Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Criticized for Failing to Properly Study Pipeline Impacts
Experts submit reports; more than 10,000 signatures from citizens delivered
MONTEREY, Va. – A group of thirteen expert scientists and engineers submitted reports to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on August 22, finding that the DEQ has failed in its duty to properly analyze and protect against the water quality damages the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would cause to Virginia’s waters.
If approved, the two 42-inch pipelines will traverse through hundreds of miles of Virginia. The ACP would originate in northern West Virginia before ending roughly 600 miles later in southeastern North Carolina. The MVP would also originate in northern West Virginia, traverse hundreds of miles through that state before crossing into Virginia, will it will terminate. The adverse impact upon public health and the environment by the construction and operation of the pipelines has led the tens of thousands of groups and individuals across the Commonwealth and beyond to oppose their construction.
In the reports, one issued for each of the pipelines, the authors wrote that they had reviewed the information DEQ claimed to rely upon in its draft Water Quality Certifications (WQCs) and made their own independent assessments. The experts’ conclusion in each case:
DEQ’s draft WQC, which asserts that there is a “reasonable assurance” that Water Quality Standards (WQS) will be met with the conditions contained in that draft, cannot be supported by the evidence in the record and pertinent scientific authorities and knowledge. Such a finding in the Department’s recommendation to the State Water Control Board (SWCB) would be professionally incompetent and would fail to meet minimum standards of scientific proof.
The authors of the expert report have a vast depth of experience and training (nearly 400 years in professional and academic posts overall) in the entire range of scientific and technical fields pertinent to DEQ’s decisions on the pipelines. They include the incoming president of the American Fisheries Society, a member of the Virginia Cave Board, and former senior engineers and scientists at the Virginia DEQ, the Virginia Department of Transportation, and the Maryland Department of the Environment. The group includes licensed professional engineers and geologists, professors from Virginia Tech and Washington and Lee University, authors of hundreds of peer-reviewed academic papers, and those who’ve served as expert witnesses in court for DEQ and other state and federal agencies. A complete list of the authors is included below.
“The authors of this report used strong language in our criticism of the proposed findings DEQ has made in its draft Certifications for the pipelines, because we are frankly dismayed to see an agency that’s supposed to base regulatory decisions on science and law ignore the facts and betray the public,” said David Sligh, Conservation Director of Wild Virginia and a Regulatory Systems Investigator for the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC). The two groups included the expert reports as part of extensive submittals to DEQ during the comment periods that ended yesterday.
Rick Webb, DPMC’s Coordinator said, “We are not criticizing the dedicated technical employees at DEQ and the other state agencies who’ve studied the potential impacts from the hugely-disruptive projects. In fact, we cited the recommendations agency staff made in previous comments in which they explained why much more data and analyses were needed before protection of state waters could be assured, as the law requires; that permanent damages to our waterbodies could result and residents’ wells and springs ruined without additional information and protective measures.”
“What we are criticizing is the McAuliffe administration’s regulatory proposals, which ignore the concerns and devalue the expertise of their own technical staff,” stated Sligh. “DEQ must not proceed with flawed and scientifically-unsupported recommendations to the State Water Control Board to approve Certifications for either project. If Director Paylor, Secretary of Natural Resources Ward, and the Governor mandate such an approach, then the members of the Water Control Board must play their roles as protectors of the public and reject those recommendations.”
The reports’ authors include: Dr. Paul L. Angermeier, Ralph Bolgiano, Malcolm CameronHE, David Collins, P.E., Ari Daniels, Dr. Pam Dodds, P.G., Dr. David Harbor, Robert K. Johnson, Rick Lambert, William Limpert, Dr. Brian Murphy, David Sligh and Rick Webb. For more information, including access to the complete expert report on the ACP and additional DPMC reports on the draft 401 Water Quality Certification, visit the DPMC website.
10,000 Comments Delivered to DEQ by Environmental Groups
Also on Tuesday, experts, landowners, and environmental groups from across the Commonwealth gathered at DEQ headquarters in Richmond to deliver thousands of public comments related to DEQ’s 401 water certification process.
The comments, collected by the Sierra Club, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Appalachian Voices, Bold Alliance, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, and Oil Change International urged the DEQ to do more in order to meet the agency’s obligations to protect Virginia’s water sources from natural gas pipeline construction and operations.
“DEQ’s draft Certification is legally and scientifically indefensible,” David Sligh, former Senior Engineer at Virginia’s DEQ, said. “The processes DEQ has conducted have been unfair and inadequate to satisfy the Governor’s promises of thorough and transparent regulatory reviews. The State Water Control Board cannot certify these projects unless it can assure that all state water quality standards will be met. A rigorous scientific analysis would prove such a conclusion is impossible.”
The public comments urge Governor McAuliffe and DEQ Director David Paylor to direct the DEQ to extend the public comment period for these projects and to conduct site-specific reviews and permits for each waterway crossed by both of these pipelines. The DEQ has originally announced to the public that it would undergo site-specific reviews for these pipelines in April, but announced in June that they that the agency would instead opt to rely on the Army Corps of Engineers’ blanket permitting process.
“The Corps’ process is woefully inadequate to protect our water,” Bill Limpert, a property owner in Bath County whose property would be traversed by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, said. “We looked at the Corps’ map of our property and we have two streams that are not even present on that map. How are they supposed to protect our waterways if they don’t even know where they are?”
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Mr. Perriello demonstrates courage and leadership that are too rare
By Michael M. Barrick
RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia voters will go to the polls on June 13 to select nominees for governor. For those that care about the human and environmental health of Virginia, and for those that have devoted their lives to stopping the ill-advised Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Appalachian Chronicle believes the evidence is clear – Democratic candidate Tom Perriello is the best choice for Virginians and their neighbors.
While the race will be watched closely with those obsessed about reading political tea leaves and what it means about upcoming national election cycles in 2018 and 2020, many folks in Virginia – as well as neighboring West Virginia and North Carolina – have far more immediate concerns. They wish to protect their families, homes and communities from the inevitable, permanent and negative impacts upon human and environmental health that will be caused by the pipelines.
Mr. Perriello is an ally of those fighting fracking and the pipelines. He has issued position papers on the environment and building a clean energy future which are based in sound science and reject profit over people. Indeed, in taking on Richmond-based Dominion Energy, he has clearly demonstrated courage.
What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” – Pope Francis
A couple of years ago, I was asked by a well-known environmental group to speak to the relevance of the ecological encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” by Pope Francis as it applies to Appalachia.
This group clearly understands the root cause of the problems we face. It didn’t take long for several people to assert that the most important statement in the encyclical was not about the environment, but leadership. In paragraph 57 of the encyclical, Pope Francis asks, “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” In fact, as his is blunt nature, the pope said also, “We lack leadership” (no. 53).
That is the first reason Virginia and Appalachian residents need Mr. Perriello to be the next governor of Virginia. He has demonstrated the leadership required by the times.
The second reason is that the state agencies charged with protecting the environment are simply not doing it. Dozens of groups and thousands of residents of Virginia have been denied critical information. Mr. Perriello has promised to return transparency and proper enforcement to Virginia government. One example of why this is so critical just came in from Rick Webb, the program coordinator for the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, based in Monterey.
In an email, Webb wrote, “The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality announced on April 6th that it would conduct full, site-specific regulatory reviews for both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline under the Clean Water Act and state law.” He revealed, however, “DEQ officials now say (seven weeks later) that inaccurate information was provided to the public, and that the DEQ will instead rely on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine stream crossings, which will number in the hundreds for each project.”
Webb continued, “DEQ’s current backpedaling is but the latest manifestation of Dominion’s resistance to providing site-specific plans for agency and public review. Dominion doesn’t want the public to understand the real impact of the project until after it has its approvals in hand. The same is no doubt true for the MVP developers.”
Mr. Perriello has pledged to require state agencies to do their jobs. That begins with holding Dominion and its partners accountable. To that end, we are hopeful that Mr. Perriello would embrace the Precautionary Principle to justify placing a moratorium on pipeline development, fracking and related activities.
The Precautionary Principle, according to the Science & Environmental Health Network, asserts, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.” It is a philosophy embraced by public and environmental health experts the world over.
As Pope Francis wrote, “This precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (no. 186).
This is the third reason that we support Mr. Perriello. His many position papers demonstrate an overarching, preferential concern for the poor and vulnerable.
Mr. Perriello has demonstrated leadership. He is standing with the people. We hope the people of Virginia will stand with him on Election Day – in June and November.”
Mr. Perriello has risked his political career by aligning himself with the people, with human health, and with the environment in direct defiance of the wishes of Dominion Energy. This election is an opportunity for the people of Virginia to honor not Dominion, but the best characteristics of the Old Dominion – concern for one’s neighbor, an understanding of the value and beauty of the land, and a fierce determination to maintain individual liberty.
A vote for Mr. Perriello will accomplish that. His courage is rare and a good reason alone to endorse him. He is clearly the best candidate to protect human and environmental health. Finally, he understands that our problems are symptomatic of a much more dangerous problem our nation faces – the lack of solid, authentic, courageous leaders. Well, Mr. Perriello has demonstrated leadership. He is standing with the people. We hope the people of Virginia will stand with him on Election Day – in June and November.
© The Appalachian Chronicle, 2017.
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Dangers of fracking, benefits of Clean Energy in West Virginia are covered in the 28-page newspaper, Renew West Virginia
By Michael M. Barrick
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – One of the most established and influential environmental and social justice organizations in West Virginia is printing and distributing 29,000 copies of its own newspaper – Renew West Virginia.
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) stated in a news release, “The publication … examines the health and pollution impacts of the fracking boom in other areas of West Virginia, and details fracking-related projects proposed for the greater Huntington area. It also explores the nationwide growth of renewable energy and related jobs, with a focus on the renewable energy efforts underway in Cabell and Wayne counties.
It will be distributed to residents of Cabell, Wayne, Putnam, Jackson and Roane counties. It is being sent to those “ … who reside near some of the proposed pipelines and their associated compressors stations,” explained OVEC in the statement. It is also available online.
The proposed route for the Mountaineer XPress Pipeline, as provided by Columbia Gas Transmission online.
The newspaper has been published, said OVEC in its release, to answer the question, “What is our energy future?” The question is timely, argued the organization. It noted, “A total of nine large diameter pipelines are proposed to come through the Huntington area. Unlike the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline, which are largely completed already, the fracked-gas pipelines proposed for the Huntington area are not yet in construction, and some are still in the planning phases.”
It continued, “Columbia’s Leach XPress pipeline is planned to bore under the Ohio River near Camden Amusement Park, and Columbia’s Mountaineer XPress pipeline is currently in the public comment phase. There is also industry discussion now about fracking the very deep Rogersville Shale which underlies the Huntington area.”
As pipeline companies seek eminent domain rights, we need to remember that informed and organized people can demand their rights, protect their property, and contribute to a better energy future for our state and nation.” – OVEC Executive Director Natalie Thompson
There is a better way, argues OVEC in Renew West Virginia. OVEC Executive Director Natalie Thompson said, “All across the United States, a new energy for citizen action is emerging. We need to tap into that energy and work with others concerned about the severe climate impacts of these planned developments in our neighborhoods.” She continued, “As pipeline companies seek eminent domain rights, we need to remember that informed and organized people can demand their rights, protect their property, and contribute to a better energy future for our state and nation.”
Robin Blakeman, OVEC’s project coordinator, added, “We see the problems our neighbors in north central West Virginia have faced with the rise of deep shale fracking-related activities. We’ve published Renew West Virginia because we want to make certain that people know deep shale fracking-related activities are not the same as our grandfathers’ oil and gas industry.” She added, “Renewable is doable! We can choose to move West Virginia’s economy into the 21st century by embracing cleaner renewable energy.”
Indeed, the impact of fracking upon the state’s northern counties, as well as residents in Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere are revealed in the newspaper. On page 3, under the headline, “Not Your Grandfather’s Oil and Gas Industry,” a new fracking well pad dwarfs an older well. With that startling contrast catching your attention, readers are informed, “To learn what this oil and gas rush would mean for our communities, we look to our northern neighbors. Explore these pages to learn more about what our region faces, about fracking-related activities, and about cleaner, healthier alternatives.”
A number of topics are covered, including the growth of renewable energy. There is also a section on the Rogersville Shale field – 12 to 14 thousand feet under about 12 counties in West Virginia and several more in Kentucky – which is in the sights of the gas industry. The Marcellus Shale, in contrast, is about 5,000 feet below the surface. The publication asserts, “If the Rogersville Shale is extensively developed, the Huntington/Wayne County area would be harmed by unprecedented deep fracking, with much of the oil and gas apparently slated for export overseas.”
Additionally, the publication points out that much of the gas being extracted from the West Virginia shale fields are earmarked for export, despite federal regulations designed to prevent that. It shows how a state court victory for citizens could thwart industry plans to export the gas they seek to extract. The ruling prevents gas companies from accessing private property. Hence, depending upon other factors, the ruling could severely limit construction, and hence production and, ultimately, export of the fracked gas. Consequently, the construction of pipelines and compressor stations, not to mention the many adverse impacts of fracking, could conceivably be severely restricted by West Virginians firmly standing for their rights.
In that decision from a case in Monroe County, the West Virginia Supreme Court upheld a ruling by Monroe County Judge Robert A. Irons ruling that landowners do have the right to prevent pipeline surveyors from coming on their property to survey for the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). This was a clear win in checking gas companies’ abuse of eminent domain. He ruled what MVP’s attempts to get on private property without permission based on the premise of eminent domain is illegal because it was “private taking for private use.” In other words, the pipeline is not for public benefit, affirmed the court, but for the profit of the energy companies building them.
Other issues explored include public health and environmental complaints in Pennsylvania; the impact upon water supplies from depletion of lakes to pollution through leaching; earthquakes occurring where none had before the fracking boom; public health impacts, ecological risks, and overall nuisances of fracking well pads; and, a review of the impact of nine proposed pipelines, many of which would run under or near the Ohio River.
Readers are also encouraged to know and defend their rights. “Folks in West Virginia living along the paths of these proposed pipelines are advised: If pipeline land men come looking for you, know your rights! OVEC can suggest knowledgeable and trustworthy lawyers.”
The dangers of compressor stations are illustrated vividly through the photo of a child who was part of a health study in New York. As noted in the caption, residents suffered from asthma, nosebleeds, headaches, and rashes. On the same page, readers learn. “The Pennsylvania Medical Society has called for a moratorium on new shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing.”
In-depth reporting is provided on the “typical steps” for a Marcellus Shale gas operation. Numerous photos tell their own stories. Radioactivity in fracking well waste is explored. The paper notes, “In December 2016, the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters reported on a study that found some well waste from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania contained radioactive material not previously reported, with the potential for leaching from landfills into the environment.” Over two pages, Renew West Virginia thoroughly reviews the science that proves fracking creates radioactive waste. Furthermore, they note that disposal of it is barely, if at all, regulated.
The newspaper also includes news of grassroots victories against pipelines; points out that the clean energy economy employs four million people in the United States; and, provides extensive analysis of solar energy.
OVEC will distribute copies of Renew West Virginia at an informational meeting at 6 p.m. on Wed., March 15 at the Main Cabell County Library, 455 9th Street (at the corner of 5th Ave. and 9th St. in downtown Huntington).
To contact OVEC or to learn more about Renew West Virginia, click here.
What is fracking?
Fracking is a slang word for hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting a fluid consisting of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into shale. This fractures the rock, releasing natural gas, which is then extracted. In West Virginia, the Marcellus shale, a layer of rock 3,500 – 8,000 feet below the surface, is the object of fracking. The vertical depth of the formation is about 150 feet. Whether recovered or left behind, the frack fluid presents problems. The wastewater contains not only the chemicals added to the water, but also heaving minerals and radioactive materials recovered as part of the extraction process.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017
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Hundreds of Nonprofit Organizations Join to Demand Reform of ‘Rogue Agency’
WASHINGTON – More than 180 organizations representing communities across America, including West Virginia, called on leaders in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold congressional hearings into the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) extensive history of bias and abuse. The groups are also requesting reform of the Natural Gas Act, which the groups say, gives too much power to FERC and too little to state and local officials.
“The time has now come for Congress to investigate how FERC is using its authority and to recognize that major changes are in fact necessary in order to protect people, including future generations, from the ramifications of FERC’s misuse of its power and implementation of the Natural Gas Act,” says Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and a primary organizer of the effort.
“The Greenbrier River Watershed has two pipelines proposed: Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley, yet FERC refused to do a Programmatic EIS to look at the need for two pipelines,” says Leslee McCarty, coordinator of the Greenbrier River Watershed Association. “We hope Congress, instead of speeding up approvals for these projects, will force FERC to look closely at need, especially in light of global climate change.”
“The FERC represents the epitome of what the world has come to recognize as a rogue regime: unbridled power over citizens and unquestionable allegiance to and cooperation with unethical, socially unjust and environmentally dismissive corporations,” says Monroe County, WV resident Laurie Ardison, co-chair of POWHR (Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights).” For the citizens of this country to be victims of the FERC is unconscionable. Congress must reign in this agency which left unchecked, will continue to foster incalculable harms as the fossil fuel industry develops beyond need.”
McCarty adds, “Fracked gas may prove to be even more of a dirty fuel than coal. Yet in the US, and especially in West Virginia, we are asked to embrace this dirty business as our savior. It is a testimony to slick public relations and strategic campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies, and keeps us on a dangerous path to certain disastrous climate change and boom and bust economic development. This is the time for West Virginia to look to revitalize our energy portfolio and keep sustainable jobs, not continue to be led down the painful road we have traveled in the past.”
The letter to Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairwoman Lisa Murkoski (R-AK), Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA), signed by 182 community organizations representing communities in 35 states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, West Virginia as well as the District of Columbia, argues that FERC’s review and approval process for jurisdictional pipeline projects is infected by bias; and that it is resulting in uncontrolled and irresponsible proliferation of unneeded natural gas pipelines. Finally, the letter charges the agency with misusing provisions in the law to strip people and states of their legal rights, to prevent fair public participation in the pipeline review process, and to improperly use the power of eminent domain to take private property and public lands in a way that inflicts unforgivable harm to rights, jobs, and communities.
The letter details how FERC has implemented the Natural Gas Act in ways that deliberately undermine public input. FERC has prevented communities from challenging projects before the exercise of eminent domain and pipeline construction, made decisions to benefit its Commissioners, and used conflicted consultants to handle much of the review process.
In addition to calling for hearings into FERC and the Natural Gas Act, the letter opposes any further advancement of language in the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 meant to shorten critical pipeline review periods. Signers of the letter argue that the proposed law should be held in abeyance until after the hearings, where Congress will learn “how people’s rights, state’s rights, and the environment are already being abused under the implementation of the Natural Gas Act and so will be further harmed by passage of provisions proposed in the new law.”
Upon Congressional review, DRN and fellow parties demand the reforms necessary to address FERC’s extensive abuse of power, which requires revising the Natural Gas Act to prevent the misuse and exploitation that has been rampant. Additionally, the organizations seek affirmative action to remedy FERC’s problematic funding structure.
“FERC is corrupt and needs to be reformed,” says Paul L Gierosky, cofounder, Coalition to Reroute Nexus. “The evidence is overwhelming and clear as is set forth in the request for Congressional Hearings. It is time for Congress to hold FERC accountable.”
“The number of frack gas pipelines is exploding and the feds are not only not applying appropriate oversight, but are in fact also enabling the trampling of people’s property rights, public health standards, and environmental protection,” says David Pringle, NJ Campaign Director, Clean Water Action. “This letter is a clarion call to action for Congress to rein in this modern day Wild West that if left unchecked will lead to even worse abuses and explosions.”
A pdf of the letter is available here:
West Virginia Department of Environment Protection needs to hear more voices
By John W. Cobb, Jr.
IRELAND, W.Va. – With 11 counties in West Virginia projected to be affected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) route should it receive approval, voices from one end of the state to the other must be heard. The West Virginia Department of Environment Protection (WVDEP) needs to hear from citizens while there is still time. The potential impacts to water supplies (aquifers), streams, wetlands and rivers is significant; therefore citizens need to write the WVDEP to request public hearings in the affected counties.
So far, such requests are working.
The WVDEP Division of Water and Waste Management (DWWM) will be extending the public comment period on the State 401 Water Quality Certification for the proposed MVP project until further notice. It takes only a few minutes to send them a letter or email requesting a public hearing in your county so you can learn and get answers to your concerns.
Originally, the public comment period, which is required under state regulation 47CSR5A, would have ended next week, but because of widespread public interest in the proposed project, DWWM will be scheduling public hearings to discuss certification of the proposed project. Information about the dates and locations of those hearings will be made public as soon as plans are finalized.
The WVDEP says they will likely prioritize holding public hearings based on the counties generating the most comments. For now, those are from Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers counties. We need more folks along the MVP Route to respond now. We need to help get the word out to folks further up along the proposed route, including Wetzel, Doddridge, Harrison, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Nicholas, and Fayette counties. Every citizen along the route needs reasonable access to public hearings. By writing the WVDEP, it will increase the chance that no citizen will be left out.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a $3.5 billion project, developed by EQT Corp., and it involves a 42-inch-diameter pipeline that would run 301 miles south from the Equitrans L.P. transmission system near the MarkWest Energy Mobley Complex in Wetzel County to a Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Co. compressor station in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. This project is one of multiple pipeline projects currently under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) one of the other projects is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that will run somewhat parallel and north of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
When issuing certification, DWWM’s 401 Certification Program may consider the proposed activity’s impact on water resources, fish and wildlife, recreation, critical habitats, wetlands and other natural resources. In its 401 certification application, EQT anticipates that the MVP project will have temporary impacts to approximately 49,892 linear feet of streams and 18.9 acres of wetlands and permanent impacts to approximately 3,125 linear feet of streams and 10 acres of wetlands within the Mountain State.
Comments and information relating to the certification should be emailed to DEP.firstname.lastname@example.org, with “MVP 401 Certification” in the subject line or mailed to:
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Water and Waste Management
401 Certification Program
601 57th Street SE
Charleston, WV 25304
Responding now with a request for a public hearing in your county will give you and your neighbors a chance to express your concerns to the West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection.
(C) John W. Cobb, Jr., 2016. Mr. Cobb writes from his home in Ireland, W.Va.
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Note: The original version of this article listed 12 counties. The correct number is 11. We regret the error.
Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition petitioned state official to make public information about pipeline regulatory reviews
MONTEREY, Va. – On May 5, 2016, the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC) sent a Petition for Writ of Mandamus and Injunctive Relief to Angela Navarro, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources, and David Paylor, Director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to compel the state to provide information about regulatory reviews of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) proposals. The Petition, prepared for filing in the Virginia Circuit Court in Richmond, describes how state officials have violated duties under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The next day, Friday, May 6th, Deputy Secretary Navarro and Director Paylor responded through their counsel, Assistant Attorney General, David Grandis, indicating that they will provide the requested documents early this week.
Before the state indicated it would provide the documents, Rick Webb, DPMC Coordinator, said, “We are disappointed that Virginia’s environmental officials have failed to live up to a law designed to give Virginian’s open access to their own government. Nearly three weeks ago, we asked for public records that would help us and other citizens understand what the State intends to do to protect citizens and the environment from damages the pipelines could cause.” He continued, “Officials are supposed to respond to such information requests within five business days but we received no reply for nearly three weeks. Finally yesterday (May 4) they acknowledged they’d received our letter but did not offer to provide the information we’ve requested.”
The Virginia DEQ has a duty, under the federal Clean Water Act and Virginia Water Protection laws, to review the gas pipeline proposals and ensure that no project goes forward unless all water quality standards will be met, argued Webb. However, as DPMC’s April 14 letter recounts, Virginia DEQ seems to be willing to cover both ACP and MVP under “general permits,” essentially rubber stamping the projects under blanket approvals issued in 2012 and intended only for small projects that pose little risk to waters, Webb argued. DPMC sought public records through the April request to clarify the state’s positions and to question whether the DEQ is able to justify its approach.
The Petition can be accessed here. The FOIA request was included in an April 14th letter, which can be accessed here. The letter objected to the state’s apparent intention to certify the ACP and MVP under general permits issued in 2012. The FOIA request sought information related to the following questions concerning both the ACP and MVP:
1) Has DEQ deemed the Joint Application and/or other information submitted for the projects to be complete and accurate such that DEQ is able to make a formal finding as to the projects’ eligibility for coverage under Virginia’s blanket 401 water quality certification?
2) Has the Corps of Engineers indicated to DEQ that the projects meet the Corps’ requirements for coverage under the general Nationwide Permit 12?
3) Has DEQ made a tentative or final finding that the projects comply with the conditions of the blanket 401 certification for Nationwide Permit 12?
4) Has DEQ requested and/or received additional information from the applicants, in addition to that contained in the Joint Applications, to reveal proposed construction and detailed pollution control methods and analyze possible water quality impacts?
According to DPMC, this is the second time this year that Virginia officials have violated the Freedom of Information Act after DPMC requested records on the gas pipelines. In an earlier case, Carlos Hopkins, Counsel to Governor McAuliffe, failed to provide records within the required period. On March 4, 2016, David Sligh of DPMC wrote Hopkins: “I believe the Governor’s Office is now in violation of the time requirement for response to FOIA requests, under 37 § 2.2-3704. You informed me that the check sent on behalf of DPMC was received at your office on February 15 or 16. Therefore, the records or an appropriate response should have been sent no later than Feb. 23.” Less than two hours after receiving Sligh’s note, Mr. Hopkins provided the documents but failed to explain the failure to abide by the law.
“This legal action is about much more than an arbitrary deadline or a technicality,” Rick Webb stated: “It’s about the McAuliffe administration’s respect for the rights of citizens trying to play their proper roles and protect their communities and natural resources. The law says a failure to properly respond to a FOIA request is the same as refusing the request outright. We won’t accept a refusal of our rights.”
New Layers Added to DPMC ACP map, including blast radius and evacuation zones
According to DPMC, additional map layers have been added to the ACP-Environmental Mapping System. Features include:
1) Estimated blast radius and evacuation zone for the proposed ACP.
2) Updated ACP construction corridor and access roads for the 10/30/15 and 4/15/16 submissions to FERC.
3) Direct and core forest loss associated with the proposed ACP construction corridor and access roads.
4) Virginia property parcels.
5) Stream crossings. (Information on crossing methods and environmental factors will be added).
The current version of the ACP-Environmental Mapping system can be accessed via the DPMC website, www.pipelineupdate.org. The link is in the right-hand sidebar.
© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016.
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As West Virginia legislature prepares to adjourn, resident warns of dangers to property rights
By John Cobb
There are several currently proposed bills in the West Virginia Legislature now that could seriously hurt our rights as property owners:
Senate bill 508 would destroy a more than 200-year-old law that allows citizens the right to file “Nuisance Suits” against neighbors or companies who harm their property values or their right to the pursuit of happiness on their property. This bill is currently in the House Judiciary committee. While it is not expected to pass, it is essential to keep pressure on House members.
Would Senate Bill 596 would allow gas and pipeline companies to come onto private property to survey your land for pipelines which may not even be in the public interest. This is actually legalizing trespassing. Though dead for now after a defeat in the Senate, voters should be aware of who supported this as they prepare to vote this year.
Senate bill 601 would forces West Virginia Landfill authorities to take drill cuttings from Marcellus Wells which may include contaminated waste and radioactive materials that could pose risks to our aquifers and water supplies. Good water is every West Virginian’s God-given right. It is presently under consideration in the House.
None of these bills should be amended! They are wrong in any possible form.
None of these Senate Bills should come to the full Legislative floor for a vote.
All these Bills should be killed/stopped – NOW!
These Senate Bills seem to be totally for the benefit of the Marcellus Drilling and Pipeline companies and are putting our property rights, values, lives and peace of mind at risk. The out-of-state companies will be gone in ten years, but many of our property rights could be gone forever. It’s time to act to get involved!
Our Senators will not be representing “the majority” of their constituents if they sponsor or support or vote for these Senate bills!
Please watch closely how your elected representatives vote in this session of the Legislature. It is important that they vote for our property rights.
It just does not seem to stop. Governor Tomblin asked the West Virginia Senate to Pass Senate bill 419. This bill would eliminate some of the revenue derived from the state severance tax on oil and gas extraction by 4.7 cents per thousand cubic feet of natural gas (along with a fee on coal extraction).
Call me thunderstruck, but this tax revenue cut comes at a time when our state has a shortfall of over $350 million in the budget.
Yes, the fee was originally to be used to pay down the state’s old workers’ compensation debts and Tomblin had promised that once the debt was paid, the fee would be lifted.
Guess what. Our state senators have unanimously passed Senate bill 419 and it is now awaiting the Governor’s signature. If signed, we will lose this potential tax revenue source that could help us fix our state’s budget. So I ask you, “Who is working to fix our budget”?
Finally, we need to kill any bill that supports forced pooling.
Two such bill are SB646 and HB 4639 which support forced pooling. These bills will allow drilling under a surface owner’s property without their consent and without benefit to the surface owner. These are the worst forced pooling bills ever. Last year the legislature tried to pass a forced pooling bill and it failed because it is an unfair concept and an unfair law.
I thought this was the year that our infrastructure was to have been top priority. What happened?
Our roads and bridges need repair and improvement. We need new roads. We still need to get good water to the thousands of folks who are on spring or well water. Yes, many families are still in need of reliable city water. So many people today in our state are still living as third world citizens.
So ask your representative why they are working so hard on taking away more of our rights.
There has never been a more important time to watch what is going on in Charleston!
There is still time to contact your elected officials. So take action now to protect your property rights.
These bills are taking away people’s rights and it is unfair to take away the legal system from ordinary citizens.
You can check a bill’s status at: http://www.legis.state.wv.us/ and you can also find your legislator by clicking on Senate or Delegate and then Member to get the phone number or email address to contact your representative.
You can make a positive impact. Take the time to protect your property rights now.
The West Virginia Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on Saturday.
© John Cobb, 2016. Mr. Cobb writes from his farm in Ireland, W.Va.
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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.
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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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Ecological Monitoring Group Challenges Virginia Governor to be Transparent about Pipeline Deliberations
Virginia-based Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition request documents that relate to directives from Governor Terry McAuliffe to state employees about the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines
RICHMOND, Va. – The Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC) has filed a request with Governor Terry McAuliffe for documents that relate to the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines. The request, filed under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), asks for all pipeline-related documents in the governor’s office that have been sent between Virginia state agencies and the governor’s office and any sent between companies associated with the two pipeline proposals and the governor.
The Roanoke Times recently reported that Governor McAuliffe “…wants state agencies to brief his office before department employees comment publicly about two deeply controversial interstate natural gas pipeline projects that have received the governor’s blessing.”
According to Rick Webb, Coordinator of the DPMC, “That (newspaper) report sparked citizen concerns that essential findings and opinions from scientific and regulatory experts in Virginia government may not reach the public or may be changed before release. The fact that the governor joined Dominion Power officials to tout the Atlantic Coast Pipeline before any state environmental or safety reviews could be begun, let alone be completed, heightened these citizen concerns.”
David Sligh, a Senior Regulatory Systems Investigator with DPMC, who filed the request with Governor McAuliffe, wrote “[w]e and the many thousands of individuals, along with numerous organizations and local government bodies who have serious concerns about the ways these pipelines would affect communities and the environment depend on you to protect our interests but also accept the responsibility to be vigilant and involved actors in public decisional processes. We know that you support our rights to do so and trust you will act to allow us to exercise those rights.”
The Virginia General Assembly, in enacting the FOIA, wrote that “[t]he affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government” and they stated a goal “to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government.”
Webb said, “If provided the information requested, DPMC will use it to play our proper role in our government and will make it available to our fellow Virginians. We ask now that the governor work with us to ‘promote an increased awareness’ in the state’s activities related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”
He continued, “We ask the governor to provide access to all of the requested information, and to live up to commitments he made before taking office. As Governor-elect, Mr. McAuliffe pledged to set a new standard of ‘transparent, accountable, state government that is beholden only to the taxpayers who fund it… .’ Virginians should never have to question who their leaders are putting first.”