Hope Of A Sustainable Future In West Virginia’s Coal Country

Fracking companies have tried to smooth over their insidious work by pouring money into specific areas of the community. In the heart of fracking country, Doddridge County High School got a brand new $12.8 million athletic facility this year, complete with batting cages, an Olympic-style gym, a new football field and an eight-lane track. At the same time and not far away from the glistening new facility, a plan to rebuild the local playground put forward by several companies has yet to materialize after more than a year.

The promised playground. West Union Park, Doddridge County

Linda Ireland, a former school teacher in Doddridge County explains that kids in high school are targeted by the fracking industry for the meager number of jobs that exist, and both administrators and educators at the school avoid criticizing fracking, even in classes that focus on farming and agriculture.

Still, not everyone is on board the fracking train. Lynn and James Beatty retired to West Virginia from the DC area, seeking rural calm. Soon after they moved in, however, a compressor station moved in too. “It’s like trying to live in the middle of a truck stop with all the 18-wheelers running,” Lynn says. “No more peace and quiet. We didn’t wake up to bird song in the morning, like we had planned. We didn’t see the deer. We had chickens – they stopped laying.”

James explains his frustration further, pointing out that they have never seen an EPA representative “do any kind of study, a walk through, nothing. The county and state gave the oil and gas company a carte blanche.” Complaints to the company were either ignored or dealt with in an almost comically absurd way. For instance, when the Beattys and their neighbors protested about the noise, a worker was sent to the property with a noise level sensor. “They set up the [sound sensor] equipment, shut down operations for two days and then they started the noise and took their equipment away again,” James explains.

When it came to chemical pollution, the tragic comedy continued. “They sent us a packet of information with at least two pages of toxic chemicals that they put into the ground and then they wanna test the water. So, what did they test for? Not one of those chemicals on those two pages.” Lynn laughs, shaking her head. “It’s hard to win around here, it really is.”

Compressor station with a pipeline at the top right. Compressor stations compress gas to push it down the pipeline.

Complainants to government do not have much luck either. Linda told me that when folks did voice their complaints of fracking with the County Commission, they were met with indifference bolstered by the age-old argument that these companies are not breaking any laws. “Almost everything that goes on is legal. They’re coming in with a permit,” Linda says, shaking her head. “You feel like there’s nothing you can do because you have these companies with all their resources and the state seems to be on their side as well.” Mirijana Beram, another resident of Doddridge County, told me that the West Virginia DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) is often referred to as “Don’t Expect Protection.”

Reports of explosions, strange smells, polluted water and property destruction have been largely ignored by the DEP. The largest processing facility in the nation is in Doddridge County, WV, and it is expanding. At the same time, construction of more processing plants, compressor stations and drill pads rolls on unabated.

“It’s a hard road of hope,” Paul says. He points out that as West Virginia has been a resource colony since its founding, it is damn difficult to combat years of industry brainwashing. “At least I have a job” is always the final resignation. When a coal giant steals pensions, when fracking poisons water and air, the attention is on the single bad company, not the industry as a whole. Furthermore, much of the devastation is hidden. Strip-mined mountains are shaded from highways by rows of trees. Frack pads hold a low profile and turfed-over pipelines cover the fact that for every acre of frack pad, there are 15 acres of pipeline for transportation.

Sign at Kayford Mountain, home of the Keepers of the Mountain. Sign reads: “We are the Keepers of the Mountain. Love them or leave them, just don’t destroy them.”

In spite of these industry tricks and tactics, in the hills and hollers, people are fighting and building. In a variety of ways across the state, people are spreading the word to locals and visitors and organizing in their communities to build a better future. I tagged along with Paul on a tour of Kayford Mountain, the site of a powerful battle against big coal that saved a gorgeous mountaintop from destruction. Paul gives tours mostly to college students here, explaining the realities of mountaintop removal, the history of coal mining and a potential future that kids their age can construct.

Terry and Wilma run the Mine Wars Museum. “It’s grassroots organizing when you tell your history and tell where you came from,” Terry says. “Our history is showing other people in the country what solidarity means, what you can do when you organize,” Wilma says. Mirijana and Linda give in-depth fracking tours all along Highway 50, the fracking corridor of West Virginia. South Wings offers flyover tours to journalists and environmentalists because so much of this devastation can only be understood from above. And at the same time, so much of what is beautiful can also be understood — from above and from the ground.

It is not just the nature: it is the people. If there is one terrible lie the industry has managed to promote most effectively, it is the idea that West Virginia is beyond hope — that the nature is too damaged to bother protecting anymore, and that the people are disposable, easy to cast aside with opioids, coal and fracking. This lie has festered in the minds of people outside and inside the state. It is a lie that keeps people down and disengaged, but that can be knocked out by connecting people with that radical past and the hope of a sustainable future.

“Like this red bandana,” Wilma says, smiling again. “The term redneck originated right here.” It comes from the Mine Wars in southern West Virginia when immigrant miners marched alongside Black miners, tied red bandanas around their necks and demanded basic human rights from the coal barons.

This past glimmers in the present. And folks all over the world can learn a lot from this cast-away state. We would all do well to be proud rednecks.

Source Article from https://popularresistance.org/hope-of-a-sustainable-future-in-west-virginias-coal-country/

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