For the second time today, I'm linking to a fine public-health article in The New Yorker. This one is No One’s Job: The Chemical Spill Along the Elk River, in West Virginia. Excerpt:
The Elk River rises in the broad valleys of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, over the mountains from Virginia’s Piedmont horse country, then spills into the narrow hollows of the counties of Webster, Braxton, and Clay on its way to join the Kanawha River, in Charleston.
It snakes north of coalfields, through small towns built up during hardwood-timbering booms. Flanked by steep slopes, it runs in shadow for much of the day. Rhododendrons, which need shade, choke the narrow gorges of its tributaries. The Elk shares its narrow band of flatland with two-lane roads, train tracks, and tiny vacation shacks perched on the slope between the berm and the riverbank.
Last Thursday, an estimated seventy-five hundred gallons of crude MCMH, a chemical used to remove impurities from coal, ran into the Elk from a one-inch hole in a tank belonging to a company called Freedom Industries. The leak took place a mile and a half upstream from a major intake for West Virginia American Water, a private company that provides municipal water in parts of nine counties, including Charleston, the state capital.
Since then, about three hundred thousand people have been under orders not to drink the water, cook with it, wash in it, or even use it do laundry. Some households have backup wells or springs, but most are relying on emergency water distribution from the National Guard and private groups. In the past day, officials have begun approving water use for some areas.
The spill was a reminder of the familiar dangers of the industrial economy that runs beneath the sleek surfaces of tech and finance industries in West Virginia. In 1985, a Union Carbide plant in Charleston’s so-called Chemical Valley leaked methylene chloride, sending more than a hundred people to the hospital. In 2010, twenty-nine miners died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, in Raleigh County. Mountaintop-removal mining has buried more than a thousand miles of stream headwaters and shattered hundreds of hills and mountains.
The Freedom Industries spill is another burst of industrial harm, another reminder that the consequences of risks often fall on the poor. But it is possible that, in the end, no one will be poisoned, no fish will be killed, and the injuries will be restricted to the wretched hassle, anxiety, and plain indignity of living without water for a week. This is possible because no one knows much of anything about how MCMH affects human health. It is no one’s job to know.