With massive coal reserves acting as a natural charcoal filter, West Virginia used to be famous for its well and spring water.
“We had the best darn water in the world,” Prenter Hollow, W.V. resident Maria Lambert said when we visited her home in mid-January, “but that all changed, didn’t it?”
It took years for the Lamberts and their neighbours to accept that their water may have been contaminated by nearby mountaintop removal coal mining. Not only was mining taking away their charcoal filter, but it also threatened to contaminate their water supply with toxic chemicals.
In a 2009 lawsuit, locals blamed broad health problems including elevated cancer, surgery, and mortality rates on mining activity. They received compensation in a 2012 out-of-court settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, which had bought the suspect mine from original owner Massey Energy. (Alpha did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)
It’s hard to say exactly how much Prenter suffered, and no one knows how common these problems are. Coal, which provides around a quarter of America’s consumer energy, is so important to the local economy that people try not to ask many questions. Still, locals seem resigned to negative health effects.
The people of Prenter eventually got off their well water and onto city tap water. In January, however, their supply was contaminated by the Elk River chemical spill, forcing them to drink bottled water for a week and leaving many uncertain about water quality even now.
Surrounded by massive coal and chemical industries, West Virginians are used to environmental contamination that would terrify many people.
Mostly, it happens by degrees. An isolated incident here and a sick neighbour there were subtle enough for residents to accept these conditions as the status quo.
That's how it was in Prenter, W.V., until the community finally faced the fact that their water may be killing them.
A local couple shared a litany of negative health effects they blame on mining and contaminated water. 'Having our gall bladders removed was the least of our problems,' Ralph Lambert said, referencing a report in the Charleston Gazette about a local survey that found a 98% rate of gall bladder disease.
Six of Ralph Lambert's neighbours were reportedly diagnosed with brain tumors, despite this condition normally affecting only one in 100,000 Americans. Ralph himself has sustained major chemical burns and undergone 11 surgeries he blames on mining and using well water.
In 2012, the local coal mining company settled with the people of Prenter. In the sealed agreement, residents were given varying amounts of money depending on their exposure to chemicals and the symptoms they suffered.
That settlement arrived just days before Prenter's case was slated for court, with both sides prepared to offer evidence (including contradictory EPA studies) to prove their case.
The point of contention was the nearby mountaintop coal removal site and the chemical-laden water left behind when the coal is removed, just up the river from Prenter.
Sediment ponds are where the chemicals used to clean coal of its most harmful toxins are sent to settle onto the ground, coating it in fine silt. Other potential problems arise from the blasting and potential tainting of underground aquifers.
That sediment pond runoff clears the ponds and flows downstream into the local creeks and rivers like the one outside the Lambert's home, while what exactly happens underground remains anybody's guess.
Contaminated water was not just allegedly found in people's well water. The creek running through town allegedly turns white, black, or orange depending on chemical runoff, sometimes backing up and flooding their yards.
Kids swam in the well water for years before growing concerns drove the residents to clamor for city water.
Following the settlement, Prenter was given access to Charleston's municipal water supply originating more than 35 miles away. Following January's chemical spill, Prenter's tap water now reminds residents of the well water they fought to leave behind.
Maria says the licorice smell coming from their tap-water recently is the same, '... very sweet, stomach-sickening odor we endured eight years ago.' (MCHM, the chemical spilled in Elk River, has a licorice smell.)
Maria's son only reluctantly joined the lawsuit, leaving his job at the local coal mine at the same time. It was accepted, she said, that he would never be hired to mine coal again.
'That's when he went from making $US30 an hour at the coal mine, to $US8 an hour cleaning floors,' Ralph chimes in from the family room.
Environmental issues divided this little community for decades, pitting neighbour against neighbour -- and they are just at the beginning of the problems for the area.
For one thing, it's a poor area. When we ask about the closed circuit camera and the posted signs around people's homes, one West Virginia resident says, 'That's because of the 50-odd families here, 49 of them are now thieves.'
Perhaps because of health problems, prescription pain killer abuse has become prevalent. 'Meth is out,' one resident says, 'Oxycontins are in.'
Driving out of town and past this billboard, it's hard to imagine Prenter's problems are going away anytime soon.
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