Oct 232012

The first time I spoke with James Olbert, I was completely engaged by his story. He phoned me in my capacity with the West Virginia Council of Churches, wondering if there was anything we could do to help. A self-effacing, pleasant man, Mr. Olbert was obviously deeply distressed. His family cemetery had been purposely bulldozed by a gas company making a road. He related that a passerby had called to the workers, didn’t they know there was a cemetery there? Contrary to the company claims that the desecration was “accidental,” the workers not only knew there was a cemetery, they knew exactly who was buried there. The racial slur uttered by the worker confirmed that. The family had been trying for six years to obtain amends and justice, but the process seemed to have stalled.

The Council did help, and so did OVEC. The WVCC’s Rev. Jeff Allen, and OVEC staffer Rev. Robin Blakeman and I went to visit the cemetery with James Olbert and another family member James Early. We saw for ourselves the dislocated grave stones, and metal markers placed by funeral homes scattered over the road. We asked if the family would like to have the site re-consecrated after the terrible desecration that occurred there. That appealed to the family, and we worked with Mr. Olbert to schedule the ceremony in August 2010, at the time of the family reunion. Local Pastor Willie Lewis joined us for that moving ceremony, at which the children planted flowers and placed a new sign reading “Crystal Block Cemetery.”

Members of the Olbert family plant mums at the Crystal Block Cemetery. Photo by Carol Warren

OVEC staffers and Council of Churches representatives were present to support the family when a number of Certified Questions on the case were presented to the West Virginia Supreme Court. The Council had filed an amicus brief at the request of the family’s attorney, Kevin Thompson.

The case was then sent back to Logan County and a court date finally set. It was with great relief and excitement that we learned that the family’s day in court yielded a jury verdict ordering Equitable to pay $700,000 in compensatory damages, $14,000 in repair costs, and $200,000 in punitive damages. This will certainly not make up for the suffering of the family members, or the insult to their beloved dead. But at least it is some measure of justice for people who have endured a very difficult ordeal. Equitable plans to appeal the verdict.

OVEC’s cemetery protection work is ongoing. For more information, contact Robin Blakeman at and be sure to see this Internet page.

Mar 202012

We environmental advocates often come to our work through a great love for the natural world. That only makes sense. But it is easy for us to get so caught up in our intense efforts to help the planet that we can forget the beauty that’s immediately around us. Walking by one of our beautiful rivers is a calming and healing experience. The sunlight gleaming and the gentle shushing of the water can quickly put me in a more attentive and mindful state. It helps me gain clarity.

Beautiful to the eye and soothing to the ear

I’ve been doing a great deal of work lately on water protection issues, especially as they relate to Marcellus shale gas drilling. Each gas well requires up to five million gallons of water – water that is extracted from our West Virginia streams. During the fracking process, hundreds of pounds of chemicals, some of them highly toxic, are added to the water, which is then injected into the well under tremendous pressure. The pressure breaks apart the shale, releasing the gas to rise to the surface.

Once the fracking operation is complete, the water returns to the surface, laden with the chemicals and other salts. In West Virginia, this “produced water” is re-used by some companies in a closed loop process to frack other nearby wells under construction. But for its final disposal, it is most often injected deep into the ground, removing those millions of gallons of water from the planet’s water cycle forever. Our state is systematically being robbed of its water – some of the cleanest and best in the eastern United States.

Is cheap natural gas worth the price? And what would gas really cost if we factored in the loss of fresh water forever?

So get outside and enjoy a beautiful river! Then contact your West Virginia legislators and request additional regulations to protect our water from every stage of gas drilling – fracking to disposal. Tell them specific permits and evaluation should be required for all water withdrawals associated with Marcellus shale drilling operations.