Tag Archives: Randy Huffman

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

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

 By Michael M. Barrick

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

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

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

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

The top stories                                                    

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

 

The “People’s Capitol” no more

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

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

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

 

Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection

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

 

Eminent Domain abuse

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

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

 

Public Health threats

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

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

 

Environmental degradation

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

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

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

 

Citizens stand up to crony capitalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Don Blankenship trial

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

 

Poor and biased press coverage

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

In this instance, it failed miserably.

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

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

© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2016

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Applying the Pope’s Ecological Encyclical in West Virginia

A good start would be the resignation of WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman

By Michael M. Barrick

ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – About a month 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 West Virginia.

I prepared 25 discussion questions, knowing most would have to be considered later. As it turned out, I could have asked just one, as it was the one we spent the better part of the time discussing. And, it wasn’t even my question; it was the pope’s. 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?”

We concluded that it was the most important question we had to answer for West Virginia if we are ever going to free ourselves of the fossil fuel mono-economy that keeps the state’s residents mired in poverty. Then I offered a specific example of a person in state leadership who I think should resign – West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) Secretary Randy Huffman. For those not familiar with West Virginia government, Huffman is a cabinet level political appointee. As such, he is clearly a leader, one entrusted by our governor with the environmental (and by default, human) health of West Virginia. He is the subject matter expert on the environment in West Virginia.

Randy Huffman

Randy Huffman

I was highly critical of Huffman for remarks he made following a question I asked him in mid-July in Doddridge County (more about that in a moment). Some of those who have worked directly with Huffman over the years said I was being too hard on him. Others agreed with me. Some defended Huffman, arguing that he was doing his best. “If he resigned on principle, he would just be replaced by someone worse,” one person offered. “You can only do so much in Charleston,” added another.

While I appreciate the sentiment expressed by these folks and can understand them to a degree, I am unmoved. It is time for Mr. Huffman to resign.

Why? Well, let’s review the exchange I had with him in Doddridge County.

Huffman and several WVDEP staff members accompanied local residents throughout the day to visit those impacted by fracking in Doddridge and Ritchie counties. Later that evening, he and the staff met with members of the Doddridge County Watershed Association. After he answered questions for about an hour, I asked, “Are you willing to recommend to the governor and legislature that the state employ the Precautionary Principle and place a moratorium on 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 health and environmental advocates across West Virginia regarding many aspects of the energy extraction industry.

Huffman, not exactly engendering confidence in his leadership skills, took three shots at the question. His first answer was to repeat much of what he had said to previous questions. When challenged by an audience member, “You didn’t answer his question,” Huffman shot back, “He didn’t ask a question, he made a statement.” I then said, “Mr. Huffman. It was a question. Let me repeat it for you.” I did.

As an aside here, I will say that I’ve been reporting on politicians for a quarter of a century. I have heard that answer more times than I care to remember. It is a sure sign that the subject doesn’t want to or can’t answer the question.

In any event, after I restated my question, he still did not answer it. Instead, he alluded to progress made in the legislature to regulate fracking after his last visit to the area. The Horizontal Well Act, passed into law in late 2011, did impose higher fees and some minor regulations on the industry. However, West Virginia’s laws on fracking are still considered some of the weakest in the nation by environmental groups. So, it isn’t surprising that when Huffman alluded to that law, the well-informed audience responded with sighs and even laughter (though one audience member did defend Huffman).

So, after sitting there for a few moments, Huffman stood up and said he needed to take another shot at an answer. He then admitted, “If I start pounding my fist, it is going to be a fruitless effort. I would become ineffective. There are too many entities at play in Charleston. If I did that, they’d laugh me out of the capitol building. It would limit my effectiveness.”

He also said, “That is above my pay grade.”

So, we are still left with many questions for Mr. Huffman.

First, since so many states have banned fracking or placed a moratorium on it, why would he not consider the precautionary principle a sensible approach to protect the health and safety of the people of West Virginia?

Second, if recommending to the governor and/or legislature about environmental matters is above his pay grade, just exactly what does the Secretary of DEP do except to rubber stamp permit requests from the energy extraction industry?

And, as Pope Francis asked, “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?”

As it stands now, history will not judge Mr. Huffman kindly. He is in the position to take action, but instead has decided to punt. If he is serious about the environment, he could resign on principle and warn the people of West Virginia what awaits them if they don’t stand up for themselves and elect some real leaders. Such an act would get far more attention than lamenting his lack of influence among the people who are supposed to listen to his expertise.

The people of West Virginia don’t have another 125-year reign of the energy extraction industry to await replies. As the pope says, action is “urgent and necessary.” So, the next action Mr. Huffman should take, since he has openly declared he will not fight for the environment in the current political climate, is resign.

© The Appalachian Preservation Project, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. If you find this writing of value, we hope that you will consider support our independent work by becoming a member of the Appalachian Preservation Project. By doing so, you will be supporting not only this website, but also our other outreaches, programs and partnerships.

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A Plea to West Virginians: Throw Off Your Oppressors

Before surrendering or joining the exodus, get educated and fight – peacefully – against the powerful interests which control The Mountain State

By Michael M. Barrick

ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – The recent admission by Secretary Randy Huffman of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) that the agency he heads can’t do its job because powerful business and political interests control The Mountain State is a wake-up call to all West Virginians.State seal_old gold

It is time of us to throw off our oppressors so that Huffman and other public officials can do their jobs.

In the last two years, I have put thousands of miles on my little car covering the energy extraction industry. What I have discovered is that West Virginians are basically in four camps:
1. Some work for the industry and truly believe they are doing good work; these folks are in the minority.
2. Others are working against the industry through established environmental or social justice groups and alliances because they consider the industry an assault upon the people and ecology of West Virginia; they, too, are in the minority.
3. Still others have just given up and have joined the exodus of West Virginians going to what they hope are greener pastures; these folks are also a small minority, though it is causing a brain drain that will have an impact upon the state that is greater than their numbers.
4. Finally, there are the docile West Virginians. They just roll over and accept whatever their public officials, business leaders or church leaders tell them. They, sadly, constitute the majority of West Virginians.

You may disagree with those categories. This, however, is my experience. It is also consistent with our state’s history.

This is an appeal to folks in all four categories, as well as those few prophetic voices in our hills and hollows, to get educated and fight – peacefully – to rescue our home from the powerful people and interests that have made West Virginia their own personal playground to enrich themselves.

Example of WVDEP
According to a handout I received recently from a representative of the WVDEP, the agency’s mission is a simple one: “Promoting a healthy environment.” This, one presumes, applies not only to the ecology, but also public health, as the two are inseparable. Yes, there are other state and local agencies that are responsible for the health and well-being of people, but that does not preclude any agency from discerning that caring for the state’s people is within their scope of work. Yet, Huffman tells us, he can’t do that. Giving him the benefit of the doubt that he is a person who takes public service seriously, we, as citizens, are obligated to help him, just as he asked folks in Doddridge County to do. Before doing so, there are a number of matters to consider.

Mingo County’s example
Last week, I visited Mingo County for the first time since 1978. Frankly, nothing has changed. The cycle of poverty continues. There are numerous reasons for this, but the end result is that the poorest of our state four decades ago are still the poorest of our state. This cannot be blamed on the so-called “War on Coal.” In fact, the blame rests with the coal industry. Consider this description of Mingo County from “West Virginia County Maps.” Published by a private company, the authors nevertheless acknowledge on the title page, “The publisher wishes to gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the … West Virginia Department of Commerce, Marketing & Tourism Division.”

Here is what that Division submitted for publication: “Williamson lies in the center of what is called the ‘Billion Dollar Coal Field.’ In the middle of the 1940s there were 100 mines in a 20-mile radius of the city.” Not even Donald Trump could blame President Obama for what happened in West Virginia in the 1940s. And what did happen? Before and since, that billion dollars has left the state. If it had not, the cycle of poverty in Mingo County and other communities in southwestern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky would long ago have ended. In short, the coal barons – not President Obama or any other straw men – are responsible for the poverty afflicting our southern coal fields. It is they who are the oppressors.

Lessons from a topographical map
Looking at another map of the central part of the state tells the same story. It is a topographical map of the Vadis quadrangle. It includes parts of Lewis, Doddridge and Gilmer counties. Published in 1964 and revised in 1978, it is dotted with more gas and oil wells than one can count. There are certainly well over 100. Again, if the energy extraction industry was and is so good for the people of West Virginia, where is the wealth to show for it? It is certainly not in the pockets of West Virginians. Instead, as it has since the late 1800s, the money has flowed out of state to corporate barons, many who then stash the cash away in offshore accounts.

Fracking
Then there is fracking. The most startling fact about fracking is that any West Virginian would support it in light of the history just outlined. Again, though, the industry promises jobs. Those jobs, however, are temporary and very unreliable as we have seen as oil prices fluctuate. Additionally, it is becoming increasingly clear that the jobs come at a great cost, as those working in the fracking fields are working in a very unhealthy environment. The residents, though, suffer the most. The loss of land, sleepless nights, water supplies destroyed, children and adults experiencing everything from nosebleeds to cancer, public roadways ruined and communities divided (Divide & Conquer is a fundamental strategy of the energy extraction industry), make it clear that the only people benefitting from the process are corporate CEOs, most of whom are from out of state.

Pipeline construction
That the gas companies – in particular EQT and Dominion – are audacious enough to argue that they should be granted eminent domain by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), reveals just how allied political and business interests are in exploiting the mineral resources of The Mountain State. No matter how the companies spin it, the proposed Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines are not for public benefit (the standard FERC must apply before granting the companies the right of eminent domain); they are for the companies’ shareholders. Most significantly, the gas that would be shipped through the pipelines will end up in foreign countries, which should be the fact that causes FERC to deny the company’s applications. That, however, would take a miracle.

For those who think pipeline construction is benign and that the companies employ a bunch of good ole’ boys from West Virginia looking out for their neighbors, you need to visit Doddridge, Harrison, Lewis, Ritchie, Tyler and Wetzel counties. Or read this.

Bishop’s response to the pope
A detailed essay will follow relatively soon regarding the insubordination of Bishop Michael Bransfield’s response to the climate change encyclical by Pope Francis. For now, suffice to say that Bransfield, who is the shepherd of West Virginia’s Catholics as head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, undermined the pope’s message so as to not offend the deep pockets of coal, gas and oil executives. I was told in March by a diocesan official that the bishop wouldn’t support the encyclical because, “Coal, gas and oil are simply too powerful. It wouldn’t be prudent.” Indeed, as you can read here, the bishop is just flat-out distorting the pope’s words.

Lessons from the coal playbook
During the West Virginia Mine Wars of roughly a century ago, the coal companies employed a very effective strategy against coal miners seeking to unionize and achieve better working conditions – they controlled law enforcement. Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin ruled Logan County for the coal companies and exerted influence throughout the southern coalfields. When Sid Hatfield, the police chief of Matewan (but a supporter of the miners), was gunned down on the McDowell County courthouse steps in Welch, W.Va. in 1921, police officials turned a blind eye.

While such blatant corruption is not happening today – at least in the open – a recent donation of $5,000 to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Department by Precision Pipeline, a subcontractor building the Stonewall Gas Gathering pipeline, has some local residents wondering what will happen should conflict erupt between local citizens and the corporations destroying the county’s land. The appearance of impropriety is certainly present.

Conclusion: Civil Disobedience is the answer
In short, our state motto – Montani Semper Liberi (Mountaineers are Always Free) is a joke. The people of this state – whether they will admit it or not – continue to be abused and oppressed by political and business interests. Those appointed to protect the people – such as WVDEP Secretary Huffman – are unable or unwilling to honor their vocations. Additionally, those we should be able to count upon to advocate for and protect us – church leaders and law enforcement – have been compromised.

So, it is up to us. In an upcoming essay, solutions to address West Virginia’s many problems will be offered in detail. For now, an overview of possible solutions include local communities supporting one another economically and socially in new ways; reforming our political system to open ballot access, seting term limits and establish ethical training for potential political leaders; and, ensuring that local officials are prepared for the inevitable disasters that will occur from the fossil fuel mono-economy. We need greater regulation of the energy extraction industry. We need to truly empower people like Secretary Huffman so that he can’t say his hands are tied.

However, I have concluded these actions will not be enough. It is time for nonviolent civil disobedience. That will require training. It will require resolve. Those of us who recall the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras know that civil disobedience works. The achievements of those eras – including voting rights legislation and ending the Vietnam War – would not have happened had people not taken to the streets and subjected themselves to beatings and murder.

As I have put those many miles on my car, I’ve heard so many West Virginians say they want to change our state. The last 60 years of American history, in fact 100 years when the labor movement and women’s suffrage are included, suggest that change can come – but at a great cost. You can fight. You can leave. Either choice is legitimate. But indifference is nothing short of surrender. That is inconsistent with what most West Virginians say they would do. So why do the powerful still control our state?

© The Appalachian Preservation Project, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. If you find this writing of value, we hope that you will consider support our independent work by becoming a member of the Appalachian Preservation Project. You can learn more here. By doing so, you will be supporting not only this website, but also our other outreaches, programs and partnerships.

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WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman Acknowledges Political and Business Climate in Charleston Limits Agency’s Effectiveness

Remarks made at public forum after Huffman and DEP staff tour fracking fields of Doddridge and Ritchie counties

By Michael M. Barrick

WEST UNION, W.Va. – West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) Secretary Randy Huffman acknowledged at a public meeting here July 16 that he and his agency’s effectiveness are limited by political and business interests in West Virginia. Huffman and several WVDEP staff members accompanied local residents throughout the day to visit those impacted by fracking in Doddridge and Ritchie counties.

Randy Huffman

Randy Huffman

Towards the end of a nearly two-hour public forum held by the Doddridge County Watershed Association, Huffman acknowledged “If I start pounding my fist, it is going to be a fruitless effort. I would become ineffective. There are too many entities at play in Charleston. If I did that, they’d laugh me out of the capitol building. It would limit my effectiveness.”

He also said, “That is above my pay grade.”

His remarks were made in response to the question, “Are you willing to recommend to the governor and legislature that the state employ the Precautionary Principle and place a moratorium on fracking and related activities?” The question was posed by this reporter after Huffman and his staff had listened to concerns and questions from numerous area residents.

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. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”

The Precautionary Principle is a philosophy embraced by public health and environmental advocates across West Virginia regarding many aspects of the energy extraction industry. Indeed, in March, organizers of an event in Charleston which pointed out the public health risks of Mountaintop Removal (MTR) attempted, unsuccessfully, to meet with Huffman then to ask him to employ the Precautionary Principle and quit issuing permits for MTR.

While acknowledging that his hands were tied to an extent, he nevertheless told the roughly 40 people in attendance that their voices were being heard and their persistence would make a difference. He said that the agency is staffed by caring public servants who are most effective in their jobs where citizens are most active. “It creates a structure through which we can work.”

If that is the case, his agency’s employees should be able to make a difference in the area, as numerous citizens demonstrated just how informed and engaged they are, based on the volume and type of questions asked and comments shared.

Wayne Woods, the chairman of the watershed association began by saying, “I think there is a little bit of a disconnect among the departments of DEP,” noting that different branches of the agency dealt with water quality and air quality. Woods suggested that the agency issue handouts to its employees that would allow citizens to understand who they would need to contact if the person they were working with was dealing with an issue outside their scope of work.

Tina DelPrete asked, “I’d like to know when enough is enough?” Pointing to the many aspects of fracking and its effects upon the people, environment and infrastructure of Doddridge County, she added, “Will this go on indefinitely until our county becomes an industrial wasteland?” She continued, “Who is going to protect us? Maybe you should change your name to the DIP – the Department of Industrial Protection, because you sure are not helping the environment.”

Sharron Jackson offered, “The science is becoming clear. It is clear there is contamination.” Pointing out that she loves West Virginia, she still said, “I can’t encourage anyone to move here anymore. Not until we protect the water and air.”

Lyndia Ervolina, barely holding back tears, said, “I’ve lived here for 32 years. I can’t go out and enjoy my yard anymore. We are getting sold out. We don’t have a life anymore. I’m afraid to drink my water. I can’t breathe the air. We can’t even sell our homes; they’re worthless now. I just wish someone would listen to us.”

Autumn Long, a resident in nearby Wallace in Harrison County, said she was concerned about air quality and for her parents, who live near a major gas production site. Directing a question to Huffman, she asked, “What can we do to help move (solutions) forward? We need you as advocates and protectors.”

At that point, Huffman stood up to respond to the comments. He acknowledged, “Some of these questions are not answerable at this point.” He admitted though, “You have had a huge invasion of industrial activity.” Pointing out the fracking industry entered the area with no planning and roads and infrastructure that are not suitable for the heavy equipment used in the process, he added, “You’re overwhelmed.”

He continued, “This is an issue with limited solutions. We’re looking at a large issue.” He pointed out that it is just not an environmental issue, but also about energy and economics.

He encouraged residents to vote. Those remarks were met with several comments from those in the audience. One person said, “We have representatives. We’re just not represented.” Another said, of the county commission, “It’s a joke. They don’t even acknowledge our communications.”

Others zeroed in on specific issues, such as the disposal of drill cuttings and injection wells. On the issue of drill cuttings, which can contain radioactive materials, Huffman said, “That is why we have it go to landfills, where we can monitor it.”

Near the end of his statements, Huffman promised, “We will make adjustments on what we learned in the field. You’ve made a difference.”

© The Appalachian Preservation Project, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. If you find this writing of value, we hope that you will consider support our independent work by becoming a member of the Appalachian Preservation Project. You can learn more here. By doing so, you will be supporting not only this website, but also our other outreaches, programs and partnerships.

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Citing Medical Studies, Activists Call for End to Mountaintop Removal Permits

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection accused of ‘permitting one disaster after another’

By Michael M. Barrick

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – On March 16, a day before seven environmental groups announced their intention to sue the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) for failing to intervene on West Virginia’s lax oversight of mountaintop removal and other destructive surface coal mining, approximately 200 people rallied in front of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) building to demand that it stop issuing permits for mountaintop removal.

Participants in The People's Foot Rally Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Participants in The People’s Foot Rally
Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Speakers moved beyond the customary concerns about environmental impacts and alluded to several studies that show that the strip-mining practice causes lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses from clouds of fine blasting dust.

According to one study published on the United States Institute of Health webpage, “Appalachian mountaintop mining particulate matter induces neoplastic transformation of human bronchial epithelial cells and promotes tumor formation.” Additionally, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Campaign website offers a brief video about a child needing breathing treatments because of exposure to dust clouds from a nearby mountaintop removal site. Another page, on the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition website, provides information garnered from more than two dozen studies about the illnesses and deaths caused by mountaintop removal.

Among those present or speaking at “The People’s Foot” rally were several environmental leaders, Mountain State residents, at least two groups of college students visiting West Virginia on immersion trips, a singer from Kentucky, a Charleston singer and poet, and a 10-year-old girl.

Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch boomed, “DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has finally conceded that these health studies need to be considered, but he says his agency does not have the expertise to do so. If his agency does not understand the health impacts of the actions that they permit, then they have no business issuing more mountaintop removal permits. Randy Huffman has the authority, the mission and the moral obligation to protect people’s health, so he should issue no more mountaintop removal permits until he understands the consequences.”

Participants in The People's Foot Rally hold up signs for WV DEP staff to see Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Participants in The People’s Foot Rally hold up signs for WV DEP staff to see
Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Maria Gunnoe, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition added, “Mountaintop removal is killing the people I love, and my government is allowing it. The West Virginia DEP is permitting one disaster after another, and the people of West Virginia are paying for these disasters.”

Bo Webb, who organized the rally, called for the passage of federal legislation – HR 912, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act. “Randy Huffman could refuse to issue another mountaintop removal permit based on the health impacts, but he would lose his job. Our state government will make sure that the permits continue to flow.”

Tom Breiding with Wheeling Jesuit University’s Appalachian Institute brought a group of students to the rally and was taking them to the West Virginia Coal Association office the next day. “We provide a comprehensive overview of what is happening in West Virginia,” said Breiding.

Also escorting a student group was Wess Harris. A sociologist by training, Harris is also a farmer, educator, and self-described progressive activist living in central West Virginia. He is also a retired underground miner who was a union organizer. He stressed that he seeks to provide the students he brings in with a balanced understanding of West Virginia. “I want them to learn what we are hearing today, but I also want them to respect coal miners. It is important that they understand that we’re not bad people.” He added, about the students, “I hope they come up with a solution.”

Tonya Adkins, a native West Virginian now living in Kentucky, sang a song she wrote based on Revelation 11:18. The lyrics include the line, “What will they say on the judgment day when God destroys those who destroyed the earth?” Commenting upon her song, she shared, “A thread that runs through this is the poisoning of our water.” Revelation 11:18 reads, “The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for the dead to be judged, and to recompense your servants, the prophets, and the holy ones and those who fear your name, the small and the great alike, and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (New American Bible, Revised Edition).

The 10-year-old, Ukiah Cordell of Charleston, said, “I used to love hiking up a mountain, letting the cool breeze blow away my negative thoughts. I still do. But now, it is not always so nice.” She concluded with a proclamation of hope, saying, “Mountaintop removal started here and we are going to end it here.”

Organizers and participants of The People's Foot Rally wait in the DEP lobby to be heard by DEP staff. Initially, 10 had planned to meet with DEP leaders, but others joined. When DEP staff said not all present could be in the meeting, all in the group left Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

Organizers and participants of The People’s Foot Rally wait in the DEP lobby to be heard by DEP staff. Initially, 10 had planned to meet with DEP leaders, but others joined. When DEP staff said not all present could be in the meeting, all in the group left
Photo ©Chuck Wyrostok/AppaLight.com

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

Also, the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference is scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. This is a wonderful opportunity to be part of a community of like-minded preservationists to address the topics covered extensively on this site. Learn about it and register for it here.

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