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An Earth Day Tribute to Bill Hughes

In March 2019, Bill Hughes, environmental defender extraordinaire and former FracTracker colleague, passed away. His legacy lives through the multitude of lives he enriched – from students to activists to everyday people. Bill was an omnipresent force for good and always armed with facts and a pervasive smile. He is dearly missed. The article that follows is derived from an interview with him in 2018. Please keep Bill in your heart this Earth Day.

Raised in an industrial town a few miles east of Pittsburgh, William “Bill” Hughes married his wife, Marianne, in 1969. With dreams of a rural setting to raise a family, they bought 79 acres in West Virginia with an old farm house – the last and only home up a hollow in an almost abandoned valley. To Bill, it was a “little piece of almost heaven.”  Proud parents to a son and daughter, the Hughes enjoyed the peace and quiet of life in Wetzel County until the shale gas invasion.

Truck accidents, blocked roads, travel delays, road damage, infrastructure degradation, and demolished signs and guardrails became the norm. The noticeable impacts eroded the community’s quality of life and Bill was there to witness, document, and report the degradation, a picture at a time.

One of Bill’s many photos of of truck traffic & air impacts from the shale gas industry in West Virginia

Bill served on the county solid waste authority where he pushed-back on accepting the radioactive waste of the fracking industry. The Franciscan magazine St. Anthony Messenger featured Bill in a 2015 story where he spoke about the waste issue. “As far as I know, in the history of humans burying waste produced from human activity, we have never taken known radioactive materials like this and buried large amounts of it in a generic landfill designed for household trash disposal.”  Bill had a knack for appealing to common sense.

In early 2015, he testified at a hearing at the WV Public Service Commission regarding the landfill’s pending permit request for the special cell for drill cuttings. Delays irritated the owners of the landfill and, in February 2016, Bill became a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed against him. A summons was delivered to his home. Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission granted the permit. It was salt in the wounds but Bill reflected on it with his signature matter-of-factness. “One must consider that during the year 2013 alone at least $9 million exchanged hands at the landfill due to drill cuttings. The state received a third of that, the landfill about two-thirds. The county also got its share. My days were numbered.”

After an initial ruling in his favor, followed by appeal by the landfill, the Fourth Circuit issued a final dismissal order in March 2017. The unnerving ordeal was over but in the preceding seven years, about 850,000 tons of drilling waste found a home at the Wetzel County landfill.

Waste hazards and air pollution from drilling were a weight on Bill’s shoulders but he was most concerned about the social impacts of the extraction craze. “For ten years, gas companies have been fracturing the deep shale in Wetzel County but families have also been fractured,” Bill said. “The whole process…has contaminated the long-standing Appalachian culture and eroded our community history. The old normal is forever gone.” Bill called it collateral damage.

But doom and gloom weren’t part of his vocabulary. Bill put the “P” in perseverance. For nearly a decade, he educated thousands of people through a process he perfected – documenting and disseminating photography of the activities and effects of shale gas development. The photos became immediately useful in helping others understand what this industry was doing to America. Visible evidence was needed to counter false industry narratives suggesting hydraulic fracturing was harmonious and benign. Bill cranked out 8,000 photos suggesting otherwise.

Bill Hughes giving tours of gas fields in West Virginia. Photo by Joe Solomon. https://flic.kr/s/aHskkXZj3z

Bill Hughes giving a tour of gas fields in West Virginia. Photo by Joe Solomon.

Just taking pictures was not enough. Context was needed. Bill interpreted each picture – explaining the location, thing or activity, and significance of every image. Did it represent a threat to our water, air, or land? When did it happen? What happened before and after? Did it show a short or long-term problem?  Should state regulatory agencies see it to become better informed? Dissemination followed in many forms: tours of the gas fields; power point presentations to groups in five states; op-ed pieces written for news media; countless responses to questions and inquiries; even blogs and photo essays for various websites. Ceaseless Bill never stopped caring.

The work continues to impress and influence. Multiple examples reside on FracTracker.org – such as his forensic tour of visible air emissions or the instructive virtual oil and gas tour.

Perhaps his latter gestures were his most poignant. Surrounded by the despair of fracking, Bill sowed hope in the form of a 10,000 watt, ground mount, grid-tied, 36-panel home solar system installed in late June 2016. “During the twelve months of 2017, it produced over 12,000 kilowatt hours,” Bill said. It proved that solar can be immediately productive and cost effective. It was a viable alternative, off-the-shelf ready and capable of providing needed energy. The bold move needed a companion – in the form of an electric car. He purchased the only Chevy Bolt to be found in the state of West Virginia.

Maybe Bill Hughes should be an official emblem for Earth Day – a humble, faithful man of modest proportions, spreading the stewardship imperative from a little electric car. Hitch a ride, follow his lead, and, like Bill, always tell it like it is.

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance