WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman Acknowledges Political and Business Climate in Charleston Limits Agency’s Effectiveness

Remarks made at public forum after Huffman and DEP staff tour fracking fields of Doddridge and Ritchie counties

By Michael M. Barrick

WEST UNION, W.Va. – West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) Secretary Randy Huffman acknowledged at a public meeting here July 16 that he and his agency’s effectiveness are limited by political and business interests in West Virginia. Huffman and several WVDEP staff members accompanied local residents throughout the day to visit those impacted by fracking in Doddridge and Ritchie counties.

Randy Huffman

Randy Huffman

Towards the end of a nearly two-hour public forum held by the Doddridge County Watershed Association, Huffman acknowledged “If I start pounding my fist, it is going to be a fruitless effort. I would become ineffective. There are too many entities at play in Charleston. If I did that, they’d laugh me out of the capitol building. It would limit my effectiveness.”

He also said, “That is above my pay grade.”

His remarks were made in response to the question, “Are you willing to recommend to the governor and legislature that the state employ the Precautionary Principle and place a moratorium on fracking and related activities?” The question was posed by this reporter after Huffman and his staff had listened to concerns and questions from numerous area residents.

The Precautionary Principle, according to the Science & Environmental Health Network, asserts, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”

The Precautionary Principle is a philosophy embraced by public health and environmental advocates across West Virginia regarding many aspects of the energy extraction industry. Indeed, in March, organizers of an event in Charleston which pointed out the public health risks of Mountaintop Removal (MTR) attempted, unsuccessfully, to meet with Huffman then to ask him to employ the Precautionary Principle and quit issuing permits for MTR.

While acknowledging that his hands were tied to an extent, he nevertheless told the roughly 40 people in attendance that their voices were being heard and their persistence would make a difference. He said that the agency is staffed by caring public servants who are most effective in their jobs where citizens are most active. “It creates a structure through which we can work.”

If that is the case, his agency’s employees should be able to make a difference in the area, as numerous citizens demonstrated just how informed and engaged they are, based on the volume and type of questions asked and comments shared.

Wayne Woods, the chairman of the watershed association began by saying, “I think there is a little bit of a disconnect among the departments of DEP,” noting that different branches of the agency dealt with water quality and air quality. Woods suggested that the agency issue handouts to its employees that would allow citizens to understand who they would need to contact if the person they were working with was dealing with an issue outside their scope of work.

Tina DelPrete asked, “I’d like to know when enough is enough?” Pointing to the many aspects of fracking and its effects upon the people, environment and infrastructure of Doddridge County, she added, “Will this go on indefinitely until our county becomes an industrial wasteland?” She continued, “Who is going to protect us? Maybe you should change your name to the DIP – the Department of Industrial Protection, because you sure are not helping the environment.”

Sharron Jackson offered, “The science is becoming clear. It is clear there is contamination.” Pointing out that she loves West Virginia, she still said, “I can’t encourage anyone to move here anymore. Not until we protect the water and air.”

Lyndia Ervolina, barely holding back tears, said, “I’ve lived here for 32 years. I can’t go out and enjoy my yard anymore. We are getting sold out. We don’t have a life anymore. I’m afraid to drink my water. I can’t breathe the air. We can’t even sell our homes; they’re worthless now. I just wish someone would listen to us.”

Autumn Long, a resident in nearby Wallace in Harrison County, said she was concerned about air quality and for her parents, who live near a major gas production site. Directing a question to Huffman, she asked, “What can we do to help move (solutions) forward? We need you as advocates and protectors.”

At that point, Huffman stood up to respond to the comments. He acknowledged, “Some of these questions are not answerable at this point.” He admitted though, “You have had a huge invasion of industrial activity.” Pointing out the fracking industry entered the area with no planning and roads and infrastructure that are not suitable for the heavy equipment used in the process, he added, “You’re overwhelmed.”

He continued, “This is an issue with limited solutions. We’re looking at a large issue.” He pointed out that it is just not an environmental issue, but also about energy and economics.

He encouraged residents to vote. Those remarks were met with several comments from those in the audience. One person said, “We have representatives. We’re just not represented.” Another said, of the county commission, “It’s a joke. They don’t even acknowledge our communications.”

Others zeroed in on specific issues, such as the disposal of drill cuttings and injection wells. On the issue of drill cuttings, which can contain radioactive materials, Huffman said, “That is why we have it go to landfills, where we can monitor it.”

Near the end of his statements, Huffman promised, “We will make adjustments on what we learned in the field. You’ve made a difference.”

© The Appalachian Preservation Project, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. If you find this writing of value, we hope that you will consider support our independent work by becoming a member of the Appalachian Preservation Project. You can learn more here. By doing so, you will be supporting not only this website, but also our other outreaches, programs and partnerships.

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18 responses

  1. The WVDEP is not a Legislative Body. If the public would like to let their voice be heard, we need to organize ourselves and go down to the Capital and meet with our representatives. If we want more “regulation” on the water/air/noise/road traffic etc. We need to list our greviances and take our representatives to task. If they promise they will make our WV cleaner and more appealing to live here than we need to hold them to it, or vote them out. The Minerals and Surface Owners are held in different lights. Mineral Rights trump the surface, if you do not own both. By WV law, you have to give the companies and owners of those rights the ROW. You can negotiate and hold them to a stricter land management plan, so do it. You have rights as a surface owner, so use them with rational, and make sure they are reasonable or the companies will be forced to not agree and imminant domain will be used to take the land and compansation will be much lower.

  2. Robin Blakeman | Reply

    thanks for asking a great and important question, and reporting on Randy H’s response! It doesn’t surprise me at all, but it’s good to have a direct quote from him that says what we all suspected – that the WV DEP operates at the will and pleasure of industry and business forces and the politicians who are beholden to them.

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