West Virginia, Clean Water, and a New Future; It’s Time to Lead

This is a guest blog by Sebrena Williamson, West Virginian Arts Advocate, Choreographer and Writer.

The waterways in West Virginia carry the pollution of Appalachia and The Rust Belt to America’s main waterway, The Mississippi. West Virginia has long been a sacrifice zone–but it’s time for the state to be a leader in the movement for clean water.

Photo courtesy of Sebrena Williamson

West Virginia is an oft-forgotten casualty in the fight against extractive industry; but it doesn’t have to be. It is becoming increasingly important for the nation that West Virginia steps up to the task.

As the Appalachian region celebrates a major win against the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate extension, West Virginians continue to struggle against other industrial forces. In essence, West Virginia is at the very nucleus of many other regional epidemics. As West Virginia continues to rapidly lose its population and struggles through several intertwined health epidemics, including those of opioid and HIV, government officials on both sides of the aisle are making millions from investment in coal, paying little heed to the local issues. 

Over recent years, we have progressed very little in the fight for the climate compared to other places in the region– and it’s not for lack of trying to push for climate action through grassroots activism. Yet, if West Virginia were able to produce real change, it could reduce pollution both regionally and nationally. 

West Virginia and The Ohio River: Where Two Industrial Regions Meet

As recently as 2015, The Ohio River was named one of the most polluted rivers in America by the EPA. Similarly, in 2012, The Mississippi River was rated the 2cd most polluted river in the country. Consequently, it has never been more crucial to pay attention to West Virginia, which sits at the intersection of the Midwest and Appalachia– two notoriously polluted regions. As one might assume, this has detrimental effects on West Virginians. As a result of the decades of significant pollution, West Virginia has the highest cancer rates in the United States, increased dementia rates, and increased heart disease. 

So, exactly how does this pollution travel?

To the South, the New River catches fecal coliform and carries it into the Kanawha River. Then, the Kanawha River catches all the pollution of Chemical Valley, and transfers it into the Ohio River. To the North, the Ohio River sits along the Rust Belt, absorbing atmospheric pollution from Steel and other manufacturing plants. On the Ohio River in West Virginia alone, massive, multi-industrial factories line the river for miles. Coal sites, in addition, can be found on any of these waterways.

For West Virginians, pollution comes from every direction: from the minor tributaries to the main waterways. But, much to the woe of the nation, the pollution doesn’t remain in West Virginia. Instead, it flows outward into other states — most importantly, right into The Mississippi River — the country’s greatest waterway. 

From the Ohio River to The Mississippi

The Mississippi River Watershed provides water to millions of Americans, and is the fourth largest watershed in the world. Our understanding of the interconnectedness of our world is developing everyday, but this much is straightforward: West Virginia’s bleeding waterways are contaminating many other parts of the country. 

Although the Ohio River is a main tributary of the Mississippi River and thus a main contributor to its polluted state, The Mississippi River has many other battles. Cancer Alley, an infamous strip along the Mississippi in Louisiana, is home to several toxic industries and leaks pollution into the Mississippi regularly. In addition, many Indigenous water protectors are fighting to protect life, water, and land in the aftermath of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which crossed under the Missouri River – another tributary of the Mississippi. On top of these struggles and many more, the Mississippi also carries the battles of the Ohio River.

While the pollution along the Mississippi clearly has national repercussions, it also has international repercussions. The pollution of the Mississippi has helped create a notorious “dead zone” in The Gulf of Mexico. Tracing pollution upstream, some even argue that the Ohio River is responsible in-part for the dead zone. 

While it is important to fight for West Virginians, it is also important to remember that water pollution cannot be artificially contained within a zone. In all actuality, the fight for clean water is a cross sectional cause that requires that sacrifice zones like West Virginia be put first.

Environmental Movements in West Virginia

From mountaintop removal, to steel, to general manufacturing, many corporations come to West Virginia for relaxed environmental policies, and a blue collar work-force that’s viewed as easily exploitable. 

Many believe that West Virginians, as a whole, adamantly support the coal industry. Because of this belief, many also conclude that West Virginians deserve a polluted landscape. Of course, this argument is built on a false assumption; not all West Virginians support coal. In reality, if West Virginians could get away from coal and other extractive industries, we would.

A survey recently conducted by Research America in July of 2021 found that 90% of West Virginians support a clean energy transition. In Coal Country, the percentage was even higher, coming in at 95%. The false claim that West Virginians still favor the extractive industry only creates a detrimental separation between West Virginia and national environmental movements.

West Virginia has both cause and ability to break a central chain of pollution. In fact, many of us are fighting hard against industry within our region; we are suing, we are protesting, we are striking, and we are writing. But, we can still do much, much more. 

How Do We Move Forward?

West Virginia has led the country in labor movements before, and it can choose to be a leader in the movement for clean water. If we were able to organize resistance against some of the greatest pollution within our country, our influence could bleed outwards, much like our rivers. 

Leading, however, means many things. It means that West Virginians need to immediately recognize and uplift the Indigenous-led clean water fights across the country. It also means creating partnerships with Rust Belt organizations. Most importantly, it means prioritizing Black, Indigenous, and communities of color,  and communities in the South, Appalachia, and in West Virginia itself – who are placed in sacrifice zones most often

Leadership means advocating publicly and openly against fossil fuels, extractive industry, and unjust laws. Like our river systems, we must create a system of interconnection and resistance, where other sacrifice zones are prioritized, too.

For people outside of West Virginia – whether that’s in the Appalachian region or elsewhere – the fight for clean water means prioritizing sacrifice zones. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you live in an environmentally protected state, region, or neighborhood. Pollution does not live in neat, organized lines, despite what national, state and city zoning tries to achieve. If sacrifice zones aren’t healed, then pollution will continue to bleed out to every corner. It’s time for a new future in West Virginia, for the sake of the New River, the Kanawha River, The Ohio River, The Mississippi River, the Appalachian region and the nation. As we fight the Mountain Valley Pipeline and other polluters, it’s never been more important to fight for a West Virginia where the water flows true and clear, from our mountain streams to the Gulf of Mexico.

Sebrena Williamson (She/Her) is a writer, researcher, and choreographer, from
Huntington, WV. As a result of her upbringing in West Virginia, much of Sebrena’s
work analyzes and advocates for environmentalist causes within the Appalachian
region and abroad.

Photo courtesy of Sebrena Willamson

Sebrena holds a BFA in dance, a minor in English, and a minor in Appalachian Studies from Radford University. While pursuing her undergraduate degree in 2018, Sebrena co-founded Saltare in Elementis Dance Collective (SIEDC) alongside co- founders Fiona O’Brien and Zoe Couloumbis. SIEDC creates artistic works that address social dilemmas, through the use of written research, contemporary theater, and inter-art collaboration. In 2021, SIEDC premiered their debut film Terra, which was filmed in the Ohio River Valley around Huntington, WV. Sebrena served as Executive Producer and Director of Research and Poetry for Terra, working with 23 other young adults to create a collaborative work that prioritizes Appalachian youth in the impending climate disaster. With the climate crisis looming, Sebrena hopes to continue producing works–whether that’s written, live performance, or film–advocating for a clean Earth.

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Grace is POWHR's Coordinator. She enjoys gardening and fighting for a fossil-free future from Western Virginia.