CHARLES TOWN – As head of the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition since 2011, Ronda Lehman has been focused on ensuring a supply of clean water long before 4-methylcyclohexane methanol – used to wash coal to remove impurities and pollutants before burning – leaked into the Elk River and forced some 300,000 West Virginians to switch to bottled water for everything except flushing their toilets.
The Harpers Ferry resident – a registered Democrat who is mulling a run for Jefferson County Commission later this year – said she was saddened to learn of the water crisis, which began early Thursday on the Elk River just outside of Charleston, but has hopes that some good can emerge from the debacle.
She spoke recently with the Spirit of Jefferson’s Christine Snyder:
Q. What went through your mind when you first heard about what was happening in Charleston?
A. Dread, for our neighbors and friends in Charleston who were having their lives impacted in such a major way. That quickly turned to anger, for allowing such dangerous chemicals to be stored 1.5 miles upstream from the intake for 300,000 water customers with no recent visits from the Department of Environmental Protection.
Q. Is there any kind of positive here?
A. The only good part of this accident is the timing. Our legislators are in Charleston right now. Being there, they are experiencing first-hand what happens when there are little to no regulations or regulators monitoring the dangerous chemicals that are found all across our state to aid in mining of any type.
I’m hoping this horrible accident will leave a feeling of urgency with our legislators, and maybe even a sense of responsibility for allowing these industries to “self report” their problems.
Q. The chemical that fouled the Elk is used in the coal process. Has anything associated with coal been given kind of a pass – West Virginia wants coal and doesn’t want to question the industry or demand too much from it?
A. Millions of dollars have been spent in our state to promote “clean coal,” and the idea that the EPA costs our state jobs is an attempt to make this a partisan issue. The human need for clean water is not a partisan issue. It is my hope that this incident will drive the message to both sides of the aisle and empower them to fight for the people of our state –and not the industries that blatantly assault the environment of our great state, in some cases on a daily basis.
It’s similar to what I’ve been talking about with the danger fracking poses to our water systems. We hear reports that fracking wastewater is just being dumped anywhere they can can away from prying eyes. These are huge concerns for West Virginia. I’ve literally been saying for years, ‘If we ruin our water system ….’
Q. You would like to see the average resident become more involved in clean-water issues?
A. Now that everyone is awake to the fact that the fox is guarding the henhouse, we need the newly informed masses to contact their representatives and demand regulations on coal and fracking with real honest-to-God regulators to enforce them.
Best scenario would be a statewide ban on all mining activities until our legislators can ensure us that they are protecting the people of West Virginia. Our politicians need to draw a line in the sand.
Think of how many incidents similar to this one are not reported in our state. How many lives [hurt] and ecosystems need to be impacted before we do the right thing? We need to put the brakes on the [natural] gas industry and take the time needed to put a system in place to make sure that our health and environment are protected. The gas isn’t going away. They’ll be happy to take it once we put policies in place to protect our state. They may not want to pay the price to do it right, but why shouldn’t they? How much money are they making from our gas? This is making people outside of our state rich while we live with the fallout.
Can you picture a mining town that is rolling in the dough? Anywhere? Are the people that do the real work in these industries leading affluent lives or are they dealing with poverty and health issues that will plague them for their entire lives? Time to ask the hard questions. It’s never easy to look at ourselves and how we may have contributed, but 300,000 people without water is good reason to start.
It’s an awesome opportunity to hold everyone accountable that have allowed this mindset to decimate our state. What should be an absolutely beautiful scenic trip across our state is now scarred by mountain top removal and gas wells from border to border. So sad to let the what I consider the most beautiful on the East Coast to be put asunder for money that will never benefit that people that have to deal with the consequences.
Q. Do you think this might prompt more West Virginians to become politically active?
A. Yes, to start to take a closer look at candidates – and more importantly, to actually vote. Voter turnout across the state is embarrassing when we have so many issues that need tending.