Nel's New Day

January 11, 2014

WV Loss of Water Only the Tipping Point

“You can’t do nothing [without water]. You don’t miss it until it goes away.” What’s what 60-year-old Curtis Walls, resident of Charleston (WV), said after over 300,000 people in the state capital and nine surrounding counties were told not to use their water for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing clothes, brushing teeth, or any other personal use except flushing toilets. No restaurants, hotel reservations, nursing homes, day-care centers, schools, etc. are operating in the nearly deserted business areas although sales of bottled water are going gangbusters. No one knows how long the disaster will last.

Two days ago, complaints about a noxious odor led to inspectors to a chemical leak from a ruptured tank at Freedom Industries, a company that processes and stores 14 tanks of chemicals on the Elk River, about 2.5 miles upstream from its junction with the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. The chemical can reportedly can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea. The company’s president, Gary Southern, claims that the chemicals have low toxicity and “has no effect on aquatic life.”

The leaked chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, is used to separate ground-up coal from soil and rock particles. Left-over mixtures of chemicals and mud are stored in slurry ponds before being reused. The water-soluble chemical cannot be removed with surface booms used for capturing spilled oil.

Facts about the chemical spill:

  • Freedom Industries failed to report the leak; therefore no one knows when the leak started or how much of the chemical has been leaked. Or if it’s still leaking.
  • No one knows when people will be able to use their water. Contaminated water can’t be treated; the entire water system of 1,500 miles must be flushed and then certified clean of contaminants.  There’s also no standard process for testing the chemical’s toxicity.
  • The company providing residents with water assured its customers that they are in no danger but also told them not to use the water. The water company’s president, who claimed that the chemical is “not particularly lethal” also acknowledged, “This is not a chemical that we deal with every day. It’s not the type of thing we would see in dealing with a water treatment plant.” And the water company is not in communication with Freedom Industries who provided no notice of the spill.
  • Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said, “Nobody really knows how dangerous it could be.”
  • The Toxicology Data Network lists a large number of effects from the chemical but adds under “Clinical Effects” that “Data on toxic effects in humans are limited.” Again, “nobody really knows.”
  • No one knows how much of the chemical may have leached into the soil. After the failure of the containment in the chemical holding tank, the chemical traveled across land to reach the Elk River.

West Virginia vigorously protects its coal mining industry, especially because jobs pay as well as $80,000 a year, but these positions have fallen from 130,000 to around 14,000 workers after mechanization and strip-mining when the companies simply blasted off the tops of mountains.

Freedom Industries has existed in its current form for less than two weeks because of its merger with three other companies on the last day of 2013. It was originally formed in 1992, but an “incorporator” listed with the state, Carl L. Kennedy II, has not been with Freedom for years. The website lists Dennis P. Farrel as president, but his name is not on any papers filed with West Virginia’s Secretary of State. Farrel’s name appeared on the Facebook page of his girlfriend, Kathy Stover-Kennedy, who asked for “a little empathy” for Farrel.  

Spokesman Tom Aluise for the WV DEP claimed that Freedom doesn’t have to have inspections because it is only a “storage facility” and that “there is nothing processed there.” Yet the website describes Freedom as “a full service producer of specialty chemicals” that “can process large volumes of chemical rapidly.”

This pollution of the nation’s water is only a small example of what is happening to the water across the nation. An examination of 386 coal-fired power plants in the United States shows that coal plants are the largest source of toxic water pollution in the country. The report, “Closing the Floodgates: How the Coal Industry Is Poisoning Our Water and How We Can Stop It” reveals that nearly 70 percent of the 274 coal plants discharging coal ash and scrubber wastewater into waterways have no limits on the toxic chemicals dumped directly into rivers, lakes, streams, and bays.

Almost half the 187 coal plants surveyed are operating with an expired Clean Water Act permit. Even if the plants were to show that they conform to standards, these were established in 1982 and do not cover most of the worst pollutants. The proposed EPA coal plant water pollution standards have been changed because of industries pressured the agency into weakening these standards.

The EPA estimates that almost 140,000 people annual risk increased cancer because of arsenic in fish, almost 13,000 children under seven have reduced IQs because of lead in the fish that they eat, and another 2,000 children are born with lower IQs because of the mercury in fish that their mothers eat. The nation has taken lead out of paint and gasoline but leaves toxins in water because the coal industry demands weak standards.

In the United States, corporations are also polluting and using up water through fracking, an industrial process in which oil and gas companies inject massive amounts of water, laced with toxic chemicals and sand, into subterranean shale. The hydraulic pressure cracks open fissures in rocks and releases natural gas. One hydrofracked well requires three to eight million gallons of water per day. Although corporations deny any leakage, there is a growing realization that wells are leaking gas into the water supply and the air at an alarmingly high rate.

In addition to polluting the land, water, and air with toxic chemicals in 17 states—thus far—fracking is also endangering the population with radioactive elements released through the process. A Duke University research team found radium-226 – a naturally occurring radioactive material found in rock – appeared in concentrations unsafe for human exposure in fracking wastewater. Although treated, there were discharges “roughly 200 times higher than background levels” as well as heavy metals such as barium and strontium and salts. Bromide was measured at ten times greater than normal.

Mixed with water and fracking fluid in the fracturing process, these hazardous substances form a brine requiring treatment or reinjected into a deep disposal well. The geology in Pennsylvania stops the use of the latter solution; thus treated wastewater is released into local waterways. Deep-well disposal has been connected to human-made earthquakes, and wastewater and drilling ponds break or flood, contaminating land and water. Pennsylvania is trying to send its wastewater out of state, but at this time only Ohio will take it for disposal.

The following map shows natural gas reserves in red and rivers in blue. Although not all these areas are currently being fracked, they may be if corporations persuade the president and Secretary of State to allow unlimited fracking.

MapUS fracking

Fracking not only pollutes water but also takes it out of the water supply. A new report “Water Resource Reporting and Water Footprint from Marcellus Shale Development in West Virginia and Pennsylvania” shows that over 90 percent of the water injected underground to frack gas wells is permanently removed from the water cycle.

Nearly one in 10 watersheds in the United States is “stressed,” meaning that they have a higher demand for water than natural supply. Most of these watersheds are in the southwestern United States because of fewer surface water resources.

Stresses on water levels include agriculture, electric power plants, and cities. Climate change will both increase water demands and decrease water supplies, again particularly in the U.S. West. This map shows the stressed watersheds with red showing the greatest level of stress.

stressed watershedIn the past, the Colorado River system provided seven states in the West with water for almost 40 million people. The gap between need and supply in the next 45 years, however, will be five times the amount of water that Los Angeles uses in a year. Some people estimate that 20 percent of the Colorado River could dry up in 35 years.

Approximately 1.2 billion people, almost 20 percent of the world—live in areas of water scarcity, and another 1.6 billion face economic water shortage. As people move from starch-based diets to meat and dairy, the situation will only worsen. The equivalent weight of beef to rice requires over four times as much water. The United States uses half of its water for animal agriculture.

water_scarcity_figure_1Corporations take the position that water is not a human right, that it is a food stuff to be sold at market value.  At this time, water scarcity is not a problem for most of the people in the United States, but that will soon change.


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