CHARLESTON — While the head of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection told a group of state lawmakers about his efforts to recruit companies involved in converting natural gas liquids to plastics on Tuesday, he left out his agency’s role in ensuring those companies abide by clean air and water regulations.
And no lawmakers asked any questions about the environmental implications of what state officials have dubbed the upcoming “Appalachian Petrochemical Renaissance.”
“That was just not part of this presentation,” DEP Cabinet Secretary Austin Caperton said, in an interview following the meeting. “This presentation is about developing jobs, not about environmental protection because we do our job to protect the environment at the DEP.”
Governor Jim Justice, a Republican, appointed Caperton, a former longtime coal industry consultant, to head the DEP in January 2017, and to head the Governor’s Downstream Jobs Task Force in August.
During legislative interim meetings Tuesday, Caperton spoke to the joint committee on natural gas development about his efforts to recruit companies to West Virginia involved in converting natural gas liquids into plastics and other materials.
He talked about potential economic impact, jobs and infrastructure. He spoke about how Chelsea Ruby, state tourism commissioner, is helping him to change the “image” of the state, so he couldn’t use PowerPoint presentations with bullet points anymore. Instead, the presentation included multiple video clips, including two media clips of President Donald Trump.
He spoke about meetings he’d attended, presentations he’d held. He talked about networking. He addressed incentives.
“I’m really excited to have the job that I have right now,” he said.
In an interview following, Caperton said he wasn’t anticipating any changes to clean air and water regulations needed to make way for the “petrochemical renaissance.”
“No, everything’s in place from a regulatory standpoint,” he said. “Any regulation that goes on in that industry is going to either be air or water. And air is under the federal Clean Air Act and water’s under the Clean Water Act. We just administer those programs on behalf of the EPA and the United States, so the changes that come down come from them, not from us.”
Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, asked, during the meeting, about including companies from the private sector on the task force. Caperton responded that he didn’t want members to spend too much time “pontificating” and wanted to focus on “effective utilization of our resources.”
Caperton also said during the meeting that he wanted Ruby to be part of the task force because “the same reasons people come to visit are the reasons people come to live.”
Meanwhile, Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, was sitting across the room, also thinking about people who live in West Virginia.
She said she was concerned about what new pollutants the industry could discharge into the air and water needed by people living around potential underground storage facilities and cracker plants, and potential explosions due to volatile chemicals in underground storage facilities.
“It’s somewhat of a mixed message when you see the chief of our Department of Environmental Protection tasked to recruit these industries into West Virginia, which are going to be the very industries that that agency is tasked to regulate,” she said.
She added, though, that she understood Caperton was following direction of the governor.
“What does that mean for other responsibilities of the agency that are so important – critically important, life-and death important?” she said.
She said while she understood the need for jobs, she also noted that natural gas, like coal, is a fossil fuel, susceptible to boom and bust cycles. She noted that now, West Virginians are dealing with polluted streams and degraded lands while coal companies go bankrupt.
She said that while the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act provide basic protections, states have discretion in how they implement those laws and so some states end up with stronger or more lenient protections. She noted that the Trump administration and state officials have already rolled back environmental regulations over the last several years. And she noted that environmental health officials must be adequately staffed and funded to enforce the laws on the books.
“Where the rubber hits the road, too, is enforcement,” she said. “I don’t like to keep bringing this up, but Freedom Industries was covered by the Clean Water Act, but obviously that didn’t go well for us.”
She was referencing the 2014 water crisis, a chemical spill that left 300,000 people without access to public drinking water in the Kanawha Valley.
“I would have expected in this conversation for questions around the environment and public health to come up, especially with our DEP chief at the podium,” Rosser said. “And it was silence on that.”
She added though, that she wasn’t surprised.
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