By Will Bennington. January 24, 2014.
For anyone who is wondering, the water crisis in West Virginia is still just that: A crisis, and one that doesn’t seem to be getting much better as time passes.
I arrived in southern West Virginia two days ago. For the past two weeks, local organizers, working with the West Virginia Clean Water Hub (check them out on Facebook), have been delivering water to rural communities impacted by the Freedom Industries chemical spill. While the state has declared the crisis over, people on the ground know the water is still contaminated. Distribution to remote areas is difficult, and there is still a huge need for more water and more money. (Note: Please consider donating to the West Virginia Clean Water Hub here, through Keeper of the Mountains. All money will be used to purchase water and supplies for communities impacted by the spill).
Earlier this week, Freedom Industries admitted that there was another chemical, PPH, that spilled along with MCHM. While initial testing did not detect “harmful” levels of PPH, the West Virginia and federal governments are still considering the crisis over. However, given the all-too-late revelation of the second chemical, many affected people have little reason to trust what so-called authorities are telling them.
Yesterday, while out delivering water to a remote hollow in Boone County, almost every household we visited reported licorice-smelling water, rashes or burns from using the water to bathe or wash dishes. One resident, a coal miner, said he hasn’t drunk the water for twenty years, and that he certainly won’t ever drink it now.
Residents with young children are running out of money to purchase diapers and baby wipes. A middle-aged father, presumably a miner, told us that he had “broken down to wash dishes” but had to stop after his hands started burning “as if I had put them in a fire.” He said his wife tried taking a shower, but broke out in rashes soon after.
While the West Virginia state government began closing down emergency distribution centers earlier this week and the National Guard and Red Cross stopped delivering water aid, many residents are left wondering what happens next. Where will they get water? Who can answer their questions or tell them if their water is safe? Who is going to be held responsible, not only for the initial contamination, but for the lackluster state and federal response?
Volunteers with networks like the West Virginia Clean Water Hub seem to be the only people committed to finding solutions to this crisis. As state and federal agencies try to declare an end to the crisis, it is up to the grassroots to organize their communities to demand justice and ensure access to safe, clean drinking water.
This may well offer a prophetic glimpse into the future: The state, acting in the interest of the extractive and chemical industries, is unable to adequately respond to human rights crises like the one in West Virginia. As the state tries to declare “mission accomplished” as soon as possible, hoping to dodge the next news cycle or further scrutiny and pressure from the public, communities are left to fend for themselves. In West Virginia, where regulation of the coal, chemical, timber and gas industries is virtually nonexistent, people already have little reason to trust the state as guardian of the public’s well being. After this crisis, which is far from over, conditions seem ripe to completely change the system that puts toxic chemicals within reach of the drinking supply of 300,000 people.
People in West Virginia seem ready for a change. Grassroots organizers and environmental justice advocates are up to the challenge. But whatever the outcome, the situation here is still dire, and the hollows and hills of West Virginia need all the support they can get.
Will Bennington is a campaigner for the Global Justice Ecology Project.