A Better Vision

A Better Vision for the Valley was an inspirational conference organized by FreshWater Accountability Project and attended by many residents from the Ohio Valley, as well as representatives from numerous environmental groups. It took place on May 11, 2019, at Wheeling Jesuit College. Impactful speakers shared their knowledge about the environmental and public health crisis we are facing due to the oil and gas and petrochemical development in Appalachia.

Patricia DeMarco, the keynote speaker discussed the principles in her book, “Choosing a Sustainable Pathway for our Future.” She stated that regenerative agriculture and renewable energy can improve not just the environment, but people’s everyday lives: “Saving the environment is saving jobs. Because our economies depend on nature for filtering our water, providing oxygen, and all the essentials of a healthy and sustainable life.” Her insights on the pathway forward to a brighter future were awe-inspiring and greatly appreciated.

The Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis gave a presentation entitled: “Fracking, Financial Risk & Our Future Economy.” Kathy Hipple provided a clear picture of the oil and gas industry’s financial insecurity, which was a motivating force to remain hopeful that the region would not get locked into an extractive-dependent future, and to continue to work towards the changes we want to see in our world.

Dustin White and Alex Cole from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition talked about their program, Re-Imagining Our Appalachian Region (ROAR), as well as their work on crucial issues in the Ohio valley including mountain-top removal, the petrochemical hub, fracking, pipelines and more. They offered support for area residents and stated they would assist them and to reach out when in need.
Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project’s Associate Director, Jill Kriesky, outlined oil and gas industry threats to public health, and the externalized cost of the pollution. She offered support and to be a resource to impacted citizens.
Megan Hunter, an attorney with Fair Shake Environmental Services acknowledged that there weren’t enough regulations and legislation to provide for clean air, water, and soil, but empowered impacted citizens to document and file official complaints when possible. She also gave details about Fair Shakes’ Community Outreach and Empowerment Program, which offers affordable legal representation to those living with polluting industry.
After the speakers enlightened those in attendance, we gathered in groups and began visioning a better future for the valley. Each group shared their vision with the rest. Hemp cultivation and processing was a major part of the envisioned future, and some hoped the proposed Dillies Bottom site for PTTGCA cracker plant could instead become a hemp farm. We learned that the salt caverns, a few miles down river near Clarington, could be used to store solar energy replacing the proposed ethane storage project at the site.

Grow Ohio Valley spoke about the importance of securing healthy, and locally grown food and we saw great potential to do so in the region. The abandoned factories on both side of the river could be converted into greenhouses in our vision. Many sustainable economic development ideas were generated and participants began to see action steps they could take to move forward.

Acknowledgment of the original inhabitants of the Ohio Valley was made and respect given to their ancient ways of living in balance and harmony with the natural world. There was a time, not that long ago when you could drink the waters flowing in the Ohio River. Now it is the most polluted river in the country. We can re-learn the ancient ways of the indigenous people to live in harmony with nature and secure a happy and healthy future for our children.

Local county commissioners, city council members, economic development offices, and others were contacted and invited to the conference. We were disappointed that none of them attended, because we know how important it is to have local officials embrace an expanded view of the Ohio Valley’s future. We need a diversified economy, not one dependent on major polluters and the boom and bust cycle of fossil fuel industries. We want to break the trend of exploitation of vulnerable people here in Appalachia, who will take whatever jobs are offered due to the lack of viable economic opportunities, with decreasing health and increasing taxes due to the externalized costs of extractive industries.

A living wage is not easy to come by in the hills of Ohio and West Virginia. Therefore, when a toxic industry is promoted by state and local authorities, as a way to create jobs and economic prosperity, there are few questions asked. People just want jobs. When poverty looms, people will sacrifice clean air and water, and even their children’s future, to pay bills today. This is being exploited by overseas interests and huge corporate profiteering schemes by people who would never live here themselves.

A better vision is needed for the Ohio Valley. The continued plundering of our natural resources by the fossil fuel industry are resulting in an environmental and public health disaster. Even without considering the imminent and horrific threat of climate change, the damage to the region we see already due to fracking and its pipelines and infrastructure have altered our area from a beautiful countryside to an industrialized and polluting landscape. We have witnessed the devastating effects of coal mining and oil and gas exploration in the past. Just recently upon a recent visit to my mother’s childhood home, just a few miles upstream from the Ohio River in Belmont County Ohio, we were heartsick to find a drastically changed landscape and acid mining drainage from the coal mining that have destroyed the health and beauty of where my mother’s home once stood.

We will continue to try and engage our elected officials and community members to support a diversified and better future for the Ohio Valley. We shall remain persistent and resistant to all that threatens our children’s future. And we will continue to invite and even plead with our elected officials and regulatory agencies that they use our tax dollars in support of their salaries to create a better, more sustainable and just future for us. A future that we want, and not what outside interests that take our resources and leave us with their pollution, want for us.