Making State Toxic Hell

At an academic conference I attended last fall, one of the presenters wondered how West Virginia, with its abundance of mineral wealth, remained one of the poorest, most backward states in the nation. He contrasted us with Saudi Arabia, where abundant oil reserves have made it one of the richest countries in the world.

The reason, he explained, is that most of the land and mineral rights are owned by people who don’t live here. He described West Virginia as a “colony,” long exploited by rapacious outside interests.

A colony. Wow. Sitting in the audience, I had one of those moments where the light bulb appeared above my head – then shattered and rained glass shards upon me.

What reminded me of the colony concept was the water debacle a large portion of the state suffered when a catastrophic leak polluted the Elk, Kanawha, and Ohio rivers. You could throw in the Mississippi River too, if you remember the environmental mantra, We All Live Downstream.

The chemical was called methycyclohexane methanol. Appetizing name, isn’t it? And suddenly, West Virginia was national news again for all the wrong reasons. We are virtually ignored by the national press until we have one of our all-too-frequent disasters, usually linked to our mining industries. Great PR we get. No wonder no one wants to move here, and our state’s reputation is a punch line.

Let me provide just a partial list of negatives associated with West Virginia: One of the most poorly educated workforces in the nation. Check. Bad roads and infrastructure. Check. Polluted water, air, and soil. Check. Pervasive reputation as a hillbilly backwater full of inbred rednecks. Check. Drug-addled, obese citizenry. Check. A robust population of racists and homophobes. Check and check.

But we do have great natural beauty. Or do we? I’ve traveled around this state, and for every gorgeous vista and majestic mountain I’ve seen, I have also seen just as many post-industrial brownfields, gob piles of shale coal waste, orange streams polluted by acid mine water, and strip-mine sites where they scalp the mountain and dump it in the adjacent valley. Someday the Mountain State might be called the Parking Lot State.

Do I need to mention all the coal-slurry impoundments? These are huge stinking poisonous lakes full of billions of gallons of toxic sludge. Go ahead and Google the horror referred to as Little Blue Run, a sludge lake of some three square miles up in Hancock County. One of these gob dams burst back in 1972, causing what was called the Buffalo Creek Disaster (118 dead) and yet another chapter in the murderous toll industrial capitalism has taken on West Virginians.

This insane poisoning of our air, land, and water has a long history. And it’s happening again. We all know about it. The gas-drilling. How these old patterns repeat themselves. Powerful extraction industries invade the state and dangle money in front of the landowners. They gobble this cash down like a carp gobbles a doughball, opening up land held in families for generations to something called fracking.

And this is where the water we drink comes into play: Fracking directly involves the deliberate poisoning of billions of gallons of our most precious resource – fresh, clean water. This toxic cocktail is pumped underground, to free up the gas, which is then pumped out. I hear they are shipping the gas overseas, so I wouldn’t expect your gas bill to drop any time soon.

Their propaganda machines assure us fracking will never pollute the ground and surface water. You’ve seen the commercials confidently assuring us of the rings of steel and concrete encasing these wells. Well, my fellow West Virginians, haven’t we heard this one before? Do you know the meaning of the word “sucker”?

Locally, we have heard about the GreenHunter waste water facility being constructed in Warwood. This is one mile above Wheeling’s water treatment plant. That’s right, folks. Millions of gallons of toxic wastewater are going to be processed directly above the source of our drinking water.

This is in addition to the long-term questionable water quality of the Ohio River itself. It may be cleaner now, but for about a century the Ohio River was basically an open sewer and industrial dump. They still warn us about eating fish from the river because they are laced with PCBs. Yet we blithely process this water by dumping in more chemicals, pump it to our homes, and slurp it on down.

Entire watersheds in this area are going to be dotted with thousands of fracked gaswells. Billions of gallons of toxic wastewater are going to be transported over roads that were already bad enough before convoys of tankers and trailers overloaded with behemoth drilling infrastructures started hogging the crumbling pavement. Are you going to tell me these chemicals aren’t going to find their way into our water?

Sometimes I see people wondering why so many young West Virginians leave the state. It’s not any wonder to me. Who wants to live and raise children in a poisoned wasteland where you can’t even trust the safety of the water? Almost heaven has been and is increasingly becoming a toxic hell. And we won’t do a thing about it.

Rogerson, of Wheeling, is a professor of English at West Virginia Northern Community College.