February 27, 2014
Add this to the list of hazards from the proposed Cove Point plant for liquefying and exporting fracked gas: insufficient police protection.
At a hearing Tuesday before the state Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Roy P. Dyson said the Maryland Natural Resources Police “just don’t have the resources” to do the work they are supposed to do — including ensuring security at the Cove Point facility in Calvert County.
Dyson, a Democrat who represents Calvert, St. Mary’s and Charles counties, has introduced a bill that would combine the state Natural Resources Police (NRP) with the state police, even though he knows it doesn’t have a lobster’s chance in a pot of passing. “But we’ve got to talk about this,” he said.
In addition to handling rockfish poachers and drunken boaters, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) police are charged with protecting Cove Point, where Dominion has plans to transform its mostly idle gas import plant into a $3.8 billion facility for liquefying and exporting fracked gas.
Said Dyson: “You know what else [the Natural Resources Police] have been given? They’ve been tasked as the homeland security folks out there. … Where I live we are about to create the largest LNG facility … in the United States of America. That is only 2 miles from a nuclear power plant, which by the way had to shut down twice last year … and less than 8 miles as the bird flies from [the] Naval Air Station [at] Patuxent River. What a vulnerable piece of property.”
He said the Department of Homeland Security gave money for the NRP “a couple years ago,” but some was allocated to the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office for police-car cameras and some went to the Charles County sheriff for a boat. “The point is … they are the ones that are tasked with protecting our homeland” despite devastating budget cuts. In 2009, the NRP had 425 officers, he said, but now it has 241 slots, of which 220 are filled. “That’s not acceptable. That’s not working,” he said.
And don’t expect the U.S. Coast Guard to pick up the slack either. At a meeting last year, he said, about increasing the number of tankers at Cove Point, “the Coast Guard told us they were not going to be able to add additional resources to protect that facility.” Although Coast Guard officials said the state would receive money, Dyson said he was concerned it would again be siphoned off for other departments.
Dyson said the DNR police can’t even keep up with routine calls. An officer at North Beach, for example, can’t quickly get to an incident at Point Lookout State Park, he said. Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, agreed that the problem is severe, saying portions of Gunpowder Falls State Park in his district would also have to close in the summer “because DNR can’t police it.”
“We’ve got to do something,” Dyson said. The DNR reported 11 boating fatalities in 2012 “Who’s to say … if DNR officers — who are so good, so well-trained — … if they had been a little more available, maybe some of that wouldn’t have happened.”
Sen. Ronald Young, a Democrat representing Frederick and Washington counties, recommended a task force of NRP and state police, with Dyson at the head, to figure this out.
“I’m willing to do just about anything,” Dyson said.
Dyson has yet to take a position on Dominion’s plans for Cove Point. If he is willing to do “just about anything,” perhaps he would consider trying to slow the approval process for the export facility until we can assess the full environmental, health, security and economic effects on Marylanders from all the fracking, compressor stations, pipelines, forest disruption, methane emissions, air and noise pollution, tanker and truck traffic, and rising gas prices.
[An aide to Dyson took my questions on the phone and said the senator would get back to me. Then she asked for my home address, so when I get that form letter in June, I’ll give you an update. The senator has not yet replied to an email. ]
February 21, 2014
A boisterous, determined, chanting, sign-waving crowd of at least 700 people from across the state and beyond converged on sunny Baltimore today to say that Dominion Resources’ planned Cove Point export facility for fracked gas is a threat to our health, our economy, our climate and our future.
“Maryland is here today because Maryland is at risk,” shouted Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, at the rally at the War Memorial Plaza downtown.
Nearby, the Public Service Commission was considering whether Virginia-based Dominion’s planned 130-megawatt gas-fired power plant and liquefaction facility would be in the “public interest.”
Outside, the protesters from around Maryland and neighboring states shouted, No, it would not be in their interest — or in the interest of future generations. “Listen to our voice; Dominion’s not our choice!” No, they said, it would not be in their interest to frack the countryside to get the gas for this enterprise. Because no matter how much Dominion says this facility has nothing to do with fracking, it has everything to do with fracking.Tidwell compared the fight against Cove Point to the one decades ago against tobacco companies. The evidence in the surgeon general’s report on the dangers of smoking changed everything. “We have a new Camel cigarette threat,” he said. Like the tobacco companies, Dominion is insisting that lighting something on fire — fracked gas — is good for Maryland. Of the state’s 23 counties, 19 lie atop shale basins, he said. He demanded that the PSC “serve the public by rejecting this radical Cove Point plan.” And he urged U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin to “get our back” and demand the fullest environmental review of the project
“This is where Maryland makes its climate change stand,” said state Del. Heather Mizeur, a candidate for governor who for years has questioned the safety of fracking. “If I were in charge of this state, I would say no to Cove Point,” she said to cheers. If the plant were built, Maryland would see “rising pollution, rising prices and rising tides.”
Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, rebuked Dominion for trying to buy off communities by “passing out money instead of straight answers.” Marylanders won’t “swap our environmental future for cash,” he said.
Many unanswered questions remain about the project, said Rebecca Ruggles of the Maryland Environmental Health Network. What are the health effects, she asked, of more pipeline explosions, more asthma cases, radon in the shale gas, water contamination and climate change?
The Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus encouraged Maryland to update its motto from Free State, in honor of its role in abolishing slavery, to Fossil-Free State. “This is our lunch-counter moment for the 21st century,” he said. “We must stop Cove Point.” He had the crowd chanting: “Thank God Almighty, we will be fossil free at last.”
“When you say no to Cove Point, you are saying no on behalf of yourselves, your communities and your natural resources,” said Karen Feridun, founder of Berks Gas Truth in Pennsylvania. “But you are also doing it for my state, my community, my natural resources.” Cabot Oil & Gas, the fracking company that left families in Dimock, Pa., without drinking water, has already signed a deal to send fracked gas to Cove Point, she said.
After the first round of speakers, protesters marched several blocks to the Public Service Commission, chanting, “Hey, O’Malley, what the frack. Get Dominion off our back!” and “Hey, O’Malley, lead on climate; it’s time to break your Cove Point silence!” And they yelled loudly so that the lawyers on the 23rd floor would hear them. They carried signs with a butterfly, salamander and fish. They hoisted little windmills that spun in the breeze. Some carried a huge inflatable pipeline with the sign “No Cove Point.” One sign said, “Fracking + Cove Point = Unacceptable Risk.” Another said, “Cove Point = Climate Disaster.” A banner from Frederick said: Fracking isn’t a bridge. It’s a dead end.”
Students came from Frostburg State, St. Mary’s College, Maryland Institute College of Art, University of Maryland and other schools. Parents, some pushing strollers, and workers and retirees came from as far as Garrett and Calvert counties. Some protesters also traveled from New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania. Clare Zdziebko lives four houses beyond the Dominion Cove Point property line in Lusby. She pushed her nearly 2-year-old son, Dominick, in a stroller. “He needs clean air and clean water,” she said.
After the march to the PSC came several more speakers. Ashok Chandwaney, a student at St. Mary’s, told the crowd he feared the world that his 15-month-old niece will inherit: “I wonder what the world will look like when she’s my age.” He said we are on the cusp of a climate catastrophe and he doesn’t want Dominion to be able to build this facility on a piece of land that will be submerged by climate change.
“We are united here today as one Maryland,” said Nadine Grabania, a winemaker who lives in Garrett County. “I’m here to ask you to promise me you will never think of Garrett or Calvert counties — or anyplace where the shale gas industry wants to do its risky business — as ‘elsewhere.’ ”
“We will not be silent,” said Ted Cady, whose town of Myersville in Frederick County is fighting a compressor station for fracked gas. “We will act. We will ensure the future health and safety of our children.”
And Lois Gibbs, who led residents at New York state’s Love Canal in the 1970s, reminded the crowd that “facts will not win this fight.” For every fact you point out, industry will have an answer, she said. Those at Love Canal did not win “because we played nice,” she said. “Polite people get poisoned. Polite people get polluted.” When you brush your teeth and wash your face at night, also tweet O’Malley. Tweet your legislators. “Facts are critically important,” she said, but if we are going to win this fight we need to email and tweet and take vacation time for rallies.
“We’ve got a big fight ahead of us,” Tidwell said. “Make this a part of your life until we win. … Let’s go fight!”
— elisabeth hoffman
February 19, 2014
My neighbor said he slept in for the first time in ages. That morning, our 15 inches of snow muffled the highway 500 feet behind his house, just beyond the stream and leafless stretch of woods. No cars drove in or out of our neighborhood. Venturing outside, we heard our shovels scraping, children sledding, birds chirping. That evening, with many side streets yet to be plowed, silence still reigned, broken only by footsteps, low voices of neighbors discussing inches fallen and inches to come.
If only we could muffle the industry spin to hear the voices of scientists on fracking. Science is quiet, methodical, cautious. So far, it has been no match for loud, overbearing, rash industry. Scientists collect water samples in drilling areas and find chemicals that disrupt hormone levels; they count birth defects in babies born in fracking areas; they note a decline in black-throated blue warblers and ovenbirds near drill pads; they tabulate the loss of core forests from well pad incursions. They are scrambling to measure and document the great unraveling around us and sound the alarm with PowerPoint presentations, laser pointers and conferences. It’s a tough slog.
Two scientists — Anthony Ingraffea from Cornell University and Zacariah Hildenbrand from the University of Texas at Arlington — explained their research, via webinar presentations, to Maryland’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission last week. Ingraffea’s message: Gas wells are leaky. Fracked gas wells leak more than the old-fashioned wells. And as gas wells age, the likelihood increases that they will leak. In fact, he says, 13 percent of fracked wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale will leak in about two years. Hildenbrand found elevated levels of arsenic and other disturbing surprises in drinking-water wells near drilling areas.
Ingraffea has a PhD in rock fracture mechanics and was previously a consultant to and researcher for the oil and gas industry. Now he spends much of his time (when he’s not teaching classes) aggravating his former clients by talking about his research on “loss of structural integrity” in wells or “loss of zonal isolation” or “sustained casing pressure” or “bubbling in the cellar” or any of the other euphemisms the industry uses to hide one of its big problems: leaking wells.
He’s also president of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, but the folks at industry’s Marcellus Drilling News call him a “fictional report writer” and “Tony the Entertainer.”
These wells, Ingraffea says, are leaking methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful over 20 years than CO2. This leaking methane also can contaminate water wells, sometimes leaving homeowners with flammable tap water. Or contaminate rivers and streams far from the well site.
His recommendation for Garrett and western Allegany counties, which overlie the Marcellus Shale: “If you are really concerned about well-water contamination, impose the largest setback that industry will tolerate.” Also, limit the number of wells — by keeping drilling far from residential and commercial areas and parks. Also require frequent inspections and more thorough inspection techniques: “You will have to enforce and inspect for the life of the well — forever,” Ingraffea said. Regulations are like the Ten Commandments, he said. They are “suggestions that don’t preclude things from going wrong.” Also, keep in mind that the ability to inspect a structure that bores underground for two or three miles “is very limited” and expensive — and the “ability to repair is limited.”
If Garrett and Allegany counties allowed drilling on 90 percent of land (with the rest off-limits because of restrictions, such as setbacks), they could see as many as 7,800 wells (assuming eight wells per acre on 977 acres) — and in five years, at least 780 could be expected to be leaking, he told the commission.
Ingraffea’s latest research was an effort to predict how often wells would leak. Industry research, webinars and conferences indicate a constant struggle with leaks. As he said on a TEDx talk similar to his presentation to the commission: “Industry continuously sponsors conferences and workshops on leaking wells while proclaiming to the public and especially to regulators that very few wells leak.” Ingraffea and his team read through 75,505 inspection reports on 27,455 gas wells in Pennsylvania since 2000. Those before 2009 are mostly conventional wells, drilled vertically; those after 2009 are mostly unconventional or “deviated” wells, which drill down and then horizontally for fracking. Marcellus wells are exclusively those unconventional wells. Ingraffea used a Cox proportional hazard model, for those who understand statistics, to make predictions about well leakiness. Some of his conclusions:
- 13 percent of all Marcellus wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2009 will leak after only two years.
- 45 percent of Marcellus wells drilled in northeast Pennsylvania since 2009 can be expected to fail after about six years.
- Unconventional (Marcellus) wells are 58 percent more likely to leak than conventional wells.
Implicit in fracking is that industry will put multiple wells on each frack pad in order to drill in many directions — as many as 19 at one site in Pennsylvania, he said. But “having many wells drilled close together on a pad … puts additional stress on a well that’s been cased and cemented,” he said. And more drilling means more demand placed on crews and equipment. And much of the drilling, he said, is being done by people who come from areas where snow and hills are rare. “If I were in charge, I’d be very careful who I give a permit to,” he said. (Although, he said, he found no correlation between size of the operator and number of leaks.)
Marylanders will have to decide “what leak rate you are willing to tolerate. Multiply [that] by the number of wells you want. … And figure how many people you’ll allow to lose water,” he said.
He said he didn’t know yet whether wells drilled after 2011, when Pennsylvania increased some requirements, were faring better. But he said strengthening well casings, which separate the drill from the aquifer, “is not the first place I would have gone” — because a casing is also supposed to be pliable and not shrink or crack.
“My opinion is that most of the contamination in Pennsylvania is a direct result of drilling through the aquifer.” While puncturing that aquifer, “there is no casing.” That would explain the quick contamination, he said.
Next up, Hildenbrand presented his study of arsenic levels in well water in 100 homes in the Barnett Shale in Texas. He and two other researchers chipped in $5,000 each to do the peer-reviewed study, which was published in 2013 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. They went door-to-door asking for water samples, getting doors slammed in their face and even a gun pointed at them, Hildenbrand said. Of the 91 water samples from wells in active drilling area (within 5 kilometers of a drill site), 29 had levels of arsenic above the level deemed safe by federal regulators; none of the samples beyond 3 kilometers had elevated levels. They also found elevated levels of barium, selenium and strontium in active drilling areas.
Critics dismiss these cases as “outliers,” Hildenbrand said. “But every single data point matters … because people drink that water. It’s our … moral obligation to tell them they have high levels of arsenic.”
The larger the setback, the greater the protection for people and groundwater, he said. In the area of his research, the setback was 250 feet and people were fighting for 1,000 feet. “I could throw a golf ball into a drilling site from people’s back porch.”
This project was the researchers’ “weekend job,” he said, explaining the decision to use their own money. “Taking funding from environmentalists or industry wouldn’t change our science but would change the perception of our science.”
Hoping to drown out these scientists at the meeting was the merchant of doubt, namely Mike Parker of the American Petroleum Institute and retired from ExxonMobil’s fracturing group. Setbacks are “a touchy subject,” he said. The concern — for industry, that is — is that setbacks “unreasonably limit development.” He said, “2,000 [feet] with a lousy company is no better than 500 with a stellar one.”
The Hildenbrand study? “Not quite the slam dunk” and “this needs to be looked at with a skeptical eye. They seem to pose more questions than conclusions.”
Of Ingraffea’s study of failing wells? “Not all ‘failures’ are necessarily failures.” They are “merely operators reporting something they have to report.” Some reports of “integrity issues” he termed “quite misleading.”
Reports of groundwater contamination? “To a scenario, most of these seem very unlikely.” He also repeated the industry claim that reports of methane in water are not industry’s fault because “methane in groundwater occurs naturally.”
He clearly hadn’t gotten the word about the research David Bolton presented to the commission last month showing that methane levels in Garrett and Allegany counties are very low — for now.
The unwilling bystanders, should fracking be permitted in Maryland, are hearing the scientists, as well as the warnings from residents in fracked states. Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the state’s shale advisory panel, met with some of those bystanders in December. He told his fellow commissioners, “What I heard unequivocally is that right now, we all feel we ‘could lose the lottery’ and end up near one of these things. Farm families who have owned properties and mineral rights for generations might end up one mailbox down from a 40-acre fracking compound run by a Colorado-based contractor working for Chinese leaseholders drilling for gas to be shipped to Asia via Cove Point. Far-fetched? Well, it’s happening 50 miles away, in Greene County, Pennsylvania, and if Cove Point gets built, that’s the closest exit point.” He said he will push for a state “superfund” law that would cover fracking and “require the industry responsible to fully fund” a remediation program.
Scientists count and measure to show the changes, large and small, that industry dismisses as anecdotal and unimportant. Study by painstaking study, they outline the harm and the risks that industry would silence, even as every few days of late another pipeline ruptures or explodes, or a frack pad fire rages. And Chevron makes amends with pizza coupons. Or Halliburton pays a fine that will not undo the damage of, say, hydrochloric acid in the river. And then the Pennsylvania State Police labels as terrorists those who would protect our life-support system. The words of Pete Seeger are coming to mind: When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”
Too risky: CitizenShale and Chesapeake Climate Action Network released results from an independent risk analysis they commissioned by Ricardo-AEA. The European firm, which also led a fracking risk review for the European Commission, found a “high risk” of groundwater and surface water contamination; damage to water resources from excessive withdrawals; air pollution from gas flaring, pipeline leaks, compressors; noise; loss of biodiversity; damage to tourism from the industrial landscape; road hazards from traffic, accidents and spills. It also found a “very high risk” of loss of land to development.
February 15, 2014
By NADINE GRABANIA
Hi, my name is Nadine Grabania. I live in Garrett County where I own a small farm and winery. Tonight I want to tell you why I care about the environment and how — let’s get the F-word out of the way — Fracking — will change communities across our state. I ask you to join me — and our state’s environmental leaders — to pass the Shale Gas Drilling Safety Review Act of 2014 — it’s our only way to ensure that Maryland’s lawmakers and citizens can make an informed choice on whether to frack Maryland.
Since I was old enough to explore the forest behind my childhood home in the suburbs of southwestern Pennsylvania, I’ve cared for the natural world. So it’s an honor to be a guest of Maryland’s environmental community tonight. To all of you who give your time to protect our shared resources: Thank you!
Shortly after my husband and I became parents, we left established careers: his in journalism; mine, as an art museum curator. We wanted to simplify our lives and start our own business, in a safe, quiet place far from polluted air that aggravates my asthma.
Our tiny plot of land has all we need for this simple life: a good water well, room to grow fruit trees, an organic garden, and grapes. The area is not merely picturesque; there is a fresh-ness about the place because it has pretty much escaped development. These qualities draw a lot of people to visit, to invest in, to retire in, to escape to my county. If you’ve ever been to Mountain Maryland, you know. It’s a charmed place.
But three years ago, life stopped being simple. Chevron was seeking to drill one of Maryland’s first fracking wells just over the hill. From that moment, we started asking questions and have never stopped.
“How many trucks will go by our home at all hours to get to this well site? What will they be carrying? How will this affect livestock? And children? This is how close to the Youghiogheny River?”
Economic questions like:
“How will new local jobs be created, when crews are working for the same companies over the state line in West Virginia and Pennsylvania? Who will visit if our farms and forests become industrial sites?”
“What will my property be worth if a compressor station is built in my neighbor’s field?”
And elemental questions:
“What will be emitted into the air? Will I be trapped here and unable to breathe?” And of course: “What happens if my water is contaminated?”Our questions led us to others in our county’s agri-tourism, construction, and real estate sectors who were concerned about fracking. Our economy relies heavily upon tourism dollars and property taxes on vacation homes. Yet, local and state officials dismissed our concerns outright.
When people started coming to us for answers, we formed CitizenShale to educate about the full impacts of industrial gas development, and to work for adequate protections should fracking occur. Rowing in the opposite direction from our local elected officials gave CitizenShale’s founders free lessons in democracy school: If no one stands up to ask tough questions, citizens must do it. If no one “in charge” seems willing to address a problem, citizens must confront it.
Thankfully, a legislator from across the state — our dear friend Del. Heather Mizeur — agreed to introduce a moratorium bill in the 2011 session. Delegate Mizeur understood early that fracking is not just a western Maryland issue.
Now it’s 2014, and gas companies from Texas are leasing land across the Potomac in Virginia, to frack the Taylorsville Basin. It’s beneath our feet. Suddenly fracking could happen near many more of us.
Last month, three different DC metro water authorities told the [U.S.] Forest Service that fracking in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest could threaten the Potomac — and the water supply for the nation’s capital. Mountain Maryland sends water into the Potomac’s North Branch. For Marylanders who get their water from the Potomac, fracking “elsewhere” in Maryland could harm your water. And we do not want to send anything bad to the Bay.
And, as Mike Tidwell told us, if Dominion receives permission to export LNG from Cove Point, communities across our state could face development of pipelines and compressor stations to move fracked gas to Asia. When someone wants to build a pipeline in your neighborhood, a federal regulator rubber stamps the location. Currently no program exists to inspect the miles of pipeline that would result from transmission of fracked gas in our state.
When Governor O’Malley issued his 2011 Executive Order establishing the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Commission and current study period, he gave us a chance that is unique in the nation. No other state has been able to so thoroughly study this issue before taking action, and we must get this right.
And in some ways, we are. One of the studies mandated by the Safe Drilling Initiative was an analysis of Dissolved Methane Concentrations in well water. My family — and the State of Maryland — now has proof that, today, our well water contains no methane. The “vast majority” of local wells sampled did not exhibit significant methane concentrations. Not only do we have beginning baseline data, but also the public record is clear: Our water is worth protecting!
Other important information has been produced in three years of Commission work. The study of Public Health is moving forward. And, due in part to pressure from the coalition of organizations working on this issue, the state is conducting a risk assessment of fracking’s potential impacts, while a second, parallel assessment has been commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and CitizenShale.
The study period has given us time to learn more from research and experiences elsewhere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 report found methane to be an even more potent greenhouse gas than previously understood: 84 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years, and 28 times more potent over 100 years.
We now have data from the Pennsylvania Department of the Environment confirming, in its own violation reports, casing failure rates of up to 7.2% within the first year a well is drilled. 14,394 households in my county rely on water wells for drinking water. So if we drill for gas in Maryland, 1 of the first 14 wells will experience methane migration — or worse — due to casing failure.
Also from Pennsylvania today: You may have heard that today a Chevron gas well exploded in Greene County. This is one hour from Garrett County. Twenty workers were on-site; unfortunately one did not survive.
Watching Pennsylvania’s experience has also shown us how the opinions of the courts have evolved in a state with active drilling. Last December in an opinion issued by a bipartisan majority, the PA Supreme Court wrote some stunning words. They said: “By any responsible account, the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and future generations, and potentially the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction.”
Governor O’Malley’s Executive Order expires in August 2014, which is the deadline for state agencies to complete their studies.
When that deadline arrives, the studies will wrap up and the commission will have 60 days to consider the information and draw final conclusions. Will we know all we need to know? Do we have adequate time to understand the issues? Are we comfortable with essentially leaving this decision up to the governor — either our current governor or the next one — with no input from the public or the General Assembly?
Shouldn’t the legislature be given the opportunity to delve into the information collected by the state — especially since it’s certainly not clear that fracking can proceed in Maryland without posing unacceptable risk?
If legislators do not intervene now, Maryland communities like mine will lack any legal protections come August — regardless of the commission’s findings. And the state could feasibly issue drilling permits by the time the General Assembly reconvenes in 2015. The Shale Gas Drilling and Safety Review act will ensure we get all the facts on the table so that public and legislators alike have a chance to respond. Whether or not fracking poses unacceptable risks to Marylanders is a question that should be answered by all Marylanders. The process should be transparent.
This is our last chance to put our figurative stake in the ground, before the gas industry drives real ones into Maryland soil, staking its claim to Maryland’s resources.
These are life-changing questions: Will we choose to value shale gas over the health of our communities? Should we gamble the safety of our air and water on a get-rich-quick scheme?
The people who live atop Maryland’s gas basins must set our hopes on making wise choices. We need to do this. My mountain neighbors want to invite you to visit with this slogan, courtesy of my friend Crede Calhoun: “Come to mountain Maryland. We saved it for you.”
February 10, 2014
I first talked with Steve Norris last summer, while we hiked on the C&O trail during the Walk for Our Grandchildren. Steve came up with the idea for the protest walk as a way to celebrate his 70th birthday while drawing attention to climate change, the Keystone XL pipeline and our ruinous dependence on fossil fuels. A longtime activist, Norris is a professor of peace and justice studies at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. On Jan. 31, he and his students drove a pickup truck and three cars loaded with water north to West Virginia, to a Boone County town where people still can’t turn on the tap to bathe a child, make a cup of tea, cook a pot of soup. The water was contaminated more than a month ago when Freedom Industries’ tank of toxic coal-washing chemicals leaked into the Elk River. A mile downstream was the intake pipe for American Water, the private company that provides water for 300,000 people in Charleston and nine surrounding counties. Below is his account of the trip. — elisabeth hoffman
By STEVE NORRIS
Last Friday, seven students and I took my pickup truck with the 210-gallon tank from the 2013 Walk full of water and three other cars loaded down with another 250 gallons of water to West Virginia. We also took the $400 we had raised locally and drove to Whitesville in Boone County, where RAMPS has its office in a rundown old storefront. RAMPS stands for Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival and has been a presence for some time now, leading gritty and dangerous protests against mountaintop removal, including a 50-person occupation in 2012 of the Hobet mountaintop removal mine, the largest strip mine on the East Coast. Twenty or so people were arrested in that action and spent up to two weeks in jail, including one of the student organizers of this trip to deliver water. Now RAMPS is helping to coordinate delivery of donated clean water to residents of the area.
About a month ago, on January 9, a corrupt and poorly run and poorly regulated chemical company called Freedom Industries spilled a highly toxic chemical (MCHM) from its storage tanks into the Elk River, contaminating the water supply of 300,000 people in nine counties. Freedom Industries has a very checkered history and connections to the Koch brothers. It stores and sells chemicals used to process coal from West Virginia mines. At first FEMA and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection got involved, and the governor declared the Elk River water unsafe for all drinking, cooking and bathing. But within a week or so they pulled out and declared the water safe for everyone except pregnant women and babies under 3. In the meantime, Freedom Industries has declared bankruptcy.
People we met in the Whitesville area didn’t accept the reassurances coming from public authorities. Most complained that the water smelled, either with a licorice-like odor or of formaldehyde, which could be forming as a result of interactions between MCHM and other chemicals, plastics or metals in the pipes. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Some said the water looks murky. A few complained that the odors permeated their houses. One young woman with two young children said she was losing hair and had developed a rash. No one we met believed that the water was safe. Even in the Walmart, where we drove to buy bottled water, when I tried to buy some hot coffee on the cold, rainy Sunday morning, I was told that none was available because of contaminated water.
So in all we had the 450 gallons of water we had carried from Asheville and another 800 gallons of bottled water we purchased with our $400. When we arrived at the RAMPS office in Whitesville on Friday at midnight, RAMPS organizers Bagdhadi, Nat and De explained to us that on Saturday morning we might be working with a group from Texas called the Texas State Militia who do border patrolling in Texas and who had promised to bring 2,000 gallons of water. So we talked about various scenarios of how to coordinate with them. As it turned out, the Militia never showed up, and on Saturday morning, feeling disorganized and chaotic, we were on our own.
First stop was Amazing Grace Covenant Church, a fairly new and spacious church in Seth, about 15 miles up Route 3 from Whitesville. We set up our water operations in the front parking lot, and all day long people came in their cars, some with bottles of their own, which we filled after answering the all important question of “where did this water come from?” Another group of us loaded bottles of water in two cars and went house to house in nearby Prenter Holler, a small neighborhood of trailers on Sand Lick Road down the mountain from four coal mines. We knocked on the doors of these old, broken-down homes with muddy mid-winter yards and asked people if they wanted free bottled water. No one turned us down. Many people were elderly and told us they had a hard time getting out. A couple of people said they were out of fresh clean water entirely and we had shown up just in time.
A little while later, a student Emily and I set up my truck with its 210-gallon tank full of water in front of Tamara’s trailer on the corner of Prenter Road and Sand Lick Road near a creek. Tamara, who is a high-spirited 35-year-old woman with a tattoo on her neck, and 4 or 6 children living with her, is a natural-born community organizer. She roused two of her teenage daughters from their beds and somehow inspired them to go knock on doors up the holler, telling people to come and get the water. She also put word out on Facebook. All day long, as huge 18-wheelers loaded with coal rushed past on Prenter Road, families drove up in pickup trucks or all-terrain vehicles or cars, and we filled their bottles with the water which, I explained, came from my spring in North Carolina. “You brought this water all the way from N.C.?” “Yeah, we came here yesterday.” “Oh, you are so kind. Thank you for coming all this way.” Seldom in my life have I felt such gratitude.
One older man gave us $5 in appreciation. When I protested, he replied, “You’ve gotta take it. Buy yourselves some coffee.” He must not have realized even Walmart was not making coffee with water from the Elk River. One very thin 61-year-old man stayed long enough to tell us his story: “27 years in the mines, and now I have black lung and a herniated disc.” A teenage high school girl spent 15 minutes talking with us: “I get all A’s in school.” She obviously loves school and would be a teacher’s joy, and I could not help but wonder where this holler will take her in five or in ten years, or whether maybe she could get out. And a young guy in a small RV talked about how the fish in the streams have disappeared in the last few years.
Everyone seemed dazed about what had happened and more or less resigned to this new way of life. No one knows how long the water emergency will last or how they will cope as days and weeks may become months. No one talked about it, and although some people clearly were angry at Freedom Industries or their public officials, no one talked about protest. A couple of people explained how, until two or three years ago, people had been drinking well water. However, the well water eventually became contaminated from coal slurry sludge, which had been pumped into abandoned mines and then found its way into their groundwater. And eventually their wells. At that point, the public authorities insisted that people take water from the county. Now the public water supply is also too polluted for human consumption.
Immediately across the road was a fast-moving stream, mostly covered with ice on this winter’s day, flowing at a rate of maybe 1,000 gallons a minute This would be enough water for a small town, and yet, there’s no water for the 200 people in this holler to drink. And what about the animals and the fish? We could hear this water singing its way past us as a Confederate flag flew above a nearby trailer, and we filled people’s gallon jugs with water hauled all the way from North Carolina.
At the end of the day, a few of us gathered back in the parking lot of Grace Covenant Church to fill a few more gallon jugs and to pack up our supplies. As we were about to leave, a woman walked up to us across Route 3 and with a friendly smile asked: “Hi. I’m Julia. I want to introduce myself and ask you if you folks oppose coal?” We chatted amicably for several minutes, letting her know that yes, some of us had even been arrested protesting against coal, but at the same time avoiding a heated argument. She never did say where she stood on the issue. As she left, she waved and repeated with the same smile: “I just wanted to know where you stand.”
Good question. For the last several days, I’ve been pondering it. I have no questions about coal. It has to go. In North Carolina this week, this has been made glaringly obvious to anyone willing to pay attention by the massive spill from a coal ash retention pond owned by Duke Energy; up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of water has spilled into the Dan River, which is the public water supply for several nearby communities downstream. The river water and riverbank have turned gray with the sludge, which contains a witch’s brew of poisons like arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury.
At the same time, though, my heart breaks for the miners and their families who live in Prenter Holler. How do I tell them that coal, which is the bedrock of their homes and the icon of their culture and the center of their way of life – how can I tell these very poor people that their bedrock is not sustainable and that it is killing their mountains, and killing their fish, and will, if not contained, kill much of human civilization?
I don’t know how to answer Julia’s questions, or how to spend the gentleman’s $5, or what to say to the high school girl, or how to bring the fish back, or even how to get a hot coffee at Walmart.