Saturday, January 11, 2014

Freely Poisoning the Elk River

I was walking in the pouring rain this morning.  The temperature was hovering just around freezing.  The largest lake – once a vital water supply for the city of Charlottesville – was still covered with ice save an area of about 100 square meters that had been kept in motion by the Canadian geese that winter in our giant backyard.  The geese were foraging on the muddy banks moving in and out of the mist that shrouded the cedar trees.  My breath lingered in front of my face just long enough to remind me of the warmth that I was expelling against the cold enveloping me.  All was quiet and still.  Water everywhere. 

One hundred seventy miles away at a bearing of 277 over 300,000 people were awash in a very different experience with water.  Courtesy of a $400,000 grant from the Federal Government’s “stimulus” program provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the spring of 2009, Dennis Farrell’s plans to vacate his toxic chemical processing and storage facility were thwarted and his much needed river dredging took place.  The Elk River and filled with so much sand, silt and mud that it had “affected barge service from his business.”  Together with Martin Marietta and Arrow Concrete, Freedom Industries needed the Elk to run deep so they could be “economically fit to run the facility”.  Reading the Friday May 8, 2009 article by Jake Stump, a reporter for the Daily Mail Capitol Reporter, I wondered how many West Virginian’s would be pleased to know that the estimated $26 million in profit that Freedom Industries reportedly made back then was more important to company owners than insuring against the leak that has rendered the State Capitol a Federal Disaster Area where all you can do with the water is flush toilets.  If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t dredged the river, it would have “cut the heart out of this company,” Farrell was quoted as saying.  A few short years later, Freedom Industries, profitable heart still pumping had an aneurysm that has put the body in jeopardy.

The water contamination in Charleston West Virginia is a disaster to be sure.  Having hundreds of thousands of people unable to drink, wash, or prepare food is an unspeakable tragedy.  But the reporting and the public discourse around the estimated 5,000 gallons of uncontained methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) seems to be neglecting the fact to which we’re all supposed to remain oblivious.  This event is a crisis of the Commons and we’re missing the story.

MCHM is known to be hazardous to humans.  According to the National Library of Medicine, low dose exposure can irritate the eyes and skin while larger dose exposure can cause damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and may result in death.  Medical journals from the early 1980s reported on environmental exposure leading to serious morbidity and mortality concerns.  At the incorporation of Freedom Industries in 1986, we knew that MCHM was toxic and harmful to humans.  Yet We The People thought that it was good economics to place this plant on a river that serves as a watershed and drinking source for hundreds of thousands of people.  Why? Because barge transport (the reported secret to Freedom Industries’ economic success) on a public waterway (the Commons) was profitably expedient. 

And while every news network squawks on about citizens drinking bottled water and being unable to bathe, wash dishes or go out to eat at the now shuttered restaurants, none of the coverage actually takes on the fundamental issue.  We The People paid $400,000 for the right to have this disaster.  We The People will now have the right to pay for the clean-up and the massive loss of revenue to West Virginia’s businesses.  And, reflexively, We The People will turn to the Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard, FEMA and charities to address the immediate human suffering all the while neglecting the hundreds of Freedom Industries clones across the country and around the world where the utility of nature is being used for unconsidered profit while the same utility becomes the agency of our collective poisoning. 

When I was a kid, I remember sitting in the winter rain at our house at 357 South San Antonio, Upland California about this time of year.  Migrating Cedar Waxwings would leave their breeding grounds in northern Canada and fly south to balmy southern California where a raucous flock of them would visit our house.  Perched on the powerlines running down the street, the birds would gather in the morning for a Bacchanalian festival of epic proportions.  You see, in front of our house we had a pyracantha bush which, in the winter, would be covered in bright red and orange pomes.  Each year, these berry-looking clusters would ferment and, by the time of the birds’ arrival, they would be entirely laden with alcohol.  Predictably, the early flights of the birds would be from the lines to the bush and then back to the lines.  As the morning wore on, landing on the lines got ever more tenuous and by midday, many of the birds were too drunk to fly.  Invariably, some of these little fowl would wind up dropping out of the sky and landing in the path of cars zipping up and down San Antonio Blvd and end their tiny existence – all for what seemed like such a great idea. 

I reflected on these birds when I noticed on the Freedom Industries website their red white and blue emblazoned bald eagle – land of the free, home of the brave, patriotic façade – and the far less visible, subtle chemical compound on the upper left of the site – H3COH.  My childhood birdies were killed with ethanol – C2H6O – but let’s not stand on chemical ceremony.  When you feed an eagle methanol, you get a toxically drunk eagle just like when Cedar Waxwings eat lethal doses of ethanol.  And if the flock of cackling, drunk birds (in my metaphor, the horde of media converging on Charleston) don’t snap out of it, we’ll migrate to another one of these entirely avoidable tragedies again – maybe next year, maybe tomorrow – who knows?

At a speech I gave recently, I ranted endlessly about the use of the word “free”.  In the instance of my presentation, I was highlighting the fact that the concept of “free” is a social illusion that really masks the deep pathology of callous ignorance and indifference.  The illusion of “free” invites its evil corollary “for the taking” and leads to a conscious neglect of considering the entirety of a system.  The Elk River wasn’t “free” to “use”.  And now that We The People have contaminated it, we’re given an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the water we take from it is not “free” either.  If we actually saw the Elk River as an invaluable treasure, we wouldn’t foul it with chemical plants and barges.  If we saw water as the undisputed arbiter of life and death, we’d be less willing to see others destroy it.  But we don’t!  And, on this rainy, chilly January weekend, we’re paying for “free”.



  1. David, I don't know if you remember me but you were a keynote speaker at one of our entrepreneurship conference in Charleston, WV almost 10 years ago. Hard to believe it's been this long. I will be brief but I want to thank you for posting this. I plan to share it and hope the true light is shined swiftly and bright on this disaster. As with anything there is always more to the story.

    1. Mark, I certainly remember you and that fateful day of my speech when the then-Governor had to announce his fall from grace. I still appreciate the generosity you and so many West Virginians shared and hope we all take lessons and apply them. Thanks for your note.

  2. On Point David,and the WV disaster for me also brings the value that water has to another dimension. Often times the "scarcity of water resources" is directed towards semi-arid regions -where water is function of annual rainfall.This perception creates an illusion that those with abundances of this natural precious resource (often taken for granted) are somehow immune from similar challenges-basically you have a scenario where you do "have water" but you still cant use it.

    1. We all have abundance but we so frequently forget that "ours" is also "others'" too.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave