Top Ten West Virginia Stories of 2014
No doubt about it - 2014 was a HUGE year for news in West Virginia. We asked you to rank the top ten stories of the year, and here they are, in descending order.
10. Gee Takes Helm at WVU (Again); Marshall Loses Kopp
West Virginia’s two largest universities each saw a change of leadership in 2014.
West Virginia University hired Gordon Gee as its president again - the first time was in the 1980s. Gee immediately dealt with WVU’s image as a party school -- suspending all fraternity and sorority activities after a freshman died from “alcohol-related activities”
Meanwhile, Marshall University lost its nine-year president by a heart attack. Stephen Kopp helped bring new programs, such as forensic science, to the university, as well as more than $200 million in new construction.
9. “War on Coal” Blamed for Coal Job Losses
Politicians across Appalachia accused President Obama of waging a “War on Coal” through more stringent enforcement of environmental regulations.
Other factors may be more to blame for coal losses, especially cheap natural gas and thinning coal seams. But exit polling showed the issue helped Republicans make substantial gains in Appalachia.
8. Economic Diversification Gains Steam
Meanwhile, groups across West Virginia were working to diversify the state’s economy - like this successful urban farm near downtown Wheeling.
The group “What’s Next, West Virginia” began holding meetings across the state, helping communities figure out their economic futures (full disclosure: West Virginia Public Broadcasting is a partner in What’s Next.)
And two towns, Matewan and Grafton, won an online vote to be part of “Turn This Town Around,” a project of New South Media, WV Community Development HUB, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Both towns are focusing on their rich history to revitalize their downtown areas
7. NPR Investigation Finds Coal Operators Fail to Pay Safety Fines
A groundbreaking investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News found that 2,700 mining company owners failed to pay nearly $70 million in delinquent penalties over the last two decades. “Federal regulators seem unable or unwilling to make mine owners pay,” the report said.
This matters, because mines that don’t pay their penalties are more dangerous, with a 50 percent higher injury rate.
This episode of “Inside Appalachia” includes the entire investigation, as well as some heartbreaking audio from the victims of mine disasters.
6. Natural Gas Drilling Expands in West Virginia
Meanwhile, Gov. Tomblin continues to work to bring a cracker plant to West Virginia. With cheap natural gas, some hope West Virginia can revive its ailing chemical industry.
5. Shelley Moore Capito First Woman Elected to U.S. Senate from W.Va.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito handily defeated Secretary of State Natalie Tennant to become the state’s first woman U.S. Senator.
Despite being a freshman, Capito has already been named to the powerful Appropriations Committee. She says she wants to fight the EPA on environmental regulations affecting coal, and get rid of the business mandate for Obamacare.
Meanwhile, Evan Jenkins defeated Nick Rahall to make all three of West Virginia’s seats in the House of Representatives Republican for the first time since 1921.
4. Gay Marriage Becomes Legal in West Virginia
Meet one of the first gay couples to get a marriage license in West Virginia.
It happened after Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said federal court rulings made it clear that gay marriage was the law of the land.
Gov. Tomblin announced all state agencies would recognize gay marriages and uphold the law,
"Our state is known for its kindness and hospitality to residents and visitors alike,” Tomlin write. “I encourage all West Virginians - regardless of their personal beliefs - to uphold our statewide tradition of treating one another with dignity and respect."
3. GOP Takes Over West Virginia Legislature
In most years, this would be #1 (but some really, really big things knocked this down to #3.) This hasn’t happened in more than eight decades.
A few observers expected the state House of Delegates to go Republican - and it did, in a big way.
But almost no one predicted the GOP wave would result in a tie in the state Senate, and when one Democrat switched parties, the GOP takeover was complete.
West Virginia has usually been ruled by conservative Democrats. With Republicans in charge, expect many issues that had been blocked to take center stage. Their agenda includes repealing prevailing wage rules, reducing taxes, reducing the size of state government, and changes to the legal system.
2. Former Massey CEO Don Blankenship Indicted
Don Blankenship was once the highest-paid coal executive in America. He led multiple campaigns to help Republicans gain power in West Virginia.
But after 29 miners died in a Massey mine called Upper Big Branch, Blankenship quickly fell from grace, retiring from the company in 2010.
Earlier this year, a federal grand jury indicted Blankenship on four charges related to the UBB disaster: conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and securities fraud.
Shortly after the indictment was announced, WVPB’s Jessica Lilly interviewed Gary Quarles, whose son died in the UBB Disaster.
“It’s going to make any other top management people do what’s right," Quarles said, "When they think about falsifying records and lying about everything coming and going that, hey I might be the next one that has to go to jail.”
Soon after that interview, federal judge Irene Berger issued a gag order preventing any victims, family of victims, or Blankenship from talking about the case. She also ruled that all court filings, including the indictment, be kept secret.
Several media organizations are challenging that gag order, including NPR, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, the Charleston Gazette, and the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
1. The Freedom Industries Chemical Spill
So, what news event is so important, it beat stories like the GOP takeover of the Legislature and Blankenship’s indictment? Freedom Industries Chemical Spill, also known as the Elk River Chemical Spill and, simply, the Water Crisis.
More than 300,000 people had their water supply contaminated by MCHM, a chemical used to clean coal. The chemical leaked from the Freedom Industries tank down the Elk River to the intake for West Virginia American Water. A sickening black licorice smell spread over the Kanawha Valley for days.
It was several days before customers could use their water again -- and for many, it shook their trust in corporations and their government to the core.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting tried its best to serve the public during the spill, through its reporting, a free Mountain Stage concert, and broadcasting live press conferences and public hearings.
And the most popular story on our website wasn’t a news story at all, but an angry response from a West Virginia writer that went viral.
Eric Waggoner wrote “Elemental” shortly after he delivered clean water to relatives.