At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why the West Virginia Chemical Spill Hits Closer than you Think

This post comes to us from Niaz Dorry, NAMA's coordinating director. 

Back in the early 90s I lived in a little town called Chester, in the northwestern panhandle of West Virginia right on the banks of the Ohio River, population 2,500. I was there as a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace, and I often say living there renewed my faith in humanity. It’s true. The people there taught me the importance of being true to what’s important and putting everything on the line for what you believe.

The Ohio flows into the Mississippi.
When I lived in Chester, I met Debbie Cheetham, the wife of the local minister. She was dying when I met her. She used to work for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and part of her job involved taking water samples along the river. 

Once when I was visiting her by her bedside, she was connected to machines and tubes, and she told me of the day she stumbled upon a few men doing the same thing she was doing but who were wearing protective suits. She asked her supervisors why she wasn’t given protective suits. The answer: they didn’t have any in women’s sizes. 

Debbie was convinced her mysterious illness that was leading to the systemic shutdown of her body had something to do with her exposure. But it’s hard to prove when you live in a place with so much historical pollution.

Debbie is just one example of someone caught in the cross fires of polluters. The people who live in the Ohio River Valley, the air, water, land, mountains, animals - the entire ecosystem is in the line of fire. And yes, even the marine environment is affected by what recently happened here. 

In January,  an estimated 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM — a chemical mixture used in the coal production process in this case by Freedom Industries — spilled into the Elk River. Via the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, the Elk is part of the watershed of the Mississippi River.

The area is considered expendable. Already polluted by decades of industry, the entire Ohio River Valley seems to be under consistent barrage of chemical attack. When I lived there as a Greenpeace toxics campaigner, we were working with the community to fight the world’s largest toxic waste incinerator, Waste Technologies Incorporated – or WTI.

One of the ways WTI and other companies get away with what they do in places like the Ohio River Valley is to hide behind history. It’s hard to pin something on one company when you have decades of poison running through the valley. And federal agencies don’t have the gumption to do the right thing.

But what we all need to remember is that we are part of a larger ecosystem, and what happens in the Ohio River Valley touches all of us - whether we can see it up close or not. What washes down those rivers ends up in the Mississippi, and it flows down to the Gulf of Mexico, making a dead zone even more dead. But it doesn’t stop at the waters in Gulf of Mexico. What we painfully learned during the BP oil disaster is how much it’s all connected.

After the spill, NOAA announced that the Bluefin tuna populations will be affected by the spill as the tuna use parts of the Gulf as their spawning grounds. NOAA’s “analysis is based on an assumption that up to 20% of baby tuna were killed or rendered unable to reproduce by the spill. That translates to a possible 4% reduction in the future population, though the eventual figure could be even smaller.”

Okay, fair enough. Small impact. But keep in mind that even the smallest fishing infraction that might affect the tuna population adversely is taken seriously by NOAA and the environmental community. We’re told that we shouldn’t eat tuna because the species are in trouble. But somehow this small impact is okay.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said “we’re all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

West Virginia may seem far away from you. But it’s as close as the air you breathe and the seafood on your plate.

1 comment:

  1. As usual Niaz, your observations are spot on! As a former resident of the Ohio River Vally I have experienced up close and personal the environmental impacts of historical pollution by very large companies. Traditionally, cities and counties have looked the other way in the name of progress and employment. Years ago, before the water quality in the Ohio river got completely out of hand you could actually eat fish from the river as my family did on many occasions when I was growing up. However, by the mid to late 60's not only did you not dare to eat a fish that was caught in the river you also were unable to swim in the river unless you were either very brave or very stupid. To this day the Ohio river is in tough shape due to ongoing pollution by industrial profiteers and it saddens me every time I stand on the banks of the Ohio. My mother used to have a saying, "You don't crap where you eat..." Sadly this has happened due to chasing the almighty buck and as you mentioned the effects are far reaching indeed...