A chemical spill in West Virginia last week cut off access to safe tap water across nine counties, and although it involved a chemical used by the coal industry, state officials have been pushing back strongly against suggestions by reporters that the disaster had anything to do with the state’s dominant industry — coal.
However, the fact is that the chemical industry is also very important to the West Virginia economy, and it is heavily entwined with the coal industry, which requires a substantial quantity of chemicals at various stages before it gets from the mine to its point of use.
Clearly, the spill — which affected 300,000 people and shut down restaurants, schools, hospitals and hundreds of other businesses and institutions — is closely related to the state’s dependency on the coal industry, despite protestations to the contrary.
That, in turn, undermines the coal industry’s insistent positioning of coal as a “clean” fuel. While new technology has reduced pollutants from burning coal, everything around the burn point is still status quo, from destructive mining to fly ash disposal.
With that scenario in mind, let’s take a look at how the disaster is playing out in the local paper, the Charleston Gazette (highly recommended: follow reporter Ken Ward, Jr. on Twitter, @Kenwardjr).
The West Virginia chemical spill and the Koch connection
The industrialist Koch brothers have become notorious for their holdings in coal and other fossil fuels, their aggressive promotion of global warming denial and their efforts to monkeywrench environmental progress.
What hasn’t garnered as much attention is their involvement in secondary industries on which the coal industry depends.
Charleston Gazette reporter David Gutman tracked down the Koch connection to the chemical spill in an article over the weekend titled “Freedom executive Kennedy had felonies.”
The full article is worth a read for the insights it provides about the top executives for Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the spill, but the relevant detail involves the source of the company’s chemicals.
The spill involved Crude MCHM, a foaming agent used to clean coal. According to Gutman, that’s not the only coal-related chemical stored at Freedom Industries. The company is also a distributor for a line of coal processing chemicals called Talon, which is a product of the Koch company Georgia-Pacific Chemicals LLC.
Update 1:30PST 1/23: In 2008, GP selected Freedom Industries to distribute its Talon line of coal processing products, but Talon was not one of the products involved in the spill.
Update 8:40PST 1/23: Georgia Pacific has contacted us and many members of the media to let us know that none of their products were stored by Freedom Industries.
Nine counties, one water company
Another interesting coal-related point that has surfaced thanks to the Charleston Gazette is the trend toward greater reliance on a centralized, privately-owned water company in areas that traditionally relied on individual wells.
Reporter Ken Ward, Jr. provides a statement from the organization Appalachian Voices for some insight on that:
An increasing number of private wells in southwestern and central West Virginia, where the spill occurred, have been contaminated by decades of coal mining and processing. One result has been an ongoing expansion of municipal water systems to rural communities that would otherwise rely on well water.
A missed opportunity
Another key item unearthed by Ward occurred back in 2010, when the federally-managed U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a set of urgent recommendations for state officials to improve the prevention of chemical accidents in the Kanawha Valley region, where Freedom Industries is located.
Here was the response, as reported by Ward:
…the proposal has gone nowhere. The state Department of Health and Human Resources hasn’t stepped in to provide the legal authority the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department needs to start such a program. And Kanawha County officials never funded the plan, and seldom mention that the CSB recommendation was even made.
In terms of national news, the spill is already winding down, to the extent that Jason Linkins of The Huffington Post could find not one mention of it on the important Sunday morning news shows, although Bao-Bao, the new panda cub at the Smithsonian National Zoo, merited a mention.
However, the next time you see the words “clean coal,” keep the West Virginia spill in mind.
Image (cropped): Georgia Pacific logo by dsearls