Toxic West Virginia: Water- Episode 5

The Water Runs Black In West Virginia.

VBS: Why is water such a big part of this whole environmental crisis?
Meredith: Well, because of a little thing called coal-sludge injection. Sludge is the by-product of cleaning and processing coal.

So they blow up the mountain to get at the coal, but the coal is all mixed in with other stuff?
Impurities. They use diesel fuel and chemicals to extract the useable coal from the impurities and that’s essentially what they call “washing.” So there’s this crap left over from the washing of the coal. It’s like thick black water. Then they use something called Flocculent, which is a chemical that separates the solids from the liquids. They mix this stuff in there, then they kind of skim the top off. That’s the sludge, which is this weird, foamy substance. I know because I’ve stepped in it, and it actually discolored my boots and ate away at the leather.

So they do this out in the open?
No, they do this at a processing plant, in a closed area. They take the coal and truck it to a processing plant, which might be in some adjacent valley, then they have two by-products: The sludge and water. The water is fucked. It might look kind of OK, but it’s fucked up. They’ll put this water into a pond for containment: Tons of sludge in a pond. For a while they were pumping it into old mine shafts.

Just to keep it out of sight?
It’s storage. There are miles and miles of underground honeycombs, so it’s all this empty space that they’re not using anymore. They pumped it full of toxic waste. But since the coal seams are natural aquifers, or the way that water travels through the mountain, the stuff is going to move and it’s going to seep into the ground water. So what we see in Mingo County is a community with contaminated well water. The water has turned black, and it stinks. And the same chemicals in heavy metals that are present in the sludge are now in their water.

This has got to be a crisis for people in terms of their daily lives.
Oh my god, I have no idea how these people live. I mean we all got sick from just being in this house for 30 minutes. We had to go out to the car and pass out. I mean, we got sick. Imagine how much water you use during the day to shower, to flush the toilet, to drink. These people are only given enough clean water to drink. They’re still showering with the bad water! This water that stinks, that made me dry heave upon smelling it. This is what they’re showering in. This one woman I talked to said, “Yeah, sometimes when I get out of the shower, everything’s so shiny. I feel like I can barely see because everything is so shiny.”

So someone is giving them fresh water to drink?
Yeah, Massey. Massey was court ordered, as of last September, to give the people drinking water. But everyone is sick there. Everyone’s got some kind of cancer, tumors, cysts, skin lesions, respiratory illnesses…

We’re encouraging this environmental crisis though, aren’t we?

Well, we’re using coal right now. We don’t know what’s happening when we turn on our light switches. What are the repercussions of our consumption?

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Toxic West Virginia: The Coal Companies- Episode 4 (Massey Coal / Massey Energy)

VBS: I think people need to know that the big guy on the block is a company called Massey Coal. Were you able to talk to anyone there?

Meredith: Oh, no. They try to hand you to their public relations department but they never answer the phone.

Maybe this is a stupid question, but how does Massey Coal buy a whole mountain? Can you do that?
It’s not that Massey will go and buy the mountain. They’ll lease the mountain for like nine years. That’s why they’re working 24 hours a day. It’s smash and grab resource looting.

So the lease allows them to actually get rid of the property? That’s totally fucked.
There is a big community of organizers down there trying to change things. But it’s not about making new laws, because there are laws on the books now. It’s about finding new ways to enforce these laws in a situation where this giant business has so much pull. The EPA and DEP and the legislative body are mute. Washington doesn’t care.
People should try and help the OVEC—The Ohio Valley Environmental Commission.

From what you’ve seen, do you think it’s going to keep happening? Are we going to keep losing mountain after mountain?
This debate has been going on for years, but until there are more restrictions—until it’s too prohibitive to mine coal this way, they’re going to extract as much as they can. Mountaintop removal is the cheapest and fastest way. Regulatory agencies are just looking the other way while corporations are acting like looters. They’re doing it in the middle of the night. They never quit.

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Toxic West Virginia: Miners- Episode 3

VBS: The third episode is all about miners. They’re pretty amazing guys. They have a complex relationship with their jobs. It’s not cut and dry.
Meredith: The most important thing to remember about this particular issue is that we are still dependent on fossil fuels. Hopefully within the next 15 or 20 years we won’t be, but right now we are. Coal mining itself is not bad—it’s just the way that it’s being practiced. It’s the irresponsibility of most of the big mining corporations. Like any other corporation, it’s about the bottom line and it’s really expensive to be responsible. Anyone who buys recycled toilet paper or 7th Generation dishwashing fluid knows it is a lot cheaper to go to the grocery store and buy some Dawn. It’s more expensive to be responsible. So it’s not about stopping mining all together, or labeling miners as bad people. But some aspects of the system are simply irresponsible. The miners themselves are like collateral damage for our lifestyle. Every time we turn on the light switch, we should think about it. 60 percent of New York’s energy comes from coal.

That’s amazing. I think that’s the case with a lot of major cities. Most of our daily supply of electricity comes from coal. Like 50 percent!
When you’re in West Virginia you see a lot of coal trains. Millions and millions of dollars of coal just passes in front of you when you’re waiting to cross the street.

So these guys are the collateral damage for our lifestyle. But they have a complex relationship to the industry. Experience has taught them to be very critical and skeptical and they’re very self-conscious about what they do and how it affects them. And they party hard. Right?
Well, surface mining is really dangerous and underground mining is really dangerous. It’s like being in the military, knowing you might die today—you might lose your life for your job. I think if you live like that, then when you are off the clock you want to have a fucking good time. That’s how most of these dudes live. They work hard and they party hard. In this episode we’re at a bar because that’s how they socialize. That’s the center of the community. But they aren’t a bunch of dudes that just booze it up for nothing. There’s some kind of release that needs to take place after working for 16 hours underground in a space that’s five feet tall with no light except for the headlamp on your helmet. You better believe you’re going to want to come out and have a drink with your friends.

Let’s wrap it up by taking about the guys you interviewed in the back room at the bar. They seemed pretty smart and bitter.
Mining companies have never had a good relationship with their employees. In any extractive mining situation anywhere in the world, it’s always the people that live in the place with the natural resources that get fucked over. Look at Africa with diamonds, or South America or the Middle East with oil.

Those guys were very angry but also very conscious of their situation.
Your options are very limited in a place that fosters a single industry. It’s not like any other city, where you can either work in the fast food industry as a cook or a waitress or at a drive through, or maybe managing your own franchise. Small businesses are fucked there. There is no such thing. So you can go to the mines or the military. Nearly every man we spoke to had gone to the military.

If you think about it and take a step back, classically they were fucked before coal became a major industry. They’ve always been poor, right?
There is a difference though. The reason a lot of people think the Appalachians were settled was because of coal, but coal was only discovered in the 1700s. The Cherokees, who had been pushed out of their land in the Carolinas, settled in the Appalachians because that land was so rich and bountiful. There is plenty of water and there are valleys that don’t freeze in the winter. For subsistence it’s perfect. You have to work hard, but you are your own boss and you don’t have to participate in capitalist culture. So when you take the land away and fuck up the water, you force people into a situation they aren’t traditionally accustomed to. You take their independence away.

There’s a real culture shock to losing the land as a source of life and goodness.

Oh, completely. People are like, “Why don’t they just move?” It’s not about that. These people have been living on this family land for hundreds of years. And it’s not just principle. Why should the giant hand of a corporation be able to flick you off like a little flea?


Further reading…

Miners tell their stories in Vice magazine’s Appalachia Issue.

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