Coal's Poison Taints West Virginia's Drinking Water

Did we really need another reason not to like coal as an energy source? Ready or not, we have one.

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Did we really need another reason not to like coal as an energy source? Ready or not, we have one.

The standard list is already pretty long: Climate change from burning coal in power plants… Coal ash spills Mountaintop removal and valley fills… Air pollution damaging lungs and polluting lakes Roadless areas and rangeland bulldozed or blown up.

Now add to the list: chemical spills that make water undrinkable.

On Jan. 9, a tank maintained by Freedom Industries apparently failed, spilling a smelly mess of chemicals into the Elk River in West Virginia upstream from a water intake. The chemical fouled the drinking water supply for 300,000 people. Roughly one of six people in the state couldn’t use the water piped into their house to drink or bathe.

While the spill made big news, less reported is the spilled chemical’s link to the coal industry. The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is used to wash coal – to remove dirt and impurities so that it can be sold to power plants.

The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. is one of the nation’s best reporters covering the coal industry, and he has mined some great nuggets on the spill-coal link.

First, the coal industry is always happy to tout its benefits to the economy, taking credit for every job directly or indirectly created by mining. But when it comes to taking responsibility for the chemicals that make selling its product possible, industry has been running away. Contrary to all evidence and common sense, this spill has nothing to do with coal, they say. And West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, toeing the line, said the same.

Second, there are costs to having a political establishment that appears to favor industry at the expense of the environment. Because of its importance to the local economy, coal is a sacred cow in West Virginia. As a result, the EPA specifically, and environmental regulations generally, have become punching bags.

There may be any number of reasons why this spill occurred. But a political culture that puts industry on a pedestal can’t have helped. Nor does that climate augur well for future state action. As Mr. Ward put it:

The fact that Gov. Tomblin wants to evade the truth so hard that he wants to ignore any connections between this crisis and the coal industry doesn’t bode well for us seeing any meaningful state-level reforms come about as a result of the Freedom Industries spill.

Finally, Mr. Ward points out that impacts related to coal mining may have played a role in moving some West Virginia communities from well water to municipal systems that get water from rivers – thus making customers more vulnerable to this type of disaster.

Renewable energy isn’t squeaky clean. Wind turbines kill birds and bats. The manufacture of solar panels creates some hazardous waste.

But when weighed against the many and multiple harms from coal, renewables are far better for the planet. And the weight on the scale against coal just got a little heavier.


Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.

Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office protects the region’s iconic public lands, wildlife species, and precious water resources; defends Tribes and disparately impacted communities fighting to live in a healthy environment; and works to accelerate the region’s transition to 100% clean energy.