Oh, the Irony

By Cynthia D. Ellis

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Highlands Voice, nearly a month after 10,000 gallons of Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) was released from a Freedom Industries facility into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River. This January marks the tenth anniversary since the tragic spill contaminated the drinking water for more than 300,000 West Virginians. 

“Is this water ‘ironic’?” I can hear my 9 year-old self asking that question as the handle went up and down and water flowed from a pump at a roadside park along a two-lane West Virginia highway sometime a long while ago. I loved words…collecting new ones, learning their meaning and context, and I was with friends and family on an outing. The friends included a teacher and newspaper reporter; they could be friendly adult resources for a budding vocabulary enthusiast. In truth, I’d just heard someone say it was iron water. No, they smiled indulgently…that water is not exactly “ironic.”

Now, decades later, I’m watching water flow from my own faucets with a real sense of irony…or something sadder. As one of the 300,000 (individuals? families?) affected by a chemical spill in the Elk River, I’ve had many sensations. And not even a long-standing passion for collecting words may support me in telling of this event. It could be nearly indefinable or indescribable. 

First, it feels very strange to have been someone who reviewed a book, in this newsletter three months ago, about looming water difficulties (“The Ripple Effect,” Oct. ’13). Of course, I made some mental connection to the problems described in stories from around the United States and the world, but that is not like living it. 

In the same way, I had participated in a number of environmental activities, directly and indirectly linked to the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and had seen bad water and ruined streams and other sources elsewhere in our state and had been deeply moved by affected residents. Now, I am one. I may have more options and choices than others, but I am an affected resident. I cannot drink the water from the tap. I cannot cook with that water. Like some other West Virginians, affected by mining, or fracking; and like people dealing without water worldwide, I must now make decisions about self, family, pets, livestock, plants, and the value of my property. 

Here are some thoughts on the event that could be examined for irony, or lack of. 

Many people decried the surge of lawsuits following the disaster. Investigative reporter, Ken Ward, Jr. has urged that people remember that some solid facts may be derived from the investigations of this leak. 

Soon it happens that I will become a Great Aunt. I’m happy. And I’m very worried, as is the mom-to-be. She struggles and juggles, to find accurate information and to handle her water usage in a non-harmful way. 

Among the most helpful people, in bringing water, baby wipes, and other supplies to areas away from the metro Charleston area have been tree huggers and out-of-state religious groups. These are the same folks reviled by some in the coal counties as meddlers. 

In 2010, National Geographic magazine devoted an entire issue to one topic…”WATER; Our Thirsty World.” I purchased extra copies and gave them to my local legislators. None acknowledged receipt. 

“Throw the bums out!” say some, as a suggestion for improving legislative action. But how would good candidates be recruited and how would they fund their election efforts? Enhanced by the “Citizens United” decision, the political funding by extraction industries here is well maintained. Those industries work to limit regulation. 

“Take Back the Tap.” I have liked the name and the focus of that campaign. There are so many negative aspects of bottled water—questionable sources, content, impact of
bottle production and disposal/recycling—that I could support the idea that we should all work to make our own local water convenient, affordable, and safe. However, now, here, we have been told we can “take back” our tap, but our trust is gone. 

In my own area, to complete bird surveys at a lake reservoir maintained by the Putnam PSD, I had to have an approved application to enter the site, with an affidavit of purpose, a referral, and two pieces of ID. We are learning that other water sites are not so secure. 

So, to return to the word “ironic.” There is one definition which uses an opposite as an example. It poses, “What’s NOT ironic?” Answer: “It’s just an unfortunate scenario; there’s no reversal of expectations.” 

The water at a roadside park in 1956 may not have been ironic. Perhaps, in early 2014, the water supplied by West Virginia American Water to nine counties may not be either. But the latter, laced with at least two hazardous substances, is a deeply “unfortunate scenario.”

And anyone who reads The Voice knows it was preventable.