His life of service to West Virginia is an inspiration for all those seeking justice
By Janet Keating
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.
People’s Pastoral by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia rooted in the concept of ‘Magisterium of the Poor’
By Michael M. Barrick
SPENCER, W.Va. – Reading the latest People’s Pastoral from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) is like lingering over a classic work of art – especially if that artwork is Picasso’s “Guernica.” That is because, just like Picasso’s most famous work forces us to reflect upon man’s inhumanity to man, the CCA pastoral immediately challenges the reader to learn about and then expose great social injustices being perpetrated upon the people and land of Appalachia.
The pastoral, titled, “The Telling Takes us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us,” pulls the reader in with eloquent but blunt free verse, breathtaking artwork, photographs and even the rare literary element of an Interlude.
It is the third pastoral published by the CCA in 40 years. “This Land is Home to Me: A Pastoral Letter on the Poverty and Powerlessness in Appalachia,” was released in 1975. “At Home in the Web of Life: A Pastoral Message on Sustainable Communities in Appalachia,” was released in 1995. They remain in print and available from the CCA.
The CCA identifies itself as “… a network of faith-based people raising a prophetic voice for Appalachia & her people.” This new pastoral seems entirely consistent with that mission.
Notably, unlike the first two, this one is not endorsed by the bishops of Appalachia; instead, rooted in Catholic social teaching and liberation theology borrowed from social justice movements in the Southern hemisphere, it is a direct appeal from and on behalf of the poor and the earth itself. As Michael Iafrate, the pastoral’s writer, explained, it is “Speaking truth to power.”
This includes not only traditional church structures, as evidenced by “Lifting up ‘The Magisterium of the Poor’” as Iafrate said, but also political and economic structures as well. Additionally, the pastoral also acknowledges that “The earth has an authority that the church needs to acknowledge and respect,” noted Iafrate, echoing thoughts expressed by Pope Francis in his ecological encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home.”
Jeannie Kirkhope, the coordinator for CCA, added, “Current bishops told us that had they been around when the first two pastorals were written that they wouldn’t have signed it.” She continued, “People have their own authority in the church. We didn’t feel it necessary to get their endorsement.” Iafrate added, “We felt that there were number of issues that the CCA wanted and needed to speak to – mountaintop removal and fracking, as well as marginalized people in Appalachia and the church. We needed to speak about this. We have asked bishops to speak to these issues, but they don’t’ for a variety of reasons. We knew they would not sign on as a body, that maybe one or two would sign. Out of that realization came that sense that the first two pastorals were voices of the people and the bishops endorsed it. We decide to push forward whether they participated or not.”
As it turns out, shared Iafrate, the election of Pope Francis was affirming of the pastoral, which was in the works for several years. “Little did we know there would be a new pope. Little did we know that this pope would have his own encyclical in the works. It was well timed. Of course it was not related to the people’s pastoral, but it was a grace-filled incident.”
While the CCA did not reach out to bishops, a bishop new to the region did offer to provide a cover letter to be sent to all bishops in the United States along with a copy of the pastoral. Iafrate shared, “Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky. shares with the bishops that CCA is living out what Pope Francis has called us to do. We are thankful for his support.”
Iafrate acknowledges that just as the encyclical by Pope Francis has been labeled as extreme in its criticism of market-driven consumerism, so too might this pastoral. In fact, he admitted, “We hope it is subversive because there are a lot of political, economic, and church relationships that need to be subverted.”
He added the pastoral is consistent with the CCA’s mission. “This goes along with being prophetic.” He continued, “This new letter is radical in what it says. It calls for radical changes to church” He argued, though, “It is not a call to radical change apart from examples of how people are already doing things. That is really important.” Besides, he argued, “People can resist radical change all they want, but everything is going to have to change whether we want it to or not, whether we participate in it or not. The planet is going to make sure things change, whether human beings participate in it or not. We can only resist it so much and for so long. That’s on a global scale and in Appalachia.”
The pastoral is written in free verse, as were the first two. Iafrate pointed out that this literary approach was chosen because “It is consistent with the Appalachian heritage of writing poetry and storytelling. It fits with the lyrical way of writing in Appalachia.” Kirkhope added, “It is easily readable. We’re lucky because Michael is both a theologian and musical artist. So we got the best of both worlds with Michael as author. It is both history and artistic.”
The dedication page says simply, “For Walter Sullivan.” Sullivan served as bishop for the Diocese of Richmond for roughly three decades, including the earliest year of the CCA. He is considered its greatest champion. He passed away in 2012. Kirkhope shared, “Before he retired, Bishop Sullivan was talking about the need for a people’s pastoral focusing on mountaintop removal. He was very involved with the first two letters. He was one of the founding bishops of CCA. He was our liaison to the church hierarchy and our biggest fan.” Iafrate added, “There is not a title in the dedication because that’s just not the kind of bishop he was. His ministry was focused on empowering the people of God. He was not worried about different classes of clerics.” Kirkhope recalled, “He was concerned about the earth. Early on, we invited the bishops of central Appalachia to participate in a flyover of mountaintop removal sites. Only three showed up. He was the only one that understood and was completely behind us.”
As the pastoral undeniably ties together the poor and the earth – that to listen to the poor is to listen to the earth – it manages to do so based upon Catholic social justice traditions without being limiting in its appeal. Iafrate explains, “We talk about the planet we live on as having sacredness. That is something we share across traditions when our traditions are at their best. We form a community across traditions. It is deeply rooted in our Catholic faith, but goes beyond it as well, knowing that is how we must all work together.”
The pastoral is divided into three parts. Part One, “Our Stories: The Grounds of our Struggles” tells of the stories gathered through hundreds of interviews by CCA over the last few years, including minorities, those in vulnerable communities and coalfield residents and miners. Part Two, “Our Traditions: The Ground of our Vision,” is rooted in Catholic customs and traditions. Part Three, “Our Actions: The Ground of our Hope,” offers examples of what others are doing to build a region free of the fossil fuel mono-economy and provides some other possible alternatives for consideration.
Artist Christopher Santer, a West Virginia native now living in Minnesota provided the artwork for the covers and a center spread. Iafrate offered, “It’s very striking. We wanted it to be top notch and as prophetic as the words.” The design was done by Liz Pavlovic from Morgantown, W.Va.
Additionally, the Introduction was written by Beth Davies, a Virginia resident and founding CCA member. An Afterword was written by Eddie Sloan of Wheeling, W.Va. and a doctoral candidate at Boston College. His remarks were directed primarily to young people. Notably, the pastoral also includes an Interlude, which was written by Janet Keating, the executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, W.Va. While Iafrate said the use of an Interlude came along out of necessity in determining the arrangement of the pastoral, an Interlude is an old literary device that is generally allegorical and rooted in morality. That is certainly the case with Keaton’s piece, as it is titled, “A Cerulean Warbler Speaks.” Keating explained, “The … interlude is one example of the creative listening that is possible when we take seriously the intrinsic dignity of the smallest voices of creation.”
Iafrate said that the focus on the poor is long overdue and is needed to help “change the stories we tell.” He explained, “Appalachians understand the importance of telling their story. At the same time, we’ve gotten use to telling the same old story of Appalachia. Others tell stories that are based in stereotypes. They’ve bought into the same old story that we are an energy region that provides coal and other resources for America’s needs. It’s like it’s our patriotic duty to sacrifice our well-being. We buy into these myths. We live by them. It shapes the way we live life and community together.
“What this pastoral is saying is that we need to live out alternative stories. We need to lift up the experiences of people that run counter to stories of the region. We need to start hearing stories of people who have been hurt by industry in mountaintop removal and fracking. The main new story we need to tell is that God did not give us this planet only as a resource to exploit, but gave us a home. We need to start changing the story of how we live in harmony with one another and take care of the home we’ve been given to live in.”
That storytelling, he said, is up to modern-day “saints.” Iafrate explains, “The word saint in the document has quotes around it, which signals I am doing something different with this word. We do have saints in the tradition of the church like St. Francis of Assisi that can inspire us. What I mean is that modern day saints are people who have a deep sensitivity for the suffering of people and earth in this region. They provide examples of how to live and work for justice. The best word in our tradition is to use the word saint. It does not mean that we are perfect, but have that fire for justice that is so important for CCA and many communities that are struggling.”
He is hoping such saints will emerge from people of all ages, but particularly in their 20s and 30s. “This change isn’t going to happen without them, without young people. We are all aware of the out migration from West Virginia and Appalachia. It is not getting better. If we want this place we love to thrive, we need to listen to these young people to find out while they’re leaving.” He continued, “They have a vision of what they want their lives to be. They love this area. But they feel they need to leave. It’s a love-hate relationship. They want to stay, but can’t find work. The transformation that we need will not occur without younger people.”
Regardless of one’s age, though, Iafrate points folks back to the pastoral’s title. “We need to take our place in this story. It is our small way of helping marginalized people – of lifting up the magisterium of the poor.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016.
Beth Davis writes in the Foreword, “When the bishops gathered at Vatican II, they described the Church as ‘the People of God’—not only the pope, bishops, and clergy, but the entire People of God. They further articulated in Gaudium et Spes how the Church was to be present in the modern world, and their key was dialogue. It is not a new thing for the Church as institution to lead and speak out on issues it chooses to take a stand on, on its own turf. It is a new thing for the Church to listen, truly listen, to what people are saying in their terms, on their turf,”
Like the first two pastorals, this latest is written in free verse rather than prose. Consequently, to conserve space, line breaks are identified by the / symbol.
All excerpts are © 2015 Catholic Committee of Appalachia. Used with Permission. Selected excerpts follow.
Here in Appalachia, / we are people of stories. / These mountains have heard / the stories we tell, / and have told, / across time and space. / The mountains hold our stories, / and they have stories of their own.
Wherever we are, / and whatever our relationship to these hills, / telling our stories / connects us once again, / takes us home, / and gives us a place / from which we can act for justice.
Today, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) / offers this third pastoral letter / as a prophetic word spoken / for new realities among us. / We recommit to reading the signs of the times, / listening to the stories / of the places and people who hurt most, / to create new paths forward / toward greater justice, peace, and wholeness / for our communities and for creation. /
In this statement, / we recognize a deepening ecological crisis / and new pressures on our struggling communities.
We remember and recommit / to hearing the voices of the poor and of Earth / and to voices we are still learning to discern.
To listen deeply to the authority / of the poor and of Earth in this way,… / as magisterium, … / (is) a recognition / of the different gifts and roles / among the diverse Body of Christ, / and of the truth that there are authorities / to which all of God’s people, / including the powerful, / must bow in humility and reverence.
Many Appalachians, / especially those who live close to desecrated places, / have come to believe that Jesus’ commandment / to love and serve one’s neighbor / includes a special love for our neighbor, Earth.
Mountaintop removal is an act / of radical violence that leaves / monstrous scars across Earth’s body / resembling moonscapes, / dead zones on our planet / which cannot be restored to their prior / life-giving condition in our lifetimes.
Women continue to face / significant barriers in our region / which make fullness of life difficult. … / Sexism is transmitted and upheld / through church traditions / which explicitly or implicitly / misuse scripture and faith traditions / to justify the exclusion, domination, / and abuse of women. / Women’s roles continue to be limited / not only in churches, / but also in the family, in the wider community, / and in the region’s male-centered economy.
Accidents are not as random as they appear, / but are the result of a culture of disregard / for worker safety. / Coal industry villains come and go, / but the attitude which places profit above safety / is deeply embedded in the coal economy.
Miners still struggle regularly / against attempts to roll back / hard-won victories of better pay and benefits. / People of faith, / including laity, religious, and clergy, / have stood with retired miners / in public protests against the attempt / by a handful of mining companies / to eliminate health and retirement benefits / by spinning off their union mines / into new subsidiary companies / and then filing for bankruptcy.
The widespread presence of food insecurity / is an ironic reversal for a region / that was once populated by subsistence farms / and where family gardens were once popular.
Residents near fracking sites / in both rural and urban areas, / as well as health officials, / have begun to describe serious health concerns / connected to this industry.
Many people in our church communities, … / must admit that we have not heard or taken seriously / the experiences of people of color in Appalachia.
Although acts of genocide / against Native people are historical facts, / Native communities are alive and present here today, / including Cherokee, Shawnee, / Blackfoot, and Monacan peoples.
Some Appalachians believe / that same-sex relationships / threaten the natural state of things, / including the institutions of marriage and family. / But many Appalachian people / identify as gay or lesbian, / and have done so throughout history.
We know that the way of life / enjoyed by a small percentage of the human family, / and the distribution of wealth / enjoyed by an even smaller percentage, / are profoundly unjust and unsustainable / and climate change is rapidly / bringing us to the brink of disaster.
Creation is God’s garden, / and … human communities / exist within God’s garden as caretakers, / receiving with gratitude all of God’s good gifts / and using them only in ways / that nurture and sustain life to the full.
We shall no longer be crucified / upon the cross of coal.
Appalachian activism has a long history, / and in the struggles of history and of today, / being an activist is not a hobby or a luxury. / People have decided to act, / and to act boldly, / because life depends on changing / the way we live together. / As Larry Gibson often said, / “We’re either going to be an activist, / or we’re going to be annihilated.”
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Groups assert that state attorney general Patrick Morrisey seeks to invalidate regulations that protect the health and well-being of West Virginia’s residents
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, Kanawha State Forest Coalition, the Mon Valley Clean Air Coalition and Keepers of the Mountains Foundation have moved to intervene in an action previously filed by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and attorneys general from 23 other states. Their actions seek to delay and ultimately invalidate the Clean Power Plan adopted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Clean Power Plan is designed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Under the plan, each state is required to develop a plan on how it is intends to achieve the emission reductions. Under West Virginia law, the governor, with the help of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP), will develop this “State Implementation Plan” and it will be reviewed by the West Virginia legislature before it is submitted to the EPA.
The groups assert that Morrisey seeks to invalidate the regulations that carry out the Clean Power Plan in hopes of preventing the regulations from going into effect while the case is pending in court. They also assert that while he claims to be speaking for all West Virginians, he is not.
“We feel compelled to intervene so that the court will have the benefit of viewpoints other than that of Mr. Morrisey, a viewpoint not shared by all West Virginians,” said Cynthia D. Ellis, president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “This case is about whether we want to live in the present and prepare for the future or cling to the past. Coal has been our main source of electricity for a century. Mr. Morrisey wants to go back to that past, a past that has made West Virginians sick and contributed to climate change. We want to move forward to a future where there is more balance in meeting our energy needs.”
The Motion to Intervene points out that in “literally dozens of recent peer-reviewed studies, diligent medical researchers have documented the fact that particulate matter — whether emitted from electric utility plants directly, or indirectly from the mountaintop removal mining projects from which those utilities obtain their fuel supply — results in statistically significant increases of birth defects, decreased birth weights, diminished educational attainment, increased cancer, pulmonary and cardiac disease, and very substantially decreased life expectancy.”
“This is about who speaks for West Virginia and for West Virginians,” said Janet Keating, executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “Mr. Morrisey presumes to speak for the state and for all of us. His opinion may be that there is a war on coal and that all West Virginians should resist. This is not true. Climate change is a serious problem and we all have to do our part in addressing it.”
Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch , added, “The Clean Power Plan is far from perfect, and we may disagree with what West Virginia ultimately proposes as a plan to reduce emissions. But scrapping the Clean Power Plan entirely and betting West Virginia’s health and economic future on the miraculous resurgence of a polluting finite resource is not a solution.”
The case is filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. West Virginia groups are being represented by William DePaulo, an attorney based in Lewisburg, W.Va.