Watch my short recap of the event!
Here is the email I sent to everyone I could today at OSU and the local news media in Columbus about both the documentary screening of Hollow I organized for tomorrow on-campus and how it exposes the long-term pollution of water in McDowell County, WV. I also took the opportunity to inform folks of the West Virginia Water Crisis. Please feel free to share my summary of the crisis.
Dear friends and colleagues,
Please join the Appalachian Project for the Screening and Director’s Discussion of Hollow: An Interactive Documentary on life in McDowell County, WV, dubbed a “dying county” due to an 80% population loss spurred by the town’s abandonment by the coal industry.
The event will take place tomorrow, Thursday, January 16 from 3:30-5:30 pm in the Barbie Tootle Room at the Ohio Union. Food and refreshments will be provided.
For more information, see flyer attached. I encourage you to pass this on to your students, friends, and colleagues.
This story is especially pertinent now as we learn more about the West Virginia Water Crisis (see below). McDowell County residents haven’t had clean water for decades. In 2001, the McDowell County Wastewater Coalition reported that 67% of the county’s water wasn’t treated. That means residents have water that contains raw sewage. This remains the state of the water there now. When the director of Hollow lived in McDowell for several months while filming, she drank only bottled water. Clearly, water quality is a much bigger problem in West Virginia than we are led to believe by coverage of the chemical spill.
If you haven’t heard about the West Virginia Water Crisis that has been going on for the last six days now, please inform yourselves. I began live tweeting the news and on-the-ground reports last Friday, the day after the chemical spill occurred. On Saturday, I went to West Virginia and collected video and written stories from residents affected by the crisis, which I have posted here: https://westvirginiawatercrisis.wordpress.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @klbryson for updates. Here is the first 36 hours recap filmed by the director of Hollow, Elaine McMillion.
Below is a summary of the West Virginia Water Crisis, which I encourage you to share. The sharing of information is the most powerful tool we have right now.
Over 300,000 people are not only without water, but were exposed to MCHM (4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol), a coal washing chemical and jet fuel component, spilled in our water by Freedom Industries in Charleston, WV. Reports of exactly how much spilled have varied, but the most recently agreed upon number is 7,500 gallons from a “leak” in a containment tank that the DEP has now informed us appears to have been present for much longer than one week; people from the area are coming forward about smelling the licorice-scented chemical for a month now. Not only were there no inspections of these tanks since 1991, once the leak occurred, the cleanup has been botched and the health risks misrepresented. Residents were not notified the water was unsafe until 9 hours after the leak occurred (if it actually hadn’t been leaking already).
The local news media is still reporting as they “flush” the lines in West Virginia so the water is safe for everyday use and consumption, but the national news and other regional news media has already moved on. But this is not over. We need to rally to force the Attorney General and state and federal legislators to do their jobs Many people are now severely ill; I’ve heard reports of up to 175 hospitalized and met the mother of a woman with chemical pneumonitis from exposure to the contamination. Now that the DEP and WV state government are telling people in “flushed” areas it’s safe to use and drink, those people are getting sick as well. When inhaled, the water can cause lung irritation and after long-term exposure, lung disease.
This water is now traveling down the Ohio River. Cincinnati closed two of their intake valves to eliminate any risk of their residents becoming ill even though they have the proper filtration systems to remove this chemical.
I attended a town hall with Erin Brockovich and her Water Systems specialist on Monday. Her team says this is the largest water crisis they have ever seen (watch video footage here). It will be many years before we know the long-term effects this chemical exposure will have on our health. We have already suffered a short-term devastation of the economy and residents’ well-being.
I hope you continue to watch for more news on this disaster. I will continue to update my blog about any community and legislative action we organize.
Great site. Talked to your mom and she was so proud of what you are doing. Living in the chemical valley has taken another wrong turn in the course of providing “the commons” for the people that work and sweat so that out of state and out of country corporations can reap huge profits. Do these profits flow back, or should I say trickle down, to our people? The “commons” are the air we breathe, the water we drink (or used to), and our natural resources and beauty. We need to protect the “commons” so that we can grow and improve our lives and the image of our state.
I was listening to John Boehner in an interview about our crisis and he went straight to the fact that we have enough regulations already, typical of a politician that is beholden to big corporations for campaign donations.
About regulations, I am sure we have regulations on the books, but common sense would dictate that if you have chemical storage facilities upriver from a water plant, then you would be inspecting that facility on a regular basis, like once every three months, instead of once every 23 years. Somebody dropped the ball (probably while stuffing wads of campaign cash in their pockets) and our press/media need to keep the heat on our elected officials so that the “commons” will still be here for our grandchildren. Be proactive, write letters, attend town hall meetings, ask questions. Then and only then might we start climbing out of the hole dug for us by big corporations.
When survival is just another word for heartbreak I will usually make a soup.
There is the act of nourishing, of course, and the comfort of garlic and butter steaming. There’s the wrist swirl required to brown the leeks, and then the bubbling that requires watching. Does the broccoli separate easily when pinned with a wooden spoon? Time is measured by tenderness.
It has been well over a year since Sandy washed me out of my Red Hook home in Brooklyn. The trips to housing court, always in a stiff skirt safety-pinned at the waist, have ceased. The government no longer offers emergency assistance for the costs accrued. Most of the businesses in my old neighborhood are back, their lights twinkling in the winter night, and the tides steadily rise and fall at the shore where they belong. Public housing residents still fight mold and generators prop up their aging infrastructure, but this is the stuff of periodic update in the paper of record, no more than a news item for most people. Many believe the storm has passed.
And yet the lived experience lingers on. Neural pathways lit with trauma, some might say. Or, in the words of others, an affliction of self-pity and not-enough-gumption. Sandy is part of my biological narrative now, part of the ratio of heartbeat to breath, or the algorithm of guts and ribs exposed to fear that is expressed as synapse x, read in eye contact or mouth shape. It informs my thoughts when I’m awake, and dreams when asleep. The storm that crippled my city is always with me.
Charleston, West Virginia, where a state of emergency and ban on water use has rendered the city nearly silent for six days, is my hometown and only thirty miles southeast from the farm where I was raised. Social media puts me in the bathrooms of family friends with red and fuzzy tap water, of shared press releases that say little but reveal everything. The back-to-the-land strategy of my parents, with their hand-dug wells, protects them in this instance, but only marginally. Their economic and physical well-being is still tied to the capital city, where my mother washes dogs for a living, and where my kid sister attends high school. In the holler they’re safe from the pollution, but not its polluting effects, which will infect every aspect of life in the region in coming weeks.
The chemical that has poisoned the city’s water is used as a solvent for processing coal, washing the fossil fuel from the rock and debris that can’t be burned to power our hungry continental grid. It spilled from a tank along the Elk River, near the park where I used to eat fudgesicles by the pool in summer, not far from where my grandfather once took me fishing. A licorice smell spilled over the valley, alerting neighbors to the leak, which the Department of Environmental Protection then investigated. It took hours for authorities to ban water use, and in the meantime it crept into the pipes, leaving a slick along the narrow river and a sickly sweet odor in the air. Photos of a lone man with a small boom floated over the Internet, brought to my eyes by coal burning not-so-very-far from where I write this in central Brooklyn.
The tears this morning were a surprise. Curled under down and safe from the storm and toxic tapwater, in a quiet New York City apartment, I buried my head embarrassed for my lover to see me cry. A familiar feeling welled up from guts and spread over limbs, a powerlessness, followed by the heat of shame creeping up chest to neck and ears, leaving only a hot and panting guilt. This is the psychological legacy of environmental injustice, which I used to imagine I had escaped. This is what it means to be part of a beloved impacted community.
Before Sandy, and before the Freedom Industries chemical leak, I was a kid in Appalachia. We held shelter in place drills at my elementary school, which is just uphill from railroad tracks that carry chemicals along the spine of the Kanawha River. Teachers were just being prudent in leading us to the library and explaining how we would cover the windows and seal the doors, just as my mother was being prudent the day she halted our morning commute after the pop station reported a toxic cloud from a plant, unidentified but of concern, drifting overhead. I was just being prudent when I left West Virginia, taking my history of immunity-linked health conundrums with me, and packed off for someplace I thought would be healthier for my mind and body. Charleston’s nickname is Chemical Valley, and our life expectancy rates reflect this, even in the diaspora. Environmental injustice and trauma become part of your veins and cells, enamel and marrow, and it permeates the economies which underpin our existence. I have tried, but you can’t outrun a system.
We are all implicated, no matter what wells we dig, or what cities we may call home. There are those who assign blame to a political party, but the power of extractive energy industries knows no ideology but profit. They have successfully sought and maintained control of land, and of decision-making in West Virginia, for generations. Those who have opposed them have been targets for terrorism at the hands of armed thugs, and the victims of industry operations have all but disappeared into underclass status. Our bodies share certain markers, even generations from now, not unlike the rings on a tree which differ in size and shape according to seasonal shifts. Those in power will point to “lifestyle” choices, ignoring the systemic pernicious influence of history, unwilling to accept that the shape of what is physiologically determines the shape of what will be.
The truth is, we shelter in place in Appalachia or Brooklyn and hope for the best, knowing this is no prince-on-a-white-horse dilemma for some charismatic politician. Today it is a chemical leak, yesterday it was Sandy, tomorrow will bring another crisis brought on by privileging the pursuit of profit above the rights of people. And while it is true there will be no single prince, that doesn’t make it any less a love story.
As we carry loss in our bones, in our blood, and in our breath, we are less individually unique than our stories and politics would have us believe. No matter where you are in America today, if you claim space for survival—land, water, air, food, or culture—and that space can be made into profits for a corporation, you will quickly find yourself immersed in conflict. And, where there is conflict there is trauma. Cornel West has said “Justice is what love looks like in public.” What justice can we claim together against these invisible systems? Can you love yourself enough to desire justice for others? It comes down to that, because the chief points of the stories told about us is that we deserve this. It takes a lot of love and compassion to think otherwise.
There are obvious needs I can point towards. Cries for FEMA to adequately respond so that organizers aren’t exhausted taking care of our people, instead of organizing for accountability, come to mind. There’s the need for regulation, and in this instance in Kanawha Valley, for the implementation of the Chemical Safety Board’s recommendations. There’s the ongoing fact that without federal oversight backed by political firepower nothing will change at the local level. All of these are concerns.
The greater need is the long-term, however, in creating a loving culture where the impact of crisis is visible and healed, rather than shamed and mocked, and where exchange is regulated to mitigate just this kind of psychic and physical harm. We must present those who would prefer to see us washed away as the terrorists and criminals they are, rather than as Chief Executive Officers worthy of taxpayer-subsidized bonuses. It was King who said the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice, and on this midwinter night I wonder, how can you bend towards that justice with me, and make your back part of that arc?
Cheyenna is from Elkview, Charleston, Gandeeville, and New York City.
I would like to sincerely thank her for offering this beautiful piece of writing to be published here.
She will be sharing it on other blogs and social media, so please see the comments below for other places you can read it and share it from.
As I export my video from the Brockovich town hall about the West Virginia Water Crisis, I will be posting my summaries of and take on the information they gave us there, starting with this:
We have already become an anecdote. The national news media is now treating this gross negligence on the part of Freedom Industries and the attendant water crisis as an “accident” that is nearly resolved. I watched the news headlines this morning. We weren’t even mentioned by NBC. Our story took less than 30 seconds on Good Morning America, which then had a story immediately following about a picture of Oprah repairing her own toilet. Here is why we are not a passing news story but a huge crisis that is indicative of incredibly far-reaching negligence and abuse:
It is now day 6 since the chemical spill occurred in Charleston, West Virginia and no one is asking why we haven’t complied to the Source Water Protection Program, which requires the state and federal government to comply with the Clean Water Act by taking an inventory of chemicals in the area around the water plants so they are not surprised and are prepared to deal with these chemicals. Where is the Source Water Protection Program and why weren’t those chemicals inventoried? The news media is NOT asking questions that consumers deserve to know.
Some basic facts about MCHM, the spilled chemical: it is a benzene used in coal washing and jet fuel. Other than that, we don’t know much, as this product was created and patented in 1999. We have seen the health effects of this product in the short-term already, but we don’t know what the long-term effects are for exposure at this level.
The State government is now telling residents in the affected counties to flush their water through their system to “get rid of” the contaminated water. As Bob Bowcock of Erin Brockovich’s team explains, you may be exchanging good water out for bad. In many places, the water in people’s lines and systems is still better water than what would now be coming through. So they’re telling people to run hot water for 15 minutes, then cold water for 5 minutes, and to replace your ice and Brita water filters (with no mention of the fact that your refrigerator has a filter, as does your water tank and many other appliances in your home, like your Keurig or other coffee maker).
The water that they are now running through, as many people have shown in photos and videos, is clearly contaminated. 20 minutes of running the water through a home water system is not getting clean water. Because the water it’s being replaced with is still contaminated! Although they’re telling residents 1 parts per million (ppm) is safe, they have no precedent to make that judgment. This limit is an arbitrary number they have given the public to make us feel more in control of this disaster. The fact is that they don’t know what’s safe. Here is a reference point for you: they regulate other chemicals in your drinking water in parts per billion (ppb) and parts per trillion (ppt). So how are they “defining” safe as 1 ppm?
Now, people who are “flushing their systems” are becoming ill because they are breathing in this contaminant. Neither the government or the news media has suggested that people leave their home while the water runs or even open their windows and doors, which Erin’s team urge people to do.
No one has mentioned to us that not only is this chemical dangerous on its own, flowing through a water treatment plant that adds more chemicals to it. If you know much about how chemicals work, you know this can cause chemicals to oxidize and form new, possibly even more harmful, chemicals. This idea has not been presented to the public through the news or by the government or WV American Water in any of their press conferences. Consumer confidence reports explain that they regulate these “disinfection byproducts” like trihalomethanes or haloecitic acids, which are measured in parts per billion because they are carcinogenic and toxic. They are created when chlorine oxidizes organics, and the same thing is happening to this chemical. They have not done the research to find whether the MCHM has oxidized into other chemicals, many of which are much more dangerous than MCHM.
Again, they’re telling residents that after running the water for only 20 minutes it will be safe. This is completely arbitrary. Here’s a clue: Cincinnati has shut down their water intake systems for the next 48 hours.
Lee offers the perspective of someone who is temporarily out of work due to the West Virginia Water Crisis. Many people claim the crisis is only a minor inconvenience to those affected, but just a few days missed pay can be financially disastrous for some people.
My parents have given store credit to several people who would otherwise be unable to buy food this week. If this goes on for much longer, many say they won’t be able to pay their rent next month.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Monteea, who had to close her dance studio during the water crisis, describes the disorganized response and different official responses in Putnam County and Kanawha County. She also describes her perspective on this crisis as a long-time resident of “Chemical Valley,” including the realities of living in an area where drinking water and swimming holes are frequently contaminated with chemicals. She believes that this contributes to the high cancer rate in her area.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.