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?