01/13/2014 02:13 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

What the Coal Chemical Spill Means for the West Virginia Senate Race

Charleston, W.V., was shut down for the past few days as the federal and state government have declared a state of emergency in the area. Restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and offices have been closed since Thursday when a chemical used to clean coal spilled from a facility and flooded into the Elk River, making the region's water unfit for anything but flushing toilets. The contamination has reached far beyond the city into nine counties.

My family is from West Virginia. I've traveled through the area my whole life visiting relatives, and it's hard to imagine it being shuttered. But that is the power of Big Coal. In a moment, just one aspect of the industry can threaten 300,000 people and undermine the region's economy.

And yet the two candidates running for Senate are both staunchly pro-coal and against public safeguards. And they remain caught up in coal industry mythology about jobs and apple pie. But they are on the wrong side of history and even the polluters are starting to wake up - just today the American Energy Alliance pulled their attack ads against Congressman Nick Rahall for supporting carbon pollution legislation to show support for the West Virginia residents impacted by the spill. But, before you start to congratulate them too much, they also pledged to keep up their imaginary fight against a so called "carbon tax" in the future.

The coal industry fights public safeguards at a cost. Scores of men have died in coal mines in the past few years, in part because the industry has blocked strong safety standards at every turn. Three men died just this fall during the government shutdown, when fewer safety inspections could occur. These fatal accidents take a heavy toll on the state. A study conducted by West Virginia University found that the economic cost of mining deaths is five times more than the benefits mining brings to the region.

There is also the reality that mechanization is a leading cause of job loss in the industry -- not public safeguards. Even though West Virginia coal companies increased production by more than 140 percent in the last 30 years, they have eliminated 40,000 jobs. They didn't cut these jobs due to strong environmental standards. They did it because machines don't demand salaries.

Big Coal looks out for itself, not for the state of West Virginia. That's why residents desperately need lawmakers who serve the public interest. The chemical spill offers voters with a useful litmus test for seeing whether this year's senate candidates represent the people or the industry.

Are the candidates still parroting coal sound bites about jobs? Or have they realized the real costs of this coal-related spill?

Are they still saying the coal industry does its best to follow safety regulations? Or do they acknowledge that companies routinely flout them, like when Massey had 60,000 violations of environmental laws between the years of 2000 and 2006?

And are they still claiming coal is good for West Virginia? Or have they realized that coal is losing its market share and looking like a bad bet in a world of climate action and low-carbon energy alternatives.

These are critical questions for the state. The coal industry has a long history in West Virginia, but it's time for a new era -- one in which companies play by the rules, honor environmental safeguards and don't endanger people's health with toxic pollution and chemical spills. Voters should find out if their candidates will help deliver that future or keep the state stuck in coal-laden past. Now is the time for West Virginia's political campaigns to reflect the reality on the ground.