Chemical Spill In W. Va. Tests Tolerance For Big Coal

Apr 3, 2014
Originally published on April 3, 2014 8:27 am

Linda Wertheimer talks to Evan Osnos about his New Yorker piece in which he explores how the coal industry has become a political player in the state, and what that could mean for future regulation.

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Earlier this year, residents of Charleston, West Virginia noticed a strong scent in the air almost like licorice - but it wasn't candy, it was a chemical leak at an industrial facility overlooking the Elk River. A tank filled with a chemical used to wash coal was leaking into the river and would ultimately go into the Ohio River, causing one of the worst contaminations of drinking water in the country's history.

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Evan Osnos writes about the coal industry's sizeable clout in West Virginia, a state where the political landscape began to shift several years ago.

EVAN OSNOS: West Virginia had been a reliably Democratic state going back to FDR, and in 2000, for the first time in a long time, West Virginia voted for a Republican, for George W. Bush. In fact, if Al Gore had won West Virginia, he would have won the presidency.

WERTHEIMER: So that changes a lot of things, that change in the political culture.

OSNOS: Exactly. What we've seen in the years since then is that the state has moved quite sharply towards the right. And the effect is felt very distinctly in the way the government conducts its business.

WERTHEIMER: You describe a state where the regulations covering the coal industry, related water quality centers, all of that, have been weakened. How did it happen?

OSNOS: Over the course of the last few years, the elected leaders of West Virginia have said that they will resist what they called the Obama administration's war on coal. As an example, senior members of the Environmental Protection Department have told me that the governor, Joe Manchin, from 2005 to 2010...


OSNOS: A Democrat who believes very strongly in the importance of coal. He told the environmental inspectors very clearly that he didn't want them to be focused most on enforcement. He wanted them focused most on what he called compliance assistance, which was not issuing fines and violations but is, in fact, encouraging companies to do better. As a result, the federal government came in and said that West Virginia's environmental enforcement had become so lax, that they were no longer able to prevent even what was described as willful intentional violations from happening.

WERTHEIMER: The governor wanted coal, as you quote him in your article, to be comfortable.

OSNOS: He wanted companies to be comfortable. One of the things that he did when he came into office was he added a new slogan for the State of West Virginia. It had always presented itself to outsiders with the slogan: Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. And he added the slogan: Open for Business.

WERTHEIMER: Did this spill then become some kind of a tipping point, to sort of arrest that progress toward deregulation and take the state in a different direction?

OSNOS: West Virginia has had five major accidents over the last eight years. But most of these cases, they're up in the mountains. They're far out of view. This was a case that affected the capital, the biggest city in the state - 300,000 people were left without tap water. And I think it has forced a conversation about what happens to the basic functions of government, something as simple as the delivery of drinking water, when you go about and change what a government does and how it regulates the industries.

WERTHEIMER: The West Virginia legislature did pull up its socks and pass a bill. How does that bill stack up against environmental legislation passed in other places?

OSNOS: The good news out of this story is that the bill that was passed after this spill is a good bill. It actually went after some of the heart of the problem here, which is that there were loopholes in the law that allowed chemical storage facilities to hold large amounts of chemicals on the banks of the river. And the state didn't know all that much about it.

WERTHEIMER: Despite the power of big coal, this piece does seem to have a sort of subtext which suggests that this might be coal's last stand.

OSNOS: What's really interesting about what happened in West Virginia is that you have an industry that is shrinking economically in America. But as it shrinks, it has organized itself politically and it's become a more potent force in state government and ultimately also in federal government. You know, what the coal industry has done is transformed the conversation about energy into a cultural issue.

In a place like West Virginia, people feel very acutely that their background, that their history is rooted in the success of the coal industry. After all, there's a coal miner on the state flag. And if you ask people: Well, what percentage do you think the coal industry contributes to the labor force, people will tell you 15 percent, 20 percent. Today the number is three percent. And so this is partly about altering people's perceptions and helping them imagine a future that actually is more diverse than relying on the coal industry.

WERTHEIMER: The New Yorker's Evan Osnos. His piece, "Chemical Valley: The Coal Industry, the Politicians and the Big Spill," is in the current New Yorker.

Thank you very much.

OSNOS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.