It’s time to scratch more than surface
Legislature should put land rights back on the table when it convenes
We all now understand how extractive industries have changed everything in West Virginia. From the way budgets for governments are calculated to how energy is generated and communities prosper, or don’t, is weighed by which minerals — and how much of them — are removed from our land. Though what many of us didn’t see until recent years is it’s not really our land. The gap separating surface owners’ rights and mineral owners’ right, you might say, is an open pit — deep and dark, but not exactly a secret, anymore.
A recent report in our pages about two Wetzel County families assaying the scope of surface owner rights reminded us that this issue lies buried right before our eyes. Those cases are still tied up in federal courts, and as a rule, we don’t generally don’t comment or attempt to play judge or jury in active litigation. However, we never tire of calling attention to the underlying conflicts that give rise to such cases and conditions. In less than three weeks, the state Legislature will once again convene in a 60-day regular session.
Last time the Legislature convened, it was coming off a special session in December 2011 that passed a historic bill that created a framework for regulating gas extraction. At that time, our impression of this bill was of something we could work with, or as we pointed out then, “When (Gov.) Tomblin signs this bill, it heralds a regulatory beginning — not an end — to this issue.” That’s still our impression. And although at least one lawmaker introduced some 20 bills to amend these regulations last year, most of us wanted to see how it would all shake out.
Though this legislation met with some disfavor from both industry and environmental lobbyists, surface owner groups were none too happy. And its apparent why, in light of cases like the ones above, where waste pits were left behind; and for other reasons, including increased setbacks from structures and waterways. We realize that there might not be much enthusiasm by the governor and lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature to take up surface owner rights, but it needs to be on the table, again.
Ensuring surface owners’ property is left behind the way it was found, when the extraction process is completed, is the least that should be done. Problems left behind to fester for decades from extractive industries are not new. Deckers Creek, for instance, which runs through the heart of this community, was poisoned by a coal operation more than 60 years ago. That’s not changed. But it is time for real changes to protect surface owners’ rights.