In 2014, residents of Charleston, West Virginia woke up to discover that the water coming out of their faucets had turned to poison. A corporation called Freedom Industries had released a huge amount of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol into the Elk River, which flows downstream to Charleston, providing the city with all of its drinking water. 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol is a chemical used to wash coal before it’s burned. The chemical is also extremely toxic. Freedom Industries had allowed a 4 foot wide stream of the poison to flow out its facility on the river bank. Hundreds of people became sick. The city’s drinking water was unfit for human consumption for a year.
The Elk River spill was the third significant spill of hazardous chemicals into Charleston’s watershed in five years.
In communities across the Appalachian Mountains, people are routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals in their drinking water. The coal mining industry has calculated that it’s more economically advantageous to cut corners than it is to protect the health of its workers and their families. Appalachian Mountain Advocates observes that “More than 40 percent of West Virginia’s rivers are too polluted to pass simple water-quality safety thresholds.”
In order to deal with this problem, the Obama Administration spent several years obtaining public input on a new Stream Protection Rule, which used existing congressional authorizations to reduce the amount of water pollution in Appalachian waterways. The Stream Protection Rule requires mining companies to measure the levels of pollutants in the rivers and streams next to which their operations are placed, and sets standards for ecological remediation when environmental damage is caused by mining activities.
However, Appalachian Voices explains that the Stream Protection Rule “could have been much stronger”, noting that “based on updated science and technology, the rule offers modest improvements for the protection of public waterways.” The rule was weakened through the influence of coal industry lobbyists, and so only diminishes, rather than stops, the rampant pollution practiced by coal companies.
Still, even this weakened level of protection from water pollution is more than coal industry officials can stand. They have recruited Republican Congressman Bill Johnson from Ohio to introduce H. J. Res. 38, a resolution that, if passed into law, will completely destroy the Stream Protection Rule – exposing the residents of Appalachian states to even more water pollution than they suffer from now.