The miserable 2014 water crisis happened partly because West Virginia has become a conservative “red state” whose elected leaders obey the fading coal industry and don’t police polluters. That’s the conclusion of a long report in the April 7 New Yorker.
“The spill struck a state in the throes of one of America’s most thorough political transformations,” the article says. “Once a Democratic stronghold, West Virginia has moved so far to the right that, in 2012, President Obama lost all 55 counties, a first for a presidential candidate of either major party. The New Yorker praises this newspaper’s environmental reporter, Ken Ward Jr. It continues:
“In 2008, The Charleston Gazette discovered that in a nearly five-year period, coal companies had self-reported around 25,000 violations of the Clean Water Act, but the DEP had not reviewed the reports or issued a fine.”
Federal agencies found that West Virginia’s pollution enforcement was so weak that “the consequences for violating the law, even when the violations are intentional, willful and blatant, are not significant enough to be a deterrent.”
Consultant Evan Hansen testified before the Legislature about the Manchin and Tomblin administrations:
“In the past 10 or 15 years, they’ve systematically weakened virtually all the major water-quality standards that apply to the coal industry. One by one, there’s been a steady effort to undermine the implementation of environmental laws.”
The New Yorker says Big Coal is dying in West Virginia, yet it still controls politicians. “In 1948, West Virginia had 126,000 coal miners. By 2011, four-fifths of those jobs were gone. The most accessible reserves had been mined, and machines were cutting demand for workers underground. But King Coal remained a singular political force.”
In this new “red state” mentality, it’s little wonder that state regulators ignored a dilapidated Elk Valley tank farm, partly owned by a felon, until it leaked coal industry chemicals and spoiled the water supply for 300,000.
The New Yorker notes that Gov. Tomblin consulted only coal and chemical officials — ignoring non-polluters — in drafting a bill to prevent such leaks. But a crusading state senator, “Democrat John Unger, a pastor and former Rhodes Scholar,” insisted on a tougher new law. Now Unger expects Republicans like the billionaire Koch brothers to try to defeat him this year. “I know I’m targeted,” Unger said. “I see the red dot on me.”
You might say that the red dot is on the whole state.