Governing by Injustice in West Virginia
February 27, 2017
When elected officials bow and scrape to the oil and gas industry, they often use the false rhetoric of “job killing” and “burdensome” regulations. Last week, Jim Justice, Governor of West Virginia, didn’t even bother with that smokescreen.
According to investigative coverage by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Gov. Justice recently ordered the Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) to kill a requirement that protects residents from the noise and light caused by oil and gas operations.
In 2016, WVDEP added this common-sense measure to a general permit for compressor stations and dehydration facilities. When the WV Oil and Natural Gas Association (WVONGA) objected, the Air Quality Board took up the matter and determined that WVDEP was well within its rights to protect the public from noise and light.
But why should industry listen to the rule of law? In January, WVONGA sent a letter to WVDEP requesting elimination of the requirement. With a new WVDEP secretary with a long history of working for the coal industry—Voilà! Just four days later WVDEP killed the regulation.
Adding insult to injury, on the same day WVDEP secretary Austin Caperton fired the long-time director of the Office of Environmental Advocate, which is charged with handling public complaints and agency responsiveness to residents.
Such moves could have terrible consequences for the many West Virginians forced to live with oil and gas. According to one family, life near an industrial compressor station can ruin both daily life and property value.
Their experience, and so many other similar ones, are supported by science. A recent comprehensive research review concluded that modern oil and gas development can cause noise at levels that increase both short- and long-term health risks, including stress, sleep disturbance and deprivation, elevated blood pressure, and heart disease.
For such reasons, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines noise as a form of pollution and recommends a noise level limit of 55 decibels (dBA) outdoors to protect against interference with speech and sleep. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has adopted this standard for interstate pipelines and associated compressor stations.
Yet at one West Virginia compressor station, Earthworks recently measured noise levels of 80 dBA and higher. We also filmed intense pollution at the station, which our air sampling showed contains health-harming chemicals.
It's not surprising for the fossil fuel industry to wield strong influence over West Virginia’s economy and politics. But it should nonetheless be shocking that a Governor who has racked up $4.6 million in federal fines for his coal companies is now imposing a blatant disregard for health and safety on the people he was elected to serve.
Jim Justice’s election was called one of 2016’s weirdest, in part because he’s a billionaire in a state with the nation’s 7th highest poverty rate (20% of adults and 25% of children). But what's truly strange is that Governor Justice has so quickly lost sight of the meaning of his own name.
For more information:
- Earthworks' Community Empowerment Project pollution videos, including from West Virginia.
- Charleston Gazette-Mail article on the reversal of noise and light protections.
- West Virginia University's reports to the WVDEP on the health and environmental impacts of oil and gas development.
- Contact information for the WVDEP Office of the Environmental Advocate