It is time to eliminate the outrageous subsidies and entitlements for the gas industry
By Tom and Becky Berlin
WESTON, W.Va. – Here is a little something for all you land owners, farmers, small business owners, and tax payers to think about.
If you own a bit of land for a hay meadow, you will be assessed and pay property taxes on your hay meadow.
If you buy a tractor and some equipment so you can harvest your hay, you will be assessed and pay property taxes on your tractor and equipment.
If you build a barn in which to keep your hay and your farm equipment out of the weather, you will be assessed and pay property taxes on your barn.
If you buy a cow to eat your hay and maybe give you a calf to sell, you will be assessed and pay property taxes on your cow.
Other small businesses are in much the same situation. You pay property taxes on your business property, buildings, equipment, and inventory.
If, on the other hand, you are a huge corporation and you build a multimillion dollar piece of profitable infrastructure, like Momentum and Stonewall Gas Gathering LLC and their newly constructed pipeline, you will not be assessed and will not pay a penny of local property taxes on your pipeline. Nothing.
Even worse, the land under which that multimillion dollar pipeline lies has been forever rendered unproductive. Nobody will ever be able to build a house on that land, build a barn, build a farm pond, drill a water well, grow an orchard, grow timber, cut an access road to the other side of your farm, or make any improvements that might interfere with the pipeline company. For every mile of pipeline right of way that Stonewall Gas Gathering has, they have permanently destroyed the utility and value of about 10 acres of land, which will ultimately show up as decreased property value and decreased tax revenue for the county. If you do not think the property value has declined on that land, survey off an acre of that right of way, put it up for sale and see what the market value is now.
Does that seem fair to you? Speak with your elected representatives and candidates and demand that this outrageous subsidy and entitlement be eliminated.
Tom and Becky Berlin are farmers in Weston, W.Va.
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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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Stonewall Gas Gathering companies running roughshod over people, nature and the law
By Michael M. Barrick
ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) has issued at least 12 Notice of Violations to the contractors of the Stonewall Gas Gathering (SGG) pipeline since mid-June. The violations are for not following best practices and for causing conditions which pollute the state’s streams.
The SGG is being 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 will connect to the AGS in Harrison County and terminate in Braxton County, where it will connect to the Columbia pipeline. It runs also through Doddridge and Lewis counties.
The company laying the pipeline is Wisconsin-based Precision Pipeline, LLC. According to the company’s website, “We have the experience and expertise to safely complete any project while maintaining total environmental compliance with minimal impact to landowners.”
That’s what the company’s website says. The state of West Virginia, residents being impacted by it, and at least one independent environmental scientist say otherwise.
In mid-July, Jamie Tallman, an environmental inspector with WVDEP surveyed an approximately six mile stretch of the 55-mile pipeline and found that the construction had impacted at least eight stream crossings on Right Fork, Laurel Run, Indian Fork, Big Isaac Creek and Meathouse Fork in Doddridge and Harrison counties. As a result of those visits, he issued 10 Notice of Violations to SGG, though Precision Pipeline is doing the actual work.
He cited poor sediment controls at stream crossings, poor perimeter controls, and other problems such as “marginal” conditions for slope breakers. He noted also, “Multiple earthen slips were observed … two of which were documented to impact state waters but had not been reported.”
That brings to 12 the number of Notice of Violations for this project, the other two also issued by Tallman. One was issued in June for damage done near the community of Big Isaac in Doddridge County and another in early July near the same area. Read more: Standing Their Ground.
Meanwhile, Diana Gooding, a Gilmer County farmer who lives near the Lewis County line, has been taking residents from Virginia and southeastern West Virginia on tours of the pipeline route to witness first-hand the impact of the construction on the region’s delicate watershed. On Aug. 11th, after a heavy rain, Gooding noted, “Goosepen Road today was alive with devastation. Running over the sediment barriers was the mud to the stream as they worked away with heavy equipment despite the deluge of rain we had last night.” She observed, “The equipment and bulldozers were sliding backwards and sideways just trying to take pilings up the hillsides.”
She offered, “It is awful what they are being allowed to do. All of the little streams below are getting trashed big time.”
Independent Environmental Assessment
One such person who accompanied Gooding on one of her trips along the pipeline route is Autumn Bryson, a Greenbrier County-based environmental scientist and owner of Autumn Environmental. On July 18th, along with several others, they visited numerous sites in Lewis, Harrison and Doddridge counties. From that visit, Bryson conducted a Sediment and Erosion Control Assessment. The Assessment was accompanied by numerous photos supporting her assertions.
She observed, “Silt fences, filter socks, and hay were the methods used to control sedimentation and erosion. Failing silt fences were observed at Goosepen Run Stream Crossing along the pipeline route, allowing sediment to enter the nearby stream. The sediment and erosion control measures used are inadequate for the amount of exposed soil and high precipitation events that are common to this region.”
She continued, “Along Sleepcamp Run road, soil was piled high on steep slopes above the road. Silt fences were the only method used to hold the soil in place. There were several occurrences where the silt fences were overloaded and torn due to the weight of the rock and soil. One fabric silt fence is an inadequate method to stabilize an entire hillside. Silt fences were not designed for this use. With a heavy rain event, a landslide could occur causing a safety hazard on public roadways.”
On another crossing in Lewis County, Bryson observed, “Along Copley Road, the pipeline route crosses Sand Fork. At this location, sedimentation was observed in the stream. The silt fences were overflowing allowing the overflow to empty into the nearby stream. The high volume of soil is too much for the silt fence to bear.”
Additionally, she observed, “The Stonewall Gathering pipeline crosses Left Millstone Road and continues down the mountain to cross Millstone Run. Sedimentation was observed in Millstone Run. Filter socks and silt fences were attempting to control the erosion but the volume of soil was too much to hold the hillside in place. The runoff has breached the silt fence and evaded the filter sock. There was also a tear in the filter fabric on the temporary bridge. This hole in the filter fabric allows runoff to flow directly into the stream below further exacerbating the sedimentation issues.”
She asserted also, “An illegal stream crossing was observed where the Stonewall Gathering Line crosses Elk Lick. It appeared that heavy equipment was driven directly through the streambed. There was no stream crossing permit signage in place. No sediment and erosion control methods were used and as a result there was significant sedimentation and damage to the stream bank.”
At yet another stream crossing, she noted, “The Stonewall Gathering line crosses the Right Fork of Kincheloe Creek. Another erosion control measure failed at this stream crossing. The silt fence was unable to contain the volume of soil eroding from the hillside. As a result, the soil breached the silt fence and spilled into the stream.”
She concluded, “Based on observations made during the site visit to the Stonewall Gathering pipeline, the Sediment and Erosion Control Plan is ineffective for a construction project of this magnitude. Silt fences, filter socks, and hay are not able to control erosion and reduce sedimentation into nearby streams. At each location there were instances where the erosion control methods failed impacting the surface waters in the vicinity. The silt fences are unable to bear the load of soil excavated during construction. Filter socks are inadequate at controlling runoff. Filter fabric has been compromised leaving it ineffective. In addition, there is an area where no best management practices are used and heavy equipment has been driven directly through a streambed. These sedimentation and erosion control issues need to be addressed. A more effective plan for controlling sedimentation and erosion needs to be implemented to reduce impacts on nearby streams.”
A resident’s experience
Meanwhile, a farmer near Jane Lew in Lewis County has had more than one confrontation with Precision employees, as well as state workers purportedly on site to monitor the work of the construction crews. Going home on his motorcycle after a trip to Pennsylvania, Tom Berlin was more than a mile up a road to his home only to find it blocked by construction activity. “They were breaking rock and digging a trench. They had a couple of those big iron plates across covered with about four eight-inch-high piles of loose dirt and rock fragments on the best of the two plates. They stopped one machine, but not the big jack hammer and told me I could cross. It was a sort of a tricky crossing, but doable. They made no effort to clear or smooth the path for me, all looking to see if I would make it or chicken out and turn back. I was especially upset that they kept the jack hammer working right alongside me the whole time.”
He continued, “I berated them for not posting a sign at the end of the road, rather than making people travel a mile-and-a-half up a dirt road to find the way blocked. I said I wanted to talk with a supervisor. A man in a white pickup met me at the top of the hill and I gave him a piece of my mind. I then walked back down and found that there was a state road employee in his truck sitting there watching and supposedly making sure they were doing things right. He kept insisting they had a permit and all was OK. He could not explain to me why they did not need to post a warning sign, except to say that they put a notice in some newspaper recently.”
Berlin revealed also, “Then I noticed a guy in a 4-wheeler apparently taking a nap. He bestirred himself and asked if all was OK. I asked if he was a supervisor on this crossing and he assured me he was. So, I lit into him a bit. He explained that he had 55 miles of 36-inch pipeline to lay and he did not have the time to accommodate the needs of every local who might want to use the public road.”
Berlin said the man refused to give him his name.
© 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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Local farmers battle with companies building Stonewall Gas Gathering Pipeline over crop damage; West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issues Notice of Violation to company for violations nearby, continues investigation of incident impacting farm
By Michael M. Barrick
BIG ISAAC, W.Va. – Justin McClain is a farmer. At 35, it is all he has ever done in this small Doddridge County community since before he was a teenager. It is also all he plans to ever do. However, recent damage he says was caused to his crops by the company building the Stonewall Gas Gathering pipeline has him questioning if he will be able to keep his farm going. It also has him and his father, Robert, concerned about the farm’s future if the larger and longer Mountain Valley Pipeline is approved, and has left them both with a bitter taste about the industry as they have tried to get the companies building the 55-mile Stonewall Pipeline Project to compensate them for the loss of Justin’s spring hay crop.
To date, the companies have not admitted responsibility for the damages to his crops. Indeed, they’ve insisted that the McClain’s sign a Release and Waiver that states that the companies are not responsible. In fact, the McClains were given a different version of the Release and Waiver than an attorney in Charleston received – and approved – on their behalf. The two men have also had several conversations on their property with several different corporate representatives, the last ones being told by the elder McClain to leave. “They called Justin a liar. That was enough for me. I told those boys to leave, that they were trespassing.” Justin added, “They took that paper, put it in front of our faces and told us we had to sign it. It was like they were trying to jam it down our throats.”
Meanwhile, Jamie Tallman, an environmental inspector with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) has acknowledged he has inspected the damage done to the McClain’s crops and the area upstream where the pipeline construction is occurring. While Tallman said that no Notice of Violation (NOV) has yet been issued to the company building the pipeline – Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC (SGG) – he added, “We’re still evaluating it.” (However, a NOV has been issued to SGG on the project. Details are below). He spoke with the McClains on July 7. If a NOV is to be issued, it would generally be done within about two business weeks of his investigation. Tallman emphasized, though, that the McClains were not the only people who had contacted WVDEP. “This particular complaint came from many different directions,” he said.
The dispute between the McClains and SGG began after a heavy rain on the evening of June 20th. Just about 2,000 feet upstream from the McClain farm, Precision Pipeline, a subcontractor for SGG, was preparing to lay a 36” pipeline on a steep hillside directly above Meathouse Fork, near Isaac Creek. Meathouse Fork is a tributary of Middle Island Creek, the longest creek in the United States. It empties into the Ohio River near St. Mary’s, W.Va., after meandering for about 77 miles north and then southwest from Doddridge County.
Following the rain, a hayfield that would produce approximately 500 bales of hay for Justin’s cattle was flooded. When the waters receded, the McClains found the hay to be unusable. “It’s full of mud,” said Justin. “You can’t use it like that. It’s bad for the cows. It hurts them when they try to eat it, and it is bad for their intestines. It can kill them.” He continued, “It is also bad for the equipment. It clogs it up. And, if you’re the one harvesting it, you get covered with dust. So it is unusable.”
Equally frustrating to the McClains is the treatment they’ve received from the employees of the various companies involved in the project. Robert recalled, “We went up a week before this happened. We talked to a guy from Wisconsin and told him we were concerned about the threat to the valley from runoff.” Robert said the man told him, “If it comes down that valley, if anything happens, we’ll stand good for it. Now go on and don’t worry about it.”
Then the rains came on June 20th, damaging the hay field. Justin explained, “There is just no way to get that mud off that hay. Two or three of them came down. Said they understood and would replace the hay.”
Yet, they’re still waiting. Robert said that after the first visits by company officials, they were being told a different story. “They called back and said they wouldn’t buy the hay. It was an act of God, that it could happen anywhere. He said they had rain gauges all along the line and that it had rained three-and-a-half inches in 15 minutes. I told him we were out there and it could not possibly have rained that much in that amount of time.” It was then, he said, that he began to not trust them. Robert, who has lived on the land since the late 1940s, added, “That would have been the most rain we have ever seen in this valley.”
Conflicting Release and Waiver documents
The most recent exchange, after several visits over three weeks by various company officials, included two versions of the same Release and Waiver. The attorney in Charleston that the McClains contacted received a faxed version with a cover sheet without a letterhead. The attorney told the McClains they could sign it, as it was more to their liking than an earlier version because it was limited to the 2015 June hay crop. However, it also reads, “It is understood and agreed by the Owner (the McClains) and SGG that this settlement is a compromise of disputed claims, and payment by SGG is not an admission of liability, and that SGG expressly denies any liability.” The previous version required the McClains to abandon all rights to future claims, denied them the right to talk to any third parties about the matter, and threatened them with an injunction if they violated any of those stipulations.
“I wasn’t going to sign that,” said Robert. “I told them, this is a free country. I’ll talk to who I want. If I want to tell my neighbors up and down the valley, I will.”
That is when the company presented the second document. However, while the attorney was receiving his copy, company representatives presented the McClains with a different version. Justin said, “They kept calling over here wanting to know if the attorney had seen it yet. Once we did get it, they sent someone over right away. But that was a different document than the one they sent the attorney. I asked them what they were trying to pull. The man told me it was a mistake, that he had grabbed the wrong document at the office.” It still contained the provisions that the McClains could make no future claims against the company, and required them to not talk to third parties.
None of the three documents contained company letterhead.
Justin recalled, “I told them I’d be a fool to sign that. I told them I just couldn’t trust them. That’s when they called me a liar and put that paper right in front of us and told us we had to sign it. They were following dad around the property demanding that he sign it.” He continued, “I told them I didn’t want money. I just wanted them to get some hay and deliver it. I don’t know why they won’t make it right. It would be so simple.”
Robert added, “That’s the kind of people we’re dealing with. They do not care about the land or water. I don’t think anyone in West Virginia can do anything because they own the politicians. Who’s going to go behind them to fix their destruction?”
Justin added, “All they care about is money. They don’t care about people or land.”
Yet, Justin concluded, “Dad has always told me, ‘Stand your ground.’ That’s what we’re going to do.” Robert simply nodded his head in agreement.
Calls to several company officials were not returned.
Notice of Violation
While the investigation by the WVDEP continues regarding the complaints about the event that impacted the McClain’s farm, SGG was issued a Notice of Violation by WVDEP on June 16th for violations about two miles north of that community. The streams impacted there are Buffalo Calf Fork and Buckeye Creek. Buckeye Creek joins with Meathouse Fork to form Middle Island Creek, so both are tributaries of the nation’s longest creek, with a watershed of more than 550 square miles.
According to Tallman’s report, sediment and erosion control requirements for stream crossings, perimeter controls, and access roads were found to be unsatisfactory. He wrote, “The stream crossing and perimeter controls in Buffalo Calf Fork were observed to be in noncompliance. …” He continued, “Access roads, or stabilized construction entrances to project areas, were observed to lack the required seventy (70) feet of stone as required by the project and E&S plans.”
Water quality was also impacted according to the report. “Sediment associated with pipeline construction was observed to have left the project site through a compromised section of super silt fence and entered into Buffalo Calf Fork, resulting in Conditions Not Allowable in State Waters.”
Tallman included five warnings for SGG at the end of his report:
1. It is to operate systems and facilities “ … to achieve compliance with the permit.”
2. Entrance signs are to be posted at the project’s site entrance.
3. “Each side shall have a stone access entrance and exit and parking areas to reduce the tracking of sediment onto public or private roads.”
4. “No sediment-laden water shall be allowed to leave the site without going through an appropriate best management practice.”
5. Ensure compliance with the project’s General Permit, Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, and Groundwater Protection Plan.
The NOV number is W-NW-JGT-061615-001. Attempts to reach SGG officials for comment were unsuccessful.
About the Stonewall Pipeline Project
Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. According to a spokesperson with the Delaware Secretary of State’s office, principals of companies need not be listed. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream). Momentum is based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS).
The Stonewall Gathering pipeline will connect to the AGS in Harrison County and terminate in Braxton County, where it will connect to the Columbia pipeline.
The company laying the pipeline is Wisconsin-based Precision Pipeline, LLC. Calls to Precision regarding the McClain’s concerns were not returned, but according to the company’s website, “The required qualifications of today’s pipeline contractor are much different. Today’s contractor must not only be cost efficient, but must do so while making a significant priority of the project’s safety needs and the needs of the landowner and the environment. Because of these fundamental changes within the industry, contractors have changed the way they operate by re-training their management, estimators, superintendents, and general workforce. Over the past 20 years, existing contractors have been forced to make this transition to remain on the bid lists of their prospective clients.
“Precision Pipeline is the first pipeline contractor uniquely designed to successfully and efficiently work within today’s more stringent pipeline construction parameters. When considering pipeline contractors to bid on your next pipeline project, remember Precision Pipeline. Our business is built around your needs and the needs of today’s pipeline client. We have the experience and expertise to safely complete any project while maintaining total environmental compliance with minimal impact to landowners. Precision Pipeline is not a new contractor; we are the next generation pipeline contractor.”
SGG secured a loan of $350 million to fund operations, including the Stonewall Gathering pipeline. The loan is due in 2022. Moody’s Investors Service reports, about the pipeline project, “The proceeds of the term loan will be used to fund a portion of the $460 million construction cost. While the term loan is non-recourse, Stonewall benefits from long term, minimum volume commitments from Antero Resources Corporation (Antero, Ba3 stable) and Mountaineer Keystone (unrated) for roughly 83% of the start-up capacity of 1.4 Bcf per day. Stuart Miller, Moody’s Vice President, said, “Stonewall’s (rating) reflects the project risks associated with constructing a gathering and transportation system on a non-turn-key basis, its small scale and weak business profile, the counterparty risk of its major customers, and the lack of revenue and cash flow until the first quarter of 2016.”
Unlike the proposed Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley interstate pipelines, the Stonewall Gathering pipeline is not subject to federal oversight because it is entirely within the state’s boundaries. According to Tallman with WVDEP, intrastate pipelines were exempted from federal oversite by Congress in 2005. In response, said Kelley Gillenwater, the WVDEP communications director, the WVDEP recommended to the legislature that the agency be allowed some oversight. The result was legislation that took effect in June 2013 that does allow the WVDEP some oversight of projects, but she added, “It is limited to stormwater construction permits.”
According to Gillenwater, WVDEP has oversight of the project because, “This would be a non-residential construction project that disturbs more than three acres, which requires a Construction Stormwater Permit and a Site Registration Application.” She noted that the application bundles the Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan and Groundwater Protection Plan.
The permit for the plan was issued on Jan. 29, 2015. The permit number is WVR310402 under General Permit number WV0116815.
Asked if notices were issued for public comment or if comments were made, she answered, “Site Registration Applications require public comment if they exceed 100 acres. As this project does, it should have gone to public comment.” She said that the legal add was advertised in the West Union Herald Record from Dec. 16, 2014 through Jan. 15, 2015. She said that no comments were received.
Our research of the Stonewall Gas Gathering pipeline is ongoing. Check back for additional coverage.
© 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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