Today is an important day in West Virginia history. Gary Southern, the head of Freedom Industries was sentenced to 30 days in jail and $20,000 fine. In 2014, Freedom Industries let 10,000 gallons of a level 2 hazmat chemical flow through two rust holes the size of quarters into the drinking water source for Charleston, WV. 300,000 people in nine different counties were hurt by Freedom's chemical spill. President Obama declared a State of Emergency when bottled water ran out for days around Charleston.
We do not traditionally hand out criminal sentences for environmental crimes in West Virginia. For example, 19 coal miners died in an unsafe mine 2 miles from my childhood home in 2006. I met the neice of one of those coal miners a few weeks ago during my recent film lecture at a Social Justice Class at West Virginia Wesleyan College. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2016, thirty students and I discussed how the court ordered a mere $3,000 fine and no jail time even after it found that the mine owners ignored 8 important safety violations that "directly" contributed to the deaths of 12 people.
Today, I decided to take a simple action. Instead of merely talking on Facebook about my feelings, I made an unannounced visit to my local paper. I had 4 kids with me. I walked in and asked the receptionist if I could talk to someone about the need for more coverage on the Gary Southern case in Charleston, West Virginia.
I had a sit down meeting with the editor and a reporter. Both of them were very kind to me. The editor has a policy of coverage that I don't agree with. They see Charleston as something "down South" and they only cover the local news. I made a pitch for more coverage of the Gary Southern trial. I lost. But I won a new friend. The editor told me that anything I want to share in terms of local events with the Watershed, High School Youth Leadership Association or American Conservation Film Festival, they would be willing to cover in depth. "If you make it local, then we can talk about the Elk River Chemical Spill or the Gary Southern criminal conviction as background."
I left the newpaper office with an idea that I'm going to make the news that I want to read. As far as I know, I was the only person in my county who made a public comment about the Source Water Protection Act. This esoteric stuff isn't seen as "mission critical" inside a low-income community. However, the lack of a storm water draining plan is the only reason that Gary Southern is going to sleep in jail cell for the next 29 days. It's going to be my job to nurture relationships with my local news media and make sure that green events stay inside the news cycle.