Fellow students respond favorably to comic strip about Mountaintop Removal
Editor’s note: On Dec. 1 we published an article about Olivia Bouzigard’s efforts to educate herself and others at Appalachian State University about the deadly impact of Mountaintop Removal (MTR). I asked her to write an essay explaining how she chose the topic and method for teaching it. She explains below. Personally, I extend thanks to her instructor, Heather Custer, who has the rare ability to challenge her students to demonstrate evidence of minds at work. Also, the illustration is published again, just in case you missed it the first time. – MB
By Olivia Bouzigard
BOONE, N.C. – I am a sophomore at Appalachian State University (ASU) with a major in Public Relations and minors in Recreational Management and Philosophy. I am currently enrolled in a writing class where I was to take on the task of writing about an issue that I thought was important. When I came to ASU as a first year student, I was enrolled in a recreational management class where I learned about Mountaintop Removal (MTR). This was the issue that I chose to write about.
The first part of the project dealt with composing a white paper of the research that I had done. I interviewed several people, read books, watched a documentary and read through health studies people had researched about MTR. Finally, the second part of the project was to come up with another way to present this information. I chose to make a comic strip that combined all my research together into three simple illustrations. Then as part of the project’s requirements we had to somehow present this information. I chose to set up a contact table in the student union on campus and ask people for their time as I passed out my comic and taught them about MTR.
Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.
As students passed by the table I would stop them to ask if I could have a few minutes of their time. For those who said yes, I followed with the simple question: Do you know what Mountaintop Removal is? Those who said they did, I asked how they knew what it was and asked them to give me a description. Many said they had learned about it at ASU or in a class in high school, which I thought was interesting.
I then asked them to give a brief description of what they knew about MTR. One student responded, “It has to do with our energy and stuff, right?” Another student said, “I know that it is bad.” However, no one could give me an overall quick description of it. A key goal of my project was to help students to be able to quickly define it, so in the comic strip, I start off with a definition of MTR from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those who said they did not know what mountaintop removal was, that definition is the one I used.
I then explained the comic to the students that stopped by. I shared that the mountain is upset because it has no say in whether it is destroyed or not. Coal companies are known for coming in quickly, destroying the area, and then quickly leaving. Their focus is only on the coal and nothing else. Then the comic moves into air that is upset and lungs that are upset. The purpose of this drawing is because many people are breathing in the particles from the removal sites and do not realize it, so their lungs become damaged. The final picture shows a sad house, a sad human and an angry crane. This illustrates that MTR not only devastates the mountains but devastates the towns and ruins them. It also is illustrating that the people of these towns have no say in whether these coal companies come and they just wait for them to leave. The angry crane shows that the coal company is just there to get the job done and leave.
Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.
After presenting the comic to students, I asked if it was helpful. Everyone said yes. Comments included that they now know what it is. There were many comments of gratitude for sharing the information and acknowledgements that MTR is a significant public health and environmental issue.
Still, I am not done. I know that people have spent lifetimes learning about opposing MTR, so I intend to continue to educate myself about MTR, keeping others informed and finding alternatives. The comic strip was a first, but very powerful step for me and those I taught.
© Olivia Bouzigard, 2017.
MTR photo courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. To learn more about their work, visit their website.
A mind at work inspired research and response
By Michael M. Barrick
BOONE, N.C. – In late October, a professor at Appalachian State University (ASU) reached out to me because she had a student that wanted to learn more about Mountaintop Removal (MTR). I immediately contacted the student, and within two weeks we were meeting at a coffee shop in Boone.
Olivia Bouzigard, a graduate of a high school in Raleigh, N.C., confided to me that until she enrolled at ASU, she had never heard of MTR. So, prior to and following our meeting, I sent her links and information about people and organizations in Appalachia – in particularly West Virginia – that were fighting to end MTR because of its deadly effects on people and the destruction it caused to vital ecosystems and watersheds.
I was impressed even before I met her, as our email exchanges revealed evidence of a mind at work. When I finally met Olivia, her interest and concern were clear. I don’t keep track of time well, so I don’t know how long we met, but it wasn’t long enough to tell her everything she needed to know. It didn’t matter. From that meeting, Olivia ran with it.
What is impressive about her interest is that MTR is not really relevant to her major. She just cared. So, the other – and perhaps most important thing that impressed me about Olivia – is that she defied the stereotype that I hear from far too many people – that the current college-aged generation is self-absorbed.
As I traveled down the mountain back home from our meeting, I wasn’t sure what Olivia would do with her new knowledge and interest, but I was confident she would do something. Oh my, did she ever. The comic above says more in five simple illustrations than the thousands of words I have written about MTR. Most noteworthy is that she is using the comic to educate her fellow students at ASU.
So to Olivia and her like-minded peers, I say, Bravo! Thank you for caring about the poor and vulnerable. Thank you for caring for the environment. Thank you for looking beyond your own concerns to the needs of others. Thank you for being creative. Finally, thank you for challenging people of all ages to educate themselves about MTR and other assaults upon Appalachia and all of the sacred earth which sustains us.
Finally, thank you for giving me hope about the future. When I was teaching, I always challenged my students with this guiding tenet: Every day, all that I ask is that I see evidence of minds at work. With Olivia, that is exactly what I experienced.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017. “Classic Mountaintop Removal” comic, © Olivia Bouzigard, 2017
Dispute is a distraction causing some environmentalists to miss the forest for the trees
By Michael M. Barrick
WESTON, W.Va. – On April 27, five environmental groups released a statement pointing out that the plans for the proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would include widespread destruction – what they termed “decapitation” – of nearly 40 miles of mountain ridge tops along the proposed route, including just a few miles from here.
In alerting the public to the devastating impact of these plans by Dominion Resources, the groups issued a news release with the headline, “Atlantic Coast Pipeline Would Trigger Extensive Mountaintop Removal.” In response, the groups were attacked by some other environmentalists who claim that what is planned by Dominion does not constitute Mountaintop Removal (MTR).
In fact, it has led to quite an online discussion – a discussion that has been relatively polite but undeniably silly. I fail to see the consternation over making a distinction. Dominion is planning on removing the tops of mountains. What else to call it? Calling it what it is does not diminish the horrors of MTR as we’ve come to see it. However, failing to call this type of pipeline construction MTR does diminish the horrors it will unleash upon our communities and the land that supports them.
So, when we received the news release, we headlined our article, “ACP Would Require Extensive Mountaintop Removal.” I’ve had a couple of readers object to the use of the MTR moniker. I have responded that at the Appalachian Chronicle we will continue to call it Mountaintop Removal because that is what it is. Whether the fossil fuel industry extracts gas, oil or coal, the outcome is the same: destroyed sacred mountaintops.
Mountaintop Removal is Mountaintop Removal. That is what I’m going to call it, because that’s what the hell it is.”
This type of discord within the environmental social justice community is exactly what Dominion Resources and their co-conspirators in the fossil fuel industry want. What is most disturbing is that it is a self-inflicted wound.
The odds are stacked against us. Let us not get bogged down in semantics; in doing so, we give ammunition to the energy industry. Let us agree, that when you remove the tops of mountains, create millions of tons of overburden, destroy streams and forests, and harm public health, what you are doing is MTR. The scale is irrelevant. Destruction is destruction.
And Mountaintop Removal is Mountaintop Removal. That is what I’m going to call it, because that’s what the hell it is.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017
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So-called ‘Nuisance’ legislation filed after more than 200 state residents living in fracking fields filed nuisance suits against Antero Resources and others
By Michael M. Barrick
WEST UNION, W.Va. – Here in the heart of the Marcellus Shale fracking fields, more than 200 residents determined to protect their health, land and lifestyle, filed suit against Antero Resources and two other energy companies more than a year ago. Tired of intrusions upon their health, land and even ability to sleep at night, the citizens hope to recover compensation for damages that the gas industry has caused in this region of the state from site development and well pad activity; traffic congestion; water use and contamination; air pollution; waste disposal; public health issues; quality of life issues; and, eminent domain abuse.
More and more, it feels like the residents of this state are viewed by ‘our’ representatives in the same dismissive light as any other animals inhabiting the land; that we have no more rights than the deer or groundhogs do.” – Mary Wildfire, a resident of Roane County, W.Va.
While that litigation is currently scheduled for trial in May if the litigants do not reach an out-of-court settlement, the energy industry’s representatives in the West Virginia State Senate aren’t waiting to see what the courts have to say about the impact of the energy industry upon the state’s residents. West Virginia State Senator Ryan Ferns – along with six co-sponsors – has introduced Senate Bill 508, which would severely curtail the criteria for residents to file a nuisance suit against the energy extraction industry. The bill was sent to the Senate Judiciary committee on Feb. 4, the same day it was introduced in the senate.
As stated at the end of the bill, “The purpose of this bill is to establish the standards applicable to the common law claim for private nuisance. The bill lists elements and establishes requirements including the requirement that physical property damage or bodily injury exist before a person can seek damages for a private nuisance. The bill also prohibits private nuisance claims if the activity at issue is conducted pursuant to and in compliance with a permit, license or other approval by a state or federal agency or other entity. The bill also requires a plaintiff to have either an ownership interest or possessory interest in the property at issue to have standing to bring a private nuisance claim.”
Proponents argue that West Virginia is too litigious of a state and this bill will help create a more suitable business climate.
Residents, especially those exposed to the impacts of fracking the past several years, have a different view. They say that the bill, if passed, would severely limit their rights as landowners and provide the energy extraction industry with far too much protection from liability for the damages it causes to people and communities.
Mary Wildfire, of Roane County, argued, “It seems to me that gas companies enjoy quite enough privilege in this state. They can slap a huge well pad on the land we spent years working to earn the money to buy, and more years working to build a house and farm on. Most of us don’t own the mineral rights and have neither any say in this, nor do we derive any benefit. They can make noise and light and fumes sufficient to drive us from our homes for months; they can permanently damage the water we depend on, and we’re supposed to be satisfied with truckloads of water filling outdoor tanks; we can’t get compensation unless we can prove that our water didn’t have the contaminants before drilling, a prospect which not only costs hundreds or thousands of dollars, but is rendered virtually impossible by the fact that the companies don’t even have to tell us what to test for. If our land happens to lie on the path they’ve chosen for a pipeline, they’re entitled to take as much of it as they like for that. If there are risks due to these massive pipelines, that’s our problem.”
She asked, rhetorically, “Is the convenience and profitability of the gas companies the legislature’s only imperative here – or do we who live here matter at all?” Answering her own question, she continued, “More and more, it feels like the residents of this state are viewed by ‘our’ representatives in the same dismissive light as any other animals inhabiting the land; that we have no more rights than the deer or groundhogs do.”
Nancy Bevins, of Uphsur County, said, “It is clear some of the state legislators want to reduce the cost of extraction by transferring damage done by gas drillers and strip miners to the rural folks living in and near these sacrifice zones. I would guess most legislators can afford to live in an area unaffected by such activity. But not everyone has that option, or the desire, ability and funds to move. Can you imagine working your entire life, settling down in your home to finally retire, only to have your neighbor allow a well pad on the border of your property? Six hundred feet from your home?”
She added, “Residents of our state deserve protection from outside multimillion dollar corporations. What SB 508 does is to revise the definition of a nuisance suit almost out of existence. This bill favors corporations over middle class and poor West Virginia citizens.”
She concluded with the plea to state lawmakers: “Please vote no on SB 508!”
Tom Bond, a farmer in Lewis County, said, “Obviously, this is an intent to take away precisely what common law nuisance was intended to cover. Under the definition in SB 508, if you don’t have grounds for an ordinary lawsuit, you can’t bring a nuisance suit.” He continued, “There would be no way to redress aesthetic values, or rights established by custom or habit. It places persons taking initiatives for short-term private gain over those with long-time established interests. It also favors those who would violate legal prohibitions against actions that might injure people in the neighborhood or downstream or downwind. In other words, it advances a ‘cowboy’ attitude in those doing business other than the usual business in an area.”
John Cobb, also of Lewis County, offered, “Among the most basic and fundamental rights we enjoy are property ownership and the ability to be safe, secure and comfortable in our homes. For hundreds of families whose homes are near the Marcellus Shale and other shale drilling activities, compressor stations and the roads to these sites, they can no longer enjoy their homes or their land. Rather that protect the rights of these families, proposed SB 508 strips them of those rights.”
He continued, “You have the right to do what you want on your own property, so long as it does not interfere with the rights of your neighbors and others in the community to enjoy their property. If your activities affect others, they can hold you accountable under nuisance law for violating their private property rights. Nuisance occurs when activity on one property interferes with the enjoyment and use of your property, but no physical trespass or invasion to your property occurs. ‘Nuisances’ don’t stop at the property line. The law of nuisance recognizes that real injuries exist even when the activities do not cause injury to people or property.”
Bond, who is also a retired chemist, observed that legislation designed to benefit the extraction industry ignores economic realities. He said, “Coal is a walking corpse, producing lots of money for a very few and a few jobs, is on the way down. Its waste condemns it to ‘least desirable’ position among familiar fuels, and, in spite of what little regulation the state forces on it, converts thousands of acres of West Virginia to wasteland each year. At least three major coal companies are bankrupt.”
He added, “Unconventional gas and oil drilling are wobbling like a drunken sailor. At best it is a ‘transition fuel’ to renewable sources of energy, and money has been spent, and continues to be spent, like the sailor did while becoming drunk. People in the discovery and production end of the business enjoy bright hope, but have high cost of production, transportation and liquefaction, and ignore huge supplies near the big markets, Europe and China.
Bond concluded, “It is clear some of the state legislators want to reduce cost of extraction by transferring damage done by frackers and strippers to the rural folks living in and near these sacrifice zones. They can’t conceive of any way to improve life in West Virginia other than knuckling down to coal, oil and gas interests, and this new initiative is about the only advantage they can confer, since laws and enforcement are already so favorable to those interests. “
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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SB 508 sponsors and contact information
Ryan Ferns, a Republican from Ohio County, is the bill’s primary sponsor. Information about Ferns and the co-sponsors are listed below.
- Ryan Ferns, (R), Ohio County, represents Senate District 1, which includes most of the state’s northern panhandle. He is chair of the Health and Human Resources and Labor committees. Email: email@example.com
- Ron Stollings, (D), Boone County, represents Senate District 7, in the southwestern coal fields. He serves on the Health and Human Resources committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Art Kirkendoll, (D), Logan County, represents Senate District 7 with Stollings. He is on the Energy, Industry and Mining committee. Email: email@example.com
- Craig Blair, (R), Berkeley County, represents Senate District 15, which includes much of the eastern panhandle. He is Vice-Chair, Energy, Industry and Mining committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mitch Carmichael, (R), Jackson County and Majority leader, represents Senate District 4, which includes counties in shale fields of central West Virginia near the Ohio River. Email: Mitch.Carmichael@wvsenate.gov
- Jeff Mullins, (R), Raleigh County, represents Senate District 9, which includes southern coalfield counties. He, too, sits on the Energy, Industry and Mining committee. Email: email@example.com
- Corey Palumbo, (D), Kanawha County, represents Senate District 17, which includes portions of Kanawha County, which is home to the state capital of Charleston. He is on the Health and Human Resources committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Community protection, transition from old failing economy and supporting renewable energy among the aims of Mountain Party
By Elise Keaton
Editor’s note: Elise Keaton is the State Executive Chair for the Mountain Party of West Virginia. To ensure that West Virginians are aware of the options available to them outside of the two dominant political parties in this critical election year, we are publishing this response to the State of the State address by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat. The Libertarian Party has also been invited to submit a response.
SALEM, W.Va. – We know our history and we understand our present struggles in this state. Our miners continue to give their lives so that others can consume “cheap electricity.” We’ve literally given billions of gallons of our valuable clean water so that the oil and gas industry can force fossil fuels from the ground. We’ve lost our lands, our communities and our peace of mind for the sake of “profit” which escapes our state in railroad cars and in pipelines. And when the global markets decrease consumption of our precious resources, our men and women lose their jobs and their livelihoods.
In spite of this loss, we’ve never lost understanding of our worth. We know that there is a more prosperous future for our communities, our economy and our state, if we so choose.
… we value much more than the minerals that lie beneath these ancient hills and the businesses here to extract them … the Mountain Party of West Virginia continues to fight to protect the true bounty of our state: our mountain people.”
We must begin by recognizing that out of state interests have disproportionate amounts of control over our state policies. Organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) are influencing policies in our state with complete disregard for the impact on our local communities. At the same time, gas corporations are lobbying to take our private property through forced pooling legislation; lobbying to take what our mineral owners refuse to give.
In his last State of the State address we heard Governor Tomblin claim to “put West Virginia first” with 250 companies coming into our state, but fail to address why our workers’ wages remain stagnant. So who is benefiting from this “growth” in economic activity? Our state population continues to decline as counties with increased oil and gas production lose the most. Current policies have created a strong “business climate” but what about our natural environment? The last “overhaul” of horizontal gas well drilling regulations was in 2011 and since then we’ve seen our friends and neighbors literally fall ill as a result of gas production in their communities. Overall, our cancer rates and mortality rates are the highest in the country.
Supporting our miners as global consumption of coal decreases means expanding opportunities beyond fossil fuels. The solar industry added more jobs than any other sector in 2015, yet our state leaders continue to stand in the way of expanding this growth into our state. Along with broadening renewable industry in the state, our workforce deserves a prevailing wage for their labor. It is impossible to stimulate the economy when our working families are struggling just to make ends meet. We must also address the influx of out of state workers brought in by the oil and gas industry while our local workers struggle with unemployment. And if West Virginia already has the “best business tax climate Index in the region,” why is so called “Right to Work” legislation necessary? Governor Tomblin failed to mention that particular piece of pending legislation as hundreds of opponents of the bill watched him speak.
Citing “a lack of flat land” for industrial development, Governor Tomblin continues to ignore the value of our geography which, when protected, creates trillions of gallon of clean water every year. Few can deny that our next wars will be over water, yet we continue to compromise our valuable water resources in West Virginia. Instead of using mountaintop removal landscapes as an economic caveat, we should be asking and providing answers as to why these sites weren’t developed years ago, as promised during the permitting process?
We heard Governor Tomblin advocate for the removal of severance taxes from coal and gas while raising taxes on telecommunications use which would once again aim to balance the state budget on the backs of working West Virginians. Asking the oil and gas industry to simply pay a fraction of a cent for each gallon of water they pull from our streams and rivers would create hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for counties and the state. Currently they pay nothing for the water they take. And the second anniversary of the largest contamination of a public water source – the Elk River chemical leak which left 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water for weeks in 2014 – was not mentioned.
The most direct and immediate way West Virginia can address our prescription pill problems is by following the lead of other states which have used medical marijuana to cut prescription pill overdoses by up to 25 percent. These same states have also brought in hundreds of millions in revenue and have seen crime rates dramatically decrease.
In his address, Governor Tomblin advocated for hundreds of miles of expanded oil and gas export pipelines. Instead of promoting these devastating projects which are largely opposed by local communities, we should protect and expand our local water production and tourism industries in the counties in the southeastern part of the state which are growing in population and thriving.
As the Mountain Party and as mountain people we value much more than the minerals that lie beneath these ancient hills and the businesses here to extract them. West Virginia has been called the crown gem of Appalachia and the Mountain Party of West Virginia continues to fight to protect the true bounty of our state: our mountain people.
© Mountain Party of West Virginia, 2016.
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Evangelist’s ‘Decision America Tour’ ignores harm to workers of Appalachia
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Well, Franklin Graham began his “Decision America Tour” this month. I was surprised to look at Graham’s schedule and see that he is not scheduled to be in West Virginia tomorrow, where the West Virginia House of Delegates will be holding hearings on the so-called Right-to-Work bill.
It seems only logical that Graham, the Board President, Chairman and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), would make an appearance at the hearings in West Virginia, as according to the BGEA website, “Franklin will ask Christians to pray for the country, vote for people who hold biblical values and run for public office at every level.”
This should be good news for the workers of Appalachia – in particular coal miners, oil and gas workers, farmers and all those folks laboring for the benefit of others, often to their own detriment. Indeed, since Graham has made it well known that he interprets the Bible literally, I am surprised he will miss the opportunity to speak truth to power, as we know that the earliest evangelists did. For example, he could stand up, hold his Bible high above his head, and with his Southern-tinged baritone exclaim, “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. … Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 1; 1, 4-6).
He could then talk about Don Blankenship and Lochgelly. He could warn of the resurgence of black lung among young miners or about the people who have died because of mountaintop removal. He could tell about the workers and residents in the fracking fields being exposed to dangerous and deadly levels of methane, benzene, radioactive waste, polluted water and a host of other public and environmental health hazards.
Instead, we will hear nothing. The tour website offers mostly platitudes, essentially outlining that the United States has lost its “Christian” moorings. Still, those fearful of a theocracy might want to take a closer read. Translated, what Graham simply means is that he is going to save us from the Great Gay Menace. It is his obsession, as was proven again recently during a broadcast of Focus on the Family, in which he told churches and families to not have anything to do with gay people.
The working class of West Virginia and all of Appalachia know better. The LGBT community has absolutely nothing to do with the boom and bust fossil fuel mono-economy that has dominated the state’s economic/political environment for more than a century. What West Virginia’s workers might not know, however, is that Graham’s salary is nearly $1 million per year, as various outlets have reported. One can easily understand now why we won’t be hearing from the Epistle of James from Graham.
But, if we did, he could cite the following statistics provided by Kathy McCormick, the Executive Vice President of the Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU). She is with District 1199, which represents workers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. States that have passed Right-to-Work laws have experienced the following:
- Household incomes are $535 less per month;
- You or your children are more likely not to have health insurance;
- More working people and their children live in poverty;
- States spend less per student on education, which has led to students being less likely to succeed in math and reading;
- Workplace deaths are 36 percent higher;
- More people can’t find work. The unemployment rate in West Virginia is already too high, but six out of ten states with the highest unemployment rates have passed Right-to-Work laws.
I agree with Franklin Graham that the church can and should do more to improve the lives of people in any community in which they live. However, religious-based bigotry has been used too long and often against minorities. It was used to justify genocide of Native Americans. It was used to justify slavery. It is still used to justify white supremacy. It is used to bash people in the LGBT community. It is being used to hate immigrants. It is used to exclude women and gay people from ordination.
Now, it is being used to oppress workers. The cronies in crony capitalism not only include rich industrialists and politicians, but also much of the clergy.
This turnabout is an insult to the sacred work of generations of miners, labor leaders, politicians, clergy, journalists and others who marched across Blair Mountain, died on the Mingo County Courthouse steps, drowned in a chilly February morning in Buffalo Creek, have fought the natural gas industry in Doddridge County, or were forever entombed in a collapsed mine.
The last thing we need is “ … to go back to where the Church is in the center of this nation,” as Graham argues. If that ever was the case – and that is certainly in doubt – it sure didn’t work out too well for native peoples and minorities. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that Graham’s brand of religion will turn out well for working class people.
Fortunately, as we reported about the CCA People’s Pastoral, there are people and groups whose faith does compel them to offer a prophetic voice, to speak truth to power. Sadly, at the same time, the very wide divide between the two approaches is beyond concerning. Consider the words of Jesus: “I pray not only for them (his disciples), but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may be all one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17: 20, 21).
Franklin Graham, an evangelist, says he wants to spread the Gospel. Yet, how will people believe in the story he tells if it runs counter to the message of the one whom Graham claims sent him? Equally as concerning, what are the consequences for the working class and the poor if Graham’s brand of religion reigns triumphant, as he is determined to make happen?
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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Two years after the Elk River spill, cronyism and mediocrity is rampant at state and local levels
By Michael M. Barrick
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – While my primary vocation is writing, I’ve been fortunate to live long enough to try my hand at a few other professions, including disaster management. In the process of working in that field, I worked as a paramedic many, many years ago, and then returned to the field, earning a post-graduate certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. I also worked as emergency preparedness coordinator for a total of about seven years for two hospitals. From July 2013 to January 2015, I worked at a hospital in central West Virginia.
While there, it was incumbent upon me to establish relationships not only in the hospital, but in the community and indeed all of West Virginia with my peers in the field. That I did. It did not take long to figure out that in the community where I was working, and at the state level, disaster preparedness was just not a priority. Our Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) meetings became known as “eatings,” not meetings, because we would fly through the exact same agenda every month without doing much of anything to address the many hazards facing our community.
In the meantime, workers were coming to our emergency department (ED) from the fracking fields. They arrived reeking of chemicals, but with no MSDS sheets. When a supervisor would finally appear, he could not provide an MSDS sheet and said that he didn’t even know what was in the fluid covering the worker, but would add, “It is safe.” Of course, that was why workers would show up in the ED with burning eyes and skin, breathing problems, and other symptoms – the fracking fluid was safe.
Seeing immediately through this BS, I understood that this was an issue for the LEPC to address with the energy extraction industry. It would not. Finally, when an energy company needed to inform us about coming pipeline construction, they were included on the agenda. Seeing the agenda in advance, I immediately sent an email to the chair, asking that the meeting be publicized, as many in the community were already expressing concern about the dangers related to fracking. He refused. When I reminded him it was a public meeting, he replied that he didn’t want the public present. He did not want the gas company upset. Plus, he added, he didn’t have enough food ordered for the public (reinforcing the idea that these were just “eatings” paid for by tax money).
I attended the meeting, and after the company’s PR, sanitized presentation, asked for a copy of it. At first, they refused. When I pointed out it was public information because it was presented in a public forum, they conceded. (This moment, by the way, is when the journalist in me kicked in again. I have never quit researching it and writing about it, and indeed finally quit the hospital so that I could write about it full time). When a company does not want the public to know what it has a right to know, I know nefarious forces are at work and must be challenged.
The point had been made at that LEPC meeting. Emergency planners and company officials were entirely too cozy with each other, and the public was not to be trusted with hearing what we were hearing. It was a display of arrogance combined with mediocrity that can – and in time, will – prove deadly for any community.
So, I decided to visit Charleston and talk to emergency preparedness officials there to find out if this experience was the exception or the rule. And I wanted to meet the people who could, ostensibly, improve the situation.
To put it mildly, I was sorely disappointed. With the exception of one official who works in the state capitol building for the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, my questions and concerns fell on deaf ears. As knowledgeable and helpful as the state official was, his hands were tied. He did provide a refresher course on “the Charleston way” for this West Virginia native that had been out of state a good while.
He shared a few lessons. The state’s elected officials are owned by the energy extraction industry and any attempt to challenge the industry in my community, through the local LEPC, was fruitless. He shared also that West Virginia continues to experience a brain drain of young people, as evidenced by the ages of those sitting around that LEPC meeting. And, as I had already figured out for myself, there are some serious structural problems with the way the emergency preparedness, public health and environmental agencies are organized in West Virginia, creating a serious lack of communication among and between emergency preparedness officials.
Then the Elk River spill occurred in January 2014. Shortly after that, the West Virginia Hospital Association had its annual “Visit the legislature” day. I took the opportunity to go down to Charleston a day in advance to visit with every legislator I could reach. I also visited the governor’s office to leave a letter for him.
I boldly – and likely naively – dared to suggest a few legislative fixes to every delegate and senator that would give me five minutes. I also left a letter for every legislator I could not meet.
I began by telling them that the contamination of the Elk River by the coal-mining cleaning chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol was preventable. I acknowledged that it was true that much analysis remained to be done, with an official report at least months away (as it turns out, it took the state a year to issue a report of nearly 800 pages that was mostly fluff). I shared that while a review was just getting started that there was already overwhelming evidence that numerous opportunities were missed to prevent this event from happening.
In short, I shared that the official report – known as an After Action Report (AAR) – would identify clear causes and offer corrective actions, if done properly. However, I warned, those recommendations would be meaningless unless and until the root causes which created the environment that allowed the incident to occur were addressed.
These root causes include inadequate mitigation efforts, lack of coalition building and communications, and bureaucratic gaps and overlaps. These constitute core challenges to emergency response efforts in West Virginia. Consequently, these must be addressed by the governor and legislature before the people of West Virginia can be confident that no stone is going unturned in identifying and preparing for any and all risks that threaten their life and safety.
Presently, that is simply not the case. True, there are scores of dedicated and competent individuals working within the various agencies and organizations that are responsible for responding to emergencies and disasters in West Virginia. That is all the more reason that these core challenges must be addressed. It is simply irresponsible and unacceptable that policy-makers fail to do all they can to equip and protect those charged with being the first at a disaster scene, not to mention the public they serve.
The first core challenge is the lack of mitigation activities. Mitigation – the first of four phases of emergency management – can do the most to reduce mortality and morbidity, because it will prevent the disaster in the first place. Yet, it is the most ignored stage of emergency planning due to political inertia, cost, the complexity of mitigation plans, and the public’s unwillingness to participate in or pay for mitigation. West Virginians have experienced firsthand, for too long, the consequences of ignoring mitigation efforts. The Sago and Upper Big Branch coal mine disasters are clear examples of this. The ignored dangers of Mountaintop Removal prove this. Finally, natural gas fracking presents potential threats that are well documented. Indeed, a gas company executive confided to me, “We have invented technology beyond our understanding of its impact.”
The second core challenge is a lack of coalition building and communications among and between emergency response agencies. Throughout West Virginia, LEPCs vary greatly in their readiness for community disasters. Some are well-run, such as the Kanawha-Putnam LEPC; others, such as in Barbour County, have been inactive for years. Also, statewide communication systems are inconsistent, inadequate and rarely interoperable.
The third core challenge is the startling gaps and overlaps in key emergency management sectors. Hospital regions, emergency management regions and public health regions all encompass different counties. In short, an emergency manager wanting to establish strong coalitions with colleagues will find such efforts unnecessarily burdensome. For instance, an emergency manager in Lewis County will find himself or herself working with colleagues in 10 counties in the West Virginia Homeland Security region. The Public Health region serving the county also includes 10 counties, but four of them are different than the Homeland Security region. Finally, the West Virginia hospital region in which Lewis County is located includes 14 counties, seven of which are not in the Homeland Security region. So, all told, the emergency manager based in Lewis County must be intimately familiar with colleagues in at least 17 of the state’s 55 counties. From a planning perspective, this is a nightmare.
So, this preventable event requires not only close scrutiny by lawmakers, but quick, clear and decisive action.
The following steps would go a long way towards achieving such action. First, the governor and legislative leaders must revisit the state’s AAR. It must be truly comprehensive and transparent. Corrective actions must be implemented without hesitation or fail. Higher fees for licensing and violations must be established. Stronger laws must be passed. Emergency response regions must be aligned to eliminate the gaps and overlaps. Penalties – such as eliminating grants – must be implemented for LEPCs that are not functioning as designed.
These are short-term solutions that are relatively easy to implement if lawmakers have the will to do so. They do not. In fact, though the 2014 legislature passed one law in response to the spill – the West Virginia Above Ground Storage Tank law – the new GOP-led legislature rolled back many of its provisions in 2015.
So, heavy lifting remains. Policy makers must make mitigation a priority. Only then will we stop the knee-jerk response and recovery operations. Additionally, the legislature should reward best practices and develop measures for effective coalition building and collaboration.
Will any of this occur? Not in the present political climate. West Virginia’s elected officials have been kicking the proverbial can down the road for decades, as is evidenced by our repeated and avoidable disasters. As is the state’s history, profit trumps people. Again. Always.
© Michael Barrick, 2016.
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Disregard for state’s environmental and health problems by mainstream media is shameful
By Michael M. Barrick
WEST UNION, W.Va. – If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all, you know that in Flint, Mich., residents have been unable to drink and use water because it is deemed unsafe. In fact, just today, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced he has opened an investigation to get to the bottom of the disaster – lead poisoning which makes the water unsafe.
Meanwhile, CBS News has reported that the Southern California Gas Company “ … acknowledged Thursday that it understated the number of times airborne levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene have spiked during the crisis.” That leak, affecting Los Angeles-area residents, is approaching three months without a resolution.
I’m pleased that journalists are uncovering these corporate shenanigans which threaten public health and safety, as well as the environment. But I do have a couple of questions for the mainstream media – Do you know that West Virginians have faced both of these problems for years, decades even? And, if so, why are you not covering this?
The questions are rhetorical, for I already know the answer. West Virginia is the Rodney Dangerfield of the United States and the media simply doesn’t care about the rural, mountain poor. Reporting on the misery caused to West Virginians by the energy extraction industry just doesn’t generate the ratings to justify upsetting advertisers (in case you have not been paying attention, the natural gas industry has launched a media blitz about its so-called “clean energy,” including on public broadcasting. Even the people’s network, it seems, has been hijacked by the industry).
Meanwhile, here in Doddridge County, West Virginia, groups like West Virginia Host Farms and the Doddridge County Watershed Association have been educating public health officials, journalists, researches and the general public about the dangers of fracking. Children are experiencing nose bleeds, people can’t sit outside in summer evenings for developing splitting headaches, and cancer rates are increasing. Indeed, I have interviewed a family whose daughter died of leukemia after being exposed to benzene. The benzene leeched into her well water from a fracking pad. Of course, the gas companies are hiding behind their lawyers in denial.
Simultaneously, all over the county, people drink water from storage tanks called water buffaloes. The water is simply not safe for human use because fracking pads dot the landscape, leeching and releasing untold amounts of benzene daily. Many of these families have had to use these storage tanks for years. Where is the outrage for them?
Meanwhile, in the southern part of the state, in Mingo County, a small community on top of a mountain near Kermit captures rain water, filters it, and stores it in water buffaloes. Yes, in the Unites States – “The greatest nation on the face of the earth. Period.” – as our president said the other night, West Virginia residents live as if they are citizens of a third world country.
And the media does nothing.
So, here is a plea to the mainstream media: Get out of your offices, put on some boots and jeans, rent a four-wheel drive and start visiting the shale fields, the mountaintop removal sites and the abandoned deep mine sites in West Virginia. Talk to the residents. Do not concern yourself with meeting with public officials unless you just want to get them on the record for admitting they can’t or won’t do their job, as in this story. Ironically, as you will read, the referenced story is about West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman visiting this very county last summer to investigate concerns about public health and safety.
If you want, I can introduce you to dozens of West Virginians that will be happy to tell their stories to you. They, then, will introduce you to their neighbors and friends. Then, before long, you will realize that poisoning people and the planet is “business as usual” in West Virginia.
As I noted in a recent article, the people get it – our institutions are failing from what I term “The Momentum of Mediocrity.” And yesterday, I posted an article reporting that two years after Freedom Industries made the water of the Kanawha Valley unusable for 300,000 people for over a week, virtually no progress has been made to address the root cause of that disaster. So, it is up to the people to tell their stories. Fortunately, West Virginia has numerous groups and individuals doing just that, every way they can.
Would we like to see the mainstream media report that West Virginias are dying from exposure to benzene and can’t drink their water because the energy industry pollutes it? Yes. But, we’re not holding our breath – for that. That’s because we’re too busy holding our breath every time the wind blows over a gas well.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016
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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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