By Hugh Rogers
Cindy Rank is retiring from our Board of Directors. We are taking a deep breath. For many people, Cindy and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy have been synonymous, especially in the communities she has worked so hard to protect from predatory coal and gas corporations, but also in the offices of those corporations and in every branch of government that shirked its obligations. The larger public has known her name, and ours, from coverage of the existential struggle between our extraction-based economy and our people—even those who work in the industry.
Cindy became active with the Conservancy in 1979 when WVHC lent a hand to her community group, Friends of the Little Kanawha, then came on the board in 1984 as organizational director, representing Friends of the Little Kanawha. She has remained in that position except for three terms, 1988-94, as the Conservancy’s president. (To that point, no one else had served more than two terms.)
Now Friends of the Little Kanawha is disbanding. She wrote to the board that its membership was aging or gone, and equally important, “the immediate urgency of situations that spawned our creation have for the most part abated.” In the world we live in, that counts as a victory. We may smile through our tears.
Nearly 50 years ago, “the immediate urgency” threatened the life she had chosen with her husband, Paul. They had met at Wheeling College (now Wheeling University). After graduation, Cindy had gone to Marquette University for two years of graduate work in theology before returning to her native Pittsburgh. There she joined Paul on the staff of Duquesne University, where she taught theology, assisted the campus ministry, and got involved in social justice issues.
In early 70’s, the Ranks were drawn, along with other young couples, to settle deep in the mountains. They weren’t expecting a fight. Their vision was a retreat for physical work and spiritual nourishment, where building a home and learning as they went, they could “front the essential facts of life,” as Thoreau put it.
But they got a fight—and rallied a community.
Word went around that four strip mines had been proposed for southern Upshur County. Mining the Kittanning seam inevitably generated acid mine drainage. What would happen to the pristine stream near their land on Eden Road?
With friends and neighbors, Cindy researched the chemistry, the laws and regulations that were supposed to protect clean water. They quickly organized the Friends of the Little Kanawha. Although she was “not from around here,” her work at the medical clinic in Rock Cave gave her a foothold. Her gentle manner and willingness to listen went a long way, and sheer persistence won the day.
After a long, exhausting slog through the courts, the legislature, and local and state politics, they won at least a temporary victory. The permit applications were withdrawn. A clearer victory based on the same principle came some years later when mining was prohibited in that highly acidic coal seam in the Holly River watershed.
Cindy saw then that all the state’s rivers were threatened. Their survival would depend on constant vigilance. Given her personality, moral code, and training, she couldn’t stop her volunteer work, and she couldn’t do it alone.
Yes, the Conservancy had been involved in coal mining issues, but for the most part, they were secondary to campaigns for special places—our first wilderness areas, Dolly Sods, Otter Creek, and the Cranberry, were all underlain by coal that remained in private ownership when the Monongahela National Forest was established. The Shavers Fork, threatened above and below the surface, occupied much attention until the Forest Service acquired Mower Tract. Convincing our congressional delegation that such places were worth the political trouble to protect them was an impressive achievement.
The campaign to abolish strip mining, a hot political issue, had been equally controversial within the Conservancy. Passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) in 1977 seemed the best attainable outcome.
That law, and the Clean Water Act (1970), have been the foundation of Cindy’s work for the past 45 years. They are not self-enforcing. The federal and state governments often revert to an absurd Alphonse-and-Gaston routine: “After you, sir. . . No, no, I insist.”
A measure of her success, though, is the perennial effort by coal and gas companies to make the laws more lenient. In speeches, lawsuits, and legislative committee hearings, she insists on the laws’ clear meaning. Then the companies try to change them.
Cindy saw mountaintop removal mining and valley fills for the first time in 1994 on a tour of historic Blair Mountain. She said, “Seeing that destruction only strengthened my resolve to do what I could to save our mountains, waters, and communities.”
She has spent the past 30 years educating herself and others about the health and environmental impacts of that type of mining and fighting to end it. With partners at Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Public Justice, Earthjustice, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, and the Sierra Club, she has challenged, through the courts and agencies, the most egregious violations of the laws.
It was not a given that the Conservancy would follow Cindy out of what we generally think of as “the highlands” and into southern West Virginia. Not everyone on the board thought it was our fight. For one of our most important meetings, she brought Joe Lovett, who had recently put together the public interest law firm now known as Appalmad, and together they convinced the Conservancy to act as plaintiff in the first citizen lawsuit to stop mountaintop removal mining.
That case, Bragg v. Robertson, was a high-water mark. On Oct. 20, 1999, United States District Court Judge Charles Haden II announced his long-awaited decision: valley fills were illegal; no more permits could be issued for mountaintop mines. That brought the issue to national attention, roused congressional interest, and spurred a continuing legal battle.
Judge Haden’s strikingly clear and well-founded decision was reversed on appeal, not because he misjudged the law but because the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals punted the case to West Virginia’s state courts. And we were back in the muck. Under intense political pressure, the Clinton Administration quibbled. Of course, they would propose to redefine the word “fill.” This was the president who famously told a grand jury, “That depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
The research, lobbying, and litigation continued. “We must keep fighting for good law and the political will to enforce that law,” Cindy wrote. And just as she had originally approached the Conservancy for help, people in other West Virginia communities affected by mountaintop removal, and longwall mining, and “fracking” for natural gas, and abandoned mine sites that continue draining and eroding, heard of her successes and willingness to help. To our meetings and in her regular pieces in the Voice, she brought news of those people as well as the coal companies’ “cold and calculating” dealings with them:
Whether it was the Shaws or Zirkles or Russells at Tenmile on the Buckhannon River, or the Millers along the Mud, or the Barnetts in Artie, or the Weekleys and others in Blair, or the Baldwins near Grafton, or the many other communities’ folks . . . the story is still the same: communities are ripped apart, individuals harassed, property and the people who want to hang onto their property are devalued and cast aside like some worthless pieces of trash.
Now, as she steps off the board, we know that in subtle as well as obvious ways, she changed us, individually and as an organization. From the beginning, we brought the energy of discovery and exploration and desire to protect the special places—the “highlands”—of this state. And, of course, the many species, endangered or not, who live here with us. We say it’s “all one.” But Cindy made us care about the Mud River as well as the Shavers Fork. She showed us human communities that are as endangered as the Cheat Mountain salamander. And year after year, she did the hard human work to help them.
I’ll conclude with two bright notes. First, many of our legal challenges to mountaintop removal mines over the past 20-some years have aimed at the pollution they can’t seem to eliminate. The requirements of state and federal law regarding discharges of selenium and other chemicals that impair local streams are clear.
The resulting settlement agreements with the Conservancy and our co-plaintiffs, acting to enforce the law as “private attorney generals,” have run into the millions of dollars. Some of these companies, already failing in a dying fossil-fuel economy, have gone out of business. And the money?
The money has been directed to non-profit organizations working to protect West Virginia’s land and water, prevent pollution, and increase awareness of these resources. For instance, the West Virginia Land Trust received more than ten million dollars at a crucial time. It was able to increase its staff and conserve more than 10,000 acres for recreation, drinking water protection, family farms and historic sites. Also, a new Land Use and Sustainability Clinic at WVU Law School. And Appalachian Headwaters, which develops sustainable economic opportunities while restoring damaged ecosystems in central Appalachia. That’s legal alchemy!
Final note: Cindy told us she’s willing to continue on the Extractive Industries Committee to maintain ongoing legal actions and negotiations she’s involved in. What else would we expect?
She passed along this overview of current activity:
- Surface Mine Act and Clean Water Act actions re: treatment and/or bonding at mine sites with water problems (selenium, conductivity, and biologic impairment).* Dealing with entities that have taken over forfeited sites and now find themselves equally unable to continue required levels of treatment.
- Some Conservancy-led suits going back to at least 2005 still involve legal wrangling, court filings, and conversation among plaintiffs about strategy and approval of actions in the interim. (Co-plaintiffs, mainly Sierra Club and West Virginia Rivers Coalition—no longer, unfortunately, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition— represented by Appalmad and Public Justice.)
- Supporting and working with local organizations when appropriate—Kanawha State Forest Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, Save the Tygart
- Supporting letters re: Coal Combustion Waste and other coal-related issues initiated by regional and national groups
- Pipelines: challenges to federal and state agencies for inadequate permits and assessments. (Army Corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Forest Service.)
- Drilling concerns and water issues involving wastewater from fracking, drilling sites, treatment facilities (e.g., Antero in Harrison County)
- Supporting letters initiated by regional and national groups re: gas industry
- Following our decades-old pursuit of adequate TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Loads) for ‘acceptable’ levels of pollutants from mining and other industrial activities. We are currently involved in conversations and negotiations for establishing criteria for ionic pollution, conductivity, narrative standards, etc. It’s like a ten-year-long ping-pong match with state and federal agencies and legislative committees. (The Conservancy was the lead plaintiff in the original lawsuit that finally forced West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to establish the TMDL program required by the Clean Water Act.)
- Also working with other state groups in the West Virginia Water Policy Workgroup facilitated by West Virginia Rivers Coalition
N.B.: Thanks to John McFerrin for his help with Cindy’s and the Conserancy’s history with coal and gas for the past 40 years. He remarked that it could all be called “Cindyology,” which gave me a title. I hasten to say she would deny that, citing Frank Young, Julian Martin, and John himself, among others. Never mind.
Readers interested in more detail about just one of the many issues should turn to John’s story and background in these pages. John is never boring, but he clues you in to the wearisome experience of holding coal companies to account.
Photo caption: Cindy Rank speaks at a press conference in the House chamber to announce the newly formed West Virginia Environmental Council in 1989.