'Do We Really Want to Go Down That Path?': Abandoning Appalachia and the Elk River Chemical Spill.

Author:Young, Stephen


The level of social exclusion in Appalachia continues to go unnoticed in the criminological literature. The West Virginia Elk River Chemical Spill symbolizes the extent of the broad, institutionalized classist and intra-racist structures existing in the region. Appalachia continues to face similar events as well as the continued use of the "white trash" label to ensure access to a cheap, exploitable labor force. This article contends that criminologists should think in terms of the historical conditions and class structures of the internal colonialist model to understand how the continued discarding of this population perpetuates its exploitation and abandonment.


So how do we say that, for three hundred thousand people in this part of West Virginia, it's O.K. to have "appropriate" water? Do we understand the path we're taking here, by defining two different classes of water, for two different groups of population? Do we really want to go down that path? In the history of this nation, it doesn't end well when we go down this path.

--Dr. Rahul Gupta, The New Yorker, April 7 (in Osnos 2014)

MANY CONSIDER THE ACCESS TO CLEAN WATER A FUNDAMENTAL human right. However, this right is not a guarantee for a large number of individuals around the world (The Water Project 2016). Many people in the United States assume that areas affected by a lack of usable water exist in the Third World or, more suitably, the Global South. This is understandable, especially considering that nearly 783 million individuals worldwide do not have tangible access to clean water and many of these individuals, two-thirds to be exact, live in sub-Saharan Africa (ibid.). Figures such as these can cause disconnect for US citizens. However, to some in the United States, this issue has become all too real in the past few years. This is especially true for the three hundred thousand residents of a small nine-county area in West Virginia following one of the most significant mining-related incidents in the past five years.

Mining industry-related incidents are a longstanding reality for the residents of West Virginia. The industry as a whole has experienced hundreds of disaster-level events, involving the killing of five or more individuals, since 1900 (Brnich & Kowalski-Trakofler 2010). These events continue to have a lasting effect on the residents of the state. In general, the environmental impact of these disasters has caused, and continues to cause, a level of disease and death in the region that few other areas of the US or other industrialized nations face. In particular, the state's population faces some of the highest rates of cancer directly related to the mining industry (Hendryx et al. 2011). More specifically, West Virginia, followed closely by Kentucky (a neighboring state that has also experienced many mining-related incidents), leads the nation in deaths per capita from cancer (Hendryx et al. 2008, 2010). Overall, the rates of cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and mortality in West Virginia represent some of the highest in the nation and exist to some degree due to the damage caused by the mining industry.

This level of damage in West Virginia continues to go largely unnoticed in the criminological literature and demands greater attention. The Elk River chemical spill, like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan (Zahran et al. 2017), represents an important example of how state crime continues with few interventions or consequences in areas predominantly populated by those seen as expendable. Providing analysis of such examples supports the creation of arguments against state crimes that are deeply rooted in discrimination of both class and race through the formulation of an integrated theoretical framework. Subsequently, providing such attention and analysis to similar reoccurring events experienced by vulnerable populations offers further support to the framing of these events as state crime. This in turn creates a stronger historically contextualized theoretical framework through which scholars can identify and promptly combat similar events to support already vulnerable populations.

This article examines how individuals in West Virginia affected by the Freedom Industries Elk River chemical spill became victims of the most recent instance of coal mining-related state crime, which seems to be an almost annual occurrence. Additionally, it highlights how this incident is part of a continuing cycle of neglect and exclusion rooted in the historical and cultural separation of rural Appalachian populations. The spill represents a prime example of state-corporate crime due to both the nature of the spill and the overall lack of oversight foreshadowing the event. It represents a series of continued state-allowed criminal activities against marginalized groups across the country, including but not limited to expendable groups such as the citizens of Flint and the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters.

The purpose of this argument is not to provide a case study of another state crime. This crime is obvious and discussion on these crimes entered the literature decades ago (see Barak 1991). Instead, the following will provide explanations of why the West Virginia population continually faces these crimes (see Barry 2001, McGinley 2004) and how the Elk River spill represents another example of an internal colonialist system that ensures the presence of an exploitable population through the use of the long-established white trash label projected onto the region.

To accomplish this, I argue that this case, as with other highly impoverished populations that experience similar levels of victimization, is symbolic and another extension of broader institutionalized classism and racist structures seen nationally. These events occur due to the continuance of historical discourse used to create particular groups of trash to ensure the Appalachian region continues to function as a national sacrifice zone (see Scott 2009). The corporate crimes committed by Freedom Industries came about because of a lack of oversight by the state, which responded through the creation of purely symbolic law to appease the public. This spill and the lack of response continue century-old internal colonialist methods of production. A broader discussion is necessary on how such a crime relates to cultural distancing mechanisms (see Young 2007) established by populations external to the region. This event, like the many before it, acts as part of a long history of label-making and exclusion fueling the predominantly economically driven corporate controls within the state. Due to the longstanding, repeated nature of these preventable events, criminologists must think of the historical conditions of classist and racial structures within the internal colonialist model to understand how the continued discarding of this population allows for their exploitation and abandonment.

The Social Harm Perspective

Before beginning a discussion of the events of the Elk River chemical spill, it is important to note that I accept and agree with the definition put forth by Michalowski's (2010) social harm perspective. This position defines state crime as an act that leads to some form of societal harm (Michalowski 1985, Pemberton 2004). More specifically, this definition describes state crime as "intentional human actions in pursuit of economic and/or political goals that result in harms equally grave as acts defined as crime" (Michalowski 2010, 17). In such a crime, according to this use of the term, a law as defined by a government or in some areas of criminology is not necessarily broken. Due to this, it is the job of the researcher to play the role of the claims-maker in a social movement to draw notice to the harms being committed (Spector & Kitsuse 1977). This is the exact reason that this definition is useful in analyzing the events of Elk River. No significant criminal actions took place that day and the punishments for those involved severely lack in comparison to the harm done, as demonstrated by the symbolic laws created both prior to and following the incident. However, the reasoning behind such lax laws becomes clear once we contextualize the history of such events in West Virginia with the overall economic and political power the coal industry sustains in the region (McNeil 2011). Overall, this definition of crime is necessary in addressing our understanding of the colonialist-rooted allowance of these harms in a region discarded as an expendable population.

The Chemical Spill

At the time of the spill, Freedom Industries provided coal companies with containment and storage services for chemicals used during the process of cleaning coal (Plumer 2014). The company consisted of personnel and management from various companies that had been recently reincorporated to escape particular regulations and legal sanctions, as discussed later. The Freedom Industries plant, in which the spill originated, is located on the banks of the Elk River outside of Charleston, West Virginia. The Elk River is a main source of water in the southwestern section of West Virginia and flows directly into an American Water drinking water intake, treatment, and distribution center (Botelho & Watkins 2014). On the morning of January 9, 2014, approximately 7,500 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, otherwise known as MCHM, leaked from a containment unit located within the Charleston facility owned and controlled by Freedom Industries (Bernstein 2014). The leak in the containment unit led to a direct flow of a large amount of the chemical into the Elk River through topsoil absorption (Raby 2014). The short distance between the spill site and the American Water plant combined with the shallowness of the river allowed the chemical to reach the treatment center within a relatively short amount of time (Botelho & Watkins 2014).

Around 8:00 a.m. the morning of...

To continue reading