Friday, April 04, 2014

Mining the mountains of Meghalaya and West Virginia

Less than a month ago, the New York Times' India Ink blog that is about India had a report with a troubling headline: "A Village Brings Down Its Hills as Lure of Mining Grows."  It was, yet another, depressing piece on the economics versus environment struggle that seems to be the only way we humans know.  Apparently we know not how to make it economics and the environment.

The NY Times reported on the mining activities in the hills of Meghalaya, a state in the northeast, whose name means the abode of the clouds, which will invoke nothing but wonderful imagery.  But, the photo in the report is anything but that.

Meghalaya "has become home to an increasing number of family-owned limestone mines, whose owners are seeking wealth unheard of in a region accustomed to subsistence farming."

Of course, it will be a wonderful development to raise the standards of living and provide opportunities for people to live a life that is more than mere subsistence.  But, the lucrative mining comes at a steep environmental cost:
“In this village, we get our water straight from the river,” Mr. Pohsnem said. “As soon as the mining started, the water became undrinkable. Now they say they have stopped mining near the river, but they have buried the headwaters of the streams already. Maybe with the money they make from mining, they can buy clean water, but that is not a solution.” ...
“We used to have deer and bears around here, but even the squirrels ran away after the mining. If they cannot drink the water, then how can we?” he asked. “It’s no use fighting — better that we buy a place elsewhere where there’s no mining.”
Mining messing up the local water supply is an all too familiar story. Not only in India or China, but even right here in the United States.  And not the US of a hundred years ago as the country's economic engines were revving, but even now.  The chemical spill in West Virginia this past January is the context for this piece in the New Yorker with an equally depressing title: "Chemical Valley."  After MCHM—4-methylcyclohexane methanol--leaked in the thousands of gallons, and after another chemical--PPH--had leaked as well, 
Authorities urged the public to watch for symptoms of exposure, including rashes, nausea, vomiting, and wheezing. Just after midnight, President Obama declared a federal emergency. He dispatched FEMA and sent in the National Guard to deliver truckloads of bottled water.
The water was not safe for  “drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing.”

Interestingly enough, the local health department is headed by a guy with origins in India--Rahul Gupta, the son of an Indian diplomat.
When I asked Dr. Gupta, the head of the health department, if he and his family were drinking from the tap, he said that they were not. The water at their house still had an odor. “It is very difficult to drink licorice-flavored water,” he said. I asked if there were any outstanding scientific questions, and he laughed. Then he said, “What is the metabolism and excretion of this compound in humans? Does it accumulate? Where does it accumulate? What is the carcinogenic potential? What is the teratogenic potential? What does it do to home pipes? How does it interact, if at all, with other compounds in water, such as chlorine? Does it form harmful or harmless products?”
Dr. Gupta ran though another half-dozen medical and scientific issues, and arrived at the question that concerns him most. For a man who had left a country that had undergone radical divides in human development, the causes and effects of the Freedom Industries spill feel like a departure from an American principle he thought he understood. He said, “The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act allows every resident of the United States to have access to safe drinking water. 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.”
What is it that makes us think so little of water?  Even when we understand the preciousness of water and its connection to life itself.  When we scan the universe, it is the presence of water that we use as an important proxy for whether we might be able to detect life far, far away from this pale blue dot.  Yet, we sacrifice water because ...?


We humans are so messed up!
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
The water understands
Civilization well;
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.


Ramesh said...

Industrialists who do such things ought to be shot. These days technology exists for handling every waste produced in a factory - such that the environment can actually be better than it was before. We can turn urine into the most potable of drinking water which can be better than the "mineral water" on offer. Mining technologies exist which can ensure that there is only a very small footprint on the environment.

Its nothing but greed which motivates the cowboys doing such things. They ought to be shot.

Sriram Khé said...

I hope you will read that New Yorker piece in full. A depressing tale of the powerful coal lobby having the legislature and the governor in their coat pockets!

I shudder when I think about how the recent SCOTUS decision on McCutcheon could empower these rich cowboys to fund and elect their own people at the right places. Terrible :(

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