Last Thursday, Glen and Mat from Coal River Mountain Watch and the Prenter Water Fund came to Wesleyan to give a lecture on the effects of coal mining. What are the effects? In short: People are dying.
Their presentation focused on the town of Prenter, West Virginia. Prenter once had some of the cleanest water in the world, but in the last 10 years it has become so polluted that the residents of Prenter require clean water to be brought in by truck. This has happened because of because of a process called Underground Coal Slurry Injection. Before coal mining corporations (Massey Energy in the area around Prenter) can sell coal to power companies, they must wash the coal to remove some of the most dangerous elements restricted by the Clean Air Act. They do this by using huge amounts of water (coal companies in West Virginia have used an amount of water 4.3 times the volume of Lake Ontario) and more than 50 chemicals (many of them known carcinogens), to rinse the coal until it is clean enough to be burned. The leftover sludge is known as slurry, and is a hazardous waste. Not only does it contain lead, mercury, manganese, and arsenic from the coal, but it also contains the chemicals used to clean it, many of which are secret because they are patented by Dow Chemical.
What is done with this poisonous sludge? One of two things. It is either put into sludge lakes, such as the one that collapsed in Tennessee last December, or it is injected into abandoned mine shafts. The shafts are supposed to be lined with limestone and concrete, but this rule is poorly enforced and is often ignored by coal companies. Incredibly poisonous coal sludge is being injected into mine shafts, which are almost always uphill and upstream from communities. There are more than 692 known, suspected, or proposed injection sites in West Virginia alone. Bad idea.
As you would expect, the sludge does not always stay in the mine shafts, especially because of the 3 million tons of explosives that are used every day to destroy the mountains of West Virginia. In 2001, when heavy explosives began to be used to perform mountaintop removal on a mountain in Prenter, the water in Prenter began to become poisonous. When coal is not disturbed, it functions as an enormous carbon filter, making the well water in areas around coal seams some of the cleanest in the world. However, the blasting has released some of the coal sludge stored in mine shafts. The water is Prenter is now poisonous, and often runs black, red, or brown.
The Prenter water contains mercury, lead, arsenic, manganese (all at levels 10-250 times the legal limits), and, significantly, hydrogen sulfide gas. Hydrogen sulfide gas in the well water of one Prenter household was measured at 30 parts per million. To put this number in context: water that smells like rotten eggs has a rate of less than 1 ppm and in industrial facilities 15 ppm is the evacuation level. The drinking water in Prenter is twice the industrial evacuation limit. Hydrogen sulfide gas is extremely corrosive and can break a washing machine in about three months. Think of what it does to your stomach.
People in Prenter have developed many diseases and conditions, which are clearly related to the poison in their water. They seem to improve greatly and quickly when people stop drinking the water. Residents have developed a slew of various gastrointestinal conditions, urinary tract infections, and rare cancers such as esophagus cancer. On one street in Prenter, 98% of residents have had their gallbladders removed (the statewide rate is 3%). One man reported that three months after he stopped drinking the Prenter water, his intestinal polyps receded 40%. Other people who have stopped using the water for bathing stopped getting urinary tract infections.
Sadly it is almost impossible to prove in court that the water is causing these health effects (though I have not heard of any other communities with gallbladder removal rates of 98%). The state has promise to provide municipal water to 60% of Prenter sometime in the next two years, and the Prenter Water Fund has been working tirelessly to bring in clean water to the community, but the root of the problem still must be dealt with. Mountaintop removal must be stopped, and slurry injections and impoundments must be banned. Until then we will only have more Martin Countys and more Prenters.