— Remaking Appalachia, by Nicholas F. Stump (West University Press, 2021)
A Lack of Accountability
Early in March, several million gallons of highly acidic water began discharging from the old T&T coal mine in Preston County, WV, into the Cheat River and Muddy Creek. Discharges peaked at nearly 6,200 gallons per minute. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection operates an $8 million acid mine drainage treatment facility in the area but it is only capable of treating 4,200 gallons per minute. The facility was built as a result of a 1994 accident when the mine owners used plastic piping to illegally plumb the mine site and avoid treating its water discharges.
A few days after the March incident, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill to relax oversight of almost 900 oil and gas storage tanks located near public water intakes across the state. The bill exempts tanks from regulation under the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, which was passed in 2014, months after the Freedom Industries chemical leak that contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people in a nine-county area around Charleston.
Toothless By Design
One goal of legal scholar Nicholas F. Stump’s Remaking Appalachia is to examine “the forces that exist above or behind the law” that create the conditions for the continued despoliation of Appalachia and the pro-industry legislation that has helped ravage the region for over a century. Stump, an academic at West Virginia University’s College of Law, posits that environmental law has historically failed to remedy these situations given its role of merely regulating a production system premised on the extraction of non-renewable resources and perpetual economic growth. What Appalachia needs is “true systemic re-formations” of environmental law “based on meeting basic and authentic needs.” This effort will have to be founded on mass political mobilization and be connected with national and international initiatives given the scope of the global climate crisis.
While Stump’s approach requires abstractions and speculating on the effects of proposed changes, the author also provides a thorough analysis of the evolution of environmental law, examining flagship case law. According to Stump, “industry and complicit lawmakers succeeded in embedding nascent environmental law with legislative “outs” through which industry could continue polluting” as well as administrative agencies that lack democratic accountability and are susceptible to “industry capture” (when industry co-opts the administrative bodies tasked with regulating them). This scheme derives in situations such as largely-ceremonial public hearings where people are allowed to provide feedback on industrial projects but their testimony has no bearing on decisions made behind closed doors.
Rebuilding From The Ground Up
Remaking Appalachia also focuses on concrete, viable examples of economic transformation such as renewable energy-based cooperatives and multi-stakeholder food cooperatives across Appalachia. Stump proposes incorporating insights from different schools of socio-political and economic thought to replicate and repurpose these models, making them more accessible to marginalized communities as well as democratizing ownership.
Stump’s ambitious and challenging work reimagines the commons – the cultural and natural assets accessible to all members of society – in innovative ways but also imbibes from previous intellectual frameworks and Appalachia’s own robust activist tradition. Perhaps because the book was seemingly written before the November 2020 elections, some of its references to the WV teachers’ strikes of 2018 and 2019 and what to expect from future labor struggles may contrast starkly with the current wave of retaliatory, anti-union and anti-teacher bills being passed by the WV legislature during the current session. Similarly, while the Mine Wars of the early 20th century are part of the activist tradition highlighted by Remaking Appalachia, it should be noted that they are virtually – and, most likely, deliberately – absent from the WV school curriculum. Then again, Stump’s work examines a larger historical arc and its strength lies in its panoramic view and forward vision.
While not an easy read for the layperson given its academic prose and specialized terminology, Remaking Appalachia is an impressive and rewarding work. Considering West Virginia’s current political climate, WVU Press should be commended for issuing an insightful volume advancing an urgent dialogue on Appalachia’s future.
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza