We know our history and we understand our present struggles in this state.
Our miners continue to give their lives so that others can consume “cheap electricity.” We’ve literally given billions of gallons of our valuable clean water so that the oil and gas industry can force fossil fuels from the ground. We’ve lost our lands, our communities and our peace of mind for the sake of “profit” which escapes our state in railroad cars and in pipelines.
And when the global markets decrease consumption of our precious resources, our men and women lose their jobs and their livelihoods.
In spite of this loss, we’ve never lost understanding of our worth. We know that there is a more prosperous future for our communities, our economy and our state, if we so choose.
We must begin by recognizing that out-of-state interests have disproportionate amounts of control over our state policies. Organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) are influencing policies in our state with complete disregard for the impact on our local communities. At the same time, gas corporations are lobbying to take our private property through forced pooling legislation; lobbying to take what our mineral owners refuse to give.
In his last State of the State address we heard Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin claim to “put West Virginia first” with 250 companies coming into our state, but fail to address why our workers’ wages remain stagnant. So who is benefiting from this “growth” in economic activity? Our state population continues to decline as counties with increased oil and gas production lose the most.
Current policies have created a strong “business climate” but what about our natural environment? The last “overhaul” of horizontal gas well drilling regulations was in 2011 and since then we’ve seen our friends and neighbors literally fall ill as a result of gas production in their communities. Overall, our cancer rates and mortality rates are the highest in the country.
Supporting our miners as global consumption of coal decreases means expanding opportunities beyond fossil fuels. The solar industry added more jobs than any other sector in 2015, yet our state leaders continue to stand in the way of expanding this growth into our state. Along with broadening renewable industry in the state, our workforce deserves a prevailing wage for their labor. It is impossible to stimulate the economy when our working families are struggling just to make ends meet.
We must also address the influx of out of state workers brought in by the oil and gas industry while our local workers struggle with unemployment. And if West Virginia already has the “best business tax climate index in the region,” why is so called “Right to Work” legislation necessary? Gov. Tomblin failed to mention that particular piece of pending legislation as hundreds of opponents of the bill watched him speak.
Citing “a lack of flat land” for industrial development, Gov. Tomblin continues to ignore the value of our geography which, when protected, creates trillions of gallon of clean water every year. Few can deny that our next wars will be over water, yet we continue to compromise our valuable water resources in West Virginia. Instead of using mountaintop removal landscapes as an economic caveat, we should be asking and providing answers as to why these sites weren’t developed years ago, as promised during the permitting process?
We heard Gov. Tomblin advocate for the removal of severance taxes from coal and gas while raising taxes on telecommunications use which would once again aim to balance the state budget on the backs of working West Virginians. Asking the oil and gas industry to simply pay a fraction of a cent for each gallon of water they pull from our streams and rivers would create hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for counties and the state. Currently they pay nothing for the water they take. And the second anniversary of the largest contamination of a public water source — the Elk River chemical leak which left 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water for weeks in 2014 — was not mentioned.
The most direct and immediate way West Virginia can address our prescription pill problems is by following the lead of other states which have used medical marijuana to cut prescription pill overdoses by up to 25 percent. These same states have also brought in hundreds of millions in revenue and have seen crime rates dramatically decrease.
In his address, Gov. Tomblin advocated for hundreds of miles of expanded oil and gas export pipelines. Instead of promoting these devastating projects which are largely opposed by local communities, we should protect and expand our local water production and tourism industries in the counties in the southeastern part of the state which are growing in population and thriving.
As the Mountain Party and as mountain people we value much more than the minerals that lie beneath these ancient hills and the businesses here to extract them. West Virginia has been called the crown gem of Appalachia and the Mountain Party of West Virginia continues to fight to protect the true bounty of our state: our mountain people.
Elise Keaton is state executive chair of the Mountain Party of West Virginia