Dangers of Water Privatization Emerge In the Wake of West Virginia's Chemical Spill
By Matt Wasson
It took a few days after a state of emergency was declared across nine West Virginia counties—and one-sixth of the state’s population was told not to drink or bathe using their tap water—for the national news media to discover a story of national importance occurring in the political backwaters of Appalachia.
But most haven’t yet picked up on what may be the most interesting and important detail: why so many people in this water-rich state depend on a single, privately-owned treatment system and distribution network that sprawls across nine counties for their supply of drinking water.
In many communities, the tale of coal industry activities polluting people’s drinking water supply is anything but new. Places like Prenter in Boone County have seen a lot worse.
The topic of waste from coal preparation plants polluting well water in Prenter was the centerpiece of a blockbuster piece published by The New York Times in 2009 that described the systemic failures of states like West Virginia to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.
Here’s the lead from that story:
Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.
In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater—polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals—caused painful rashes.
Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.
Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.
The 2009 New York Times article described how coal slurry had contaminated communities’ well water, leading to painful rashes, dental decay and, eventually, an expanded customer base for private water companies.
Reporter Charles Duhigg goes on to say that residents and scientists believe the pollution got into their water from injections of coal slurry—the waste byproduct of washing coal —into abandoned mine shafts, where it could flow through cracks in the earth into groundwater and, ultimately, the wells of local residents. According to the Times, coal companies had injected nearly two billion gallons of coal slurry into the ground within an eight-mile radius of Prenter between 2004 and 2009. For context, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled only one-tenth that much oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The article also describes the roots of the latest crisis in West Virginia in appalling detail: how even well-intentioned and ambitious state regulators proved no match for the politically sophisticated and powerful coal industry, how local politicians punish regulators who do their job effectively, and how the coal industry has perfected the art of dodging accountability for the damage it causes. But picking up where the Times left off, the story of how Prenter finally got drinking water restored provides even more useful insight into the roots of last week’s water crisis.
In late 2009, the state gave final approval for a public-private partnership between Boone County and West Virginia American Water Company (WVAWC)—the utility that owns the treatment facility and water distribution network shut down since last Thursday—for a multi-million dollar project to run water lines out to Prenter and nearby communities. The project was mostly paid for by a federal Housing and Urban Development grant, with Boone County and West Virginia American Water Company making up the difference. Not a penny was paid by the coal companies that polluted the water in the first place.
The paper trail of the state’s Public Service Commission filings that document the dramatic expansion of WVAWC’s water network over the past two decades (see map below) reveals similar stories happening again and again, as the company gobbled up one municipal utility after another, as well as individual homes whose wells were polluted by coal mining activities.
In one example, in 2004 the state gave approval for WVAWC to develop the Sharples Water Line Extension project in Logan County, which, according to Public Service Commission documents, was necessary because a coal company’s mining plans were likely to destroy wells that had provided a reliable supply of clean drinking water to nearby residents for generations. According to the documents:
Arch Coal’s proposed Mountain Laurel Mine will use longwall mining techniques. This will potentially de-water the aquifer that is the source for the Logan County [Public Service Department’s] Sharples system. Private wells in the community of Mifflin could potentially be compromised by longwall mining practices from the Mountain Laurel Mine.
The cost of the project, which was ultimately approved, was shared between Arch Coal, WVAWC and a Community Development Block Grant. While the documents sought to justify the expense on the grounds that the extension would “eliminate the use of local groundwater and provide a more than adequate supply of drinking water that will sustain the expected growth in the project area,” nobody seriously believed there would be any “expected growth” near a massive mining complex in Logan County, where the population has been declining for decades.
The real motivation for the project is found further down in the engineering report, which details the expected economic development benefits:
The extension Project will help satisfy mine permitting requirements for Arch Coal’s proposed Mountain Laurel mine.
Similar evidence of how public money has been used to directly benefit the coal industry—while simultaneously expanding the customer base of a private, multinational water company—runs throughout West Virginia Public Service Commision documents. In many cases, public funds were not used quite so directly to subsidize coal companies, but rather to restore water service to homes where wells or community water systems dried up or were destroyed by coal industry activities.
Unsurprising to anyone familiar with West Virginia politics, Gov. Tomblin (D-WV) was quick to absolve the coal industry of culpability for the current disaster, blaming it on the chemical industry—and a particularly bad actor at that. But any attempt to decouple the coal industry from this disaster fails the laugh test, given that the spilled chemical was not only used by mining companies to wash coal, but that it had already been oozing into West Virginians’ water supply long before last Thursday through underground injections of coal slurry near communities such as Prenter. What’s more, as the Times and other observers make clear, the lackadaisical attitude of state regulators toward inspections is itself a result of the coal industry’s longstanding and overwhelming influence over state government at all levels.
But would a better system of permitting and inspecting chemical facilities have prevented this disaster from occurring? Would it prevent a different type of accident, say if an out-of-control barge or tractor-trailer runs into a chemical storage tank? What about intentional sabotage or, God forbid, a terrorist attack?
The fact that 16 percent of the state’s population depends on WVAWC’s Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Facility for drinking water is a central factor in the scale of the disaster and, as the Public Service Commision paper trail demonstrates, the coal industry has a lot of culpability in that situation as well. But still other factors have led to the expansion and consolidation of WVAWC’s service territory, which is why the moral of this story applies beyond coal country.
The West Virginia chemical spill is a cautionary tale for communities all over the country where multinational companies are coming in and buying up municipal water utilities to manage people’s drinking water supply for profit. And factors beyond groundwater pollution by the coal industry are driving those trends, such as systemic under-investment in public water systems by federal, state and local governments and the rapaciousness with which private companies, aided by political favoritism and lobbying, are pursuing expansion of their influence, customer base and profit margins.
But there are also immediate things people can do to help West Virginians and people across Appalachia reduce the risk of this type of accident from happening again. There is currently an effort afoot by West Virginians to protect their homes and water supply by taking away the authority of the corrupt and ineffective West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to oversee coal mine permitting in the state and instead turning the program over to federal authorities. You can support that effort here.
There is also a coalition of groups across Appalachia working to ensure the Obama Administration fulfills its much-delayed promise to replace a Bush-era rule that weakened regulations on mining near streams. You can support this and other efforts by Appalachian groups to end mountaintop removal by iLoveMountains.org.
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Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
<div id="dadb2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa2ad8cb566c9b4b6d2df2693669f6f9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1357796504740761602" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Cute baby alert! Wisdom's chick has hatched!!! 🐣😍 Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan albatross) and world’s oldest known, ban… https://t.co/Nco050ztBA</div> — USFWS Pacific Region (@USFWS Pacific Region)<a href="https://twitter.com/USFWSPacific/statuses/1357796504740761602">1612558888.0</a></blockquote></div>
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Winter is supposed to be the best season for wind power – the winds are stronger, and since air density increases as the temperature drops, more force is pushing on the blades. But winter also comes with a problem: freezing weather.
Comparing rime ice and glaze ice shows how each changes the texture of the blade. Gao, Liu and Hu, 2021, CC BY-ND
Ice buildup changes air flow around the turbine blade, which can slow it down. The top photos show ice forming after 10 minutes at different temperatures in the Wind Research Tunnel. The lower measurements show airflow separation as ice accumulates. Icing Research Tunnel of Iowa State University, CC BY-ND
While traditional investment in the ocean technology sector has been tentative, growth in Israeli maritime innovations has been exponential in the last few years, and environmental concern has come to the forefront.
theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
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