west virginia

Politicians try to create distance between water catastrophe and coal industry. Denied!


“The incident that happened with this spill is not related to my view of the EPA, of overreaching and not looking at economics and trying to reach a balance in the energy industries,” Capito said, according to the Charleston Gazette. “I see this as a chemical issue, and so the coal issue is secondary. It’s a product used in the coal industry.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin: “This was not a coal company, this was a chemical supplier, where the leak occurred….. As far as I know there was no coal company within miles.”

“This is a chemical spill accident. It just so happens that the chemical has some applications to the coal industry, just that fact alone shouldn’t cause people to point fingers at the coal industry,” said Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Fortunately, nobody believes a word of this. Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette, writing in his excellent Coal Tattoo blog:

One problem with all of this, of course, is that the coal industry is always very insistent that every single job — direct, indirect, induced, whatever — be counted whenever anyone discusses the positive economic impacts of the coal-mining business to West Virginia. If that’s the way the industry and its political supporters want the discussion to go, then they’ve got to own this sort of accident as well.

The other thing, though, is that there are other clear connections between this chemical spill and its impacts and what the coal industry’s effects on West Virginia are like all the time. Plenty of West Virginia communities have watched their drinking water supplies be either polluted or dried up because of coal (see here, here and here). Me and my neighbors are getting a taste right now of what some coalfield residents live with all the time.

And then there’s this, explained most clearly on Friday by the folks at Appalachian Voices:

News reports of Thursday’s spill of a coal-processing chemical into West Virginia’s Elk River—and emergency orders to thousands of people to not drink or use their tap water—are currently focused on the still-unknown potential for direct harm to human health.

But the widespread disruption caused by the spill raises other important questions, including: How could a relatively small-volume spill in one small river cut off drinking water access to roughly 300,000 people across eight counties—16% of the state’s entire population?

An increasing number of private wells in southwestern and central West Virginia, where the spill occurred, have been contaminated by decades of coal mining and processing. One result has been an ongoing expansion of municipal water systems to rural communities that would otherwise rely on well water.

Yes, the well water has been pretty thoroughly poisoned. BY THE COAL INDUSTRY.

What if? What if this had happened to the water supply of the Upper West Side or Arlington or Berkeley? Would the reactions of the federal agencies allegedly responsible been so tepid? Shouldn’t the director of the EPA fly in and distribute water and vow to get to the bottom of this? (Really, this is the agency fighting a “war on coal”?) Where is the president on this? He released disaster money but has not addressed the subject directly. (I’m happy to be corrected on this point.) I think the inertia of the CDC and EPA speaks for itself.  (Jedediah Purdy in the New Yorker:  “The entire crisis is a tableau of abdication”).  Incredibly, the strategy of the federal government is mainly to wait til it blows over.

And maybe it will.

It’s hard for me to think clearly about this catastrophe, so I will simply encourage everyone to follow the indefatigable Ward on twitter. I’m pretty much in awe of his output, and he always seems to be striking the right tone of anger or skepticism or fatalism at the appropriate moments.

But I don’t really think he is fatalistic, or resigned. Maybe this is wishful thinking, or projection, or just delusion, but I think Ward knows, or hopes, that this will be the event that sours people on coal in West Virginia, and the nation. I have been thinking that for days, and then yesterday he sort of confirmed it when he issued this gnomic tweet:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.


 Further reading:





And finally, may I suggest a model for the “arc of the moral universe” to follow:






Hillbilly heroin, the crazy check, “fee income” and a moderately symbolic shark tank

I would like to recommend two great articles to tide my two dozen readers over, while I steel myself to actually return to writing for this here blog  again:

1. A World of Hillbilly Heroin: The Hollowing Out of America, Up Close and Personal, by Chris Hedges, with illustration by Joe Sacco, creator of the fantastic Footnotes in Gaza.


Amazing, heartbreaking stuff:

The clinic handles federal and state black lung applications. It runs a program for those addicted to prescription pills. It also handles what in the local vernacular is known as “the crazy check” — payments obtained for mental illness from Medicaid or SSI — a vital source of income for those whose five years of welfare payments have run out. Doctors willing to diagnose a patient as mentally ill are important to economic survival.

“They come in and want to be diagnosed as soon as they can for the crazy check,” the nurse says. “They will insist to us they are crazy. They will tell us, ‘I know I’m not right.’ People here are very resigned. They will avoid working by being diagnosed as crazy.”

2. The Unconstitutional 40 Years War On College Students, written by the feisty and always worth reading Moe Tkacik for Reuters, and reproduced on her wonderfully titled blog daskrapital.

And as they became more steadily impervious to the usual laws of credit and debt, [college loans] became bigger and more profitable. In the years since the Bankruptcy Reform Act passed, the nominal price of college tuition has risen more than 900%. Over the same period the median male income—again, nominally—has risen 165%. And since the percentage of the workforce boasting a bachelor’s degree has expanded from less than 20% to nearly a third, I don’t have to convince you that the median de facto ROI on those diplomas has diminished greatly over the same years. Which brings us to the second way in which the student debt bubble differs from all the others you’ve seen. It is legally impossible to pop. By law it can only grow very fast or even faster.


Naturally, this story has its brighter side of enterprising corporate leadership generating shareholder value. The finances of Sallie Mae, the former government sponsored enterprise formally called SLM Corp. are a bit difficult to divine, but the operating profit margin is over 50%. It will surely surge higher if CEO Albert Lord executes on his current strategy of turning the $700 million “sweet spot” that is its “fee income” division into a billion dollar business. “Fee income” means collections, but student loan collectors “do things that no other industry could get away with,” a veteran debt collector named Joseph Leal told Student Loan Justice. They stalk, threaten family members, and jack up loan balances by thousands of dollars at whim, and they do it all with impunity because they are legally entitled to garnish your wages.

Fee income is not just a sweet spot for Sallie. Premiere credit, formerly the collections subsidiary of its fiercest rival Nelnet, is so flush it keeps a 3,800-gallon saltwater shark tank in its main lobby, as explained above. The margins on college loan sharking are so grotesquely fat that the government even rakes in a juicy cut: in 2010 the Department of Education reported collecting $1.22 for every dollar in defaulted student loans it had guaranteed—and that’s after the sharks and their shareholders and the obligatory outright fraud had taken their first round of cuts. Between a quarter and a third of about $850 billion worth of federally guaranteed loans are already in default, so this is real money we are talking about. Given the $23 trillion worth of other securities the federal government has pledged to guarantee over the past few years, we can only expect the default rate to surge higher.

When I started this post, I intended to comment on how these two pieces have little to do with each other, but now I’m not so sure.

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