By Erin Drummond
Tension lingered in the air as citizens of West Virginia stared at the member of the state’s government, glaring as he answered question after question with the same three words: “I don’t know.”
As Austin Caperton entered his second month in as the newly appointed secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the WVU Sierra Student Coalition club hosted a public question and answer session.
To view the announcement of Caperton’s appointment, view http://www.governor.wv.gov/News/press-releases/2017/Pages/Justice-Selects-Austin-Caperton-for-DEP-Secretary.aspx.
Caperton graduated from Virginia Tech with an engineering degree before attending WVU for law school. Along with the small coal town in West Virginia he grew up in, Caperton has a large background involving coal. For over 20 years, he served as president of Caperton Inc., a strategic business consulting company that works with the coal and mining industry.
“I take pride in the environment,” said Caperton as he listed the many outdoorsy activities he participates in, including fishing, hunting and golf. “When I took this job, it was the most proud moment in my life. It is a test of every leadership skill that I think I may have.”
Caperton stressed during his introduction that the DEP is a gateway to any kind of economic development in West Virginia, seeing as citizens must get a permit from the DEP to emit anything into the air. The DEP’s job is to monitor and regulate the drinking water input, while the Department of Health determines its output.
This, however, was not enough for the attendees.
After briefly touching on the current hiring freeze and budget cuts happening in the state (for more information, check out this article written by the Charleston Gazette-Mail: http://www.wvgazettemail.com/news-politics/20161115/tomblin-orders-mid-year-2-wv-budget-cuts-), a question about climate change was thrown into the air.
Caperton stressed that he does not believe the DEP is involved in climate change, seeing as it is more of a global and legislative issue, so he does not have a stance. This answer brought a hostile environment forward, causing many people to question how he could be in such a position without holding a stance on the issue. However, Caperton repeated what he had said and moved on from the topic.
As the meeting came towards the end, Caperton was greeted by a round of applause as the attendees thanked him for being honest and saying that he does not know many answers, rather than spewing lies. The secretary ended the meeting by reminding everyone that he has a lot to learn, and the session certainly pointed out specific areas he needs to investigate.
Emily Bushman, a junior geology student and membership chair of the Monongahela (“Mon) Group of the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said, “I think [the session] was very educational, I’m really glad he was open and willing to answer all of the questions. He didn’t seem uncomfortable or anything, even though we asked him some hard questions.”
“I think it was really interesting to learn about his background and the way he sees himself as the secretary of the DEP.” she added. “He did say a lot about things not being his job and I think it’s interesting that’s the automatic stance he’s taking, even though he does have the ability to provide his opinion and influence legislation over certain areas.”