EDITORIAL | Douglas John Imbrogno | July 13.2020
Hey, Doug. Greetings. I hope you are doing well and that you and yours are wearing masks and staying safe. I am writing a second open letter to you, after my one to you on March 9, 2020, about ‘sustained outrage’ and the future of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
I read the column you wrote in the July 11, 2020 Charleston Gazette-Mail, headlined ‘No one wins in scrapped pipeline project.’ In it, you lament the recent cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline Project by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy.
The mammoth $8 billion natural gas project would have zig-zagged 600 miles across West Virginia and Virginia into North Carolina, including burrowing pipeline underneath the Appalachian Trail.
I notice that you lament the demise of the pipeline and express puzzlement at celebrations over its cancelation. These have ranged from environmental and climate change activists, to small farmers, marginalized groups and communities of color, who would have been most directly affected by the wide swath bulldozed through their lives.
“Headlines across the country mirrored the one July 6 in Barron’s: ‘Atlantic Coast Pipeline canceled, move cheered by environmentalists.’ Cheering? Seriously? In recent years, I have been mystified by the hostility toward investment in oil and natural gas infrastructure.”Charleston Gazette-Mail, July 11, 2020
But, wait. Before I get into your arguments, I am confused about something.
Who Speaks Truth To You?
One would think that the majority owner of HD Media LLC, and the publisher of the Charleston Gazette-Mail—that would be you—would not write a column cheering on natural gas pipeline development and construction without somewhere revealing your financial ties to the natural gas industry.
One would think you might have indicated in your column you are president and chief executive officer of Energy Services of America, which makes natural-gas pipelines. And that one of your wholly owned subsidiaries, C.J. Hughes, is a general contractor primarily engaged in pipeline construction for utility companies.
And that Brian Jarvis, another principal in the group that bought the Gazette-Mail, who is president of NCWV Media which owns newspapers in the north-central West Virginia, is part of Hydrocarbon Well Services, an oil and gas service operation.
Now, I don’t mean to imply any malfeasance by your use of the hallowed name of the Charleston Gazette—now a shadow of its former greatness and subsumed within the name Charleston Gazette-Mail—to make your argument.
You are a businessman and businessmen own companies. And someone has to figure out how—or if—traditional 20th century media outlets can survive in the 21st century. More power to you if you do.
But one wonders what the legendary owner of the Gazette, Ned Chilton, and the speak-truth-to-powers-that-be editor Don Marsh would think of your column, draped as it is in the mantle of a storied newspaper in American journalism?
For here you have a multimillionaire taking a stand on a controversial pipeline, one that would upend the lives of thousands of families and possibly be a huge climate change setback, and who writes about that in one of the few high-profile media outlets in the state.
And then, does not reveal his own business interests that might complicate and extenuate the argument he is making?
That is exactly the kind of thing the Charleston Gazette—in the elbow-throwing heyday of Chilton and Marsh, of Paul Nyden and Ken Ward, Jr.—would have pointed out to the state’s readers.
One would think you might have had serious second thoughts about not revealing that information with this column’s publication. After all, you were standing in the bully pulpit of a newspaper that prided itself on shedding light into dark corners of conflicts of interest and spotlighting partial truths that mask self-interest.
Very serious question: does anyone speak truth to Doug Reynolds?
West Virginia’s ‘Alpha watchdog’
One would also think that you might have already noticed the caution flag thrown down on the field from the risk that your business ties may be seen to conflict with your newspaper ownership. (Judging from your Twitter feed, I know you love your sports, so I’m going with a sports metaphor.)
You recall Brent Cunningham, a former Charleston Daily Mail reporter, who wrote a July 23, 2019 Pacific Standard piece, in which he interviewed you. I’ll let readers discover the many pleasures of his article, which channels some of the gruff, profane spirit that made the Chilton-era, Nyden-howitzer powered Gazette such a feared and cranky threat to vested interests.
The Gazette was indeed, as Cunningham writes so well:
“… the state’s alpha watchdog, going after the coal industry—the dominant economic, political, and cultural force—and the corruption and environmental abuse that accumulated in its wake, with persistence and ferocity.”
The flavor, punch, and overall import of Cunningham’s piece is neatly summed up in its headline and subheading:
LOSING THE NEWS: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, known for its dogged accountability journalism, survived a merger and bankruptcy. Will it survive a new owner with ties to the very industries its reporters have been watchdogging?”
I also wish to briefly consider your column’s no-less important other points. Among them, are your frustrations at the missed benefits that would have accrued to West Virginia from the pipeline’s construction, even if the gas was headed elsewhere.
While the number of pipeline opponents might have been few, their persistence starting from the announcement of the project more than doubled the anticipated costs and stalled final installation by more than three years.
Your description of the pipelines’ opponents as “few” is—to use the technical term—“balderdash.” The Southern Environmental Law Center represented 15 conservation organizations opposed to the pipeline. And the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance was a coalition of more than 50 organizations in Virginia and West Virginia that coalesced some six years ago to oppose the pipeline.
Your cheerleading of natural gas pipeline construction—being a pipeline guy yourself, albeit an unnamed one in your column—is perhaps understandable.
But nowhere in your column is a single reference to the two bull elephants in the room when it comes to plowing natural gas pipelines through communities, fields, forests, and mountains. That would be such pipelines’ impact on actual communities full of actual people. And their contribution to delaying investment in renewable energy by dallying with yet another fossil fuel and avoiding concerted action on carbon emissions—or even making them worse.
You’d never know it from your column, but the whole idea of natural gas pipelines as an environmentally beneficial transition away from coal-fired energy is an increasingly suspect claim in the avalanche of alarm over climate change.
As a matter of fact, just five days ago the New York Times wrote a piece that pondered whether recent court decisions against projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline signal the death knell of all such pipelines that are …. well, in the pipeline.
The authors of the July 8, 2020, Times piece, titled “Is This the End of New Pipelines?” write:
… pipeline projects like these are being challenged as never before as protests spread, economics shift, environmentalists mount increasingly sophisticated legal attacks and more states seek to reduce their use of fossil fuels to address climate change.
So, let’s get back to actual people. To visual the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s impact, consider the following. The state of West Virginia is about 300 miles wide. Imagine driving across the state, east to west—a roller coaster, trans-mountain journey of four to five hours. Then, come back. That’s about how many miles of pipeline would have been chopped out across West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.
As has ever been the case with huge, extractive energy projects that benefit millionaires in gated communities—or increase the bottom lines of existing elites and their shareholders—the people who suffer the brunt of such projects have no gates to keep out the arrival of the bulldozers. They have no means to counter the threat to their local water and air or their family’s health.
Environmental activism has a long, significant history in America. But it is only in recent decades “environmental justice” and “environmental racism” have been brought more clearly into view—for those who care to pay attention. That is to say, the devastating impact of heedless, profit-amassing energy developments on low-income families, communities of color, and indigenous communities.
A microcosm of that struggle could be found in regional battles over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, one of the several legal battles you refer to, Doug, that stalled the pipeline project. The project would have affected a host of communities and people, including rural towns, historically Black communities, and Native Americans, about 30,000 of whom live within a mile of the pipeline’s proposed route in North Carolina.
It is only in recent decades “environmental justice” and “environmental racism” have been brought more clearly into view—for those who care to pay attention. That is to say, the devastating impact of heedless, profit-amassing energy developments on low-income families, communities of color, and indigenous communities.
As a July 6, 2020, NBC News stories details, a network of environmental activists and African-American residents teamed up to try to block a compressor station the pipeline would have dropped into the heart of rural Buckingham County, Virginia, about 70 miles west of Richmond, the state capital.
The station would have changed the lives of families in the historically Black community of Union Hill, Virginia, some of whom can trace their lineage to slave ancestors and freedmen who settled there after the Civil War.
I double back, Doug, to your column’s assertion the pipeline’s opponents were “few.” There were a whole crowd of folks and families in just this one struggle in Union Hill, over the “environmental injustice” of laying a pipeline through townsfolks’ lives. The protest attracted a notable double-team to the town—former Vice President Al Gore and the Rev. William J. Barber II, pooling their life-long campaigns on behalf of climate change and the poor by coming together to Union Hill.
The 76-year-old Ella Rose welcomed the minister and former vice president into her home. She told them she feared the compressor station would compromise her and her neighbors’ health and threaten local air quality and well water.
Rose and other Union Hill residents celebrated when earlier this year the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board had failed to consider “how the compressor station would disproportionately affect residents of the community.”
There’s a striking sentence in the court ruling I commend to you, Doug, as your column expressed befuddlement as to why anyone would reject a boon like a massive pipeline project. U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote: “Environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked.”
In your pro-pipeline column you wrote about the project’s cancelation:
“It’s damn easy to figure out what has been lost, but for the life of me I can’t ascertain who won.”
I imagine that there are a whole lot of folks that a robust, willing newspaper might seek out to interview, who feel they “won” with the pipeline’s cancellation. But if you can’t think of an example, here’s one.
Consider Ella Rose, the 76-year-old Black retiree whose home on two acres of land would have been among the nearest to the pipeline’s compressor station. She spent many hours at meetings, spoke at panels across the country and—well, she sounds like a force to be reckoned with.
And she certainly sounds like she feels she won.
“My reaction was ‘hallelujah,'” Rose told the NBC reporter. “I was so elated that I started praising God.”
She said she looked forward to a good night’s rest after a long, tenacious struggle. “I feel good — I can sleep better at night,” Rose said. “And now I know I’ll be breathing clean air.”
I need to note something that I made clear in my last open letter to you, Doug, so readers have added perspective on this WestVirginiaVille editorial. Don Marsh hired me in 1988 and I had a long, satisfying career in one of the several heydays of the Charleston Gazette, as a feature writer, feature editor, and multimedia producer—and a less-satisfying, but still productive several years at the Gazette-Mail.
I was among several staffers you laid off in 2018. As my previous letter notes, that turned out to be a blessing in my writing career. (I even wrote about it for Columbia Journalism Review.) So, thank you for that unintended consequence. WestVirginiaVille, an online multimedia magazine —which I attempted in various forms to launch at the Gazette—exists because of that forced leave-taking.
More solemnly—and I mean this honestly and straight up—the fact that you would write a column of the sort you published last week, under the banner of the Charleston Gazette and its long legacy of looking out for West Virginians, serves in my mind as an obituary.
Your brazen championing of an industry you fail to acknowledge being a part of, published in the editorial section of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, signals for this reader and for this proud alumnus of the Chilton-Marsh-Nyden-Ward era of the Charleston Gazette, as the formal end of that era.
To the hard-working, conscientious journalists and staff—and my remaining old friends—at the Gazette-Mail, keep up your excellent work. The state needs you and your work now more than ever. Create your own era.
Meanwhile, if anyone needs to charge their cellphones, there are several graves in the Charleston WV area where I suspect you could lay your phone down and have a full charge in no time flat.
Douglas John Imbrogno was a 30-year veteran of the Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail. He is currently editor of WestVirginiaVille. Subscribe for free at westvirginiaville.substack.com