CHARLESTON – Here in Charleston, we are an official federal disaster area. A coal-cleaning chemical spill into the Elk River has contaminated the water supply for much of nine counties, including the state capital, where I live. We are warned not to drink, cook with, wash dishes with, do laundry with, or bathe in our tap water. All restaurants, coffee shops (yes, even Starbucks), and many other businesses are closed. It’s scary in a dreamlike way, as I suppose all real disasters are.
Like many people, I’m furious at the chemical company that let the toxic chemical leak into the river, the water company that stalled about reporting the contamination, and especially the politicians who have sold this state’s citizens out, year after dreary year, to big extractive industries, meanwhile complaining about the Environmental Protection Agency and calling President Obama a “job-killer.”
Deadly pollution is nothing new in West Virginia. For years, some communities in strip-mining regions have experienced dramatically higher incidences of death due to cancer, birth defects, asthma and other diseases. But big industry, with the blessing of our elected officials, has effectively silenced the friends and families of these murder victims by buying out legislators and threatening that jobs will be lost.
A supreme irony: This is happening in a place where the natural beauty, cultural resources and hardworking people have the potential to support industries that do not pollute.
One can only hope that the scale of this disaster—300,000 people without clean water, with no estimate about how long this situation will last—may cause some of our elected officials to realize that Big Coal has not done us any favors. I’m not holding my breath. Considering how polluted the air may be, perhaps I should.
– Colleen Anderson is a
Charleston-based writer and artist