West Virginia Chemical Spill

2-Year Anniversary

January 9 marks the 2-year anniversary of the West Virginia Water Crisis. Today I want to share a look at where we are now and where we need to go in the future.

Where are We Now?

In the wake of the January 9, 2014 chemical spill numerous legal actions were initiated at both the state and federal levels by various parties. Community advocates have been at the forefront of state legislation to register never before documented chemical storage tanks. Approximately 50,000 tanks were identified for regulation, many of which were located along West Virginia’s water supply. The spill’s fallout and West Virginia’s lead to create a chemical storage tank regulatory program set a precedent for several other states to enact their own chemical tank legislation and bills were proposed in halls of Congress and the U.S. Senate. Despite immense public support, these West Virginia regulatory bills were already being dismantled by the next legislative session.

In addition to legislation intended to prevent similar crises, numerous criminal charges were filed against parties responsible for the spill. The U.S. Attorney for southern West Virginia obtained 15 indictments for up to 93 years in prison against Freedom Industries’ former president Gary Southern for charges including wire fraud. Although in an FBI-conducted investigation Gary Southern claimed no association with Freedom Industries, he ultimately pled guilty for violating the federal Clean Water Act, the Refuse Act, and negligent for failing to have a pollution prevention plan, and faces up to three years in prison and $300,000 in fines. Among five other Freedom Industries executives who pleaded guilty on charges related to the spill, Dennis Farrell, pleaded guilty to violating the Refuse Act and failing to have a pollution prevention plan, for which he faces sentencing of 30 days to two years in prison and up to $200,000 in fines.

Numerous civil suits have been filed in the aftermath of the crisis, including over 50 against West Virginia American Water in just the first nine months following the spill. Several personal injury suits as well as a class action lawsuit against Freedom Industries, its top executives, Eastman Chemical Company, West Virginia American Water, American Water, its parent company. In December, Freedom Industries Farrell and Southern settled one such class action for $50,000 and $350,000 respectively.

BarlowDrive

As devastating as the original spill was, cleanup and remediation of the spill site has been just as problematic although less publicized. To dispose of the spill waste, which is not categorized as hazardous by the EPA, tank liquid was mixed with sawdust and dumped in a solid waste landfill in nearby Hurricane, West Virginia. After Hurricane residents complained of licorice odors in the air, the city of Hurricane discovered the MCHM disposal and sued Disposal Services Incorporated and Waste Management. The suit was settled with the two companies paying $600,000 for the city’s legal fees and agreeing to monitor the MCHM present in leachate — the water draining out of the landfill —  and the three groundwater monitoring wells surrounding the site every six months for the next five years. If they detect MCHM above 120 parts per billion, they must notify the city and county, stop sending the leachate to the Hurricane wastewater treatment plant, and close its aeration system.

Despite the seeming wins in these lawsuits, their likelihood of making even a dent in the tens of millions dollars the state lost as a result of the crisis, the irreparable damage on citizens’ health, and other industries’ likelihood of upholding their responsibility to not endanger the lives of the public is slim. The conclusion of this chapter considers how these legal repercussions compare to those of other major man made environmental disasters such as the 1972 Buffalo Creek Mine Disaster in West Virginia and how civil suits must become the primary deterrent against public health and environmental crimes.

Looking Forward

The West Virginia Water Crisis was one of the worst drinking water contamination incidents not just in West Virginia, but in the nation. Although the particular circumstances — a coal washing chemical spilling into the drinking water source due to a chemical storage facility’s willful neglect of their above ground storage tanks  —  may seem relevant only to coal country, but above ground storage tanks are largely unregulated. Each state is responsible for creating the legislation and infrastructure to fulfill the EPA’s federal Clean Water Act, and many, like West Virginia, never created state-level regulations to enforce the law. 

In addition, 4-MCHM is still not listed on the Toxic Substance Control Act Inventory of 82,000 toxic chemicals. Environmental and public health advocates, and more recently, the EPA and chemical industries have cited the TSCA Inventory for its ineffectiveness. When the inventory was created in 1976, there were 60,000 untested and unregulated chemicals left off the list, including BPA, formaldehyde, and asbestos. Now there are thousands more unregulated chemicals like 4-MCHM that have never been studied for their effects on human health and safety.

On the river, Charleston, WV

On the river, Charleston, WV

Just as critical as the regulatory questions raised by this and other major drinking water contamination incidents like the Toledo Water Crisis, the Dan River Spill, and the hazardous levels of lead in Flint, Michigan drinking water, are the questions about response protocol and crisis communication standards. One of the most important questions is how to instruct the public to protect themselves when there is little to no information available on the chemicals the public is being exposed to, how to determine safe exposure levels during cleanup and remediation processes, again when there is little to no data, and how to adequately address public concerns openly and honestly while also teaching them how to protect themselves from exposure.

In addition to these questions about prevention and response, now that thousands of West Virginians have been exposed to these chemicals, long-term health monitoring is essential to learning the full health impacts of the crisis and being able to provide the appropriate care for those exposed. Numerous organizations have created proposals for the monitoring of long-term illnesses and diseases relating to exposure from the spill, but as of yet, none have received funding. The current and future illnesses resulting from this chemical exposure will have no formal means of being tracked, and the significance of this event on public health will ultimately be lost.
It is our hope that continuing our research and advocacy will raise awareness of just how complex and far-reaching the West Virginia Water Crisis was, how it could happen anywhere if regulations and the enforcement of those regulations remains unchanged, and what the long-term effects of the crisis are on the public, the environment, and the sociopolitical environment in West Virginia. Without such documentation, we fear the significance of the crisis will be lost. 

Please like and share this post if you care about your right to safe water. 

If you live in West Virginia, your attendance at the Safe Water Public Forum on Jan. 9 is crucial. If you’re unable to attend and want to make a donation to support safe water in West Virginia, visit the WV Rivers Coalition site.

As always, I thank you for your support!

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Advocacy Organizations and the Water Crisis: People Concerned About Chemical Safety

In this video, we hear from Maya Nye of People Concerned about Chemical Safety (PCACS), an organization that was and still is an integral player in advocacy for communities affected by the West Virginia Water Crisis. PCACS was founded over 25 years ago to protect the health of Kanawha Valley, where there is a high concentration of chemical plants producing highly toxic chemicals. I learned about PCACS by working on the water crisis with their incredibly inspiring Executive Director, Maya Nye. Really, every time I think about the work she does, I am humbled.

You’ll also learn about Maya’s initial response to the West Virginia Water Crisis of January 9, 2014, which is informed by both her academic background in environmental studies and her experience of living through several chemical disasters in the Kanawha Valley. You’ll learn about the work that PCACS and other organizations did in the immediate aftermath of the chemical spill, and the legislative work they continue to do to fight for the enforcement of environmental/health and safety laws and regulations that are meant to protect you.

I hope you check out this very important interview. I condensed it from an hour and a half of great footage to only 23 minutes of the very best. So kick back with your tea, coffee, or water, watch this West Virginia Water Crisis story and maybe take a moment of gratitude that you can enjoy your drink without fear of chemical exposure (hopefully).

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

Full Footage of the WVTAP Public Meeting on 3.28

 

This footage covers the entirety of the WV TAP Public Meeting on 3.28 (with the exception of the first few seconds of the introductory speech).

There were two main parts of the meeting: the presentations by the WV TAP team at the beginning and the Q&A session with the public, which starts at 1:46.

Please share this widely, as many people were not able to attend, and the media covered so little of the content of the meeting.

This work is subject to copyright and may not be altered, shared without attribution to the owner and copyright holder, Krista Bryson, or used for monetary gain. If shared, it must be through the link to this Youtube video. Write Krista Bryson at wvwatercrisis@gmail.com for further permissions.

As always, thanks for viewing and sharing!

West Virginia Water Two Months Later

Watch two of the brilliant co-founders of Create West Virginia, Sarah Halstead and Rebecca Kimmons, explain three key points about the water crisis: 1) why we haven’t been protecting our water, 2) why there isn’t more outcry over the water crisis, 3) and how we can make WV a great place to live by making our water the best in the world. That last point is especially important to help us think about how we can turn a terrible situation like the Water Crisis into a turning point for our state.

I filmed this two weeks ago, exactly two months after the Water Crisis began. Sadly, most believe the crisis is over and in the immediate, most surface ways, it is over in that many people are using the water again. However, that does not mean the water is safe. In fact, the West Virginia Testing and Assessment Project (WV TAP) led by Dr. Andrew Whelton has only released preliminary findings and will be conducting more testing in homes. I will be attending and filming their press conference in West Virginia this Friday and will update this blog afterwards.

In the meantime, we all need to keep the pressure on state and federal officials and representatives. This isn’t over and we must be vigilant to prevent another similar crisis and to remediate the damage from the crisis.

I would also like to thank everyone reading this blog for doing so. It has been a true labor of love and I’m just glad to be able to contribute something in response to the crisis.

Look at What You Helped Do!

I received nearly $300 in donations from several generous online donors to buy water, paper towels, and other supplies for people affected by the West Virginia Water Crisis. It was a great day, and I hope I can keep coming back with more for water for people who need it.

Yes, many people affected by the WV Water Crisis still aren’t drinking the water. Yes, it’s getting expensive for them. Yes, you can help.

To learn more about why people are still afraid to drink the water, read my previous post.

If you would like to donate, go to http://www.wvwatercrisis.com/waterdistribution and click on my PayPal link.

This video is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 4.0 International License: http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses

West Virginia Water Seven Weeks Later

Newsweek Article

Today marks seven weeks since what the National Science Foundation is calling one of the biggest environmental disasters of the last decade occurred in my home state of West Virginia. Too many things have happened since Freedom Industries polluted our water to cover in this post, but there are a few things that are important for you to know now. The Newsweek article I was interviewed for explains some of those things, but this post is going to focus on two of those points and give you some actionable steps to help West Virginians who are still suffering.

#1 Thing to Know: West Virginians are still not drinking, bathing in, or cleaning with their tap water. Imagine seven weeks of showering, cooking, and washing your dishes with only bottled water. Imagine the cost. Imagine the inconvenience. Imagine the mental space this must take up. Imagine the emotional toll of constant fear and worry.

Why? Because people are still experiencing rashes, swelling, diarrhea, vomiting, and faintness from the coming into contact with the water and the fumes. Because people still fear the water and distrust official messages about water safety because of a series of egregious missteps by the state government and health officials, which includes but is not limited to:

1) allowing a gap of at least eight hours before the leak occurred and the public was notified

2) lifting the Do Not Use Order and then stating that pregnant women should not drink the water

3) drawing contaminated water into water buffaloes for emergency distribution in the affected counties

4) establishing a level of safe contamination at 1 parts per million, based on studies of the effects of other chemicals on rats

5) telling the public that their use of the water is at their own discretion and refusing to comment on whether it is actually “safe”

6) canceling public schools, re-opening some schools, and then sending children back home  because students and teachers were passing out from the water fumes

7) discovering a second chemical and possibly several others present in the spill that were not reported to the public until twelve days after the spill

8) revealing that the storage tanks at the chemical plant had only been inspected by the DEP three times in twenty years and that the storage tanks were not subject to any governmental regulations

9) giving residents arbitrary (and dangerous) flushing instructions

10) allowing Freedom Industries to declare bankruptcy and be refinanced by a “different” owner of an eerily similar name as the previous owner

11) refusing to test water in homes in a high profile press conference and then deciding two hours after the press conference to consider testing water in homes

Currently, neither the state nor the federal government are supplying water to those affected by the chemical spill. The state refuses to dip into its multi-million dollar emergency fund and FEMA denied the governor’s request to continue providing water and other emergency relief to West Virginia.

Actionable Step:

Donate! This is the easiest way to immediately help West Virginians. There are many ways to donate, including going through the West Virginia Clean Water Hub. I am also collecting donations through PayPal for purchasing water and supplies to deliver every time I go to WV to film.

#2 Thing to Know: West Virginians will no longer accept violations of their health and safety by industry. After decades of tolerating ongoing air and water pollutionchemical spills, and industrial explosionsWest Virginians are refusing to ignore further violations of their health and safety in exchange for a barely surviving extraction economy.

There is a short piece about this in the Newsweek article, “For much of Bryson’s life in West Virginia, she says many locals viewed these dangers as “their cross to bear.” But since the Freedom Industries spill, “I have seen such a dramatic shift. We see now how this influences our life.””

Maybe in the past most of us were not immediately affected by these disasters. Those of us who don’t live in a mining town and didn’t personally know the people dying in explosions and collapses are removed enough that we never felt the need to DO anything. Those of us who were raised in the Chemical Valley were used to being constantly poisoned just enough that we didn’t really have to deal with it in our daily lives (until we get cancer or some other disease, but then we can’t attribute it directly to pollution). But when 300,000 people can’t drink or use their water, we have to think about it. We’re confronted head-on with years of our own individual neglect and the government and industry’s systematic abuse of West Virginia’s environment and people. And now we’re doing things.

Actionable Steps:

Share information. Without information we have nothing. Share the individual stories from this site, share news articles, and share information about how to donate, how to protest, how to lobby.

Make your voice heard in the state legislature. West Virginia Citizen Action Group is one organization that is doing great things in response to the water crisis: lobbying, protests, rallies, vigils, and activist training sessions. Friends of Water is another. There are legislative hearings happening as I write this that need your involvement and input. Even if you can only copy and paste a form letter provided by one of these organizations, do it. Every action is immensely important.

Keep coming back here for more stories. You can subscribe to this blog, follow me on Twitter @klbryson, or follow me on Facebook.

Share your story. If you want to write a story or do a video interview with me, email me at wvwatercrisis@gmail.com.

How to Engage People in Critical Dialogue about the Water Crisis

If you’re interested in how to engage people who are resistant to being critical of the coal or chemical industries in West Virginia in conversations about the Water Crisis, this is the video for you. My dear friend and mentor Dr. Roxanne Aftanas speaks about the rhetoric of coal and chemical industries in West Virginia and her view on the Water Crisis. An Arkansas native, Roxanne has a unique outsider/insider perspective. After living and teaching here for nearly a decade, she offers her take on how she gets her students to think critically about the industrial economy in West Virginia and what it has or hasn’t done for them. She asks them, if coal keeps the lights on, where’s the money? She also speaks about the effect of the coal industry on education as she has observed as a university professor and as a parent.

I filmed this just a few days after the chemical spill occurred, so the way people are now responding has certainly evolved since then. But there are still so many people who are unwillingly to be critical of the industries that “sustain” West Virginia and are killing West Virginians and destroying our environment. Roxanne’s interview serves as an example of how we can engage more critical dialogues with those who are resistant.

I’m returning to West Virginia this weekend to film. If you have contacted me about doing an interview and I haven’t gotten back to yet, please don’t think I’ve forgotten you! I will be in touch soon. Everyone’s story is important and I will do my best to get to all of you who have so generously offered to tell me yours.

*None of the opinions featured in this interview  reflect those of Marshall University.

Returning to WV to Film for the Documentary

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Hi friends!

I’ll be filming the water crisis again for this blog and my documentary this weekend (Saturday Feb. 15-Monday Feb. 17). Please let me know if you would like to be interviewed on your feelings about the water crisis, would like to show me your water and/or allow me to film in your home, or know anyone else who would like to do so. Please email me at wvwatercrisis@gmail.com.

I would appreciate you sharing this information and considering contributing your story because everyone’s story is important.

It is the stories of individuals, people suffering from the water crisis, that are the least told in the media coverage of this event. Yet these are the most important stories, the stories that inspire change.

Please consider sharing your story.

I know I have been absent here on the blog lately, but that’s because I’ve been back in Columbus teaching, writing my dissertation, and working non-stop on some big things for the water crisis. I can’t wait to reveal the news, but I still have to wait a bit longer before I do.

Here are some things I’ve been working on that I can tell you about:

I’m also still working on the water and supply drive at OSU, accepting donations online here, and will have an update on that soon. This is a big undertaking because of the scale and bureaucracy at OSU, but I am doing my best.

I was so proud and happy yesterday when Governor Tomblin announced that Dr. Andrew Whelton will be heading up the in-home water testing and research. I have been working with Dr. Whelton from the beginning of the water crisis to spread the word about water safety in homes and put my trust in his research and true compassion for West Virginia.

You can read my interview with Aljazeera America in “Obama’s failure to mention the water crisis disappoints West Virginians.”

I was also asked to be the new activist blogger on Hillbilly Speaks.

I’m still tweeting the #WVWaterCrisis. Follow me @klbryson.

Thank you all again for your support in getting the word out about fundraising, promoting the blog, and sharing your stories.

 

The Truth about Water in West Virginia

The Winfield Locks and Dams

Over the last few weeks, West Virginians have been enmeshed in a water disaster that has become more and more devastating with each revelation of information about the chemicals spilled, the amount of chemicals spilled, the neglect of Freedom Industries and government regulatory agencies, and the blind-eye turned on us by most of the national media. To many the water crisis is “over” and was never really as significant as we make it out to be. According to them West Virginians should just go back to business as usual. But we know from hundreds of accounts of everything from (for now) minor illnesses, to protracted hospital stays, to the possibility of long-term health repercussions caused by the contaminated water; the severe economic devastation that even our governor now acknowledges and desperately pleads the federal government to save us from; and from the emotional trauma many of us experience as a result of the chemical spill, that this crisis is not over.

During the two weekends I spent filming in West Virginia (more to come, I promise), I experienced what some may call serendipitous encounters and overlaps with my own work and the work and lives of others. I don’t call it serendipity. I call it the inevitable revelation of a state and a people and an environment at the zenith of its tipping point. In one Facebook forum, I came across a plea from a woman in McDowell County, WV , whose family had been without water for six straight days (now 12 days, as she has informed me). I immediately contacted her and spoke with her husband for over an hour about what caused them to be without water for so long. When they spoke of being without water, they were not speaking of being without clean water, but of being without water at all. Unlike those affected by the water crisis, they do not receive water from the state or federal government.

In this town in McDowell County, the water pumps are often non-functioning and are not maintained. Moreover, the money to maintain these pumps is either not there or is being withheld by town officials, in direct and admitted defiance of state regulations requiring them to provide water to the people of this small town, a people that continue to pay a water bill for water they don’t receive. This is not an isolated incident. The resident I spoke with about this ongoing problem didn’t have water for three months over the summer. After calling and writing officials all over the state of West Virginia about this problem he has experienced since moving to the town fifteen years ago, he has gotten zero results. The absolute horror that I felt listening to this family and community’s story is undoubtedly infinitesimal in comparison to what they experience daily. I promised I would do something to help, and this is a start to fulfilling that promise.

The kismet of all of this is that I recently hosted a documentary screening at Ohio State with Elaine McMillion, the director of Hollow: An Interactive Documentary, which tells the stories of residents of McDowell County. I watched Hollow when it was released this past summer on West Virginia Day, and spent some time with Elaine at the CreateWV conference. So even before speaking with residents of McDowell, I was already very familiar with the fact that water in McDowell County was not safe to drink or cook with. Elaine told me that when she lived in McDowell while filming for several months in 2012, residents insisted she not drink the water.

After devastating floods in 2001, McDowell County residents formed the Wastewater Treatment Coalition of McDowell County to investigate how the flood may have damaged their water supply. What they found is that 67% of the county’s water was not treated. That means the drinking water in McDowell County contains raw sewage. Elaine contacted me this morning to offer me permission to repost the following video from Hollow, which shows the beautiful wildlife in McDowell that persists despite destruction of their ecosystem. Notice that the fisherman in the video catches and releases the fish because they are not safe to eat due to the water’s contamination. To experience more stories of life in McDowell, visit the documentary here, best viewed using Google Chrome. If you don’t have Chrome or a fast internet connection, you can watch the videos individually here.

Clearly, water quality and even access to water are much bigger problems in West Virginia than we are led to believe by the government’s treatment and the media’s coverage of the most recent chemical spill. In fact, they are more than problems, they are devastations — of resident’s daily lives and health, the local and state economy, and the environment.

I used to become outraged and defensive when outsiders compared West Virginia to a third world country, but I can no longer do that with any conviction. What I can say to people who blame West Virginians, arguing that if West Virginians want better water, a better government, a better economy, they should take responsibility, is that you have obviously never talked to the people who are suffering. They have fought and continue to fight a political system that is beyond corrupt, is beyond reprehensible, is beyond fixing. How they persist despite the constant dismissals by a government that is supposed to protect them, I’ll never know. But this persistence, while noble, should not be an ideal to romanticize. It should be unnecessary. It is our responsibility to make it unnecessary.

What I plan to do over the next few weeks and months is to expose that corruption through those who know it best. If you have information you think is important or would pertain to this in any way, please send it directly to me, Krista Bryson at wvwatercrisis@gmail.com. Please also email if you wish to be interviewed, either on-camera or off, anonymously or not. The more voices we can lend to this story, the more people will see this problem for its true magnitude.

The only chance we have in this fight is to fight together.