The pollution tainting the water of American Indians and West Virginia residents is nothing new, Native leaders said as the state’s attorney general and other authorities launched probes into a massive chemical spill into the Elk River.
"We had an absolute unmitigated disaster here for six days now where people are without water,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said of the spill, which cut off water for 300,000 residents. “This is not only utterly unacceptable. It's outrageous on every level.”
Investigations are also under way by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, Reuters reported. The leak sent about 7,500 gallons of the compound 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, also known as crude MCHM, into the river, the news wire said.
In addition, as a precaution two neighboring states shut off their intake valves from the Ohio River, which is fed by the Elk via the Kanawha River. The Northern Kentucky Water District and Greater Cincinnati Water Works both stopped pulling Ohio River water into their water plants, each agency said in a statement.
Indigenous groups in the area said such an incident has been a long time in the making.
“Unfortunately, this event is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Chief David Cremeans of the Native American Indian Federation Inc. of Huntington, West Virginia.
The indigenous group, organized in 2001 and recognized by a state senate resolution in early 2002, contains about 6,000 members. About 2,000 of the federation’s members live in the areas affected, Cremeans said.
Pollutants from the Huntington/Dietz Hollow Landfill in Huntington, West Virginia, have been leaching into the water for decades, Cremeans said.
“For the past 35 years, the City of Huntington has been receiving polluted chemicals and carcinogens from dumpsites all along the riverbanks, and when I see this story I really feel sorry for the people affected by this,” said Cremeans. “But this is one chemical and one event that they took great notice to.”
The incident began on January 9 with a spill from storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries, which makes chemicals for the mining, steel and cement industries. The compound carries the cloying odor of black licorice or cherry cough syrup. Skin contact or ingestion can cause rashes and illness, according to health authorities.
The spill was the third major chemical accident in the region in the past five years, according to The New York Times. Moreover, the federal Chemical Safety Board had conducted two investigations in the Kanawha Valley, and numerous environmentalists and federal regulators had urged the state to adopt safety rules, the newspaper reported. All went unheeded and “died a quiet death with barely any consideration by state and local lawmakers,” the regulators and environmental groups told The New York Times.
Even residents not directly affected saw trouble looming for everyone as they watched altercations break out amid price gouging for bottled water.
“I am disgusted by all of this,” said LaVerna Vickers, tribal secretary of the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia. “We have no idea how this is going to affect the fish or the animals that drink from this water. From a Native American perspective, it is devastating and gut-wrenching. People are just assuming nothing bad will happen, and we are the disposable people here.”
She warned that focusing more on business than on terrestrial health will ultimately prove to be bad for business.
“There is so much about business and not enough about the earth,” said Vickers. “This is a scar on the earth that won’t go away for a long time.”