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 University. 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. Sustainable alternatives were discussed, including ideas generated on how to move forward creating renewable energy economies and regenerative agricultural development for a brighter and healthier future for the Ohio Valley.
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 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, attorney with Fair Shake Environmental Services empowered impacted citizens to file official complaints to the regulatory agencies. 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. We 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 were destined to be greenhouses in our vision. Many sustainable economic development ideas were generated and action steps determined.
Acknowledgement of the original inhabitants of the Ohio Valley were made and respect given to their ancient ways of living in balance and harmony with the natural world. "There was a time, not so long ago, when you could drink the waters flowing in the Ohio. Now it is the most polluted river in the country. We must make a commitment to learn the ancient ways of the indigenous people to restore peace 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 Valleys future. We need a diversified economy, not one dependent on polluting boom and bust fossil fuel industries. We are a vulnerable people here in Appalachia, due to the poverty that we are kept in by greedy, exploitative corporations and their puppet politicians.
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 need a job. They can’t worry about what the industrial pollution will do to their air and water, or their children’s future. They have to feed their families anyway they can in an effort to simply survive.
A better vision is needed for the Ohio Valley. The continued exploitation of our natural resources by the fossil fuel industry will result in an environmental and public health disaster. I know this to be true. I have witnessed the devastating effects of coal mining and oil and gas exploration. 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 is occurring right at the spot 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 do have the power to make positive changes in our communities, but we must act now. We shall remain persistent and resistant to all that threatens our children’s future. A’ho.
Jill A. Hunkler