January 12

West Virginia water tests encouraging after chemical spill

Frustration is high in the town because coal and chemical companies provide jobs for the area, but at what cost?

By Mitch Weiss and Brendan Farrington
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Employees of the South Charleston Public Works Department assist the residents in obtaining cases of water and filling the containers they brought with them on Sunday after a chemical spill Thursday in the Elk River contaminated the public water supply in nine counties.

The Associated Press

Coal is critical to West Virginia’s economy. Strong coal prices and demand proved vital to the state budget during and after the national recession, from 2009 through 2011.

In November 2009, the state’s unemployment rate was 8.4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four years later – November 2013 – the unemployment rate was down to 6.1 percent, below the national rate of 7 percent.

In Tomblin’s recent State-of-the-State speech, he touted the chemical industry, saying it was among those that grew substantially over the last year.

The spill that tainted the water supply involved a chemical used in coal processing. But it didn’t involve a coal mine – and that’s a point state officials are trying to convey to the public.

When asked if the emergency is one of the risks of being a state that relies heavily on the coal industry, Tomblin quickly responded: “This was not a coal company incident, this was a chemical company incident.”

The coal industry, too, was saying they should not bear the blame in this case.

“This is a chemical spill accident. It just so happens that the chemical has some applications to the coal industry, just that fact alone shouldn’t cause people to point fingers at the coal industry,” said Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Bostic said the coal industry is very carefully regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection and several federal agencies that ensure it is safe from the very first step in opening a mine to ongoing operations.

“The environmental risk that’s associated with coal mining, we feel it’s well regulated,” Bostic said.

There’s no doubt the coal and chemical industries are a hugely important part of the state’s economy. Even as he lamented the loss of business caused by the spill, Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance, the state’s largest regional chamber of commerce, talked about the importance of chemical companies in the Kanawha Valley, which includes the capital.

“The chemical industry, that’s what started the valley,” Ballard said. “We’ve got a long history of a really good safety record, but with any business ... there’s always a risk.”

Kent Sowards, the associate director for Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, said that there’s a delicate balance between offsetting economic needs and potential costs associated with the coal and chemical industries.

“There are risks inherent with everything. Whether the risk is something that someone wants to continue to bear, that ultimately becomes their decision,” he said.

In West Virginia’s case, he believes the state is doing a good job of maintaining that balance.

And since the emergency is ongoing, it’s hard to assess at this point whether the response was successful, he said.

But in communities across the region, with names like Nitro and Dry Branch, people are beginning to wonder if it’s worth it.

Steve Brown, 56, lives outside of Nitro in the shadow of chemical plants. Over the years, he’s worked in some of those places, and knows firsthand about the risks and rewards.

“You made enough to support your family,” said Brown, who is unemployed. “But you also see what it’s done to the environment. People stay away from fishing in rivers and streams near chemical plants. You have fish advisories. You know better. You just know.”

The chemical spill has brought out the best and worst in people, he said. He watched folks deliver water to elderly and disabled neighbors who couldn’t get out of the house. But he also glimpsed people fight in grocery stores over bottles of water.

“When I saw that, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was really sad.”

Chris Laws, 42, a coal miner who grew up in the Kanawha Valley, has worked in the mines for 20 years. He said he’s worried what will happen in a few days when people still aren’t able to shower, wash clothes or clean dishes.

“This ain’t even the bad times. The bad times aren’t here yet,” he said as he waited outside the Kroger grocery store for water to be delivered.

He said it bothers him that officials have downplayed the impact on people.

“They make believe it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal. You have 300,000 people without water. If this goes on much longer, it’s going to cause mass chaos,” he said.

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