Professor Commentary: The Extractive Industry, Decision-Making, and Environmental Justice in Athens County

Extractive industries, including coal and gas, figure prominently in the environmental history of Athens County. The social and physical landscape of our county is a testament to the enduring ramifications of the boom and bust fossil fuel economy. Coal mines brought jobs to the area and fueled the expansion of bustling mining communities one hundred years ago. However, the coal operations suddenly went elsewhere and left our region to grapple with unemployment and a tremendous amount of environmental degradation. Today, Athens County is home to small towns that never fully recovered economically from the loss of extractive industry. Our environment here continues to suffer from acid mine drainage into streams and rivers while high walls and other coal mine artifacts litter the landscape. Alleviating the injustices of poverty and environmental contamination has proven to be anything but assured nearly a century after the first wave of extractive industry left Athens County behind.

Today, extractive industries are paying renewed attention to Athens County and much of Southeast Ohio, and it seems energy companies make headlines everyday in our community. News reports tell us a corporation leased the right to extract coal from a proposed strip mine in Joy Hollow while other energy companies leased nearly 1/3 of Athens County for hydraulic fracturing. These economic developments have stirred up a tremendous amount of controversy in our county. Fracking in particular has caused a great deal of angst, pitting city against countryside and neighbor and against neighbor. Concerns about renewed fossil fuel extraction in our county have part of their basis in the consequential legacy of past extraction. Proponents of increased mining and drilling note that our economically depressed area never recovered from the boom days of coal mining and therefore needs new jobs from the same industry. Opponents are fearful these new energy companies will damage our water and air and then leave the county with high levels of unemployment once the fossil fuel resources are tapped out.

The decisions that govern the extraction of fossil fuels in Athens County are extremely localized- yet also made far away from our community. On the one hand, private property rights provide individual owners of land and mineral rights much leeway in terms of what they do with their property. In other words, the holder of these rights is generally not restricted from making a profit by selling his or her resources to another party. Preventing a landowner from disposing of his or her property is often considered an injustice within the framework of our private property laws. On the other hand, the regulation of extractive industry is found primarily at the level of state government. Governor Kasich and his colleagues in the state legislature are busy working on legislative actions that facilitate the extraction of shale gas specifically. In this instance, people in Athens County have relatively little ability to impose regulations on the fracking industry as state government consolidates its own power to regulate energy companies. This is important because concentrated regulatory power within the current state government likely translates into little regulation and oversight being placed on extractive industry in our community and region.

This focus of decision-making power is simultaneously in the hands of individual property owners and with ‘corporation-friendly’ state government, leaving communities within Athens County with little political clout to prevent the imposition of potentially damaging industries. This, I argue, is a form of environmental injustice whereby a group of people with collective and significant environmental concerns is left relatively powerless within formal channels of environmental governance. Of course, it is difficult to blame individual landowners in Athens County for seeking prosperity through the sale of their resources. However, the politics and power of decision-making in Ohio individualize the potential economic benefits of extractive industries while collectivizing the inherent risks like water and air pollution. Hypothetically speaking, it is difficult to imagine how landowners’ financial profit from leasing land to a fracking company justifies potentially contaminating an entire community’s water supply. Of course, the energy companies tell us their extractive methods are safe and that we need not worry about this kind of scenario.

Citizen groups in Athens County who are concerned about fracking and coal mining in our community are not willing to take industry and state agencies at their word. Instead, I believe these groups are working toward a common concept within the environmental justice movement called the Precautionary Principle. Under the Precautionary Principle industry and government should have to prove to communities before drilling or mining occurs that it will not cause harm to either the environment or to people. For this principle to be successful, however, individual communities will have to be able to garner more power over decisions regarding the imposition and regulation of extractive industries. This is no small feat, but through grassroots forms of direct political action, it is possible to put pressure on state politicians and landowners to consider community wellbeing before leasing lands to extractive industries. Environmental justice advocates would likely also remind us here that we cannot sacrifice human prosperity in economically depressed regions for the sake of environmental preservation alone. Therefore, the task of achieving democratic environmental decision-making is linked to new forms of community empowerment and development. All around us in Athens County and Southeast Ohio there is evidence that this kind of political mobilization is happening.

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Harold Perkins is an assistant professor in the Geography Department at Ohio University. He conducts research on the political economy of environments, including claims for environmental justice.   


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