willful ignorance of West Virginia’s continual abuse by the government and extractive industries is unsurprising. West Virginians are well-aware of outsiders’ perceptions of them, an issue documented and studied by Appalachian scholars for decades (Batteau; Billings and Blee; Drake; Eller; Fisher; Whisnant). Historically, Appalachia has been used as a symbol for rest of the nation, treated as the “embodiment of anti-civilization” (Batteau 196). This designation evokes one of two formulations of Appalachian identity: the romanticized mountaineer or the demonized hillbilly. The first version of the Appalachian – the racially pure, innocent, industrious, proud, independent, rugged, and fearless mountaineer – is a paragon of America that deserves to be lauded and emulated by the rest of the country. The second version – the genetically degenerate, ignorant, lazy, violent, unclean, feckless, and destructive hillbilly – is a blight on society that deserves to be held into contempt until remedied through government intercessions (Batteau 17). The former depiction was one that flourished in some of the first writings about Appalachians, but in the late twentieth and twenty-first century has been replaced to a great extent by the latter derogatory depiction of the hillbilly. During the United States’ current economic crisis that started with the 2007-2009 Great Recession and continues today in the Lesser Depression, Appalachia continually plays the convenient role of the epitome of everything that went wrong with this country. And in a crisis like the recent one in West Virginia, Appalachians become easy victims to blame.

It is much easier to use the “problem region” of Appalachia as a scapegoat for the rest of the country when the national economy takes a downturn and blame the region for its willing participation in an extractive economy when an environmental disaster leaves the ecosystem and the health and well-being of its people in shambles, despite the fact that chemical spills and air pollution occur daily all across the United States. Kenneth Burke explains that the scapegoat mechanism is not intended to resolve any material problems, but instead acts as “vicious atonement” for the sins of those who criticize the scapegoat (Grammar, 406). Thus Appalachia draws so much national interest and criticism for its deficits during economic recessions and large-scale industrial disasters, but very rarely does it draw national attention to the systemic roots of its problems because that would require real change and the admission of responsibility. I argue that by demanding a more critical and contextualized public understanding of the Appalachian region, its history, and conceptions of its regional identity, we can advocate for a better Appalachia without the many unintended negative repercussions that often accompany advocacy and activist work in the region.

Happy West Virginia Day! (Part 3 of 4 in the Water Crisis Continues)

Hi everyone,

Happy West Virginia Day! I want to wish you all a day of reflection on and celebration of our beautiful state of West Virginia. I was recently at the New River Gorge and Summersville Lake and shot some footage of the incredible natural beauty that our state has to offer. So please enjoy this quick video montage of that footage along with a message I think will resonate with everyone affected by the West Virginia Water Crisis.

I encourage you all to Facebook, tweet, or instagram your own video or photos of the natural beauty of our state, using #keepWVclean. Let’s start an online movement showing everyone just why keeping our water, land, and air clean is so important.

Sincerely,

Krista

West Virginia Water: The Crisis Continues (Part 2 in Series of 4)

In the first part of this video, I explain that a second spill occurred on Friday in addition to the spill I focused on in my last video in this series. If you would like to read more about the spills on Thursday and Friday, read Ken Ward’s article in the Charleston Gazette. I don’t recount all of the details from that article, but I do raise an important question in response to DEP Secretary Randy Huffman’s statement about the most recent spill: why do we continue to rely on Freedom Industries to ensure public safety? why doesn’t the EPA or another government agency demolish the site?

The rest of this video focuses on what we as citizens can do to remain vigilant over the water crisis. I believe it is the public’s job —  our job, yours and mine — to draw national attention back to this story. We all remember how many missteps the state and federal government made throughout the first few weeks and several months, really, of the water crisis. No one paid attention to us until we demanded it at press conferences, town hall meetings, protests and vigils, through letters, emails, and phone calls, and online through social media. If we thought our work was over, or at least not as urgent because we aren’t in a state of immediate crisis, the past two days events have proven us wrong.

So what is it our responsibility to do? I know we all have different obligations of our time, abilities, and interests. I’ve been quietly working on my research on the crisis that is now being funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and last month I screened a preview of my documentary on the water crisis at the West Virginia International Film Festival. But I haven’t been as vocal about recent events because I’ve been tucked away doing that work, and I constantly worry that my silence and the silence of others takes the pressure off of government officials to do what needs to be done. Yesterday’s spill makes it very clear to me that we need continued action on our part to hold our government accountable for violations of our health and safety. So here are some simple actions you can take to make industry caused environmental disasters less likely in our beautiful state of West Virginia:

1)   Inform yourself! Read and watch local news. I know that sometimes it’s hard to find stories about the water crisis because they’re so buried on news sites, so a quick way to find out what’s going on is to search the Twitter #WVWaterCrisis. There you’ll find both news reports and local on-the-ground stories and commentary about what’s going on.

2)   Share your stories. In my research, I’ve found that Facebook is one of the primary ways people shared information about the Water Crisis and organized action. So share links to news reports and videos like this one on your wall and encourage your friends to read them. While you’re on Facebook, check out the Friends of Water Facebook page. Friends of Water is an online community that keeps those who follow the page informed of legislative and community action pertaining to the water crisis. You can also follow West Virginia Clean Water Hub and West Virginia Citizen Action Group on Facebook to keep track of activities pertaining to the water crisis.

3)   When you see a planned action like gathering at a legislative session, a town hall, or a protest, go! All it takes is showing up. Trust me, the presence of every person there really adds up. These public gatherings get the attention of the media and of politicians. Remember the press conference that forced Tomblin to provide funding for the WV TAP program? Public demonstrations of outrage are effective. I wonder if yesterday’s spill would have happened had we been protesting outside of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson’s court while he delayed the demolition of the Freedom Industries site for five months.

4)   The U.S. Chemical Safety Board will provide an update on their investigation into the January 9 chemical spill at a meeting on July 16 from 12-3 pm at the Four Points Sheraton in Charleston. They will present their findings and allow time for public comments, so I encourage you all to attend

Share your stories about the water crisis here, either in print, video, image, or audio. Everyone’s story is important. Telling individual stories is what makes the water crisis real and relevant to others who may not be invested in the ongoing crisis in West Virginia.

West Virginia Water: The Crisis Continues

Hi everyone and thanks for tuning in for an update on the West Virginia Water Crisis. As you may know there another chemical spill was reported yesterday at Freedom Industries, the same site where 10,000 gallons of the coal-washing chemical, 4-MCHM was spilled into the Elk River, causing a water crisis that made the tap water unusable for 300,000 people in West Virginia.

 

Yesterday, a storm water containment trench at Freedom Industries overflowed into the Elk River. WSAZ reporter Michael Clouse and WOWK reporter have both reported that the licorice smell associated with 4-MCHM was noticeable. Think Progress reports that it was the Department of Environmental Protection that realized a spill had occurred due to a sump pump failing to send the overflow into a storage tank. The DEP has been on site at Freedom Industry and at West Virginia American Water testing the water. West Virginia American Water reports on their Facebook page that “initial results show no detection of MCHM in water at the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant.” They also reported that there have been no odors detected, contrary to what journalists and residents near Freedom and the surrounding area have been reporting.

 

I have seen several people online asking how results from testing results came back so quickly when it took so long to get previous testing on chemical levels in our drinking water from the January 9th spill. I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know from all of my work with the environmental engineering team that has been working on testing the water in home plumbing systems affected by the January 9th spill that different laboratories have different capabilities for detecting chemicals in water. Just because one laboratories’ equipment can’t detect something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. A better lab with more powerful equipment may detect something, but at a much lower level than the screening level than another lab. Also, although MCHM was not detected, there are no reports on what other chemicals may have been present in that water and what other chemicals they have tested for.

 

Another question being posed is how there were still any chemicals at the Freedom Industries site to be spilled into our water again. The West Virginia Gazette reported today that the demolition of the chemical storage tanks at Freedom that Governor Tomblin ordered just two weeks after the January 9 spill has still not occurred because Freedom has not been able to acquire the permits needed to do so. Why would it take so long do get these permits, you may ask? Because Freedom’s bankruptcy case requires that a judge approve all of the company’s expenditures. What I’m unsure of, and I can’t find reports of anywhere, is what is taking so long to approve this expenditure. Apparently, a budget for cleanup and demolition has been filed with the bankruptcy court, but they are sealed so that contractors don’t try to use estimates to inflate their cleanup costs.

The video you watched above will be part of a series of videos, including exclusive news about the WV TAP project, and information on how you can help make West Virginia water clean and keep our state beautiful. So stay tuned!

Also, please read an update with more details on this most recent spill from Ken Ward with the Charleston Gazette.

West Virginia Water Crisis Film Excerpt

This is the work-in-progress excerpt from my film on the West Virginia Water Crisis that I showed at the West Virginia International Film Festival on May 13, 2014.

*Caption titled “natural disaster” should read “national disaster.”

Although the majority of my footage for the film is of individual citizen’s responses to the crisis, I chose Dr. Andrew Whelton as the sole narrator for this piece because I felt that his story made for a more cohesive and in-depth narrative for such a short excerpt of the film. Dr. Whelton and his research team came unsolicited and unfunded from the University of South Alabama to test the effects of the contaminated water on plumbing systems in affected residents’ homes. As you will see from this clip, their perspectives and understandings of the crisis evolved and forced their work to evolve as well.

At the end of the clip, Dr. Whelton offers a perspective on who is responsible for the botched response to the water crisis that may be surprising to some. I know it certainly was for me. I think it’s important to remember that we all have different perspectives to offer on this, and that this is just one of those perspectives. However, I think Dr. Whelton’s message about who is responsible for the poor communication following the chemical spill instructs us all to take a broader view of the systemic inequalities that contributed to these problems.

It’s also important to know that made this clip for a West Virginia audience, so there is some footage that requires insider knowledge. For example, the last clip of the protest is located at the Governor’s Mansion and is paired with the audio narrative about Dr. Whelton’s meeting with the governor.

I would like to thank the WVIFF, the sponsors for the event, and the other filmmakers for their dedication and creativity that is so clearly evident in their films. I also would like to thank Dr. Whelton and all of the participants in this film, as well as the National Science Foundation for providing a grant that made this film possible. And, of course, I would like to thank my friends, family, professors, and the people of West Virginia for supporting me and inspiring me to keep going on this project.

Ultimately, I hope that my film can help improve communication between the scientific community, public officials responding to crises, and the people on the ground experiencing the crises. We all have a lot to learn about how to deal with events like this and there is a desperate need for us to start being proactive to prevent them from happening in the future.