The war on water


“Industry does everything they can and gets away with it almost all the time, whether it’s the coal industry, not the subject of this hearing, or water or whatever. They will cut corners, and they will get away with it.”

West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

Water is our most precious natural resource — I don’t know anybody who would dispute that. But it’s appalling the degree to which Americans have allowed corporations to take the water that we need to drink, to bathe, to nurture our crops and treat it like it’s their own private sewage system. In California, the whole world is watching as our most populous state reels from a crippling drought, once again proving that water isn’t just an asset but our lifeblood.

And yet America’s water is under assault from industry and its mad rush to burn more fossil fuels. You’re already well aware of the situation in West Virginia, where the ironically-named Freedom Industries haphazardly stored toxic coal-cleaning chemicals near the drinking water source for 300,000 people and then ignored a leak that lasted for days, causing many nearby residents to become ill.

And now we have this:

The Waterkeeper Alliance says it found arsenic and other heavy metals at up to 30 times the Dan River’s normal levels in samples taken Tuesday near the coal ash spill from Duke Energy’s closed Dan River Steam Station.

Donna Lisenby, the alliance’s Global Coal Campaign coordinator, says she took samples near the river bank at the location of the pipe that broke Sunday and sent up to 82,000 tons of ash into the river. At that point, the ash still formed a plume that hugged the bank, she says.

She took more samples two miles farther down stream, where the ash had dispersed and turned the river gray. She also took samples up river of the spill to establish the normal levels of pollutants in the river.

The samples were tested by a certified water quality laboratory, and the results came back Thursday.

“Compared to the levels found in a ‘background’ water sample taken upstream of the spill, arsenic levels immediately downstream of the spill are nearly 30 times higher, chromium levels are more than 27 times higher, and lead levels are more than 13 times higher because of Duke Energy’s coal ash waste,” the alliance said in a release issued Thursday.

This new spill happened upstream from the drinking water sources for at least two Virginia communities. It’s also powerful proof of what is becoming increasingly clear: that American industry has a shocking and profound disregard for our water resources. And the problem isn’t just confined to pollution. This week, there was also alarming news about the copious amounts of water that are needed to keep the fracking industry going, and how that massive water use is exacerbating the drought crisis.

The USA’s domestic energy boom is increasing demands on water supplies already under pressure from drought and growing populations, a new report says.

The water-intensive process used to extract oil and gas from shale underground — known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking — has required almost 100 billion gallons of water to drill more than 39,000 oil and shale gas wells in the U.S. since 2011, says Ceres, a green investment group.

More than half of those wells — 55% — were in drought-stricken areas, and nearly half were in regions under high or extremely high water stress, such as Texas, the report says.

To be in extremely high water stress means more than 80% of the area’s available surface and ground water is already allocated for city, agriculture or industrial use. High stress means 40% to 80% of the water is already allocated, Ceres says. Shale development is also occurring rapidly in areas where groundwater is already being depleted by other uses, including agriculture and residential development.

How bad have things become? It’s gotten so bad that Sen. Rockefeller — a scion of the family that started the world’s addiction to fossil fuels — is now saying what many of us have seen for years, which is that corporations have been running amuck in this country for several decades, with little or no regulation, or accountability. For me, I launched this blog after seeing what a reckless oil giant, BP, was capability of doing to the Gulf of Mexico, the body of water that had once made my home state of Louisiana into what they have called a Sportsmen’s Paradise. Today, clean water is under attack from all quarters. It’s time for citizens to fight back. 

Read Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s rant about lax environmental regulations at:

Find out more about the massive coal fly-ash pollution of the Dan River at:

Find out more about fracking and drought at:

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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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