Wouldn't It Be Lovely: The West Virginia Chemical Spill

Photo by poet Crystal Good  who posted it to twitter with the comment, "I live in Charleston, WV. We have been w/out WATER for 6 days. The ban has lifted -- but would YOU drink this"  Others had earlier described their water as "gelled up" or "the consistency of motor oil.


I live in the New River Valley in Virginia less than 35 miles via the highway--less as the crow flies-- from the West Virginia line.  I've been following the story of  Freedom Industries since January 9 when  it leaked 5000 or more gallons of the coal washing chemical 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM)  into the Elk River just a mile-and-a-half upstream from the water intake of the Charleston, WV treatment plant.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

On January 12, Associated Press reporters Mitch Weiss and Brendan Farrington quoted one man as saying,  "You won't find many people in these parts who are against these industries."  That contradicts their own account from earlier the same day when they wrote that coal miner Chris Laws of Mamet was angry at Freedom Industries.  It contradicts what I've heard from many native West Virginians among the more than 300,000 customers who dealt first without running water and then  with doubts about whether officials have been telling them the truth when they say the water is safe: the tell-tale odor of licorice persists despite flushing out their pipes according to instructions.

And it certainly contradicts  Eric Waggoner's eloquent essay "Elemental" which he published on on his blog January 12 (h/t Wendy Johnston.) In "Elemental,"  Waggoner curses the "greedhead" operators, the "screwjob" elected officials, everyone "with a superior attitude"  who "ever asked me how I could stand to live in a place like" West Virginia.  And, yes, Waggoner curses his fellow West Virginians who "mistook suffering for honor."  According to this January 16 CNN interview with Brooke Baldwin, he includes himself in this last number.

Today's spur to my own outrage came from Jack Wright who sent  an op-ed from Froma Harrop. It's bad enough when the coal industry and its allies treat Appalachians as disposable. It adds insult to injury when an "award-winning" "liberal" NYC columnist  gets paid by Creators syndicate to  posit West Virginia as a "cult" and NationofChange reprints her op-ed.  After all, that site claims to be "progressive journalism for positive action."

"Birds don't dirty their own nests." "Munchkins." "Self-pity."  "Mass-suckerdom."

Yes, Harrop wrote all  that, which makes me wonder if she or the editors of NationofChange have ever been to Appalachia or even have any friends here. And even if the answer is no, I'd still have thought that liberals and progressives would, by definition, deplore such bigotry.

Harrop twists Waggoner's criticism of his fellow West Virginians to support for her cult theory.  She fails to link to his post either on his blog or at HuffPost, which reprinted it.  She demotes Dr. Waggoner from Associate Professor (one step below full Professor) to the lowest non-tenured rank of instructor.  That may be how he's identified by HuffPost, but what happened to fact checking?  Reading Harrop's piece made me think back to a song Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe penned for  the 1956 Broadway play My Fair Lady

In "Wouldn't It be Loverly" flower girl Eliza Doolittle sings about it her modest desires.  Here are mine:  
  • Wouldn't it be lovely if Harrop used her national platform to document how Waggoner is hardly the only West Virginian with his point of view.  
  • Wouldn't it be lovely if NationofChange truly supported positive action, rather than reprinting Harrop and several other pieces that decry how "profits trump people" while providing no prescription for change or even helping with the current crisis. 
  • Wouldn't it be lovely if  folks wrote Harrop (fharrop@gmail.com) and/or express their opinions on twitter: @FromaHarrop @creatorsonline @NSNCgroup @NationofChange.  

Harrop claims that the general response has been to "yell at the media and outsiders and the media" for covering the spill.  While I don't concur, I can see why someone would want to yell at her.  Lord knows, I'm tempted.  Instead, I'll quote, with his permission, the more eloquent reaction of  Appalachian Studies scholar Herbert Reid of Lexington, KY.

I don't think we want to fall into the insider/outsider frame that Froma Harrop employs in her op ed.  In writing about what is still happening in West Virginia, she either forgets or sets aside what has been going on for several years in a USA dominated by a corporate state and financial elite....Appalachians know more than enough about the pity of outsiders on which Harrop closes her piece.  But the frame itself is warped because Americans generally need a new politics that dares confront inequality, climate change, and national infrastructure problems that are worsening across USA.  Give most Appalachians and Americans the facts about these issues and they are not likely to opt for either a politics of deference or a politics of pity....Our economic elites know this which is why they prefer a politics of flim-flam. 

I will say Harrop IS right about one thing.  When it comes to "suffering environmental torture at the hands of polluting industries", there never seems to be a last straw.  Let me point you in the direction of one "outsider"  Californian Mimi Pickering who has spent her entire career as a filmmaker in Appalachia.  Yesterday she shared the following with a group those sharing stories about our region.

The recent chemical spill in Charleston prompted me to post "Chemical Valley" on Vimeo. Anne Lewis and I made this  Appalshop documentary about events in the Kanawha Valley in the wake of Union Carbide’s  Bhopal disaster in 1984 and a series of frightening chemical leaks that led citizens to demand the right to know and to be protected from toxic chemicals produced and stored there. The film also looks at the realities of environmental racism as residents of Institute describe the price they pay, and the few rewards they receive, from living next to this dangerous plant.
 you can watch the 60 min film in two parts -
There is definitely a film to be made of this water crisis that so clearly ties together the toxic chemical industry and the mining industry that destroys land, water and communities miles from the holding tanks. I hope someone will run with it
 In a January 13 statement U.S. Attorney for Southern West Virginia Booth Goodwin announced his office had opened a criminal investigation on the current spill and that 
companies whose facilities could affect the public water supply should be on notice: if you break federal environmental laws, you will be prosecuted. Our drinking water is not something you can take chances with, and this mess can never be allowed to happen again.       
I won't be holding my breath, but wouldn't it be lovely.