Contamination Leaks Lead to Undrinkable Water

The water in West Virginia. Photo From: Salon.com
The water in West Virginia.
Photo From: Salon.com

On Thursday, January 9th, 300,000 West Virginians lost access to safe drinking water.  Their taps water were contaminated by a chemical that had leaked from storage containers owned by Freedom Industries, a company that produces chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries. This incident has sparked the public’s concern about drinking water safety and environmental impact caused by mining.

The cause of the water contamination was 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to clean coal, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM.  There is little known about this chemical, which is part of the reason for immense concern.  Elizabeth Scharman, West Virginia’s poison control director, admitted to CNN just how little research has been put into the safety of this chemical, saying “We don’t know the safety info, how quickly it goes into air, it’s boiling point…” It would be reasonable to presume that a chemical so unknown would be under close watch, but there was little surveillance of the site where the contamination occurred.  The only times staff regulators inspected the site was in 1991, 2010, and 2012.  Not only did the site where the contamination occurred receive little attention, authorities who looked at it after the leak said that the tanks the chemicals were stored in appeared to be very old.  C.W. Sigman, deputy director of emergency services in Kanawha County said, “I would say the tank was antique.”

A cartoon depicting the water contamination in West Virginia. Photo From: truthdig.com
A cartoon depicting the water contamination in West Virginia.
Photo From: truthdig.com

In response to the situation at hand, Freedom Industries provided bottled water to all affected by the spill, and the company’s president, Gary Southern, has said that the Virginia residents’ safety has been his company’s first priority since he learned about the leak.  However, it seems that if residents’ safety had really been their first concern, the leak would not have occurred in the first place.  A Sam Wiley, a junior at San Lorenzo Valley High School expressed, “It is just another example of the upper class bourgeoisie victimizing and exploiting the lower class for profit.”

The leak has brought water safety and the practices that threaten it to the front of many Americans minds.  Another controversial mining practice that can be very harmful is hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”.  It is a profitable and fairly easy technique in which a combination of water, sand, and chemicals is injected into the ground at extremely an high pressure.  It breaks up the rocks and earth, exposing previously inaccessible veins of oil and gas deposits.  It has been seen as a solution for our immediate need for oil, as most of the oil in America is only accessible by fracking.  That oil can last us for another hundred years, but in the long run it is not a permanent solution.

Fracking explanation. Photo From: en.wikipedia.com
Fracking explanation.
Photo From: en.wikipedia.com

And although some see it as a good short-term solution to the oil deficit, the dangers of this process have to be considered as well.  Fracking has been known to contaminate groundwater, contaminate the ground surface near sites from spills, use immense amounts of our limited water supply, and in some circumstances can increase earthquake activity due to the degradation of bedrock and the injection of wastewater.  Because the chemicals used in the process are considered a “trade secret”, companies are not required to reveal what chemicals are being used.  This prevents scientists from studying the dangers of these chemicals to humans.  However, the process’s negative effects are apparent even without knowing what chemicals are being used.  People who have drunk contaminated water have experienced loss of taste, nosebleeds, skin rashes, dizziness and hair loss.  However, if done safely, this can be very profitable, and better than some methods of procuring oil and natural gas such as tar sands extraction

Miri Becker, a recent graduate of San Lorenzo Valley High School, stated in her research project for Anna Eshoo’s Student Advisory Board that “We need to be able to utilize this economic opportunity safely, and that will come with increased regulation.”

People definitely need to start paying more attention to environmental issues.  Raising awareness in our generation is the only way to have progress in the future.  There are awful injustices wrecking our fragile and precious planet, a planet that will be permanently harmed if we don’t make a change. As Becker said, “It’s important for students to get involved because the fight for the environment is real and immediate; it’s no longer a fight for our grandchildren or even our children, it’s a fight for our lives, right now. As a society, we’re on a path to major climate disaster and if we don’t take action now there will be no stopping it.”

-April Martin-Hansen

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