News conference at state capitol scheduled to demand clean and safe water, express solidarity with residents of Flint, Michigan
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A coalition of approxmiately 40 groups and individuals have scheduled a news conference on Tuesday, Feb. 9 at the state capitol here to focus attention on the importance of clean and safe water.
According to a news release from Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Gary Zuckett of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group, and Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the purpose of the news conference is, “To call on our elected officials and regulators to live up to their responsibility to protect our basic right of access to safe water – government failings that led to the 2014 West Virginia Water Crisis, and following crises in Toledo, Ohio; Sebring Ohio; and, Flint, Mich.” The groups pointed in particular to the public health crises and millions of dollars in costs borne by taxpayers caused by the various disasters.
The news conference is scheduled for 2 p.m. in the lower rotunda of the state capitol.
The release noted, “The West Virginia Legislature continues to roll back protections for our water supplies. The Public Service Commission may abandon its duty to investigate what went wrong, and what needs fixed. Our congressional members seek to block proposed federal water protections at every turn.”
It added, “With our letter of solidarity to the residents of Flint, Michigan from 38 West Virginia groups, we come together in solidarity with communities across this state and nation to remind decision makers that water is everyone’s priority. We need commitments to protect water supplies and upgrade water infrastructure, everywhere, and especially in communities home to low-income families or people of color.”
The news conference comes less than a month after an independent report blasted West Virginia American Water Company for not being prepared for a chemical spill that polluted water of 300,000 people living in the Kanawha Valley in January 2014. Among other recommendations, the report urges municipal takeover of the Charleston water system and other systems in the state owned by West Virginia American Water Company (WVAW).
Boston Action Research (BAR), a project of the Civil Society Institute (CSI) argued that privately owned WVAW has still not taken the necessary steps to prepare for a future crisis, hold down rates, avoid major service disruptions, and invest in aging infrastructure.
The root cause of these problems, according to the BAR report, is that WVAW is guided by a profit motive. According to the report, “WVAW pays a higher percentage of its profits in dividend payments to its parent corporation, American Water Company, than its subsidiaries in other states on average, which sends precious financial resources out of West Virginia that could otherwise be invested in the water system.” It concludes, “Given the ongoing shortcomings of WVAW … [t]he best course of action for West Virginians is to assume public ownership and operation (municipalization) of the Charleston regional water system.”
The Elk River Spill and other water-related issues will be addressed by the various speakers scheduled for the Feb. 9 news conference. Scheduled speakers and topics include:
- Natalie Thompson, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition: Welcome and introduction of speakers.
- Crystal Good, Affected citizen: Reading of the solidarity letter from West Virginians to the citizens of Flint, Michigan.
- Obi Henderson, Charleston resident: The call for water justice.
- Karan Ireland, Advocates for a Safe Water System: The need for full investigation of lessons learned from water crisis.
- Junior Walk, Coal River Mountain Watch: Growing up in West Virginia with poisoned water.
- Angie Rosser, West Virginia Rivers Coalition: Current legislation rolling back water protections.
- Gary Zuckett, West Virginia Citizen Action Group: Closing and Q&A.
The group is also are alerting citizens to a scheduled meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources on at 4:30 p.m. in the House Chamber to review the recommendations of the Public Water System Supply Study Commission.
Involved Groups and Individuals
Advocates for a Safe Water System / American Friends Service Committee / Appalachian Catholic Worker / Catholic Committee of Appalachia (WV Chapter) / Charleston WV Branch NAACP / Christians For The Mountains / Coal River Mountain Watch / Concerned Citizens of Roane County / Covenant House of West Virginia / Doddridge County Watershed Association / Friends of Water / Greenbrier River Watershed Association / Huntington-Cabell Branch of the NAACP / Kanawha Forest Coalition / Keeper of the Mountains / MelRose Ministries for Positive Transformative Change / Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance / Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition / People Concerned About Chemical Safety /Plateau Action Network / POWHR (Preserve Our Water, Heritage, Rights) / Preserve Greenbrier / Preserve Monroe / RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountains’ and People’s Survival) / Stories From South Central, WV / Southern Appalachian Labor School / South Central Educational Development, Inc. / West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy / West Virginia Chapter of Sierra Club / West Virginia Citizen Action Group / West Virginia Clean Water Hub / West Virginia Direct Action Welfare Group / West Virginia Environmental Council / West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition / West Virginia Interfaith Power and Light / WV FREE (West Virginia Focus: Reproductive Education and Equality) / West Virginia Chapter, NAACP / West Virginia Rivers Coalition and these individuals: Crystal Good @cgoodwoman / Ellen Allen and Sue Julian / Helen Gibbins / Karan Ireland / Maya Nye / Paula Swearengin / Shirley Rosenbaum.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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Disregard for state’s environmental and health problems by mainstream media is shameful
By Michael M. Barrick
WEST UNION, W.Va. – If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all, you know that in Flint, Mich., residents have been unable to drink and use water because it is deemed unsafe. In fact, just today, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced he has opened an investigation to get to the bottom of the disaster – lead poisoning which makes the water unsafe.
Meanwhile, CBS News has reported that the Southern California Gas Company “ … acknowledged Thursday that it understated the number of times airborne levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene have spiked during the crisis.” That leak, affecting Los Angeles-area residents, is approaching three months without a resolution.
I’m pleased that journalists are uncovering these corporate shenanigans which threaten public health and safety, as well as the environment. But I do have a couple of questions for the mainstream media – Do you know that West Virginians have faced both of these problems for years, decades even? And, if so, why are you not covering this?
The questions are rhetorical, for I already know the answer. West Virginia is the Rodney Dangerfield of the United States and the media simply doesn’t care about the rural, mountain poor. Reporting on the misery caused to West Virginians by the energy extraction industry just doesn’t generate the ratings to justify upsetting advertisers (in case you have not been paying attention, the natural gas industry has launched a media blitz about its so-called “clean energy,” including on public broadcasting. Even the people’s network, it seems, has been hijacked by the industry).
Meanwhile, here in Doddridge County, West Virginia, groups like West Virginia Host Farms and the Doddridge County Watershed Association have been educating public health officials, journalists, researches and the general public about the dangers of fracking. Children are experiencing nose bleeds, people can’t sit outside in summer evenings for developing splitting headaches, and cancer rates are increasing. Indeed, I have interviewed a family whose daughter died of leukemia after being exposed to benzene. The benzene leeched into her well water from a fracking pad. Of course, the gas companies are hiding behind their lawyers in denial.
Simultaneously, all over the county, people drink water from storage tanks called water buffaloes. The water is simply not safe for human use because fracking pads dot the landscape, leeching and releasing untold amounts of benzene daily. Many of these families have had to use these storage tanks for years. Where is the outrage for them?
Meanwhile, in the southern part of the state, in Mingo County, a small community on top of a mountain near Kermit captures rain water, filters it, and stores it in water buffaloes. Yes, in the Unites States – “The greatest nation on the face of the earth. Period.” – as our president said the other night, West Virginia residents live as if they are citizens of a third world country.
And the media does nothing.
So, here is a plea to the mainstream media: Get out of your offices, put on some boots and jeans, rent a four-wheel drive and start visiting the shale fields, the mountaintop removal sites and the abandoned deep mine sites in West Virginia. Talk to the residents. Do not concern yourself with meeting with public officials unless you just want to get them on the record for admitting they can’t or won’t do their job, as in this story. Ironically, as you will read, the referenced story is about West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman visiting this very county last summer to investigate concerns about public health and safety.
If you want, I can introduce you to dozens of West Virginians that will be happy to tell their stories to you. They, then, will introduce you to their neighbors and friends. Then, before long, you will realize that poisoning people and the planet is “business as usual” in West Virginia.
As I noted in a recent article, the people get it – our institutions are failing from what I term “The Momentum of Mediocrity.” And yesterday, I posted an article reporting that two years after Freedom Industries made the water of the Kanawha Valley unusable for 300,000 people for over a week, virtually no progress has been made to address the root cause of that disaster. So, it is up to the people to tell their stories. Fortunately, West Virginia has numerous groups and individuals doing just that, every way they can.
Would we like to see the mainstream media report that West Virginias are dying from exposure to benzene and can’t drink their water because the energy industry pollutes it? Yes. But, we’re not holding our breath – for that. That’s because we’re too busy holding our breath every time the wind blows over a gas well.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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Independent report blasts West Virginia American Water Company; urges municipal takeover of water system two years after chemical spill polluted water of 300,000 people
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – On January 9, 2014, at about 10 a.m., fire departments in Kanawha County, the home to West Virginia’s state capital, where dispatched to two locations because reports of a “chemical odor” were being called in by citizens. It was at least four hours before emergency response officials realized they had a major public health crisis on their hands – the water for 300,000 people served by the Elk River was unsafe for human use.’
It wasn’t until about 2 p.m. that Mike Dorsey, the emergency response coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, determined that the release of the coal-mining cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) at a site owned by Freedom Industries along the Elk River had reached the water intake of the West Virginia American Water Company (WVAW).
Two years later, the consequences and root cause of that tragedy have yet to be addressed, say experts with Boston Action Research (BAR), a project of the Civil Society Institute (CSI). In a report recently released, BAR researchers argued that privately owned WVAW has still not taken the necessary steps to prepare for a future crisis, hold down rates, avoid major service disruptions, and invest in aging infrastructure.
The root cause of these problems, according to the BAR report, is that WVAW is guided by a profit motive.
According to the report, “WVAW pays a higher percentage of its profits in dividend payments to its parent corporation, American Water Company, than its subsidiaries in other states on average, which sends precious financial resources out of West Virginia that could otherwise be invested in the water system.” It concludes, “Given the ongoing shortcomings of WVAW … [t]he best course of action for West Virginians is to assume public ownership and operation (municipalization) of the Charleston regional water system.”
So, as the West Virginia legislature convened for its 2016 session this week, it has numerous findings to ponder from the BAR report, including:
- WVAW was unprepared for the spill. West Virginia Public Service Commission staff found that WVAW violated numerous regulations in the wake of the disaster, including failure to notify the public on a timely basis, maintain their system, have adequate storage capacity, have water pollution monitoring equipment, and have a source water protection plan.
- WVAW continues to be unprepared for a major spill today.
- WVAW has been unable to control water bills through expansion of its system to include ever more ratepayers. The recent 28 percent rate hike push is a clear indication of this problem.
- Despite frequent rate cases that increase water rates, problems of high leak rates and boil water notices have been persistent for WVAW over the last 10 years.
The BAR report argues, “WVAW serves as an example of how things can go wrong when transparency and accountability suffer in a privatized water scheme … As the infrastructure ages and deteriorates due to apparent neglect, the water system experiences high leak rates, plus frequent boil water notices when mains fail. Repairs and deferred investment require considerable infusions of cash, leading to frequent rate hike increases. While the rate cases and interrupted customer service shine light on WVAW’s inability to control customer costs, the Freedom Industries chemical spill … shows how unprepared the company is to deal with disasters.”
Grant Smith, senior energy analyst and lead report author, said: “It would be wonderful to be releasing a report today on the second anniversary of the West Virginia water crisis saying that things are much better when it comes to safe, clean drinking water in the state. But that would not be accurate. After decades of rate increases and what can only be described as ‘malpractice,’ the best course of action for West Virginians is to assume public ownership and operation (municipalization) of the Charleston Regional Water System. Public control has a better chance of ensuring public accountability, establishing standards and goals for rebuilding the infrastructure that can be measured.”
Smith concluded, “The company strategy reflects that of its parent (company), which is to keep expanding to spread the cost of infrastructure to more rate payers to control cost. However, the strategy has not worked in West Virginia.”
Pointing out that WVAW serves about 40 percent of West Virginia’s residents – one of the highest privatization rates in the nation – the report noted several options that could reverse privatization. “There are options for local officials and the public to look into municipalizing the Charleston regional water system: (1) generally, local government has the ability to raise funds and accept state and federal dollars for its purposes; (2) a takeover could be negotiated if WVAW were willing to sell, or local government could seek to use eminent domain; (3) although legal analysis is required, West Virginia law provides for the formation of regional water authorities and public service districts; and (4) new legislation could be passed for the public takeover of the Charleston system.”
Charleston residents involved in the report shared their insight as well.
Cathy Kunkel, who served as the report’s editor and is with Advocates for a Safe Water System in Charleston, said: “In the last two years, we have learned that we have a serious infrastructure problem here. At the current rate of investment, it will take nearly 400 years for West Virginia American Water to replace all of the water mains in our system. Main breaks are an increasingly common occurrence. … But West Virginia American Water is not planning to invest more in main replacement.”
She added, “The water company has fought to keep important information about water system safety, including its emergency response plan, out of the investigation and out of the public eye. The water company has fought to limit that investigation to narrow its scope as much as possible. Yet, the water company also says it plans to ask for another rate increase so that water customers will pay for the company’s expenses resulting from the spill. West Virginia American Water doesn’t want us to know what it did wrong, but it wants us to pay the bill.”
Pam Nixon, also of Charleston, is with the West Virginia branch of the NAACP, and is a former environmental advocate for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. She offered, “I don’t trust drinking or cooking with West Virginia American water still today, and the feeling is the same for most in my family. We continue to buy bottled water two years later.”
She offered, “I’m lucky. I can afford the bottled water. (But) this lack of adequate water systems always hit minority communities, rural low income families and the elderly the hardest. This is an added burden on low income individuals. West Virginia is a low income state and the lack of drinking water is an environmental justice issue. We don’t want their apologies from the company at the same time they’re asking for a 28 percent increase. We expect accountability.”
Boston Action Research is a project of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute based in Newton, Mass. It is a think tank that serves as a catalyst for change by creating problem-solving interactions among people, and between communities, government and business that can help to improve society.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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Public health, environment and property rights under siege from crony capitalism; people respond vigorously, despite odds
By Michael M. Barrick
BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – While the fossil fuel extraction industry has dominated West Virginia’s political system, economy and communities since it became a state in 1863, the assault upon public health, the environment and property rights in 2015 by corporations and the Mountain State’s legislature was historic. Not since United States senators were appointed by legislatures, in the days when corporate robber barons owned the coal fields, the railroads and the politicians, and efforts to unionize coal miners were met with government-sanctioned violence, has there been such a blitzkrieg of shenanigans and skullduggery unleashed upon the state’s citizens.
Yet, the people have responded energetically. Easily outgunned by corporations, outspent by PACs, and surrounded by apathetic neighbors possessing a sense of inevitability that the energy industry will have its way in West Virginia, many citizens and groups have fought the attack vigorously and widely. The events of 2015 affecting the ecology of West Virginia is about far more than policy, it is about people – about those people making a difference, whether for well or ill.
While corporate interests and most of the state’s mainstream media promote a continued reliance upon what is essentially a bust-and-boom economy, more and more voices standing in opposition to the status quo are being heard. With solid evidence of harm to public health, damage to the environment and abuse of eminent domain from the industry – particularly through fracking and mountaintop removal – more people are joining forces to hold government, industry and even the church accountable.
These stories are not necessarily listed in chronological order and are not offered as a ranking of importance. Instead, it is an attempt to assess the whole year much as one would look at a quilt after it has been completed.
The top stories
- The “People’s Capitol” no more
- Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
- Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
- Eminent domain abuse
- Public health threats
- Environmental degradation
- The people respond
- The Don Blankenship trial
- Poor and biased press coverage
The “People’s Capitol” no more
The gold-domed state capitol along the Kanawha River in Charleston is known as “The People’s Capitol” because of its openness to the people. While that is changing physically this year as security officials add metal detectors and other security steps, the event that really denied the people access to their government was the takeover of the legislature by the Republican Party. Not that the GOP has a patent on arrogance. The Democrats had grown entirely too comfortable after more than 80 years of control. Their arrogance was on display for all to see. All one had to do was visit the offices of the legislators before the GOP takeover. The Democrats had the largest offices and those in special authority – such as the speaker – had not only their titles but names affixed to the doors. As I walked through the capitol on a snowy February day in 2014 just a few weeks after the Elk River spill, I was pleased with how many legislators made themselves accessible; more than a few seemed genuinely interested in serving the people. However, the display of arrogance on the office doors by the party’s leadership was disturbing. It was clear proof that the lure of power had seduced them to promote themselves, not serve the people.
So, in a sense, the Democrats got what they deserved in November 2014. Unfortunately, beginning in January 2015, so did the people of West Virginia. Why people vote against their own interests is beyond my comprehension. For instance, coal miners voted for the very people who protect men like Massey Energy’s Donald Blankenship (more about him later) and are doing all they can to destroy the United Mine Workers (UMW).
Additionally, the GOP is pushing for “Forced Pooling” legislation that would rob landowners of their most basic rights. That issue died in the legislature on a tie vote in committee last year and is a legislative priority for the GOP this year when the West Virginia legislature convenes on Jan. 13. Forced pooling allows the gas industry to force landowners to allow gas companies to access the gas under their land even if the landowner doesn’t agree to it so long as a certain percentage of their neighbors have agreed to sell. And, despite the devastation done by the Elk River spill in 2014, the Republican-led legislature rolled back vital provisions of the West Virginia Storage Tank Law. This led to weakened oversite, restrictions on public access to hazardous chemical information, and loopholes which severely undermine the stated intent of the law. (Read the full story here).
Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
In West Virginia, approximately three out of four people identify themselves as Protestant; only seven percent are Catholic. As with political parties, these two major Christian sects hold quite disparate views on ecological issues; indeed, within each denomination, congregation and parish, one can find division about what the faith teaches regarding environmental stewardship.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists generally hold a “dominion” theory of stewardship. It is not only reflected in sermons, but is referenced by energy industry officials as justification for their attacks upon public health and the environment. Indeed, a leading energy industry executive shared that view here in Bridgeport in March. Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).
Yet, Allen Johnson of Dunmore, who leads the evangelical organization Christians for the Mountains, took several other evangelicals and reporters to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia’s most infamous mountaintop removal site. As a result of this effort, national publications noted that some evangelicals are serious about creation care. (You can read articles here and here). Another, not available online, was published by the conservative Christian World magazine based in Asheville, N.C. Explaining the outreach, Johnson said, “It’s a lot easier to preach to the choir, so to speak, than to step across the divide, but that is what is needed in our polarized culture – build trust, tell stories, show, listen, find common ground somewhere.”
Catholics, however, have become accustomed to their clergy – in particular the bishop – to be a prophetic voice for the land and its people. Indeed, the West Virginia-based Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has published two pastoral letters by the Catholic bishops of Appalachia – “This Land is Home to Me” in 1975 and “At Home in the Web of Life” in 1995. Both of these letters were signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the region. So, for the last 40 years, the Catholic laity has become accustomed to its leaders standing up for the poor. Not in 2015 though. Instead, the CCA felt compelled to challenge West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield – as well as other Appalachian Catholic bishops – for not supporting the pope strongly enough when the Vatican released the pope’s ecological encyclical in the spring. (Read more here and here).
Indeed, in December, the CCA published what it characterized as a people’s pastoral. It explained, “For this third letter, called a ‘People’s Pastoral,’ the planning team did not seek the signatures of the region’s bishops, but rather sought to lift up the authority of the people, their stories, and earth itself as an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the ‘preferential option for the poor.’” (Read more here).
In short, while the church leadership has abandoned its prophetic voice in support of the people they are called to serve, the people in the parishes and congregations are filling the void. In addition to the CCA pastoral, several other examples demonstrate this.
In April, during the week of Earth Day, North Carolina-based St. Luke’s United Methodist Church joined with the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and West Virginia Interfaith Power & Light to hold a two-day conference at the Catholic-owned St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston. The conference included people from various faith traditions, scientists, educators, preservationists, educators, artists and others. The theme of the conference, “Preserving Sacred Appalachia,” was organized out of a faith-based view of environmental stewardship, but was intentionally designed to welcome people from all walks of faith and life. (Read more here).
That same week, Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church was a first-place winner of Interfaith Power & Light’s annual Cool Congregations Challenge. The church earned its award for being the top renewable role model in the nation for, among other reasons, having the largest community-supported solar system in West Virginia. (Read more here).
In August, at its annual gathering, the West Virginia Sierra Club chapter considered how it, as a secular group, could apply the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis to its preservation efforts in West Virginia. That gathering led to the writing of this article.
Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
While the church, as an institution, was offering mixed messages on environmental stewardship, the state’s primary agency charged with protecting the environment for the people of West Virginia was sending a clear message – it is, at best, mediocre. In fact, its acronym – DEP – is referred to sarcastically as the “Department of Everything Permitted” by public health experts and environmentalists. In 2015, it was unresponsive to citizens expressing concerns about the health impacts of mountaintop removal. (Read more here), and its leader was unprepared for and even hostile to questions about the most basic of safety considerations regarding the impact of the energy extraction industry. (Read more here).
Eminent Domain abuse
Among the most egregious attacks upon the people of West Virginia was the misuse of eminent domain by the energy extraction industry. This is not surprising though, as without approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and others in the future to extract gas from the shale fields of northern West Virginia, the industry will not be allowed to use eminent domain to seize the land of private landowners. Without that weapon, the energy industry is facing billions of dollars of losses already invested in what the industry obviously considered a slam dunk.
In March, Pittsburgh-based energy company EQT sent out letters to landowners threatening legal action if they did not allow EQT access to their property for surveys. The company’s lawyers argued that the pipeline would serve the interests of West Virginians, so eminent domain should apply. (Read more here and here). Opponents saw it differently and won in court – for now. (Read more here).
Public Health threats
Whatever one’s political outlook, it is generally agreed that a basic function of government is to guard the public’s health. This is part of its mission to “…promote the general Welfare…” as stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. Again though, even fulfilling this most basic responsibility of government seems beyond West Virginia’s capability – or willingness.
As already noted above, West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman out-of-hand rejected the Precautionary Principle as a reasonable, scientific method of protecting the environment and public health. This, despite clear evidence from health experts about the dangers of fracking and mountaintop removal (read here and here). The facts are supported by personal stories of destroyed lives from the extraction industry. (Read more here).
Those attempting to stop the environmental degradation caused by fracking and its related infrastructure got a good taste of what they will face should the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines receive FERC approval. Because those proposed pipelines would cross state lines, FERC approval is required. However, beginning in the spring and going well into the winter, another pipeline – the Stonewall Gas Gathering (SGG) pipeline – was constructed, traversing only about 56 miles of West Virginia. Hence, as an intrastate pipeline, FERC approval for it was not required. The SGG was built by Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream), based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS). The SGG connected to the AGS in Harrison County and terminates in Braxton County, where it connects to the Columbia pipeline. It runs also through Doddridge and Lewis counties. It began operation in December, but in the process disrupted the lives of thousands of West Virginians, harassed opponents, and caused significant damage to farmland, streams and roadways.
The West Virginia DEP did issue several Notice of Violations to Precision Pipeline, the company that built the pipeline. However, it did so only after numerous complaints from citizens. (Read more here).
As has already been demonstrated, the extraction industry operates from a position of arrogance – of “dominion.” In the next section are several links to stories about people and groups who learned this hard lesson and immediately began responding. Before reading those accounts though, you might want to refer to the articles, “A Dirty Dozen Reasons to Oppose Fracking” and “Filmmaker Finds Compelling Story in Her own Backyard.”
Citizens stand up to crony capitalism
Despite this relentless assault upon public health, the environment and property rights by the unholy alliance between government and business – known otherwise as crony capitalism – no small number of people and groups have organized and coordinated efforts to safeguard their human rights. The outreach has even extended across the states bordering West Virginia, as alliances have been formed with people and groups in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Kentucky.
As a result, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people giving completely of themselves and resources during the year. Following are a few examples.
The McClain family, farmers in Doddridge County (about 8,000 residents), though quiet and deferential people, stood their ground against the industry for ruining some of their crops. (Read more here).
Also in Doddridge County, residents joined with folks from neighboring counties to demonstrate their solidarity against the fracking industry. (Read more here).
Earlier in the year, a landowner in the mountains of Randolph County was a one-man army fighting Dominion Resources. He is working to protect some of the most pristine mountain valleys in West Virginia. (Read more here).
Also early in the year, several environmental groups challenged FERC to abide by its charter and deny approval of the pipelines because they would benefit private shareholders, not the people of West Virginia. (Read more here).
In a proactive response to the industry, a Harrison County couple modeled, for the public, their homestead powered by solar panels. (Read more here).
As the year came to a close, dozens of people and groups gathered in central West Virginia to learn more from each other and to coordinate efforts to oppose the fracking industry. (Read more here).
The Don Blankenship trial
The year concluded with the conviction of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship on charges brought by federal authorities because of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County in April 2010. Sadly, the jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements. His lawyers have said he will challenge the verdict. So, in light of the expected appeal and mixed verdict, it would seem the opportunity to send a message that crony capitalism would no longer be allowed to kill West Virginians was missed. Hence, it is an important chapter in this story of West Virginia’s reliance upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. Still, while it was covered by media from the United States and beyond, I consider it less important of a story than the stories above, in particular the response by average citizens to the assault they and their land face from the energy extraction industry.
Poor and biased press coverage
These are serious times requiring serious and devoted people. While I generally try not to be snarky about the mainstream media, I must say that I was quite disappointed that West Virginia Public Broadcasting considered a little dustup about pepperoni rolls as one of the top eight stories in West Virginia in 2015. Now, I’ve transported more than my share of pepperoni rolls across state lines. But the debate over fracking – a debate that continues savagely in every corner of the Mountain State – is a far more important story. Yet, this important issue did not even make the list from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which claims to be committed to “Telling West Virginia’s Story.”
In this instance, it failed miserably.
Meanwhile, in Clarksburg, which is at the epicenter of the fracking industry, the city’s only newspaper – The Exponent-Telegram – has an owner who also owns interests in oil, gas and coal companies. The newspaper, which touts itself as “The Independent Voice of North Central West Virginia,” had not disclosed this conflict of interest to the public, even as it served as a cheerleader for the energy extraction industry. (Read more here and here).
The point is this: The Fourth Estate has become part of the establishment. Just as our three branches of government are intended to serve as a check and balance on the other two branches, so too, since the Revolutionary War era, has the press been counted upon to serve as a fourth check on the three branches of government. Now though, the courage required to honor that legacy is rarely found in a newsroom or TV studio. In short, the modern press, whether for-profit or not, will not challenge government, church and academia beyond the boundaries which might hit them in the pocketbook.
Consequently, it does not report what we truly need to know.
So, it’s up to the people. Last year left social justice and environmental activists exhausted, even burned out. Yet, the battle continues. While 2015 was not a good year for the people or environment of West Virginia, 2016 offers hope. It also offers great peril. The extraction industry has unlimited resources – cash, marketing departments and lawyers – that groups fighting for justice simply can’t match. The industry is working 24/7 to assault the people and natural beauty of West Virginia. So activists cannot rest. They are gearing up for a busy year, beginning with the legislative session that convenes next week. They have doggedly fought the industry hard in 2015. However, if they do not get additional manpower this year – an army of volunteers – 2017 will likely be too late to keep West Virginia from becoming an industrial waste zone that is unsuitable for any living thing.
© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2016
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