A disturbing sign of the times in the Mountain State
“Turn, turn any corner / Hear, you must hear what the people say / You know there’s something that’s goin’ on around here / That surely, surely, surely won’t stand the light of day, no … / Speak out! You got to speak out against the madness / You got to speak your mind if you dare.” – From “Long Time Gone,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, © 1969
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Hundreds of West Virginia citizens turned out for a rally here on March 12 at the state capitol as the legislature adjourned. They had gathered to demonstrate their disgust with much of the legislation passed in the 2016 session, in particular with those impacting the poor, working families, the environment, public health and more.
Their message was clearly displayed on a large banner they held on the capitol steps: “# Remember in November.”
There were less formal – and arguably more disturbing signs at the rally as well. Holding a home-made sign in West Virginia blue and gold, a young woman sent here message: “You Make Us Want to Leave.” In smaller letters at the bottom, she added, to emphasize just how seriously she meant it, “You Make Me Want to Leave.”
“Me” she said. Just what happened in Charleston this winter that caused the state’s young people to want to be part of what most residents agree is a serious “brain drain” of its young adults at a rate not seen in two generations?
… no wonder West Virginia becomes the laughing stock of the nation. It’s embarrassing.” – Executive Director Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition
Analyzing the 2016 legislative session
Those championing social and environmental justice in the marbled halls of the gold-domed capitol along the banks of the Kanawha River offered their insight into what the Republican-led legislature did that has caused its young people and others to speak out in protest.
Executive Director Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (WVRC) characterized the session as “Dismissive.” She continued, “When you listen, you get the idea many of our lawmakers are in a state of denial when it comes to environmental impacts. One obvious indication of this was a move to eliminate reference to climate change in science curricula for West Virginia students – no wonder West Virginia becomes the laughing stock of the nation. It’s embarrassing.”
Rosser explained, “An anti-EPA, anti-regulatory sentiment is dominant in the legislature and makes it very difficult to even start a conversation about environmental policies. The ideology is so strong, that merits often don’t matter. The DEP rules bundle (HB 4053), including water, tank, drilling and air quality regulations, died in the last hour of the regular session over a misrepresentation of the facts.”
Vickie Wolfe, speaking on behalf of the West Virginia Environmental Council (WVEC) concurred on HB 4053 and also pointed to a bill that died because of opposition from Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corporation.
She said, “I think Ken Ward (Jr.) tells it best, referencing his article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “DEP Rules Bill Dies in Dispute over EPA Wood Stove Efficiency Regulation.” Wolfe explained, “In 2015 (the legislature) also passed a bill that weakened water quality standards for aluminum and selenium. The related ‘rules’ were submitted for legislative approval by the DEP this year, and one of the most remarkable things that happened in the session was that the rules ‘bundle’ – which included a number of rules – died on the last night!”
She continued, “The most disgusting thing that happened with the environment pertained to a bill that would have allowed counties to engage in ‘local energy efficiency partnerships,’ which is something that’s in effect in roughly half the states … . It’s a funding mechanism for commercial building owners to make energy efficient upgrades to their buildings. It passed its committee reference (Senate Energy, Industry and Mining) unanimously, but then was ‘parked’ in the rules committee and died there. For one reason: because FirstEnergy, one of the electricity providers in West Virginia, didn’t want it to proceed.”
Director Leslee McCarty of the Greenbrier River Watershed Association asked, tongue-in-cheek, “Did I miss the good bills?” She argued, “All I saw were bad bills which favored industry and tried to take away peoples’ rights to peacefully enjoy their property and to allow companies to pollute. The ‘sneaky landfill bill’ – SB 601 – started out as a gift to frack waste disposal, became a gift to a company doing single stream recycling, then got changed back into a fracking waste bill, then became a single stream bill when it finally passed. What worries me most about it, other than its amazing ability to shape-shift, is that in the end, it takes away the oversight of the Public Service Commission to regulate waste disposal of a certain type. I think it should be challenged in court.”
These activists also argued that the legislature missed its opportunity to diversify the Mountain State’s economy. This is significant, as the lack of economic diversification is arguably West Virginia’s most urgent issue. This has been caused by the market-forced decline of the coal industry in Southern West Virginia and the impact of fracking upon public health and the environment in the northern half of the state, as well as the boom-and-bust nature of the fossil fuel industry in general.
Rosser said, “Many of the proposed bills we followed dealt with giving the fossil fuel industries a break – reduced severance taxes, relaxed permitting requirements, lessened waste treatment responsibilities. Proponents argued these reforms will make West Virginia’s coal and oil and gas industries more competitive and help them rebound, but it doesn’t solve the looming problem of the state’s dependence upon the fossil fuel mono-economy.” She argued, “We need new thinking toward sustainable forms of economic development. While many of our political leaders are looking in the rearview mirror, we’re missing opportunities to modernize our state’s economy.”
McCarty concurred. “Again, I missed any attempts by the legislature to diversify our economy. They gave tax breaks to coal and oil and gas and even have to have a special budget session to figure out how to tax citizens to keep from going in the hole. They didn’t do anything towards building a sustainable economy. Giving tax breaks to the usual fossil fuel recipients is not forward-thinking. Is anyone in West Virginia trying to draw money from the federal government to retrain workers and diversify our economy? They didn’t even pass a broadband bill. That could have helped.”
McCarty added, “I am very concerned about cuts to state parks. The Greenbrier River Trail looks to be on the chopping block. This trail is one of the jewels in the park system and brings in over $4 million in economic benefit to local communities.” She asked, “How is cutting back on parks, which contribute so much to local economies and our base of tourist attractions, a good economic move?”
Wolfe pointed to the “Uber bill” (HB 4228) as the only legislation she could think of that was remotely related to helping the state’s economy. Beyond that, she said, the legislative efforts were, “Quite dismal.”
Despite her criticism of legislators, Rosser did point to some efforts and results that she characterized as victories, which she argued, occurred only because of pressure from the public. “A significant victory for the public was the passage of Senate Bill 625 that keeps the public’s right to know about threats to their drinking water supplies.” She pointed to a press release from the WVRC that can be read here.
She added, “Senate Bill 625 was a success for all who care about clean, safe drinking water. It supports meaningful public participation in source water protection planning. I believe SB 625 would not have even been introduced, let alone passed, without the participation of our organization’s supporters. It’s a reminder that we do make a difference. There were other measures that would have ended up a lot worse if we did not have a presence in the process.” More background on this issue can be read here.
Wolfe agreed with Rosser, saying that passage of SB 625 pleased her the most because it “ … provides that when public water utilities involve the public in the development of their required source water protection plans, they are allowed to share with the public information about potential sources of contamination, provided that information is already within the public domain.”
Call to action
Rosser alluded to the power that people enjoy when they act in unison, and issued a call to action in response to the legislative session. “There is power in unifying our voices for justice in all aspects – environmental, social, economic issues all interconnect. I believe that’s something we understand well in West Virginia, and know that as individual advocates and organizations none of us can realize the progress we envision alone,” acknowledged Rosser.
McCarty said, “I think we need to encourage people to look at legislators’ records, bills they sponsored, recorded votes and to support candidates who agree with their worldview.” Perhaps, she added, a voter’s guide with this information in it can be designed and distributed to educate voters.
Rosser returned to the theme of the rally on March 12. “We must support each other and amplify our collective voice for change. And an important way to use our voice is through our vote.”
© Michael M. Barrick / Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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