I recently attended the 25th anniversary of the first environmental conference sponsored by what later became the West Virginia Environmental Council, or WVEC.
It was simultaneously inspiring and disappointing. Inspiring because I was among long-time movers and shakers in the environmental movement in WV like Norm Steenstra, Cindy Rank, Vivian Stockman, Jim Kotcon, Bill Price, and Wendy Radcliff, who spoke about issues they were working on and passionate about. Disappointing because I was one of only about fifty people in attendance.
One reason this was my first time attending a WVEC conference is that I’ve never considered myself an “environmentalist” or an “activist” on environmental issues. However, I went because I have come to realize that due to the scope of problems facing our state and our world, all of us must, to some degree, become environmental activists.
The precipitating event for me was the January 9, 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill which poisoned the water supply of 300,000 people in nine counties of West Virginia including the state capital, Charleston, where I live. I call it Aquageddon. If you experienced it, you haven’t forgotten it. Even if you didn’t, you likely remember the extensive national news coverage of the chemical, “crude MCHM”, about which little was known. After only a few days, state officials and the Center for Disease Control declared the chemical was present in small enough amounts not to be a health risk. But even a month or more later, the affected public continued to be highly suspicious of water that had the telltale odor of licorice, which the chemical emits. Questions about what level of exposure might result in long term health risks remain unanswered, and almost a year later there are still people in the affected areas who refuse to drink the tap water.
Prior to Aquageddon, I considered myself a supporter of environmental issues. Given a choice, I always voted for candidates who were more likely to support environmental protection, and on occasion I attended fund raisers, made contributions to environmental organizations, and attended rallies.
In the wake of Aquageddon, I attended rallies and led the singing of “This Land is Your Land,” with new lyrics I’d written about the water crisis and mountain top removal (MTR) mining. I attended public meetings and went to E-Day at the legislature to lobby for the tank storage bill, a bill that passed by a unanimous vote of the WV House and Senate. UNANIMOUS! How often does that happen?
I wondered if this would be a “come to Jesus moment” heralding the beginning of a new day for recognition of environmental catastrophes that have been occurring for decades in West Virginia due to MTR and other lightly regulated industries: poisoned water supplies, flattened mountains, buried streams, increased cancer rates and other negative health impacts on communities near mountain removal coal mines? Would the legislature take another look at the effects on our water supply and communities caused by “Fracking” in order to decide whether stricter regulations are needed? Would they begin to question the actual cost of burning carbon fuels when damage to roads, water, air, health, tourism, and communities is factored in?
Or was this the Legislature’s version of “giving the Devil his due” in which they would have to be seen doing something because so many rich and powerful people in the state were affected by Aquageddon, but could ignore the by and large rural communities affected by MTR and Fracking. Surprise, surprise, it turns out it’s the latter.
I am not a scientist, don’t like to attend meetings, and don’t want to spend my time walking the halls of the Legislature. But I want to make sure that the environmental heroes who are working to protect us continue to have the resources they need to organize meetings and rallies, to study the impacts that fracking and MTR are having, to take water, soil, and air samples. Before WVEC was formed, activists from groups working on local issues from all around the state descended on legislators in uncoordinated and overlapping ways. WVEC was formed so the environmental community could speak with a unified voice, sharing information with legislators so they are hearing the facts about the impacts of a lack of sensible regulation on West Virginians. Without WVEC and other environmental organizations, legislators only hear what the industry lobbyists have to say about how laws and regulations might impact their bottom lines.
To help support this critical work, I started a project called AWARE: Artists Working in Alliance to Restore the Environment. AWARE’s mission is primarily to raise funds for environmental organizations in West Virginia, especially WVEC and its member groups, which include the GreenbrierRiver Watershed Association, Ohio Valley Environmental Council, Sierra Club ofWest Virginia, WV Citizen Action Group, WV Highlands Conservancy, and the WV Rivers Coalition, I hope you will think about what you’re willing to do to help protect our environment, and if it doesn’t include activism, at least make a donation to one or more of these organizations or another like them, or to AWARE, which will distribute the money among them.