Persistence Isn’t Always Enough

By John McFerrin

Charles Manson, who was convicted and sent to prison after orchestrating the “Manson Family” murders, applied for parole 12 times. It was never granted. In spite of his persistence, he died in prison.

The reason he was never granted parole is obvious: He never changed. When the parole board looked at him, they saw the same murderous psychopath who had been locked up years before. He was a danger to the public at the time he was locked up. If released, he would still be a danger to the public.

Persistence can be a wonderful thing. There are stories in the Bible about the value of persistence. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. President Calvin Coolidge never said much, but he did have one memorable saying on the importance of persistence.

At the same time, persistence is not enough. As Mr. Manson’s experience shows us, applying for parole 12 times does not mean someone is paroled. He had to meet some requirements; he had to show that he was sorry for what he did, that he would not be a danger if he got out, etc.

An apparent exception to the general rule that persistence alone is not enough is the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Apparently, we, including the Congress of the United States, are about to let it go ahead, in spite of its never having shown that it could be built and operated without damaging the environment. It is about to be approved on the basis of persistence alone.

This is not to say that the Mountain Valley Pipeline bears any resemblance to Charles Manson. It has never murdered anyone. It does not have a cult following. Its developers lack the crazed look that characterized Mr. Manson. They find themselves in the same paragraph as Mr. Manson only because of the sharp contrast in how the rules on persistence are applied. With Mr. Manson, persistence alone was not enough. With the Mountain Valley Pipeline, it apparently is.

Consider the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s recent experience in federal court. To proceed, it needed a certification from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection that its construction would not violate West Virginia’s water quality standards. It had sought certification twice before and had been rebuffed by the courts both times. The court rebuffed its efforts again.

To public officials and commentators, this was an outrage. The Mountain Valley Pipeline had tried three times. “This thing has been reviewed and reviewed. Time to get on with it” was a common refrain. They were persistent. How could a court refuse someone who had tried three times? The only thing to do, at least in the minds of commentators and public officials, was to cut the courts out of the picture and plunge ahead with building the pipeline.

No matter what commentators and public officials said, this was no outrage. It was, instead, a correct application of what I like to call The Charles Manson Rule: Persistence alone is not enough.

Look at the facts. Parts of the pipeline have already been built. In those parts, the MVP’s record has been terrible. There have been multiple violations, hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, etc. While not murdering anybody or starting a violent cult, it certainly inflicted a lot of damage on the environment.

In deciding to build a pipeline across mountains, over streams and through areas with unstable soils, the developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have taken on a tall task. While they have not yet shown that it can be done and I have my doubts, I take them at their word. If they say that they can build the pipeline without doing environmental damage, they must believe it is possible.

To do it and not violate water quality standards will require extraordinary care and diligence. The company will have to be on top of its operation at all times. Anything that can be done to prevent erosion will have to be done.

In this third application for certification and approval, the company and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection made general assurances that things would be different this time around. They claimed there would be more frequent inspections. They set forth measures that they were confident would control sediment.

If we look beyond the general assurances, however, we find more of the same.

While making general claims that there would be more frequent inspections, West Virginia did not make any commitment of resources to these inspections. So far as company inspections are concerned, the company committed itself to fewer self-inspections than it had conducted during the time when it was inflicting all the damage on the waters of West Virginia.

Neither did the company commit to any additional measures that would control pollution from the construction. It had set forth measures that it was confident would control sediment. These included such things as filtration to keep sediment out of streams and prompt reseeding of disturbed areas.

The things the developers relied upon were the exact same measures as it had committed itself to before. The result was numerous violations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. The things proposed have not worked in the past. There is no reason to assume that those same things will work in the future. If they hope to protect water quality, they are going to have to come up with something better.

When Charles Manson came to his third, fourth, or 10th parole hearing, he left the impression that he was a murderous psychopath when first locked up and remained one. The result was a proper application of the rule: Persistence is not enough; being paroled requires that someone has changed.

With the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the rule is different. Because of its persistence, and a boost from its friends in Congress, it gets to go ahead, doing the same thing that produced an environmental disaster before. If persistence is all it takes, and no change is required, Mr. Manson would like a word.