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Sandy Says: My Father’s [Posthumous] Advice to Big Coal

In my mind, there are a few basic fundamental truths, one of which is that we need water, food and shelter to survive. Another is a kernel of wisdom from my father.

"You don't **** where you eat." That was my father's favorite piece of advice. He usually was referring to our neighborhood group of junior criminals causing problems and getting caught being naughty. Breaking a window while playing cul-de-sac softball and running away; blowing up a mailbox with Black Cat Fireworks; spraypainting the street … these antics resulted in one or more of us getting hauled home in the back of a squad car by our police officer neighbor. My father's response was: “When are you going to learn? You don't **** where you eat!"

I believe my father's sage advice applies equally to corporations as it did to our group of neighborhood scalawags.

Within hours of the failure of the holding tank and containment system for crude MCHM – a chemical used to prepare coal for combustion – and the subsequent contamination of the drinking water of about a quarter of the population of the state of West Virginia, facility owner Freedom Industries declared bankruptcy.  An ongoing investigation by the state has determined the company to be an apparent bad actor. Many of its tanks are corroded and improperly maintained, both at the facility where the leak occurred and at another facility it operates. The company's facilities had not been inspected since 1991, because West Virginia does not inspect chemical storage facilities, only chemical production facilities.

A month or so later, West Virginia again made the news when a coal slurry line ruptured, dumping 100,000 gallons of slurry into Fields Creek, a tributary of the Kanawha River. When raw coal is crushed and mixed with a large amount of water, magnetite and organic chemicals, the leftover wastewater is coal slurry. While the coal industry claims that the rock particles and chemicals are safe, independent testing has shown coal slurry to contain relatively high levels of toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) initially issued an Imminent Harm Cessation Order to Patriot Coal's Kanawha Eagle Prep Plant following the slurry spill, but since has amended it to a Notice of Violation.

Patriot Coal's spill, along with the contamination of Charleston's drinking water by Freedom Industries AND the criminal convictions related to the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, make it seem as if regulators in West Virginia have adopted a don't ask/don't tell attitude about the coal industry for some reason, doesn't it? A former state mining director confirmed that attitude, accusing the state's DEP of having a “questionable enforcement ethic." Current and former DEP employees claim enforcement is hampered by bureaucracy, a tendency to protect one of the state's largest industries and the fact that state employees leave to take jobs at the companies they once were responsible for regulating. Call me crazy, but that sounds like a fairly corrupt regulatory system to me.

Which brings us to the massive coal ash spill in North Carolina on the Dan River, in which a ruptured pipe at a facility owned by Duke Energy dumped over 80,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of tainted water into the river.

“A spill of a chemical used by the coal industry, a coal ash spill and now a coal slurry spill – the common denominator here is the glaring lack of enforcement of the coal industry, which has enjoyed political cover for far too long," said Erin Savage, a water-quality specialist with the environmental group Appalachian Voices.

If state and federal regulators charged with protecting the environment won't step up and investigate these companies, perhaps other federal agencies will. In North Carolina, federal prosecutors have issued subpoenas to a number of employees of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, seeking information going back to 2009 about, for lack of a better term, bribes (the feds actually said money or “items of value"). These “items of value" allegedly were provided by Duke Energy.

Perhaps it's the values my father instilled in me, or self-preservation, but I believe the coal industry owes us more than half-hearted apologies, payment of nearly non-existent fines and empty promises to do better in the future. I think they owe it to us not to **** where we eat.

Send an email with your thoughts to s[email protected].

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