On Feb. 16, a train towing more than 100 tankers of crude oil derailed in West Virginia outside of Mt. Carbon, causing a huge explosion and oil leaks into Armstrong Creek, a tributary of the Kanawha River. As of the morning of Feb. 18, the fire was still burning. Big media spin doctors have deemed it “85 percent contained,” even though the disaster was large enough to force West Virginia Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, to declare a state of emergency; 85 percent of anything that large is still a major threat to West Virginians.
Beyond the explosion and the inferno that followed, concerns still linger about the contamination of the local water supply. At least one of the cars from the train derailed into Armstrong Creek, but Lawrence Messina of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety stated about the cleanup: “All the folks I’ve heard from agree that the best way to deal with this is to let that fuel burn out.” It is difficult at this stage to determine the true scale of the disaster, since CSX has refused to disclose exactly how much oil was spilled in the wreck.
This newest spill comes just over one year after crude MCHM—a highly toxic chemical used in coal mining—spilled about 30 miles away, contaminating the local water supply.
What the latest spill shows is just how disposable life is in a system where profit comes first, where cutting transportation costs at public safety’s sake is commonplace.
West Virginia: Big Energy’s doormat
Since the beginnings of the United States’ modern industrial economy, West Virginia has been a ground zero for the energy business, due to the Appalachian Mountains’ rich supply of coal, which is essential for energy and steel production. By 1950, one in five jobs in the state were in the coal industry.
Although West Virginia and other coal-producing regions literally fueled the United States’ industrial development, they remain some of the poorest areas in the country today. Between 2009 and 2013, West Virginia’s poverty rate lingered around 17.9 percent, while the United States’ average was 15.4 percent during the same period. This figure, however, is misleadingly optimistic when viewed alongside the lack of development and employment opportunities West Virginia. Take West Virginia’s dilapidated educational system: more than 16 percent of West Virginians have never finished high school, while the national average is 14 percent. Some 18.3 percent of West Virginians hold some kind of college degree, compared to the national average which is over 1.5 times greater at 28.8 percent.
Meanwhile, under the coal companies’ stewardship, real wages for working West Virginians have remained stagnant since the 1970s, despite increases in income of 11 percent since 1979 for the wealthiest 10 percent of West Virginians. Unemployment since the start of the Great Recession has hovered around 8 percent, but a staggering 19.8 percent West Virginians cannot find work.
Declining coal production—thanks to “oversights” or “harsh realities” in regulations—leaves tomorrow looking even darker than today.
Energy companies view the people of West Virginia like a doormat: they walk all over them and leave behind their mud, only to move on and forget about the people. The recent oil spill shows times have not changed: West Virginians have no value in the eyes of big energy. Big energy sees them as a colony of cheap workers living atop rich coal reserves or inconvenient inhabitants near railroads and de facto dumping grounds. West Virginians have not seen the benefits of the amazing wealth they produce in the mines—the wealth that makes up the foundations for the United States’ wealth today. Instead, their land gets scorched and their water polluted in industrial accidents.
What the spill amounts to the latest charge by big energy in their war against the poor and working people of Appalachia. This is class war waged on environmental terms, confirming the socialist prognosis that in climate change and other environmental issues, already-oppressed people are the first to face the new terms of abuse.