Tag Archives: Christians for the Mountains

U.S. Forest Service Puts the Brakes on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Organizations and individuals fighting Dominion and its partners express satisfaction, but caution that the battle is far from decided

By Michael M. Barrick

CLARKSBURG, W.Va.  – Opponents to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) are expressing delight about a decision by the United States Forest Service (USFS) to reject the proposed ACP route because it would jeopardize what the USFS calls “sensitive resources.”

Despite the decision, opponents are also advising caution, saying that it could only delay, but not stop, the proposed 550-mile natural gas pipeline that is a project of Dominion Resources, based in Richmond, Va., and its partners, including Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C. As currently proposed, the ACP would originate in Harrison County, W.Va. and terminate in southeastern North Carolina. Ultimate approval for the ACP will be up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

For now, though, the USFS decision has put the brakes on the proposed route.

In a letter and attachment to Leslie Hartz of Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, USFS officials explained the decision and provided an “Assessment of Inconsistencies with Forest Plan Direction and Other Directives.” The letter was signed by Kathleen Atkinson of the USFS Eastern Region and Tony Tooke of the Southern Region.

Hartz and Tooke wrote, “We have determined that the proposed route does not meet minimum requirements of initial screening criteria … .” They explained, “The Land and Resource Management Plans for the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests contain standards and guidelines to protect highly sensitive resources, including Cheat Mountain salamanders, West Virginia northern flying squirrels, Cow Knob salamanders, and red spruce ecosystem restoration area.”

They continued, “Therefore, alternatives must be developed to facilitate further processing of the application.” They directed, “The status of the species in terms of risk for loss of viability on the National Forests, consistency with protections in the Forest Plans and other directives, and the uniqueness of ecosystems such as the spruce ecosystem restoration areas must be considered in the development of alternatives.”

Among the most vocal opponents to the ACP have been residents of Nelson County, Va. Marilyn Shifflett of Free Nelson said, “Those of us in opposition to the ACP have been extremely impressed at the work the USFS has done on this project for many months now. They have worked tirelessly to insure that regulations are followed and key sensitive areas are protected for future generations.” She cautioned, however, that citizens remain concerned about FERC’s review. “We remain hopeful that the FERC will take the USFS’s concerns seriously and that FERC Commissioners will review all of the USFS submissions by taking one step further, and consider the sensitive areas adjoining National Forest lands with a more critical eye. We have seen similar misrepresentations and incompleteness in the Resource Reports submitted for the ACP’s formal application and we will continue to ask that the FERC review these submissions very carefully.”

Friends of Nelson President Joanna Salidis offered, “We greatly appreciate the Forest Service’s tenacity in ensuring that federal laws and regulations pertaining to our national forests are enforced. We are grateful that they are working to protect the biodiversity, water, and recreational resources that so many people depend on. We are thrilled about the difficulty and delays the necessity of coming up with a new route will likely cause Dominion.” She, too, expressed concerns about the FERC review, saying, “We also note that the Forest Service’s advocacy for our public property highlights the absence of a similar watchdog agency for private property and impacted communities and individuals. The rest of us are left with FERC, bought and paid for by the industry.”

Jared M. Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species, said, “We are very pleased that the USFS has agreed that the project as proposed would have adverse impacts on vital habitat areas for imperiled species, including the Cow Knob salamander, which the Center has proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act, as well as habitat for the Cheat Mountain salamander, which is listed as threatened.”

He added. “While the Forest Service stated that alternative routes must be found to avoid these sensitive habitats, it found that the route variations that have been proposed do not resolve the concerns. It therefore remains unclear whether alternative routes are even possible through this region that would not have such unacceptable impacts.”

He was also blunt in his assessment of the ACP. “This pipeline would be an unmitigated disaster for rare wildlife like the Cow Knob salamander, and would intensify climate disruption by increasing fracking and continuing our reliance on fossil fuels. While it is heartening to see the Forest Service step up to ensure that vital habitats on the George Washington National Forest are protected, we do not need alternative routes for this project. What we need is to stop creating dirtier fossil fuel infrastructure and keep it in the ground.”

Elise Keaton with the Greenbrier River Watershed Association insisted, “This would not have happened but for the constant work of citizen groups and coalitions forcing the Forest Service to conduct more stringent reviews of these proposed routes.” She added, “My hope is that the other national forests that are projected to be impacted by the Mountain Valley Pipeline will follow suit in protecting critical habitat. Further, the cumulative impact of two export pipelines through these parts of the state need to be reviewed to determine if they are at all necessary.”

Keaton concluded, “This decision is positive in that it reflects the Forest Service’s willingness to protect the ecology within the National Forest which many residents of West Virginia and Virginia have worked hard to preserve. However, re-routing the proposed pipeline through another area does not necessarily mean that these same species won’t be impacted.”

Allen Johnson of West Virginia-based Christians for the Mountains shared, “I am surprised, but pleasantly so, by the decision of the U.S. Forest Service to protect the very sensitive areas of the northern flying squirrel, sensitive streams, and a tremendous 2,000 feet vertical climb over and down Cheat Mountain.” He admitted, “I tend to be jaded by politics and felt the USFS would roll over for the pipeline.”

He warned, however, “On the other hand, the likely alternative route would be very close to where I live, within three miles at some point, I think. It would still transgress some of the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests, and would also impact more private landholders. At this point, the alternative routes have had little public input, so I would push for another FERC scoping process.”

Executive Director Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition shared, “This decision affirms that the USFS is taking their responsibility to protect sensitive resources and endangered species seriously. The ecological significance of the headwaters and forested land in this region cannot be overstated. We celebrate the Forest Service stepping in to defend it.”

Still, Rosser argued, “It’s not over. Dominion will undoubtedly look to alternative routes and there will be the same important questions to examine about forest fragmentation, headwater streams, rare species habitat, and more. And the big questions remain in the context of several proposed pipelines in this region – is there a need for them all, and what would be the cumulative impact to this special area of the country?”

April Keating, the chairperson of Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance, a grass roots movement in several central West Virginia counties, shared, “This is certainly a necessary first step in protecting our communities from gas infrastructure buildout, and shows that our forest service is on the ball and watching. Having a federal agency backing up what the citizens have been saying is also encouraging.”

Yet, she added, “I do not think environmental arguments are going to be enough to stop, slow, or re-route the pipelines. Though the threat to our environment is real from this industry, we have to make sure our public officials and agencies consider all the effects on our communities: public health and safety, economic drag, slowed progress in renewable energy development, protection of historical resources, and even things like cultural attachment. There is a strong connection between the water and public health, but somehow public officials don’t see the emergency such projects constitute.”

She argued, “Citizen action in West Virginia is the only way we are ever going to see progress in a ‘business as usual’ state whose economy has always been based on extraction. It is time to diversify the economy, do something new. The job opportunities are plentiful, if we could only get our leaders to see it. Some days I am discouraged, some hopeful, but in the end, I believe our efforts will push us forward, if only a tiny bit, and that in itself is progress.”

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) Executive Director Janet Keating remarked, “OVEC is pleased that the U. S. Forest Service has rejected the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through the Monongahela National Forest because of concerns over the impacts upon the Cow Knob salamander as well as the restoration efforts for the northern flying squirrel. Yet our concerns regarding this massive pipeline don’t end here.” She explained, “This issue is about much more than unique salamanders and flying squirrels. The larger issues that loom are not only the direct threats to our forests and attenuate wildlife – and private property impacted by the construction of this massive pipeline – but also how building this infrastructure promotes more drilling for deep shale gas and oil, which increases the risks associated with climate change. The overarching concerns that FERC, other government entities and all our politicians should have are the threats that continued use of fossil fuel extraction and burning has upon the very existence of humans, other life on earth and our home, planet earth.”

She asked, “Why should West Virginia’s politicians allow our state to bear all the environmental costs, especially threatening our precious and vital water resources, for the construction of the ACP and then ship natural gas to North Carolina or overseas? Beyond short-term economic gain, how do people here really benefit?” She concluded, “It’s time for our state and nation to get serious about clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency, approaches to energy production that create jobs, decreases risks to human health and water, and stems the tide on climate change.”

OVEC’s Project Coordinator Vivian Stockman added, “It’s great news that the Forest Service has denied ACP’s application for a Special Use Permit based on endangered species and ecological health. Now, ACP will have to propose a new route or system alternatives. Now, we need to consider human health. We say there’s no proposed route that will protect communities, air, water and land.

“We simply don’t need this pipeline. We don’t need to waste all the money on shoring up fossil fuel infrastructure. We say the alternative, for the sake of human and planetary health, is decentralized renewable energy.”

© Michael M. Barrick, 2016.

Related Links

ACP Maps

Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Center for Biological Diversity

Christians for the Mountains

Free Nelson

Friends of Nelson County

Greenbrier River Watershed Association

Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

West Virginia Rivers Coalition

USFS Letter and Attachment

 

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West Virginia’s Top Story in 2015: People and Land under Assault

Public health, environment and property rights under siege from crony capitalism; people respond vigorously, despite odds

 By Michael M. Barrick

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – While the fossil fuel extraction industry has dominated West Virginia’s political system, economy and communities since it became a state in 1863, the assault upon public health, the environment and property rights in 2015 by corporations and the Mountain State’s legislature was historic. Not since United States senators were appointed by legislatures, in the days when corporate robber barons owned the coal fields, the railroads and the politicians, and efforts to unionize coal miners were met with government-sanctioned violence, has there been such a blitzkrieg of shenanigans and skullduggery unleashed upon the state’s citizens.

Yet, the people have responded energetically. Easily outgunned by corporations, outspent by PACs, and surrounded by apathetic neighbors possessing a sense of inevitability that the energy industry will have its way in West Virginia, many citizens and groups have fought the attack vigorously and widely. The events of 2015 affecting the ecology of West Virginia is about far more than policy, it is about people – about those people making a difference, whether for well or ill.

While corporate interests and most of the state’s mainstream media promote a continued reliance upon what is essentially a bust-and-boom economy, more and more voices standing in opposition to the status quo are being heard. With solid evidence of harm to public health, damage to the environment and abuse of eminent domain from the industry – particularly through fracking and mountaintop removal – more people are joining forces to hold government, industry and even the church accountable.

These stories are not necessarily listed in chronological order and are not offered as a ranking of importance. Instead, it is an attempt to assess the whole year much as one would look at a quilt after it has been completed.

The top stories                                                    

  • The “People’s Capitol” no more
  • Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
  • Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
  • Eminent domain abuse
  • Public health threats
  • Environmental degradation
  • The people respond
  • The Don Blankenship trial
  • Poor and biased press coverage

 

The “People’s Capitol” no more

The gold-domed state capitol along the Kanawha River in Charleston is known as “The People’s Capitol” because of its openness to the people. While that is changing physically this year as security officials add metal detectors and other security steps, the event that really denied the people access to their government was the takeover of the legislature by the Republican Party. Not that the GOP has a patent on arrogance. The Democrats had grown entirely too comfortable after more than 80 years of control. Their arrogance was on display for all to see. All one had to do was visit the offices of the legislators before the GOP takeover. The Democrats had the largest offices and those in special authority – such as the speaker – had not only their titles but names affixed to the doors. As I walked through the capitol on a snowy February day in 2014 just a few weeks after the Elk River spill, I was pleased with how many legislators made themselves accessible; more than a few seemed genuinely interested in serving the people. However, the display of arrogance on the office doors by the party’s leadership was disturbing. It was clear proof that the lure of power had seduced them to promote themselves, not serve the people.

So, in a sense, the Democrats got what they deserved in November 2014. Unfortunately, beginning in January 2015, so did the people of West Virginia. Why people vote against their own interests is beyond my comprehension. For instance, coal miners voted for the very people who protect men like Massey Energy’s Donald Blankenship (more about him later) and are doing all they can to destroy the United Mine Workers (UMW).

Additionally, the GOP is pushing for “Forced Pooling” legislation that would rob landowners of their most basic rights. That issue died in the legislature on a tie vote in committee last year and is a legislative priority for the GOP this year when the West Virginia legislature convenes on Jan. 13. Forced pooling allows the gas industry to force landowners to allow gas companies to access the gas under their land even if the landowner doesn’t agree to it so long as a certain percentage of their neighbors have agreed to sell. And, despite the devastation done by the Elk River spill in 2014, the Republican-led legislature rolled back vital provisions of the West Virginia Storage Tank Law. This led to weakened oversite, restrictions on public access to hazardous chemical information, and loopholes which severely undermine the stated intent of the law. (Read the full story here).

 

Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing

In West Virginia, approximately three out of four people identify themselves as Protestant; only seven percent are Catholic. As with political parties, these two major Christian sects hold quite disparate views on ecological issues; indeed, within each denomination, congregation and parish, one can find division about what the faith teaches regarding environmental stewardship.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists generally hold a “dominion” theory of stewardship. It is not only reflected in sermons, but is referenced by energy industry officials as justification for their attacks upon public health and the environment. Indeed, a leading energy industry executive shared that view here in Bridgeport in March. Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).

Yet, Allen Johnson of Dunmore, who leads the evangelical organization Christians for the Mountains, took several other evangelicals and reporters to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia’s most infamous mountaintop removal site. As a result of this effort, national publications noted that some evangelicals are serious about creation care. (You can read articles here and here). Another, not available online, was published by the conservative Christian World magazine based in Asheville, N.C. Explaining the outreach, Johnson said, “It’s a lot easier to preach to the choir, so to speak, than to step across the divide, but that is what is needed in our polarized culture – build trust, tell stories, show, listen, find common ground somewhere.”

Catholics, however, have become accustomed to their clergy – in particular the bishop – to be a prophetic voice for the land and its people. Indeed, the West Virginia-based Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has published two pastoral letters by the Catholic bishops of Appalachia – “This Land is Home to Me” in 1975 and “At Home in the Web of Life” in 1995. Both of these letters were signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the region. So, for the last 40 years, the Catholic laity has become accustomed to its leaders standing up for the poor. Not in 2015 though. Instead, the CCA felt compelled to challenge West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield – as well as other Appalachian Catholic bishops – for not supporting the pope strongly enough when the Vatican released the pope’s ecological encyclical in the spring. (Read more here and here).

Indeed, in December, the CCA published what it characterized as a people’s pastoral. It explained, “For this third letter, called a ‘People’s Pastoral,’ the planning team did not seek the signatures of the region’s bishops, but rather sought to lift up the authority of the people, their stories, and earth itself as an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the ‘preferential option for the poor.’” (Read more here).

In short, while the church leadership has abandoned its prophetic voice in support of the people they are called to serve, the people in the parishes and congregations are filling the void. In addition to the CCA pastoral, several other examples demonstrate this.

In April, during the week of Earth Day, North Carolina-based St. Luke’s United Methodist Church joined with the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and West Virginia Interfaith Power & Light to hold a two-day conference at the Catholic-owned St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston. The conference included people from various faith traditions, scientists, educators, preservationists, educators, artists and others. The theme of the conference, “Preserving Sacred Appalachia,” was organized out of a faith-based view of environmental stewardship, but was intentionally designed to welcome people from all walks of faith and life. (Read more here).

That same week, Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church was a first-place winner of Interfaith Power & Light’s annual Cool Congregations Challenge. The church earned its award for being the top renewable role model in the nation for, among other reasons, having the largest community-supported solar system in West Virginia. (Read more here).

In August, at its annual gathering, the West Virginia Sierra Club chapter considered how it, as a secular group, could apply the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis to its preservation efforts in West Virginia. That gathering led to the writing of this article.

 

Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection

While the church, as an institution, was offering mixed messages on environmental stewardship, the state’s primary agency charged with protecting the environment for the people of West Virginia was sending a clear message – it is, at best, mediocre. In fact, its acronym – DEP – is referred to sarcastically as the “Department of Everything Permitted” by public health experts and environmentalists. In 2015, it was unresponsive to citizens expressing concerns about the health impacts of mountaintop removal. (Read more here), and its leader was unprepared for and even hostile to questions about the most basic of safety considerations regarding the impact of the energy extraction industry. (Read more here).

 

Eminent Domain abuse

Among the most egregious attacks upon the people of West Virginia was the misuse of eminent domain by the energy extraction industry. This is not surprising though, as without approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and others in the future to extract gas from the shale fields of northern West Virginia, the industry will not be allowed to use eminent domain to seize the land of private landowners. Without that weapon, the energy industry is facing billions of dollars of losses already invested in what the industry obviously considered a slam dunk.

In March, Pittsburgh-based energy company EQT sent out letters to landowners threatening legal action if they did not allow EQT access to their property for surveys. The company’s lawyers argued that the pipeline would serve the interests of West Virginians, so eminent domain should apply. (Read more here and here). Opponents saw it differently and won in court – for now. (Read more here).

 

Public Health threats

Whatever one’s political outlook, it is generally agreed that a basic function of government is to guard the public’s health. This is part of its mission to “…promote the general Welfare…” as stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. Again though, even fulfilling this most basic responsibility of government seems beyond West Virginia’s capability – or willingness.

As already noted above, West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman out-of-hand rejected the Precautionary Principle as a reasonable, scientific method of protecting the environment and public health. This, despite clear evidence from health experts about the dangers of fracking and mountaintop removal (read here and here). The facts are supported by personal stories of destroyed lives from the extraction industry. (Read more here).

 

Environmental degradation

Those attempting to stop the environmental degradation caused by fracking and its related infrastructure got a good taste of what they will face should the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines receive FERC approval. Because those proposed pipelines would cross state lines, FERC approval is required. However, beginning in the spring and going well into the winter, another pipeline – the Stonewall Gas Gathering (SGG) pipeline – was constructed, traversing only about 56 miles of West Virginia. Hence, as an intrastate pipeline, FERC approval for it was not required. The SGG was built by Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream), based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS). The SGG connected to the AGS in Harrison County and terminates in Braxton County, where it connects to the Columbia pipeline. It runs also through Doddridge and Lewis counties. It began operation in December, but in the process disrupted the lives of thousands of West Virginians, harassed opponents, and caused significant damage to farmland, streams and roadways.

The West Virginia DEP did issue several Notice of Violations to Precision Pipeline, the company that built the pipeline. However, it did so only after numerous complaints from citizens. (Read more here).

As has already been demonstrated, the extraction industry operates from a position of arrogance – of “dominion.” In the next section are several links to stories about people and groups who learned this hard lesson and immediately began responding. Before reading those accounts though, you might want to refer to the articles, “A Dirty Dozen Reasons to Oppose Fracking” and “Filmmaker Finds Compelling Story in Her own Backyard.”

 

Citizens stand up to crony capitalism

Despite this relentless assault upon public health, the environment and property rights by the unholy alliance between government and business – known otherwise as crony capitalism – no small number of people and groups have organized and coordinated efforts to safeguard their human rights. The outreach has even extended across the states bordering West Virginia, as alliances have been formed with people and groups in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Kentucky.

As a result, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people giving completely of themselves and resources during the year. Following are a few examples.

The McClain family, farmers in Doddridge County (about 8,000 residents), though quiet and deferential people, stood their ground against the industry for ruining some of their crops. (Read more here).

Also in Doddridge County, residents joined with folks from neighboring counties to demonstrate their solidarity against the fracking industry. (Read more here).

Earlier in the year, a landowner in the mountains of Randolph County was a one-man army fighting Dominion Resources. He is working to protect some of the most pristine mountain valleys in West Virginia. (Read more here).

Also early in the year, several environmental groups challenged FERC to abide by its charter and deny approval of the pipelines because they would benefit private shareholders, not the people of West Virginia. (Read more here).

In a proactive response to the industry, a Harrison County couple modeled, for the public, their homestead powered by solar panels. (Read more here).

As the year came to a close, dozens of people and groups gathered in central West Virginia to learn more from each other and to coordinate efforts to oppose the fracking industry. (Read more here).

 

The Don Blankenship trial

The year concluded with the conviction of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship on charges brought by federal authorities because of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County in April 2010. Sadly, the jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements. His lawyers have said he will challenge the verdict. So, in light of the expected appeal and mixed verdict, it would seem the opportunity to send a message that crony capitalism would no longer be allowed to kill West Virginians was missed. Hence, it is an important chapter in this story of West Virginia’s reliance upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. Still, while it was covered by media from the United States and beyond, I consider it less important of a story than the stories above, in particular the response by average citizens to the assault they and their land face from the energy extraction industry.

 

Poor and biased press coverage

These are serious times requiring serious and devoted people. While I generally try not to be snarky about the mainstream media, I must say that I was quite disappointed that West Virginia Public Broadcasting considered a little dustup about pepperoni rolls as one of the top eight stories in West Virginia in 2015. Now, I’ve transported more than my share of pepperoni rolls across state lines. But the debate over fracking – a debate that continues savagely in every corner of the Mountain State – is a far more important story. Yet, this important issue did not even make the list from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which claims to be committed to “Telling West Virginia’s Story.”

In this instance, it failed miserably.

Meanwhile, in Clarksburg, which is at the epicenter of the fracking industry, the city’s only newspaper – The Exponent-Telegram – has an owner who also owns interests in oil, gas and coal companies. The newspaper, which touts itself as “The Independent Voice of North Central West Virginia,” had not disclosed this conflict of interest to the public, even as it served as a cheerleader for the energy extraction industry. (Read more here and here).

The point is this: The Fourth Estate has become part of the establishment. Just as our three branches of government are intended to serve as a check and balance on the other two branches, so too, since the Revolutionary War era, has the press been counted upon to serve as a fourth check on the three branches of government. Now though, the courage required to honor that legacy is rarely found in a newsroom or TV studio. In short, the modern press, whether for-profit or not, will not challenge government, church and academia beyond the boundaries which might hit them in the pocketbook.

Consequently, it does not report what we truly need to know.

 

Conclusion

So, it’s up to the people. Last year left social justice and environmental activists exhausted, even burned out. Yet, the battle continues. While 2015 was not a good year for the people or environment of West Virginia, 2016 offers hope. It also offers great peril. The extraction industry has unlimited resources – cash, marketing departments and lawyers – that groups fighting for justice simply can’t match. The industry is working 24/7 to assault the people and natural beauty of West Virginia. So activists cannot rest. They are gearing up for a busy year, beginning with the legislative session that convenes next week. They have doggedly fought the industry hard in 2015. However, if they do not get additional manpower this year – an army of volunteers – 2017 will likely be too late to keep West Virginia from becoming an industrial waste zone that is unsuitable for any living thing.

© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2016

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Environmental Groups target W.Va. DEP over Mountaintop Removal Permitting

‘The People’s Foot’ rally cites adverse health impacts as well as environmental damage

By Michael M. Barrick

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Several environmental preservation groups are joining forces to hold a rally Monday, March 16 to call upon the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to quit issuing permits for Mountaintop Removal (MTR). The groups cite adverse public health impacts as well as environmental damage. The permitted rally will be held at the DEP headquarters at 601 57th St. SE in Charleston.

The rally, which is called “The People’s Foot,” is a challenge to West Virginians and others to symbolically put their foot down to further permitting for MTR.The-Peoples-Foot-SSP

Allen Johnson with Christians For The Mountains explained, “The West Virginia DEP issues permits for mining operations. Its mission is to promote a healthy environment. Plentiful scientific research points strongly to high correlations between mountaintop removal operations and significantly worse health indices in nearby communities. We are pressing West Virginia DEP to acknowledge the science and stop issuing MTR permits immediately. We are calling upon them to ‘Stop the poisoning of people!’”

Johnson said that the concept originated with the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Coalition, led by Bo Webb. In addition to Christians For The Mountains, sponsoring organizations include the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, and others.Sierra Club

The DEP is the state agency responsible for issuing permits to companies seeking to operate or expand MTR enterprises. Allen revealed, “Several of our groups have joined together to ask the United States Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation to strip West Virginia DEP of authority and take over permitting itself under existing provisions, as the West Virginia DEP is not doing their job to protect the public and our lands and waters and air from harmful pollution.”

Johnson explained, “Water pollution comes from the exposure of heavy-metal laden rock that during blasting is exposed to water and then leaches the heavy metals into the streams. This can be measured by conductivity meters. High concentrations of Selenium, arsenic, magnesium, and others are carcinogenic as well as detrimental to the food chain in water systems. But perhaps an even more insidious pollutant is that of ultra-fine air particulates, sub-micron, smaller by far than the EPA standards of 2.5 and 10 microns.” He explained that the explosions resulting from the MTR process create “…very high concentrations of ultrafines, made up of silica, aluminum compounds, and blasting materials. These are absorbed through the lungs and into the circulatory system, including the placenta barrier, and are highly toxic for those living in these communities.”

Johnson explained his group’s involvement, sharing, “Isaiah 6:3 in the Bible says that ‘the whole Earth is filled with God’s glory.’ Numerous other scriptures can be cited, along with thousands of years of theology. Simply speaking, to degrade God’s handiwork in a permanent way is sin. Pollution of water, air, and stunting the fruitfulness – or sustainable viability – of earth is out of God’s order for creation. Humans are given the responsibility to nurture and protect creation, and in so doing to gain the privilege of sustenance, but within the boundaries of not assuming hubris and self-idolatry, which we are warned against in Genesis 2:15-17.”

Explaining the purpose of the rally, Johnson said, “We want to inspire, motivate, and equip people to really push for justice on this issue. That public policymakers and regulatory organizations would have such contempt upon their citizenry to permit, even aid and abet, their poisoning, is irresponsible and criminal. We are smoking them out from behind the coal industry’s smokescreens and keeping the lights on.”

The organizations also want rally participants to educate others. “We want them to push for the national Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, since state policymakers are hip-strapped to the coal industry. We are at a time when people power must rise up strongly all across the nation to break the neck – metaphorically – of moneyed power that is breaking apart our democracy and fleecing the treasury and destroying the future viability of our planet.” He continued, “Pollution simply cannot be acceptable. Full-cost accounting – that is, honest accounting of negative externalities – shows that the coal industry costs more in net sum that it adds.”

He added, “We’re going to pressure the West Virginia DEP on health and MTR. So far they and almost all legislators and congressional representatives refuse to even publicly acknowledge the two dozen peer-reviewed studies even exist. We are going to relentlessly push them.”

Johnson pointed out also that the message about MTR is shifting. “The message on MTR has changed since it first hit the media 15 or so years ago. Then it was about how ugly MTR is, how destructive it is to the ecology. Then we had no research on human health. Now we do and it’s devastating. So we are shifting MTR focus from an environmental justice issue to a health issue.”

Not mincing words, Johnson asserted. “The West Virginia DEP is a fraud if it does not address its most important mandate to protect the health of people from environmental pollution.”

He added, though, “On the other hand, we must give it room to change its heart, so to speak. So our event will be firm but civil. We hold the moral high ground. We want to win the hearts and minds of our fellow citizenry in the face of ‘fear mongering’ propaganda that says our state is sunk without the coal industry.”

For those who are unable to make it to the rally, the groups anticipate having a video available for streaming or downloading. Also a ride share board has been set up online for those seeking transportation.

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise business committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. Learn about it here. Johnson will be speaking at the conference.