Reflections

Chemical Spills & Professional Communication

I’ve been working on the syllabus for my WRT 307: Professional Writing course. I finally finished it and started piecing together our course website yesterday—work that was interrupted around 5:30pm when I saw a FB post from a childhood friend warning folks in our hometown not to drink the water.

Yesterday morning, a tank of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol—a foaming agent used in coal prep—began spilling into the Elk River and is currently affecting 9 counties and approximately 300,000 people. Although people in the Charleston area started complaining about the licorice smell around 7am and the smell was identified as coming from Freedom Industries around 9:30am, I didn’t see a single report until after 5:00pm. Though the story was constantly updated via The Daily Mail, crucial information was missing from the initial reports, such as the 5 (now 9) counties affected by contaminated water provided by West Virginia American Water.

When I saw my friend’s post, I immediately checked Twitter for verification. I assumed that my family knew about this and texted my dad that I had read about the spill. He texted back, “What?” He had been boiling water for spaghetti when I texted him and hadn’t heard a word about the spill.

Governor Tomblin issued an order not to use the water to do anything but flush toilets or put out fires: “Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.” Local restaurants, schools, daycares, nursing homes, and even some hospitals are affected and have been advised to close.  The president of WV American Water apparently  emphasized that “the company is not positive the water is dangerous, but they determined there’s the possibility.” Side effects include mild burns and “non-stop vomiting.”

I couldn’t stop reading news articles yesterday, and it has consumed most of my day today, too. Although I realize it’s not the water company’s fault that this happened, they are absolutely at fault for not issuing a warning until ten hours after the spill occurred. They are also at fault for jumping the gun and issuing a statement that they could treat the water, which was later revoked.

Kanawha River, June 2009
Sunset over the Kanawha River, June 2009

I adore West Virginia. I got a tattoo of the state outline on my 20th birthday with a heart where Charleston is. I defend it aggressively when I hear people make jokes about it. My WV twang comes out whenever I cross the Mason-Dixon line. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to read stories like this—to see how companies treat their people, how recklessly chemicals are stored that have unknown impact to people, water, land, or animals.

It has, however, been amazing  to witness all of this from NY—to see friends posting on Facebook which hotels are open for people to take showers, where the water distribution centers are, who has an extra case of bottled water that they’re willing to share with a friend who uses powdered baby formula. When communication breaks down on a macro-level, it’s interesting to see how communication and community grow stronger through social media.

A picture of Bart Simpson holding a three-eyed fish. Text reads, "It's an Elk River Thing."
People always joke about the 3-eyed catfish in the Kanawha River. (photo via Instagram)

It’s the communication that really has me outraged. Am I surprised that there was a chemical leak in Kanawha County, which we called “Chemical Valley” when I was growing up? No.

My mom used to say that Kanawha County killed people, and sometimes—particularly when I read things like this and think of the  number of power plants around when I was growing up (and that are still there, although fewer in number)—I believe that. But that seems like all the more reason to be prepared for things like this to happen. The lack of appropriate response is absurd.

In my professional writing theory course at WVU, we read Beverly Sauer’s The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments. Influenced by the legal, technical, and ethical responses of companies to large-scale technological disasters, the book is essentially a workplace study on mine safety.

I remember being fascinated by this book  because even if you know very little about WV, you know it’s coal territory. Boys are recruited out of high school to work in the coalmines, and communication (particularly written communication) is so crucial in those high-risk environments—filling out appropriate documentation, writing reports, proceeding appropriately if and when there is a disaster.

Though what happened yesterday isn’t necessarily a writing issue, it is most certainly a communication issue—How is it legally or ethically possible that several hours passed before a warning was issued? Why does no one know how this chemical impacts people? Why is there no plan in place for what to do in this situation?

I think this would be useful to bring up in WRT 307 next week. It’s interesting to think about how information has been communicated through professional channels (newspapers, press releases) versus more informal channels like Facebook and Twitter. It’s also useful for thinking about how to communicate clearly under pressure.

I think I’ll call the lesson, “what not to do in a high-risk communication situation.”

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