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January 14, 2014

One Volunteer's Story of the West Virginia Elk River Chemical Spill

Dustin whit2Boone County, WV, Resident Gives His Time to Provide Water to Those in Need

Running alongside the Little Coal River in Boone County, West Virginia, is the sleepy town of Van. Technically an unincorporated census-designated place, this small residential area calls itself home to around 200 people -- all of whom, since last Thursday's spill, have been without water.

While state and federal agencies have focused on getting water to the big towns in the region, like Charleston, only dedicated volunteers have made the journey to Van, and to the innumerable other places like it in the sparsely populated valleys and hollows that make up much of the region left without running water by the Freedom Industries chemical spill.

Thankfully, a corps of community-minded citizens has risen to moment, delivering water to underserved areas throughout the region, calling in to let folks know when water has been delivered to local stores, and acting as a rapid response team for folks in need in central and southern West Virginia.

One of the people deeply involved in this effort is Boone County resident Dustin White. Dustin, the son of a coal miner, grew up at the foot of Cook Mountain, named for an ancestor of his, in a place called James Creek Hollow. It is quintessentially Appalachian and, as Dustin puts it, "I never had a lot of fancy toys and gadgets -- none of the luxuries of the modern-day kid, but I never knew I went without. The hillsides and all they had to offer were my playground. The rocks, the sticks, the wildlife -- they were my best friends. I spent most of my childhood in the mountain stream that flowed in front of my home catching crawdads and salamanders, seeing what could be found, or just simply how far I could go."

Dustin whiteNow, Dustin is going as far as he can for his neighbors; donating his time to make sure that communities across the Coal River Valley have the water they need. On Sunday, Dustin, along with a team of volunteers, drove down from Charleston to the Pond Fork area in Boone County to deliver water to people in Van and other communities along the Little Coal River.

Sadly, this isn't the first time chemicals related to coal mining have been dumped into the Little Coal River. In fact, it's not even the first time in the last six months. Last September, the Wharton coal prep plant, owned by a subsidiary of Patriot Coal, dumped 2,000 gallons of a chemical called DT-50-D into a tributary of the river, turning the water white for miles downstream.

People in mountaintop-removal mining communities across the Appalachian region are faced with these spills, and the health implications that come with them, far more frequently than anyone else in the nation. Lax oversight from the state government and inaction on federal protections mean these sorts of events are likely to continue into the future.

There is a dual tragedy here. First, the inability of anyone in power to do anything about the underlying problem: proper protection of our communities and our water from coal pollution. But, in some ways, what's worse is that the responsibility to ensure the well-being of Appalachians in crisis has to fall on the shoulders of people like Dustin. But, thankfully for the people of Van, he and others like him are there when the state government can't be.

Top photo courtesy of EarthJustice. Bottom photo by Shawn Poynter.

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