It's time to have an honest conversation about our water - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

It's time to have an honest conversation about our water

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Tarence Ray Tarence Ray

Tarence Ray is Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator with Appalachian Voices, a regional nonprofit organization.

Not many people trust the municipal water in Whitesburg, Kentucky, where I live. Sometimes it comes out of the faucet brown. It tastes terrible. A few years back an oil merchant spilled a bunch of diesel into our water supply and didn’t tell the public for about 48 hours. He was slapped with a paltry fine. 

Residents of West Virginia can surely relate. The light sentencing of the Freedom Industries executives who poisoned Charleston’s water supply with MCHM is the news of the day. West Virginia Public Broadcasting ran a letter from West Virginia Wesleyan professor Eric Waggoner that summed up the feelings of Freedom’s many victims. It is rage, pure and simple.

Residents of Flint, Michigan, can surely relate. I’ve seen countless pleas for the de-politicization of this preventable crisis, which has taken a backseat to partisan squabbling over blame. This is maybe the most troubling smokescreen of our time; apparently you are immune to prosecution if you convince the public that your crimes were non-partisan.

Water is the most important natural resource, and Americans — central Appalachians especially — are increasingly forced to fight for it. In eastern Kentucky, we get about 60 inches of rain a year. It’s a cruel joke that most of that water is virtually unusable once it hits the ground; one study found that 65 percent of rivers and streams in southern Appalachia are in poor condition.

Try to tell the people in power about these problems and they don’t listen. When the leaders don’t listen you start to worry. A recent New York Times article informs us, “Investors are mining for water, the next hot commodity.” The article quotes an investor outlining the future of the market: “Investing in the water industry is one of the great opportunities for the coming decades. Water is the scarce resource that will define the 21st century, much like plentiful oil defined the last century.”

So what are our leaders in Appalachia doing to invest in the ample water resources in their own backyard to make sure future generations have clean water? They’re avoiding the issue by folding it into the old “economy vs. the environment” debate. But how much did Charleston businesses suffer after the chemical spill? How many billions of dollars in health and infrastructure will it cost to clean up Flint?

Recent congressional hearings on the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s proposed Stream Protection Rule provide other illuminating examples of this tactic. While many Appalachians struggle to raise public awareness about their water quality problems, the National Mining Association is snatching headlines with a sensational claim: up to 105 percent of the region’s coal jobs will be killed by the Stream Protection Rule, which would tighten environmental standards at surface mines. 

An economist with the World Bank Group, Jon Halpern, produced a study that shows just how misleading the NMA’s claim is. Aside from relying on bad methodology, the NMA refused to look at the benefits of the rule and of clean water. As Halpern told me, “We don’t know what it’s worth exactly in dollars. But we know what it’s worth in human terms. People are just as afraid of getting sick, of their crops and livestock withering, of their fisheries drying up and their surroundings being degraded, as they are of possible loss of coal mining jobs.”

The conversation on water has moved so far into the realm of abstraction that we’d rather privatize it than have an honest conversation about how to clean it up and protect it. Meanwhile, we in Appalachia are going to be stuck with water pollution long after the coal mines have closed. After the KD No. 2 mine near Kanawha State Forest was shut down, West Virginians like Jim Waggy worried the damage had been done. “The evidence makes it seem almost certain that a condition of perpetual acid mine drainage from this mine site has been created.” he said. “When this operator discontinues mining on the site, the citizens of West Virginia will have to choose between accepting a biologically degraded watershed or paying the formidable costs of perpetual water treatment.”

Out west, they’d love to have the amount of water we get. But here we’ve taken it for granted, and we’re not doing nearly enough to ensure this resource for the next generation of Appalachians. Will we prioritize this asset — or let it become just another battleground for inaction and political posturing? 

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