Category Archives: Labor & Wealth

The Power behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Corporate Sway, Conflicts of Interest, and Revolving Doors

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The powerful forces pushing a controversial pipeline proposed for West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina include Dominion Energy and its influential CEO Tom Farrell, state politicians that are top recipients of Dominion donations, and an army of revolving door lobbyists, including a former EPA official, according to a new report.

The report, from the nonprofit watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative, examines corporate influence, political donations, revolving door lobbyists, regulatory conflicts, and the banks behind the controversial proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. It is the third in a series that examines the power relations behind a range of controversial pipeline projects in the United States.

Money

The most powerful backer of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is Dominion Energy, an energy utilities company that has vast influence within Virginia and is one of the state’s biggest political donors. Dominion CEO Tom Farrell sits on multiple influential boards, has powerful family connections, and is one of the state’s biggest individual political donors.

Some of the most vocal supporters of the pipeline within Virginia politics have been the biggest recipients of Dominion donations. Dominion also has an army of revolving door lobbyists that have pushed politicians and regulatory agencies to support the pipeline. One of these lobbyists includes a former Environmental Protect Agency official, now working for Dominion.

It’s important that the public is aware of the power behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which includes a company that gives millions to state politicians and hires lobbyists with ties to elected officials and regulatory bodies.” – Derek Seidman

“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been widely unpopular with residents in Virginia and elsewhere who stand to be impacted by it,” said Derek Seidman, a research analyst at PAI and author of the report. “It’s important that the public is aware of the power behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which includes a company that gives millions to state politicians and hires lobbyists with ties to elected officials and regulatory bodies.”

Va DEQThere are other troubling signs of conflicts of interest and revolving door politics surrounding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Key members of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, who must review the pipeline proposal and make recommendations regarding its approval, have accepted gifts from Dominion personally or through their organizations, and one director appears to have previously represented Dominion as an attorney. Regulatory agency staff sit on multiple boards with members of Dominion management. Dominion’s CEO and Senior Vice President of Sustainability also served nearly eight years as Director of the Air Division of the Virginia DEQ.

“It’s worrying that the entities that must approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have ties to Dominion,” said Seidman. “With such a controversial project that could put nature and so many people at risk, there really needs to be more transparency and accountability behind regulatory efforts.”

The report also highlights the nearly three dozen banks who are lending to Dominion and Duke Energy, and who may profit off of the pipeline. Eighteen banks are lending to both of the corporations, and all but two of these banks are also helping to fund the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. Duke Energy, the powerful North Carolina-based energy corporation, is the pipeline’s second biggest stakeholder.

To read the full report, go to: http://public-accountability.org/2017/06/the-power-behind-the-pipelines-atlantic-coast-pipeline/

(Courtesy Submission)

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Don Blankenship Got by with Murder

His shameless contempt for working people is business as usual in West Virginia

By Michael M. Barrick

I was with my uncle once when he was appealing a local property tax assessment. He was told that he had the right to appeal, but that the appeals board could, if it wanted, actually raise his taxes if they deemed it appropriate. They could also uphold it, or reduce it, but that initial caveat was enough to give pause.

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Don Blankenship (Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s too bad that isn’t the scenario faced by Don Blankenship as he appeals his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court for conspiring to violate mine safety laws. He just recently completed his paltry one-year prison sentence for that conviction, which was based on charges after 29 coal miners were killed at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, which at the time was owned by Massey Energy. Blankenship was its CEO and court testimony revealed that he was intimately involved in the conscious efforts to violate mine safety standards – violations that eventually led to the explosion that killed the UBB miners. These facts were supported by the “Report to the Governor” by the Governor’s Independent Investigative Panel. It characterized the April 5, 2010, explosion: as “ … a failure of basic coal mine safety practices.”

So, if there was justice in this country, Blankenship could appeal, but would face these options, as did my uncle:

  1. Conviction upheld
  2. Conviction overturned
  3. Conviction upheld, and the judges rule that the one-year sentence was a perversion of justice and that Blankenship is to immediately be returned to prison for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately only the first two options are available. So, the families of those killed at UBB are again subjected to another news cycle of Don Blankenship pretending he is not only innocent, but as he wrote in his little pamphlet after his conviction, “An American Political Prisoner.”

Meanwhile, surviving family members of the UBB tragedy are unwilling prisoners to the memories of their lost loved ones, for that and photographs is all that is left of them.

This, sadly, is too typical of the stories out of West Virginia. Don Blankenship got by with murder. His self-published book is infuriating; his continuing denials and appeals nauseating.

The state of West Virginia is the poster child for the horribly negative effects upon working class people by crony capitalists. This is not news. Sadly, to a large extent, the people of the Mountain State have brought this upon ourselves. We elect people to office who not only refuse to ensure proper laws and regulations are in place to protect miners and all of the state’s workers, but also instead roll them back.

The discovery of coal, gas and oil throughout the state in the 19th century led to an unholy alliance among industrialists and politicians; to this day, it continues to subjugate the people of West Virginia for its own personal profit. The judiciary is next to useless, as it is full of minions financed by – you guessed it – Blankenship. The new governor, Jim Justice, not only has a record of ignoring and delaying payment of fines for his own mining operations, he is the state’s richest man. He talks the game, but his record suggests that his preferential concern is for his cronies, not his constituents.

wv-dep-logoMeanwhile, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is known throughout the state as the “Department of Everything Permitted.” And, that was before Justice purged it of previous top officials who were constantly criticized by environmental and public health advocates. In comparative hindsight, they were true champions of the people. So, despite the evidence of extreme threats to public health and the environment, Mountaintop Removal permits are rubber-stamped by DEP, despite the best efforts of citizens and environmental groups such as Coal Mountain Watch, OVEC, and countless others.

Meanwhile, anyone attending the various meetings for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline has witnessed the collusion among industry, politicians and law enforcement, in scenes reminiscent of the West Virginia Mine Wars when private detectives and local cops worked for the coal companies. At one meeting in Jackson’s Mill in 2014, I saw several hundred residents – some who had driven more than two hours over the state’s winding roads – leave in total disgust. They saw that the cards had been stacked against them before they walked through the door. What had been billed by industry officials as a “town hall” was really an opportunity to spew forth propaganda. They aligned themselves as if at a trade show. There was absolutely no opportunity for citizens to ask questions in a public forum that would have allowed for give-and-take. The gas company knows how to silence citizens. But just in case they failed, standing outside were several county deputies dressed in full riot gear.

The message was delivered loud and clear: We’re in charge, this is a show, and there is nothing you can do about it.

It is this absolute control of West Virginia’s economy and political system by the fossil fuel industry that allows them to be disdainful of the people of West Virginia – and to cause Don Blankenship to delude himself into thinking he’s a political prisoner. The truth is, he is simply another fat cat conducting business as usual in West Virginia, and getting by with murder in the process.

State seal_old goldWest Virginia’s state motto is “Mountaineers Are Always Free.”

Well, we aren’t. In fact, it is we, not Don Blankenship, which are the political prisoners. If only we had the fight in us that Blankenship has. How long will we be prostrate at the feet of the likes of Blankenship?

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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To receive a PDF of the Governor’s Independent Investigative Panel on the UBB disaster, send an email to michaelbarrick56@gmail.com

Pipeline Proposal Raises Questions that Beg for Answers

Just three days remain to submit comments to FERC about the ACP

By April Pierson-Keating

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – The comment period on the 42” Atlantic Coast Pipeline comes to a close this Thursday. Anyone who made comments during the pre-filing period MUST submit those comments again, since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has essentially tossed those into a pile of “old business.”

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Meathouse Fork in Doddridge County with heavy sediment resulting from the Stonewall Momentum pipeline construction in the summer of 2015. This would be the fate of thousands of miles of watershed should the ACP be built. Photo by Michael M. Barrick

If you are a landowner, you may have already commented. If you are not a landowner along the route, perhaps you are an abutter (one next to property on the pipeline). If you are neither of these things, perhaps you are still concerned about threats to water, safety, and public health, or future economic development. All of these are valid concerns. You should write to the FERC.

Abutters will face most of the same risks as affected landowners, without the offers of money for the use of their property – water contamination, stream degradation, soil contamination, danger of fire or explosion, lowered property value among them. You have a right to have your concerns heard.

Even those not directly abutting could be negatively affected. The incineration zone is 3600 feet from the pipeline center. Our high school sits within the incineration zone, as does our state police barracks.

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A convoy of fracking industry gas trucks rumble through downtown Weston, W.Va. at lunchtime. Photo by Michael M. Barrick

The evacuation zone a pipeline this size is 2 miles.  If you are wondering if your property is in the evacuation zone, you can consult the GIS layered maps at http://www.pipelineupdate.org. Does your community have an evacuation plan? If not, you might consider asking your county commission, local emergency planning commission, or office of emergency management to develop one. Better yet, consider joining one of these organizations, or even creating a planning commission in your community to address issues that are receiving short shrift.

This project has many more costs than benefits, though you may have only heard about the benefits. Some of the drawbacks include millions in foregone economic development (who wants to start a small business in an incineration zone?), reduced property value (try selling your house when you tell prospective buyers they may be caught in a gas fire), and stream degradation (siltation during construction kills stream life). We have seen this happen with the Stonewall-Momentum gathering line.

The 75-foot permanent easement will be sprayed with herbicides that will runoff into streams, and you can’t put anything but a flower garden on it. The 42” monstrosity will cross the Buckhannon River, our water source, and tributaries nine times, and cross over miles of underground mines.

The pipeline is buried only feet below the surface, but how far below our streams will it be built? This question has been posed to Dominion by city officials and has yet to be answered. Will it be deep enough to protect the stream bed from going under, or will it be deep enough to connect with underground mines? Either way, our drinking water source is at risk.

What about jobs? Looking at the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for this project (bear in mind this is info given to the FERC by Dominion) there could be 384 temporary jobs and only 22 permanent jobs. What is temporary? The DEIS says the work tours will be 6-12 weeks long. Is it worth risking our water, safety, public health for a few temporary jobs?

How many employees will be locally hired? Not many, if you consider what happened with the Stonewall Momentum gathering line. Very few will be from West Virginia; most of them will be from the south and west. Skilled workers are moved from site to site, not hired locally.

Who will pay for the $5billion project? Why, the ratepayers, of course, in the form of higher energy rates. Will it provide gas to our area? Nope. All of it is being sent out of state and offshore, so the companies owning it can make money selling it on the world market (where the going rate is higher than domestic). When that happens, our energy prices will rise.

What about tax revenue? Whatever money might come from this project will go to the state coffers, and they will dole it out as they please. Will it go for roads, schools, and other community projects? That is anyone’s guess, but the company has no stated plans to pay for roads or loss of life or property. The fact that they are a limited liability corporation means they won’t be liable for damages.

Don’t take my word for it; have a look at the DEIS yourself: https://www.ferc.gov/industries/gas/enviro/eis/2016/12-30-16-DEIS.asp

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In this standard operating procedure for the natural gas industry, pipeline construction passed within 100 feet of this home in Big Issac, W.Va., creating a permanent safety risk and a long season of no sleep for residents during construction. The stream nearby was also compromised. Photo by Michael M. Barrick

This project would have about 1,000 miles of access roads, effectively tripling its length. It will cross almost 2,000 waterways and affect the delicate Karst cavern and water filtration system. Moreover, we know that fracking is going to increase as soon as these projects get their certificate from the FERC. And we know what this means for our region: more water consumed, toxified, and injected, causing earthquakes, water and air contamination, and an exacerbated health crisis.

New York and Maryland have banned fracking. Have they done this because they want to live in the dark ages again? No, it is because they have looked at the evidence and wish to protect their communities. Surely, they want to develop energy and create jobs, but in a healthy, ethical, and sustainable way.

The only way to protect our water, safety, and public health and provide safe jobs is to invest in other types of energy – clean, green energy. Solar power provided more jobs in 2015 than coal, oil and gas combined. Companies like Coalfield Development Corporation are using federal dollars from programs like the Power Plus Plan to train former coalfield workers to do the new jobs that are part of a sustainable future: installing solar panels, sustainable construction, reclamation and remediation are just the tip of the iceberg. Talk about providing jobs – there it is! And guess what – we don’t have to live in the dark.

The deadline for comments is April 6 at 4:59p.m. Comments can be submitted on paper or electronically, at www.ferc.gov. Search for 556-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, click on the link for the DEIS, and choose the docket # for the project you wish to comment upon. Most people use the pipeline itself (CP15-554), but the 37-mile Supply Header Project in Marshall, Wetzel, and Doddridge are also part of the picture.

© April Pierson-Keating, 2017. Pierson-Keating is with the Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance. To view their gallery of photos from pipeline construction and fracking operations, visit here.

Why People Deny Global Warming Clues

Five reasons why people refuse to accept global warming

By S. Tom Bond

When 97 percent of the scientists (that is, the people that are trained to study the problem) agree that global warming is happening and will continue to happen, why do people deny it is going on? As the poet says, “Let me count (some of) the ways.”

Clues of climate change NASA

Clues of Climate Change – NASA

Reliance on the mainstream media

Many simply follow the news. With its “On the one hand, and then on the other hand” approach to coverage (to avoid driving off advertisers and readers), the mainstream media do not adequately report the facts that are substantiated by scientific research. Reporting on science takes a special type of reporter, as well as producers and editors with patience and understanding. Lacking those, as we do, the facts get lost in the “she-said, he-said” approach. The facts are indisputable however: melting glaciers, decline of arctic ice, average world temperatures rising year after year, range inhabited by many species moving north, changes in weather, melting permafrost, famine, and drought among the obvious symptoms of global warming.

Refusal to accept new ideas

Many folks don’t have a view that extends beyond their home, job and family. They have difficulty accepting a new paradigm, and new framework of understanding.”

Even when the news about global warming is reported fully and accurately, there is still the problem of humanity’s tendency to resist change. Many people are unwilling to accept new ideas. Many folks don’t have a view that extends beyond their home, job and family. They have difficulty accepting a new paradigm, and new framework of understanding.

One thinks of the change when the earth was thought flat, then was recognized to be a very large sphere, or when the sun was thought to cross the earth, then it was recognized the earth went around the sun. When new ideas are incorporated into the public discourse, it takes a while for most folks to adapt. Today there are a few people dedicated to older ideas, such as the earth is cooling, or that a warming earth produces higher carbon dioxide content in the earth’s atmosphere, rather than the other way around. If someone has ideas based on earlier science, it may be hard to accept global warming.

Religious dogma

Some think God wouldn’t allow global warming. It is his creation and it will end in fire when He is good and ready. Global warming – ironically – does not fit their apocalyptic vision. Don’t argue with them.

Greed

Perhaps the most basic cause of global warming is as old as mankind: cupidity. The petroleum industry is an elite sector because of its wealth, which purchases political power. What it covets, it gets – all while it spends billions on advertising to implicitly and explicitly discredit global warming and those studying it. There is extensive information on situations where the business elite have interests that gives them an advantage that is contrary to the long-term interest of the society. The business elite persists until the society no longer has some resource it needs to continue, so it crashes. One of the most famous of these is the deforestation of Easter Island, which caused a population crash and an abrupt change in culture.

… all of us need to recognize our limitations and trust experts.”

Of course, training in a science does little to help in business. So this peculiarity of omission of understanding of other areas is not one-sided. My point is that all of us need to recognize our limitations and trust experts. It must be a much greater temptation for a businessman with millions at his disposal to ignore or deny science that will hinder his success than for a scientist with almost no disposable wealth to ignore business ideas opposed to his success. But the future of the earth depends on future climate, not someone’s ego or financial success. That future should be determined by those with data and training who take time to think about it.

City Climate Change NASA

NASA Graphic

Modern society’s disconnect from the land

Finally, there is another reason that is a bit abstruse, but vital. This is the separation of modern man from the biological world of which he is a part. Primitive man was close to his environment. Getting food was a daily preoccupation. If times were good, this took two or three hours a day. If times were bad, 24 hours weren’t enough. He/she was subject to danger from animals, floods, droughts, disease, the next village over and much other uncertainty. Everything including trees, rocks, or storms had a spirit. Many of these had to be appeased. But this religion was his connection to survival.

… our industry is so linked together and powerful it is possible to destroy civilization. The supremacist attitude toward the biological world is that our environment is not viable. This is not sustainable.”

Domination of earth and nature became a way of life. Increasingly, urban man became separated from the biological world from which he came. Dominion over others became increasingly important. And man was dominant over things, apparently supreme. That included the biological world, reverence for which was eliminated from his culture and religion.

Now the whole earth is occupied, and our industry is so linked together and powerful it is possible to destroy civilization. The supremacist attitude toward the biological world is that our environment is not viable. This is not sustainable. To avoid planetary destruction because of global warming, atomic warfare, over population, or resource exhaustion seems like an insurmountable problem. Ignoring these threats to our survival, though, will only work to ensure that the unthinkable becomes reality.

Conclusion

These are but a few of the reasons that we refuse to acknowledge – let alone tackle – the existential threat from global warming. It has been said that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.

Well, the facts are in. We have a rational understanding of our natural world; we know how we are negatively impacting it; and, we have debated and adopted plans to reverse global warming. We simply choose to ignore them. That won’t make them go away. However, the same can’t be said for human life – or life in any form – if we continue to argue over facts as if they are opinions.

CO2 levels

© S. Tom Bond, 2017. Thomas Bond is an eighth generation West Virginian writing from his farm in Jane Lew, W.Va. He is a farmer and retired chemistry professor. Michael Barrick contributed to this article.  

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Climate Change info from NASA here.

A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change

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N.C. Craft Beer Industry Needs Room to Grow

Libertarian Party supports legislation that would benefit craft breweries and economic diversity in Appalachian region of North Carolina

Beer 1.jpg

By David Ulmer

RALEIGH – Most people believe if you start your own business, work hard and build it into something, you should have the right to reap the rewards. That is the American dream. However, in North Carolina some local brewers are being denied that right.

North Carolina has a prosperous and booming craft brewery industry. This economic boon was the direct result of a grassroots effort ten years ago called “Pop-the-Cap.” The reform lifted unnecessary rules and regulations on the craft brewers. It allowed the free-market to respond.

Dozens of hard working entrepreneurs started making local beer for consumers across the state. They brought in $1.2 million dollars and created more than 10,000 jobs, according to N.C. Craft Brewers Guild estimates. State community colleges even have programs to prepare young people to work in this fast growing industry.

For some politicians and special interests groups, success is a problem. Large, established distributors, with government-granted monopolies on transporting alcoholic products, lobbied for laws requiring any brewery producing more than 25,000 barrels per year to use their services. Distributors then gain total control over where craft beers may be sold.

Distributors want government to give them a cut of a business they didn’t help build.

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Now, 25,000 barrels sounds like a lot of beer, but it isn’t. Local Breweries like Olde Mecklenburg, NoDa and Red Oak are now producing near this cap. These successful local businesses have to decide whether to keep growing – and hand over 30 percent of their revenue to someone else – or remain small.

Using government to force one business to give up the fruits of their labor to another strikes most people in North Carolina as just flat wrong. Distributors do serve a role in our beer industry, but craft breweries should only rely on them voluntarily. Amazon chooses to use FedEx or UPS, but the government doesn’t tell them who should deliver their orders. Some states, notably California and Colorado, don’t have a barrel limit. It should be no surprise that the brewers who have gone national like Sierra Nevada are based in these states.

Using government to force one business to give up the fruits of their labor to another strikes most people in North Carolina as just flat wrong.”

This isn’t a complicated or socially divisive issue. There’s simply no reason the law should lock craft breweries into relationships with distributors. We can’t allow special interests and big beer industry players based in places like Belgium to keep our local North Carolina beer industry from growing. Local businesses want to expand their sales forces and distribution networks to meet the demand they are seeing for their product across the state. Why shouldn’t they?

House Bill 67 would raise the barrel limit from 25,000 to 100,000 barrels. It’s supported by Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians. This is at least an improvement.

But the beer and wine lobby stands in the way. Distributors in North Carolina cling to a business model dependent on using government and politicians to keep their businesses profitable. The opponents of HB 67 won’t get out of the way until the people of North Carolina make it clear we still believe in the American dream.

Free Beer 1

How can you help? Go to CraftFreedom.org and sign their petition, and like their Facebook page. Let your representatives in the General Assembly know how you feel. And the next time you are in your favorite watering hole, tell the owner or manager that you support craft beer and ask them what they are doing to help.

The Libertarian Party of North Carolina supports passage of HB 67 and the efforts of CraftFreedom.org to maintain control over the businesses they built.

David Ulmer has worked in the Wake information technology sector since 2000, and is a craft beer aficionado. He was the 2016 Libertarian candidate for state House 49.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest editorial. We welcome diverse points-of-view on any manner of topics so long as they are expressed in a civil manner that is suitable for a family publication, is relevant to our audience, and does not require extensive editing. Publication does not imply endorsement. We reserve the right to refuse publication of submissions.

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Ken Hechler, an Inspirational Mountaineer

His life of service to West Virginia is an inspiration for all those seeking justice

By Janet Keating 

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Ken Hechler, front, at a rally to end mountaintop removal outside the headquarters of Massey Energy. Photo by Vivian Stockman.

SLANESVILLE, W.Va. – West Virginia and the nation has lost a true hero and people’s champion. Former Congressman Ken Hechler died at his home in Slanesville on Dec. 10. He was 102.

There are politicians, public servants and then there was Ken Hechler, a man in a class all of his own – military man, historian, educator, politician, activist and, my personal favorite, “hell raiser.” Those who knew him are familiar with his uncompromising commitment to justice and the betterment of all people in West Virginia, but especially for his advocacy of the health and safety of our nation’s coal miners. OVEC (Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition) members may know him best for his passion for democracy and our iconic mountains. As a lifetime member of OVEC, Ken was often a speaker at rallies to end mountaintop removal where he sang  “Almost Level, West Virginia” his parody of the popular John Denver song, “Almost Heaven, West Virginia.”

I came to know Ken in the late 80s during my first-ever plunge into environmental issues as a member of the Huntington Tri-State Audubon Society – working to “save” the Green Bottom wetlands, the third largest wetlands in West Virginia near Huntington, where the pre-Civil War home of General Albert Gallatin Jenkins still stands.  Ken, as a Jenkin’s historian and then Secretary of State of West Virginia, was familiar with Jenkin’s history and so joined with our coalition urging the state and federal government to consider managing the former plantation home, its wetlands and its significant Native American archaeology for a higher use beyond simply a hunting ground.  Not surprisingly, the media portrayed the issue as hunting vs non-hunting (though some folks were very concerned about birds of prey which frequented the area like Bald Eagles as well as the historic Jenkin’s home).

After several years of butting heads with both state and federal agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to hold a public hearing where Ken and others faced off.  Despite a room full of several hundred angry, shouting hunters, Ken stood his ground and voiced his concerns. In the end, a reasonable compromise was reached where the wetlands were expanded, the Jenkin’s home underwent renovations (and was managed for a brief time by West Virginia Division of Culture and History), signs were posted to alert hunters to the presence of protected birds of prey and native species were planted to provide wildlife habitat. Undoubtedly, Ken’s involvement garnered greater media attention and raised public awareness to the issue, than we otherwise would have had, a valuable contribution.  Presently, Green Bottom Wildlife Management Area has become a well-known location for bird watching and hunting, although the Jenkin’s home, despite the millions spent on its overhaul, is boarded up and no longer open to the public. Nevertheless, every time I visit Green Bottom, I am thankful that Ken lent his time, energy and “notoriety” to this unique site.

When the issue of mountaintop removal reared its ugly head, Dr. Hechler eagerly joined with community members and environmental activists hoping to end the destructive mining technique.  He was a member of Congress during the catastrophic failure of the Buffalo Creek sludge-dam in 1972 that killed 125 West Virginians, a tragedy which eventually led to the passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act in 1977 (SMCRA).  This bill, however, continues to be a failed attempt by the state and federal government to regulate surface mining by the coal industry. Ken was greatly concerned when the final version of the bill legitimized mountaintop removal (MTR) which was supposed to be an exception rather than the rule when it came to strip-mining; MTR was only to be used when a flattened mountain provided land for authentic economic development. While coal companies by law are supposed to return the former mountains to “approximate original contour,” unfortunately, states regularly issue permits with variances to that provision. As it turns out, Ken foresaw the destruction that would follow the passage of SMCRA – hundreds of thousands of acres of denuded, flattened mountains along with more than 2,000 miles of annihilated streams and disappeared communities. A favorite phase of Ken’s, “Akin to putting lipstick on a corpse,” was how he referred to strip-mine reclamation.

A notable event in Ken’s effort to stop MTR was his participation in 1999, while WV Secretary of State, in a re-enactment of the historic Miners’ March on Blair Mountain that preceded the 1921 Mine Wars.  In 1997, the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection had issued what would have been the largest ever mountaintop removal permit in the state.  At risk were not only the mountains and the small community of Blair, but also one of the most historic labor/history sites in the nation, where about 7,000 miners determined to organize a union were met with great resistance and after five days, halted by 3,000 armed “militiamen” organized by Logan County Sheriff Don Chaffin. This was the largest battle on U.S. soil since the Civil War where eventually the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Air Corps were called in.

A courageous Dr. Hechler, 84 at the time, joined the reenactment with a number of others (OVEC’s Laura Forman, Carol Jackson, CRMW’s Judy Bonds, Larry Gibson, Jimmy Weekly, and Cindy Rank to name a few) supported by several organizations including OVEC.  For many people, the application and issuance of a mountaintop removal permit at historic Blair Mountain, which could literally erase the dark history of mining, underscored the sheer arrogance of coal companies as well as the complicity of government agencies. While the reenactors were not met with guns and soldiers, they were, however, harassed every day by miners and others who pelted them with eggs, and much to everyone’s horror, also shoved and kicked Ken.

From a story about the confrontation during the re-enactment by reporter Rick Steelhammer, Ken stated: “I tried to think about Gandhi and Martin Luther King and how they would react. It’s important to retain your cool, but it’s difficult when people begin to wade in and rip up all your signs, throw eggs at the back of your head, grab away your West Virginia flag, and trip and kick you.”

That incident led to warrants and arrests of those who committed violence and eventually landed some people in court, though not in jail.  One of the Logan County perpetrators of the harassment eventually ended up serving in Governor Bob Wise’s administration.  I still smile when I think about Ken holding a sign at a protest that said:  “Kick me and get a job with Bob Wise.” And recently, the D.C. District court upheld the U.S. EPA’s decision to rescind the permit for mountaintop removal on Blair Mountain, another people’s victory in which Ken participated in a major way.

Ken Hechler’s legacy though far-reaching (and incalculable) was also at times very personal.  In particular, his influence on Larry Gibson, another mountain hero, was very special. Ken often traveled with Larry to colleges and universities throughout the country to talk about the impacts of mountaintop removal on land and people of Central Appalachia. Because of Ken’s encouragement, Larry went back to school to improve his reading and writing skills. Having become quite a duo, both Ken and Larry were interviewed by “60 Minute’s” Mike Wallace, who came to West Virginia to produce a segment on mountaintop removal.

Through nearly two decades, Dr. Hechler, admired by so many, continued to answer the call, showing up at events, protests and rallies – the most notable one, a rally and protest at the Marsh Fork Elementary School, in Raleigh County, where he, along with actress Daryl Hannah and NASA climate scientist, James Hansen, were arrested in a non-violent, direct action to draw attention to the great need for a new elementary school.  A massive and dangerous coal waste impoundment loomed above Marsh Fork Elementary School adjacent to a coal silo, a coal processing facility and a mountaintop removal site. Coal River Mountain Watch’s Ed Wiley began urging state officials to build a new elementary school after he picked up his ill grand-daughter who told him, “Granddaddy, this school is making us kids sick.” After 6 years of tenacious organizing and advocacy, a new school was opened where Ken Hechler had,  once again, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with those most impacted.

As someone who was deeply concerned about the state of our country’s democracy, Ken became active in campaign finance reform issues, especially when “Granny D”’s (Doris Haddock) began her epic 3,200 mile journey/walk from California to Washington, D.C. to elevate the need for supporting the federal McCain-Feingold bill. If passed, this legislation would help reduce spending on political campaigns. Ken walked more than 500 miles with Doris who turned 90 years old by the time she arrived in the nation’s Capital. When Doris arrived in Marietta, Ohio, Ken Hechler was on hand to greet and welcome her as she made her way across the Ohio River to Parkersburg, W.Va., to speak to supporters.

In 2006, Granny D and Ken spoke at a regional mountaintop removal summit dubbed “Healing Mountains,” that OVEC and Heartwood (a regional organization that works to protect public lands from abusive practices) organized. Doris and Ken reminded us that if we want to win our issues, we needed to be more inclusive and supportive of people of color.  You may recall that Ken was the only member of Congress that participated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights march in Selma. Union supporter, environmentalist, statesman, writer, historian, teacher, husband, father and add one more label – civil rights activist.

If you still need convincing about what an amazing man that Ken was, he had the most incredible memory of anyone I’ve ever met. My hunch is that Ken spent his remarkable life making really good memories.

Dear Ken, we know that you, of all people, have earned your eternal rest. Well done. You will be sorely missed.

This article originally was published on the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition website. It is reprinted with permission.

Janet Keating is the former Executive Director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (www.ohvec.org) who retired September 2016 after 24 years with the organization. Her latest endeavor, Green Shepherd, LLC, offers consulting and other services to environmental and social justice non-profits.

Is This Fair?

It is time to eliminate the outrageous subsidies and entitlements for the gas industry

By Tom and Becky Berlin 

WESTON, W.Va. – Here is a little something for all you land owners, farmers, small business owners, and tax payers to think about.

If you own a bit of land for a hay meadow, you will be assessed and pay property taxes on your hay meadow.

Volk Farm

A farm in Lewis County, W.Va. Photo by Michael M. Barrick

If you buy a tractor and some equipment so you can harvest your hay, you will be assessed and pay property taxes on your tractor and equipment.

If you build a barn in which to keep your hay and your farm equipment out of the weather, you will be assessed and pay property taxes on your barn.

If you buy a cow to eat your hay and maybe give you a calf to sell, you will be assessed and pay property taxes on your cow.

Other small businesses are in much the same situation. You pay property taxes on your business property, buildings, equipment, and inventory.

If, on the other hand, you are a huge corporation and you build a multimillion dollar piece of profitable infrastructure, like Momentum and Stonewall Gas Gathering LLC and their newly constructed pipeline, you will not be assessed and will not pay a penny of local property taxes on your pipeline. Nothing.

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The Stonewall Gas Gathering line under construction in North Central West Virginia in 2015. The company building it was cited by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection for numerous violations during construction. Photo by Michael M. Barrick

Even worse, the land under which that multimillion dollar pipeline lies has been forever rendered unproductive. Nobody will ever be able to build a house on that land, build a barn, build a farm pond, drill a water well, grow an orchard, grow timber, cut an access road to the other side of your farm, or make any improvements that might interfere with the pipeline company. For every mile of pipeline right of way that Stonewall Gas Gathering has, they have permanently destroyed the utility and value of about 10 acres of land, which will ultimately show up as decreased property value and decreased tax revenue for the county. If you do not think the property value has declined on that land, survey off an acre of that right of way, put it up for sale and see what the market value is now.

Does that seem fair to you? Speak with your elected representatives and candidates and demand that this outrageous subsidy and entitlement be eliminated.

Tom and Becky Berlin are farmers in Weston, W.Va.

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Citizens Encouraged to Request Public Hearings about MVP

West Virginia Department of Environment Protection needs to hear more voices

By John W. Cobb, Jr.

IRELAND, W.Va. – With 11 counties in West Virginia projected to be affected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) route should it receive approval, voices from one end of the state to the other must be heard. The West Virginia Department of Environment Protection (WVDEP) needs to hear from citizens while there is still time. The potential impacts to water supplies (aquifers), streams, wetlands and rivers is significant; therefore citizens need to write the WVDEP to request public hearings in the affected counties.

So far, such requests are working.

Mountain-Valley-Pipeline-Map

Proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline route (in green). Note that it runs from near the Pennsylvania and Ohio state lines in the north to the Virginia state line in the south. Courtesy: FracCheckWV

The WVDEP Division of Water and Waste Management (DWWM) will be extending the public comment period on the State 401 Water Quality Certification for the proposed MVP project until further notice. It takes only a few minutes to send them a letter or email requesting a public hearing in your county so you can learn and get answers to your concerns.

Originally, the public comment period, which is required under state regulation 47CSR5A, would have ended next week, but because of widespread public interest in the proposed project, DWWM will be scheduling public hearings to discuss certification of the proposed project. Information about the dates and locations of those hearings will be made public as soon as plans are finalized.

The WVDEP says they will likely prioritize holding public hearings based on the counties generating the most comments. For now, those are from Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers counties. We need more folks along the MVP Route to respond now. We need to help get the word out to folks further up along the proposed route, including Wetzel, Doddridge, Harrison, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, and Fayette counties. Every citizen along the route needs reasonable access to public hearings. By writing the WVDEP, it will increase the chance that no citizen will be left out.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a $3.5 billion project, developed by EQT Corp., and it involves a 42-inch-diameter pipeline that would run 301 miles south from the Equitrans L.P. transmission system near the MarkWest Energy Mobley Complex in Wetzel County to a Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Co. compressor station in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. This project is one of multiple pipeline projects currently under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) one of the other projects is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that will run somewhat parallel and north of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

When issuing certification, DWWM’s 401 Certification Program may consider the proposed activity’s impact on water resources, fish and wildlife, recreation, critical habitats, wetlands and other natural resources. In its 401 certification application, EQT anticipates that the MVP project will have temporary impacts to approximately 49,892 linear feet of streams and 18.9 acres of wetlands and permanent impacts to approximately 3,125 linear feet of streams and 10 acres of wetlands within the Mountain State.

Comments and information relating to the certification should be emailed to DEP.comments@wv.gov, with “MVP 401 Certification” in the subject line or mailed to:

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Water and Waste Management

401 Certification Program

601 57th Street SE

Charleston, WV  25304

Responding now with a request for a public hearing in your county will give you and your neighbors a chance to express your concerns to the West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection.

(C) John W. Cobb, Jr., 2016. Mr. Cobb writes from his home in Ireland, W.Va.

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Note: The original version of this article listed 12 counties. The correct number is 11. We regret the error.

Virginia Officials Agree to Demands from Advocacy Group about Pipeline Deliberations

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.

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Pristine streams such as Mill Creek, in Randolph County, W.Va., would be significantly impacted by construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Photo by Michael M. Barrick.

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?

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Meathouse Fork in Doddridge County, W.Va. with heavy sediment resulting from pipeline construction in the summer of 2015. This would be the fate of thousands of miles of watershed should the ACP be built. Photo by Michael M. Barrick.

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.”

Deerfield - Augusta County

A screen shot from the DPMC”s new interactive web mapping system. This is of blast radius and evacuation zones for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Courtesy DPMC.

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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West Virginia Catholic Diocese Challenged to Reject Coal’s ‘Dirty Money’

The Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment

By Michael J. Iafrate

WHEELING, W.Va.  – During this presidential campaign, a light is being shined on the way corporate and other wealthy donors influence the political process. We have woken up to the fact that money corrupts politics. During this month of the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster, it is important, too, to see the corrupting influence of coal money on our churches.

Michael J Iafrate

Michael J. Iafrate

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have been admirably engaged in the work of charity in the state of West Virginia. Yet, they have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.

For example, the takeaway from the Bishop’s pastoral letter on mine safety, issued after Upper Big Branch, was that the tragedy “raises concerns.” But the coal industry itself says that such accidents “raise concerns.” The death of so many human beings at the hands of a systemically negligent industry should do more than “raise concerns.”

Whether faced with the coal industry’s repeated attempts to cheat retired miners out of their pensions and health care packages or the ongoing devastating stories from communities affected by mountaintop removal mining, the Diocese often remains silent, failing to promote its own teachings on justice and the environment. Even after the release of Pope Francis’ powerful ecological encyclical Laudato Si’, Bransfield downplayed its message for West Virginia, promoting instead the myth of “clean coal.” And the Diocese has yet to make any comments about the dangers of fracking which increasingly affects people in West Virginia. Why is this?

People of faith in Appalachia often suspect that dirty money from the fossil fuel industries compromises the church’s prophetic voice. Pope Francis has spoken about the corrupting influence of “dirty money,” saying, “I think of some benefactors of the Church, who come with an offer for the Church and their offer is the fruit of the blood of people who have been exploited, enslaved with work which was under-payed. I will tell these people to please take back their cheques. The People of God don’t need their dirty money but hearts that are open to the mercy of God.”

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A mountaintop removal site Photo courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

We must ask about the relevance of Francis’ words for the church in West Virginia, as it in fact has financial ties to the coal industry. Diocesan officials have stated publicly that the church draws money from unspecified “fossil fuel investments,” but will not disclose any further details about these investments or about its endowment in general, and one of the four lay members of Bransfield’s finance council is a former lobbyist for the National Coal Association. In 2008, according to multiple sources, Bransfield gave the green light to Sacred Heart Parish School in Williamson, W.Va. to accept charitable gifts from former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, including the funding of a brand-new gymnasium for the school, brand new sports equipment, and full scholarships for 12 students for their six-year education.

One would think that after Upper Big Branch the church might be more reluctant to accept any more dirty money from coal barons. Yet, Catholic Charities of West Virginia opened a new facility in Greenbrier County in 2013 funded by a donation from mine owner Jim Justice, whose mines have been cited for hundreds of labor, safety, and environmental violations and for failure to pay various debts and taxes.

People like Justice and Blankenship give monetary gifts to the church to improve their community standing. For precisely this reason, Blankenship’s charitable activity was cited in over one hundred letters to U.S. District Judge Irene Berger asking for more leniency in the lead-up to his sentencing.

Despite its continued economic decline, Big Coal wants a return on their investment in the church. What kind of return are they getting? A diocesan spokesperson told me that the church opposes the abuses of the fossil fuel industries, such as mountaintop removal and the abuse of workers, but that it does so “quietly” because “banging a drum” about it would “not be prudent.” But what is the value of opposition that is not made public?

Such responses suggest that the Diocese is very concerned about how the church’s social justice teachings would be received by powerful industries in West Virginia if we were to preach them strongly and in public. When church leaders consistently accept money from coal barons, the “prudent” approach muzzles any social justice teaching the church might offer in defense of workers or of Earth’s ecological integrity.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and Bishop Michael Bransfield have … have been, on so many occasions, disappointingly reluctant to speak truthfully about one of the major causes of poverty and ecological wreckage in the region: the coal industry.”– Michael J. Iafrate

Many West Virginia Catholics would like to see their leaders boldly choose the side of justice and to “let justice speak loudly,” as the Appalachian Catholic bishops put it in their 1975 pastoral letter “This Land is Home to Me.” We do not expect the church to call for an immediate end of the coal industry, even as we transition to more diverse, life-giving economies. But we insist that the church must do better at denouncing—without ambiguity—this industry’s abuses.

Specifically, is it too much to wish that Bransfield condemn mountaintop removal and fracking and to apologize for promoting the lie of clean coal? Shouldn’t he promote clearly the church’s teaching on workers’ rights and oppose the continued attack on those rights that we saw in West Virginia’s recent legislative session, especially in the passing of the Right to Work bill? (The brief, vague diocesan statement issued on the legislation will not do). Might we expect him to join so many others explicitly calling for tougher penalties for those who violate mining regulations?

To do any of this, however, the church must be free of the corrupting influence of the coal industry’s financial gifts. On this anniversary of Upper Big Branch, the Diocese should exercise financial transparency and make a clear commitment to refuse the financial benefits of a destructive, death-dealing industry. As Pope Francis has said, we don’t need their dirty money.

[This is a shorter, edited version of a longer piece first published at Religion Dispatches, April 14, 2016.] 

© Michael J. Iafrate, 2016. 

Michael J. Iafrate writes from Wheeling, W.Va. He is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of St. Michael’s College (Toronto) and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. He can be reached at michael.iafrate@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.

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