Pocahontas County faces another “extreme extraction” crossroads in the face of a proposed major pipeline that would traverse our northern region. This is but a microcosm of the “extreme extraction” crossroads portending the future of our nation and the world.
Pocahontas County has experienced “extreme extraction.” A century ago all our virgin forest was extracted through clear-cut, much of it for overseas export. With the big timber gone, lumber workers left. Pocahontas County has steadily declined from its peak population of 15,000 in 1920 to about 8,600 today. The only brief census bump up was in the 1980, perhaps due to the Bath County Pumped Storage Project construction nearby that employed as many as 3,000 workers, afterward leaving one percent of that number to operate the units. Boom and bust cycles do not bring stability to communities.
The proposed pipeline would transport shale gas to markets to the southeast. Shale gas is now abundant due to the “extreme extraction” method popularly known as fracking. Vast quantities of water, sand, chemicals, transported by truck, are used to extract the gas that is then pipelined to distant markets.
The recent availability of abundant extractable shale gas and oil has placed the United States at an ethical crossroads. At one fork, national energy security with plenty of fuel can continue our present mode of living, coupled with industry profit and accompanying jobs. On the other fork, use of fossil fuels at current rates, including natural gas (which has significant methane leakage), will raise atmospheric levels of greenhouse gasses and increase ocean acidification toward catastrophic consequences.
With its large seams of coal mined out, West Virginia mountains are decapitated for thin coal seams in the “extreme extraction” method of mountaintop removal. Over 20 peer-reviewed studies, some of which I have had a hand in research, show significantly higher rates of premature mortality, cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, and birth defects in communities near mountaintop removal than in other populations with similar culture and lifestyle. Annual Gallup/Healthways polls since 2008 have consistently ranked our own West Virginia 3rd congressional district and Kentucky’s 5th district as very last among 435 U.S. congressional districts in physical health, emotional health (happiness), life evaluation (hope), and overall. As a state, West Virginia continues to rank #50 in these polls. In other studies, West Virginia ranks near to bottom in state median income. Our state and federal politicians ignore these inconvenient reports while they unanimously trumpet the coal and gas industries.
Can West Virginia have a future beyond “extreme extraction?” I’ve asked that question in comparison to Vermont, a state of rugged mountains, stony fields, cold weather, no navigable waterways, no fossil fuel extractive industry, no major metropolitan areas, and a small population. Vermont ranks #3 for lowest poverty. Vermont ranks # 6 in the Gallup/Healthways “Well-being Index.”
Pocahontas County’s most “extreme extraction” is our talented young people who are educated here at great expense, parented with great love, and then “exported” to outside communities. Our greatest opportunity is to retain many of them as well as to attract outside talented young people who will become our future business and social entrepreneurs to invigorate our local communities. I suggest several steps toward this.
First, protect and tout our county’s extraordinary natural beauty, precious water and rich ecosystem. Second, incorporate into our parenting and education an appreciation and knowledge of our culture and ecology so that our youth are proud of their identity and where they come from. Third, maintain our traits of neighborliness and helpfulness, and welcome newcomers and fresh ideas. Fourth, develop critical 21st century infrastructure. Broadband parity is “do or die” for our future, just as electricity and telephone parity was a few decades ago. $30,000 per mile cost of middle mile fiber installation is a pittance of state investment in comparison to the cost of new highway construction or even repaving, yet fiber is just as essential for the “information highway” as blacktop is for transportation roadways. To use an analogy, Pocahontas Internet is at horse-and-buggy speed in ratio comparison to the national average at automobile speed, while some towns even in Mississippi are moving Internet up to the equivalent of the speed of a jet plane.
We are at a crossroads. Let us choose our path wisely with vision, boldness, and hope.