By now you’ve probably heard about how Delegate John Shott had me hauled out of the House of Delegates for listing off the donations members received from energy interests. It was the “
Shott Holler Heard ’round the World!” evidently. Heck, there are news stories about this in German.
I’ll be frank: while I’ve been touched by the concern for me, I’m also a little mystified by the attention. To me, the data itself should be enough to outrage. It shouldn’t need John Shott’s fit of pique. His bad judgment should be more of a side note.
Because here’s the thing that really gets me: it’s not new information I valiantly unearthed with the crack team of investigators that I assembled to help me delve into records previously unseen by human eyes.
That makes a good story, but it’s not true… not unless by “unseen by human eyes” you mean “public but not common knowledge.” And not unless you also count Google as my, uh, algorithmic Scooby Gang.
Yeah, I’m mystified because I feel as if we all should have already been storming the proverbial castle with our torches and pitchforks.
But now that Shotts’ drama has lent me your attention, however temporarily, let me draw your collective gaze to what’s really important. Let me show you what the purchase of our government is doing to us out here. Let me show you WHY I want to Holler from the Hollers and help the people here in my district.
Peer into my crystal ball, er… your screen.
Or fall into the pensieve, if you prefer. I want you to understand what it’s like just a few hours from DC, here in the United States of America…
But first, let me just make a suggestion to industry lobbyists:
Stop whining on the yacht
It’s not just that our lawmakers get big campaign donations from corporate money, it’s also that they are wined and dined at lavish lobbying galas, treated to $130 steak dinners at evening affairs, and generally showered with expensive attentions to win their favor.
It must feel grand to have that sort of effort made to be your “friend,” and then (coincidentally, of course!) witness hours of lobbyists’ “friendly advice” through a warm whiskey haze… about how to vote, or what’s most important for this session.
After all, the alternative would be dull evenings at home doing research. Looking at fiscal notes. Talking to the people a bill might negatively affect.
Perish the thought! Better to dress up and listen to droll lobbyists whine about the dreadful service on the yacht.
Well, step down into our little jon boat for a minute, boys.
I mean, for two minutes.
Actually, for not quite 1 minute and 45 seconds.
The (shall we call it) friendly attention and the money is just too much of a temptation for most of our lawmakers. I guess they’re worried about getting the stink-eye from Bob Orndoff or Anne Blankenship if they step into the boat the rest of us are furiously trying to bail out.
A bucket would sure help. But, mercy!, what if the water splashes their silks? What if they don’t get invited to the next party?
Our lawmakers just need to ignore the lobbyists clutching at their pearls. It’s not the job of our legislators to pass bills written BY corporations FOR corporations. Their job is to make WV a place where people all have the opportunity to do better.
But there are parts of this state—heck, the country—that our government is simply declining to protect… because money. Chiefly corporate money. But it can be better here in WV, just like it can be in, say, St. James, Louisiana.
Only we have do the damn work, and stop allowing corporations to sacrifice our communities.
Let me show you one community bearing costs for EQT, the biggest natural gas producer in the nation. This is what I really want you to see.
Auburn, West Virginia
This is Auburn, WV: population 97. About 50 households.
Auburn is way down in the southern part of my county, close to the Gilmer County line.
I did some research. Here’s how the town mayor described Auburn’s situation back in 2015:
Currently there are no public water or sewer services in Auburn. Residents obtain potable water from shallow wells, and wastewater is discharged untreated into roadside ditches, storm sewers, and into Bone Creek, a tributary of the Hughes River. The shallow water wells are being contaminated by the untreated wastewater discharges. Further, fecal coliform contamination, along with oxygen depletion, is causing Bone Creek to become a cesspool as it flows through Auburn, particularly when the stream volume declines in the summer and fall.
The residents of Auburn are experiencing a dire public health hazard from these conditions. Due to this health hazard, the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department (“MOVHD”) located in Parkersburg, West Virginia, has notified the Town and its residents that MOVHD will seek criminal action against the Town and individual property owners for the illegal sewage discharges unless the Town and its residents implement a sewage treatment project.
Now, no one wants raw sewage going into Bone Creek, or any creek. But threatening residents with criminal action seems absurd for a few reasons. It’s not like folks unhooked from a public system out of spite. It’s been without before any of them were born. The system, or rather its lack, is an artifact of a bygone age.
The treatment plan the town spec’ed out cost $2.7 million. That means, to pay for it outright, each of the 50 households would have to come up with about $54K. And look, my guess is that there’s not going to be a whole lot of people there who can afford to cough that up.
Did I mention? The median household income in Auburn is less than $10K.
Auburn deserves better
That’s what I knew about Auburn going in: infrastructure issues. US citizens deserve functioning sewer and clean water, among other things. I had done a little homework before canvassing; I had an expectation of what I was likely to hear.
But you know… sometimes your expectations are just wrong.
When I knocked doors, to my surprise, not one person mentioned the sewer issues.
Nope. They had bigger things to worry about.
Auburn is being eaten alive by oil and gas trucks.
Yeah, I get that somewhere off in the governor’s office, lobbyist Bray Cary’s EQT eyes are rolling. SURE they’re worried about gas. SURE they are, hon.
Look, people here aren’t opposed to gas development. We heat our homes with gas, and run our cars on fossil fuels. And we just don’t have enough renewable capacity right now to meet our energy needs. We need to transition, and do it in a way that doesn’t leave fossil fuel communities behind.
But that doesn’t mean that everything EQT wants to do is okay. There’s a difference between gas and oil workers, and gas and oil barons, the same way there’s a difference between coal miners and coal barons.
A huge, huge difference.
So what folks out here in this oil-and gas county are sick of is paying so many of the costs of extraction, and bearing so many of the extraction burdens. We’re sick of being a sacrifice zone.
So little Auburn, nestled among the rolling West Virginia hills, 20 miles from a town with a grocery store, is ground zero for this part of EQT’s invasion.
What BOOM has EQT brought to Auburn?
There’s nary a business in town. Auburn isn’t seeing benefits. Auburn is paying costs.
That’s how extraction works. It happens most frequently in impoverished areas, and it concentrates poverty because it imposes disproportionate costs on the local populations.
That includes costs like wear and tear on roads. Because each fully loaded truck does the same amount of damage as about 9600 cars.
And the damage from that concentrated frack traffic is oh-so-obvious in Auburn.
They holler and holler, and no one hears them.
I’m heartsick that not a soul has taken up for them.
So I’m taking up for them. I’m just a person at this point—I’m not an elected official who can take legislative action—but I can write about what happening. I can amplify their voices.
You all still with me? Help me save Auburn.
The costs Auburn is bearing
“You’ll have an interesting drive through town,” said the first lady I spoke to yesterday, warning me about potholes. “You’ll make it okay if you go slow. Problem is when people don’t know they’re there.”
She wasn’t lying.
And hey, roads are bad everywhere in West Virginia. I’d had to dodge some holes on the way to Auburn: it’s only 25 or so miles from me, but about an hour’s drive.
Still, I hadn’t come across any potholes quite so jaw-dropping as those in the middle of Auburn. Pothole isn’t exactly the word for them, really. Heaved up asphalt is better. Whatever we call them, as I stood speaking to someone about them—or rather gawping at their enormity—a big old pick-up truck came by, and it was evidently not a local.
Ssssccrraaaa-aa-ape! Went the truck.
Tcccsssshhhh went a shower of gravel.
Welcome to Auburn, y’all.
The picture doesn’t do it justice. It might be nearly a foot and a half difference from the bottom of a wallow to the top of a swell.
The EQT Invasion
Auburn is dealing with EQT’s industrial invasion—the company has decided a big frack pad should go in just over the hill—but no one is addressing the concerns of the citizens who are having to deal with the impacts. No one is hearing them.
The conversation on the yacht must be too loud. Just now, the lobbyists are passing around lobster, and they’re all aflutter, worried they’re going to run out of butter, poor dears. They can’t be bothered with the actual towns that make up their districts.
Yet Auburn should be a real Mayberry, the kind of town I adore.
In many ways it still is. It’s filled with kind and friendly people. It’s a town where, more often than not, someone just called to me “come in!” rather than looking to see who was knocking. That’s because everyone is a neighbor, and nearly everyone is a friend.
When the trucks weren’t going by, you could hear chickens and cattle. Birds. Some crows were chattering over something in the creek bottom. And off in the distance was the faint but unmistakable sound of someone playing Don McClean’s American Pie…
But that pleasant reverie came just a few minutes at a time.
Because the trucks were practically always going by.
“It does no good to wash your cars,” folks said wearily, “because of all the dust.”
And the asphalt is just… missing in places. Disintegrated. Under the weight of those big trucks, it sprays up onto the sidewalks like water.
Some sidewalks are just driven over and destroyed. Witness the tire tracks.
One woman said they’d fixed that sidewalk not long ago, and EQT destroyed it.
“That’s 55 hundred dollars right there,” she said in disgust.
And look… even if the town had the money to fix it again—I did mention the median household income, right?—well, why should the townsfolk pay for damage done by EQT?
But it’s not just the presence of the trucks, or the damage they do that’s the problem.
It’s also the disrespect.
Meet Chester Osborne, Jr.
That’s his house. He lives right at the junction of the road EQT has to turn up to get to the new frack pad/industrial zone they’re building.
That’s his car, there. And below is the damage he says came courtesy of EQT.
He was parked in front of his house, off the side of the road. Those big trucks like to take the turn wide, he explained to me—too wide—and drive up in his yard. During one wide turn, he says they just clipped his car.
And kept on driving.
The nerve, right?
But when he called the police to make a report, he tells me the officer just instructed him to stop parking there, said he should park in his yard, instead.
And so he has.
“But the more it rains, the more it sinks,” he explained.
Mr. Osborne says he was also told to buy some cinder blocks and wood to put in his yard to keep the trucks from driving through it. So it’s his fault for parking beside the road, like he’d always done… and also it’s his job to build a… what? A security perimeter (?) to keep corporate trucks from driving through his front yard.
So Mr. Osborne got the cinder blocks and boards, and constructed a little makeshift barrier. What choice does he have? It’s not like anyone will ever hold EQT accountable.
The trucks still spray gravel into the yard as they wheel by.
Mr. Osborne doesn’t have an army of lawyers like EQT does.
Get out the way
And truthfully, we’re all used to being told to get out of the way of industry. That message comes from the very top levels of our state government. It comes in loud and clear.
Your car has been hit by EQT trucks? Well, get out the way. Sink your car in the mud, pay out some cash, and spend your own time trying to deal with the impacts.
If EQT was a person, he’d be an arrogant, entitled jerk, lacking basic decency and common courtesy. Possibly a sociopath.
However, corporations aren’t people. They have all the rights, and all of the privileges.
But none of the responsibilities.
As I was marveling at this treatment Mr. Osborne was describing, his neighbor—whose home is also in the way of the trucks—stuck her head out and told me that the trucks had hit her steps not long ago. So she moved a junker out there.
Better they hit the junker than her house, sure.
But wouldn’t it be best of all if they just didn’t hit anything?
We deserve good neighbors, not corporate invaders.
So this is the actual backdrop of what’s going on out here. You want to know what it’s like out here in the Marcellus with a bought government? Here it is.
Talking about the corruption behind this is why I got hauled out. This is the status quo that those lobbyists and their eager legislative puppets want to continue.
How would you feel if YOUR neighbors were being treated like this?
Well, I’ll tell you how I feel.
For goodness’ sake, these citizens of the United States of America surely deserve to have someone to take up for them.
“No one cares about us” is what I heard from folks over and over. And I can’t disagree: our reps are focused this session, again, on bills to help their lobbyist buddies.
They keep telling us the boom will help us. Yuh-huh.
And look… the gas development COULD help us. It could.
But not it the only aim of our lawmakers is just to get invited to the next party by their snotty friends.
If folks have to deal with this headache, this noise, this dust—this invasion—then the invaders should be making sure they people who live here are seeing long term benefits: I’d like to see fixed roads, fixed sidewalks, planted flowers, a local firehouse/police, a gol-durn grocery store in town, maybe.
But we don’t have friends in high places like EQT does.
Our governor’s so-called “citizen volunteer” Bray Cary is an EQT board member.
Yeah, this all ties together with the teachers’ strike, too.
WV teachers & public employees are helping ALL WVians
Against this backdrop of crumbling towns, crumbling roads, food deserts, opioid abuse, and a crumbling education system, the industry’s lawmakers are trying to pass a business inventory tax cut, which would be a $140 million per year break for extractors.
No matter how you feel about the tax, is this really the most important thing we could be doing to fix our deadly-serious problems right now?
We need to get folks functioning sewer, and make sure their houses and cars aren’t being demolition-derbied by extractors, and we need to pay correction officers more, and we need to fix PEIA and give raises to teachers… and they’re focused on trying to cut $140 million in tax revenue without even tying job creation to the tax break?
What the what?!
The industry is also trying to pass a bill to eliminate severance tax on old wells.
Again: in a budget crunch, with regular people suffering, with the roads as they are, with teachers suggesting a severance tax increase would fix PEIA and fund the raises responsibly… eliminating severance tax on the old wells is among our legislative priorities?
Yes. And that’s why we are where we are.
But it gets even worse
That’s the bill, by the way, that I got thrown out for speaking against, the bill that increase industry profits by taking away our property rights. There’s been such an uproar about it—people are really paying attention to the votes—I think JJ wanted to give legislators an excuse for handing our property rights to corporations.
But teachers weren’t having it. They’re not falling for the governor’s crap. They have maintained that severance tax would be a good way to fund the PEIA fixes and raises—and they don’t want our state to allow companies to steal from people. That’s not a fix; that’s just shifting the cost onto more vulnerable people.
And we’ve had about all we can take.
Severance is a tax that falls on the extractors. And WV’s severance tax rate is lower than other energy-producing states. The numbers show these corporations would do fine with a higher rate.
Indeed, corporations like EQT should be paying taxes sufficient to cover the damage they’re doing to our state from the extraction process.
But lobbyists are off with legislators on the yacht, tut-tutting that the silverware hasn’t been properly polished. Oh, dear.
As a side note, the median income for an energy exec is close to $14 million a year.
And—I mentioned this, right?—the median income for a household in Auburn is less than $10K.
Tell me, who should be paying the extraction debt, again?
Not the people.
We’ve all had enough.