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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.

Filings by the West Virginia Public Service Commission reveal the dramatic expansion of West Virginia American Water Company’s water network over the past 20 years, and why one-sixth of the people in this water-rich state were left without safe water for nearly a week. Photo credit: Foo Conner / Flickr

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.

Freedom Industries site adjacent to the Elk River, upstream of Charleston, WV. Image from Google Maps

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.

There is much more that can be said about the risks and drivers of water privatization, and people should read the many excellent reports published by Food and Water Watch on the subject.

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.

Visit EcoWatch’s WATER  and COAL pages for more related news on this topic.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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