West Virginia’s Water May Be Safer, But Mine Workers Could Still Be in Danger

Melinda Tuhus

The chemical spill in West Virginia, which affected the water supply of residents in nine counties, prompted legislators to enact a 'spill bill' requiring more heavy regulation on coal preparation facilities. (The National Guard Flickr / Creative Commons)

Joe Stan­ley, a for­mer min­er in West Vir­ginia, is no stranger to MCHM (4‑Methylcyclohexane Methanol), the licorice-scent­ed chem­i­cal that leaked into the water sup­ply of up to 300,000 West Vir­gini­ans on Jan­u­ary 9. Once it was even­tu­al­ly report­ed, res­i­dents in a nine-coun­ty region were warned not to use the water for any pur­pose. Even though the West Vir­ginia Amer­i­can Water Com­pa­ny told the gen­er­al pub­lic a few days lat­er that the pipes had been flushed and the water was safe, many in the area still refuse to drink it today.

To some liv­ing around Charleston, the rev­e­la­tion that their water had been con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed came as a shock. But as far as many activists are con­cerned, the spill was an inevitable result of West Virginia’s noto­ri­ous­ly lax envi­ron­men­tal laws. For exam­ple, West Vir­ginia had no reg­u­la­tions cov­er­ing inspec­tion of above­ground stor­age tanks until this year, when a bill to address this over­sight — and oth­er aspects of the leak’s after­math — made its way to the legislature.

On March 8, in the last week of the leg­isla­tive ses­sion, sup­port­ers of the bill ral­lied at the state capi­tol in hopes of pre­vent­ing anoth­er such dis­as­ter. Stan­ley, who spent the last 17 years of his career sur­round­ed by tox­ic waste leav­ings in a coal prepa­ra­tion plant, was one of them. He hoped that his expe­ri­ence with MCHM, and with the indus­try in gen­er­al, would lend extra cre­dence to his advo­ca­cy at Charleston. 

Stan­ley worked at the Mar­row­bone Devel­op­ment Com­pa­ny in Min­go Coun­ty, W.Va. In 1982, he was trained to wash” the coal as a fil­ter press oper­a­tor. In addi­tion, he says he was cross-trained in almost every job in the plant, giv­ing him a good overview of the process­es and chem­i­cals used — includ­ing MCHM.

Mar­row­bone was not the com­pa­ny respon­si­ble for the MCHM spill in Jan­u­ary; that was Free­dom Indus­tries, which stored it on the banks of the Elk Riv­er. But the chem­i­cal was present at Mar­row­bone dur­ing Stan­ley’s tenure there, and it’s still cur­rent­ly used at about 20 to 25 per­cent of coal prep plants around the state to clean” met­al­lur­gi­cal coal of some impurities.

It cre­ates a foam and catch­es fine par­ti­cles of coal … and ends up in the slur­ry — a heavy sludge prod­uct that’s the result of clean­ing coal,” Stan­ley says of MCHM. Some of the slur­ry is inject­ed into old under­ground mines, but much of it ends up in bil­lion-gal­lon impound­ments,” where Stan­ley says there’s a chance of a more cat­a­stroph­ic break. Accord­ing to Stan­ley, as a fil­ter press oper­a­tor, he would have been more exposed to MCHM and oth­er chem­i­cals than most prep plant work­ers because he was in con­tact with the slur­ry on a dai­ly basis.

He also says there was no indi­ca­tion on MCH­M’s Mate­r­i­al Safe­ty Data Sheets, intend­ed to pro­vide work­ers and emer­gency per­son­nel with chem­i­cal han­dling pro­ce­dures, indi­cat­ing any tox­i­c­i­ty or long-term health prob­lems with the sub­stance. That does­n’t mean it’s safe, how­ev­er. Instead, it means that MCHM is just one of 62,000 chem­i­cals that were grand­fa­thered in for con­tin­ued use under the Tox­ic Sub­stances Con­trol Act of 1976 because they were then deemed — with no proof — not to be haz­ardous. The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency has required test­ing for only 200 of them.

The result, Stan­ley points out, is that the reg­u­la­to­ry bur­den is not on a com­pa­ny to prove its chem­i­cals are safe, but on the pub­lic to prove they are not. Work­ers are exposed to so many chem­i­cals that, with­out a sci­en­tif­ic study,” he adds, there’s no way to know which of them are detri­men­tal to their health, and to what degree.”

In 1993, Stan­ley helped orga­nize Local 93 of the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, which cov­ered about 500 employ­ees at the plant, as well as under­ground min­ers and work­ers in sur­face oper­a­tions. He also became its first pres­i­dent. One of his first acts as union leader was to request that the Mine Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion and the Nation­al Insti­tute for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health (NIOSH) do an inves­ti­ga­tion of chem­i­cals — includ­ing MCHM — used in the min­ing process, which he guessed were lead­ing to med­ical prob­lems among workers.

Some of our min­ers were hav­ing adverse health effects, and I’m talk­ing ner­vous dis­or­ders, kid­ney fail­ure, things of that nature,” Stan­ley says.

After its ini­tial walk­through, NIOSH alleged­ly request­ed the work­ers’ con­tact infor­ma­tion so it could con­duct a long-term health study, but Stan­ley says the com­pa­ny refused to release it; even­tu­al­ly, the mat­ter was dropped. Mar­row­bone declared bank­rupt­cy in the ear­ly 2000s. A few years lat­er, it reopened as a non-union shop.

Even decades after Stanley’s stint at Mar­row­bone, there’s still very lit­tle infor­ma­tion about MCHM avail­able to work­ers and the pub­lic. One glob­al sup­pli­er’s ver­sion of the Mate­r­i­al Data Safe­ty Sheet, released in 2006, sim­ply reads, No spe­cif­ic infor­ma­tion is avail­able in our data­base [sic] regard­ing the tox­ic effects of this mate­r­i­al for humans,” though it does acknowl­edge the poten­tial for irri­ta­tion after skin or eye con­tact. Con­sid­er­ing MCHM’s preva­lence through­out the state and the wide-rang­ing con­se­quences its spill had ear­li­er this year, how­ev­er, Stan­ley hopes that the leg­is­la­ture will enact poli­cies man­dat­ing indus­try-wide trans­paren­cy about the chemical.

And at least in the short term, Stanley’s advo­ca­cy — along with that of the oth­er sup­port­ers gath­ered at Charleston — seems to have paid off. The West Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture did pass March 8’s bill, though it is far from the reg­u­la­to­ry over­haul many envi­ron­men­tal­ists and work­ers’ advo­cates say the state needs. The bill includes stricter per­mit require­ments for com­pa­nies that want to store chem­i­cals above­ground, man­dat­ing greater enforce­ment and inspec­tion in areas around drink­ing water intakes. It also requires ear­ly warn­ing mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems for some con­t­a­m­i­nants to be installed in large water util­i­ties through­out the state. On April 1, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the leg­is­la­tion into law.

This is cer­tain­ly a great first step in terms of improv­ing the state’s safe­ty stan­dards. But as far as work­ers are con­cerned, there’s still a lot of progress to be made. After all, though the bill will hope­ful­ly lim­it the gen­er­al pub­lic’s con­tact with harm­ful chem­i­cals, many employ­ees with­in the min­ing indus­try spend their days sur­round­ed by tox­ic leav­ings. In addi­tion to estab­lish­ing more strin­gent reg­u­la­tions, the new leg­is­la­tion com­mis­sions the Bureau of Pub­lic Health to enact a study of the long-term health effects of January’s leak; Stan­ley hopes the endeav­or will help to shed light on MCHM as a whole, in turn poten­tial­ly lead­ing to improved safe­ty pro­to­cols for those exposed to it on a dai­ly basis.

In the mean­time, he says, he’ll be close­ly fol­low­ing the work of inde­pen­dent researchers look­ing into the spill — espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing the con­se­quences of MCHM’s inter­ac­tions with oth­er min­ing chemicals. 

Melin­da Tuhus is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist with 25 years of expe­ri­ence in print and radio, includ­ing In These Times, The New York Times, Free Speech Radio News and pub­lic radio stations.
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