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.