Note: Global Justice Ecology Project campaigner Will Bennington spent an all-too-short amount of time doing water relief work in West Virginia last week. The West Virginia Clean Water Hub is doing amazing work, distributing water to communities in need and holding those responsible for the water crisis accountable. Please consider making a donation (be sure to note that it is for water distribution), sending supplies, or volunteering in person. Check them out here: West Virginia Clean Water Hub
-The GJEP Team
By Will Bennington, January 31, 2014.
It’s been almost a week since I returned from doing water relief work in West Virginia, and the news keeps getting worse: Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen at high enough concentrations, might be in the water. The amount of MCHM and PPH, the toxic chemicals that leaked into the Elk River on January 9, poisoning the water of 300,000 people in nine counties, has been increased to 10,000 gallons. Most people I spoke with are still reporting water that has a characteristic licorice smell, indicating traces of MCHM which causes chemical burns in the throat and on the skin, vomiting and eye irritation.
State health officials continue to maintain the water is safe, and appear ready to attack anyone who disagrees. But, it might not matter much what the state has to say at this point. The one thing that everyone I met in West Virginia had in common, aside from lacking clean water, was a deep mistrust of West Virginia governor Ray Tomblin, state and federal agencies, and the safety of their water supply.
Our second day of water distribution began at a local Walmart, where we haggled for lower prices on a pallet of water. No luck there, unsurprisingly. For perspective, it costs about $120 to fill up a small pickup truck with water, if you follow the truck’s weight limit guidelines (which we didn’t).
We headed out to Paint Creek, a rural community about a hour south of Charleston. Temperatures were hovering just above zero, and residents were still in need.
Later in the day, we went to North Charleston to do a drop at the local rec center. This lower-income community hadn’t received much water relief at all since the spill happened. Local community members, however, had risen to the challenge and organized two drops for that day. It didn’t take more than an hour once word got out to unload over 200 gallons of water into cars.
Residents in North Charleston, living in the shadows of the gold-domed state capital building, are experiencing what residents in remote hollows are reporting: licorice-smelling water, burns, eye-irritation. Add that to chronic unemployment and a lack of adequate healthcare, and you begin to realize the desperate situation many are facing. One woman reported having chemical burns that she couldn’t have checked out due to lack of insurance. She hopes the rash will eventually go away on its own.
Crisis situations like this often bring out the best in people and the worst in corporations and politicians. The community members I met organizing water drops – all women, by the way – are natural organizers. They see crisis in their communities, and they know how to respond to it. While the state government flounders in its response, and West Virginia American Water keeps figuring out if it is trying to respond or cover up, communities are looking inward for relief, and for solutions.
In the long term, the situation is more than dire. Immediate relief is still the main priority for many. 300,000 people face a future of living with the unknown consequences of exposure to these chemicals, in a state where the establishment cares more about hiding its inadequacy than ensuring the well-being of its people. Where to go next seems unclear, but one thing seems certain: If left to their own devices, communities can organize around a crisis, and hopefully come out on the other side stronger, more resilient and less reliant on the destructive industries that create crisis in the first place.