Austin Caperton, Secretary of West Virginia DEP, Leaves Many Discouraged After First Public Forum

1 Mar

Austin Caperton is proud to be the new secretary for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Caperton’s first time speaking directly to the public was this past Monday, when the Sierra Student Coalition invited him to speak at the Mountain Lair at West Virginia University.

Caperton states the focus of this Agency is to implement and enforce laws throughout the state of West Virginia. Him and his team are responsible for reviewing permits, and making sure they adhere with the law. He emphasizes his job is not deciding which of these permits and laws he does or doesn’t like.There are currently 811 members on his team, and he has been on the job around 40 days.

Caperton is from Slabfork, West Virginia, which is located at the end of what he calls “coal field expressway”. He has a long history in the coal industry, but says he will not hold any prejudices because of this. Along with his lengthy background in the coal industry, Caperton also owned a water sample laboratory as well, and spends majority of his time outside in nature. While he is excited to hold this new position, he still has a lot to learn, and has admitted that he has little direction for his priorities.

Caperton received a lot of negative criticism from the audience when he stated that he did not hold a clear stance on whether or not he believed in Global Warming. He says his agency does a good job protecting the environment, and that it is not critical for him to have a stance on this topic. His understanding is that Global Warming isn’t an issue for the DEP, but an issue for legislatures, and is more of a global problem. Many members of the audience were outraged at this comment, as they felt this should play an important role in his decision making process when prioritizing which issues to focus on.

Sharon Jackson was also at the event, representing Friends of the Hughes River. She is from Ritchie County, and was extremely frustrated with Caperton’s lack of priorities in helping the community. Jackson drove over an hour and a half to have her voice heard, as she lives in an area where there are currently five compressor stations. These compressors produce immense amounts of pollution, and are contaminating the land her and her community depend on. Click here for a list of pipeline accidents that have occurred since 2000.

While Caperton seemed to understand the severity of this issue, he recommends that she takes her complaints to the state legislature, as they will be more effective at making a change.Clean Water for North Carolina (or CWFNC) is an organization which has experience dealing with these dangerous compressor stations.

CWFNC says, “Natural gas pipelines and compressor stations are associated with specific risks and health problems, which frequently bring the most harm to low income communities and communities of color, often given little or no choice about hosting gas infrastructure in their communities.”

Ben Kessler, a member of the Sierra Student Coalition which helped to organize the event, felt that Caperton still has a lot of adjusting to do in order to effectively address his agenda with the public. Kessler thinks Caperton needs to educate himself on issues that are present, but says he is “Optimistic about the future” and “hopes Caperton learns soon”.

While he may have some learning to do, Caperton feels he must first get comfortable with the people he is working with, and the individuals who he plans to help. Within the last few days, he has received a total of 953 emails requesting his response, proving to him just how important his position within the agency is.  As of right now, Caperton sees “no glaring weaknesses” in the Department of Environmental Protection Agency, and is thrilled to hold his new position as secretary.

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