My forehead is throbbing from the reflexive facepalm inspired by Governor Justice’s recent State of the State, in which he asserts yet again he wants to come talk to folks here in Ritchie County, presumably because we rejected his road bond. Last time he talked about us, he called me a “ringleader.”

Well, hi there, Jim! I’m still here, willing to talk. I’ve called, I’ve written you online, and I’ve even made the offer in the Gazette to meet with you. Seems like more BS comes out of your mouth than you dumped on last year’s budget… and that’s saying something.

Folks, this reminds me of Justice’s recent assertion that he’s “not going to be a proponent of moving anything along that hurts the state, hurts our water or environment, or hurts our people.”

Hahaha, should I laugh or cry or both?  Because…

No one is fighting for regular working class West Virginians

That includes Jim Justice.

Our state government is perennially full of folks that keep promising they’ll help us… but who only ever seem to help themselves. Justice’s State of the State was simply another tedious iteration of the same empty promises we’ve heard forever, from a long line of self-obsessed politicians more focused on helping their corporate buddies and improving their own bottom lines than on making things better for the regular working people who live here.

And Jim Justice particularly seems to think his position is equivalent to that of glorified gubernatorial prop comic: cow patties, flashing lights, hatchet, and tackle box are all on hand for the show.

Plans to help regular people? Not so much.

Look, teacher and gov’t employee pay raises are good, of course. But how much is PEIA going up, and will a measly 1% raise even cover the added expense? Somehow I doubt it.

But hey, I’d love to be wrong about it. Seriously, I’d LOVE it.

Prove me wrong, Jim.

Prove me wrong, dammit.

Truth is, if you make $30K a year as a state employee, a 1% raise’ll give you an additional $300 per year, which works out to be less than six bucks a week. That’s an extra $12 if you make $60K per year (of course, WV’s average income is only around $43K).

“I’m really, really proud that we’re going to be able to do that, ” says Jim.

Well.

I mean, look, congrats on the raises. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. But keep things in perspective: It’s not even enough to offset cost-of-living increases in 2017, which saw 2.2% inflation. At least it’s a few more bucks a week, but these folks are still worse off than they were last year.

Justice could prove he is trying to help working people by, among other things, giving meaningful (not just nominal) raises next year. He could take steps to lift the undue and unfair legal burden rural people find themselves bearing out here in rural areas.

In the next State of the State, “No Forced Pooling!” he could declare. “I listened in 2018 to the folks being impacted by the mineral and land grabs of the extraction industry. This year I don’t even want to hear talk about trying to steal property from West Virginians. We’re going to help mineral owners and surface owners, assure them protections. We’re going to get them accountability from the energy companies, because West Virginians deserve to benefit from their resources.”

If he works on that, I won’t care what props he feels like waving around. Have at it, Hoss.

That’s because I’d like to wake up secure in the knowledge that if I or my neighbors found ourselves targeted by some corporation wanting to seize our mineral rights or make a land grab, there would be, say, a public defender appointed to either help us protect it, or at least assure generous compensation for our lost property and reduced property values.

Because right now, how could I ever afford a lawyer?

Most of us can’t afford a $400 expense.

What is that, an hour of legal advice? 30 minutes?

My property, my rights

If some extraction company invades or devalues my property, we should have compensation sufficient to move elsewhere where we could afford to create the same amenities we have currently—the same or better. We want our acres, our peace and quiet. We want our mountain or holler views, in commuting distance to work.  We want our blackberry brambles, and persimmons and wild cherry and apple and pear… and our fields of chickory and wild asters. Black walnuts and hickory and chestnuts. Hiking trails. Seclusion. Good neighbors.

Neither my neighbors nor I should lose that in order to make some CEO even richer.

I cannot adequately express the relief I’d feel if, this coming year, the Justice administration were to restore the meager property values protections for taxpaying landowners that they eliminated last year and demonstrate his further commitment to improving our protections as legislative studies have suggested we should.

Our safety and welfare: All of us. ALL.

I’d breathe far easier if next year, the Justice administration were to finally recognize the supreme stupidity of allowing a frack dump to be put in the peripheral zone of concern for the only public drinking water intake for miles. I don’t want Ritchie County, where Antero inflicted this on us, to be the Minden of the future. I don’t want that happening in this county or any county.

Speaking of which, I’d love it if in the next State of the State, the Governor could honestly explain how he’d responded to the pleas of Minden residents to be relocated, that we got them to a safer place not contaminated by PCBs. Because we can’t allow people in our small towns to be bearing the long term costs of industry, while wealthy CEOs are shopping for their third yacht.

Again, West Virginians should be compensated for their losses. That’s just fair.

ALL OF US DESERVE BETTER

This coming year, the Justice administration should take the safety and welfare of miners and oil/gas workers seriously. Our state must make it more expensive to flout worker and community safety than it is to just ignore the rules and pay the fines as they come.

Imagine if penalties were severe enough to eliminate the perverse financial incentive companies have to put us at risk! Imagine if we made it illegal to pay out millions in bonuses to executives who “save money” by declaring bankruptcy on miner pension funds. Imagine if not paying taxes and penalties meant coal barons were shut down until they paid.

Some of you, however, may be able to think of the millions of reasons why he might not want to do that.

Am I wrong?

I’m not wrong, but I sure wish I was.

Close your eyes. Stop reading for a moment and imagine that you knew in your heart that your home was safe, your farm was safe. Your hunting property, your fishing hole: both safe. Your neighbors are all safe. Your friends. Your grandpa’s farm. Take a minute, take a breath… and feel what it would be like without this dread of powerlessness hanging over us all the time. Feel safe.

Safe.

… wasn’t that a nice moment?

Next year, I’d LOVE to write an eat-my-words piece explaining that Justice really was fighting for us after all, and that I had been the wrongest wrong person ever to wrong since Wrongy McWrongface wronged it up in Wrongsville.

But Jim says things are promising… for industry. Yup, and he’s ready to sell us all out if we don’t fight.

And, what a shame, it’s starting to feel unattainable, even alien, the idea that the government will protect my rights.

It’s not… but we DO have to fight for it.And we have to fight NOW.

The Dream

In my dream, our government will  be working for all of us, not just those with power and influence and money. I’ll be gardening again. Maybe I can put in a nice, outdoor canning kitchen. I’ll finish my vintage camper renovation, and fix up a spot by the creek where old Shasta can sit, with polished wings in dappled light. Then I can listen to nothing but babbling brook and katydids as I go to sleep, birds and rushing water as I wake up. I can cook a pan of biscuits in the stove and sit by the campfire with a plate of sausage gravy, indulging with coffee from my French press…

There will be no politics to worry about, because in my dream future, our government is  not poised to steal the property out from under my feet. My friends and neighbors are safe. Folks have the prospect of raises that might actually help lift them up.

Instead of politics, I’ll be thinking about campfire recipes and learning a new song on the dulcimer, or I’ll be talking with my brew buddies about what beer I plan to make next.

The Harsh Reality

I can’t stay there in that dream, though, because I keep getting gobsmacked with the harsh reality that…

Justice campaigned on not raising taxes, but he raised taxes and DMV fees on us in the spring anyway.

So this is not a guy who is serious about his promises.

Justice appointed Austin Caperton as secretary of the DEP, who immediately removed property value protections for citizens from the noise and lights of the corporate invasion happening out here in rural WV. And his DEP even waived the right to review the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s impact, just… declined to do the job of assuring our health and safety. Yet Justice still has Caperton in charge.

So this is not a guy who cares about regular people.

“[Y]ou can’t imagine how promising it looks” for West Virginia, Justice said in the State of the State, boasting that he won’t quit “until every single person is not standing on the side of the bridge saying, Mister, you don’t have any idea how bad I’m hurting.”

Well, nice words, Jim. But it’s just words.

Because to get to a place where no one is standing on the side of the bridge, the quickest way would be to shove us all off.  Your goal can’t be just to get us off the bridge–out-of sight, out-of-mind—but to make sure that what we have is protected, to make sure that just because we work hard, that doesn’t make us second class, beneath your industry cronies.

But we are.

Justice  instructed the DEP to stop doing its job of protecting us, to “stop saying no to industry.”

Heck, industry lobbyist Bray Cary of EQT was even added as a gubernatorial advisor recently. Now lobbying rules and the Ethics Act don’t apply to him. How convenient.

What about us?

Justice said in the State of the State that he wants to listen to Ritchie County—no, check that. He said he wants to TALK to us.

Yeah, he’ll give us a good talking-to.

Listening to us? That’s something else again.

Listen to us Holler from the Hollers

Justice has done exactly zero to protect my community from the frack dump and associated traffic, to stand up for mineral owners, to stand up for surface owners… or to prevent the same thing from threatening other communities. Justice is not listening to the cries for help from cancer-ridden Minden, in Fayette County, either. He’s not listening to mineral or surface owners.

But he IS listening to infamous EQT, who sued to dump frackwaste in that same county after citizens said NO.

But he IS listening to notorious EQT, one of WV’s top five spillers.

That’s the same company, by the way, that last year called for a special session to promote Forced Pooling, so they can steal from mineral owners. EQT is also one of the companies making a land grab and suing tax paying WV landowners for their surface properties. Justice also wants to give them a big tax break this year.

Ritchie County will be hit particularly hard by that.

Yeah, EQT wants what you’ve got, and Justice is poised to help them do it.

Help us fight for our friends and neighbors

Lest some ill-informed yahoo columnist again mistake West Virginians concerned about property rights for a group of liberal “hillbillies” who hate oil and gas, I have to enlighten you: Ritchie County in particular is a conservative one with a long history in oil and gas.

That is WHY we’re angry about these property rights issues—because we remember not too awful long ago when the prospect of negotiating a good lease of your minerals to a local company was a cause to celebrate your anticipated windfall, rather than cause to dread becoming a target of an army of high-paid company lawyers that you don’t have the financial resources to resist.

And remember: predatory companies like EQT and Antero don’t just target members of one party.

This is why regular working class folks in rural areas like mine are furious about the invasion, regardless of their political affiliation.

Stop dividing us, stop labeling us

We are Republicans and Democrats, Mountain Party, and Libertarian, and Independent… and we’re hollering because it cuts us to the heart to see our neighbors stolen from, with none of our current representatives, and certainly not our governor, standing up for them.

Ritchie County is mad, perhaps uniquely mad, about these invasions, about a road bond that we pay for without receiving any projects, and about the lack of basic services so many of our small towns face.

In Ritchie County, we don’t dispense compassion for our neighbors based on party affiliation, and our personal politics don’t keep us from standing up for one another.

We’re mad because we love each other.

I want my friends and neighbors to be safe, have property rights respected.

To try to change the name of Forced Pooling to slip it by them—it’s infuriating. It’s disrespectful.

Jim’s State of the State was the same old song and dance

There is zero evidence that Jim Justice has had some epiphany about what would help us, much less that he intends to do it.  That big government forced pooling, for example, removes owners’ right to decide the price at which they’re willing to sell or lease their property.

He’s not only okay with that, he’s actively FER-it.

He hasn’t suddenly, finally understood the economics of extraction debt, or the disproportionate burden of socialized costs that rural areas are being forced to bear. I mean, clearly he’s not prioritized getting basic services like water and sewer to rural areas like Ritchie County.

He mentioned “water” two times in his speech: one to talk about an “underwater treadmill.” And the second, a flatout lie, to claim that we have “pristine water.” It’s a lie because every stream in West Virginia has a fish consumption advisory.

Every. Single. Stream.

Have a look at the chart at that link, which offers guidelines for how often it’s safe to eat fish caught in WV streams. (Spoiler: it’s not safe.) Look at the directions further explain that “Women of childbearing age, children, and people who regularly eat fish are particularly susceptible to contaminants that build up over time…be especially careful to follow the meal sizes and space fish meals out according to the advisory tables.”

This is “pristine”? Just… what the hell, Jim.

I WANT to be wrong about you

In 2018, rather than battling it out yet again with Cancer Creek and another Forced Pooling bill—no matter if your corporate toadie EQT “citizen volunteers” try to call it “co-tenancy” or something else—here’s what you do to prove me wrong:

  • Put strong property rights and property values protections in place.
  • Arrange for public defenders ready to help people fight the corporate land grab.
  • Find a way to relocate Minden residents, as they’re begging you to. Help them, for goodness sake!
  • Share your long term plan to give public employees meaningful raises, raises that aren’t outstripped by inflation and PEIA increases.
  • Shut down the frack dump in Ritchie, and make sure it’s illegal to put such dumps within the peripheral zone of concern for ANY public drinking water intake. They should not threaten private intakes, either.
  • Fire Caperton and appoint someone who’ll do his or her statutory duty to protect us: have your DEP evaluate pipeline impacts properly.
  • Get water run to people out here who have been without for seven years, and fix the constant boil advisories.
  • Create jobs by improving small town and rural water and sewer services everywhere—those are jobs that leave our communities better off, and increase, rather than reduce, property values. It’d mean jobs for pipefitters and other construction trades… and those improved services could help attract people and businesses to move to our small towns.
  • Work on getting affordable high-speed Internet to rural areas and small towns. That ALSO means jobs.

There is more to do for Our Dream West Virginia, but this is a good start.

So why should you do all this?

Just to prove Lissa wrong?

No.

Do it because West Virginians deserve protections, not cow patties.