Water from the faucets is flowing a deep and toxic shade of yellow. Parents cannot bathe their babies in a warm tub without burning their skin with chemicals, pour a glass of water in the middle of the night without stomach pains following, or cook a basic meal with water from the tap. A drive to the closest store for bottled water can take an hour or more down winding roads that are difficult to navigate in the snow. The water is poisoned with two chemicals whose long and short term effects and side effects are unknown, and it is seeping into the ground, affecting backyard gardens and farms, wells, septic tanks, and running water.
This is not happening across the ocean, in some land far away – although it may feel like it. It is happening 359 miles from Washington, DC, 228 miles from Pittsburgh and 162 miles from Columbus. It is happening in homes, hospitals, restaurants, and schools. It is happening in Charleston, West Virginia and in and along the Ohio River, where early this month MCMH and PPH were spilled into the Elk River by Freedom Industries. There are parts of Appalachia where the sticky sweet smell of licorice permeates the air — you can almost feel the chemicals land on your skin. Perhaps the most shocking part about the spill is that someone noticed. This beautiful land and the generations of families who live there are fighting on many fronts. But, maybe the greatest threat to justice in Appalachia is environmental. Coal has left an indelible mark on the land and has deeply effected the choices people can and do make when choosing whether to parent and how to raise their children.
While the state is working to increase regulations on the two women’s health clinics in the state, state agencies responsible for the investigation and cleanup of the spill had their budget cut 7.5% for the second consecutive year the day before the spill. Women, their families, and their supporters are marching throughout West Virginia for the ability to access abortion and holistic reproductive care, meanwhile they are drinking water that may be eliminating their ability to make choices about their bodies in the first place. Crude MCHM, the chemical foam used to wash coal and the first of the chemicals to be leaked into the water supply for over 300,000 residents has barely been tested or studied. Does it cause reproductive failure? Cancer? Miscarriage? Fetal Anomalies? Death? No one is sure. And it may be years before we ever know…. If ever.
In a few weeks I will be walking down frozen dirt roads, taking Instagram pictures of icicles on soft pine trees with my dog following close behind on a road in Appalachia, not far from this spill. When we get back to the house we will unbundle, I will get us each some water, and I will take a bath. I have no idea what this water will do to me, if it has been touched by this spill or some other, if it will effect me or my someday children. And, I will be outraged that Governor Earl Ray Tomblin thinks that protecting citizens means letting them wonder whether their water is safe.
Environmental justice is not an issue for environmental and green advocates alone. The ability for parents to raise their children in environments free from unregulated poison – to be able to send their children to school where they can wash their hands safely, to come home and eat a meal, and wash up before bed without fear is essential. Environmental justice is reproductive justice.