West Virginia: an environmental health crisis

When I tell people that I hold a MSc in Environmental Health, about 80% of people will look blank for a moment before going ‘Errr…so what’s that?’ It’s a completely legitimate question. It’s not a well known area and its name can be a bit confusing (‘so, you study the health of the environment…right?’).

Last week in West Virginia is almost a perfect example of environmental (un)health and why I studied what I did. Environmental health is (Cliffs Notes version) the study of how our environment effects our health. When 7,500 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) leak into the local water supply, every facet of health is going to be affected.

As you’ve no doubt read, this is what happened in West Virginia last Thursday. Since then, around 300,000 residents have been without a reliable water supply. Drinking water has been shipped in, but with tap water only fit for flushing toilets, and bottled water at a premium, the situation still leaves 300,000 people with: difficulty preparing and cooking food, limited hygiene (hand washing, showering etc. with tap water is out), no laundry facilities, no easy way of cleaning cooking utensils and so on. It’s also meant closed schools, shops, restaurants and government departments. It’s an environmental health crisis.

Five days later, officials are now saying that the water seems to be improving. That’s great news. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that this shouldn’t have happened in the first place – chemicals like MCHM shouldn’t be stored at facilities described as ‘ageing’ and ‘vintage’. It also doesn’t make up for the fact that while the leak was discovered on Thursday morning, it wasn’t announced to the public until Thursday evening. Both Freedom Industries (owner of the leaking storage tank) and the West Virginia American Water Co. should be fined out of existence for allowing a lapse of this magnitude to occur.

I’ve seen a lot of comments on articles about the incident blaming the residents for the situation. The general attitude seems to be ‘well, you wanted mining, now you can reap the consequences.’ The lack of empathy is breathtaking. Coal mining is these people’s livelihoods. Many of these people don’t have the education or the skills to do anything else. Of course they’re pro-mining. How else are they going to put food on the table? Demonising the victims isn’t going to solve the problems. What is needed is strong regulation, adequate consequences for polluters and the creation of new, cleaner energy jobs. Sadly, that’s going to take a lot more effort than finger pointing and/or sweeping the whole issue under the rug and pretending it never happened.

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One thought on “West Virginia: an environmental health crisis

  1. There are few harder ways to earn a living than coal mining, and my sympathies go to the people in West Virgina. You’re right of course – stronger regulation and more stringent supervision is required. The real heart of the matter lies in profit over common sense and the current economic paradigm holds both people and the environment subordinate to the economy… this must change!
    ‘So daddy won’t you take me down to Muhlenberg County, down by the green river where paradise lays.
    Well, I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in askin’ Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.’

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