Even as the state of West Virginia is still reeling from its massive Jan. 9 chemical spill, it now has to contend with another. About 108,000 gallons of waste from a coal processing facility leaked into a tributary of the Kanawha River on Feb. 11, polluting 6 miles of Fields Creek. The waste includes all manner of toxic chemicals and metals, and is another blow to the people of the state as they attempt to piece their lives and health back together after the first disaster.
West Virginia American Water, the company that manages the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant, stated that the latest leak would not affect the water supply further. But that remains to be seen. Emergency and environmental officials and investigators are calling the spill a “significant” one, despite assurances to the contrary by the companies involved. And a small amount of the waste that poisoned Fields Creek made it into the Kanawha River itself.
The facility from which the waste leaked is owned by none other than Patriot Coal, the company spun off of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal – the country’s biggest coal corporations – to rob union members of their pensions and health benefits. Patriot Coal has also been responsible for mountaintop removal, an environmentally destructive process of retrieving coal, though it ceased those types of operations in 2012.
“This has had a significant, adverse environmental impact to Fields Creek and an unknown amount of impact to the Kanawha River,” said Secretary Randy Huffman of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. “This is a big deal, this is a significant spill. When this much coal slurry goes into the stream, it wipes the stream out.” Moreover, added Huffman, Patriot Coal did not do its job: The spill occurred – and was detected – when a valve broke sometime between 2:30 and 5:30 a.m., but Patriot did not call the DEP to alert them of the accident until 7:40 a.m. Companies are required by law to immediately report any spills to the department.
The Patriot facility also had a faulty alarm installed. It was supposed to immediately alert someone if a valve broke, but it failed to do so, so pumps continued to send the chemicals through the system. The toxic slurry was pushed on and on, until it broke the outer containment area that surrounded the busted valve, causing it to get into Fields Creek. “Had the alarms gone off and warned the operator,” said Huffman, “the shutdown could have been done in time for the secondary containment area to contain the material that leaked.”
It would seem that Patriot has exhibited the same lack of oversight and inspection that Freedom Industries did in the case of the earlier – and far more disastrous – chemical spill. The fallout from that incident continues to plague the impoverished state. Though West Virginia American Water and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begun to allow residents of Charleston to begin using their water once more, many remain concerned that there is still a significant health risk present. Officials have carefully sidestepped calling the water safe as of yet.
Dr. Letitia Tearney, of the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health, said on Feb. 11, “You know, I believe the water, based on the standards we have, is usable for every purpose. But everybody has a different definition of safe.”
Some residents continue to smell a foul, licorice-like odor coming from their water. In order to determine the cause of that, and to learn whether the water is truly safe at this point, state Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin says he is planning to commit $650,000 to an independent study on household water supplies called the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project.
As for the latest incident, Patriot will have to pay a fine for the leak. Huffman noted that much more ought to be done. “We have to do more than that. We can’t just send them a bill and say, ‘You have to pay this to continue operating.’ There have to be fundamental changes made at such a facility. Maybe there needs to be a top-down review of all their processes. Maybe there needs to be a cultural change within that company that needs to take place that has more of an emphasis on safety, environmental controls, things like that.”