Will our young people stay or go? (An article from our sister publication, The Lenoir Voice)
LENOIR, N.C. – From the time that narrow-gauge railroad lines were built into the mountainous regions of Caldwell County in the late 19th Century – in particular near Edgemont and Mortimer – the furniture industry dominated the economy of Lenoir for a century. The hardwood forests of the slopes of the Blue Ridge Escarpment provided the most important raw product.
Of course, the most important ingredient in the furniture industry’s success was its people. Without workers to build the railroads, harvest and haul the timber, and make the final product, the industry would never have existed in Lenoir and other areas of Western North Carolina (WNC).
While the most common explanation for the near death of the industry is the passage of international trade agreements about 20 years ago, those arguments overlook the fact that Lenoir and the region had failed to diversify its economy. In short, it relied upon a mono-economy. It has been argued that the reason furniture dominated the region is simple – crony capitalism. In other words, furniture industry leaders ensured that local elected officials supported their efforts to keep other industries out, hence keeping wages artificially low and company profits high.
While these are topics we will explore in much greater detail in a forthcoming documentary and series of articles, it is clear to anyone driving through Lenoir or nearby towns that the region is at a tipping point. In some ways, uptown Lenoir is thriving, due largely to a strong arts and music community. Still, even uptown is struggling, as evidenced by the numerous empty buildings. Even more startling are the site of shuttered factories along U.S. 321-A and other roads leading out of town. One might point to the many fast-food restaurants and similar businesses along U.S. 321 heading to Blowing Rock as signs of economic progress, but frankly, those businesses pay minimum wage and create a littered landscape of neon signs that discourages visitors to look for, let alone find, uptown.
Still, we are hopeful. We are impressed with the many shop owners, artists, musicians and others working tirelessly to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit essential to any community’s success. Indeed, we will be profiling these businesses and individuals so that we can share their insights and experiences. In doing so, we hope that not only will these organizations and folks receive your support, but will inspire others to act upon their dreams – dreams that will ensure that Lenoir and WNC recovers.
However, to do so, our young people must stay. The decisions that our young adults make over the next few years will determine the future of Lenoir and WNC. Clearly, the past reliance upon a mono-economy hit this area hard. So, economic diversification and sustainable development are essential for Lenoir – now.
So, as we embark upon the series of stories about the many great people working hard to make Lenoir thrive – not just survive – we are seeking input from our readers, especially those under 35. We have one simple question for you: Are you planning on staying in Lenoir/WNC, or are you planning on leaving?
To answer that question, you can participate in this poll.
Comments are encouraged as well. And, if you are an entrepreneur, musician, artist or craftsperson, we want to hear what you are up to. You can contact us here.
© The Lenoir Voice, 2016
On Twitter: @lenoirvoice
Cost to people, communities and environment could run into billions along entire route, based on four-county study
MONTEREY, Va. – Five groups concerned about the short-term and permanent impacts upon their communities caused by the proposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) have released an independent study revealing that just four counties in Virginia would likely experience billions of dollars of loss and damage should the ACP be built. The report was commissioned by the ACP Highlanders for Responsible Development, Augusta County Alliance, Friends of Nelson, Friends of Buckingham, and Yogaville Environmental Solutions. The exhaustive in-depth study was conducted by Key-Log Economics, a research economics firm based in Charlottesville, Va.
A news release from Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance about the study stated, “Dominion says that it would cost approximately $5 billion to build its 594-mile high pressure natural gas transmission line through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. That number pales in comparison to the costs and economic impacts of the pipeline that will be incurred across just a four-county area of western and central Virginia. …”
The statement continued, “The eye-opening analysis found that up to $141 million in lost property value and services, such as water and air quality, would occur across the four-county study area just during construction. Further, the pipeline will depress area economies, contribute to job loss, reduce quality of life, and lower personal incomes in perpetuity to the tune of up to $109 million annually.”
Those estimates are conservative, notes Spencer Phillips, founder of Key-Log Economics. “Putting the stream of costs into present value terms and adding the one-time costs, the total estimated cost of the ACP in Highland, Augusta, Nelson, and Buckingham Counties is between $6.9 and $7.9 billion,” he said.
Lewis Freeman, Chair of the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance and President of Highlanders for Responsible Development, added, “In Highland County annual costs to the local economy are estimated to be $7 million or higher, much larger than the projected benefits that would come to the county, including tax revenues paid by the pipeline. Adverse impacts on property values, which have already been negatively affected by the prospect of the project, will be significant. Also negatively impacted will be travel and tourism, which account for one-fifth of the county’s employment.”
For Augusta County, through which Dominion proposes to run more than 50 miles of the pipeline route, the negative impacts to people’s lives and property is enormous, according to the report. Total property value lost would be approximately $44.5 million, resulting in an annual reduction to the county coffers in excess of $209,061. “Those figures, while conservative and not inclusive of the new route through the Deerfield Valley, are based on loss of subdivision and development potential, loss of property value and property marketability because of proximity to the pipeline, damage to water resources, and a reduction in agricultural production to name just some of the factors that went into the calculation,” noted Nancy Sorrells, Chair of the Augusta County Alliance.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cost Nelson County up to $43 million dollars per year, with additional one-time costs of up to $41 million according to the report. Individuals and businesses would lose up to $25 million in property value outright, while annual losses would include $18 million in recreation tourism dollars and $1.2 million in personal income. The annual loss to the county government would be $526,000 in tax revenue and $144,000 in property tax revenue, far exceeding the local annual tax payment promised by ACP, LLC.
The communities in Buckingham County, the eastern-most county in the study, are faced with the double whammy of the massive pipeline and a gigantic compressor station that will be in operation 24/7. According to the study, the ACP would cost Buckingham as much as $20.8 million in one-time costs and annual losses of as much as $7.1 million.
“I would encourage every Buckingham resident to become familiar with Key-Log’s findings,” noted Chad Oba, Chair of Friends of Buckingham. “This report uncovers previously undisclosed costs of Dominion’s mega-industrial project for our county. No one wants to live near a toxin-belching compressor station nor a 42-inch pipeline, both of which bring many health hazards, and threaten Virginians’ property rights.” As to the purported tax revenue promised by Dominion to the county, she added, “No amount of tax revenue can buy off citizens who are sincere about protecting their community and their beautiful surroundings.”
The pipeline impact study was spearheaded by local citizens groups and property owners who were frustrated at the inaccurate information being distributed by Dominion in regard to the purported benefits of the ACP. Not only were those “benefits,” such as large numbers of jobs during and after pipeline construction and promised tax payments to the counties, generally understood to be greatly inflated, they were also not balanced with information on what the negative effects of the pipeline could be in these central and western Virginia communities.
“It has fallen on us to analyze the costs to our communities should this pipeline come to pass,” said Ernie Reed of Friends of Nelson, the lead group that commissioned the study. “This report demonstrates not only how economically dangerous the pipeline is but how our four counties would bear a huge share of the costs of this project at the hands of Dominion. Further, while the use of the pipeline is measured in years, the costs to the region are forever.”
The study and recent alternate route proposed by Dominion
The statement added, “The recently announced re-routing of the ACP through the southern portion of Highland County, into Bath County, and back through Augusta County was announced after the Key-Log study was completed. While the re-routing would reduce to some extent the economic impact on Highland, the negative economic impact resulting from the re-routing into northern Bath County would increase the total impact on the immediate region due to the higher property values of affected property and businesses in Bath. Further, the additional dozen or so miles added to the Augusta County route will only serve to increase the final economic impact to that community.” It noted, “The uniqueness of the counties in the study mean that the specific impacts within each area vary. However, the underlying result, as pointed out in the study, is that the four counties will be deeply impacted in a very negative way.”
Regarding the proposed alternative route, The Recorder, a weekly newspaper based in Highland and Bath counties, noted that Dominion had originally rejected the alternative route. In this weeks’ edition, published today, the newspaper reported that Dominion rejected the route it is now proposing because, “Crossing this terrain with a 42-inch-diameter pipeline while attempting to minimize or avoid traversing steep side slopes would result in multiple, steeply graded, up-and-down approaches to ridge tops that would in many instances require heavy equipment winching on both sides of the ridge from single or multiple staging areas on the ridge top … Because of the narrowness and remoteness of the ridge tops, most of these areas would require the construction of a graded winching platform on top of the ridge, and depending on the slope, could require construction of an access road along the ridge to access the winch platform for delivery of construction equipment and pipe sections. Access to the remote areas crossed by the three southern alternative routes would be difficult due to the lack of existing nearby roads … which could require the construction of new roads into these areas. Slope restoration and stabilization would also be difficult to achieve in many of the steep areas crossed.”
This is the first independent study done on the ACP. However, when one considers that this study covers only a small portion of the proposed route, it seems rather clear that Dominion is proposing a project that will accomplish only two things – provide additional dividends to its shareholders and destroy all that is dear to the people of Appalachia.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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Energy industry misuses the name of God for all things deadly and destructive it causes
By Michael M. Barrick
“You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
LENOIR, N.C. – The deaths of three coal miners in the central Appalachian coal fields in just the first three weeks of January has led the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) to issue a Call to Safety to coal operators and miners. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph A. Main recently issued that call, asserting, “This recent rash of fatal accidents is a WAKE UP CALL to the nation’s miners to take notice and take care of themselves.”
He added, “ … the Mine Safety and Health Administration plans to ramp up its targeted enforcement, education and outreach efforts to respond to the troubling number of mining fatalities that have occurred so far this year. Today, MSHA widely disseminated to industry stakeholders an alert on these deaths, emphasizing the need for continued vigilance in miner safety and health.”
The three deaths have occurred in underground mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
Attributing things to God that God has nothing to do with and wants nothing to do with is misusing the name of the Lord.” – Michael Iafrate with the Catholic Committee of Appalachia
Dead miners are more than statistics
It might be easy to dismiss these deaths as mere statistics since MSHA does not list the miners’ names in the MSHA news release, but that would be a disservice to their work and the loss felt by their families, friends and communities.
In Clear Fork, W.Va., the family and friends of Peter “Pete” D. Sprouse know the pain and loss suffered by thousands before them. The 53-year-old miner died on Jan. 4 when he became entangled in a moving underground conveyer at the Lower War Eagle mine in Wyoming County, in the state’s southern coalfields. The mine is owned by Coronado Coal, LLC. According to a newspaper report of his passing, Sprouse leaves behind a wife of 33 years, two children and their spouses, four grandsons, seven siblings and other relatives and friends. He also leaves behind a zest for life that included riding motorcycles and boating.
Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 16, Jeremy R. Neice, 31, of Danville, W.Va. died in a mining accident in Greene County, Pa. He was working in the 4 West Mine owned by GenPower Holdings, LP. Neice, who is seen smiling as he leans against his truck in a photograph from his Facebook page, was the second fatality in that mine in just six months. In July 2015, John M. Kelly, 55 of Albright, W.Va. died in an accident.
Just three days after Neice died in Pennsylvania, Nathan G. Phillips, 36, of White Plains, Ky., died at Dotiki Mine in Webster County, in the western region of the state. That mine is owned by Alliance Resource Partners, LP.
How many lives have been forever changed by the passing of these men? These deaths – like all of those before them in the coalfields of Appalachia – cast shadows that can last generations. Four little boys will never again sit on their grandfather’s lap; a young man will never get to enjoy a day in the woods with his buddies, and now his buddies will only be able to toast his memory; the sunrises and sunsets of western Kentucky will now be absent a soul dear to family and friends.
The ‘Act of God’ defense
While coal operators have expressed the customary sympathy to the families, that doesn’t mean that the coal industry – and indeed the entire energy extraction industry – will quit misusing the name of God in the event of such tragedies. The claim that such deaths are “An Act of God” is as old as the industry itself, and has been an excuse offered by the likes of Don Blankenship for recent disasters such at the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010 that killed 29 miners.
Now operators might say that, in these three cases, they have expressed condolences and are conducting safety reviews. Of course they’re doing the latter; it is required of them. As for the condolences, that is what PR departments are for. None of this changes the fundamental truth, however, that it is the attitude of energy industry officials that they exercise a sort of “divine right” dominion over Appalachia’s land and people.
Whatever industry officials might say, these recent coal mining deaths are not “Acts of God.” Rather, they are acts of greed by coal operators, desperately compromising worker safety because they’ve invested in a commodity that is outdated.
Now, it might seem unfair to hold businessmen to a biblical standard. They’re not preachers after all. Yet, it is clear these industry officials believe in God – as Blankenship has proven. He is not alone. Gas companies blame cancer deaths and other health problems in the fracking fields on God. I have read such documents addressed to families where they refer to “Acts of God” as causing death and destruction for which the industry is clearly responsible. There is no question that the industry does not hesitate to use God to justify their greed. Last year, Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).
In short, from their own mouths, we hear that industry officials believe in God – when it is convenient. So, it would be beneficial for them to reflect upon Exodus 20:7, which says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.” If industry leaders were honest with themselves and with us, and would accept their responsibility rather than hiding behind the “Act of God” hoax, there would be far less death and destruction in Appalachia.
Indeed, in “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape us,” a recently-released “People’s Pastoral” by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, the document’s author, Michael Iafrate, alluded to stories told by coalfield residents of death and destruction, and observed, “These tragedies and others, deemed ‘acts of God’ by industry, are fresh in our mind in Appalachia.”
Asked if he thought that calling man-made tragedies “Acts of God” was a misuse of Scripture, Iafrate answered, “Yes.” He continued, “It is a more direct violation than when we think of swearing for example. Attributing things to God that God has nothing to do with and wants nothing to do with is misusing the name of the Lord.”
In the “Call to Safety,” MSHA Director Main concluded, “In light of current market conditions, we all need to be mindful that safety and health protections necessary to protect our nation’s miners need to be in place every day at every coal mine in the country. All miners deserve to work their shifts and return home at the end of the day, safe and healthy.”
Theological arguments aside, it would seem that everyone could agree with his statement. However, based on the first three weeks of January, it seems pretty clear that coal operators will dismiss it. As these tragedies continue, Blankenship and his ilk will continue to blame God. It’s worked for them for a century, so why stop now?
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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Community protection, transition from old failing economy and supporting renewable energy among the aims of Mountain Party
By Elise Keaton
Editor’s note: Elise Keaton is the State Executive Chair for the Mountain Party of West Virginia. To ensure that West Virginians are aware of the options available to them outside of the two dominant political parties in this critical election year, we are publishing this response to the State of the State address by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat. The Libertarian Party has also been invited to submit a response.
SALEM, W.Va. – We know our history and we understand our present struggles in this state. Our miners continue to give their lives so that others can consume “cheap electricity.” We’ve literally given billions of gallons of our valuable clean water so that the oil and gas industry can force fossil fuels from the ground. We’ve lost our lands, our communities and our peace of mind for the sake of “profit” which escapes our state in railroad cars and in pipelines. And when the global markets decrease consumption of our precious resources, our men and women lose their jobs and their livelihoods.
In spite of this loss, we’ve never lost understanding of our worth. We know that there is a more prosperous future for our communities, our economy and our state, if we so choose.
… we value much more than the minerals that lie beneath these ancient hills and the businesses here to extract them … the Mountain Party of West Virginia continues to fight to protect the true bounty of our state: our mountain people.”
We must begin by recognizing that out of state interests have disproportionate amounts of control over our state policies. Organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) are influencing policies in our state with complete disregard for the impact on our local communities. At the same time, gas corporations are lobbying to take our private property through forced pooling legislation; lobbying to take what our mineral owners refuse to give.
In his last State of the State address we heard Governor Tomblin claim to “put West Virginia first” with 250 companies coming into our state, but fail to address why our workers’ wages remain stagnant. So who is benefiting from this “growth” in economic activity? Our state population continues to decline as counties with increased oil and gas production lose the most. Current policies have created a strong “business climate” but what about our natural environment? The last “overhaul” of horizontal gas well drilling regulations was in 2011 and since then we’ve seen our friends and neighbors literally fall ill as a result of gas production in their communities. Overall, our cancer rates and mortality rates are the highest in the country.
Supporting our miners as global consumption of coal decreases means expanding opportunities beyond fossil fuels. The solar industry added more jobs than any other sector in 2015, yet our state leaders continue to stand in the way of expanding this growth into our state. Along with broadening renewable industry in the state, our workforce deserves a prevailing wage for their labor. It is impossible to stimulate the economy when our working families are struggling just to make ends meet. We must also address the influx of out of state workers brought in by the oil and gas industry while our local workers struggle with unemployment. And if West Virginia already has the “best business tax climate Index in the region,” why is so called “Right to Work” legislation necessary? Governor Tomblin failed to mention that particular piece of pending legislation as hundreds of opponents of the bill watched him speak.
Citing “a lack of flat land” for industrial development, Governor Tomblin continues to ignore the value of our geography which, when protected, creates trillions of gallon of clean water every year. Few can deny that our next wars will be over water, yet we continue to compromise our valuable water resources in West Virginia. Instead of using mountaintop removal landscapes as an economic caveat, we should be asking and providing answers as to why these sites weren’t developed years ago, as promised during the permitting process?
We heard Governor Tomblin advocate for the removal of severance taxes from coal and gas while raising taxes on telecommunications use which would once again aim to balance the state budget on the backs of working West Virginians. Asking the oil and gas industry to simply pay a fraction of a cent for each gallon of water they pull from our streams and rivers would create hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for counties and the state. Currently they pay nothing for the water they take. And the second anniversary of the largest contamination of a public water source – the Elk River chemical leak which left 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water for weeks in 2014 – was not mentioned.
The most direct and immediate way West Virginia can address our prescription pill problems is by following the lead of other states which have used medical marijuana to cut prescription pill overdoses by up to 25 percent. These same states have also brought in hundreds of millions in revenue and have seen crime rates dramatically decrease.
In his address, Governor Tomblin advocated for hundreds of miles of expanded oil and gas export pipelines. Instead of promoting these devastating projects which are largely opposed by local communities, we should protect and expand our local water production and tourism industries in the counties in the southeastern part of the state which are growing in population and thriving.
As the Mountain Party and as mountain people we value much more than the minerals that lie beneath these ancient hills and the businesses here to extract them. West Virginia has been called the crown gem of Appalachia and the Mountain Party of West Virginia continues to fight to protect the true bounty of our state: our mountain people.
© Mountain Party of West Virginia, 2016.
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People’s Pastoral by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia rooted in the concept of ‘Magisterium of the Poor’
By Michael M. Barrick
SPENCER, W.Va. – Reading the latest People’s Pastoral from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) is like lingering over a classic work of art – especially if that artwork is Picasso’s “Guernica.” That is because, just like Picasso’s most famous work forces us to reflect upon man’s inhumanity to man, the CCA pastoral immediately challenges the reader to learn about and then expose great social injustices being perpetrated upon the people and land of Appalachia.
The pastoral, titled, “The Telling Takes us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us,” pulls the reader in with eloquent but blunt free verse, breathtaking artwork, photographs and even the rare literary element of an Interlude.
It is the third pastoral published by the CCA in 40 years. “This Land is Home to Me: A Pastoral Letter on the Poverty and Powerlessness in Appalachia,” was released in 1975. “At Home in the Web of Life: A Pastoral Message on Sustainable Communities in Appalachia,” was released in 1995. They remain in print and available from the CCA.
The CCA identifies itself as “… a network of faith-based people raising a prophetic voice for Appalachia & her people.” This new pastoral seems entirely consistent with that mission.
Notably, unlike the first two, this one is not endorsed by the bishops of Appalachia; instead, rooted in Catholic social teaching and liberation theology borrowed from social justice movements in the Southern hemisphere, it is a direct appeal from and on behalf of the poor and the earth itself. As Michael Iafrate, the pastoral’s writer, explained, it is “Speaking truth to power.”
This includes not only traditional church structures, as evidenced by “Lifting up ‘The Magisterium of the Poor’” as Iafrate said, but also political and economic structures as well. Additionally, the pastoral also acknowledges that “The earth has an authority that the church needs to acknowledge and respect,” noted Iafrate, echoing thoughts expressed by Pope Francis in his ecological encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home.”
Jeannie Kirkhope, the coordinator for CCA, added, “Current bishops told us that had they been around when the first two pastorals were written that they wouldn’t have signed it.” She continued, “People have their own authority in the church. We didn’t feel it necessary to get their endorsement.” Iafrate added, “We felt that there were number of issues that the CCA wanted and needed to speak to – mountaintop removal and fracking, as well as marginalized people in Appalachia and the church. We needed to speak about this. We have asked bishops to speak to these issues, but they don’t’ for a variety of reasons. We knew they would not sign on as a body, that maybe one or two would sign. Out of that realization came that sense that the first two pastorals were voices of the people and the bishops endorsed it. We decide to push forward whether they participated or not.”
As it turns out, shared Iafrate, the election of Pope Francis was affirming of the pastoral, which was in the works for several years. “Little did we know there would be a new pope. Little did we know that this pope would have his own encyclical in the works. It was well timed. Of course it was not related to the people’s pastoral, but it was a grace-filled incident.”
While the CCA did not reach out to bishops, a bishop new to the region did offer to provide a cover letter to be sent to all bishops in the United States along with a copy of the pastoral. Iafrate shared, “Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky. shares with the bishops that CCA is living out what Pope Francis has called us to do. We are thankful for his support.”
Iafrate acknowledges that just as the encyclical by Pope Francis has been labeled as extreme in its criticism of market-driven consumerism, so too might this pastoral. In fact, he admitted, “We hope it is subversive because there are a lot of political, economic, and church relationships that need to be subverted.”
He added the pastoral is consistent with the CCA’s mission. “This goes along with being prophetic.” He continued, “This new letter is radical in what it says. It calls for radical changes to church” He argued, though, “It is not a call to radical change apart from examples of how people are already doing things. That is really important.” Besides, he argued, “People can resist radical change all they want, but everything is going to have to change whether we want it to or not, whether we participate in it or not. The planet is going to make sure things change, whether human beings participate in it or not. We can only resist it so much and for so long. That’s on a global scale and in Appalachia.”
The pastoral is written in free verse, as were the first two. Iafrate pointed out that this literary approach was chosen because “It is consistent with the Appalachian heritage of writing poetry and storytelling. It fits with the lyrical way of writing in Appalachia.” Kirkhope added, “It is easily readable. We’re lucky because Michael is both a theologian and musical artist. So we got the best of both worlds with Michael as author. It is both history and artistic.”
The dedication page says simply, “For Walter Sullivan.” Sullivan served as bishop for the Diocese of Richmond for roughly three decades, including the earliest year of the CCA. He is considered its greatest champion. He passed away in 2012. Kirkhope shared, “Before he retired, Bishop Sullivan was talking about the need for a people’s pastoral focusing on mountaintop removal. He was very involved with the first two letters. He was one of the founding bishops of CCA. He was our liaison to the church hierarchy and our biggest fan.” Iafrate added, “There is not a title in the dedication because that’s just not the kind of bishop he was. His ministry was focused on empowering the people of God. He was not worried about different classes of clerics.” Kirkhope recalled, “He was concerned about the earth. Early on, we invited the bishops of central Appalachia to participate in a flyover of mountaintop removal sites. Only three showed up. He was the only one that understood and was completely behind us.”
As the pastoral undeniably ties together the poor and the earth – that to listen to the poor is to listen to the earth – it manages to do so based upon Catholic social justice traditions without being limiting in its appeal. Iafrate explains, “We talk about the planet we live on as having sacredness. That is something we share across traditions when our traditions are at their best. We form a community across traditions. It is deeply rooted in our Catholic faith, but goes beyond it as well, knowing that is how we must all work together.”
The pastoral is divided into three parts. Part One, “Our Stories: The Grounds of our Struggles” tells of the stories gathered through hundreds of interviews by CCA over the last few years, including minorities, those in vulnerable communities and coalfield residents and miners. Part Two, “Our Traditions: The Ground of our Vision,” is rooted in Catholic customs and traditions. Part Three, “Our Actions: The Ground of our Hope,” offers examples of what others are doing to build a region free of the fossil fuel mono-economy and provides some other possible alternatives for consideration.
Artist Christopher Santer, a West Virginia native now living in Minnesota provided the artwork for the covers and a center spread. Iafrate offered, “It’s very striking. We wanted it to be top notch and as prophetic as the words.” The design was done by Liz Pavlovic from Morgantown, W.Va.
Additionally, the Introduction was written by Beth Davies, a Virginia resident and founding CCA member. An Afterword was written by Eddie Sloan of Wheeling, W.Va. and a doctoral candidate at Boston College. His remarks were directed primarily to young people. Notably, the pastoral also includes an Interlude, which was written by Janet Keating, the executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, W.Va. While Iafrate said the use of an Interlude came along out of necessity in determining the arrangement of the pastoral, an Interlude is an old literary device that is generally allegorical and rooted in morality. That is certainly the case with Keaton’s piece, as it is titled, “A Cerulean Warbler Speaks.” Keating explained, “The … interlude is one example of the creative listening that is possible when we take seriously the intrinsic dignity of the smallest voices of creation.”
Iafrate said that the focus on the poor is long overdue and is needed to help “change the stories we tell.” He explained, “Appalachians understand the importance of telling their story. At the same time, we’ve gotten use to telling the same old story of Appalachia. Others tell stories that are based in stereotypes. They’ve bought into the same old story that we are an energy region that provides coal and other resources for America’s needs. It’s like it’s our patriotic duty to sacrifice our well-being. We buy into these myths. We live by them. It shapes the way we live life and community together.
“What this pastoral is saying is that we need to live out alternative stories. We need to lift up the experiences of people that run counter to stories of the region. We need to start hearing stories of people who have been hurt by industry in mountaintop removal and fracking. The main new story we need to tell is that God did not give us this planet only as a resource to exploit, but gave us a home. We need to start changing the story of how we live in harmony with one another and take care of the home we’ve been given to live in.”
That storytelling, he said, is up to modern-day “saints.” Iafrate explains, “The word saint in the document has quotes around it, which signals I am doing something different with this word. We do have saints in the tradition of the church like St. Francis of Assisi that can inspire us. What I mean is that modern day saints are people who have a deep sensitivity for the suffering of people and earth in this region. They provide examples of how to live and work for justice. The best word in our tradition is to use the word saint. It does not mean that we are perfect, but have that fire for justice that is so important for CCA and many communities that are struggling.”
He is hoping such saints will emerge from people of all ages, but particularly in their 20s and 30s. “This change isn’t going to happen without them, without young people. We are all aware of the out migration from West Virginia and Appalachia. It is not getting better. If we want this place we love to thrive, we need to listen to these young people to find out while they’re leaving.” He continued, “They have a vision of what they want their lives to be. They love this area. But they feel they need to leave. It’s a love-hate relationship. They want to stay, but can’t find work. The transformation that we need will not occur without younger people.”
Regardless of one’s age, though, Iafrate points folks back to the pastoral’s title. “We need to take our place in this story. It is our small way of helping marginalized people – of lifting up the magisterium of the poor.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016.
Beth Davis writes in the Foreword, “When the bishops gathered at Vatican II, they described the Church as ‘the People of God’—not only the pope, bishops, and clergy, but the entire People of God. They further articulated in Gaudium et Spes how the Church was to be present in the modern world, and their key was dialogue. It is not a new thing for the Church as institution to lead and speak out on issues it chooses to take a stand on, on its own turf. It is a new thing for the Church to listen, truly listen, to what people are saying in their terms, on their turf,”
Like the first two pastorals, this latest is written in free verse rather than prose. Consequently, to conserve space, line breaks are identified by the / symbol.
All excerpts are © 2015 Catholic Committee of Appalachia. Used with Permission. Selected excerpts follow.
Here in Appalachia, / we are people of stories. / These mountains have heard / the stories we tell, / and have told, / across time and space. / The mountains hold our stories, / and they have stories of their own.
Wherever we are, / and whatever our relationship to these hills, / telling our stories / connects us once again, / takes us home, / and gives us a place / from which we can act for justice.
Today, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) / offers this third pastoral letter / as a prophetic word spoken / for new realities among us. / We recommit to reading the signs of the times, / listening to the stories / of the places and people who hurt most, / to create new paths forward / toward greater justice, peace, and wholeness / for our communities and for creation. /
In this statement, / we recognize a deepening ecological crisis / and new pressures on our struggling communities.
We remember and recommit / to hearing the voices of the poor and of Earth / and to voices we are still learning to discern.
To listen deeply to the authority / of the poor and of Earth in this way,… / as magisterium, … / (is) a recognition / of the different gifts and roles / among the diverse Body of Christ, / and of the truth that there are authorities / to which all of God’s people, / including the powerful, / must bow in humility and reverence.
Many Appalachians, / especially those who live close to desecrated places, / have come to believe that Jesus’ commandment / to love and serve one’s neighbor / includes a special love for our neighbor, Earth.
Mountaintop removal is an act / of radical violence that leaves / monstrous scars across Earth’s body / resembling moonscapes, / dead zones on our planet / which cannot be restored to their prior / life-giving condition in our lifetimes.
Women continue to face / significant barriers in our region / which make fullness of life difficult. … / Sexism is transmitted and upheld / through church traditions / which explicitly or implicitly / misuse scripture and faith traditions / to justify the exclusion, domination, / and abuse of women. / Women’s roles continue to be limited / not only in churches, / but also in the family, in the wider community, / and in the region’s male-centered economy.
Accidents are not as random as they appear, / but are the result of a culture of disregard / for worker safety. / Coal industry villains come and go, / but the attitude which places profit above safety / is deeply embedded in the coal economy.
Miners still struggle regularly / against attempts to roll back / hard-won victories of better pay and benefits. / People of faith, / including laity, religious, and clergy, / have stood with retired miners / in public protests against the attempt / by a handful of mining companies / to eliminate health and retirement benefits / by spinning off their union mines / into new subsidiary companies / and then filing for bankruptcy.
The widespread presence of food insecurity / is an ironic reversal for a region / that was once populated by subsistence farms / and where family gardens were once popular.
Residents near fracking sites / in both rural and urban areas, / as well as health officials, / have begun to describe serious health concerns / connected to this industry.
Many people in our church communities, … / must admit that we have not heard or taken seriously / the experiences of people of color in Appalachia.
Although acts of genocide / against Native people are historical facts, / Native communities are alive and present here today, / including Cherokee, Shawnee, / Blackfoot, and Monacan peoples.
Some Appalachians believe / that same-sex relationships / threaten the natural state of things, / including the institutions of marriage and family. / But many Appalachian people / identify as gay or lesbian, / and have done so throughout history.
We know that the way of life / enjoyed by a small percentage of the human family, / and the distribution of wealth / enjoyed by an even smaller percentage, / are profoundly unjust and unsustainable / and climate change is rapidly / bringing us to the brink of disaster.
Creation is God’s garden, / and … human communities / exist within God’s garden as caretakers, / receiving with gratitude all of God’s good gifts / and using them only in ways / that nurture and sustain life to the full.
We shall no longer be crucified / upon the cross of coal.
Appalachian activism has a long history, / and in the struggles of history and of today, / being an activist is not a hobby or a luxury. / People have decided to act, / and to act boldly, / because life depends on changing / the way we live together. / As Larry Gibson often said, / “We’re either going to be an activist, / or we’re going to be annihilated.”
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Disregard for state’s environmental and health problems by mainstream media is shameful
By Michael M. Barrick
WEST UNION, W.Va. – If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all, you know that in Flint, Mich., residents have been unable to drink and use water because it is deemed unsafe. In fact, just today, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced he has opened an investigation to get to the bottom of the disaster – lead poisoning which makes the water unsafe.
Meanwhile, CBS News has reported that the Southern California Gas Company “ … acknowledged Thursday that it understated the number of times airborne levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene have spiked during the crisis.” That leak, affecting Los Angeles-area residents, is approaching three months without a resolution.
I’m pleased that journalists are uncovering these corporate shenanigans which threaten public health and safety, as well as the environment. But I do have a couple of questions for the mainstream media – Do you know that West Virginians have faced both of these problems for years, decades even? And, if so, why are you not covering this?
The questions are rhetorical, for I already know the answer. West Virginia is the Rodney Dangerfield of the United States and the media simply doesn’t care about the rural, mountain poor. Reporting on the misery caused to West Virginians by the energy extraction industry just doesn’t generate the ratings to justify upsetting advertisers (in case you have not been paying attention, the natural gas industry has launched a media blitz about its so-called “clean energy,” including on public broadcasting. Even the people’s network, it seems, has been hijacked by the industry).
Meanwhile, here in Doddridge County, West Virginia, groups like West Virginia Host Farms and the Doddridge County Watershed Association have been educating public health officials, journalists, researches and the general public about the dangers of fracking. Children are experiencing nose bleeds, people can’t sit outside in summer evenings for developing splitting headaches, and cancer rates are increasing. Indeed, I have interviewed a family whose daughter died of leukemia after being exposed to benzene. The benzene leeched into her well water from a fracking pad. Of course, the gas companies are hiding behind their lawyers in denial.
Simultaneously, all over the county, people drink water from storage tanks called water buffaloes. The water is simply not safe for human use because fracking pads dot the landscape, leeching and releasing untold amounts of benzene daily. Many of these families have had to use these storage tanks for years. Where is the outrage for them?
Meanwhile, in the southern part of the state, in Mingo County, a small community on top of a mountain near Kermit captures rain water, filters it, and stores it in water buffaloes. Yes, in the Unites States – “The greatest nation on the face of the earth. Period.” – as our president said the other night, West Virginia residents live as if they are citizens of a third world country.
And the media does nothing.
So, here is a plea to the mainstream media: Get out of your offices, put on some boots and jeans, rent a four-wheel drive and start visiting the shale fields, the mountaintop removal sites and the abandoned deep mine sites in West Virginia. Talk to the residents. Do not concern yourself with meeting with public officials unless you just want to get them on the record for admitting they can’t or won’t do their job, as in this story. Ironically, as you will read, the referenced story is about West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman visiting this very county last summer to investigate concerns about public health and safety.
If you want, I can introduce you to dozens of West Virginians that will be happy to tell their stories to you. They, then, will introduce you to their neighbors and friends. Then, before long, you will realize that poisoning people and the planet is “business as usual” in West Virginia.
As I noted in a recent article, the people get it – our institutions are failing from what I term “The Momentum of Mediocrity.” And yesterday, I posted an article reporting that two years after Freedom Industries made the water of the Kanawha Valley unusable for 300,000 people for over a week, virtually no progress has been made to address the root cause of that disaster. So, it is up to the people to tell their stories. Fortunately, West Virginia has numerous groups and individuals doing just that, every way they can.
Would we like to see the mainstream media report that West Virginias are dying from exposure to benzene and can’t drink their water because the energy industry pollutes it? Yes. But, we’re not holding our breath – for that. That’s because we’re too busy holding our breath every time the wind blows over a gas well.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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Public health, environment and property rights under siege from crony capitalism; people respond vigorously, despite odds
By Michael M. Barrick
BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – While the fossil fuel extraction industry has dominated West Virginia’s political system, economy and communities since it became a state in 1863, the assault upon public health, the environment and property rights in 2015 by corporations and the Mountain State’s legislature was historic. Not since United States senators were appointed by legislatures, in the days when corporate robber barons owned the coal fields, the railroads and the politicians, and efforts to unionize coal miners were met with government-sanctioned violence, has there been such a blitzkrieg of shenanigans and skullduggery unleashed upon the state’s citizens.
Yet, the people have responded energetically. Easily outgunned by corporations, outspent by PACs, and surrounded by apathetic neighbors possessing a sense of inevitability that the energy industry will have its way in West Virginia, many citizens and groups have fought the attack vigorously and widely. The events of 2015 affecting the ecology of West Virginia is about far more than policy, it is about people – about those people making a difference, whether for well or ill.
While corporate interests and most of the state’s mainstream media promote a continued reliance upon what is essentially a bust-and-boom economy, more and more voices standing in opposition to the status quo are being heard. With solid evidence of harm to public health, damage to the environment and abuse of eminent domain from the industry – particularly through fracking and mountaintop removal – more people are joining forces to hold government, industry and even the church accountable.
These stories are not necessarily listed in chronological order and are not offered as a ranking of importance. Instead, it is an attempt to assess the whole year much as one would look at a quilt after it has been completed.
The top stories
- The “People’s Capitol” no more
- Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
- Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
- Eminent domain abuse
- Public health threats
- Environmental degradation
- The people respond
- The Don Blankenship trial
- Poor and biased press coverage
The “People’s Capitol” no more
The gold-domed state capitol along the Kanawha River in Charleston is known as “The People’s Capitol” because of its openness to the people. While that is changing physically this year as security officials add metal detectors and other security steps, the event that really denied the people access to their government was the takeover of the legislature by the Republican Party. Not that the GOP has a patent on arrogance. The Democrats had grown entirely too comfortable after more than 80 years of control. Their arrogance was on display for all to see. All one had to do was visit the offices of the legislators before the GOP takeover. The Democrats had the largest offices and those in special authority – such as the speaker – had not only their titles but names affixed to the doors. As I walked through the capitol on a snowy February day in 2014 just a few weeks after the Elk River spill, I was pleased with how many legislators made themselves accessible; more than a few seemed genuinely interested in serving the people. However, the display of arrogance on the office doors by the party’s leadership was disturbing. It was clear proof that the lure of power had seduced them to promote themselves, not serve the people.
So, in a sense, the Democrats got what they deserved in November 2014. Unfortunately, beginning in January 2015, so did the people of West Virginia. Why people vote against their own interests is beyond my comprehension. For instance, coal miners voted for the very people who protect men like Massey Energy’s Donald Blankenship (more about him later) and are doing all they can to destroy the United Mine Workers (UMW).
Additionally, the GOP is pushing for “Forced Pooling” legislation that would rob landowners of their most basic rights. That issue died in the legislature on a tie vote in committee last year and is a legislative priority for the GOP this year when the West Virginia legislature convenes on Jan. 13. Forced pooling allows the gas industry to force landowners to allow gas companies to access the gas under their land even if the landowner doesn’t agree to it so long as a certain percentage of their neighbors have agreed to sell. And, despite the devastation done by the Elk River spill in 2014, the Republican-led legislature rolled back vital provisions of the West Virginia Storage Tank Law. This led to weakened oversite, restrictions on public access to hazardous chemical information, and loopholes which severely undermine the stated intent of the law. (Read the full story here).
Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
In West Virginia, approximately three out of four people identify themselves as Protestant; only seven percent are Catholic. As with political parties, these two major Christian sects hold quite disparate views on ecological issues; indeed, within each denomination, congregation and parish, one can find division about what the faith teaches regarding environmental stewardship.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists generally hold a “dominion” theory of stewardship. It is not only reflected in sermons, but is referenced by energy industry officials as justification for their attacks upon public health and the environment. Indeed, a leading energy industry executive shared that view here in Bridgeport in March. Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).
Yet, Allen Johnson of Dunmore, who leads the evangelical organization Christians for the Mountains, took several other evangelicals and reporters to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia’s most infamous mountaintop removal site. As a result of this effort, national publications noted that some evangelicals are serious about creation care. (You can read articles here and here). Another, not available online, was published by the conservative Christian World magazine based in Asheville, N.C. Explaining the outreach, Johnson said, “It’s a lot easier to preach to the choir, so to speak, than to step across the divide, but that is what is needed in our polarized culture – build trust, tell stories, show, listen, find common ground somewhere.”
Catholics, however, have become accustomed to their clergy – in particular the bishop – to be a prophetic voice for the land and its people. Indeed, the West Virginia-based Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has published two pastoral letters by the Catholic bishops of Appalachia – “This Land is Home to Me” in 1975 and “At Home in the Web of Life” in 1995. Both of these letters were signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the region. So, for the last 40 years, the Catholic laity has become accustomed to its leaders standing up for the poor. Not in 2015 though. Instead, the CCA felt compelled to challenge West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield – as well as other Appalachian Catholic bishops – for not supporting the pope strongly enough when the Vatican released the pope’s ecological encyclical in the spring. (Read more here and here).
Indeed, in December, the CCA published what it characterized as a people’s pastoral. It explained, “For this third letter, called a ‘People’s Pastoral,’ the planning team did not seek the signatures of the region’s bishops, but rather sought to lift up the authority of the people, their stories, and earth itself as an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the ‘preferential option for the poor.’” (Read more here).
In short, while the church leadership has abandoned its prophetic voice in support of the people they are called to serve, the people in the parishes and congregations are filling the void. In addition to the CCA pastoral, several other examples demonstrate this.
In April, during the week of Earth Day, North Carolina-based St. Luke’s United Methodist Church joined with the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and West Virginia Interfaith Power & Light to hold a two-day conference at the Catholic-owned St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston. The conference included people from various faith traditions, scientists, educators, preservationists, educators, artists and others. The theme of the conference, “Preserving Sacred Appalachia,” was organized out of a faith-based view of environmental stewardship, but was intentionally designed to welcome people from all walks of faith and life. (Read more here).
That same week, Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church was a first-place winner of Interfaith Power & Light’s annual Cool Congregations Challenge. The church earned its award for being the top renewable role model in the nation for, among other reasons, having the largest community-supported solar system in West Virginia. (Read more here).
In August, at its annual gathering, the West Virginia Sierra Club chapter considered how it, as a secular group, could apply the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis to its preservation efforts in West Virginia. That gathering led to the writing of this article.
Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
While the church, as an institution, was offering mixed messages on environmental stewardship, the state’s primary agency charged with protecting the environment for the people of West Virginia was sending a clear message – it is, at best, mediocre. In fact, its acronym – DEP – is referred to sarcastically as the “Department of Everything Permitted” by public health experts and environmentalists. In 2015, it was unresponsive to citizens expressing concerns about the health impacts of mountaintop removal. (Read more here), and its leader was unprepared for and even hostile to questions about the most basic of safety considerations regarding the impact of the energy extraction industry. (Read more here).
Eminent Domain abuse
Among the most egregious attacks upon the people of West Virginia was the misuse of eminent domain by the energy extraction industry. This is not surprising though, as without approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and others in the future to extract gas from the shale fields of northern West Virginia, the industry will not be allowed to use eminent domain to seize the land of private landowners. Without that weapon, the energy industry is facing billions of dollars of losses already invested in what the industry obviously considered a slam dunk.
In March, Pittsburgh-based energy company EQT sent out letters to landowners threatening legal action if they did not allow EQT access to their property for surveys. The company’s lawyers argued that the pipeline would serve the interests of West Virginians, so eminent domain should apply. (Read more here and here). Opponents saw it differently and won in court – for now. (Read more here).
Public Health threats
Whatever one’s political outlook, it is generally agreed that a basic function of government is to guard the public’s health. This is part of its mission to “…promote the general Welfare…” as stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. Again though, even fulfilling this most basic responsibility of government seems beyond West Virginia’s capability – or willingness.
As already noted above, West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman out-of-hand rejected the Precautionary Principle as a reasonable, scientific method of protecting the environment and public health. This, despite clear evidence from health experts about the dangers of fracking and mountaintop removal (read here and here). The facts are supported by personal stories of destroyed lives from the extraction industry. (Read more here).
Those attempting to stop the environmental degradation caused by fracking and its related infrastructure got a good taste of what they will face should the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines receive FERC approval. Because those proposed pipelines would cross state lines, FERC approval is required. However, beginning in the spring and going well into the winter, another pipeline – the Stonewall Gas Gathering (SGG) pipeline – was constructed, traversing only about 56 miles of West Virginia. Hence, as an intrastate pipeline, FERC approval for it was not required. The SGG was built by Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream), based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS). The SGG connected to the AGS in Harrison County and terminates in Braxton County, where it connects to the Columbia pipeline. It runs also through Doddridge and Lewis counties. It began operation in December, but in the process disrupted the lives of thousands of West Virginians, harassed opponents, and caused significant damage to farmland, streams and roadways.
The West Virginia DEP did issue several Notice of Violations to Precision Pipeline, the company that built the pipeline. However, it did so only after numerous complaints from citizens. (Read more here).
As has already been demonstrated, the extraction industry operates from a position of arrogance – of “dominion.” In the next section are several links to stories about people and groups who learned this hard lesson and immediately began responding. Before reading those accounts though, you might want to refer to the articles, “A Dirty Dozen Reasons to Oppose Fracking” and “Filmmaker Finds Compelling Story in Her own Backyard.”
Citizens stand up to crony capitalism
Despite this relentless assault upon public health, the environment and property rights by the unholy alliance between government and business – known otherwise as crony capitalism – no small number of people and groups have organized and coordinated efforts to safeguard their human rights. The outreach has even extended across the states bordering West Virginia, as alliances have been formed with people and groups in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Kentucky.
As a result, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people giving completely of themselves and resources during the year. Following are a few examples.
The McClain family, farmers in Doddridge County (about 8,000 residents), though quiet and deferential people, stood their ground against the industry for ruining some of their crops. (Read more here).
Also in Doddridge County, residents joined with folks from neighboring counties to demonstrate their solidarity against the fracking industry. (Read more here).
Earlier in the year, a landowner in the mountains of Randolph County was a one-man army fighting Dominion Resources. He is working to protect some of the most pristine mountain valleys in West Virginia. (Read more here).
Also early in the year, several environmental groups challenged FERC to abide by its charter and deny approval of the pipelines because they would benefit private shareholders, not the people of West Virginia. (Read more here).
In a proactive response to the industry, a Harrison County couple modeled, for the public, their homestead powered by solar panels. (Read more here).
As the year came to a close, dozens of people and groups gathered in central West Virginia to learn more from each other and to coordinate efforts to oppose the fracking industry. (Read more here).
The Don Blankenship trial
The year concluded with the conviction of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship on charges brought by federal authorities because of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County in April 2010. Sadly, the jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements. His lawyers have said he will challenge the verdict. So, in light of the expected appeal and mixed verdict, it would seem the opportunity to send a message that crony capitalism would no longer be allowed to kill West Virginians was missed. Hence, it is an important chapter in this story of West Virginia’s reliance upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. Still, while it was covered by media from the United States and beyond, I consider it less important of a story than the stories above, in particular the response by average citizens to the assault they and their land face from the energy extraction industry.
Poor and biased press coverage
These are serious times requiring serious and devoted people. While I generally try not to be snarky about the mainstream media, I must say that I was quite disappointed that West Virginia Public Broadcasting considered a little dustup about pepperoni rolls as one of the top eight stories in West Virginia in 2015. Now, I’ve transported more than my share of pepperoni rolls across state lines. But the debate over fracking – a debate that continues savagely in every corner of the Mountain State – is a far more important story. Yet, this important issue did not even make the list from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which claims to be committed to “Telling West Virginia’s Story.”
In this instance, it failed miserably.
Meanwhile, in Clarksburg, which is at the epicenter of the fracking industry, the city’s only newspaper – The Exponent-Telegram – has an owner who also owns interests in oil, gas and coal companies. The newspaper, which touts itself as “The Independent Voice of North Central West Virginia,” had not disclosed this conflict of interest to the public, even as it served as a cheerleader for the energy extraction industry. (Read more here and here).
The point is this: The Fourth Estate has become part of the establishment. Just as our three branches of government are intended to serve as a check and balance on the other two branches, so too, since the Revolutionary War era, has the press been counted upon to serve as a fourth check on the three branches of government. Now though, the courage required to honor that legacy is rarely found in a newsroom or TV studio. In short, the modern press, whether for-profit or not, will not challenge government, church and academia beyond the boundaries which might hit them in the pocketbook.
Consequently, it does not report what we truly need to know.
So, it’s up to the people. Last year left social justice and environmental activists exhausted, even burned out. Yet, the battle continues. While 2015 was not a good year for the people or environment of West Virginia, 2016 offers hope. It also offers great peril. The extraction industry has unlimited resources – cash, marketing departments and lawyers – that groups fighting for justice simply can’t match. The industry is working 24/7 to assault the people and natural beauty of West Virginia. So activists cannot rest. They are gearing up for a busy year, beginning with the legislative session that convenes next week. They have doggedly fought the industry hard in 2015. However, if they do not get additional manpower this year – an army of volunteers – 2017 will likely be too late to keep West Virginia from becoming an industrial waste zone that is unsuitable for any living thing.
© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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From the Alleghenies of West Virginia to the Blue Ridge of Virginia, citizens joining forces to battle fossil fuel industry over public and ecological health
JACKSON’S MILL, W.Va. – West Virginians facing crucial quality of life issues with the onslaught of the deep shale oil and gas industry are banding together for the sake of their communities.
On December 15, more than 40 people representing 30 citizen groups from across West Virginia, as well as one Virginia group, gathered to meet one another and to discuss each group’s work surrounding deep shale oil and gas issues.
The various groups and coalitions work to address one or more of the detrimental impacts of oil and gas production on communities, human health and the environment that arise from activities associated with deep shale hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
Their concerns include property rights; air, water and noise pollution; compressors stations; water withdrawal from our state’s streams and rivers; pipelines; wastewater treatment facilities; waste disposal and waste transportation; as well as public policy proposals looming when the West Virginia Legislature begins its regular legislative session this January 2016.
Attendees included representatives of community action groups, based in areas where the rural way of life and the environment are directly impacted by fracking/gas, as well as members of statewide organizations such as the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, West Virginia Rivers Coalition and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. Also in attendance were leaders from the faith community, scientists and public policy/economic professionals.
“Monroe County citizens are broadly mobilized to focus on blocking the development of frack gas infrastructures,” said Monroe County resident Laurie Ardison, who is with Preserve Monroe and POWHR, Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights. POWHR is an interstate coalition group working to protect the water, local ecology, heritage, land rights and human rights of individuals, communities and regions from harms caused by the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructures.
“We have an opportunity to develop clean jobs with renewables and cheaper energy efficiency programs. Locking us into fossil fuels for the future is going to pull us away from forward thinking economic development,” said April Keating with the Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance.
“Clearly, we can increase our capacity and impact when we work together towards common goals,” said Janet Keating, the principal organizer of the meeting and executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington.
“Coming together from across the state working on various issues related to shale gas development, we learned common concerns connect us,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “We see a need to work together to set the best way forward for a healthy environment and economic future for our state.”
“There are negative health consequences for the people who live near fracking sites. It is time for policy makers and the industry to recognize that people who live next to natural gas facilities are paying a high price,” said Conni Gratop Lewis of the West Virginia Environmental Council.
Another attendee stated, “The meeting was an energizing experience for me. I had been feeling a bit burned out lately, but now I feel like we may have a chance of beating this assault.”
“From pipelines cutting through the highland mountains to waste inundating the lowland fields and wetlands, the recent boom of oil and gas development is as harmful to many as it is economically beneficial to a few,” said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “As the region celebrates any short term economic gains, we must also fight to preserve the air we breathe, the water we rely on, the forests we enjoy, and the health of those who live near the drilling and production operations.”
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2015
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Unchecked mountaintop removal coal mining continues to harm communities, endangered species in Appalachia
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Center for Biological Diversity, Coal River Mountain Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the Sierra Club filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for their failure to protect threatened northern long-eared bats at two proposed mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia. The mines will clear more than 1,000 acres of hardwood forest that are home to the rare bat, which was protected under the Endangered Species Act in April. The agencies have not put any specific measures in place to protect the bats from the mining activities, as required by law.
“The failure to protect these bats is the latest example of coal companies getting a free pass in Appalachia when it comes to complying with the Endangered Species Act and other laws designed to protect the health of people and the environment,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “The wink-and-a-nod compliance with the law is having devastating effects on wildlife and human communities in Appalachia.”
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the northern long-eared bat in 2010. The species has declined by 96 percent in its core range due to a lethal disease called white-nose syndrome. Because of the drastic impact of this disease, the bat is extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction.
The bat is found at both Republic Energy’s proposed Long Ridge mine on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County, which will clear 664 acres of forest, and Jim Justice’s Big Creek mine in McDowell County, which will destroy 468 acres of forest. Under the Endangered Species Act, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and Fish and Wildlife Service are required to ensure that mining does not jeopardize the survival of the bats.
“Federal agencies need to do a better job of protecting both the northern long-eared bat and the people who live around these mines,” said Vernon Haltom, director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “Mountaintop removal is destroying wildlife and human communities in Appalachia and it is time for that to end.”
“The lack of effective protections for bats and other endangered species mirrors the lack of protection for Appalachian residents from surface mining impacts,” said Dianne Bady, founder and project coordinator at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
To try to address impacts to endangered species from surface mining, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996, resulting in a “biological opinion” that established very minimal requirements that must be met. According to today’s legal notice, the two mines in question have not established specific measures to protect northern long-eared bats as is required by that biological opinion. The groups also put the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on notice that its continued reliance on the 1996 document to avoid impacts to imperiled species is illegal. The outdated biological opinion fails to ensure the survival of the northern long-eared bat and many other species that have required the Endangered Species Act’s protection since 1996 and, that like the bat, are being affected by surface coal mining.
“Today’s notice is another example of how critical it is to have increased protections in Appalachia from surface mining,” said Liz Wiles with the West Virginia Sierra Club. “Federal agencies need to revamp protections for endangered species when it comes to surface mining, which will benefit both wildlife and people.”
Much new scientific information has been published recently documenting the devastating effects of surface coal mining in Appalachia on wildlife and people. Mining has now been linked to declines in birds, fish, salamanders, crawdads, insects and freshwater mussels. Mining threatens nearby communities with air and water pollution and risk of flooding. More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies have now linked mining pollution in Appalachia to health problems, including increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects.
The proposed Big Creek mine is a case in point. In addition to destroying nearly 500 acres of native hardwood forest used by the bat, it is directly above a church and upstream of a Head Start center. It will also destroy more than five miles of streams, threatening another species that has been proposed for protection, the Big Sandy crayfish. More than one million acres of hardwood forest and more than 2,000 miles of streams have already been destroyed by surface coal mining in Appalachia.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Coal River Mountain Watch is a West Virginia nonprofit organization that works to stop the destruction of communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life of residents, and to help rebuild sustainable communities. The group is working to pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE).
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition is national organization dedicated to the improvement of the environment and communities through education, grassroots organizing and coalition building, leadership development, strategic litigation and media outreach.
Sierra Club is one of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the country with more than 2.4 million members and supporters. Sierra Club’s mission is “to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; and to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environments.”
Stonewall Gas Gathering companies running roughshod over people, nature and the law
By Michael M. Barrick
ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) has issued at least 12 Notice of Violations to the contractors of the Stonewall Gas Gathering (SGG) pipeline since mid-June. The violations are for not following best practices and for causing conditions which pollute the state’s streams.
The SGG is being built by Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream), based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS). The SGG will connect to the AGS in Harrison County and terminate in Braxton County, where it will connect to the Columbia pipeline. It runs also through Doddridge and Lewis counties.
The company laying the pipeline is Wisconsin-based Precision Pipeline, LLC. According to the company’s website, “We have the experience and expertise to safely complete any project while maintaining total environmental compliance with minimal impact to landowners.”
That’s what the company’s website says. The state of West Virginia, residents being impacted by it, and at least one independent environmental scientist say otherwise.
In mid-July, Jamie Tallman, an environmental inspector with WVDEP surveyed an approximately six mile stretch of the 55-mile pipeline and found that the construction had impacted at least eight stream crossings on Right Fork, Laurel Run, Indian Fork, Big Isaac Creek and Meathouse Fork in Doddridge and Harrison counties. As a result of those visits, he issued 10 Notice of Violations to SGG, though Precision Pipeline is doing the actual work.
He cited poor sediment controls at stream crossings, poor perimeter controls, and other problems such as “marginal” conditions for slope breakers. He noted also, “Multiple earthen slips were observed … two of which were documented to impact state waters but had not been reported.”
That brings to 12 the number of Notice of Violations for this project, the other two also issued by Tallman. One was issued in June for damage done near the community of Big Isaac in Doddridge County and another in early July near the same area. Read more: Standing Their Ground.
Meanwhile, Diana Gooding, a Gilmer County farmer who lives near the Lewis County line, has been taking residents from Virginia and southeastern West Virginia on tours of the pipeline route to witness first-hand the impact of the construction on the region’s delicate watershed. On Aug. 11th, after a heavy rain, Gooding noted, “Goosepen Road today was alive with devastation. Running over the sediment barriers was the mud to the stream as they worked away with heavy equipment despite the deluge of rain we had last night.” She observed, “The equipment and bulldozers were sliding backwards and sideways just trying to take pilings up the hillsides.”
She offered, “It is awful what they are being allowed to do. All of the little streams below are getting trashed big time.”
Independent Environmental Assessment
One such person who accompanied Gooding on one of her trips along the pipeline route is Autumn Bryson, a Greenbrier County-based environmental scientist and owner of Autumn Environmental. On July 18th, along with several others, they visited numerous sites in Lewis, Harrison and Doddridge counties. From that visit, Bryson conducted a Sediment and Erosion Control Assessment. The Assessment was accompanied by numerous photos supporting her assertions.
She observed, “Silt fences, filter socks, and hay were the methods used to control sedimentation and erosion. Failing silt fences were observed at Goosepen Run Stream Crossing along the pipeline route, allowing sediment to enter the nearby stream. The sediment and erosion control measures used are inadequate for the amount of exposed soil and high precipitation events that are common to this region.”
She continued, “Along Sleepcamp Run road, soil was piled high on steep slopes above the road. Silt fences were the only method used to hold the soil in place. There were several occurrences where the silt fences were overloaded and torn due to the weight of the rock and soil. One fabric silt fence is an inadequate method to stabilize an entire hillside. Silt fences were not designed for this use. With a heavy rain event, a landslide could occur causing a safety hazard on public roadways.”
On another crossing in Lewis County, Bryson observed, “Along Copley Road, the pipeline route crosses Sand Fork. At this location, sedimentation was observed in the stream. The silt fences were overflowing allowing the overflow to empty into the nearby stream. The high volume of soil is too much for the silt fence to bear.”
Additionally, she observed, “The Stonewall Gathering pipeline crosses Left Millstone Road and continues down the mountain to cross Millstone Run. Sedimentation was observed in Millstone Run. Filter socks and silt fences were attempting to control the erosion but the volume of soil was too much to hold the hillside in place. The runoff has breached the silt fence and evaded the filter sock. There was also a tear in the filter fabric on the temporary bridge. This hole in the filter fabric allows runoff to flow directly into the stream below further exacerbating the sedimentation issues.”
She asserted also, “An illegal stream crossing was observed where the Stonewall Gathering Line crosses Elk Lick. It appeared that heavy equipment was driven directly through the streambed. There was no stream crossing permit signage in place. No sediment and erosion control methods were used and as a result there was significant sedimentation and damage to the stream bank.”
At yet another stream crossing, she noted, “The Stonewall Gathering line crosses the Right Fork of Kincheloe Creek. Another erosion control measure failed at this stream crossing. The silt fence was unable to contain the volume of soil eroding from the hillside. As a result, the soil breached the silt fence and spilled into the stream.”
She concluded, “Based on observations made during the site visit to the Stonewall Gathering pipeline, the Sediment and Erosion Control Plan is ineffective for a construction project of this magnitude. Silt fences, filter socks, and hay are not able to control erosion and reduce sedimentation into nearby streams. At each location there were instances where the erosion control methods failed impacting the surface waters in the vicinity. The silt fences are unable to bear the load of soil excavated during construction. Filter socks are inadequate at controlling runoff. Filter fabric has been compromised leaving it ineffective. In addition, there is an area where no best management practices are used and heavy equipment has been driven directly through a streambed. These sedimentation and erosion control issues need to be addressed. A more effective plan for controlling sedimentation and erosion needs to be implemented to reduce impacts on nearby streams.”
A resident’s experience
Meanwhile, a farmer near Jane Lew in Lewis County has had more than one confrontation with Precision employees, as well as state workers purportedly on site to monitor the work of the construction crews. Going home on his motorcycle after a trip to Pennsylvania, Tom Berlin was more than a mile up a road to his home only to find it blocked by construction activity. “They were breaking rock and digging a trench. They had a couple of those big iron plates across covered with about four eight-inch-high piles of loose dirt and rock fragments on the best of the two plates. They stopped one machine, but not the big jack hammer and told me I could cross. It was a sort of a tricky crossing, but doable. They made no effort to clear or smooth the path for me, all looking to see if I would make it or chicken out and turn back. I was especially upset that they kept the jack hammer working right alongside me the whole time.”
He continued, “I berated them for not posting a sign at the end of the road, rather than making people travel a mile-and-a-half up a dirt road to find the way blocked. I said I wanted to talk with a supervisor. A man in a white pickup met me at the top of the hill and I gave him a piece of my mind. I then walked back down and found that there was a state road employee in his truck sitting there watching and supposedly making sure they were doing things right. He kept insisting they had a permit and all was OK. He could not explain to me why they did not need to post a warning sign, except to say that they put a notice in some newspaper recently.”
Berlin revealed also, “Then I noticed a guy in a 4-wheeler apparently taking a nap. He bestirred himself and asked if all was OK. I asked if he was a supervisor on this crossing and he assured me he was. So, I lit into him a bit. He explained that he had 55 miles of 36-inch pipeline to lay and he did not have the time to accommodate the needs of every local who might want to use the public road.”
Berlin said the man refused to give him his name.
© 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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