Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Daile Boulis: One coalfield resident’s journey to action

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } The following is an abridged transcript of a testimonial given by Daile Boulis of Kanawha County, W.Va., about how she became involved in the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining. This speech was delivered at a grassroots policy training held by The Alliance for Appalachia at the Highlander Center on April 9, 2016. It was transcribed by Forrest Gray Yerman.

Daile Boulis

Daile Boulis

I moved to West Virginia about three years ago to help take care of my father-in-law. He has a home he’s lived in since 1963 in a hollow about 10 miles west of Charleston. When I looked on Google Maps to show my friends in Ohio where I live I saw lots of big scraped areas. I went next door to my neighbor and asked, “what is this?”

She said, “oh, that’s Rush Creek Mine, don’t worry about. It’s three miles away.”

But as Rush Creek Mine was working this way, we started hearing more and more booms, and occasionally the houses would shake.

Someone came in and did a pre-blast survey and they didn’t talk to us. We thought, okay, we complained about hearing these booms from this mine getting closer. So they must be doing this to cover their butts, in case we make a claim. What we didn’t know is they had filed for a permit for an extension to this mine.

One day in May I was on Facebook, and I saw that the Charleston Gazette had posted a map of this permit that had just been approved. I’m looking at this map going, “I think that’s my house.” This mine was 2,000 feet from my house and our house is the monitoring well. I’m learning all kinds of stuff here, and I was shocked!

There was an organization posting on Facebook about this article saying, “You need to come help us fight this mine.”

I immediately texted someone from the organization and asked, “where do I have to be and what do I have to do?” And that started my journey. That was the Kanawha Forest Coalition.

This mine, I mean, it’s like they slid it under. And none of us knew anything about it. I don’t check classifieds. Do you? I had no idea that’s the only place they announce them. When they did the public comment period, they did it in a community 30 miles away from us. So we weren’t involved at all. We were told that our property value dropped 50 percent the day the permit was signed.

I’m a social media girl, so I’m out there going, “This isn’t right. How can they do this?” And I’m getting hate mail back saying, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

No I can’t, because I can’t sell my house now for anything near enough to move somewhere else. And my father-in-law has been here since 1963. Should he have to move too?

I started going to the Kanawha Forest Coalition meetings and I was mad. I couldn’t understand why my neighbors weren’t mad. My neighbors were kind of mad, but they figured I’m so naive and you can’t fight coal.

The state Department of Environmental Protection office is in Kanawha City. Well I can get to Kanawha City. So my wife and I went down to the DEP office thinking that they were going to stand with us. That that’s what they’re for.

So I walked in and said that I wanted to talk to somebody about this. But they told me, “well that’s not how it’s done.” Then I said that I would not leave until somebody talked to me. So we sat down and waited for somebody to come talk to us.

Eventually, a woman came down and gave us all these forms that we could take home and fill out saying we were against this mine. I said, “This is ridiculous, who can I talk to?” Someone else came out and said, “We’re going to set you up with a meeting. You’re neighbors can come in. We’ll set you up with an informational meeting.”

I can only get two of my neighbors to go to the meeting with me. So it’s my wife and me, and two of our neighbors. And there were twenty-four DEP people. At least half of them have this I’m-supposed-to-be-home-now look on their faces.

We said to them, “Look, this mine is right next door — literally. The only thing that separates it from us is a little road to Kanawha State Forest. There are trailheads that come down from there, and they’re going to be in the radius of fly rock.”

Well, I was told fly rock doesn’t exist, that absolutely nothing is allowed to leave the permit boundary.

I said, “Everyone’s told us we’re going to lose our wells.”

They said, “well, this is an awesome opportunity to get on city water,” at our expense, of course.

I looked at the guy — and mind you this is in May 2014, the water crisis happened in January of the same year — and I asked, “have you forgotten January that fast? Where do you think people went to get water and to take showers and to maybe wash a load of clothes? They came to my house, and the other houses in the holler.” I told them that we already have good water. Why is it okay, why is it just understood that I’m going to lose my water?

But I started this journey, and I saw people at Kanawha Forest Coalition meetings that showed me they were going to do something, that we could fight this. Everybody knows someone who works in the coal industry. I respect that. I understand that. But policies that say that our lives are the cost of doing business, that we’re an acceptable loss, are not OK. What does it take to get you fired up? I get it. You’re downtrodden. You’re tired and exhausted. But somebody has to scream, and stomp their feet, and go do whatever it takes to get their attention.

And this group in particular, the Alliance for Appalachia, has become family for me, and this family, I could contact any one of them and say, “Help me get mad!” Because mad is better than sad, and I’ll leave you with that.

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Making sense of crisis: The West Virginia floods

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editor’s note: In this guest post, West Virginia resident and former coordinator of The Alliance for Appalachia Katey Lauer shares her perspective on the aftermath of the floods that devastated several West Virginia counties late last month, and the humanity she has witnessed as communities come together and begin to rebuild. To learn where you can volunteer or donate money and supplies, visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s WV Flood Resources page.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

“… My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

— Adrienne Rich

This might be an article where I tell you how devastating the flood has been. Where I tell you that the flood waters are not water at all. That they are sewage and mud and oil. That they are bits of plastic and metal. I might tell you that it’s four days into flood relief and I can’t get the smell out of my nose or off my skin.

And I might explain how I can’t shake the worst of the stories: how I sat with a grandmother who told me how she climbed to the top of a kitchen stool late Thursday night while the debris rose higher and higher around her ankles then knees then waist.

How I heard about a woman alone in her home in a wheelchair, waters rising up to her neck while her dogs piled onto her lap — all of them screaming. How her family heard her from outside but couldn’t get in.

I might tell you about the kind young man in the town where 17 people died. How he pointed out the mountain where he fled with his mother just after showing me the water line on the carport outside, well above our heads.

But the floods aren’t just about that.

Because this might also be an article about strength through hardship. About that phrase I see on fast food boards and church bulletins: “West Virginia Strong.” And I could tell you how my guess is that that sign is about the families on 5th Street in Rainelle, about the cheerleaders serving up soup beans and cornbread in the Kroger parking lot to anyone who’s hungry, about the volunteers sorting a pile of clothing 20 feet high in an Elkview gym, about the women running the volunteer check point in Clendenin. I could tell you about everyday heroes, but the floods aren’t just about that either.

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Because this article could be about issues: About our failing infrastructure. About climate change. About poverty. About how working-class, rural America is so unseen by the rest of our nation. I could say that.

But then there’s also the way that strangers come together in these moments of crisis. How I hauled heavy, putrid carpet with a dear old friend and a man I’d never met. How I piled water-logged drywall on a pile of building refuse with a man from Florida. How a woman stopped us on the street to give us a warm meal — a woman whose name I didn’t know and who I’d never see again.

Then I could tell you about the ugly parts, about people fighting in sadness in the streets. About that wits-end sort of withdrawal on the face of an older woman. I could say how I wonder where these tons of waste will be shipped and guess that it’s other poor communities that will deal with this new burden. I could tell you about the national guardsman, eyeing me for too long in a shirt tight with the damp.

But the thing that feels closest to the truth is that there is not one story here. In times of crisis, we can look for saviors and goodwill, we look for peeks at what’s best in the human spirit. We can look for a way to make sense of it — to give it a purpose. We can look for the revelation. If you have been touched by this crisis, my guess is you might well have found some of that. But you have likely also found more. I know I have. If these floods have taught me anything, it’s that crisis is not tidy. It is more threads than fabric.

What I mean is that crisis does not make us super-human; it makes us more human. The floods that have washed away homes and possessions and loved ones have also washed away pretense. And at the end of the day, here we are, neighbors and strangers, ankle deep in receding waters, doing our best — in our beauty and our faults — to reconstitute the world.

Visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s Flood Resources page to donate and find other ways to support relief efforts.

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West Virginia files Clean Water Act suit against Kanawha County mine

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016 - posted by willie
Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has brought a lawsuit against Florida-based Keystone Industries over a series of Clean Water Act violations at the controversial KD #2 surface mine.

The 413-acre mountaintop removal mine in southern Kanawha County, W.Va., has been met with much opposition by local residents and others concerned about the mine’s impacts on nearby communities and on Kanawha State Forest, which borders the mine.

The suit, filed on March 9 in the Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleges that runoff from the KD #2 mine contains measurements of aluminum, iron, manganese, selenium, total suspended solids and pH that are in violation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit granted to Keystone Industries under the Clean Water Act. The primary evidence supporting this claim is the company’s own quarterly discharge monitoring reports submitted to the DEP.

The Kanawha Forest Coalition, a grassroots environmental watchdog group comprised of local community members, has conducted water monitoring at the site since shortly after the mine began operating in 2014. Through these efforts, the coalition has identified numerous and persistent regulatory violations, prompting the DEP to issue 40 enforcement actions against the KD #2 mine to date.

“It was shocking to realize that it was through citizen complaints, and not DEP monitoring, that our land was being protected,” said Becky Park, a Kanawha Forest Coalition member from Charleston. “What it boils down to is we are the government. We can’t assume that DEP employees are monitoring permitted mining operations. We have to read the permits, understand the agreements made with mining companies, be willing to use the systems in place to submit complaints, and go to court when the systems fail to stop violators.”

Daile Boulis, who lives in the community of Loudendale immediately adjacent to the KD #2 mine feels similarly.

“From what I understand, this is one of best written permits in the state, and still, there are forty violations in two years? Imagine what the company would be getting away with, without the citizen enforcement and public media exposure? The same thing goes for the DEP,” said Boulis. “The only reason 75-80% of the violations have been enforced and fined is due to pressure from the Kanawha Forest Coalition. When you consider all of the other mines in West Virginia that don’t have a group like Kanawha Forest Coalition working on behalf of the impacted citizens, that’s terrifying! Our lives should not be the cost of doing business in West Virginia.”

By initiating its own suit against Keystone Industries, the DEP has prevented the Kanawha Forest Coalition or other grassroots organizations from filing suit on similar grounds. However, the organization may choose to file as an intervenor in the case, a move that would earn them a seat at the table — but not veto power — in potential future settlement negotiations with Keystone.

Doug Wood, a retired DEP official with 33 years of experience in water resources, is skeptical of his former agency’s motives in bringing this case against Keystone.

“This lawsuit seems to be an attempt to stop advocates from filing their own suits, and an attempt to get a little money to start water pollution treatment when Keystone says, ‘keep the bond, we’re outta here,’” said Wood. “… The DEP seems to be most interested in getting a court settlement so they can say, ‘we solved that problem’ even though the systemic problems that led to this disaster remain unsolved.”

The DEP’s suit against Keystone is expected to go to trial in spring 2017. Meanwhile, the Kanawha Forest Coalition continues to monitor conditions at the mine, regularly testing impacted streams and alerting the DEP of persistent problems.

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No need for more fracked-gas pipelines

Thursday, April 28th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Special to the Front Porch: Our guest today is Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, and lead author of a new report on the overbuilding of natural gas pipelines in the mid-Atlantic. Kunkel has undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics, was a senior research associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and has testified before regulatory bodies.

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We’ve published a report today that concludes that two natural gas pipelines proposed for construction from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina are indicative of a rush toward industry overbuilding.

The study, “Risks Associated With Natural Gas Pipeline Expansion Across Appalachia,” examines the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would traverse West Virginia into eastern Virginia, and the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would cross Virginia and branch deeply into North Carolina. The pipelines combined would run for more than 800 miles and together would cost roughly $9 billion.

There’s a widespread assumption that such pipelines would only be proposed if they were necessary. This assumption is not supported by the facts.

We found that the dynamics of the pipeline business tend toward overbuilding, toward building excess pipeline capacity. Major pipeline companies are competing with each other to build out the best, most well-connected pipeline networks. And utility companies are entering the pipeline space because much of the risk of overbuilding can be pushed off onto captive ratepayers. And natural gas production companies are entering the pipeline business because their core business — drilling — is underperforming and they are looking for ways to boost revenue and investment value. These kinds of financial considerations on the part of individual companies do not add up to socially rational, prudent long-term planning.

pipeline capacityThe pipeline business is able to attract more capital than is needed—because of the high rates of return that pipeline companies typically earn. Pipeline rates are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC allows higher rates of return for pipeline companies than it does for electric transmission companies or than state utility commissions typically allow for state-regulated utilities. For example, by policy FERC allows a 14 percent rate of return, while regulated utilities at state public service commissions typically are only allowed in the 10 percent range.

The tendency towards overbuilding is widely understood in the industry -— executives and analysts talk openly about it -— and FERC’s regulatory process currently misses this dynamic. There is no regional planning process for natural gas pipeline infrastructure in the way that there is for electric transmission lines, for example. FERC looks at pipelines on a project-by-project basis. The agency considers a line necessary if the project developer is able to enter into contracts for the majority of the capacity of the project. What we’ve found in the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipeline cases is that the project developers and the shippers who are entering into contracts with the pipeline are subsidiaries of the same company. So the fact that a pipeline developer is signing a contract with an affiliate is strong evidence that there is financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is an independently established basis for the pipeline need. The private assumptions of individual pipeline developers are not adequately checked against broader standards of the public interest.

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The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a good example of this. If it is approved it appears that two separate pipelines will serve the same power plant -– an example of too much pipeline capacity. The Atlantic Coast project is a joint venture with Duke, Dominion, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources having ownership interests and are the developers. The main shippers on the project are subsidiaries of Duke and Dominion — those two companies have contracted for 68 percent of the capacity on the pipeline. Consumers will bear the risk of higher rates if project assumptions do not materialize. The cost of building the pipeline, including the profit for the developers, will be passed through to the shippers of the pipeline who will be able to recover it from their ratepayers through rates established by state public service commissions.

Put another way, the regulatory structure gives Duke and Dominion an incentive to prioritize building their own pipeline rather than using that of another company. If the demand for the capacity along the Atlantic Coast pipeline does not materialize, ratepayers will still be on the hook to pay for that capacity.

It appears that the need for the Atlantic Coast pipeline has been overstated. In its application to FERC, Atlantic Coast asserts that one use of the gas from the pipeline will be for Dominion’s new Brunswick and Greensville natural gas plants. But in its applications to the State Corporation Commission to build those power plants, Dominion asserted that the plants will be fueled from the Transco line. In the case of the Brunswick plant, a spur from the Transco line to the plant has already been built. Without better coordination and planning it appears that two pipelines are being built to supply one power plant. The Atlantic Coast pipeline is a relatively low risk venture for Duke and Dominion, the main project developers. Most of the risk for the project is borne by those utility customers in Virginia and North Carolina.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline has a different risk profile. The Mountain Valley pipeline is a supplier-driven pipeline. The majority-owner of the project is an affiliate of EQT, one of the largest Appalachian shale gas drillers, and the entity that has contracted to ship the largest volume of gas on the pipeline is EQT. We found that the biggest risks of this project stem from the financial weakness of EQT. EQT is not doing badly relative to other Appalachian shale drillers, but the entire sector is in turmoil because of sustained low natural gas prices, which are widely expected to remain low into 2017. EQT’s credit ratings are one notch above junk, and its stock has fallen 26 percent since January 2014. Bankruptcies are widely expected in the natural gas drilling sector this year, and banks are expected to cut back on lending. EQT has diversified into the pipeline business presumably because of the traditionally stable and higher returns to be found in this sector.

Communities along the pipeline route also bear risks that stem from EQT’s financial weakness. EQT does not appear to be a stable, long-term partner for these communities. EQT’s weakened financial position suggests it will adopt only a limited commitment to communities or perhaps be forced to sell its ownership interests to a new company that is not part of current deliberations

To sum up, our study finds that natural gas pipeline infrastructure out of the Marcellus and Utica regions will become overbuilt within the next several years, an outcome recognized by many in the industry itself.

The economic and financial factors that incentivize companies to invest in the development of new natural gas pipelines will not produce a socially rational outcome. Without a coordinated approach to natural gas pipeline planning, as exists for many other types of infrastructure, the FERC cannot make an honest determination of the need for these pipelines. Ratepayers and communities will shoulder much of the costs and risks of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, investments of nearly $9 billion that are poised for approval without adequate scrutiny.

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Power of Cooperation: Co-ops put solar on rooftops

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Dan Radmacher

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Augusta Solar Co-op member and homeowner Keith Shank stands with a representative of the solar installation company in front of his new solar array. Photo courtesy VA SUN

When Joy Loving decided to add solar power to her Rockingham County, Va., home in the spring of 2012, she did it the hard way. She taught herself what she could, then found an installer through a Google search. A full six months later, she turned on her system. Since then, she’s been working to make the process a lot easier — and cheaper — for others.

“My decision wasn’t driven by economics,” Loving says. “I’m 70 years old, and without state tax incentives or any kind of discount, my payback period for this system will be very long. I might live long enough to reap the economic benefits. I might not. But my primary motivation was about reducing my carbon footprint.”

When she first began looking into solar, Loving thought there might be some sort of program through her electric utility, or state policies that would help. Instead, she found obstacles. Unlike some other states, Virginia mostly forbids power purchase agreements, a solar financing model in which companies own the solar arrays they install on homes and charge homeowners for the power they use.

The state also limits the size of systems residents can build on their homes and caps the power generated by all Virginia residential arrays combined to no more than one percent of all power generated in the state. It also allows utilities to charge minimum monthly fees to solar users — even if the resident generates more power for the grid than they use.

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Joy Loving’s solar installation in Rockingham County, Va. Photo courtesy of Joy Loving

Loving says all the obstacles to solar put in place by the state and politically powerful utilities irritated her. “It got my back up,” she says. “The freedom to choose my energy source was very important to me. I believe that I need to be a good steward of God’s creation, and this is one thing I can do positively to be a good steward.”

Even after her own system was installed, Loving kept reading and learning. “There was just nothing like the thrill of not having an electric bill,” she says. “I kind of got obsessive about it, checking the system and the power meter and watching what the system could do. After six or seven months, I thought ‘this is something that other people should know about.’”

She reached out to local/regional environmental group Climate Action of the Valley in Harrisonburg, Va. Leaders there ended up connecting with Virginia Solar United Neighborhoods, also known as VA SUN, which is a branch of the Community Power Network in Washington, D.C.

VA SUN helps solar co-op groups — usually collections of neighbors — by providing the experience and expertise it takes to get organized, research installers, issue a request for proposals, evaluate and negotiate with installers, and then see the process all the way through the installation and hookups.

Ben Delman, communications manager for Community Power Network, says the various state SUN groups in Appalachia — DC SUN, VA SUN, WV SUN and MD SUN — have helped around 1,000 people go solar across the region, with about a third of those in Virginia. According to Delman, when individuals organize into co-ops, they gain expertise and save money by negotiating bulk purchases.

Co-ops Accepting New Members

  • Richmond, Va.: Deadline April 30; For information, contact VA Sun Program Director Aaron Sutch, aaron@vasun.org
  • Tucker, Randolph and Upshur counties, W.Va.: No deadline yet
  • Monroe County, W.Va.: No deadline yet. For information on WV co-ops, contact WV Sun Program Director Karan Ireland, karan@wvsun.org

In addition to helping co-ops, Community Power Network has also supported groups that use the “Solarize” model, in which the installer is pre-selected rather than picked based on competitive bids.

After discussions with VA SUN, the Harrisonburg-based Climate Action of the Valley decided to sponsor a co-op in Harrisonburg and Rockbridge County. They asked Loving to lead it.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t know about co-ops when I installed [my system],” she says. “All the co-ops exploding around the state are like seeds — making people more aware and more informed about solar.”

According to Delman, the co-op experience generally works like this: “We start work with one or two local organizations — some sort of community group that can guide the process and begin recruiting co-op members.” The group holds a number of informational meetings during the recruitment phase. “We take them through understanding solar energy, the different ways to finance and help them understand the co-op process,” he says.

“In some ways, it’s the same as doing any home construction project,” Delman continues, “But how great would it be if you’re adding a deck or renovating a bathroom to be able to go through that with a group of people all doing the same thing?”

A critical mass of people interested in installing solar is necessary to move forward to the next step of actually reaching out to contractors. “Once a group gets to about 25 or 30 members, we work with them to issue a [request for proposal] to installers,” Delman says. Co-op members make the final decision. “We help group members review the bids, but it’s up to the selection committee to choose.”

Carl Droms, a member of Climate Action of the Valley, was a member of the Harrisonburg co-op’s selection committee. At that stage, there were 70 or 80 interested households, and about a dozen co-op members on the selection committee. “We all had different ideas about what was important and how to weigh the factors,” he says. “The price per watt — which included everything: panels, wiring, inverters, the electrical work, installation — was important, but there were other factors. Could the installer handle this number of installations and get things done in a reasonable time? Would they use local labor? What kind of guarantee did they offer? How much work had they done in the past?”
“In the end, we were pretty well agreed,” Droms says. “Everybody felt we made the right decision.”

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

Residents attend an info session for the Massanutten Regional Solar Co-op. Photo courtesy VA SUN

The discount for a co-op member over an individual trying to buy their own solar power system is generally around 20 percent, Delman says. “It’s a good deal for the installers, as well,” he says. “To have a base of interested customers who are educated about solar is really good.”
Once an installer is selected, individuals in the co-op get a site inspection and, eventually, a contract for a system tailored to their individual needs at the agreed-to price. Co-op members aren’t obligated to buy unless they sign that contract.

Droms is very happy with the system he and his partner installed on their home. “Our total bill for the last year has been about $130 — and that includes a $9.50 a month fee just to stay connected to the grid,” he says. “We were really pleased with the co-op. If we had to negotiate everything ourselves, it would have been a lot more complicated.”

There’s not much of a downside to working through a co-op, says Cory Chase, a Tucker County, W. Va., resident who helped organize a co-op in his area. “WV SUN offers a lot of technical assistance that really helps. It might be a little more bureaucratic and slower than going on your own, but we’ll be able to help each other out, buy material in bulk and get a competitive bid,” he says.

According to WV SUN Program Director Karan Ireland, her organization has helped co-ops launch in the towns of Morgantown and Wheeling, and in Kanawha, Tucker and Monroe counties. “A co-op is like Solar 101,” she says. “It can be cumbersome if you’re trying to figure out everything by yourself. With the co-op, you work with friends and neighbors to learn about how to go solar.”

Like Loving, Ireland believes co-ops help create solar ambassadors. “As people understand the benefits of solar, they become invested in the policy as well,” she says. “Because they’re already working together, that creates a network of solar advocates.”

And solar advocates are needed, especially in states like Virginia and West Virginia where fossil fuel interests hold so much sway, says Mark Hanson, president of the Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Association, a do-it-yourself club in Roanoke, Va., that helps members with solar installations and other renewable energy projects.

“Our legislators don’t push the power companies to do the right thing,” Hanson says. “Power companies just see solar as a way for people not to pay for electricity. When it comes to legislators, the power companies pretty much get their way.”

Joy Loving says the co-op model is serving its purpose. “It has increased awareness of solar and gotten more press coverage,” she says. “People have heard about it. People see the panels going up and they talk. Co-ops will bring more people into the solar fold.”

Service, Music and Community at Appalachian South Folklife Center

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016 - posted by molly

Influential center in southern West Virginia celebrates 50 years

The chapel is used for spiritual gatherings, weddings, meetings and concerts. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

The chapel is used for spiritual gatherings, weddings, meetings and concerts. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

By Peter Slavin

The Appalachian South Folklife Center in southern West Virginia has weathered many storms over the past half century, yet continues to provide help to residents in need, education for youth, and a safe harbor for activists. Despite early denunciations of its founder’s political views, government harassment and a fire, the center has become a gathering point for locals and visitors drawn to the center’s beautiful setting, music and opportunities for service.

Since 1965, the center’s staff and volunteers have worked to improve the lives of Appalachia’s people and to instill in them pride in their heritage, while also giving others an appreciation of the region. The center has focused on educating young people and dispatching volunteers to assist local residents who need home repairs. The center has also opened its doors to people needing a place to meet, from Miners for Democracy and opponents of a high-voltage power line to campaigners against mountaintop removal coal mining.

The center is also known for its music festivals, ranging from the early Mountain Music Festivals that drew thousands to hear both traditional and contemporary folk songs to the more recent CultureFest, an annual event featuring world music. Pete Seeger, Merle Travis and Hazel Dickens as well as local singer-songwriters and garage bands have played on its stage. “Hardly any event doesn’t include music,” says Mary “Meno” Griffith, who first came to the center in 1969. “Even after long meetings about serious issues, someone gets out an instrument and starts singing.” Music, Griffith says, is central to the center’s mission, because it brings people together and “helps us understand our history.”

Still, if music has been the soundtrack of the center’s life, making Appalachians aware of their history and culture and its value has been its central purpose.

The Folklife Center was the creation of Don West, a north Georgia farmer and champion of displaced mountain people, tenant farmers and union workers, and his wife Connie, a portrait painter. A man of many talents, Don was a leading poet in his day, and a respected educator, political activist, labor organizer and minister.

Don West was raised on a North Georgia mountain farm in an area that had flown the Union flag during the Civil War and nonconformity was part of his heritage.

Don West was raised on a North Georgia mountain farm in an area that had flown the Union flag during the Civil War and nonconformity was part of his heritage.

According to “The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936,” West was “wanted dead or alive” for defending a black man who was on trial for leading a hunger march, and fled Atlanta under a pile of sacks in a car. Because of his civil rights activism, the Ku Klux Klan once burned down his home. In 1932, he cofounded the historic Highlander Folk School in Tennessee — now the Highlander Research and Education Center — a critical training ground for the labor and civil rights movements. Almost forgotten today, Don West attained near-legendary status in the South in the era before the civil rights movement.

The Wests saved enough while teaching for a decade in Baltimore to purchase a 600-acre farm in the beautiful hills north of Princeton, W.Va., so they could build a new folklife center in 1965. Over the years, the United Church of Christ, Quakers and other progressive churches have been the center’s primary financial supporters; many individuals have also donated.

In the beginning, Don West used produce from a big garden on the farm to help feed those at the center, and raised and sold hay. The farm is no more, having been divided among his children at his death in 1992. The center now occupies 63 acres.

In the early years, people in the community who were facing tough times, including striking coal miners, knew they could go to the center for help. “If they needed a meal, there was always food there and always something to do to earn it,” says BobMac MacMillam, who has worked at the center on and off since 1973.

Between 400 and 500 people come to do service work each year for up to 40 families. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

Between 400 and 500 people come to do service work each year for up to 40 families. Photos courtesy Appalachian South Folklife Center

Griffith tells one story about Don West’s influence on someone who became a noted writer. “Jeff Biggers was hitchhiking … just young and figuring what he’s doing in world. Don West picks him up, takes him to the Folklife Center, feeds him, charms him with stories, and becomes a mentor to him. And you hear that story over and over again [from] people who are associated with the Folklife Center.”

From 1968 to 2000, the center sponsored a residential summer camp, bringing in as many as 50 disadvantaged 11- to 16-year-old boys and girls from all over Appalachia. The aim was for the kids to enlarge their horizons, learn about the region’s history and heritage, counter stereotypes they faced, and boost their self-esteem. The kids learned about coal mining, black lung, organizing and unions as well as outside domination of the region and its impact in holding Appalachia back. Many campers came back year after year.

Because of Don West’s politics, some people in the community felt animosity toward the center. For years, the Wests took part in political demonstrations and marches, and sometimes they brought along summer campers, says former executive director David Stanley.
So when the dining and meeting hall, long the heart of the center, burned to the ground in the early 1970s, some believed the fire might have been set. But the cause was never determined, and the hall was soon rebuilt.

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

Stanley says in the late 1980s two men came to his office and demanded to know where the center got its financing. They said they were from the state, but displayed no badges. He refused to produce his records and told them to leave. A year or two later, he says, Internal Revenue Service agents “took Don West out of his house … at 2-3 in the morning, took him down to Princeton to interrogate him about his finances.”
Stanley calls the incidents government harassment.

Every year 400 to 500 out-of-state high school students come for a week to participate in service work, assisting local communities while learning about Appalachia’s culture and history. In groups of 15 to 20, the students work on home repairs for low-income, elderly and disabled people — painting, building a new porch or deck, replacing rotting bathroom floors and the like.

“You have to prepare yourself for it,” says Briddy Blankenship, a previous executive director. “It’s very humbling to see how some people are living.”

Upcoming Events at the Folklife Center

    Earth Day, April 23, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. — Music, arts, and activism, including an herb walk, panel on local foods, sustainable building demonstration, yoga, drum circles, live music, open mic and jam session. Free. Call: (304) 466-0626 Visit: earthdaywv.com

    Culturefest, Sept. 8-11 — World music & arts festival with four stages for music and dance, unusual workshops, children’s activities, roaming dancers acting out stories, and on-site camping. $10/day; $50/weekend. Call: (304) 320-8833 Visit: culturefestwv.com

  • Want to bring a group on a service trip? Email Laura Lavernia at appalachianfolklifecenter@gmail.com

The groups only work for five days and don’t do electrical work or plumbing, says Blankenship, “but we can still do a lot to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Not only the homeowners benefit, notes Griffith. The young volunteers — mostly middle class suburban kids — have their eyes opened to how some people have to live, she says, and learn they can “give back for the blessings in their lives.” The kids also make their own meals and sleep in dormitories. In the evening they learn about Appalachian life, from mining history to pottery and square dancing. Some groups have been coming back for 15 years.

The center also offers a unique day camp program for one week each summer for at-risk children ages four to 12. Families pay what they can afford. The campers and their counselors — junior high, high school and college students, virtually all of whom attended the camp as children — go together to classes such as science, math, journaling and yoga taught by certified teachers. The counselors provide powerful role models, says assistant director Sarah Justice.

“Everything we do is hands-on,” Justice says. “Kids leave each day with things they’ve made in arts and crafts.”
“Many kids live way down a dirt road with the closest neighbor maybe being two miles away,” she notes. For them, she says, the chance to socialize with kids their age is special.

Citing the slurs against Appalachians on TV and other media, Justice says the kids’ camp combats the “cultural shame associated with being from Appalachia.” The camp celebrates their West Virginia heritage.

For Griffith, being part of a community of like-minded progressives at the center who put their values into practice through programs like the kids’ camp means a great deal. She has served on the board for 28 years. “It’s like the Folklife Center is my church,” she observes.

But it wasn’t through a program that the center touched local resident Doris Irwin’s life. She first went there to listen to music as a 20-year-old high school dropout who had felt the sting of Appalachian stereotypes growing up. After she started spending time at the center, she came to see her culture and herself differently. Irwin learned “you don’t have to be limited by your past,” and saw that education “was not something out of my reach.”

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

Several women in the back-to-the-land movement founded the Learning Day Camp in 1985. The camp continues today and reportedly has a powerful impact on children. Photos by Brandi Massey

She wound up going to college, earning two degrees and having a long career as a registered nurse and social worker.

Over the decades, the center has changed, too. In recent years local people have started holding their weddings, celebrations of life, family reunions, church services, and Boy and Girl Scout meetings at the facility, notes Nancy Aldridge, co-director of the Learning Day Camp. Such events, together with the day camp, she says, have given the center “a respectable place” in the community. Irwin’s children also attended the center’s residential camp and are among the many people whom the center has benefitted.

For more information about the Appalachian South Folklife Center, visit folklifecenter.org

States Consider Cuts to Mine Safety, Coal Taxes

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Brian Sewell

In Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, high-profile legislation related to mine safety laws and coal taxation policies is showing how far Appalachian lawmakers will go in attempts to sustain the ailing industry.

On April 1, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law legislation that rolls back a requirement that coal companies provide private rescue teams in the event of a mine disaster, a measure enacted following the Sago Mine explosion in 2006 that killed 12.

The bill, which would also relax fines for not immediately reporting major incidents like fires or explosions, was passed before the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training was able to analyze its potential impact. Nor was the bill’s economic benefit to the industry calculated.

“I don’t know that that created or saved one job,” state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, a Democrat running for governor who opposed the bill, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail after the Senate vote. “Once again, just because the industry is asking for it, we’re willing to roll over and give it to them.”

The West Virginia Senate passed a bill in March to reduce the state’s coal severance tax from the current rate of 5 percent to 2 percent. Severance tax revenues, which provide critical funds for counties and the state budget, are already in steep decline, contributing to budget cuts and public employee layoffs.

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, which opposed the bill, the tax cut would cost the state $159 million and local governments $11.6 million annually while doing little to fight the forces making central Appalachian coal uncompetitive. The bill was shelved by the state House of Delegates.

Both efforts were backed by the West Virginia Coal Association.

In Kentucky, the severance tax pie is shrinking even faster than in West Virginia. Tax revenue in January 2016 was $8.9 million, compared to $20.5 million during the same month in 2011. Multiple bills have been introduced this session to direct a larger portion of the dwindling coal tax revenue to eastern Kentucky counties most affected by coal’s decline. But bickering over how to divide the total $44 million in severance taxes in the state budget has dimmed the prospect for reform.

Kentucky legislators are also at odds on mine safety. In March, the Senate easily passed measures to eliminate state safety inspections of coal mines — leaving the role to federal inspectors — and end mandatory safety training for mine foremen.

Sen. Robin Webb, a former coal miner, was appalled. “I cannot ever have the blood of my brothers and sisters on my hands as a state policymaker, and I cannot support this measure,” she told her colleagues.

The measure is supported by the administration of first-term Gov. Matt Bevin and the Kentucky Coal Association.

In a recurring battle in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed House and Senate versions of a bill to extend state tax credits for the coal industry, which he described as “ineffective at creating or protecting economic activity or jobs.”

Between 1988 and 2015, the coal industry claimed more than $160 million under the Virginia credits. Over the same period, coal jobs in the state fell from 11,000 to less than 3,000.

UPDATE: On April 20, an effort to override Gov. McAuliffe’s veto of a bill to extend Virginia’s coal tax credit narrowly failed in the state Senate. The tax credit will expire on Dec. 31.

Don Blankenship Sentenced and other news briefs

Friday, April 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

Don Blankenship sentenced

Following his conviction in federal court for conspiring to violate mine safety laws, the former CEO of Massey Energy was sentenced in April to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine, the strictest penalties the court was able to impose.

While Blankenship’s lawyers claimed that probation would be punishment enough, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby told the judge that “If ever a case cried out for the maximum sentence, this is it.”

The historic sentence was announced a day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners and led to a federal investigation, civil penalties and the criminal convictions of four other Massey officials.

Family members of Upper Big Branch victims welcomed the news, including Judy Jones Peterson, who lost her brother and who described Blankenship’s courtroom apology as “too little, too late.” — Brian Sewell

Read more about the sentencing on our Front Porch Blog.

U.S. using less energy, global carbon emissions hold steady

Total electricity sales decreased last year in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. The agency lists energy efficiency, whether through market-driven improvements or government standards, as a significant factor in lessened electricity demand despite growth in the number of households and commercial buildings.

The International Energy Agency announced that for the second year in a row, carbon dioxide emissions from worldwide energy use did not rise with economic growth, but rather stayed relatively flat while the global economy grew. This breaks a relationship that had long been shown to be positively correlated. — Eliza Laubach

Atlantic Ocean spared from oil drilling

The Obama administration released its five-year plan for offshore oil drilling in March, announcing potential leases along the Gulf and Alaskan coasts but not the Atlantic Coast. The Department of Interior had proposed leasing a swath of the Atlantic coast, from Virginia through Georgia.

“When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales [in the Atlantic] in the coming five years,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a press release. — Eliza Laubach

West Virginia bill shields businesses from citizen suits

Landowner rights groups and environmentalists say legislation passed by the West Virginia Senate would shield the oil and gas industry from “public nuisance” lawsuits filed by citizens due to lost property values or other negative impacts. Although the bill never passed the state House of Delegates, opponents worry that legislation to strip landowners rights and protect industry is likely to reappear during the next legislative session. — Brian Sewell

New research reveals mountaintop removal impacts on landscape

In the region of southern West Virginia where mountaintop removal occurs, the land is 40 percent flatter than it was forty years ago, a Duke University study shows. Published in January in Environmental Science and Technology, the study compared topographic data and assessed how changes in the landscape affect water quality. The scientists found a correlation between the total volume of displaced rock and concentration of pollutants. — Eliza Laubach

Homeowners near mine struggle with blasting damage

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016 - posted by molly

Farming and Fracking

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

How uncertain property rights affect agriculture in West Virginia

By Dave Walker

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

This year will be Steve Vortigern and his wife Sunshine’s tenth year of farming in Preston County, W.Va. On 41 acres, they grow more than 40 different varieties of organic vegetables and raise grass-fed beef for local customers at Round Right Farm.

In the beginning, the Vortigerns were unsure how long they would be able to continue farming. “At that time on our farm, we weren’t really sure how realistic the overall success of our farm was going to be,” he says. The Vortigerns faced many of the same challenges that other beginning farmers face, such as knowing what to grow and how to sell their produce. “It wasn’t until our fourth, fifth, sixth year of farming that we figured a few things out, and we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Steve Vortigern says.

During those first years, they also faced the prospect of natural gas companies constructing hydraulic fracking wells on their neighbors’ properties. Just when they were questioning whether farming would be a viable long-term occupation or not, a group of Preston County landowners formed together to offer their mineral rights to a prospective natural gas company, “hoping to get a better price per acre because they were able to offer several thousand acres instead of forty or one hundred acres,” he says.

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Photo courtesy Round Right Farm

Property ownership in the United States is often described as a bundle of rights. The owner can sell one right, like the right to minerals under the surface, to someone else while still retaining the rights to the surface of the land. When property rights are severed liked this, the property becomes known as a split estate.

“We were very much against the whole idea,” Vortigern says, “However, we were also really afraid that a lot of our neighbors or neighboring farms had already severed their mineral rights.” If hydraulic fracking occurred near their property, he says, it would devastate their way of life. “The land would be devalued. The water would be ruined.”

But at the time, with the future viability of their farm unknown, the couple felt compelled to join their neighbors and recover what they had spent on the land. Luckily, the natural gas company was only interested in land in the western part of Preston County and not the Vortigerns’ farm. In the years since, Steve Vortigern says their farm revenues have outweighed what the natural gas company offered the other landowners in his area. “However, we are still really worried that there will be fracking wells on our neighbors’ properties,” he says.

Divided Rights

The Vortigerns are fortunate in that they retain their mineral rights. Split estates are common in West Virginia, according to Sarah Danly of Vermont Law School and a former intern with West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition. Citing research from the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, Danly writes in her report that split estates occur on an estimated 90 percent of the properties in southern West Virginia, 60 to 80 percent in the northern part of the state, and only 40 percent in the northern panhandle.

These estimates hint at the complexity of split estate ownerships in West Virginia. To understand exactly how much land has been severed from the mineral rights beneath would require examining property records at county courthouses. For a surface owner to locate the original deed where the split estate occurred often takes a great deal of time, and experts with SORO and other groups advise hiring an experienced property attorney.

Fish Hawk Acres in Upshur County, W.Va. Photo courtesy West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition

Fish Hawk Acres in Upshur County, W.Va. Photo courtesy West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition

In West Virginia, severing estates occurred at different points in time, as different minerals like coal, oil and now shale gas became profitable. The coal and oil booms at the end of the 19th century saw a huge spike in the splitting of mineral estates, long before hydraulic fracturing was taking place in the Marcellus shale. According to Dr. Alan Collins of West Virginia University’s Division of Resource Management, landowners may have thought that there was little risk of their property being developed for its mineral resources, and therefore may have been more interested in selling their mineral rights.

“Buying land 15 to 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have thought technology would change to allow us to exploit different resources, like Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale,” Collins says. “[New] technology changed people’s expectations about the surface land and how it can be used.”

Surface Concerns

It is difficult for farming and horizontal gas drilling, or fracking, to coexist in close proximity. The impacts of drilling are severe and the remedies for surface owners or landowners near wells are limited and expensive in West Virginia. Some landowners lease their property to natural gas companies and receive compensation. Others are bound by split estates or activities that occur on their neighbors’ properties.

A wellpad site on a split estate in Doddridge County, W.Va., was built by the drilling company to access the minerals beneath the surface owner’s land.  Photo by Molly Moore

A wellpad site on a split estate in Doddridge County, W.Va., was built by the drilling company to access the minerals beneath the surface owner’s land. Photo by Molly Moore

According to Julie Archer of the Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, when natural gas companies establish wells, “They often need a lot of land and preferably a place that’s flat.” Some shale gas well sites are 15 to 20 acres and industrial equipment stays on the site after the actual drilling is complete. “They can end up taking the best parts of people’s land, the best pastures or hay meadows,” Archer says.

For a farmer to not know whether their property or a neighbor’s property is a split estate makes it difficult to obtain credit or make investments in farm infrastructure. The incentives to continue farming or begin to farm in this unstable property environment disappear, according to Bradley Wilson of West Virginia University’s Food Justice Lab. “It’s an issue around who owns what resource,” Wilson says. “Gas and coal versus the resource of soil for food production. Can those two things coexist without there being an undermining? Gas and coal can create some real uncertainty about the viability of a local food economy.”

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Photo courtesy Round Right Farm

West Virginia SORO, West Virginia University College of Law, and several farmers’ organizations are collaborating with West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition to create a primer for farmers on split estates. Their guide will address concerns about damaged crops, loss of water quality, difficulty obtaining organic certification, or an inability to place property in a conservation easement due to drilling.

“I think that the biggest issue for farming in our state is access to land and mineral severance,” says Liz Spellman of West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition. “With this primer and work, we want to bring in a bipartisan farmer constituency that will show that there’s a huge voice interested in knowing how property ownership works and how split estates can disenfranchise farmers.”

Focus on the Farm

For Steve Vortigern, education for farmers and consumers is essential to the growth of West Virginia’s local food system. “Over the past ten years, we’ve realized that there aren’t a lot of farms in our area that are financially successful,” Vortigern says. “I think the general perception that there’s no money in farming isn’t true. We’ve proven that it can be a viable occupation.”

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Photo courtesy Round Right Farm

The expanding local food movement has led to a renewed interest in stewardship for the land in a way that rebuilds the soil and provides healthy livelihoods. Because of this, as communities work with the legislature to foster a vibrant local food system, farmers in Appalachia are beginning to speak more and more about split estates.

“I think farmers are very concerned about their land,” Bradley Wilson with WVU’s Food Justice Lab says. “They love the land. They want to feel secure on their land. We have to take who controls property and land very seriously.”

“Severed mineral rights can undermine the concept of growing local food and undermine sustainable development in West Virginia,” Wilson says. “If you want to retain folks and promote new farmers, you have to promote land. You have to be honest about the barriers to farming in Appalachia and West Virginia.”

Split Estate Resource Guide

How can you find out if you own your mineral rights?
For a West Virginia landowner to learn whether they also own their mineral rights can itself be problematic. According to West Virginia University College of Law Professor Alison Peck, “The only way to know for sure, whether you own your mineral rights, is to go to the courthouse and look at the original deed.” This work may require an attorney, who would be able to draw conclusions and offer advice to landowners.

“I’ve come to realize that despite how common and prevalent mineral severance is in West Virginia, many landowners do not know much about it.” says Peck. “From a lawyer’s perspective, it is startling.”

Would it be possible to buy back mineral rights?

Yes, but it is not common, Peck says. First, a surface owner would need to hire an attorney to discover who owns the mineral estate, which can be expensive. This effort can be frustrated by the further splitting of mineral estates between different corporate entities or between specific minerals. Once an individual determines the mineral estate’s ownership structure, buying back the rights may cost more than some landowners could afford. “I think the corporate entities are probably holding those rights as an investment and may not be interested in selling them back,” says Peck.

Could a surface owner seek compensation from the mineral owner?

In addition to pursuing damages for nuisance or negligence, two state laws allow West Virginia surface owners to seek compensation from companies after drilling operations have ceased. The laws, however, have specific limits, such as only awarding compensation toward lost income, market value of lost crops and lost value of used surface land. The law does not cover the surface owner’s future plans for the site.

Where can surface owners go from here?

“The biggest complaint that we have heard is that the landowner didn’t have any say,” says Julie Archer of West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization. “One of the things that SORO has advocated for is that individuals should actually know what they’re buying.”

“When SORO first formed, one of the of the things that we pushed for was a Surface Owner’s Bill of Rights, modeled on landowner protection legislation that were passed in Colorado and New Mexico,” Archer says. This proposed legislation would empower surface owners by implementing requirements such as earlier notice of planned drilling activities, a face-to-face meeting between the landowner and mineral owner, an opportunity for pre-drilling mediation, and improved compensation that also reflects the reduced value of land near the drilling activities.

According to Archer, the retroactive nature of West Virginia’s surface owner compensation laws is a “shortcoming,” and noted that a Surface Owner’s Bill of Rights “is primarily designed to give landowners more say before the drilling occurs.”

“The best thing that people can do now is keep a journal and take pictures. You have to have documentation of before, during, and after to have a good case [for compensation].”