Applying the Pope’s Ecological Encyclical in West Virginia

A good start would be the resignation of WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman

By Michael M. Barrick

ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – About a month ago, I was asked by a well-known environmental group to speak to the relevance of the ecological encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” by Pope Francis as it applies to West Virginia.

I prepared 25 discussion questions, knowing most would have to be considered later. As it turned out, I could have asked just one, as it was the one we spent the better part of the time discussing. And, it wasn’t even my question; it was the pope’s. In paragraph 57 of the encyclical, Pope Francis asks, “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

We concluded that it was the most important question we had to answer for West Virginia if we are ever going to free ourselves of the fossil fuel mono-economy that keeps the state’s residents mired in poverty. Then I offered a specific example of a person in state leadership who I think should resign – West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) Secretary Randy Huffman. For those not familiar with West Virginia government, Huffman is a cabinet level political appointee. As such, he is clearly a leader, one entrusted by our governor with the environmental (and by default, human) health of West Virginia. He is the subject matter expert on the environment in West Virginia.

Randy Huffman
Randy Huffman

I was highly critical of Huffman for remarks he made following a question I asked him in mid-July in Doddridge County (more about that in a moment). Some of those who have worked directly with Huffman over the years said I was being too hard on him. Others agreed with me. Some defended Huffman, arguing that he was doing his best. “If he resigned on principle, he would just be replaced by someone worse,” one person offered. “You can only do so much in Charleston,” added another.

While I appreciate the sentiment expressed by these folks and can understand them to a degree, I am unmoved. It is time for Mr. Huffman to resign.

Why? Well, let’s review the exchange I had with him in Doddridge County.

Huffman and several WVDEP staff members accompanied local residents throughout the day to visit those impacted by fracking in Doddridge and Ritchie counties. Later that evening, he and the staff met with members of the Doddridge County Watershed Association. After he answered questions for about an hour, I asked, “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 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.” It is a philosophy embraced by public health and environmental advocates across West Virginia regarding many aspects of the energy extraction industry.

Huffman, not exactly engendering confidence in his leadership skills, took three shots at the question. His first answer was to repeat much of what he had said to previous questions. When challenged by an audience member, “You didn’t answer his question,” Huffman shot back, “He didn’t ask a question, he made a statement.” I then said, “Mr. Huffman. It was a question. Let me repeat it for you.” I did.

As an aside here, I will say that I’ve been reporting on politicians for a quarter of a century. I have heard that answer more times than I care to remember. It is a sure sign that the subject doesn’t want to or can’t answer the question.

In any event, after I restated my question, he still did not answer it. Instead, he alluded to progress made in the legislature to regulate fracking after his last visit to the area. The Horizontal Well Act, passed into law in late 2011, did impose higher fees and some minor regulations on the industry. However, West Virginia’s laws on fracking are still considered some of the weakest in the nation by environmental groups. So, it isn’t surprising that when Huffman alluded to that law, the well-informed audience responded with sighs and even laughter (though one audience member did defend Huffman).

So, after sitting there for a few moments, Huffman stood up and said he needed to take another shot at an answer. He then admitted, “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.”

So, we are still left with many questions for Mr. Huffman.

First, since so many states have banned fracking or placed a moratorium on it, why would he not consider the precautionary principle a sensible approach to protect the health and safety of the people of West Virginia?

Second, if recommending to the governor and/or legislature about environmental matters is above his pay grade, just exactly what does the Secretary of DEP do except to rubber stamp permit requests from the energy extraction industry?

And, as Pope Francis asked, “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”

As it stands now, history will not judge Mr. Huffman kindly. He is in the position to take action, but instead has decided to punt. If he is serious about the environment, he could resign on principle and warn the people of West Virginia what awaits them if they don’t stand up for themselves and elect some real leaders. Such an act would get far more attention than lamenting his lack of influence among the people who are supposed to listen to his expertise.

The people of West Virginia don’t have another 125-year reign of the energy extraction industry to await replies. As the pope says, action is “urgent and necessary.” So, the next action Mr. Huffman should take, since he has openly declared he will not fight for the environment in the current political climate, is resign.

© 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. By doing so, you will be supporting not only this website, but also our other outreaches, programs and partnerships.

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

One comment

  1. great blog!..I voted for Governor Cuomo for one reason alone – he banned fracking in new york state…If it can be done in my definitely can be done in your state..Keep up the GOOD-FIGHT…

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