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If We Don't Put People Before Profits, Spills Like West Virginia Are Our Future

There will never be clean water in West Virginia, because there is never justice.

Coal being washed after it is loaded on a train.
Photo Credit: Tara Lohan


The dirty secret in President Obama's " all-of-the-above" energy policy was quietly overlooked in his  State of the Union address.

Three weeks after global media attention on the  West Virginia coal-chemical disaster, the most important line of information still remains buried in  an AP report:

…[A] review of federal environmental enforcement records shows that nearly three-quarters of the 1,727  coal mines listed haven't been inspected in the past five years to see if they are obeying water pollution laws. Also, 13% of the fossil-fuel fired power plants are not complying with the Clean Water Act.

Translation: with federal and state blessing, the coal industry under President Obama is free to operate in a continual state of violation.

In the meantime, in the latest episode in  West Virginia's coal-chemical debacle, state officials  announced on Wednesday that residents affected by the latest coal-chemical disaster are inhaling formaldehyde, a  known carcinogen.

"There is never peace in West Virginia," labor organizer Mary "Mother" Jones  famously said nearly 100 years ago, "because there is never justice."

Our president and nation must get beyond a crisis management approach to the coal industry, and come to grips with the double-headed source of the recent Elk River disaster – lax and unenforced regulations for  coal mining and chemical operations, and the stranglehold of industry lobbies over  public officials in charge of regulation. Otherwise, the Obama administration's "all-of-the-above" policy will simply extend a bitter legacy in coal country: there will never be clean water in West Virginia, because there is never justice.

Sure, hearings and investigations will be held, legislation introduced, an unenforced regulation or two added, a corporate official might be fined or even go to jail, but the truth is that toxic waters from various stages of coal mining will continue to flow with costly and devastating health effects – until public officials and their appointees are barred from accepting political contributions from the very industries they regulate.

This may sound hyperbolic, and certainly naïve – but I write after years of covering coal ash pond breakages, coal slurry disasters, and water-contamination issues from strip-mining discharges and the subsequent lack of regulatory action.

I also write from experience: my grandfather was a coal miner in southern Illinois, who barely survived a mining disaster in an age of regulatory corruption, struggled with black lung disease (a preventable coal dust inhalation malady that was first diagnosed in 1831) that still kills around  four coal miners daily. My grandfather's 150-year-old farm in the Shawnee National Forest area, was eventually stripmined and the local creek left sterile from mining discharges.

I have learned two things from the treatment of my grandfather and residents in today's coal mining communities: in a nation that prioritizes coal industry profits over workplace and residential safety, people are as disposable as our natural resources in openly accepted national sacrifice zones. And secondly, all coal mining safety laws have been written in miners' blood; the same is true for innocent citizens afflicted by clean water violations by coal and chemical companies.

commentary I wrote in jest five years ago now seems deadly serious: Coal Ash Crisis Management – What's It Going to Take, Dead Bodies?

Five years after the historic  Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond disaster, when arsenic-laced ash flooded into eastern Tennessee waterways, EPA officials finally  agreed this week to a settle a law suit and issue federal regulations by the end of the year for coal ash disposal. Over  1,000 toxic coal ash dumpsites simmer today, like accidents waiting to happen.

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