Freedom Industries, Inc.
School ended early last Monday for students at three elementary schools and one middle school in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Members of the National Guard and the state departments of environmental protection and health were called in
. It was the rapid-response team's third deployment to schools in the county this month.
The teachers said the tap water smelled like licorice candy - a fragrance associated with MCHM (4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol), a coal-extraction chemical that had flooded the water supply for 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties on January 9. Residents of Charleston and the surrounding area live in fear of the sweet scent, and they have grown increasingly bitter.
West Virginia is coal country. More than a million acres of mountain
have been blown apart in Appalachia, where the state is situated, in order to retrieve it. Not to mention, West Virginia is plastered with signs extolling the patriotic virtues of the black geological discharge. The signs tout coal as a source of energy independence for the Red, White, and Blue and implore residents to be proud of their natural resources. They frame regulation as an impingement on freedom and a threat not only to the livelihoods of West Virginians but to the country as a whole. Environmentalists have been harassed, beaten, and threatened
with their lives for suggesting otherwise.
Meanwhile, local ambulance chasers have launched ad campaigns of their own, appealing to those diagnosed with silicosis, mesothelioma, pneumoconiosis (commonly referred to as Black Lung), and other diseases associated with coal extraction to seek their legal services. It's a sign of the imprint the industry has had on the state's rural communities over the decades. Now, the 10,000-gallon MCHM spill from a chemical storage facility run by Freedom Industries - just a mile upstream from a water treatment plant on the Elk River - has raised questions over how much environmental degradation West Virginians are willing to tolerate in the name of patriotism.
In the immediate aftermath of the contamination, 671 people called poison control
, complaining of severe vomiting and diarrhea, rashes and dizziness. The White House declared much of the state a federal disaster area and state troopers were deployed to deliver water.
Five days later, the local water utility declared their product safe to drink. "We are in compliance with all the standards set by the health-based agencies, like the CDC [Center for Disease Control], the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health, and we have been since the 13th of January," Jeff McIntyre, oresident of West Virginia American Water, later testified at a congressional hearing in Washington on February 2.