Fossil fuel production poisons water again — this time in West Virginia


I write about energy a lot, but not every often about coal. That’s not surprising — in recent years coal has been fading as an energy source here in the United States. That’s in large part because of the rapid growth of extraction of natural gas — a cleaner burning source of energy — and oil through the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Yet coal still remains a significant source of energy in this country, and the executives behind what could be called Big Coal display many of the same pathologies that we see in the oil-and-gas industry — cutting every possible corner from environmental protection to worker safety, and using money and political influence to thwart regulatory oversight.

Every so often, those chickens come hom to roost, but rarely as dramatically as what happened this week in West Virginia, where drinking water and public health are under assault

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As federal prosecutors opened an investigation on Friday into a chemical spill in West Virginia that had contaminated drinking water used by more than 200,000 residents, state officials said it remained unclear when tap water would be safe to use.

The spill that has affected Charleston and the nine surrounding counties was discovered around noon on Thursday at a storage facility owned by on the Elk River, where a 48,000-gallon tank began leaking 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or MCHM, a compound used to wash coal of impurities, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Booth Goodwin, the United States attorney for the southern part of West Virginia, said in a statement that his office and “other federal law enforcement authorities have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the release.”

“We will determine what caused it and take whatever action is appropriate based on the evidence we uncover,” Mr. Goodwin said.

The company that caused this highly dangerous spill is the prosaically named Freedom Industries. Indeed, this is the problem that we’ve seen time and time again with Big Energy in recent years — way too much “freedom” from government regulation and from environmental safety controls. An alarming post from the website Think Progress notes that there’s a lot more that officials don’t know — how the chemical spilled and how much actually escaped, for example, or even just how toxic the spill actually is — than what they do know. No one is even sure when it will be safe again to drink the water in West Virginia.

You’ve probably noticed that the pace of environmental catastrophes has increased across North America over the last five years or so, beginning right here in my backyard with the mother of all offshore oil spills, BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. But we’ve also seen major pipeline accidents like the one that spread toxins through Mayflower, Arkansas; crude-oil-by-rail mishaps like the one last summer in Quebec that killed an astounding 47 people; and the slow drip of degradation from the tar sands in Canada and from fracking in Pennsylvania.

That is not a coincidence — it comes hand-in-hand with a) the dramatic rise in domestic fossil fuel production and b) a business-backed movement to tie the hands of environmental regulators. Yesterday, it was oil. Today, it’s coal. Tomorrow, it will be something else…until America ends its dangerous addiction.

Here’s the latest on the chemical spill from the New York Times:

Read more about unanswered questions from the West Virginia oil spill at Think Progress:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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