The West Virginia water crisis has faded from the news, but it's not over. Freedom Industries relocated the MCHM to the town of Nitro. (Because I guess 5 Superfund sites aren't enough for a town of 7,000?) Their Nitro facility, where the last-resort containment wall has holes in it, has the advantage of not draining directly into the Elk River. Oh, no -- the Nitro facility drains into a ditch. Which drains into the Kanawha River. Aren't we glad that's under control?
Senator Joe Manchin was in the New York Times earlier this winter, talking about gun control. I thought about sending him an email after I read the article: he was trying to come up with some solutions after the Newtown shootings, and the NRA shut him right down. “That’s classy,” I thought, “to sponsor legislation like that when you’re from a state with such an established gun culture. That’s exactly what we need in this conversation, is some legislators who understand that you might want to go deer hunting in the fall but you surely don’t want kids getting shot in their school.”
I won’t be calling him classy again anytime soon.
The next time I saw Joe Manchin in the New York Times he was thumbing his nose at the EPA. The people in my state want to be free, he said. That’s our motto: mountaineers are always free.
In my mind’s eye he is saying these earnest words with his mouth, while over his head he is holding flash cards. “Dear Chemical Industry,” they say. “We’re still friends, right? It won’t be long until my next campaign and I’m counting on your support.”
It doesn’t get much less classy than that.
Southern West Virginians are in a bind: the coal and chemical industries keep them in groceries. It’s true even for people who aren’t directly employed by the mines and the plants—if you’re running a barbershop or a clothing store or a medical practice, you depend on the business of the people who make their living mining coal or hauling MCHM. If you’re a legislator from West Virginia, you want to keep these employers happy. So it might not surprise you to learn that two of the top three contributors to Manchin’s last Senate campaign were the mining and electric industries. The contributions from the chemical industry are smaller but not chump change, and they include personal contributions from executives at Freedom Industries.
The thing that enrages me is the refusal to be transparent, to acknowledge the hazards of this dependence. When the CDC said pregnant women in WV shouldn’t drink the water, state officials rushed in to say they were overreacting. Memo to pregnant women in WV: go with the source that’s not taking money from the chemical industry.
Gestating babies and young children are uniquely vulnerable to toxin exposure, a fact unacknowledged by officials calling the CDC overcautious. Minor disruptions to fetal brain development can have lifelong effects. Because of their size, fetuses and children are exposed to higher toxin doses per unit of body weight, and their immature excretory systems are less able to filter foreign substances.
Often the effects of toxin exposure on cognition are modest, at least at the individual level. Still, while a 5-point drop in IQ won't make much difference for one child, the population effects are huge. Landrigan and Garg point out that "a 5-point drop in population mean IQ reduces by 50% the number of gifted children (IQ above 120) and increases by 50% the number with borderline IQ (IQ below 80). These are differences that have profound consequences for the intelligence and the accomplishment of a society." (There's a visual on p. 27 of this WHO document if you're interested.)
West Virginia legislators generally characterize themselves as pro-life, but where is the pro-life-ness in allowing their attention to industry concerns to outweigh their duty to protect unborn babies? Women seeking abortions in West Virginia are legally required to view an ultrasound of their baby, but where is the legal protection for all those other unborn babies? Miscarriage rates are higher in toxin-exposed populations, and diverse and worrisome effects can be measured in the babies who survive and the children they grow into.
Toxin exposure doesn’t only affect babies, of course. For adults, toxin exposure is associated with an increased risk of various forms of diseases including cancer. In the wake of the Freedom Industries spill, West Viriginians who have been assured that their water is safe may be breathing in carcinogens when they shower. I am no epidemiologist, but anecdotally I can tell you the trend is striking: cancer is rampant among my WV friends and acquaintances. I clicked on a Facebook page for dead alumni of my high school and it was sobering to see: cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer cancer.
The real human costs are enormous and hard to measure. It makes me angry enough that they are less important than the industry profits, but the choice to re-label a refusal to protect citizens as “guarding their freedom” — that makes me incandesce every time I think about it. Be free—to miscarry that baby. Be free—to deal with your baby’s delayed development. Be free—to struggle through an ADHD diagnosis. Be free—to wonder why your child is struggling in school Be free— wander as far as your chemo infusion line will let you.
What the hell kind of freedom is that?
It's easy to think of this dependence on industries that generate hazardous substances as a problem confined to poor and backward southern West Virginia, but we are all part of it. If you are storing data in the cloud (and who isn’t?) you are participating in the increasing need for energy from coal-fired power plants. You probably didn’t know the guy from my high school who died in the horrible Massey explosion in 2009, but our collective demand for electricity played a role in his working conditions. And there isn’t really a great solution; it isn’t like West Virginians are saying, “Gee, I have lots of jobs to choose from but I think I’ll go expose myself to hazardous substances on a full-time basis.”
I wish the state’s elected officials would look at that truth squarely. I wish they could admit it: the management may have changed, but too many West Virginians are still in debt to the company store.