Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition calls for agency to ‘start over and do a proper’ environmental study on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline
By Michael M. Barrick
MONTEREY, Va. – The Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC) is again challenging the work of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regarding the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). In a news release, Rick Webb, program director for DPMC, said, “If built, the ACP could mar the beautiful, unfragmented viewshed of the southern end of the proposed 90,000-acre Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area that stretches from Rt. 250 north to Rt. 33 on the western side of the Shenandoah Valley.”
He explained, “The Natural Gas Act requires FERC to assess impacts to scenic areas and recreational trails. Yet, the Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) for the ACP does not consider impacts to this special area which was proposed for congressional designation by Friends of Shenandoah Mountain a decade ago, recommended by the 2014 George Washington National Forest plan, and endorsed by over 280 diverse organizations and businesses.”
Webb continued, “In addition, the DEIS ignores impacts to the Wild Oak National Recreation Trail and dismisses Forest Service requests to re-evaluate wild brook trout stream crossings on Hankey Mountain.”
According to Webb, a new utility corridor across the Braley Pond area and Hankey Mountain would:
- diminish scenic beauty
- degrade popular recreational resources
- fragment core forests
- damage wild brook trout streams
- industrialize a major gateway to the scenic area
Consequently, he noted, “A permanent corridor of this magnitude could degrade the natural and scenic characteristics of the proposed National Scenic area to the point where it could jeopardize its viability for congressional designation.”
Webb argued that FERC has failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). He argued, “In order to comply with NEPA, FERC needs to start over and do a proper DEIS that fully considers significant impacts to one of the largest, mostly unfragmented tracts of national forest land east of the Mississippi River. The proposed scenic area and its water and recreation resources are revered by the public and deserve due consideration in the DEIS.”
Webb noted that the DPMC has created an online Story Map – “Proposed Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area and the Atlantic Coast pipeline.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017
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Richwood Mayor Bob Henry Baber praises community spirit, asks for help and prayers for ‘Appalachian brothers and sisters’
By Bob Henry Baber
Note: This first-person report is adapted from a recent Facebook post by Bob Henry Baber, the newly elected mayor of Richwood, W.Va. He also served as mayor about a decade ago.
RICHWOOD, W.Va. – It’s been over two weeks since the “Thousand Year Flood.” Today, for the first time, I will have the opportunity to go door to door to the 200 families who have been devastated by the flood. I have been unable to do so due to the barrage of issues ranging from the destruction of our roads and sidewalks, our water intake above the falls, and managing the logistics of assessing the town’s needs, and documenting them so that we can receive 75 percent reimbursement from FEMA. We have to match the other 25 percent with volunteer hours since we do not have any money to do so.
Thank God hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers have shown up whose hours we can count. I believe the damage is over $10 million. We have no Rite Aid, no drug store, no grocery store, no ball parks, no playgrounds or equipment, and on and on. And two of our three schools have suffered substantial damage.
We have had to close our redistribution center for cleaning supplies, food, and toiletries at the Red Gym because its floor has to be removed and replaced. We are going to move to the old furniture factory as soon as we can get massive amounts of mud out of it, have the fire department hose it down, and sanitize it. We have never received emergency housing for the displaced because federal law prohibits placing such entities in the flood plain, and that’s all we’ve got.
Many people mucked out their home, bleached, and moved back in, only to be told that their walls and floors must be torn out and the structure dried lest they be inundated by black mold in future months. The lucky have campers; the others are on their own. Proud Appalachians as we are, only two people used the Red Cross Shelter that has now pulled out due to lack of utilization. Many have left to join families in adjoining states who left years ago to find jobs. Others have moved in with friends and neighbors. Others have left their homes as is and departed for parts unknown. Our very high senior population has been resilient, but some are disoriented and distraught.
Because of our loss of coal jobs, and the emergence of Summerville as a regional economic hub with Wal-Mart and surrounding spin off stores, hotels, and restaurants some 40 minutes away, our people are too poor to afford flood insurance. We have no jobs. Chris Mondross and his wife, for example, had to give up their insurance years ago. They are in their 90s. Their house had two feet of water in it. They have lost everything. There are dozens like them. Middle class people.
What we have here and in our sister cities of White Sulphur Springs and Rainelle is an Appalachian Katrina, albeit on a far smaller scale. Yet it doesn’t feel small to me. It feels all encompassing.
Having said all this, I can tell you that bolstered by volunteers, the town has pulled together in every way and I am blessed to be the Mayor of Richwood. Many of you are too far away to help, but donations of construction materials, computers for our kids, appliances large and small, food, cleaning supplies and money(!) can be sent to:
Richwood City Hall
6 White Ave
Richwood, WV 26261
Or you can contribute to the Nicholas County Foundation/Richwood flood relief online or call (304) 872-0202.
We are your Appalachian brothers and sisters. Pray for us. Our region – which was already economically, culturally, and politically devastated – has now been hit with an unprecedented natural disaster.
Thank you for your consideration, pass the collection plate and God bless you all.
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Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition petitioned state official to make public information about pipeline regulatory reviews
MONTEREY, Va. – On May 5, 2016, the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC) sent a Petition for Writ of Mandamus and Injunctive Relief to Angela Navarro, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources, and David Paylor, Director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to compel the state to provide information about regulatory reviews of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) proposals. The Petition, prepared for filing in the Virginia Circuit Court in Richmond, describes how state officials have violated duties under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The next day, Friday, May 6th, Deputy Secretary Navarro and Director Paylor responded through their counsel, Assistant Attorney General, David Grandis, indicating that they will provide the requested documents early this week.
Before the state indicated it would provide the documents, Rick Webb, DPMC Coordinator, said, “We are disappointed that Virginia’s environmental officials have failed to live up to a law designed to give Virginian’s open access to their own government. Nearly three weeks ago, we asked for public records that would help us and other citizens understand what the State intends to do to protect citizens and the environment from damages the pipelines could cause.” He continued, “Officials are supposed to respond to such information requests within five business days but we received no reply for nearly three weeks. Finally yesterday (May 4) they acknowledged they’d received our letter but did not offer to provide the information we’ve requested.”
The Virginia DEQ has a duty, under the federal Clean Water Act and Virginia Water Protection laws, to review the gas pipeline proposals and ensure that no project goes forward unless all water quality standards will be met, argued Webb. However, as DPMC’s April 14 letter recounts, Virginia DEQ seems to be willing to cover both ACP and MVP under “general permits,” essentially rubber stamping the projects under blanket approvals issued in 2012 and intended only for small projects that pose little risk to waters, Webb argued. DPMC sought public records through the April request to clarify the state’s positions and to question whether the DEQ is able to justify its approach.
The Petition can be accessed here. The FOIA request was included in an April 14th letter, which can be accessed here. The letter objected to the state’s apparent intention to certify the ACP and MVP under general permits issued in 2012. The FOIA request sought information related to the following questions concerning both the ACP and MVP:
1) Has DEQ deemed the Joint Application and/or other information submitted for the projects to be complete and accurate such that DEQ is able to make a formal finding as to the projects’ eligibility for coverage under Virginia’s blanket 401 water quality certification?
2) Has the Corps of Engineers indicated to DEQ that the projects meet the Corps’ requirements for coverage under the general Nationwide Permit 12?
3) Has DEQ made a tentative or final finding that the projects comply with the conditions of the blanket 401 certification for Nationwide Permit 12?
4) Has DEQ requested and/or received additional information from the applicants, in addition to that contained in the Joint Applications, to reveal proposed construction and detailed pollution control methods and analyze possible water quality impacts?
According to DPMC, this is the second time this year that Virginia officials have violated the Freedom of Information Act after DPMC requested records on the gas pipelines. In an earlier case, Carlos Hopkins, Counsel to Governor McAuliffe, failed to provide records within the required period. On March 4, 2016, David Sligh of DPMC wrote Hopkins: “I believe the Governor’s Office is now in violation of the time requirement for response to FOIA requests, under 37 § 2.2-3704. You informed me that the check sent on behalf of DPMC was received at your office on February 15 or 16. Therefore, the records or an appropriate response should have been sent no later than Feb. 23.” Less than two hours after receiving Sligh’s note, Mr. Hopkins provided the documents but failed to explain the failure to abide by the law.
“This legal action is about much more than an arbitrary deadline or a technicality,” Rick Webb stated: “It’s about the McAuliffe administration’s respect for the rights of citizens trying to play their proper roles and protect their communities and natural resources. The law says a failure to properly respond to a FOIA request is the same as refusing the request outright. We won’t accept a refusal of our rights.”
New Layers Added to DPMC ACP map, including blast radius and evacuation zones
According to DPMC, additional map layers have been added to the ACP-Environmental Mapping System. Features include:
1) Estimated blast radius and evacuation zone for the proposed ACP.
2) Updated ACP construction corridor and access roads for the 10/30/15 and 4/15/16 submissions to FERC.
3) Direct and core forest loss associated with the proposed ACP construction corridor and access roads.
4) Virginia property parcels.
5) Stream crossings. (Information on crossing methods and environmental factors will be added).
The current version of the ACP-Environmental Mapping system can be accessed via the DPMC website, www.pipelineupdate.org. The link is in the right-hand sidebar.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016.
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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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Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC forced to adopt alternative route after U.S. Forest Service rejected recent proposal
By Michael Barrick
CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC (Atlantic) a subsidiary of Dominion Resources, Duke Energy, and others, has filed an alternate proposed route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) with the United States Forest Service (USFS). The new filing comes after the USFS in January rejected the initial proposal brought by Atlantic. Originally planned at about 550 miles, this alternative would bring the total closer to 600 miles, including over some of the most impenetrable mountainous terrain in the eastern United States.
As currently proposed, the ACP would originate near here in Harrison County, and terminate in southeastern North Carolina. Ultimate approval for the ACP will be up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
Once again, Dominion has proposed a route without thinking through or understanding the environmental and other consequences of its decision.” – Statement from Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance
However, ACP must first gain USFS approval because it wishes to build the pipeline through three national forests in West Virginia and Virginia – the Monongahela, the George Washington and the Jefferson. In rejecting ACP’s original proposal last month, and requiring that a new one be filed, the USFS said the route would cause harm to “ … highly sensitive resources, including Cheat Mountain salamanders, West Virginia northern flying squirrels, Cow Knob salamanders, and red spruce ecosystem restoration area.”
When submitting its alternative plan, Atlantic said, “The route will reduce total mileage in the national forests by more than one-third, from 28.8 miles to 18.5 miles.” It admitted, though, “The alternative route will impact approximately 249 new landowners in Randolph and Pocahontas counties in West Virginia, and Highland, Bath and Augusta counties in Virginia.”
It said also, “We are contacting landowners along the alternative route to request permission to survey their properties so the route can be thoroughly evaluated. Atlantic will submit a preliminary analysis of the route to the FERC next week, and plans to hold a series of public informational open houses along the route in early March.”
Opponents to the ACP, meanwhile, argue that the alternative proposal is no better, for numerous reasons.
Marilyn Shifflett of Free Nelson, in Nelson County, Va., said, “To have come forward with such a massive reroute so quickly after the USFS denied permit on the prior route speaks volumes about the lack of consideration for environmental impacts, and impacts to private property owners.” She continued, “The ACP’s new route is equally as devastating, if not more, than their prior route. A significant number of landowners have been impacted, with the hardest hit taken in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and Bath and Augusta counties in Virginia.”
Rick Webb of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, also based in Virginia, responded, “Dominion fails to recognize … that the real issue is construction of a major pipeline through the greatest concentration of remaining wild lands, pristine streams, and intact ecosystems in the central Appalachian region.”
Webb added, “Although the newly proposed route would reduce impacts to certain species that are emblematic of this wild landscape, Dominion’s alternate route still involves significant forest fragmentation and fails to avoid environmental harm associated with construction across steep mountains and complex karst valleys. Moreover, Dominion is now proposing to build the pipeline along a path that was initially rejected for being too challenging and hazardous.”
He continued, “The proposed ACP is unprecedented with respect to pipeline size and the level of disturbance that will be required. There is no acceptable route for the ACP through the central Appalachian region. The proposed pipeline will be 42 inches in diameter, requiring excavation of an 8- to 12-foot-deep trench and the bulldozing of a 125-foot-wide construction corridor straight up and down multiple steep-sided forested mountains. It will require construction of heavy-duty transport roads and staging areas for large earth-moving equipment and pipeline assembly. It will require blasting through bedrock, and excavation through streams and wetlands. It will require construction across unstable and hydrologically sensitive karst terrain.”
Argued Webb, “Pipeline construction on this scale, across this type of steep, well-watered, forested mountain landscape, is unprecedented. It will be impossible to avoid degradation of water resources, including heavy sedimentation of streams, alteration of runoff patterns and stream channels, disturbance of groundwater flow, and damage to springs and water supplies. It will be impossible to avoid fragmentation and degradation of intact, high-integrity forests, including habitat for threatened and endangered species and ecosystem restoration areas”
A statement issued by the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, also based in Virginia, noted, “The new alternative route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline … avoids Cheat and Shenandoah Mountains but compounds the ecological harm that would ensue. By directing the pipeline further south in Pocahontas County, W.Va., into northern Bath County, Va. and then north through the Deerfield Valley in Augusta County, the route would traverse some of the most concentrated karst topography in the Allegheny region. A pipeline through this area would significantly increase the likelihood of catastrophic erosion and sediment pollution of several significant waterways. Furthermore, the new route opens up to potential devastation a whole new set of cultural and natural resources. The many newly affected landowners and local officials must be carefully consulted before the project should be allowed to continue with the FERC process.”
The group added, “Once again, Dominion has proposed a route without thinking through or understanding the environmental and other consequences of its decision.”
Tom Berlin, a farmer in Lewis County, W.Va., said that he believes, in the end, the ACP will be approved. “I think they will keep finding alternatives until they get the opposition worn down and FERC may make them jump through a few more hoops. Eventually, governors, representatives, and senators will decide that they have had enough and pressure FERC and the Forest Service to approve the project. There is the pressure of appropriations to get compliance. I feel that ACP will be built and we can only hope to minimize damage and get the best possible deal for local landowners.”
Dianna Gooding, a farmer in Gilmer County, W.Va., which neighbors Lewis County , offered, “First, the proposed alternative I believe is the original route that was also opposed early on, and that it was decided that the terrain was too steep, too rocky etc., and disrupted too many landowners. The overall impact will be just as bad if not worse and will of course affect many more private landowners.” She shared also that while the Stonewall Gas Gathering line was being constructed last year, a supervisor with one of the involved companies said “… they had made plenty of mistakes, the terrain was something they had never worked in before, and they were flatlanders primarily. They had many, many issues, and the other companies were not knowledgeable either about building such large lines in the terrain. …”
Senior Attorney Greg Buppert with the Southern Environmental Law Center said, “Dominion has proposed a knee-jerk and ill-conceived adjustment to its favored route, rather than a solution that truly attempts to minimize the harm to this region. To prevent unnecessary impacts to our communities and environment, we must understand whether the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is truly needed to meet the regional demand for natural gas in light of the changes to existing pipelines that are already poised to bring more gas into Virginia,” He added, “The new route also raises fundamental questions of fairness. FERC must put the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on hold until the citizens of Bath County and other communities along the route have the same opportunities as others along the pipeline route to understand the project, evaluate its impacts, and make their voices heard.”
Ben Luckett, Staff Attorney with West Virginia-based Appalachian Mountain Advocates, stated, “This new route would still cause dramatic forest fragmentation through some of the most high-quality forest habitat in our region.” He added, “We’re disappointed Dominion would threaten a whole new set of Virginians and West Virginians when the pipeline is not even necessary to meet our energy needs.”
Concluded Shifflett, “Dominion will try to push this new route through quickly to maintain their construction schedule, and the FERC will likely not ask for a fair time frame for residents to respond, unless there is a massive public outcry. We need to continue our solidarity in West Virginia and Virginia to ensure that we are heard and a fair process is offered to every landowner.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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News conference at state capitol scheduled to demand clean and safe water, express solidarity with residents of Flint, Michigan
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A coalition of approxmiately 40 groups and individuals have scheduled a news conference on Tuesday, Feb. 9 at the state capitol here to focus attention on the importance of clean and safe water.
According to a news release from Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Gary Zuckett of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group, and Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the purpose of the news conference is, “To call on our elected officials and regulators to live up to their responsibility to protect our basic right of access to safe water – government failings that led to the 2014 West Virginia Water Crisis, and following crises in Toledo, Ohio; Sebring Ohio; and, Flint, Mich.” The groups pointed in particular to the public health crises and millions of dollars in costs borne by taxpayers caused by the various disasters.
The news conference is scheduled for 2 p.m. in the lower rotunda of the state capitol.
The release noted, “The West Virginia Legislature continues to roll back protections for our water supplies. The Public Service Commission may abandon its duty to investigate what went wrong, and what needs fixed. Our congressional members seek to block proposed federal water protections at every turn.”
It added, “With our letter of solidarity to the residents of Flint, Michigan from 38 West Virginia groups, we come together in solidarity with communities across this state and nation to remind decision makers that water is everyone’s priority. We need commitments to protect water supplies and upgrade water infrastructure, everywhere, and especially in communities home to low-income families or people of color.”
The news conference comes less than a month after an independent report blasted West Virginia American Water Company for not being prepared for a chemical spill that polluted water of 300,000 people living in the Kanawha Valley in January 2014. Among other recommendations, the report urges municipal takeover of the Charleston water system and other systems in the state owned by West Virginia American Water Company (WVAW).
Boston Action Research (BAR), a project of the Civil Society Institute (CSI) argued that privately owned WVAW has still not taken the necessary steps to prepare for a future crisis, hold down rates, avoid major service disruptions, and invest in aging infrastructure.
The root cause of these problems, according to the BAR report, is that WVAW is guided by a profit motive. According to the report, “WVAW pays a higher percentage of its profits in dividend payments to its parent corporation, American Water Company, than its subsidiaries in other states on average, which sends precious financial resources out of West Virginia that could otherwise be invested in the water system.” It concludes, “Given the ongoing shortcomings of WVAW … [t]he best course of action for West Virginians is to assume public ownership and operation (municipalization) of the Charleston regional water system.”
The Elk River Spill and other water-related issues will be addressed by the various speakers scheduled for the Feb. 9 news conference. Scheduled speakers and topics include:
- Natalie Thompson, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition: Welcome and introduction of speakers.
- Crystal Good, Affected citizen: Reading of the solidarity letter from West Virginians to the citizens of Flint, Michigan.
- Obi Henderson, Charleston resident: The call for water justice.
- Karan Ireland, Advocates for a Safe Water System: The need for full investigation of lessons learned from water crisis.
- Junior Walk, Coal River Mountain Watch: Growing up in West Virginia with poisoned water.
- Angie Rosser, West Virginia Rivers Coalition: Current legislation rolling back water protections.
- Gary Zuckett, West Virginia Citizen Action Group: Closing and Q&A.
The group is also are alerting citizens to a scheduled meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources on at 4:30 p.m. in the House Chamber to review the recommendations of the Public Water System Supply Study Commission.
Involved Groups and Individuals
Advocates for a Safe Water System / American Friends Service Committee / Appalachian Catholic Worker / Catholic Committee of Appalachia (WV Chapter) / Charleston WV Branch NAACP / Christians For The Mountains / Coal River Mountain Watch / Concerned Citizens of Roane County / Covenant House of West Virginia / Doddridge County Watershed Association / Friends of Water / Greenbrier River Watershed Association / Huntington-Cabell Branch of the NAACP / Kanawha Forest Coalition / Keeper of the Mountains / MelRose Ministries for Positive Transformative Change / Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance / Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition / People Concerned About Chemical Safety /Plateau Action Network / POWHR (Preserve Our Water, Heritage, Rights) / Preserve Greenbrier / Preserve Monroe / RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountains’ and People’s Survival) / Stories From South Central, WV / Southern Appalachian Labor School / South Central Educational Development, Inc. / West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy / West Virginia Chapter of Sierra Club / West Virginia Citizen Action Group / West Virginia Clean Water Hub / West Virginia Direct Action Welfare Group / West Virginia Environmental Council / West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition / West Virginia Interfaith Power and Light / WV FREE (West Virginia Focus: Reproductive Education and Equality) / West Virginia Chapter, NAACP / West Virginia Rivers Coalition and these individuals: Crystal Good @cgoodwoman / Ellen Allen and Sue Julian / Helen Gibbins / Karan Ireland / Maya Nye / Paula Swearengin / Shirley Rosenbaum.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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Two years after the Elk River spill, cronyism and mediocrity is rampant at state and local levels
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – While my primary vocation is writing, I’ve been fortunate to live long enough to try my hand at a few other professions, including disaster management. In the process of working in that field, I worked as a paramedic many, many years ago, and then returned to the field, earning a post-graduate certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. I also worked as emergency preparedness coordinator for a total of about seven years for two hospitals. From July 2013 to January 2015, I worked at a hospital in central West Virginia.
While there, it was incumbent upon me to establish relationships not only in the hospital, but in the community and indeed all of West Virginia with my peers in the field. That I did. It did not take long to figure out that in the community where I was working, and at the state level, disaster preparedness was just not a priority. Our Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) meetings became known as “eatings,” not meetings, because we would fly through the exact same agenda every month without doing much of anything to address the many hazards facing our community.
In the meantime, workers were coming to our emergency department (ED) from the fracking fields. They arrived reeking of chemicals, but with no MSDS sheets. When a supervisor would finally appear, he could not provide an MSDS sheet and said that he didn’t even know what was in the fluid covering the worker, but would add, “It is safe.” Of course, that was why workers would show up in the ED with burning eyes and skin, breathing problems, and other symptoms – the fracking fluid was safe.
Seeing immediately through this BS, I understood that this was an issue for the LEPC to address with the energy extraction industry. It would not. Finally, when an energy company needed to inform us about coming pipeline construction, they were included on the agenda. Seeing the agenda in advance, I immediately sent an email to the chair, asking that the meeting be publicized, as many in the community were already expressing concern about the dangers related to fracking. He refused. When I reminded him it was a public meeting, he replied that he didn’t want the public present. He did not want the gas company upset. Plus, he added, he didn’t have enough food ordered for the public (reinforcing the idea that these were just “eatings” paid for by tax money).
I attended the meeting, and after the company’s PR, sanitized presentation, asked for a copy of it. At first, they refused. When I pointed out it was public information because it was presented in a public forum, they conceded. (This moment, by the way, is when the journalist in me kicked in again. I have never quit researching it and writing about it, and indeed finally quit the hospital so that I could write about it full time). When a company does not want the public to know what it has a right to know, I know nefarious forces are at work and must be challenged.
The point had been made at that LEPC meeting. Emergency planners and company officials were entirely too cozy with each other, and the public was not to be trusted with hearing what we were hearing. It was a display of arrogance combined with mediocrity that can – and in time, will – prove deadly for any community.
So, I decided to visit Charleston and talk to emergency preparedness officials there to find out if this experience was the exception or the rule. And I wanted to meet the people who could, ostensibly, improve the situation.
To put it mildly, I was sorely disappointed. With the exception of one official who works in the state capitol building for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, my questions and concerns fell on deaf ears. As knowledgeable and helpful as the state official was, his hands were tied. He did provide a refresher course on “the Charleston way” for this West Virginia native that had been out of state a good while.
He shared a few lessons. The state’s elected officials are owned by the energy extraction industry and any attempt to challenge the industry in my community, through the local LEPC, was fruitless. He shared also that West Virginia continues to experience a brain drain of young people, as evidenced by the ages of those sitting around that LEPC meeting. And, as I had already figured out for myself, there are some serious structural problems with the way the emergency preparedness, public health and environmental agencies are organized in West Virginia, creating a serious lack of communication among and between emergency preparedness officials.
Then the Elk River spill occurred in January 2014. Shortly after that, the West Virginia Hospital Association had its annual “Visit the legislature” day. I took the opportunity to go down to Charleston a day in advance to visit with every legislator I could reach. I also visited the governor’s office to leave a letter for him.
I boldly – and likely naively – dared to suggest a few legislative fixes to every delegate and senator that would give me five minutes. I also left a letter for every legislator I could not meet.
I began by telling them that the contamination of the Elk River by the coal-mining cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol was preventable. I acknowledged that it was true that much analysis remained to be done, with an official report at least months away (as it turns out, it took the state a year to issue a report of nearly 800 pages that was mostly fluff). I shared that while a review was just getting started that there was already overwhelming evidence that numerous opportunities were missed to prevent this event from happening.
In short, I shared that the official report – known as an After Action Report (AAR) – would identify clear causes and offer corrective actions, if done properly. However, I warned, those recommendations would be meaningless unless and until the root causes which created the environment that allowed the incident to occur were addressed.
These root causes include inadequate mitigation efforts, lack of coalition building and communications, and bureaucratic gaps and overlaps. These constitute core challenges to emergency response efforts in West Virginia. Consequently, these must be addressed by the governor and legislature before the people of West Virginia can be confident that no stone is going unturned in identifying and preparing for any and all risks that threaten their life and safety.
Presently, that is simply not the case. True, there are scores of dedicated and competent individuals working within the various agencies and organizations that are responsible for responding to emergencies and disasters in West Virginia. That is all the more reason that these core challenges must be addressed. It is simply irresponsible and unacceptable that policy-makers fail to do all they can to equip and protect those charged with being the first at a disaster scene, not to mention the public they serve.
The first core challenge is the lack of mitigation activities. Mitigation – the first of four phases of emergency management – can do the most to reduce mortality and morbidity, because it will prevent the disaster in the first place. Yet, it is the most ignored stage of emergency planning due to political inertia, cost, the complexity of mitigation plans, and the public’s unwillingness to participate in or pay for mitigation. West Virginians have experienced firsthand, for too long, the consequences of ignoring mitigation efforts. The Sago and Upper Big Branch coal mine disasters are clear examples of this. The ignored dangers of Mountaintop Removal prove this. Finally, natural gas fracking presents potential threats that are well documented. Indeed, a gas company executive confided to me, “We have invented technology beyond our understanding of its impact.”
The second core challenge is a lack of coalition building and communications among and between emergency response agencies. Throughout West Virginia, LEPCs vary greatly in their readiness for community disasters. Some are well-run, such as the Kanawha-Putnam LEPC; others, such as in Barbour County, have been inactive for years. Also, statewide communication systems are inconsistent, inadequate and rarely interoperable.
The third core challenge is the startling gaps and overlaps in key emergency management sectors. Hospital regions, emergency management regions and public health regions all encompass different counties. In short, an emergency manager wanting to establish strong coalitions with colleagues will find such efforts unnecessarily burdensome. For instance, an emergency manager in Lewis County will find himself or herself working with colleagues in 10 counties in the West Virginia Homeland Security region. The Public Health region serving the county also includes 10 counties, but four of them are different than the Homeland Security region. Finally, the West Virginia hospital region in which Lewis County is located includes 14 counties, seven of which are not in the Homeland Security region. So, all told, the emergency manager based in Lewis County must be intimately familiar with colleagues in at least 17 of the state’s 55 counties. From a planning perspective, this is a nightmare.
So, this preventable event requires not only close scrutiny by lawmakers, but quick, clear and decisive action.
The following steps would go a long way towards achieving such action. First, the governor and legislative leaders must revisit the state’s AAR. It must be truly comprehensive and transparent. Corrective actions must be implemented without hesitation or fail. Higher fees for licensing and violations must be established. Stronger laws must be passed. Emergency response regions must be aligned to eliminate the gaps and overlaps. Penalties – such as eliminating grants – must be implemented for LEPCs that are not functioning as designed.
These are short-term solutions that are relatively easy to implement if lawmakers have the will to do so. They do not. In fact, though the 2014 legislature passed one law in response to the spill – the West Virginia Above Ground Storage Tank law – the new GOP-led legislature rolled back many of its provisions in 2015.
So, heavy lifting remains. Policy makers must make mitigation a priority. Only then will we stop the knee-jerk response and recovery operations. Additionally, the legislature should reward best practices and develop measures for effective coalition building and collaboration.
Will any of this occur? Not in the present political climate. West Virginia’s elected officials have been kicking the proverbial can down the road for decades, as is evidenced by our repeated and avoidable disasters. As is the state’s history, profit trumps people. Again. Always.
© Michael Barrick, 2016.
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