Rob Byers: Will the water crisis change us for the better?

By By Rob Byers
Executive editor
Rob Byers

What is West Virginia’s message? What is its image? What does that even mean?

In March, local public relations people gathered in Charleston to talk about the recent water crisis. Speaking to the group, an out-of-state PR expert talked a lot about rebuilding the area’s image and taking control of “the message.”

In April, the state Division of Tourism decided to spend more on advertising, in hopes of countering the bad vibes brought on by the chemical spill that contaminated the water of 300,000 West Virginians.

I’m envisioning ads with lots of pretty images of whitewater rafting on the Gauley or New rivers, of water plunging over Blackwater Falls or skimming over smooth rocks as an angler pulls a trout from a cold, clear stream.

What I’m not expecting to see in those ads — scheduled to run in surrounding big city markets — are shots of coal slurry spills that stain our rivers and streams black. There won’t be any mention of the selenium pollution that deforms our fish. Or the farm and urban runoff in the Eastern Panhandle that helps choke the Chesapeake Bay. Or the “straight pipes” that drip fecal coliform-laden toilet water into our creeks.

Of course, that’s not the “message” we want to convey. That’s not the “image” we want to show to people in the Washington/Baltimore metro area.

PR help doesn’t come cheap. Big-market ads come with big-market costs. But, apparently, it’s cheaper to buy a clean image than it is to actually live that way.

Maybe I’m being too cynical. People do band together in a crisis. It was kind of refreshing to see West Virginians rage against Freedom Industries for recklessly poisoning our water. Usually, around here, industry can do no wrong.

Democrats and Republicans alike wanted accountability for what happened, and a pretty decent storage tank inspection bill actually made it through a Legislature that’s mostly concerned about abortion and guns.

That leaves us with the million-dollar question: Will it end there? Will we forget what it was like to live without clean water? Will we go back to belittling people who try to keep our land, air and water clean? Will we keep throwing it all away for the promise of a job — any job — no matter what it costs our health?

Again, I’m feeling pretty cynical. But why shouldn’t I? On the day the White House unveiled the National Climate Assessment — filled with data, scientific explanation and downright scary weather projections — where were many of our elected leaders? They were attending a Coal Forum event in Logan, again trashing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, again proclaiming that coal will rise again, and still ignoring the storm building on the horizon.

Imagine if they embraced reality and had a big forum about life after coal. Imagine if they took the dollar signs from in front of their eyes and really looked at the facts about coal’s role in climate change. Imagine if they accepted the fact that sooner rather than later, the people’s desire for a tamer Mother Nature will push the market toward cleaner energy.

Then, we wouldn’t have to buy the image of a clean, responsible West Virginia — one where the people don’t howl in fury when a company is turned down for a permit to bury a mountain stream thousands of years in the making.

Then, we wouldn’t have to control “the message.” It would actually be the truth. It would be life in the Mountain State, where we stay ahead of the game, where we demand responsibility from those we trust with our land, water and people, and where we define Almost Heaven not by one more strip mine or strip mall, but by a way of life that exudes confidence, not vulnerability.

But, in order to escape vulnerability — from market shifts, the boom/bust cycle, the chemical spills and men dying underground — it takes the guts to change, to step into the unknown.

Or we can just keep whining about the EPA.

Byers is the Gazette’s executive editor.

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