Thursday, February 13, 2014
By Mark W. Kidd

West Virginians awoke February 11 to news of a 100,000 gallon coal slurry spill near Charleston. The Patriot Coal processing facility responsible for the slurry spill uses the same kind of mineral cleaning chemicals spilled by Freedom Industries last month, when “Crude MCHM” rendered public water supplies unsafe across a nine-county area in West Virginia. Last week, a dammed impoundment of coal ash from a decommissioned power plant in North Carolina also spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of coal ash sludge into the Dan River. 

More than a month after the Freedom Industries spill, restaurants are still displaying signs assuring customers that no public water is being used for cooking. People are still waiting for credible answers about whether the water they drank or bathed in before they heard about the spill will have health consequences. These disasters reveal how disconnected community knowledge and the expertise of the industrial and scientific communities have become from each other, and how estranged both of these sectors are from the political process.

Two lessons about environmental regulations from the recent spills: 1) there is little coordination between the jigsaw puzzle of agencies charged with maintaining public health in the coalfields, and  2) even when industrial facilities have been identified as high-risk, enforcement can be delayed for decades. These breakdowns between agencies and social sectors in Central Appalachia will continue to pose risks to our health and environment without citizen-led democratic action. 

The above map generated by only identifies coal ash impoundments at power plants which are designated as risky. Other accidents waiting to happen include chemical storage facilities, coal slurry impoundments, and dams built to manage floodwater from strip mines.

Appalachia is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world and is the headwaters of many North American river systems. Yet our region is also home to hundreds of miles of flowing water that does not meet public health criteria for contact with human skin or doesn’t meet environmental standards for aquatic life. Poor water quality is one of the tradeoffs for economic activity generated by extractive industries, particularly coal and gas. Part of this bargain is that infrastructure investments would focus on public water projects to take the place of wells and springs that have been lost. That compromise, however, is even more worrying – and galling – when the public water systems are revealed as susceptible to corporate influence and failures in our public agencies.

The failed Freedom Industries chemical tank was built in 1938. Last week, an abandoned 53-year-old Duke Energy coal ash impoundment in North Carolina ruptured into the Dan River. In addition to being felt economically, socially, and politically, the loss and decay of these kinds of industrial works is visible up and down the region’s highways. It is not surprising that there is more ground to cover than inspectors, but at least in the Freedom Industries spill, neighbors had repeatedly reported signs of chemical leaks from the storage tanks well before the catastrophic spill.

What happened in West Virginia echoes my home town of Whitesburg, Kentucky’s changed relationship to "city water" after more than one spill of industrial chemicals upstream of our water supply.  Our poor baseline water quality also requires so much processing that the cleaning process leaves the treated water with a harsh taste, a daily reminder of danger.

                                West Virginia National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package draw water determine levels of contamination during Operation Elk River Spill. (Photo courtesy of West Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

My work in Central Appalachia is to help community organizations and residents use arts to draw on their own community expertise and to tell their own stories. Terms for my branch of arts practice vary, including community-based arts, community cultural development, and cultural organizing. I generally use community cultural development in common with Roadside Theater, where I learned an Appalachian approach to community development that springs from questions such as: How can communities use art and culture to develop themselves? How do they define the issues they want to address? What steps need to be taken for this process to be inclusive and effective?

Working on community projects in the coalfields is what drew me to community cultural development. Two things I’ve learned from the work are 1) how potent it is when the full range of a community is involved in a creative and rigorous process to create positive change, and 2) how remarkable the arts are for establishing the conditions that make this type of community change possible. Some regional examples of community cultural development work I am motivated by include:

  • Without a Cause,” a 2001 15-minute documentary created by young people in Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute. Eolia, Kentucky residents speak out about the unexplained rate of serious illness, and the local understanding that these illnesses are related to pollution, while they get no help from public agencies.
  • “Capturing & Telling Your Community’s Cancer Story,” a Roadside Theater Project through which Central Appalachian cancer survivors create plays from their stories and perform them at cancer detection and prevention events. (Eastern Kentucky has the highest rate of cancer deaths in all of Appalachia.)
  • The Higher Ground theater project in Harlan County, Kentucky that opens lines of conversation and action around some of coalfield Appalachia’s most difficult issues including prescription drug abuse, the changing coalmining industry, and the options of young people torn between staying in the mountains and leaving their homes.

Spills into the Elk River, Dan River, and North Fork of the Kentucky River (in Whitesburg) make it clear how important it is that we draw on art’s means to bring together a broad cross-section of a community affected by water pollution to publicly tell their stories, because they have first-hand, extensive, and useful knowledge of threats to their water sources. When that expertise is not cultivated and built into planning and regulatory processes, bad public policy results, and mistrust in public and corporate officials is not surprising.

The Union of Concerned Scientists circulated a petition protesting the lack of public access to science in West Virginia: “Despite public commitments to transparency and internal policies that generally affirm scientists’ right to speak freely to the press, scientists at both agencies are often discouraged or prevented from speaking openly and publicly, especially on high visibility issues. At EPA, for example, reporters are often asked to submit questions to scientists in advance, and public affairs officials approve answers before they are released.” The Society of Environmental Journalists and Society of Professional Journalists circulated their own petition: “…in the interest of preventing panic or confusion, government agencies clamp down on their communication with the news media and the public... a parsimonious public-affairs strategy all too often backfires, feeding people’s fear and distrust of government.”

Whether or not government resources and public scientists eventually become available at a meaningful scale in the aftermath of the Elk River, Dan River, and other spills, small steps can be taken – like inviting scientists and physicians to answer community questions in school classrooms or newspaper columns, setting up a story bank of neighborhood experiences dealing with the ban on water use, holding a potluck neighborhood meeting to set up a phone tree or Facebook group to share updated information, and finding other opportunities to create a shared future together on our own terms.

Central Appalachia is going through an industrial and economic transformation that is inevitable, and decades in the making. The Elk River and the Dan River have been added to the list of our region’s environmental casualties, but the solution to these crises has to start in the same place as the long-term planning: with the people who live in and care about these places, and with all of the expertise and creativity we can muster.


Mark W. Kidd facilitates Community Cultural Development residencies, including workshops on low-cost media, grassroots campaigns and cultural organizing and can be reached at [email protected] or is a voting member of the Central Appalachian Regional Network, a group of diverse organizations working to identify and advance policy important to its six-state region. He also serves on the boards of Appalshop and the Letcher County Community Foundation and is a member of the Whitesburg, Kentucky Trail Town Committee. His writing has been published by the Daily Yonder, the Kentucky Caver, and the Animating Democracy project at Americans for the Arts.

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Cite This

Mark W. Kidd. “With All the Expertise and Creativity We Can Muster: 2014 Chemical Spills in West Virginia and North Carolina.” December 8, 2015.

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