Grassroots Organizations Mobilize to Meet Community Water Needs Following WV Chemical Spill
Last month, an estimated 10,000 gallons of the coal-processing chemical MCHM, along with an unknown amount of a second substance called PPH, spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River—just upstream from a municipal water intake that serves nine counties. Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the spill, neglected to report it, despite some residents claiming to have smelled the chemicals as far back as December. After repeated complaints of a strong licorice-like smell, state inspectors literally followed their noses to the source. It wasn’t until many hours later that the water company and government agencies finally warned residents to avoid any contact with water—aside from flushing toilets and putting out fires.
In the seven weeks since the disaster that has left 300,000 people unsure about the safety of their water, confusion and anger have mounted, and an estimated 400 people have been sent to the hospital. While government and industry have been slow to respond to the needs of the people, some remarkable community organizing has taken place, drawing on West Virginia’s long, proud history of grassroots work for environmental and economic justice—including powerful work against the abuses of the chemical and coal industries responsible for the spill.
Only a few hours after news of the spill began trickling out, a grassroots group called WV Clean Water Hub had already begun organizing water deliveries through its Facebook page. That quickly turned into a massive community-organized effort supported by new volunteers, as well as long-established grassroots groups in West Virginia—including Aurora Lights, Coal River Mountain Watch, Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and RAMPS. By working to identify communities in need of clean water and supplies, as well as connecting affected communities with volunteers and donors, this wiki-style relief effort has filled the gap left by larger relief organizations.
“There is so much bureaucracy [at the larger relief organizations] that communities fall through the cracks,” said Nate May, a volunteer organizer with WV Clean Water Hub. “We’re hearing directly from the people who need the water. Someone will post on the Facebook page that they need water and we’ll make a meme out of it. Then someone else will post when they can deliver some.”
In many communities, the water was officially declared safe for all but pregnant women within a week of the spill, but residents are still experiencing adverse reactions to touching or smelling the water coming from their taps. Some government officials recommend against exposure, while others just say to be cautious.
“The stories that get me the most are the stories of mothers with children who are sick and asking why the state is not considering it an emergency,” said Jen Osha-Buysse, a volunteer organizer with Aurora Lights. “I have spoken with many families who haven’t been able to work in the weeks since the chemical spill. They can’t just not buy water, but they also can’t afford to buy food or pay heating bills in the freezing weather.”
The WV Clean Water Hub has been led largely by environmental groups, which can be a source of tension in communities that have been split by the “jobs vs. environment” myth perpetuated by the coal industry. However, the crisis has inspired many to ignore politics. For instance, landscaping companies have donated the use of their trucks, while schools, Girls Scouts, local unions, doctors’ offices and others have collected donations of water and baby supplies.
“We don’t want to polarize or politicize it,” May explained. “The concern is if we make it about our issue, then it feels like missionary work or like we’re trying to buy people, but clean water is an unconditional right.”
While some volunteers have encountered a few sharp questions from self-identified “coal-huggers,” the reception has largely been warm.
“Giving out water has been a way to connect on a personal level and share that we both are fed up by the government and no longer trust the people in charge,” May said.
Beyond the massive effort to deliver clean water, there has been an unprecedented surge of interest in organizing for long-term solutions.
“Shortly after the spill, we started a weekly roundtable of progressive groups in Charleston,” said Cathy Kunkel, an independent policy consultant on West Virginia energy issues and the founder/co-editor of OurWaterWV.org. “At first our focus was just on sharing information because there was so much misinformation. Now we are looking at what a longer-standing coalition with long-term political goals might look like.”
One outcome of these new partnerships was a protest hosted by the NAACP and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, where hundreds of consumers reverse-billed the water company that serves the nine counties affected by the spill. While the West Virginia American Water Company might be seen as an unwitting victim of the spill, the international for-profit company’s blundering response has included sending tankers full of the polluted water into communities instead of usable relief water and providing only a $10 credit to customers and businesses. The action to recoup the costs of having to drive miles to collect drinking water, do laundry and take showers is just one of many examples of groups from different, often isolated areas of work coming together on this issue.
In addition to the coordination of long-standing groups, there has also been an overwhelming amount of spontaneous community organizing, including the formation of a rainwater catchment organization, a moms for clean water group, various organizations of concerned small businesses, and even a fashion show to raise money for water deliveries. These diverse responses reflect the diversity of the communities that have been impacted. While the coal and chemical industry have caused toxic water in isolated rural areas for decades, this time, reporters covering the story, public health experts, and even Public Service Commission employees in charge of water regulation are all personally dealing with blue-tinted water that smells distinctly like licorice.
“Unless you work for a coal industry attorney, this spill has hurt your business and your lifestyle,” Kunkel said. “We’re trying to maintain a calendar at OurWaterWV.org, and it’s been a challenge. The day of the water company protest, there was another protest at the school board because several schools were opened just to be closed again after students and employees got sick from the water. It’s powerful to see so much organizing.”
According to Kunkel and others organizing in the area, the work has begun to focus on long-term goals over the last seven weeks, even as many organizers are exhausted with the toll of working at an emergency pace for weeks on end. Groups have outlined clear steps for politicians to take towards enforcement of the chemical and coal industry as well as beginning a campaign to engage the Public Service Commission, which regulates West Virginia American Water, to ensure that residents’ health is put before water company profits.
“The relationships we developed through distributing water are an entry into working for longer term organizing in the communities,” May said.“We’re not saying, ‘I told you so.’ We’re asking, ‘What are the problems you’re facing besides the water? What happens when we draw lines between these problems?’”
Both experienced and new activists realize this is an important moment for West Virginia, and they are working to create long lasting momentum for change at the structural level.
“I’ve been thinking about pronoia—the opposite of paranoia—the belief that the world is in a conspiracy for your well being,” May explained. “We assume that when we turn on the tap, someone is making sure the water is clean. Maybe this magical naive thinking is kind of necessary for a civil society, but we can’t assume that the world is out to help us when that is not in the self interest of the people in charge.”
Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.
1. Fragrance – Avoid It<p>One of the fastest ways to narrow down your product options is immediately eliminating any product that promotes a fragrance, or parfum. That scent of "fresh breeze" or lemon might initially smell good, but the fragrance does not last. What does last? The concoction of various undisclosed and unregulated chemicals that created that fragrance.</p><p>Many fragrances contain phthalates, which are linked to many health risks including reproductive problems and cancer.</p>
2. With Bleach? Do Without<p>Going scent-free should have narrowed down your options substantially – now, check the front of the remaining packaging. Any that include ammonia or chlorine bleach ought to go, as these substances are irritating and corrosive to your body. While bleach is commonly known as a powerful disinfectant, there are safer alternatives that you can use in your home, such as sodium borate or hydrogen peroxide.</p><p>While you're at it, check if there are any warnings on the label – "flammable," "use in ventilated area," etc. – if the product is hazardous, that's a red flag and should be avoided.</p>
3. Check the Back Label<p>Flip to the back of the remaining contenders and check out that ingredient list. Less is more, here. Opt for a shorter ingredient list with words you recognize and/or can pronounce.</p><p>You may notice many products do not have ingredient lists – while this doesn't necessarily mean they contain toxic ingredients, transparency is key. Feel free to look up a list online, or stick to products that are open about their ingredients.</p>
4. Ingredients to Avoid<p>We already mentioned that cleaners containing fragrance or parfum, and bleach or ammonia should be avoided, but there are other ingredients to look out for as well.</p><ul><li>Quaternary ammonium "quats" – lung irritants that contribute to asthma and other breathing problems. Also linger on surfaces long after they've been cleaned.</li><li>Parabens – Known hormone disruptor; can contribute to ailments such as cancer</li><li>Triclosan – triclosan and other antibacterial chemicals are registered with the EPA as pesticides. Triclosan is a known hormone disruptor and can also impact your immune system.</li><li>Formaldehyde – Causes irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; studies suggest formaldehyde exposure is linked with certain varieties of cancer. Can be found in products or become a byproduct of chemical reactions in the air.</li></ul>
Cleaning Products and Toxics: The Bottom Line<p>Do your research. There are many cleaning products available, but taking these steps will drastically reduce your options and help keep your home toxic-free. Protecting your home from bacteria and viruses is important, but make sure you do so in a way that doesn't introduce other health risks into the home.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.ehn.org/how-to-shop-for-cleaning-products-while-avoiding-toxics-2648130273.html" target="_blank">Environmental Health News</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649054624#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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Twenty-five years ago, a food called Tofurky made its debut on grocery store shelves. Since then, the tofu-based roast has become a beloved part of many vegetarians' holiday feasts.
By Jessica Corbett
A leading environmental advocacy group marked Native American Heritage Month on Wednesday by urging President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Kamala Harris, and the entire incoming administration "to honor Indigenous sovereignty and immediately halt the Keystone XL, Dakota Access, and Line 3 pipelines."
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Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
By Jake Johnson
Amid reports that oil industry-friendly former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz remains under consideration to return to his old post in the incoming Biden administration, a diverse coalition of environmental groups is mobilizing for an "all-out push" to keep Moniz away from the White House and demand a cabinet willing to boldly confront the corporations responsible for the climate emergency.