Before surrendering or joining the exodus, get educated and fight – peacefully – against the powerful interests which control The Mountain State
By Michael M. Barrick
ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – The recent admission by Secretary Randy Huffman of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) that the agency he heads can’t do its job because powerful business and political interests control The Mountain State is a wake-up call to all West Virginians.
It is time of us to throw off our oppressors so that Huffman and other public officials can do their jobs.
In the last two years, I have put thousands of miles on my little car covering the energy extraction industry. What I have discovered is that West Virginians are basically in four camps:
1. Some work for the industry and truly believe they are doing good work; these folks are in the minority.
2. Others are working against the industry through established environmental or social justice groups and alliances because they consider the industry an assault upon the people and ecology of West Virginia; they, too, are in the minority.
3. Still others have just given up and have joined the exodus of West Virginians going to what they hope are greener pastures; these folks are also a small minority, though it is causing a brain drain that will have an impact upon the state that is greater than their numbers.
4. Finally, there are the docile West Virginians. They just roll over and accept whatever their public officials, business leaders or church leaders tell them. They, sadly, constitute the majority of West Virginians.
You may disagree with those categories. This, however, is my experience. It is also consistent with our state’s history.
This is an appeal to folks in all four categories, as well as those few prophetic voices in our hills and hollows, to get educated and fight – peacefully – to rescue our home from the powerful people and interests that have made West Virginia their own personal playground to enrich themselves.
Example of WVDEP
According to a handout I received recently from a representative of the WVDEP, the agency’s mission is a simple one: “Promoting a healthy environment.” This, one presumes, applies not only to the ecology, but also public health, as the two are inseparable. Yes, there are other state and local agencies that are responsible for the health and well-being of people, but that does not preclude any agency from discerning that caring for the state’s people is within their scope of work. Yet, Huffman tells us, he can’t do that. Giving him the benefit of the doubt that he is a person who takes public service seriously, we, as citizens, are obligated to help him, just as he asked folks in Doddridge County to do. Before doing so, there are a number of matters to consider.
Mingo County’s example
Last week, I visited Mingo County for the first time since 1978. Frankly, nothing has changed. The cycle of poverty continues. There are numerous reasons for this, but the end result is that the poorest of our state four decades ago are still the poorest of our state. This cannot be blamed on the so-called “War on Coal.” In fact, the blame rests with the coal industry. Consider this description of Mingo County from “West Virginia County Maps.” Published by a private company, the authors nevertheless acknowledge on the title page, “The publisher wishes to gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the … West Virginia Department of Commerce, Marketing & Tourism Division.”
Here is what that Division submitted for publication: “Williamson lies in the center of what is called the ‘Billion Dollar Coal Field.’ In the middle of the 1940s there were 100 mines in a 20-mile radius of the city.” Not even Donald Trump could blame President Obama for what happened in West Virginia in the 1940s. And what did happen? Before and since, that billion dollars has left the state. If it had not, the cycle of poverty in Mingo County and other communities in southwestern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky would long ago have ended. In short, the coal barons – not President Obama or any other straw men – are responsible for the poverty afflicting our southern coal fields. It is they who are the oppressors.
Lessons from a topographical map
Looking at another map of the central part of the state tells the same story. It is a topographical map of the Vadis quadrangle. It includes parts of Lewis, Doddridge and Gilmer counties. Published in 1964 and revised in 1978, it is dotted with more gas and oil wells than one can count. There are certainly well over 100. Again, if the energy extraction industry was and is so good for the people of West Virginia, where is the wealth to show for it? It is certainly not in the pockets of West Virginians. Instead, as it has since the late 1800s, the money has flowed out of state to corporate barons, many who then stash the cash away in offshore accounts.
Then there is fracking. The most startling fact about fracking is that any West Virginian would support it in light of the history just outlined. Again, though, the industry promises jobs. Those jobs, however, are temporary and very unreliable as we have seen as oil prices fluctuate. Additionally, it is becoming increasingly clear that the jobs come at a great cost, as those working in the fracking fields are working in a very unhealthy environment. The residents, though, suffer the most. The loss of land, sleepless nights, water supplies destroyed, children and adults experiencing everything from nosebleeds to cancer, public roadways ruined and communities divided (Divide & Conquer is a fundamental strategy of the energy extraction industry), make it clear that the only people benefitting from the process are corporate CEOs, most of whom are from out of state.
That the gas companies – in particular EQT and Dominion – are audacious enough to argue that they should be granted eminent domain by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), reveals just how allied political and business interests are in exploiting the mineral resources of The Mountain State. No matter how the companies spin it, the proposed Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines are not for public benefit (the standard FERC must apply before granting the companies the right of eminent domain); they are for the companies’ shareholders. Most significantly, the gas that would be shipped through the pipelines will end up in foreign countries, which should be the fact that causes FERC to deny the company’s applications. That, however, would take a miracle.
For those who think pipeline construction is benign and that the companies employ a bunch of good ole’ boys from West Virginia looking out for their neighbors, you need to visit Doddridge, Harrison, Lewis, Ritchie, Tyler and Wetzel counties. Or read this.
Bishop’s response to the pope
A detailed essay will follow relatively soon regarding the insubordination of Bishop Michael Bransfield’s response to the climate change encyclical by Pope Francis. For now, suffice to say that Bransfield, who is the shepherd of West Virginia’s Catholics as head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, undermined the pope’s message so as to not offend the deep pockets of coal, gas and oil executives. I was told in March by a diocesan official that the bishop wouldn’t support the encyclical because, “Coal, gas and oil are simply too powerful. It wouldn’t be prudent.” Indeed, as you can read here, the bishop is just flat-out distorting the pope’s words.
Lessons from the coal playbook
During the West Virginia Mine Wars of roughly a century ago, the coal companies employed a very effective strategy against coal miners seeking to unionize and achieve better working conditions – they controlled law enforcement. Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin ruled Logan County for the coal companies and exerted influence throughout the southern coalfields. When Sid Hatfield, the police chief of Matewan (but a supporter of the miners), was gunned down on the McDowell County courthouse steps in Welch, W.Va. in 1921, police officials turned a blind eye.
While such blatant corruption is not happening today – at least in the open – a recent donation of $5,000 to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Department by Precision Pipeline, a subcontractor building the Stonewall Gas Gathering pipeline, has some local residents wondering what will happen should conflict erupt between local citizens and the corporations destroying the county’s land. The appearance of impropriety is certainly present.
Conclusion: Civil Disobedience is the answer
In short, our state motto – Montani Semper Liberi (Mountaineers are Always Free) is a joke. The people of this state – whether they will admit it or not – continue to be abused and oppressed by political and business interests. Those appointed to protect the people – such as WVDEP Secretary Huffman – are unable or unwilling to honor their vocations. Additionally, those we should be able to count upon to advocate for and protect us – church leaders and law enforcement – have been compromised.
So, it is up to us. In an upcoming essay, solutions to address West Virginia’s many problems will be offered in detail. For now, an overview of possible solutions include local communities supporting one another economically and socially in new ways; reforming our political system to open ballot access, seting term limits and establish ethical training for potential political leaders; and, ensuring that local officials are prepared for the inevitable disasters that will occur from the fossil fuel mono-economy. We need greater regulation of the energy extraction industry. We need to truly empower people like Secretary Huffman so that he can’t say his hands are tied.
However, I have concluded these actions will not be enough. It is time for nonviolent civil disobedience. That will require training. It will require resolve. Those of us who recall the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras know that civil disobedience works. The achievements of those eras – including voting rights legislation and ending the Vietnam War – would not have happened had people not taken to the streets and subjected themselves to beatings and murder.
As I have put those many miles on my car, I’ve heard so many West Virginians say they want to change our state. The last 60 years of American history, in fact 100 years when the labor movement and women’s suffrage are included, suggest that change can come – but at a great cost. You can fight. You can leave. Either choice is legitimate. But indifference is nothing short of surrender. That is inconsistent with what most West Virginians say they would do. So why do the powerful still control our state?
© 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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