The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

February 5, 2014

Finding a balance vital following chemical spill

By Cody Neff
The Register-Herald

BEAVER — With strong opinions on either side of the issue, a speaker for the Plateau Action Network says finding a balance between the sides is important when dealing with the Elk River chemical spill that happened in January.

Eric Autenreith shared the ways we might not realize the spill will affect business and communities at the first lecture of The Coal Heritage Lecture Series at the Erma Byrd Center in Beaver.

“Whenever there was report of low water or bad water quality, we would almost immediately see a drop in business,” he said. “People at rafting companies have told me they expect to see a drop in business because of this spill.

“You all may know that the press puts stories out about this and the public beyond West Virginia hears ‘Toxic West Virginia Spill’ and no one makes a distinction about where it happened. People get gun-shy about anything in West Virginia.”

As a member of the Plateau Action Network, Autenreith says the group looks for a balance between development and the environment.

“We’re a citizens’ coalition working within the community to promote responsible economic development and sustainable environmental management,” he said. “We’re not against economic development. We need jobs, but we also need balance. We’ve developed a good reputation by not being screechy or tree-huggy.”

One of the issues PAN is looking at right now is the issue of “embedded or virtual water.”

“Embedded or virtual water refers to the water that’s used for manufacturing a product, like my shirt,” he said. “Water was used to grow the cotton. Water was used in all of the processing of the cotton. Everything we use in the world has an embedded or virtual aspect to it. If you think about it, it’s a big deal because we can think about what’s happening in Charleston in this state.

“Massive amounts of water are used in coal production and fracking. These waters, in many ways, belong to the people of the state and when it’s taken from the waterways and used for chemical manufacturing, soiled and no longer usable, it’s taken from us. What do we get from it?”

Autenreith says some of the most important things to do are to “be vocal and be educated.”

“People need good information to make good decisions,” he said. “As the world gets bigger and the decision-makers get further away, people are forced to rely on a few media outlets. If they get something wrong or they get it right but don't get all the little subtle details then people don’t have the best information to make the best decisions.

“Coal River Mountain Watch is a very good organization. They share peer-reviewed scientific papers that show health problems in southern coalfields. There’s also a lobbying organization whose focus is justice and environmental issues. It’s called ‘The West Virginia Environmental Council.’ They operate on a shoestring budget. Most of what they advocate for is fairness and transparency.”

Autenreith also says we need to try to be understanding to everyone on both sides of the issue.

“This is all very difficult,” he said. “Most of us have grown up in places where water companies were owned by the municipality. West Virginia American Water is a publicly-traded corporation. They want their money.

“That’s what the executives of that corporation are legally obligated to go after and they have to act in the best interest of the shareholders because otherwise they can be sued.

“This is an ‘Aha!’ moment for me because their obligation to the shareholders first. Don’t kid yourselves that West Virginia American Water is like your local non-profit water company.”

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