This morning comes news that hundreds of thousands of West Virginians could be without tap water for several more days. This comes after a chemical, "used in processing coal, spilled out of a containment tank Thursday morning into the Elk River about a mile upstream from the water company’s treatment facility." This chemical, "4-methylcyclohexane methanol can cause nausea, dizziness, vomiting and eye and skin irritation, authorities said," with "[a]t least 73 people reported to emergency departments complaining of skin irritation, nausea or vomiting" so far.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the West Virginia disaster is that it's not an aberration, and certainly not limited to one particular fossil fuel or one particular geographic area. Instead, the contamination of public drinking water supplies has happened before, and almost certainly will happen again, as long as we continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels. A few examples in recent years of fossil fuel disasters involving public water supplies include:
- The Martin County coal slurry spill, which saw 306 million gallons of slurry rush "down two tributaries of the Tug Fork River," resulting in the "water supply for over 27,000 residents [being] contaminated, and all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek...killed."
- A deadly train explosion in Quebec, resulting in an "oil sheen [that] has stretched more than 60 miles down a river that’s used as a source of drinking water."
- The leak of 24 million gallons of jet fuel "into an underground aquifer and steadily toward this drought-stricken city's [Albuquerque's] largest and most pristine water wells."
- The 2013 Mayflower oil spill, which has resulted in Arkansas legislators seeking stronger protection of water supplies from oil spills in that state.
- A report in Scientific American headlined, "Oil Sands Raise Levels of Cancer-Causing Compounds in Regional Waters."
- A recent AP report which found: "In at least four states that have nurtured the nation's energy boom, hundreds of complaints have been made about well-water contamination from oil or gas drilling, and pollution was confirmed in a number of them, according to a review that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen."
On and on it goes. And we haven't even specifically mentioned concerns over the potential for contamination of water supplies by hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), such as in the George Washington National Forest ("More than 4.5 million Virginians rely on drinking water from the Potomac and the James River, which originate on the GWNF."). In stark contrast, as Time Magazine senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald tweeted recently, "Remember all those horrible #wind and #solar spills that poisoned all those rivers?" Well, no, of course you don't remember those, because obviously they didn't happen - and, unlike with fossil fuels, won't happen in the future.