Trusting the Water Again: Understanding the West Virginia Chemical Spill

On the morning of January 9, 2014, Charleston residents noticed that the air smelled like licorice and that the water tasted like it too. Inspectors soon traced the odor and taste to a chemical storage facility owned by a company called Freedom Industries. There, near the bank of the Elk River, inspectors discovered that a 48,000-gallon tank was leaking an industrial chemical called MCHM (methylcyclohexane methanol) used to cleanse coal. The contaminant had trailed down the riverbank, entered the ice-covered water, and traveled one mile downriver to the state’s largest water treatment plant. That night, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin appeared on television and issued an unprecedented warning: Kanawha River Valley’s 300,000 residents were not to use the region’s tap water for drinking, washing, cooking, or bathing.

A woman distributes drinking water on the Governor's lawn for the residents of  impacted by the Freedom Industries chemical spill.

A woman distributes drinking water on the Governor's lawn for the residents of impacted by the Freedom Industries chemical spill. Photo Credit: Creative Commons/ Mountain Justice

With that warning, the region became a site of struggle over a resource fundamental to all human societies: water. Local residents began stockpiling any potable water they could find, and bottled water soon disappeared from supermarket and grocery store shelves. FEMA and the National Guard set up tanker trucks of clean water in abandoned parking lots. Schools, restaurants, and businesses were shuttered. West Virginian citizens and news reporters both likened conditions to what they called the “Third World,” expressing dismay that the loss of such an elemental public service—the provisioning of clean water—could occur inside the United States, just under five hundred miles from the nation’s capital. “We feel like we’re in a human sacrifice zone,” one mother told an interviewer.

A Toxic Burden on the People of West Virginia

The chemical spill brought into relief the extraordinary toxic burden borne by the people of West Virginia. The state is currently the third poorest in the nation, and it is also, not coincidentally, one in which workers have repeatedly been forced to choose between their physical health and a living wage. Work in the coal mines, which industry promoters defend as fundamental to the state’s economic and cultural well-being, provides the most egregious example of this coerced choice. But the dominance of the coal industry over the state has also spawned a host of industries that threaten workers’ health and public safety. The Kanawha River Valley, where the spill occurred, has been nicknamed “Chemical Valley” and not without reason: throughout much of the twentieth century, it had the largest concentration of chemical plants in the country. Union Carbide, notorious for the 1984 Bhopal disaster, had a plant in the heart of the valley, as did DuPont. The Union Carbide plant, later taken over by Bayer Cropscience, was the only place in the United States where methyl isocyanate (the chemical that killed nearly 4,000 people in Bhopal) was stored in large quantities. Historically, these companies have provided some residents with higher than average wages, but they have also poisoned groundwater, unleashed toxic emissions, and generated a string of industrial explosions (including one at Bayer Cropscience in 2008 that killed two workers). The January chemical spill was the state’s fifth major industrial accident since 2006, and the third accident in the valley since 2009.

The accident brought into relief the deregulatory climate in which the state’s coal and chemical industries operate. Long a Democratic Party stronghold, West Virginia has been morphing from blue to red over the last decade, a political transformation facilitated by energy companies that are responding to growing concern about the future of the coal industry by channeling resources to conservative, pro-business candidates, to lobbyists, and to industry-friendly researchers. The goal has not only been to tar the Democratic Party as elitist and out-of-touch for ostensibly prioritizing the environment over job creation, but also to foster a pro-business habitat in which companies like Freedom Industries will not feel constrained by “burdensome” regulations. In 2006, the governor hung signs throughout the state that read “Open for Business.” The cumulative effect, according to environmentalists, has been a statewide regulatory structure that is largely toothless and ineffective. This helps explain the spill. Despite the Governor’s insistence that the spill had nothing to do with coal, Freedom Industries is instrumental in bringing to market what the industry calls “clean coal.”  Before the accident, it had never filed the leak prevention plans required by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and there were no repercussions.

If the spill illuminated distinctive features of the political economy and culture of West Virginia in the early twenty-first century, it also resonated with accidents of the past. In many ways, the prototype for this kind of environmental disaster is the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That accident occurred when, due to a combination of human error and mechanical malfunction, large amounts of water—normally used to cool the reactor’s core—escaped. As the core overheated, the plant leaked radiation into the surrounding air and water. The crisis lasted for five days, as local, state, and federal officials struggled to track an elusive toxicological threat (radiation) that was difficult to measure and invisible to the naked eye.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant had a partial nuclear meltdown in 1979, which formed the prototype for government and corporate reactions to nuclear and chemical spills. Photo Credit: Creative Commons/ Wikimedia Commons.

There was considerable confusion about the severity of the threat. Over the course of a week, the utility company that owned the plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and governmental officials all offered contradictory appraisals of the danger to public health. As a result, local residents found themselves desperate for credible information.

A similar thing happened last January in West Virginia. Over several days, Freedom Industries kept adjusting its estimate of the size of the leak, eventually announcing that small amounts of a second chemical, propylene glycol phenyl ether, had also contaminated the water supply. On January 12, state officials informed the public that the danger had passed. But in the days that followed, Dr. Rahul Gupta, who headed up the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, observed that more people rather than fewer were seeking treatment for symptoms possibly caused by exposure to MCHM. Governor Tomblin began to lift the water ban on January 13, but two days later, the CDC issued an advisory urging pregnant women to avoid the water. That advisory lasted for three weeks. This was a crisis characterized less by overt deception on the part of public officials and more by disorganization and indeterminacy. As governmental bodies offered ever-shifting assessments of the threat, local residents were thrust into a state of confusion that reflected the ambiguous nature of the threat.

Slow Violence

In contrast to tornadoes, earthquakes, and landslides that upend the landscape and instantly claim lives, chemical and radiological accidents do not necessarily leave visible, calculable damage in their immediate wake. At the time of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, for example, scientists were divided over the questions of what constituted “a permissible dose” of radiation and even over whether the levels of radiation leaked from the plant could cause biological harm. The health effects of MCHM ingestion are even more opaque. Because MCHM had not been intended for human consumption, scientists had never studied its effects on human health, and there was no regulatory standard for it within water policy. But what happens when these chemicals contaminate the water supply and are accidentally ingested?

There was no answer to this newly urgent question. MCHM had been tested on animals, and OSHA had declared it hazardous, but officials had no precise data about either its carcinogenic or teratogenic (mutation-causing) effects on humans. In the middle of the crisis, the CDC announced that MCHM could be consumed safely at a level below one part per million, a standard that the agency arrived at on the fly, according to Charleston-based reporter Ken Ward. Without any hard scientific data, public officials could not promise residents that the water was safe, even as it urged resumption of its use. The result was a troubling new lexicon. The CDC at one point described the water as “appropriate” for consumption, and those residents who decided to resume their use of tap water declared it “safe enough.”

The most serious health effects of the Freedom Industry spill may not manifest right away. Exposure to radiological and chemical toxins provides an example of what scholar Rob Nixon has called “slow violence”—that is, bodily injuries that develop stealthily over long time spans. During the first seventy hours after the spill, over two hundred people went to hospital emergency rooms complaining of nausea, skin rashes, eye problems, and vomiting; a dozen of them were admitted. But the spill left many more residents fearful of the spill’s long-term health consequences.

Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test conducted by the US

"Exposure to radiological and chemical toxins provides an example of what scholar Rob Nixon has called 'slow violence'—that is, bodily injuries that develop stealthily over long time spans." Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Will the region eventually see a rise in leukemias and other cancers as a result of the spill? What about the women who were pregnant at the time of the spill and who unknowingly drank the water? Did the spill endanger their unborn children? What about the reproductive health of their children in the future? These questions about fetal and reproductive health took on special urgency after the CDC, in what it described as “an abundance of caution,” recommended that the ban on water remain in place for pregnant women. Here, too, the similarities with Three Mile Island are striking. After that accident, the Governor of Pennsylvania issued a precautionary advisory urging all pregnant women to evacuate the five-mile radius surrounding the power plant. Both advisories made medical sense, since the developing fetus is especially vulnerable to radiological and chemical exposure, but both also raised unanswerable questions about future fetal and reproductive health. These kinds of accidents propel residents into an uncertain future vis-à-vis their own health and those of their loved ones, perhaps especially the not-yet-born.

In both cases, finally, a threat to public health generated a crisis of political trust. Over and again, residents at Three Mile Island recounted how the accident had shattered their once steadfast faith in the government and its capacity to protect citizens from harm. Faced with a nuclear accident that the industry had assured them would never happen, TMI residents found themselves facing not only a radiological threat, but also a series of confusing messages from public officials. Something similar appears to be unfolding in West Virginia, where some residents claim to have permanently lost faith in official reassurances. On January 27, 2014, Governor Tomblin wrote a letter to a FEMA Administrator in which he expressed pessimism, not so much about the safety of the water, but rather about the recuperation of political trust in the region: “Despite the best efforts of the company and government many people no longer view their tap water as safe and are continuing to demand bottled water to meet their potable water needs. It is impossible to predict when this will change, if ever.”

Despite the similarities between the two accidents, there is one crucial difference: the Three Mile Island accident occurred just as a neo-liberal revolution that championed free markets, business autonomy, deregulation, and individual “choice” was getting rolling. Back in 1979, this revolution was in its infancy and its outcome remained provisional. Now, thirty-five years later, the chemical spill reveals the enormous social, political, and environmental cost of this revolution to places like West Virginia. At a press conference on January 20, Governor Tomblin talked to residents about the water. His statement is extraordinary: “I’m not going to say absolutely, one hundred percent, that everything is safe. But what I can say is, if you don’t feel comfortable, don’t use it. It’s your decision.” The statement takes the neo-liberal valorization of individual choice to absurd heights, implying that what is actually a collective public health crisis can somehow be resolved at the level of private decision-making. This shift of the decision-making burden onto the individual obscures the series of economically profitable but socially disastrous decisions that set the stage for the accident in the first place. This is a model of governance in which the regulation of companies like Freedom Industries has given way to the “emotional management” of a population that should be kept “comfortable,” if not necessarily safe. And this is a brave, new world in which water—the indispensable prerequisite for life on the planet—is  “safe enough.”


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