OpEd

Story published: 02-04-2014 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

We need stronger testing, regulations


By Frances Lamberts

It wasn’t until 2012 that the Prenter community in Boone County, W. Va., a region with extensive mountaintop coal mining, was able to obtain municipal water service from Charleston.

For years before this incident, residents claimed their once pristine well water discolored, metal appliances corroded rapidly, clothes permanently stained after being laundered and various sicknesses spread, from skin rashes to kidney failure, cancers and brain tumors.

Studies by Wheeler University revealed toxic substances in the water and implicated coal-related causes.

It is believed the movement of groundwater had been altered through fracturing and blasting, with coal-processing liquids seeping into groundwater from slurry ponds or abandoned underground mines, where slurry had been pumped for decades.

In January, these same residents found themselves lining up for emergency water.

A spill of coal-cleaning chemicals from a Freedom Industries’ tank into the Elk River, upstream of a water intake by Charleston’s private-company supplier, left 300,000 people high and dry, except for toilet flushing, for 10 days.

Allegedly lacking critical safety information about the chemicals involved, the plant operators had to flush the entire system before the water was deemed safe again for human consumption.

Schools closed, hospitals, restaurants and many other businesses were banned from using public water.

Even after service was re-established, pregnant women were advised not to drink tap water. Some 300 residents reportedly sought medical treatment.

Spill damage on the living world of the river itself, and the downstream waters into which it flows, may never be known.

Nor will we know the long-term health risks for people — either from this publicly acknowledged exposure or from ceaseless, coal-and-chemical-related fouling of the waterways or smaller-scale, daily releases into streams nation wide.

A Bloomberg Businessweek writer reported chemical spills to be so frequent as to make them “an American tradition.”

Of 76 publicly traded companies that self-report discharge incidents affecting lakes, streams and rivers, there were 3,885 spills last year alone.

How many more go unreported?

Risk information on the principal synthetic chemical in the West Virginia disaster is said to be based on only a single study, performed by its manufacturer and not peer reviewed in the scientific literature.

Although the chemical has wide commercial use that could affect millions of people, the study reportedly had not addressed any carcinogenic effects, reproductive toxicity or potential organ damage from long-term exposure.

As the Washington Post stated, these and other health risks from tens of thousands of synthetic, man-made commercial chemicals “are unknown.”

It seems that comprehensive safety testing should be required as a matter of course.

The burden of proof of their safety should be on the industries or originators profiting by them - not the public whose health and environmental “commons” can otherwise be harmed.

While the federal government helped Boone Countians and other affected citizens with 1.4 million gallons of emergency water, it appears Freedom Industries - through bankruptcy filing - is trying to evade responsibility for the economic, health and other damage it has caused.