There is good news out of the WV DEP, at long last. They have pulled “Cancer Creek” and other proposed rules changes that would remove protections from our water and jeopardize our health by increasing concentrations of carcinogens in our streams.
Let’s take a moment to feel that relief. That’s good news.
Thank you to WV DEP Secretary Huffman, about whom I’ve been so critical.
But let’s understand how this came about, because if you care about clean water, there are some important things about this story that you might otherwise miss in the ecstasy of your relief.
Ken Ward’s article about this—please take time to read it at that first link—raised questions for me. In fact it took me some time (and a phone call to Mr. Ward) to fully understand the context of Huffman’s change of mind, as he reported it to the Gazette.
What confused me is that what I’d expect if the DEP decides to pull rules is something along the lines of “with further study, we’ve determined that these changes would pose too much of a risk and socialize too many social costs on the public for these reasons…”
But instead we had…
Huffman said he concluded, with the many difficult issues facing lawmakers next year, it wasn’t the time for the DEP to propose a rule change that was going to draw serious opposition from both business groups and environmental organizations. Huffman said his sense was legislative leaders were also not in the mood for a “long knock-down, drag-out discussion over a rule.”
“If nobody is going to be happy with it, then what’s the point?” Huffman asked during an interview Friday.
It struck me as a curious thing to say. Nobody would be “happy” with the rule? Ultimately happiness should not be the rationale someone in his position should give for such a decision. Obviously, while it should make rational people happy when we come to fiscally sound policy decisions that protect our citizens, that didn’t seem to be what Huffman was talking about… and if that were the case, he should have provided the “sound fiscal policy” and “we’re protecting the public” reasoning that led to his change of mind.
The function of the WV DEP is to protect the health and welfare of West Virginians, so the rationale for its decisions should reflect that.
And one of the things that confused me the most was that Huffman now seemed to acknowledge in a vague way that these changes would “gut” protections, whereas he’d previously had the exact opposite position, claiming that “the changes … will not reduce public health protections.” Yet I couldn’t find any real calculus for his new determination in the story.
So let’s illuminate what happened, so we can understand.
Flip-flop… or flip-not?
Now, I’m not among those people who think any change of position is a bad thing. Changing your mind based on new information is generally a good thing, and can indicate that you’re able to learn, you’re able to synthesize new data, and you’re able to move toward a more accurate view of the world. It means you’re not an ideologue, and that you’re unlikely to double down on debunked ideas because you take it as some sort of ego blow to be wrong.
We don’t want that.
But learning more about the dangers of the Cancer Creek proposal—and rejecting them—that’s not what he did.
First, understand that there were two different parts of the rules change.
- There is the “Cancer Creek” proposal, which would have changed how the amount of allowable discharge is calculated. Right now, that’s based on a creek’s “low-flow” rate. If the rules change had been approved, that would have changed to what is called a “harmonic mean,” or an average flow rate. The bottom line is that it would allow more carcinogens to be discharged into our waters than is allowed right now.
- The second proposal was the change in how “Category A” drinking water protections were applied to our streams. Right now, most of our streams have this protection automatically, as potential future drinking water sources. Those protections can be removed through a separate process, which requires (among other things) public comment periods. The proposal was a call to allow stream designation to be changed to something other than Category A as a part of the permitting process. In other words, this change would have made it easier for industries to remove drinking water protections, and it would have limited public comment to just the one permitting process.
So, these were the changes that the WV DEP proposed. These were the rules that Huffman is on record as calling reasonable, and which he judged—wrongly, in my opinion—would not reduce protections for us or our waters.
Huffman was on board with both of these changes, and he has not changed his position.
So what happened?
Right answer, wrong calculus
What caused Huffman to pull the proposed rules changes from the committee—what he regarded as gutting protections—was the West Virginia Manufacturer Association’s threat to push the committee to further reduce those drinking water protections, beyond what his own proposed rules changes called for. The WVMA wanted to “apply the Category A standards only at public drinking water intakes and in stream reaches no more than a half mile upstream from those intakes.”
Huffman essentially said “We were trying to help you all out, but I see what you’re doing, and THAT is not happening.” And he pulled his entire proposal.
So keep this in mind: at heart this seems to be a political move on Huffman’s part. It’s one that benefits us at this time, luckily. But this coincidental fortuosity aside, Huffman hasn’t changed his mind about the “Cancer Creek” or “Category A” issues. He’s still on board with those. He just didn’t want to go as far as the WVMA was demanding.
You are likely to see these proposals again.
Even if Huffman doesn’t propose them, a new Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection might, if we don’t get someone who cares about us. Or legislators might. This is not over; don’t regard it as such.
Be an educated citizen. “Cancer Creek” has been debated on and off over 20 years, and Huffman was poised to push for it this year until industry evidently took it just too far, in Huffman’s view.
For that reason, I recommend you view the rules change proposals, since it is so likely there will be a continued push for these changes. There are many, many pages… but take some time to at least skim through them. Note the parts you disagree with. When the proposals come again, you’ll be able to talk with specificity about your objections.
One part of the proposals in particular struck me as inadequate; I wonder if you’ll notice the same thing.
Page 8 lists the costs of the change. Zero. Zeros up and down. It seems they did no work here to determine how much it could actually cost us.
There ARE costs. We should consider them. They are not accounting costs; they are economic and social costs. We should know how many lives we’re estimated to lose if the concentration of carcinogens and other contaminants in our streams increase. We should know what social costs we as taxpayers and as citizens in impacted areas will be bearing.
We should know what we’ll be losing.
If they actually think there are no costs, it’s no wonder they’re fine with the changes—and no wonder we are a poor state mired in a budget crisis. The next time we see these proposals, this laxity is something to call them on.
We have to tell them: “Don’t pretend that illness from exposure to these contaminants is not a cost we bear. Don’t pretend that living in an industrial zone is the same as living in an area of extraordinary natural beauty.”
Even fracking Resource Barons know that. They’ll sue to keep fracking away from their mansions while they impose those costs on others.
It really doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this out.
It just takes someone who is not willing to be bought for 30 pieces of silver.
Be glad, but be prepared
So enjoy this brief reverie. It IS good news. The proposals have been dropped… for now.
Huffman’s proposed changes were bad… but when compared to what the industry wanted, at least they would have afforded us the advantage of being able to look at the dangers to us on a project-by-project basis, which could have allowed us to impose any costs (if those costs were calculated accurately) on the particular projects posing the risks to us. This is because again, Huffman was pushing for a plan where Category A protections could have been removed from streams and stream segments during the permitting processes.
My objection to Huffman’s (dropped) plan was essentially that we are NOT calculating the costs to us accurately. Were we to do account for costs to us, resource extraction would be less profitable to those at the top, because they would be taking less from us. They’d have to pay their own way; the market would eliminate these inefficiencies that are keeping this state so poor.
Were we to properly calculate costs and make certain we as citizens aren’t simply redistributing our wealth to the pockets of Resource Barons, West Virginia would not be suffering under its Resource Curse. Instead, we could benefit from our resources.
The recent report from the WV Center for Budget and Policy confirms that we just don’t benefit from them the way we should:
A persistent question for those who pondered West Virginia’s fate is a simple: why, in a state rich in natural resources, are West Virginians so poor?…
West Virginia has suffered from a resource curse, and studies show states with a heavier than average reliance on mining income are likely to have lower incomes…
The trickle-down approach to state economic policy that emphasizes putting more money and power in the hands of the wealthy often fails to deliver stronger economic growth or a better quality of life.
This is not new sauce.
Policy-makers have been told this stuff again and again, over many years. There is the synthesis of reports that gather data and look at statistics, such as the one above (links to reports from previous years are on that page, too). There are also the pleas for help from individual citizens, from the thefts mineral rights owners are facing, to the devastating abuse of surface owners.
“All you hear about Appalachia these days is poverty and ignorance. We’ve been Dogpatched and Beverly Hillbillied to death. A lot of us have become ashamed of our traditions. Well, there are reasons for our poverty. Most of our major natural resources are owned by out-of-state interests, and have been ever since the Civil War. There’s been great wealth taken out of these hills, in coal and timber, but little of it stayed here. We need new leadership in the mountains to solve our problems – young people with a sense of their history and identity.”—Don West
Where is that quote from? National Geographic in July of 1972.
1972. More than 40 years ago.
We still need those young people. We had some this year inspired by Bernie Sanders… young people that party leaders are still treating with disdain and driving away with dishonest politics and cronyism.
We must beg them to stay and help fight for the future of this state. We need them now more than ever. We need to give them reasons to stay—reasons to hope for a better future here—and reasons to believe they won’t be poisoning their own future children if they commit to this state.
And they should be real reasons, not spin.
We’re proud of the moniker “Almost Heaven.” Let’s actually reach for that.
All these photos are just from my own small 45 acre corner. This beauty is all over the state and should be preserved at all costs. It improves our quality of life. This scenery all around us—all the hunting and fishing opportunities, all the picnics and family reunions and ice cream socials, all the Ramp Festivals, Marble Festivals, Apple Butter Festivals and other community celebrations we enjoy… this is what makes us West Virginians.
It can’t be lost.
Huffman vs WVMA
My criticisms of Huffman’s proposals center on the fact that our protections already impose so many costs on individual citizens—particularly on those in poor, rural communities—that we don’t need to weaken them further. We don’t need to give citizens less time to organize in order to make it even easier for industry to make us sick, stressed, to wear out our roads (at our cost) and take financial advantage of us in a million little ways that all add up.
But the changes the industry threatened to push for… yes, Huffman was right. The WVMA changes were far, far worse. It wouldn’t have been simply the injustice of a shortened public input period, and all the problems that would cause. The changes that WVMA was pushing for would have reset West Virginia’s default at “dirty water to be dumped in” everywhere there was no current drinking water intake.
Essentially it would have shut the door on a future where West Virginia might see revitalized small towns in our mountains and pretty little hollers, towns that might eventually be able to provide first-world services and basic infrastructure, including clean public drinking water. We want to see towns with good jobs and natural beauty—places that could help keep our best and brightest here in this state, and could attract wonderful people from outside of WV to help us build something fantastic here.
So again, thanks for pulling the proposal, Secretary Huffman. But we understand your mind hasn’t actually been changed, and we’d like you to re-think your position on Cancer Creek and on how Category A protections can be removed from our streams. We’d like you to consider the costs to us—all of them.
Remember: You’re in charge of making certain we’re protected from these corporate vampires; you’re not in charge of making the vampires happy.