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Crisis in the Chemical Valley: Teaching Sustainability and Action Through the West Virginia Water Crisis

aphorisnt's picture

    On January 9, 2014, several thousand gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) spilled from a ruptured tank a Freedom Industries’ storage facility into the Elk River just 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American Water’s regional intake which supplies water to nine counties in the Kanawha Valley area (Kloc). Just ten days later on January 19, government officials lifted the Do-Not-Use order on municipal water use that had been put into effect following the spill claiming the water was safe to use and effectively ending compensatory actions (i.e. supplying clean bottled water free of charge to communities in need). Needless to say the water was far from clean by this point. What, then, should the communities of southern West Virginia do? How did this spill happen and who bears the blame? What is it about this chemical that makes the water toxic and why was it neat the river in the first place? How can a disaster like this be prevented? Who needs to do something and what should they do? Environmental disasters like the contamination of West Virginia’s water often leave more questions than answers, but these questions are not without purpose. Rather, using this one particular disaster as a case study, one can examine the nature of environmental disasters and the subsequent actions and outcomes from a host of different perspectives: the political, the economic, the social, at the community level, at the state level. As an educational focus, I plan to use the water crisis as the basis for a curriculum in a Charleston, West Virginia public school setting as a means of discussing and engaging with issues of local economics, political and social norms, and how economics effects those norms as well as the science behind the disaster and how environmental justice is at play in this situation.
    This lesson plan will last about three to four weeks and will involve a cross-discipline approach in order to engage with the material from all sides and try to answer the guiding question or questions of each unit holistically with ideas from multiple perspectives. I imagine this course in a public school, one of the very schools who had shut their doors waiting for the water contamination crisis to end, working with students in grades four or five (around age ten). The beginning of the unit will discuss the “what?” followed by a focus on the “how and why?” then ending on the “what can we do?” Through this lesson plan, I hope to take a page from Goleman et. al.’s Ecoliterate and employ some of the practices for “emotionally and socially engaged ecoliteracy.” Of the five principles listed, I hope to focus primarily on three: making the invisible visible–drawing attention to things that are often overlooked or discounted as unimportant, such as the connection between the coal industry and this one specific event; anticipating unintended consequences–how relying on the coal industry and essentially putting all of West Virginia’s eggs in one basket has and will continue to impact the state and the rest of the planet, using this chemical spill as a case study; and finally, embracing sustainability as a community practice–efforts to understand  and make sense of this disaster and the subsequent actions to ameliorate the problem however possible should not stop at the classroom door but rather should involve the entire community beyond just the students with the students in turn taking what they learn in the classroom and through classwork back out into the world (Goleman 13-16). Each of the unit focus questions will engage with one of these principles.
Week One: What?
    On the first day of the unit, students walk into the classroom to find something waiting for them on each of their desks: a small plastic dixie cup filled with “green stuff.” The teacher, waiting expectantly for the students to file in, instructs the children to sit down and–without drinking the liquid–try to guess what the substance in the cup is. A few guess Kool Aid, some guess some kind of smoothie, one guesses wheat grass juice with something else mixed in, but no one seems to guess the true identity of the liquid. After a few more guesses, the teacher informs the students that what they have in front of them is, in fact, water, straight from the tap. A few “eww’s” and “gross’s” aside, the teacher asks the students about using the water, if they would drink or shower in or wash clothes and dishes with it after seeing the contamination so closely. After a little discussion about water safety and water quality (led by students but facilitated by the teacher) the teacher finally tells the students that the liquid is only “green stuff,” a perfectly harmless concoction of blue and orange powdered flavored drink mix (think Tang or Kool-Aid). The purpose of such an introduction is to make visible the contamination, to bring the unsafe water right to the students’ desks where they can see and interact with it up close and personal minus the risk of actually handling toxic water.
    For the rest of the lesson the teacher gives an overview of the events of the spill: when and where the spill took place, maybe using a map as a visual to point out the facility that housed the ruptured storage tank and then trace the 1.5 miles to the water intake that serves so many communities in the area. The teacher then spends the rest of the class facilitating a discussion on the greater impact of the crisis with a few guiding questions: How many places were impacted? Who lives there? Do you know anyone who couldn’t use their water? What did they do? What would you do if you couldn’t drink your own tap water? Students as a class or in small groups work together to create their own map(s) of the spill and the impacted areas to gain an understanding of just how the spill spread.
    Students also have the opportunity for a science project. The chemical, MCHM, is toxic but the nature of that toxin is very poorly understood. This chemical is a “compound designed to process coal dug from the Appalachian Mountains, and so its interaction with the human body had never been considered, nor much investigated, despite the fact that it was stored in tanks on a river bank less than two miles upstream of the valley's drinking water distribution facilities” (Kloc). Therefore, students could pursue any number of scientific investigations: what elements and compounds make up MCHM and how might that combination effect animals or humans who drink the water? How does this compound react with or dissolve in water? How could one test water for MCHM or any other potentially toxic chemicals? What needs to happen to make the water drinkable again? For the purpose of this lesson plan, I can describe water testing. In a lab setting, groups of 3-4 students (who of course are already wearing all the proper safety gear) will receive four beakers full of water, three experimental beakers containing some kind of dissolved chemical compound–some possibilities include salt water, water collected from a local stream or lake, or water samples with added chemical like chlorine or hydrochloric acid–and one control of just distilled water. Students will run a variety of tests on the experimental beakers, looking at temperature, pH, color, and odor as well as testing for dissolved oxygen, carbonates, and chlorine. Such water testing kits are available through most lab science equipment suppliers and should supplies be limited each group can run a different test on their own samples. Students will run the test(s), record their observations, and compare those findings to the other student groups. After the lab, the teacher will show the results of actual water composition tests (available on the Environmental Protection Agency’s or EPA’s website) as well as the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for MCHM. The MSDS sheet can provide information on the exact chemical makeup of MCHM as well as what data is known regarding toxicity and threat to human health.
    These two activities aim to foment a hands-on learning by “doing” and to avoid a “conventional, teacher-dominated classroom” (Chase 335). A traditional lecture-based class might explain the same information, but simply pointing at a map doesn’t offer the same understanding of the scale of the contamination. Reading off an EPA stream composition report and listing off the names of seven-odd impossible to pronounce chemical compounds does nothing to foster understanding or build a connection, much less illuminate how the presence of those dissolved solids or different chemicals were discovered and understood in the first place. And images of dirty, toxic water do not offer the same visceral experience of actually being confronted with a glass of some rather nasty-looking substance and experiencing the reality of those with no choice but to use that toxic water. Additionally, this first sections aims to engage Goleman’s principle of anticipating unintended consequences. This practice “involves better ways of predicting the potential implications of our behavior,” thinking critically about the results of placing a dangerous and very imperfectly understood chemical compound less than two miles from the municipal water intake, “while simultaneously creating strategies that compensate for the fact that we cannot foresee all the possible effects of our actions,” using an understanding of the events themselves to prompt a questioning of how and why these events happened and what could be done to prevent them–a segue into the following section (Goleman 15). This week intends to build a strong base that will interest and connect with students and provide a gateway of engagement for the rest of the unit.
**note: at the start of the week, students will also be assigned the novel The Greening of Ben Brown by Michael Strelow and read 1-2 chapters (around 20-25 pages) each night**
Weeks Two and Three: How? And Why?
    This next section of the unit spans two weeks (though could be compressed into a week by cutting some activities if a teacher so wishes) and goes beyond the events themselves to investigate how and why this chemical spill occurred and was allowed to reach such a level of severity. The Greening of Ben Brown, the novel assigned at the beginning of the previous week, comes into play in this section. The novel focuses on Ben Brown, an Oregon man who, after surviving electrocution, turns green and then partners with an 18-year-old boy to investigate a chemical spill and in their city and guilty industry that, as their town’s main employer, has long been beyond reproach (Strelow). Despite its Pacific northwest setting, the novel tackles many of the realities faced by West Virginian residents who depend on the coal industry for their livelihoods yet must deal with the negative effects to health and safety. Through the lens of the novel, the teacher asks the students to question the stranglehold of the polluting industry on the town and whether or not it is right for that company to go on polluting and maintaining “business as usual” because the town’s citizens need somewhere to work to care for themselves and their families. Students will discuss the events of the novel in class and compare them to the events taking place in real time in their community–a polluting industry contaminating the water with a chemical spill, keeping the spill under wraps for several hours, and whether or not anything is being done the clean up the spill.
    The goal is to prompt the students to question the role of their home industry, coal, and whether or not companies like Freedom Industries have gone to far in putting profit above people as well as whether or not local and federal regulatory agencies are at fault for not doing more to prevent or manage disasters like this chemical spill in the first place. The far away setting and fictional nature of the work can hopefully help combat the almost knee-jerk urge to defend “King Coal” that is common in communities like those of West Virginia that depend so heavily on the one industry. This directly ties in Goleman’s principle of making the invisible visible. “Our global economy has created blinders that shield us from experiencing the far-reaching implications of our actions,” making the connection between West Virginia’s coal-based economy, the lack of action following the spill, lax regulations, and a nation dependent upon fossil fuels for nearly everything near-inscrutable (Goleman 14). Using the novel as a proxy questioning “business as usual” practices at the institutional level, this part of the unit shines a light on the relationship between our insatiable national appetite for coal and the events of this one particular chemical spill.
    The rest of the two weeks are spent researching for and then holding an in-class debate about the chemical spill: What precautions did Freedom Industries take to prevent the spill? What should they have done to stop such a disaster from occurring? Were the government’s actions adequate? Should regulatory agencies have lifted the do not use order so quickly or should they have waited longer? Are state and federal regulations being properly enforced? Are said regulations sufficient?
    Students are split into two groups, one side defending Freedom Industries and supporting the course of events following the spill, and the other side opposing the actions taken and challenging Freedom Industries’ methods for managing the spill. The first week and a half is dedicated to research. Students can do independent research in the library at school as well as at home. Each side must create a timeline of the events and indicate at specific points what happened and whether it worked or did not work (e.g. lifting the do not use order on January 19). To supplement secondary source data such as news articles and press releases, guest speakers also visit the class during the week. Students hear from a local West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson, an employee or representative of Freedom Industries, a community member affected by the spill, and an environmental activist from the West Virginia Clean Water Hub. Students use their own research and the testimonies of the speakers to formulate their own arguments.
    Beginning on the Wednesday of the second week, students hold their debate. The teacher serves as facilitator, making sure that each student on side has a chance to speak, as well as time keeper to make sure the debate does not stagnate. Every student must present a five minute supporting their side’s position, citing sources to bolster their arguments (copies of all sources and/or a bibliography of sources used are turned in to the teacher at the end of the week). After every three or four speeches the opposing side offers a rebuttal, requiring the first side to defend their arguments. This period of rebuttal and response lasts for about ten minutes the focus returns each side presenting their arguments. At the end, no winner or loser is declared since there is no explicit winning or losing side. Rather, each student writes a 2-3 page paper detailing their individual opinion (independent of which side they debated) that synthesizes sources they or their opponents used and their own individual moral argument and then details what they think should have happened to prevent or mitigate the spill as well as what should happen now to ameliorate all the problems the spill caused and to lessen the likelihood of a spill happening again.
    These two weeks continue to work with Goleman’s principle of anticipating unintended consequences on a much more concrete level through the debate, calling into question the precautions not taken and regulations not upheld while simultaneously calling for reforms to the current system of prevention to increase safety and efficacy.
Week Four: What Can We Do?
    Following their papers, students bring their own ideas of what could have been/should now be done back to the class. Together they design a plan of action and decide what changes and courses of action they want to pursue. Some options include changing federal regulations, demanding reparations from Freedom Industries, ordering more testing to better understand the effects of MCHM, direct humanitarian relief, designing a fast-acting alert system, or any other methods the class devises. The class chooses their top three options then breaks into three groups corresponding to those plans of action. Each group researches and designs the best way to implement that specific course of action and presents a detailed plan to the class at the end of the week. The plan includes what the action to be taken is, what steps need to be taken for this to be put into practice, who is responsible for each of the steps, who will hold them accountable, and what consequences the individual/group of people/agency will face should they not follow through with those roles.
    To finish off the unit, the students take a field trip where they participate in a direct action to provide relief directly to impacted communities. On the Friday of the fourth week, students take a bus to Whitesville, West Virginia and arrive at the headquarters of the West Virginia Clean Water Hub (currently operating out of the RAMPS offices). There they meet with an organizer who describes the process of a water distribution. At each distribution, volunteers and organizers amass gallons of potable water, some in bottles, some in gallon jugs, and occasionally in large 500 gallon tanks secured to the back of a pickup truck. At the distribution site, the location of which the locally community has already been made aware, people in need of water drive through and receive an amount of water based upon their specific needs (the standard amount is usually three gallons for each person in a household). Today, the students will volunteer their time and energy to provide West Virginia residents with clean water. Students travel with volunteers and organizers to a distribution location and spend about three hours or so bringing water to each person who comes through. Students interact directly with the people who lack access to water for such quotidian activities as drinking or washing dishes. True, the students themselves have had to rely on store bought bottled water, but many will be only marginally aware of the toll that acquiring such large amounts of water for survival takes since, as young students, they can more or less depend on parents pr guardians to procure enough water to get by. Helping with the distribution makes visible just how much water each person and each family needs–and hauling heavy gallon jugs for three hours means they will not soon forget what that volume of water looks and feels like.
    Through this community action as well as the plans for amending and creating methods to prevent chemical disasters, students experience first-hand that change does not and cannot come from only one body. “Communities,” holds Goleman, “represent a core pattern of organization for surviving over time” and community extends beyond just a neighborhood or a classroom (13). Rather, a community includes all people–students, teachers, parents, neighbors, government officials–and the animals that live together in an environment and in order to insure the health and safety of that community everyone must work for the common good of the whole. This means living in a manner such as to avoid causing direct harm to another community member be it through picking up trash, obeying speed limits, or taking precautions to avoid massive chemical spills. Yet on an even larger scale, the common good also entails “creating economic and government systems that can sustain a community if an unanticipated disruption occurs” (Goleman 13). Sustainability, then is indeed a community-wide practice as all levels of scale from the household to the larger governing body as all need to act in ways that protect the environment for the benefit of all and work to prevent or plan ahead and adapt in case of and sort of disaster (i.e. a chemical spill).
Moving Forward
    By the end of the four weeks students will have come a long way from just hearing about this water disaster in the news or noticing a change towards more bottles water to a holistic understanding of the spill. They will be able to make sense of and comprehend the events leading up to the spill, the connection between larger economic and social systems and norms and this particular disaster, the scope of the spill’s impact, and what they as individuals can do to better the situation.
    As ecoliterate individuals, the students will be able to see the previously invisible connections between this one event and the choices they and people at large make everyday. Using the spill as a case study also fosters a deeper understanding as the students not only study this particular incident in school but must also face the realities of the events at home and out of the classroom (there is a chance they may even see friends and neighbors at the water distribution increasing the “close-to-home” feeling). The unit also empowers students to think critically and maybe even take action themselves as the different sections highlight the failings of the current system of safety regulations and begin exposing the cracks apparent in the modern capitalist fossil fuel-dependent system. So often, lessons dealing with disasters end on a sour note with no evidence of change or improvement or in the event of extant methods of disaster mitigation actions far beyond the capacity of what a fourth or fifth grade student without a civil engineering degree can actually do. Letting the students make recommendations and then providing an outlet to enact real change and offer relief at the ground level makes students the heroes of this story, the agents of change helping to make the world a better place immediately. In the end, students should move forward with a more intimate understanding of the larger forces at play in the event of an environmental crisis like this chemical spill as well as their own agency and capacity to make change.

Works Cited
Chase, Steven. "Changing the Nature of Environmental Studies." Rpt. in The Environmental Justice Reader. Ed. Joni Adamson et. al. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.     351-367. Print.

Goleman, Daniel, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow. Ecoliterate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012. Print.

Kloc, Joe. "West Virginia's Water Fallout." Newsweek 26 Feb. 2014: n. pag. Web. 2 May 2014.

Items Referenced

MCHM; MSDS No. P18717000 [Online]; Eastman Chemical Company: Kingsport, TN, October 19, 2005, accessed 2 May 2014.

Strelow, Michael. The Greening of Ben Brown. Portland: Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts. 2005. Print.

Unites States. Environmental Protection Agency. Decision Rationale Total Maximum Daily Loads Elk River Watershed For Acid Mine Drainage Affected Segments. Philadelphia: Sept. 2001. Print.