Will Elk Creek spill trigger change? Color me skeptical

In a world where justice truly mattered, the Elk Creek chemical spill last week would be labeled a “triggering event.” It would first trigger indignation — and it has. But after the WVWelcomeindignation, it would lead to much-needed change to a system that is ineffective and corrupt.

In a world where ethics mattered, my brothers and sisters in public relations would be talking with clients and employers right now. They would be urging audits that would locate time bombs like the one touched off by Freedom Industries. They would be urging immediate action to remediate these problems. They would ask top management to do the right thing.

Someone will pay for the negligence of Freedom Industries — a company that ignored the rules while reaping the profits. But it’s unclear whether anything will actually change in how companies handle hazardous chemicals and how regulators oversee them. Freedom Industries is one of hundreds of environmental time bombs ticking away in West Virginia.  Some are buried as deep as the coal itself. Others, such as mountain-top removal, are there for all to see.

As a student of Appalachian politics, I’ve watched the decline of this region all my life. King Coal poisoned most of the streams where I grew up, and strip mines scarred the land forever. As the grandson of coal miners, I heard stories of hard-working men rendered powerless by companies that owned the homes they lived in and the stores where they shopped.

Thank you, Eric Waggoner

I drew inspiration for this post from an angry West Virginian named Eric Waggoner. His story is far more soulful and compelling than mine. In fact, it is deeply moving — a rant so well stated people will be reading it years from now — perhaps as they look back and lament why nothing has changed. Thanks to Eric, more people are listening.

Will the poisoning of Elk Creek trigger any real action? Students of Appalachian history will tell you it’s unlikely. Especially in West Virginia, a state that always seems to draw the short straw.

Waggoner’s essay tells much about what’s wrong with business and society in West Virginia. But if you’re Appalachian born and bred, as I am, you already know.

6 thoughts on “Will Elk Creek spill trigger change? Color me skeptical

  1. Political leaders have been trading short-term economic gains for long-term environmental costs since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, in every state and nation on Earth, because that’s what voters demand. Look at climate trends or air quality in any of China’s enormous cities — events equal to and worse than this river spill are happening all around the world, all the time. Until everyone reading this (and a few billion of their friends) is ready to grow all their own food, give up travel, supermarkets, electronics and every other sweet, sweet convenience brought to us through the economies of scale industry provides, to hell with all of us for complaining about it.

  2. I worked a handful of years for companies that benefited directly from the coal industry. Coal company executives and government officials were treated like some sort of mafia, particularly in West Virginia. Increased funding for oversight and regulations can help, but this issue won’t be fixed until the culture is changed. Here’s to hoping that more people rally behind Waggoner’s call.

      • The Mafia parallel to coal in West Virginia is an apt analogy. Better might be fiefdom where the royals live behind the castle walls and the peasants labor to assure the security of realm — and to assure some bread and bacon for themselves.

        I fear those cultural changes Chris S suggests will have to come from a groundswell of Mountaineers. And I don’t see it happening — thus the despondent tone of my post. I once asked a student who grew up in West Virginia what she thought about mountaintop removal. “It’s a sad thing,” she said. “But we need the jobs.”

  3. Sensible people realize that a changeover to cleaner energy will take time as well as billions of dollars. It will take resolve in Washington, too, something that’s in short supply, not to mention easily corrupted. We need a long-term energy policy to wean us from fossil fuels, and I’d hate to think we’ll have to wait until the Statue of Liberty drops below the water line before it happens.

    This post isn’t meant as an indictment of electric power. We can’t live without it. My sentiments in this post are focused more on the raping and pillaging of Appalachia and its people for more than 100 years. But I also know it’s futile to condemn people for the actions of the past. What’s that saying? It seemed like a good idea at the time.

    What’s sad is that the Chinese have the benefit of learning from our past, but they’re choosing to ignore the lessons.

    • There is little question but that the impact of the mining industry has been unequally borne by the people of Appalachia, but I wonder if it’s more pronounced there simply because their geography makes their landscape ill-suited to other economic uses. It’s not easy to build a factory and supporting infrastructure, keep livestock or grow crops on a mountainside. Thus, local officials are perhaps more apt to fall in line with what’s best for mining interests at the expense of almost everything else. This is the same Hobson’s Choice faced by every local leader with responsibility for economic development.

      In the case of West Virginia, I think you’ll find most residents remain decidedly pro-coal, regardless of the impact on their environment.

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