West Virginia Chemical Spill: A Predictable Water Crisis

By Angie Rosser

On January 9, I was one of 300,000 West Virginians who learned their water had been contaminated by a chemical leak two miles upstream from the state’s largest drinking-water intake. Predictably, politicians and the public are clamoring for heads to roll—most notably those of managers at the Freedom Industries plant responsible for the leak.

Freedom Industries should be held accountable, but that won’t fix the problem. That’s because the Elk River spill wasn’t an isolated accident. It was the inevitable consequence of weak regulatory enforcement over many years, made possible by our collective failure to uphold the values we profess.

We all say we value clean water, so why do we accept pollution as the status quo, as a byproduct of everyday life? In public opinion polls, Americans routinely and overwhelmingly say that it’s the job of government to ensure clean water. And yet we continue to let elected officials off the hook when it comes to clean water laws.

In this light, the Elk River spill could be the future of many American cities. It’s one in which systems failures cause local catastrophic events—leaving taxpayers to foot the bill to clean up after polluters.

Since the earliest days of the chemical industry, it has been a major part of West Virginia’s economy. We live every day with the potential for toxic leaks into our waterways, knowing the consequences can be devastating. We shouldn’t have to live this way.

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, industry has worked diligently to weaken the law’s enforcement and oversight.

As the director of an organization that advocates for clean water, I regularly witness the audacious influence of industry as it cajoles lawmakers and regulators to lower production costs by lowering the bar on public health. I review the same data as the politicians do on the risks to public health posed by weakening clean-water standards. But when it comes to environmental stewardship, data and facts are no match for industry’s sway over government.

And at times like these, I see the irony of politicians scapegoating a company whose pollution is enabled by government’s failure to adequately regulate. We’ve allowed them to foster a culture of neglect instead of one of oversight and accountability.

The Mountain State enjoys an abundance of water, but year after year we have seen access to clean water diminish. Our water has paid the price for our legacy of mining, gas drilling, coal-burning power plants, and chemical production. We have seen the steady chipping away of our water quality standards to help reduce costs to big coal. We have seen the injustices of people’s right to clean water usurped by industries. Indeed, there are parts of West Virginia that will never have access to clean water, where industrial pollution has caused irreparable harm to water supplies.

I hope the West Virginia water crisis reminds us about how dependent we are on clean rivers for our health and security. Now is the time to take a critical look at how to better protect our water sources. We can do this only by acknowledging that the Elk River spill is not a story about an isolated leak. This is about the need for systemic changes in industrial practices and our national responsibility to establish and enforce adequate protections.

We need to look at ourselves and remember our values. We need to be true to our relationship with water by expanding our expectations of elected leaders. And industries and consumers need to accept the costs of safer, more environmentally-sound production of certain goods and services. That’s the price of clean water.

Clean water is essential for life. It is also essential for our national and global security. I hope that once the immediate crisis is over, serious thought will go into meaningful reforms and investment in protecting our rivers and streams that are our lifeline.

Angie Rosser is executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition in Charleston, W.Va., a statewide nonprofit organization focused on water quality issues. She lives on the Elk River upstream from the spill.  In 2013 she was part of a successful effort to secure endangered species status for the Elk River Diamond Darter, a fish found only in the Elk River in West Virginia. © Blue Ridge Press 2014.