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Podcast: After Chemical Spill, Mother in West Virginia Describes Life in ‘Human Sacrifice Zone’

Residents in the city of Charleston in West Virginia have been told at least twice by officials that it was now safe to drink water that had been polluted by Freedom Industries by a chemical known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. The chemical, used to clean and process coal, spilled out into the Elk River on January 9.

However, few residents believe officials when they say it is safe to drink the water again. They can still smell the chemical in the air. Residents still need water to be delivered to them. They are still checking into emergency rooms with rashes as officials try to get people to go back to normal, which basically means accepting the suffering that comes with living in a state controlled by coal industry.

Journalist Rania Khalek joins me for a weekly podcast as a co-host to conduct an interview with a single mother of two children in West Virginia, who has been working with others to get water to people impacted by the spilled chemical. She describes the fear of not knowing whether what they are being told is true and expresses frustration at the fact that West Virginians are basically left for dead in a “human sacrifice zone.”

Following the interview portion of the podcast, Khalek and I discuss the verdict in the case of Kelly Thomas, who was beaten to death by cops in Fullerton, California. We discuss the reaction to the death of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and then Khalek, who has been the target of writer Eric Alterman, talks about his latest temper tantrum.

Listen to the full weekly podcast here:

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*Below is a transcript of the moving interview Swearingen gave on what it is currently like to live in West Virginia:

KEVIN GOSZTOLA, journalist: To get us started, can you talk about what happened, what it was like to hear that this chemical had spilled out?

PAULA SWEARINGEN, W. Va. single mother: [inaudible] … try to give organizations and a lot of the organizations and the locals and a lot of locals coming out of state to try and supplement the need for water. Even though we had some government agencies come in, there are still a lot of people that was without water and supplies. It’s been pretty devastating.

It’s been really hard on a lot of us and hurt the local economy because essentially it shut down Charleston. But this is not—Living with pollution though is sort of a daily thing for the people in Appalachia. We dealt with a lot of irresponsibility from Big Industry and they’re not held accountable and we’ve really not had any support from our leadership or any government agencies as far as that it goes.

This spill has had a really big negative impact. I just wish the world would recognize the things that are going on here because it’s been really tough on us and it just keeps on being an ongoing problem.

RANIA KHALEK, journalist: There have been news reports that the water in certain areas is safe to drink, but then there have also been warnings to pregnant women not to drink the water. What are your thoughts on that and as a mom—you have kids—do you feel safe having your children drink the water?

SWEARINGEN: There have been a lot of reports of people still having an [inaudible] with their water. They say it’s safe to drink then we hear it’s not safe to drink. You know, some people are like they don’t know if they can ever feel safe drinking their water again; what if they flush their pipes and their water heaters, if it’s safe at all.

It’s scary as a mother. I’m not directly impacted in the area but I know that there’s always a threat of chemicals leaking into our water. As a mother, it’s real upsetting because children are getting sick.

We don’t really know the long term effects of this chemical spill either and how people are going to be affected. And I worry about people downstream from this chemical spill because they say it’s so diluted that they don’t have to worry but I just wonder how many have been impacted in its path.

GOSZTOLA: Can you talk a little bit about historically is this fairly unprecedented in scale? In your experience living in West Virginia, is this quite a severe disaster?

SWEARINGEN: Yeah, it is, but you go into a lot of areas. Down in Boone County there was actually a chemical spill in September. I don’t think it was as huge as this spill, but in a lot of areas we have a lot of acid mines, drainage and chemicals leaking into the creeks and people’s water supplies. People with wells, a lot of times their water gets polluted with chemicals.

You can drive down the road and there’s a white film over the creek or the water is running orange or black. If you look at everything as a whole, you don’t know if it’s been on a large scale or not because it’s every day that you’re seeing something in these areas. It’s hard to compare. We really don’t know.

KHALEK: That sounds really terrifying, not knowing if the water’s contaminated unless it’s a different color. How do you deal with that? That just sounds scary in that you never know if what you’re drinking has chemicals, has a leak.

SWEARINGEN: Right, you never know. You never know what kind of heavy metal or chemicals are in your water. And that’s really scary. As a mom, I worry daily if I turn my faucet on if I am giving my children safe water drink. And in our family we buy bottled water a lot. You don’t know what kind of chemicals are getting on our skin when we take showers. It’s just very scary.

GOSZTOLA: And so, are you involved in certain efforts to help people in West Virginia? What can you say about the efforts to get people water? Have they been fairly successful?

SWEARINGEN: Yeah, it seems like we’ve been fairly successful so far. I’ve just been doing a lot of organizing to get people in certain areas and help with deliveries. There’s been a great need and, like I said, it’s been really hard to supplement that. But there’s been a lot of unity and togetherness through this crisis, and it’s been staggering how many people have pulled together and put their political beliefs aside and just helped each other.

KHALEK: I’m curious about—You mentioned not knowing if you can shower safely in the water. I think that’s lost on a lot of people who are disconnected from the people. It’s not just to drink. You got to brush your teeth. You got to cook. You do tons of things with water.

Do you know if it’s getting people sick just by bathing in water? Can you cook with it? Can you boil whatever chemicals are in it out?

SWEARINGEN: No, they can’t boil the chemical out and they can’t filter it out. That’s why it’s made such a negative impact. It’s because it’s beyond the boil water advisory. And they’re saying they don’t know enough about this chemical to determine what even the long term effects are. So then it raises even bigger questions.

How come they didn’t know? How come there allowed to house this chemical right above all these people’s watersheds? Because there’s no filtering out. And like I said at this point people don’t know, still, if their water is safe to drink. Even if we’re told it’s safe to drink, how do we know when they don’t know that much about this chemical?

GOSZTOLA: And is it true that what people were being told is they weren’t even certain of what chemicals had spilled and polluted? I think are they just now getting a clear sense of what exactly polluted the water.

SWEARINGEN: I heard there was one certain chemical all along. I’ve not heard anything as far as that goes so I can’t really answer that question. From what I understood, there was a chemical that was detected and they were telling people that it smelled like licorice. And people that were out in the field trying to help and in Charleston—there’s a lot of reports of people having headaches and sore throats.

People that were flushing their water, they were getting skin rashes. I have one friend in Charleston. He said he had flushed and done everything he was supposed to do with his pipe and he had not smelled the licorice smell until they said his water was okay. But then he started smelling it after he flushed his pipes.

KHALEK: In terms of activism in the area around the issue of regulation—I mean, obviously there’s not much regulation of the coal industry or at least not as much as there should be. Is that something—Do you get the sense of the atmosphere among average people being frustrated with that?

SWEARINGEN: Everybody’s frustrated. The company that was housing the chemical was not the coal industry but the chemical to wash the coal for the industry. So that was kind of the connection to the industry. But a lot has to do with the coal industry as far as these chemicals go because it wasn’t linked by that point. It was just a pure chemical. That was its main connection to the industry was it was cleaning the processed coal.

GOSZTOLA: Right, it was Freedom Industries. And so the last question I think we have for you—Is there anything else you want to communicate to people about what really is like to live? I get the sense as someone who does not live in West Virginia but pays attention to some of the politics and the struggle with mountaintop removal coal mining that there’s quite a lot of powerlessness and people trying to fight the coal industry in the state.

SWEARINGEN: My family, most of them, were coal miners. My grandfather was a coal miner. My stepdad was a coal miner.  My uncles. And here there is so much propaganda and I’ve been taught all my life. It’s almost like a coal worship. That coal makes this state is what I was always taught. And then I started seeing what coal really did for my family, when I seen my grandfather die of black lung and my stepdad got heart disease. My father passed away. He was a coal miner, but he got cancer too because he was a veteran and was exposed to chemicals in Korea. And then I see my uncles. They’re sick and they have black lungs.

I was really proud of their sacrifices and then I woke up one day, as a mom, and I started seeing the mountains being blown up around us. I took for granted that they would always be there. When I was a little girl, it was the most pristine and beautiful waters in the world. I took that for granted because now the creeks like I said run black and orange. So I decided coal didn’t define me.

I was a proud Appalachian woman and I had the choice. I had the choice of having coal pride or being a mother and I decided I was going to be a mother and take responsibility for my children. And that’s the thing here.

Our politicians, I mean, we have no leadership. A lot of people say we have the best politicians the coal industry can buy and that’s true because we have no support for our people. It’s total disregard for public health and safety. This industry runs Appalachia now and people are just discarded. We’re not treated like human beings. And then it’s people worrying about a job. There’s always a threat of them losing their job and if they stand up against the irresponsibility of the coal industry they’re not even allowed to work in the industry anymore. They’re pretty much blacklisted.

They have total control over us and I wish people in America would recognize that we feel like we live in a human sacrifice zone. When you turn on your lights, people need to think about that’s the blood of my people. That’s the blood of my children. People are dying here at an alarming rate.

I mean, I just don’t know what to say. I never thought that I would have to experience anything like this in my lifetime and I never knew that I would have to struggle for basic human rights for my children.

KHALEK: That’s really powerful. Thank you.

GOSZTOLA: Thank you, Paula, for joining us. We’ll continue to follow what’s happening in West Virginia. We’re very concerned about how people are being treated in the state. Thank you for joining us.

SWEARINGEN: We really appreciate your support as well. Thank you for having me.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."