Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Appalachian Crayfish: Canaries in a Coal Mine

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Dac Collins

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that two species native to Appalachia — The Big Sandy crayfish (pictured) and Guyandotte River crayfish — be listed as endangered under federal law after determining the species are in danger of extinction “primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities” such as mountaintop removal coal mining. Photo by Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University on Flickr

If you find yourself at a crawfish boil anytime soon, don’t be afraid to go back for seconds. The two species that are sold commercially — red swamp and white river crayfish — are prolific. They can be found in the wild throughout the South and are especially abundant in Louisiana, where they are also farm-raised in ponds.

But here in Appalachia, some of our native crayfish populations are teetering on the brink of extinction, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Whether or not they are pushed past the point of no return depends largely on the outcome of a recent proposal by the agency to add them to the federal list of endangered species.

Like most creek-dwelling crawdads, the two species in question — the Big Sandy crayfish, which are native to the Big Sandy River basin in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, and the Guyandotte River crayfish, a closely related subspecies found in West Virginia — spend a majority of their lives wedged into the crevices of the creek bottom. These nooks and crannies shelter the crayfish from predators and serve as places to lie dormant during the winter months. But when these rocky creek beds are covered up in sediment, the habitat that these creatures depend on to survive is lost entirely.

This is precisely what is occurring in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River drainages of West Virginia. The sedimentation has become so severe in recent years that the Guyandotte crayfish population has retreated to the mid-reaches of a single stream, Pinnacle Creek, in Wyoming County.

If the crayfish disappear completely, the ecology of these creeks could change drastically. The freshwater crustaceans are a primary food source for many of the native fish species, including smallmouth bass and trout, which also happen to be the two most sought after sport fish here in Appalachia. Take away the food source and these creeks might eventually be fishless.

The cause of siltation is obvious when you look at where these creeks are located. There are 192 active coal mines in the area, many of which are mountaintop removal mines that are dumping their waste into the headwaters of streams, effectively burying them. And that’s just standard operating procedure. If an accident occurs, a toxic slurry of silt and chemicals spills into the creeks that feed the rivers that run into the reservoirs we drink out of, wreaking havoc on species like crayfish along the way.

The Fish and Wildlife Service specifically mentioned mountaintop removal coal mining in its report on the two crayfish species. The agency determined that, “the Big Sandy crayfish and Guyandotte River crayfish are in danger of extinction, primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities that increase erosion and sedimentation, which degrades the stream habitat required by both species,” and that, “an immediate threat to the continued existence of the Guyandotte River crayfish is several active and inactive surface coal mines, including MTR mines, in the mid and upper reaches of the Pinnacle Creek watershed.”

The FWS report also called attention to impaired water-quality — especially hazardous concentrations of sulfate and aluminum — in areas where most of the mines are closed, proving that “the detrimental effects of coal mining often continue long after active mining ceases.”

The proposed endangered species listing could have considerable impacts on the coal mining industry. If the Big Sandy and Guyandotte crayfish are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it would lead to more strictly enforced water quality regulations, which could affect ongoing mining operations in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River basins as well as coal companies seeking permits to mine in the area.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on this proposal until May 16. Click here to take action and ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect these two Appalachian species.

Appalachian communities at growing risk from mountaintop removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 - posted by brian
Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on

Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on

Announcing a new tool to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams

Coal is in the news a lot these days. The market forces and much-needed environmental and health protections cornering the dirty fuel are topics of endless interest as America’s energy landscape shifts toward cleaner sources. And yes, all signs point to coal’s continued decline.

In many ways though, the forces chipping away at coal’s historic dominance are overshadowing another big story — one that Appalachian citizens still need the public and policymakers to hear — about just how much the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal coal mining persist in Central Appalachia.

That mountaintop removal is an extremely dirty and dangerous way to mine coal has never been better understood. The overwhelming body of evidence is built on a foundation of the countless personal stories found in communities near mines and bolstered by dozens of studies investigating disproportionate health problems in coal-producing counties compared to elsewhere in Appalachia. More recently, advocates have employed technological tools to visualize complex data and add another dimension to arguments against the practice.

Appalachian Voices is committed to both creating a forum for those personal stories and sharing the most up-to-date data available about the ongoing risks mountaintop removal poses to our region’s communities and environment. Today, we’re excited to share a web tool we developed to reveal how mining continues to close in on nearby communities and send a resounding message to President Obama that ending mountaintop removal is a must if we hope to foster economic and environmental health in Appalachia.

Explore Appalachian Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal on

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

The centerpiece of “Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal” is an interactive mapping tool on that allows anyone to explore mountaintop removal’s expansion over the past 30 years.

Created using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, and mapping data and consultation from the nonprofit SkyTruth, the tool gives users greater perspective into the decades-long scourge surface mining has had on the Appalachian landscape and generations of families that live in the region.

The Communities at Risk tool also concentrates on impacts at the community level, where the powerful personal stories that first brought mountaintop removal to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and agenda for environmental change are found.

Fifty communities spread across Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are identified by the tool as being the most at risk. By clicking on a community icon on the map, you can see the number of acres classified as active mining within a 1-mile radius of a particular place over time. In some communities, the number has fallen. In others, it has grown dramatically in recent years even as regional coal production has plummeted.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at a handful of these communities, sharing local perspectives on how the proximity of mountaintop removal has affected local livelihoods. Our first “featured community” is Inman, Va., a small town in Wise County, where residents have successfully battled back a proposed mountaintop removal mine while experiencing the devastating impacts of another that began operating in the early 2000s. You’ll also see stories about featured communities on and in upcoming issues of The Appalachian Voice newspaper.

Learn about Inman, Va., from local residents Matt Hepler and Ben Hooper

If you want a fuller picture of the data we used to create the mapping tool, check out the companion white paper, which describes the background, methods, results and implications of our initial research.

Over time, we’ll work with impacted citizens in communities near active and proposed mines to expand the use of the tool and update our maps with current, high-resolution satellite imagery we’ll obtain through a partnership with Google’s Skybox for Good project.

Read our white paper for an in-depth look at the ways mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk.

The constant flow of news describing something close to the death of the Appalachian coal industry could leave outside observers with the impression that the problems of mountaintop removal have been resolved by the industry’s impending collapse. That impression, however, is at odds with the personal experience of many Appalachian citizens, the visible impacts of mining in communities across the region and the data that comprises Communities at Risk.

Visit to explore the mapping tool, learn more about the 50 most at-risk communities and tell President Obama that more must be done to protect Appalachian communities.

New Map Tracks Growing Threat of Mountaintop Removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 - posted by cat

Matt Wasson, Program Director, 828-262-1500,
Erin Savage, Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator, 828-262-1500,
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

A new interactive map released today shows that mountaintop removal coal mining has been expanding closer to communities in Central Appalachia in recent years, posing increasing threats to human health and the environment even as coal production in the region has declined dramatically. The mapping tool, developed by the nonprofit organization Appalachian Voices, is the first-ever, time-lapse view of the proximity of mountaintop removal mines to communities.

The organization identified 50 Appalachian communities that are most at risk from destructive mining based on the proximity of mining to those communities and the rate at which mining activity has been increasing. Krypton, Ky., Bishop, W.Va., and Roaring Fork, Va. are the top three communities at risk, while the top three counties with the highest number of communities at risk are Pike County, Ky. (seven), Wise County, Va. (six), and Boone County, W.Va. (five).

>> View the interactive map
>> Download the white paper, with tables and methodology

Based on the map, and working with impacted citizens in the coal-bearing region, Appalachian Voices can now identify mining “hot spots” and access on-demand, up-to-date, high-resolution satellite images through a unique partnership with Google Inc.’s Skybox For Good initiative.

The “Communities At Risk” web feature is part of the organization’s ongoing campaign urging President Obama to end mountaintop removal mining before he leaves office. “Contrary to what the coal industry and its allies in Congress claim, federal action to end this atrocity is not a ‘war on coal,’ but rather is at the heart of securing the region’s future,” says Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator.

Other key findings include:

  • Communities where mountaintop removal mine encroachment is increasing suffer higher rates of poverty and are losing population more than twice as fast as nearby rural communities with no mining in the immediate vicinity;
  • Southwest Virginia had a disproportionate concentration of at-risk communities on the list (20%), but accounted for only 8% of Central Appalachia’s surface mine coal production in 2014; and
  • West Virginia, where 60% of all Central Appalachian surface mine coal production occurred in 11 counties in 2014, accounted for nearly half of the 50 at-risk communities.

Appalachian Voices developed the map and identified the 50 communities most at risk using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, mining permit databases, and mapping data and consultation from Skytruth. Much of the expanding surface mining is for metallurgical coal used to make steel, as opposed to thermal coal used in power plants. Metallurgical coal is usually exported overseas, says Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices Program Director who developed the methodology for the web tool.

“The human suffering and environmental destruction from mountaintop removal mining won’t just disappear as America’s aging power plants retire,” he says. “It’s incumbent on the Obama administration to help revive this region that has powered the nation’s economic ascendancy for generations, starting with ending mountaintop removal mining.”

For the campaign launch, Appalachian Voices focused on one of the 50 communities—Inman, Va., which ranks #22 on the list. The 3,000-acre Looney Ridge mountaintop removal mine has loomed over Inman for more than a decade. The area’s population has declined 9% from 1990 to 2010, while surrounding Wise County grew by 2.4%, and the state grew 14.7%. The poverty rate in the Inman area jumped from 17.3% in 2000 to almost 28% in 2013.

“Strip mining was controversial in the ‘70s here, but it was in no way as destructive as taking the entire top off of mountains,” says Ben Hooper, a long-time resident of Inman. “There’s no way you can take the entire top off the mountain and not destroy a lot of things. There was safe water to drink at one point off one of the mountains—but there’s no safe water now.”

>> Watch the video with Ben Hooper; contact Cat McCue to arrange an interview with him.

The mapping tool was developed by Appalachian Voices for on behalf of The Alliance for Appalachia.


Appalachian Voices is an award-winning nonprofit organization that is cultivating a citizen movement across Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky to shift our region from harmful, polluting energy practices — like mountaintop removal coal mining and fracking — to cleaner, more just and sustainable energy sources. Through community organizing, innovative communications tools and advocacy at the highest levels of power, we bring people together to protect our beloved mountains and rivers, our forests and farmland and our children’s future. Join the movement today at

“MVP” is not a most valued project

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Today’s guest to the Front Porch is Tina Badger, a resident of Elliston, Va. and an intern with Appalachian Voices. With a background ranging from water quality monitoring to feeding the hungry, Tina currently focuses on advocacy work in opposing the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Tina Badger

Tina Badger

It’s been nearly six months since the companies behind the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline pre-filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and residents are still unsure about the routes, full impact, and process.

Landowners and residents on and near the alternative routes released in February are just now learning of possible impacts of the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline if FERC approves the project, proposed by EQT Corp., NextEra Energy and partners under an entity called “MVP LLC.” The 300-mile pipeline, three-and-a-half feet in diameter, would carry natural gas under high pressure from the Marcellus fracking fields, starting in Wetzel County, W.Va., and ending in Pittsylvania County, Va, where it would tie in with another pipeline.

MVP LLC recently held open houses in Monroe County, W.Va. and Craig County, Va., where residents have quickly organized in opposition to the pipeline, joining a line of opposition all along the proposed route. The boards of supervisors in Giles, Craig, Montgomery, and Roanoke counties have all passed resolutions opposing the project, and Roanoke County created a Pipeline Advisory Committee to review the potential benefits and impacts. In W.Va., the Monroe County Board of Health has voiced its opposition as well.

Rally in Blacksburg against the MVP

Rally in Blacksburg against the MVP

All counties along the proposed route are preparing for FERC’s upcoming scoping meetings. At this time, there is no definitive date for these meetings.

Meanwhile, surveying continues along the proposed route and has started on the alternative routes, in spite of landowner opposition. EQT Corp. has brought a lawsuit against 103 landowners in West Virginia who have denied the company access to survey their land. Recently, a subcontractor on the project caused a small brush fire in Franklin County, Va., after discarding a cigarette, and residents are reporting survey stakes that are clearly marked “MVP” in areas that are not on the published corridor maps.

The latest proposed location for the Swann Compressor station, the only compressor station proposed for Virginia, would put it somewhere in or near the Catawba Valley, possibly in the North Fork Historic District. While there is no good location for a compressor station, an historic district in a pastoral rural valley seems especially inappropriate.

Everyone is encouraged to continue to submit comments to FERC and to join one of the many groups that have formed to oppose the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Now is the time to be involved. Stay up to speed with us and local organizers and take every opportunity to be heard.

Digging Under the Surface: West Virginia’s Fracking Boom

Monday, April 13th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Kimber Ray

When West Virginia landowners agreed to sever the right to use their land from their rights to the minerals buried beneath the surface, they never imagined the sweeping changes this could impose on the landscape of their communities.

A gas drilling rig was built on David Wentz's land in Doddridge County, W. Va., without his permission, a legal phenomenon that is increasingly widespread in areas such as the Marcellus shale region. Photo by Diane Pitcock, <a href=

A gas drilling rig was built on David Wentz’s land in Doddridge County, W. Va., without his permission, a legal phenomenon that is increasingly widespread in areas such as the Marcellus shale region. Photo by Diane Pitcock,

This separation of land and mineral rights, known as a “split estate,” is permitted throughout the United States, but the prevalence of such contracts widely varies. Many of these agreements were negotiated while drilling rigs were still powered by horses or steam.

“[Drilling operators] take old leases — I’ve seen them from 1890, 1906 — and the wording in it will say ‘For as long as the well is in production, this lease maintains force,’ and that they can come back to drill additional wells,” explains Diane Pitcock, a local resident who moved to Doddridge County, W.Va. in 2005.

State laws governing whether homebuyers must be made aware of split estates are rare since, until recently, it was generally not considered an important issue.

Yet today, previously quiet, rural communities across West Virginia have watched concrete well pads come to dominate ridgetops above once-secluded homes. Long convoys of heavy trucks and trailers pulverize county roads. Networks of pipelines cut through forested lands to carry billions of cubic feet of Marcellus shale gas to neighboring markets each day.

Under Pressure


Of the active Marcellus states — including West Virginia, eastern Ohio, and Pennsylvania — only West Virginia requires landowner compensation for surface damages, but companies are given broad freedom to determine what that payment should be. Mineral rights holders are entitled to “reasonable access” to their resources, a claim that often trumps the rights of homeowners. None of these states require compensation for subsequent air and water pollution, however, and companies have historically denied responsibility.

After witnessing the destructive impact of split estates on some of her neighbors, Pitcock decided to forgo her planned retirement and, four years ago, she founded the grassroots network West Virginia Host Farms. The program invites concerned landowners to help promote increased research and reporting on Marcellus shale drilling in West Virginia which, according to Pitcock, started to occur more intensively two years ago.

Beth Crowder and David Wentz are among many landowners who experienced this first-hand at their 300-acre property in Doddridge County, W. Va., which is known as a “sweet spot” of the recent Marcellus shale gas boom.

When the gas company announced that 37 acres of the Crowder and Wentz property had been sited for a Marcellus shale well pad, the company did not need their permission because neither of the two owns their land’s mineral rights.

“The first opening salvo you’ll get is somebody contacting you about a surveyor,” explains Crowder. “Maybe they’ll come to your property soon, or maybe never.”

Bucking Convention

Drilling and hydraulic fracturing are nothing new in West Virginia, but the process has long been dominated by vertical, or conventional, wells that tap into easily accessed pockets of oil and natural gas. More than 59,000 such wells are scattered across West Virginia today, according to the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance. Production from these conventional reservoirs peaked by 1920 for most of Appalachia.

Yet geologists had long known of the production potential from more hard-to-reach reservoirs such as shale gas. The two drilling techniques that would come to be known as fracking — hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling — were both developed in West Virginia decades before the first Marcellus shale gas well was drilled. But fracking remained largely unheard of until 2004, when improved computer technology and high natural gas prices set the shale boom in motion.

The large number of trucks needed to support drilling operations results n road damage and frequent accidents. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Host Farms,

The large number of trucks needed to support drilling operations results n road damage and frequent accidents. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Host Farms,

Pitcock recalls that, when fracking first rose to prominence, many landowners did not understand the term conventional “because that was the only type of well.” By February 2014, there were as many as 3,696 unconventional wells, and shale production accounted for more than 80 percent of all natural gas produced in the state.

Approximately 40 percent of West Virginia’s Marcellus shale gas wells have been constructed on private property, and of those, nearly 70 percent are split estates, according to a 2013 study by Alan Collins of West Virginia University.

His research also found that those residents with split estates are more likely to report problems such as polluted water and land and surface damage. His report did not indicate whether this is because companies actually cause more damage on split estates, or because surface owners with nothing to gain from mineral development on their land are more concerned about potential impacts.

What is clear is that, because mineral rights are often owned by out-of-state individuals or, according to Pitcock, even the gas companies themselves, many surface owners are left in the dark about long-term plans for their property.

Even after the well is finished, workers may come up to several times a day for maintenance, and wells may be fracked up to 12 more times in subsequent years. News that wells might remain in production for the next 30 to 50 years can be numbing for landowners.

“I tend to feel like I’d like to think about it later, and then it won’t seem so bad,” says Crowder. “But then you come home and it’s absolutely as bad as your worst fears.”

Who Owns the Land?

When Crowder and Wentz moved to West Virginia in 1977, they already knew the mineral rights had been separated from their land decades ago. But like many who bought property before the Marcellus gas boom, they never imagined such an extensive operation could be placed on their property.

The two built a log cabin home and, in 1981, their son Nathaniel was born. Wentz learned to work as a woodturner and Crowder, who paints pastel portraits and landscapes, won awards for her work, and even has some pieces displayed in the state’s permanent collections.

The minimum required distance between gas wells and homes allows for construction at close quarters with neighboring residents. Courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

The minimum required distance between gas wells and homes allows for construction at close quarters with neighboring residents. Courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

“We felt at the time that we were going to make our own life out of the mainstream, and raise a child in a rural environment,” Wentz says. “It was quiet and peaceful and we got to love it, but now it’s all torn up and we’re in the middle of an industrial zone. And at my age, you can’t really start over again.”

Before the well pad arrived, Crowder and Wentz divorced and agreed to split the property. The majority of the land taken by gas company EQT Corporation belongs to Wentz, but Crowder has also been affected by the impact of noise, traffic and air pollution, and the fear that their water has been contaminated.

Now, even on a calm day, a waft of natural gas is carried on the breeze to their homes and a 16-foot-wide gravel access road cuts through the woods. Lining both sides of the road are massive piles of trees where the company clear-cut a 45-foot right-of-way. In West Virginia, property owners are entitled to receive “reasonable damages” from the company, but Crowder and Wentz decided not to sign anything without a sense of what those damages would be.

“[The drilling companies] want you to sign ahead of time so they can tell you what they expect the damage will be and give you a dollar offer, take it or leave it,” explains Pitcock. “The problem with [trying to] negotiate is when they’ve taken out 20 more acres than they said they would, or completely bulldozed your orchard, or caused erosion problems and flooded out your vegetable garden, you obviously have more damages than what they predicted and already compensated you for, so it’s up to you as the landowners to sue them.”

Living with Fracking

For six months while the wells were being constructed, a noisy din hovered over Wentz and Crowder’s property around the clock. A towering drill rig operated nonstop to bore down more than 7,000 feet. Accompanying lights illuminated the surrounding area like a stadium, obscuring the night sky.

Today, drilling on the multi-acre well pad is complete, but nine separate wells and their accompanying condensate tanks remain. These special tanks heat the extracted gas in order to separate it from water and other liquids; although the process is comparatively quiet, the tanks require occasional releases of pressure. Carcinogenic vapors such as benzene, toulene and xylenes are emitted, and these heavy gases may accumulate in low-lying valleys rather than floating away.

All of this equipment, along with an average of 4 million gallons of water needed to frack each well, was hauled in by heavy diesel trucks and tractor trailers that precariously climbed up and down the mountainside access road built just above Wentz’s house. According to Pitcock, many of the truck drivers are workers from flat states such as Texas and Oklahoma, and they have gained notoriety for their inability to navigate the state’s winding, rural roads.

“There was a time we were averaging about 1-2 major accidents a week — that we knew of!” says Pitcock. “The first thing they’ll do when they run their tanker off into a ditch, is they’ll call the tow truck company that they deal with, and they’ll haul it away and it never gets reported.” Pitcock and local volunteers are watching, however, and they work to hold the industry accountable by photographing accidents and sharing information online.

A Watery Rebuke

Most landowners in Doddridge County have long relied on private wells for drinking water but, since drilling began several years ago, some residents have switched to using large plastic tanks called water buffaloes.

“They keep saying with people’s water wells that nobody can prove they’ve been contaminated by fracking, well all you have to do is drive around and anytime you see one of these water buffaloes, it means a person’s water well has been compromised,” says county resident Jonette Kirkwood, who has noted a rise in the number of houses with these 1,200-gallon white tanks in their yard. “The gas companies don’t just stick those in someone’s yard.”

West Virginia requires gas companies to provide an alternative water source in response to nearby contamination complaints, but this is not considered a legal admission of guilt. Legal condemnation would require a historical series of water quality tests, which companies are not obliged to provide. One local resident, who asked not to be named, notes that such tests can be prohibitively expensive for residents to obtain on their own. “You need baseline testing and you need to prove a change in your water; one test only captures water at that point in time.”

Wentz has had the property’s water tested twice so far, but he does not have baseline tests from before the company arrived. Pitcock remembers when Wentz had a one-acre frackwater pond near the well on his property — used to store the flowback of toxic wastewater that returns to the surface after a well is fracked — surrounded by a tall chain link fence.

“There was a sign here that said ‘Impaired Water. No Swimming,’” She laughs, then adds, “That stuff evaporates in the air with all those toxic chemicals. We have cases where they’d leave a pond like that for 2-3 years to evaporate what they didn’t pump out, and then if they pay the landowner an extra $20,000, he’ll let them just bury it there and cover it up.”

Unsettled Damages

Some West Virginia residents living near gas drilling operations have received 1,200-gallon water tanks, like the one pictured above, from those companies after water quality test revealed contamination. Photo by Molly Moore.

Some West Virginia residents living near gas drilling operations have received 1,200-gallon water tanks, like the one pictured above, from those companies after water quality test revealed contamination. Photo by Molly Moore.

Although EQT has essentially taken over a portion of Wentz’s land for the next 20 to 50 years, as far as auditors are concerned, those 37 acres still belong to him, and he is required to pay taxes on this land that he will likely never be able to make use of again.

EQT has finished drilling and fracking the well for now, but the daily rounds of truck traffic driving up to the well pad, the emissions from the drilling equipment, and the whistles from pressure valves at the well pad will not end.

“Drilling was very noisy and all, but it had a beginning and end. The traffic around David’s property will not end,” says Crowder. “Imagine if you did want to sell, especially to a younger family? You really feel like the place is ruined.”

Some West Virginians have responded by filing lawsuits for nuisance and negligence related to natural gas drilling, including environmental impacts, traffic and blocking public road access. Their complaints are directed at EQT and other natural gas companies including Antero Resources and Hall Drilling.

Even residents who owned their mineral rights and accepted payments to have a Marcellus well or pipeline built on their property have found that they agreed to more than they realized. “None of them ever had any idea that this was not the usual drilling,” says Pitcock. “They were in for something brand new, unconventional and far more devastating.”

“These people are saying ‘Why did I sign this? They told me they were only going to clear for a 16-inch pipeline and I came home and they took the whole side of my mountain and cleared all the trees,’” adds Pitcock. “Well, it’s too late when they’ve signed [the lease], you’ve got to read the small print.”

Feelings about what will happen to Doddridge County are mixed. For some, it’s time to leave; the Marcellus shale wells, and all the problems they have brought to the community, are here to stay. Others say it is important not to succumb to resignation.

“Who’s going to want to come here to live?” asks Kirkwood. “We only have I think 8,000 [residents] in the whole county and 800 in the town. And if people can’t sell their homes because their water’s no good, or because somebody’s put a great big well pad right in their land, what’s going to happen over the next 20, 30 years with the people here?”

Kirkwood’s adult children have suggested that she “Get out now while you can still get some value out of the house.” But the value of her home is less important to Kirkwood than the value of her community, where folks she knows stop by to chat or invite her to lunch as she tends her garden. “I’d rather just stay here where I belong,” she says.

State Legislative Updates

Monday, April 13th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

While lawmakers in Washington, D.C., might get most of the spotlight, the legislators in state capitols across the region are busy making — and blocking — laws that affect Appalachia’s land, air, water and people. Here are spring updates from state legislatures around the region.


Session convened Jan. 6, adjourned March 24

Perhaps the most publicized and contentious environmental law to pass during the Bluegrass State’s 30-day legislative session was an update to existing oil and gas drilling rules that addresses some of the challenges posed by fracking.

A new energy law creates an Environmental Regulation Task Force to review how electricity reliability in the state is affected by federal environmental regulations. The task force, which environmental groups say is skewed toward industry, will produce a report by December 2015.

Gov. Beshear also signed a bill that helps local governments finance water and energy efficiency projects. A committee hearing on the Clean Energy Opportunity Act, which would require Kentucky utilities to meet a certain portion of electricity demand through energy efficiency and renewables, was cancelled due to a March snowstorm, but a hearing during the legislative interim is expected.

It will be more difficult for timber companies designated as “bad actors” to operate in the state without paying civil penalties and remediating logging sites under another new law. And new rules regarding how local governments can handle stray horses and cattle provide guidelines for identifying owners and for gelding, or sterilizing, male animals if an owner is not found. — By Molly Moore

North Carolina

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourns early July

Since the legislative session began in January, the rules regulating oil and gas drilling in North Carolina went into effect and the state’s long-standing moratorium on fracking was lifted. A bipartisan bill introduced to “disapprove” the rules was left to expire in March.

The first law passed this session clarifies technical issues with the Coal Ash Management Act passed last September and removes a previous legal requirement that the state develop rules to limit air pollution from fracking operations. A three-judge panel ruled in favor of Governor McCrory, who claims that the Coal Ash Management Commission is unconstitutional because there are more legislative appointments than executive. The ruling means that progress cleaning up coal ash throughout the state will stall. It also affects the commission that wrote the fracking rules, which could impact the validity of the drilling regulations.

The bipartisan Energy Freedom Bill, which would open up the state to third-party sales for solar projects, was introduced in March. The bill is supported by environmental groups, large businesses and the military, but strongly opposed by Duke Energy, which currently has a monopoly on the state’s power production.

Though polls show that North Carolinians overwhelmingly support renewable energy options, Gov. McCrory continues to push for opening the coast to offshore oil drilling, which is a possibility now that President Obama is allowing states to pursue offshore drilling in the Atlantic. — By Sarah Kellogg


Session convened Jan. 13, adjourns late April

At the end of March, a bill to transfer oversight of surface mining in Tennessee from federal to state regulators had passed through a state Senate committee and state House subcommittee. The Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee would end the federal Office of Surface Mining’s 31-year term as the regulatory agency charged with ensuring that coal mining operations in the state abide by surface mining and mined-land reclamation laws. That responsibility would pass to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. In 1984, the federal agency assumed oversight of surface mining in Tennessee due to the state’s poor enforcement of environmental laws.

The Tennessee Mining Association says a return to state regulation will lead to faster approval of mining permits. Opponents of the bill argue that fees levied on coal companies to pay for the costs of administering the regulatory program would be insufficient, and leave the state bearing an added cost.

A bill to provide a general permit for noncommercial gold mining appears idle for the year; opponents were concerned the bill could damage water quality and trout populations in the Cherokee National Forest. And a bill to help finance renewable energy and energy efficiency was moving through legislative committees at press time. — By Molly Moore


Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned Feb. 27

In the 2015 legislative session, Virginia electric utilities lobbied for what they described as a partial rate freeze, though consumer advocates said that average electric bills could still increase and the legislation would make it more difficult for regulators to catch utility over-earnings or require refunds. But amendments on the same bill declared solar energy development and energy efficiency programs as in the public interest, and the legislation passed.

Another bill would have joined Virginia into a regional network of states limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Through pollution allowance auctions, this initiative would raise funds for efforts such as coastal adaptation to sea level rise and renewable energy workforce training. The bill did not receive a vote, but this concept will likely be reintroduced next year.

Two new laws that passed will increase the size of nonresidential solar installations that can sell power back to the grid and encourage renewable energy and energy efficiency for multi-family and commercial buildings.

Meanwhile, Gov. McAuliffe reiterated his strong support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, one of three proposed pipelines that would, if built, carry fracked gas across ecologically sensitive areas. A bipartisan bill would have prevented interstate companies from entering and surveying private property without the written consent of the owner, but that legislation failed to pass, as did an attempt to make public service corporations using eminent domain subject to the Freedom of Information Act. — By Hannah Wiegard

West Virginia

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned March 14

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin received criticism from mine-safety and environmental groups for signing the Coal Jobs Safety Act, a law that United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said “marks the first time in West Virginia history that our state has officially reduced safety standards for coal miners.” The legislation also prevents citizens from suing coal companies for violating Clean Water Act standards if those standards were not specified in the state mine permit, along with several other industry-supported changes to environmental rules.

The state also lowered the number of aboveground chemical storage tanks that need to comply with safety regulations by roughly 75 percent — the storage tank rules passed in the wake of the 2014 Elk River chemical spill. The legislature did agree to strengthen water quality standards for a 72-mile stretch of the Kanawha River so that it can be used as a backup drinking water source for the now-notorious Elk River intake.

A bill that would have allowed “forced pooling” for horizontal oil and gas wells narrowly failed. Forced pooling, which is currently allowed for vertical wells in the state, requires all mineral owners to lease their land for drilling if a certain percentage of other mineral owners in an drilling tract agree.

Two bills intended to expand the scope of agricultural cooperatives and make it easier for growers to sell at farmer’s markets also passed. — By Molly Moore

WV to Review Research on Mining Health Impacts

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Kimber Ray

West Virginia’s Bureau of Public Health announced in March that the agency will begin working with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate existing research that links surface coal mining and poor health.

The announcement came from the health agency’s commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta one week after Randy Huffman, secretary of the DEP, also asserted that such studies should be examined. Many citizen and environmental groups have previously expressed frustration with the state’s failure to acknowledge the significance of this research.

Currently under dispute are a series of studies co-authored by Dr. Michael Hendryx, a professor at West Virginia University from 2006 to 2013. The coal industry has previously challenged efforts to submit his findings as evidence of the potential impacts of new surface mining permits.

Gupta plans to partner with federal agencies to conduct the research review. No timeline has yet been proposed for the project.

WV Coal Lab Penalty Upheld

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

The West Virginia Environmental Quality Board upheld a decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection to revoke the certification of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., where employees routinely conspired to violate the federal Clean Water Act.

The Beckley-based water-testing lab had previously appealed the revocation of its state certificate to conduct water testing services for coal companies and other industrial customers, arguing the actions of one employee should not disrupt its entire business. But during the Feb. 25 sentencing hearing of lab employee John Shelton — who will spend 21 months in prison for falsifying water samples — a U.S. judge said, “essentially everyone at the company… participated in some way in this conspiracy.”

Former Freedom Executives Indicted for Elk River Chemical Spill

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Kimber Ray

Federal prosecutors in December charged the now-bankrupt Freedom Industries and six former employees for criminal violations of the Clean Water Act in relatation to the January 2014 chemical spill that contaminated the water of more than 300,000 West Virginia residents.

The FBI released supporting documents showing that at least a decade before the spill, Freedom was warned of problems at the Elk River site such as critical deficiencies with the tank and containment wall that allowed chemicals to seep into the river. The agency also reports that company expenditures were almost exclusively devoted to projects that would increase revenue, rather than compliance with environmental regulations.

Former Freedom Industries President Gary Southern faces additional fraud charges related to the company’s bankruptcy filing the month of the spill. According to these charges, Southern, a company executive since 2009, falsely stated under oath to have assumed leadership with the company only days before the spill in order to avoid blame and protect his assets from lawsuits.

In response to the spill, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill to create the nation’s first requirement for inspection of aboveground storage tanks, according to National Geographic. As of mid-January, inspection certifications required for approximately 20,000 of the state’s more than 47,000 aboveground tanks were not submitted by the Jan. 1 deadline and, of those submitted, nearly 1,100 did not meet new safety requirements.

Industry lobby groups have tried to weaken the new chemical safety bill, in one instance proposing changes that would exclude thousand of tanks near drinking water sources from new inspection and safety standards.

Such changes could provide amnesty to Lexycon, a company created by former Freedom executives three months after the spill. The new company has already been cited for charges such as improper storage of MCHM — the chemical associated with the notorious spill — and releasing chemicals into waterways without a permit. No fines have been issued.

WV Repeals Changes to Climate Science Standards

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Chris Robey

Following a heated public rebuke, the West Virginia Board of Education reversed its decision to alter newly proposed national K-12 science education standards. The board’s alterations would have required West Virginia teachers to frame human-caused climate change as a debate rather than an accepted body of evidence.

Teachers and environmental groups denounced the alterations as an attempt to undermine peer-reviewed evidence of climate change.

The newly restored standards will be open for public comment until mid-February. In March, the board will vote on final standards for the 2016-17 school year. If adopted, the standards will mark the first time West Virginia students are required to study evidence supporting human-caused climate change.

The reversal comes just days after the conservation group, Friends of the Blackwater, released a report highlighting rising temperatures in the state’s Allegheny Highlands region. View the report, titled “On the Chopping Block,” at