Colgate professor Jeff Bary examines chemical spill affecting thousands in West Virginia

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People wait to get water from a tanker truck at a high school  near Charleston, W.Va. (Photo courtesy of Associated Press)

People wait to get water from a tanker truck at a high school near Charleston, W.Va. (Photo courtesy of Associated Press)

Editor’s Note: This post is by Colgate professor of physics and astronomy Jeff Bary, a West Virginia native who still has family there. He recently organized a campus series about central Appalachia and has extensive knowledge of the region. He is available for media inquiries at 315-228-7693 or

Sixteen percent. That is the percentage of the West Virginia population that went without usable water for five days when thousands of gallons of a chemical used to clean coal for different uses leaked into the Elk River in the state capital of Charleston.

Three hundred thousand residents and countless businesses across nine counties were under a “do not use” order that was partially lifted Monday. The leak’s immediate impact on the lives and communities of many central Appalachian people, and the unknown and potentially detrimental long-term health effects it poses, have garnered the attention of major news outlets.

A bright light is now shining on the unsavory business practices of the coal industry and its many affiliates including Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the leaky storage tank.

In fall 2013 at Colgate, I organized Moving Mountains, a multi-disciplinary series of events focusing on central Appalachia, the history of the relationship between the local population and the coal industry, and the practice of mountaintop removal mining.

Through scholarship, art, and song, we learned the complicated and disturbing history of the labor movement in West Virginia and the unfortunate result of a region in which elected officials ignore the best interests of their constituency, often siding with moneyed and, therefore, powerful industry benefactors.

Experts tackled the complicated issues of the “hillbilly” stereotype and the colonialist-style power structure that has turned the coalfields into one of the most exploited regions in the United States and the world.

While some outsiders blame the local population for the coal-only economy, the reality is that a sizeable fraction of the region has been owned for decades by a small number of out-of-state companies with a vested interest in maintaining their position as the only opportunity for gainful employment in the region.

Polluted air and water is nothing new to folks living in southern West Virginia and is a constant for many, including my parents. Rather, I believe the recent spill is yet another instance of corruption and collusion between government officials and coal industry executives resulting in the exploitation and disenfranchisement of the local population.

As news starts to trickle out about this latest incident, I am sure we will hear about shady business practices and weak oversight by a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that lacks the “will” to enforce the regulations that do exist.

On February 27, the Moving Mountains series will conclude with a lecture by Dustin White, a member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition who routinely deals with the West Virginia DEP.

Dustin works constantly to raise awareness about the routine environmental disasters related to mining that are a part of life in central Appalachia. He will be speaking at 7 p.m. in Love Auditorium.