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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Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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