Coal Slurry Smiles: NY Times Nails Clean Water Act Crimes and Punishment

Many readers of the New York Times probably dropped their jaws in amazement at the lead story
last Sunday: Seven-year-old Ryan Massey, of Prenter, West Virginia,
smiled back with capped teeth, the enamel devoured by toxic tap water.
His brother sported scabs and rashes, courtesy of the heavy
metals--including lead, nickel--in their bath water.

If you think every American child should have the right to a glass
of clean drinking water and a safe shower, then check out the
accompanying slide show and video.

Thanks to Times reporter Charles Duhigg, the rest of the
United States got a glimpse of daily life in the Saudi Arabia of
coal--in the coalfields of Appalachia, where coal companies are
"pumping into the ground illegal concentrations of chemicals--the same
pollutants that flowed from residents' taps." And the coda: "But state
regulators never fined or punished those companies for breaking those
pollution laws."

As part of the Times' gripping "Toxic Waters," series,
Duhigg's portrait of the Clean Water Act violations in West
Virginia--and the indifference of state agencies--blew the cover on one
of the worst kept secrets in Appalachia: Coal slurry injected into
abandoned mines and dumped into waterways has contaminated the
watersheds of American citizens and their drinking water...and no government agency did anything about it for years until the community finally fought back.

"How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not
clean water?" said Ryan's mother, Jennifer Hall-Massey, a senior
accountant at one of the state's largest banks.

According to Duhigg's research in Prenter, "Tests show that their
tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals
at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and
damage the kidneys and nervous system."

That's just the beginning. As the Aurora Lights "Journey Up Coal River"
has noted: "Unsurprisingly, the health problems in this community are
also massive: from kidney and liver failure to Parkinson's-like
neurological problems, common respiratory illnesses that last for years
despite treatment, and many different cancers. On a single 300-yard
stretch of road, five people were diagnosed with brain tumors and
nearly every family has someone in and out of the hospital."

Last month, West Virginia Governor and coal peddler Joe Manchin made
a much ballyhooed visit to Prenter, in the midst of legal battles, to
announce a new water system for next year. In the meantime, as the Appalachian Voices pointed out, the real headline should have noted: "WV Town to go 8 More Months without Clean Drinking Water."

Mathew Louis-Rosenberg was not suprised by the NY Times article. The young activist took time from a busy day of lobbying in Charleston, West Virginia, to discuss his work on the Prenter Water Fund, and the impact of the Times investigative piece on the widely denounced West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Biggers: When did you first go to Prenter, WV and why?

Louis-Rosenberg: I first went to Prenter in July,
2008. I was taken there by a man named Bobby Mitchell, a Charleston
native who had already been organizing in Prenter for the better part
of a year. I had been up to Larry Gibson's Mountain Keepers
celebration and helped build an addition on to his house. After 3
visits up there, I decided to move to WV. Bobby was up there and I had
met him the fall before at the Highlander Center's 75th Anniversary
Celebration. He was just thrilled to have somebody to talk the science
behind all this (my background is in math, science, and education) and
I jumped on board organizing with Prenter.

Biggers: Why and how did the Prenter Water Fund get established?

Louis-Rosenberg: The idea for the Prenter Water
Fund first got hatched in a living room in July, 2008. After months and
months of trying every avenue anybody could think of to get emergency
water for Prenter (we had asked the DEP, the governor, the county
commission, all the local elected officials, the public utility and
state emergency services) and being told everywhere we turned that
there wasn't any money for emergency water, people were really really
frustrated. Drawing on my experiences as a post-Katrina volunteer, I
was convinced that we could raise the money and set up an emergency
water distribution ourselves. Everyone was totally excited about the
idea, and we had a meeting with community leaders in Prenter like Maria
Lambert and Patty Sebok. Out of that meeting was launched the Prenter
Water Fund, umbrella'ed under Coal River Mountain Watch.
The next month we got a $10,000 emergency grant from the Paul and
Vivian Olum Foundation and we were off to the races. The first water
delivery was the day before Christmas and we have missed one yet.

Biggers: Do you think your work, along with other residents and advocates, helped to get the story out to a national audience?

Louis-Rosenberg: Absolutely. The one thing that I
was disappointed about in the article was the lack of any mention of
the tireless work of community leaders in Prenter and their allies to
bring this story to light and win the many victories we have won on
this issue. Nobody but nobody had heard of Prenter, WV until organizing
began there in 2007. Now we are a household name around the State
Capitol in Charleston. Many of the leaders and organizers in Prenter
spent many hours on the phone with NY Times reporter telling their stories, providing information and connected him with other residents.

Biggers: Do you feel the New York Times article captured the enormity of the problem in Prenter?

Louis-Rosenberg: I think the article (despite a
couple of small inaccuracies) did a great job bringing home just how
desperate a situation Prenter is in. He perhaps could have stressed
just how much of a life and death issue this really is (the cancer and
death rates are astronomical).

Biggers: What impact do you think the Times piece will have on the WVDEP in addressing the water issue?

Louis-Rosenberg: I think the article has the
potential to be a great weapon for us here in Charleston. I spent all
day lobbying in the Capital today to line up sponsors for a bill to ban
coal slurry. We took around copies of the NY Times article
and boy did people's ears perk up when they found out about it. The DEP
is such a completely failed agency NO! that's not strong enough. The
DEP is so completely the lapdog of the coal industry that I don't
expect this to change their ways. But now when we go to the legislature
asking them to ban slurry, when we go to the EPA asking them to take
over the DEP, we can say, "Look. The cat's out of the bag. Everyone
knows what's going on here and you can step up and do something about
it or be the people who fiddled while the coal companies poisoned the
waters of this state and murdered communities like Prenter."

For more information, visit the Prenter Water Fund.

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