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.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Mangroves play a vital role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Mangrove forests are tremendous assets in the fight to stem the climate crisis. They store more carbon than a rainforest of the same size.
- Protecting Mangroves Can Prevent Billions of Dollars in Global ... ›
- Could the 'Mangrove Effect' Save Coasts From Sea Level Rise ... ›
Monday is World Oceans Day, but how can you celebrate our blue planet while social distancing?
- 5 Things to Know About Earth's Warming Oceans - EcoWatch ›
- Bioluminescent Waves Mesmerize California Beachgoers, Surfers ... ›
- NOAA: 2020 Could Be Warmest Year on Record - EcoWatch ›
- On June 8, We Celebrate Our Oceans, Our Future - EcoWatch ›
- 5 Things to Know About the State of Our Oceans for World Oceans Day ›
By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
This Saturday, June 6, marks National Trails Day, an annual celebration of the remarkable recreational, scenic and hiking trails that crisscross parks nationwide. The event, which started in 1993, honors the National Trail System and calls for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in parks across the country.
- As Protests Rage, Climate Activists Embrace Racial Justice ... ›
- First-Ever Black Birders Week Tackles Racism Outdoors - EcoWatch ›
- 15 EcoWatch Stories on Environmental and Racial Injustice ... ›
- Take a Hike Day Is Around the Bend. What's Your Dream Hike ... ›
By John Letzing
This past Wednesday, when some previously hard-hit countries were able to register daily COVID-19 infections in the single digits, the Navajo Nation – a 71,000 square-kilometer (27,000-square-mile) expanse of the western US – reported 54 new cases of what's referred to locally as "Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19."
The Navajo Nation covers the corners of three different states. Google Maps
Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
World Economic Forum
- Black and Hispanic Americans Suffer Disproportionate Coronavirus ... ›
- Native American Tribes' Pandemic Response Is Hindered by ... ›
- Navajo Nation Has Highest Covid-19 Infection Rate in the U.S. ... ›
World Environment Day: A Time to Consider the Planet We’ll Return To, and Decide How to Care for It Going Forward
It's a different kind of World Environment Day this year. In prior years, it might have been enough to plant a tree, spend some extra time in the garden, or teach kids the importance of recycling. This year we have heavier tasks at hand. It's been months since we've been able to spend sufficient time outside, and as we lustfully watch the beauty of a new spring through our kitchen's glass windows, we have to decide how we'll interact with the natural world on our release, and how we can prevent, or be equipped to handle, future threats against our wellbeing.
Scuba divers around the world are holding their metaphorical breath to see if a coronavirus infection affects the ability to dive.
DAN medical experts explained the difference between normal lungs, on the left, and "very serious lungs caused by COVID-19," on the right. Matias Nochetto / Divers Alert Network (DAN)
- How the COVID-19 Coronavirus Attacks the Entire Body - EcoWatch ›
- What Does 'Recovered From Coronavirus' Mean? - EcoWatch ›
- Scuba Divers Make Face Masks out of Recycled Ocean Plastic ... ›