WVWaterCrisis

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!

West Virginia Water Crisis Judicial and Research Updates

Barlow Drive

The site of Freedom Industries after its court-ordered destruction.

Hi, fellow Water Crisis advocates, friends, and newcomers. I have some extremely important updates for you on recent developments on the Water Crisis. Whether you’re from West Virginia, the Appalachian region or are an environmental advocate or just someone who cares about how corporations affect your family’s health and safety, this is for you. If you need a primer on the Water Crisis to get you started, I recommend watching one of these two short videos I created.

Class Action Lawsuit Approved against those believed responsible for the West Virginia Water Crisis

First, early last month a federal court judge approved a class action lawsuit against West Virginia American Water Company and Eastman Chemical Company, which sold the 4-MCHM to Freedom Industries. Kate White and Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail detailed elements of the federal order:

U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. issued a 60-page order on Thursday certifying liability classes in the lawsuit.

Copenhaver defined the liability classes as:

• All people living in dwellings supplied tap water by West Virginia American’s Kanawha Valley Treatment Plan on Jan. 9, 2014;

• All people or entities who owned businesses operating in real property supplied tap water by the plan on that date; and

• All people who were regularly employed as hourly wage-earners for businesses that operated in real property supplied tap water by the plant on that date.

The class-action suit alleges the water company did not adequately prepare or respond to the leak, which occurred just 1.5 miles upstream from its regional water intake. It alleges Eastman — which manufactured the chemical MCHM and sold it to Freedom Industries — did not properly test the chemical or warn buyers or the public about potential health impacts.

This means there are at least 300,000 people who may qualify to participate in this class action lawsuit. Of course, as a Water Crisis advocate who knows the many details of this event and the arguments regarding both companies’ failure to protect the public, I am thrilled this lawsuit is being permitted to move forward. As a Ph.D. who studied West Virginia history, I am moved and greatly encouraged that such a case is finally being allowed by such an industry-driven government (yes, especially in the judicial branch; if you want more on that just read renowned historian John Alexander Williams’ West Virginia and the Captains of Industry). I wasn’t as surprised as I could have been because the trial of West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship has given me more hope for the state as of late, but I was still elated.

This trial moving forward means that a federal judge acknowledges there may have been negligible acts on the part of both companies that harmed the public, who now have a chance to prove these acts occurred and demand restitution. That, my friends, is a huge win. Think the “Erin Brockovich” class action against Pacific Gas and Electric for knowingly poisoning Hinkley, CA residents with hexavalent chromium. West Virginians finally have the chance to stand up in court to defend their health and livelihood against two dominating companies in the West Virginia industrial landscape.

And remember, class action lawsuits are not just about restitution for individuals, they are about public policy change. It is my hope that the stories of those affected by the Water Crisis will gain further national attention as a result of this trial so that the rest of the nation might realize their own vulnerability against mass hazardous chemical exposure of this sort. The best case scenario is that this attention will result in legislative changes both at the state and federal level because one of the key lessons learned from the Water Crisis is that federal laws like the Clean Water Act were not being enforced at the state level (and not just in this one instance, but statewide and for decades ).

Scientific Study by Eastman Chemical Company Claims 4-MCHM Poses No Toxicological Risk

Now for the not-so-encouraging news. Last week Eastman Chemical Company released the toxicology results of their study on “Crude” 4-MCHM, one of the many chemicals present in the chemicals spilled into the Elk River by Freedom Industries. The abstract explicitly states: “Collectively, the findings and predictions indicate that crude MCHM poses no apparent toxicological risk to humans at 1 ppm in household water.” 1 ppm is one part per million, which was the CDC’s screening level for 4-MCHM.

What lay and even some expert readers of this study may not notice or recognize the importance of is that this report was 1) conducted by Eastman Chemical Company; 2) contradicts findings from external researchers, such as Dr. Andrew Whelton and the West Virginia Testing and Assessment Project (WV TAP), which was funded by the state government after much public outcry and conducted by world-renowned scientists and engineers not affiliated with the chemical industry, or the Kanawha Charleston Health Department; 3) the study relies on incomplete (and therefore inconclusive) studies by the National Toxicology Program and many non-peer reviewed studies; and finally 4) the study admits to using toxicity data collected on 4-MCHM from the 1970s rather than collecting data or using data collected for the aforementioned studies that accurately reflects the composition of 4-MCHM today.

Why Eastman Chemical released this study the same month the class action suit against them was approved, I can only surmise. I’m sure you can too.

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

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.

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.