to west virginia, with water

February 10, 2014

photo of steve norris

Steve Norris and some of his students traveled to West Virginia with clean water.

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


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.


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