Why the West Virginia Chemical Spill Hits Closer than you Think

This post comes to us from Niaz Dorry, NAMA’s coordinating director. 

Back in the early 90s I lived in a little town called
Chester, in the northwestern panhandle of West Virginia right on the banks of
the Ohio River, population 2,500. I was there as a toxics campaigner for Greenpeace, and I often say living there renewed my faith in
humanity. It’s true. The people there taught me the importance of being true
to what’s important and putting everything on the line for what you believe.

The Ohio flows into the Mississippi.

When I lived in Chester, I met Debbie Cheetham, the wife of the local minister. She was dying when I met her. She used to work for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and part of her job involved taking water samples along the river. 

Once when I was visiting her by her bedside, she was connected to machines and tubes, and she told me of the day she stumbled upon a few men doing the same thing she was doing but who were wearing protective suits. She asked her supervisors why she wasn’t given protective suits. The answer: they didn’t have any in women’s sizes. 

Debbie was convinced her mysterious illness that was leading to the systemic shutdown of her body had something to do with her exposure. But it’s hard to prove when you live in a place with so much historical pollution.

Debbie is just one example of someone caught in the cross fires of polluters. The people who live in the Ohio River Valley, the air, water, land, mountains, animals – the entire ecosystem is in the line of fire. And yes, even the marine environment is affected by what recently happened here. 

In January,  an estimated 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM — a chemical mixture used in the coal
production process in this case by
Freedom Industries — spilled into the Elk River. Via the Kanawha
Ohio rivers, the Elk is part of the watershed of the Mississippi

The area is
considered expendable. Already polluted by decades of industry, the entire Ohio
River Valley seems to be under consistent barrage of chemical attack. When I
lived there as a Greenpeace toxics campaigner, we were working with the
community to fight the world’s largest toxic waste incinerator, Waste Technologies
Incorporated – or

One of the ways
WTI and other companies get away with what they do in places like the Ohio
River Valley is to
hide behind history. It’s hard to pin something on one
company when you have decades of poison running through the valley. And
federal agencies don’t have the gumption to do the right thing.

But what we all need to remember is that we are part of a larger ecosystem, and what happens in the Ohio River Valley touches all of us – whether we can see it up close or not. What washes
down those rivers ends up in the Mississippi, and it flows down to the Gulf of
Mexico, making a dead zone even more dead. But it doesn’t stop at the waters in Gulf of
Mexico. What we painfully learned during the BP oil disaster is how much it’s
all connected.

After the
spill, NOAA announced that the Bluefin tuna populations will be affected by the
spill as the tuna use parts of the Gulf as their spawning grounds.
NOAA’s “analysis is based on an assumption that up
to 20% of baby tuna were killed or rendered unable to reproduce by the spill.
That translates to a possible 4% reduction in the future population, though the
eventual figure could be even smaller

fair enough. Small impact. But keep in mind that even the smallest fishing
infraction that might affect the tuna population adversely is taken seriously
by NOAA and the environmental community. We’re told that we shouldn’t eat tuna
because the species are in trouble. But somehow this small impact is okay.

As Martin
Luther King, Jr. said “we’re all caught in
an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single
garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Virginia may seem far away from you. But it’s as close as the air you breathe
and the seafood on your plate.