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Coal Industry Blamed for West Virginia Chemical Spill

  • Brian Padden

There are new calls for increased oversight of the powerful chemical and coal industries in West Virginia following a major chemical spill that cut off water to more than 300,000 people. The state's governor has promised to investigate the accident, but environmentalists say the state has been reluctant to regulate and enforce pollution controls on these industries, which are so crucial to the region's economy.

As residents line up for bottled water, many like Chase Tavaraz want to know why there was no state oversight of the chemical company that contaminated the local drinking water.

“As far as what I understand, if it would have been inspected - I guess 23, 26 years it hasn’t been inspected. So if it had been certified every year like they are supposed to do, they would have avoided this whole situation,” he said.

Nearly a week after a storage tank at a Freedom Industries site leaked chemicals into the Elk river, clean tap water is slowly being restored to affected areas.

The chemical, which is used to process coal, leaked near the biggest water treatment plant in the state.

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has promised a full investigation into the accident.

Environmentalists have been critical of the state’s handling of smaller scale incidents in the past, including a 2008 explosion at a chemical plant that killed two workers.

“There was a report by the chemical safety board [on] recommendations that the state government should take in order to protect the citizens from this type of accident again, and none of those recommendations have been passed,” said Bill Price, an activist with the Sierra Club.

This region has a large concentration of chemical companies. Many are connected to the coal industry, which dominates West Virginia's economy.

Governor Tomblin said the recent chemical spill is not the fault of the coal industry.

“This was not a coal company. This was a chemical supplier where the leak occurred. As far as I know, there are no coal mines within miles of this particular incident,” the governor said during a news conference.

But Price and other environmentalists say pollution from coal mining has contaminated many local water sources, forcing rural communities to rely on water piped in from Charleston, the state capital.

“When the governor, for instance, says that this is not a coal issue, that’s not true," he said. "This is very much related to the ongoing pollution of the coal industry in southern West Virginia counties that has created the condition that has allowed this spill to affect so many people.”

Neither the company involved in the chemical spill nor the West Virginia Coal Association have made any public comments about the accident. But Price said the lack of regulation and enforcement in the state is very much connected to the political power of coal in West Virginia.