For much of the debate this legislative session, policymakers are leaning on gut instinct rather than the due diligence that we expect of them. They should read up, consider expert testimony, consult research, study science and – God forbid – walk in the footprints of constituents.
But we get little of that.
Our lawmakers write policy informed by myth, by fiction, by fantasy. Their anecdotal evidence – greatly embellished – has been shared by like-minded politicos beholden to political dogma, fed by monied interests from outside our state and big business barons inside. Seems like very little of what our legislators do addresses the needs of West Virginians, especially the state’s most vulnerable who face myriad challenges in their daily lives.
As such, nothing much for the common good is being written into law in Charleston. Exhibit A: The right to conceal and carry a gun on college campuses.
Now there is a solution looking for a problem.
Meanwhile, in southern West Virginia, the taps in just one woman’s house have been worn down. Sinks and showers are stained orange by pollutants in the water supply. This is what a BBC reporter found – and not in just one home – in a recent story called “A toxic crisis in America’s coal country.”
But in Charleston, you do not hear about this woman’s struggle or her neighbors’. You do not see any such concern in pending legislation that is likely to pass. But you will witness the hand-wringing about campus carry as if any of that folderol addresses a single solitary concern out here in the coalfields.
Here is what the BBC reporter wrote: “This is Appalachia – the heart of America’s coal country. It is home to some of the poorest and most isolated communities in the U.S.”
The woman in the story says, “It’s really, really difficult living like this.”
Do legislators believe an education savings account will deliver clean water to her home? Or ease some of her burdens?
We tell each other that West Virginians look out for one another. Tell that to our legislators.
The locals in the BBC story asked that their names not be used. They feared retaliation for taking their concerns public, that their coal mining jobs would be jeopardized if they were found talking trash about the company store. In the sanctuary of their anonymity, they blame mountaintop removal for devastating the landscape and polluting the waterways.
A report by the Environmental Protection Agency backs them up, estimating that more than 2,000 miles of streams – a distance longer than the Mississippi River – have been buried by the excess rock and soil that is dumped after explosives are detonated on the mountaintops so that coal, buried deep below the surface, can be excavated. That, says Professor Michael McCawley, an environmental engineer, “increases the concentration of acidic ions and metals (in the water), things like arsenic and nickel.”
This pollution, according to his research and reported in the story, has taken a major toll on the health of those whose water supply lies in its path.
The resulting health effect? “Name a cancer and they’re seeing it here,” he said.
Minden residents can relate.
Since the 1980s, the soil and waters of Minden have been contaminated by PCBs, a byproduct of the mining industry and a known carcinogen. According to a death registry created by residents, some 150 people – in a town that now reports a population of 250 – have died of cancer.
Yet a bill that would have more accurately tracked cancer deaths, and – possibly – found that mining operations were indeed causing a whole raft of health-related issues, was sent to the legislative graveyard.
And on Thursday, a House committee rejected attempts to include updated water quality standards that were first recommended by the EPA in 2015.
Health statistics alone paint West Virginia as one of the more distressed places to live in America, and some of that can be traced back to wealthy, exploitative, coal mine companies that have known for decades that the folks in these parts are at their mercy. Jobs, job, jobs.
What West Virginians need are legislators who see the abuses they suffer at the hands of the mighty. Our environment could use a break, too.
But, hey, lawmakers did find time to advance a bill that would require those on Medicaid to work at least 20 hours a week.
Just whom do these folks represent?
— The Register-Herald