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Back in 1989 I covered a meeting at the Cabell County Public Library where a group of Tri-State residents was to discuss how the BASF plant in Huntington was burning a hazardous material called aniline in its boilers. From that meeting came the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

With OVEC’s apparent demise last week when its board of directors voted to disband the organization, it got me thinking about mission creep and the lifespan of movements.

After protesting BASF’s burning of aniline in Huntington, OVEC fought plans by BASF to build a paint factory and an accompanying hazmat incinerator and landfill at Haverhill, Ohio, between Ironton and Portsmouth. It also fought plans for a proposed pulp mill along the Ohio River in Mason County, West Virginia, about 30 miles above downtown Huntington. The pulp mill would have consumed thousands of trees per day and discharged dioxins into the Ohio River upstream from the Huntington area’s water intake. Neither facility was built.

OVEC’s big local campaign was about air pollution from the Ashland Petroleum refinery at Catlettsburg, Kentucky. People in the Kenova area complained about material coming from the refinery and landing on their property. They were concerned what this did to their health. OVEC stepped in and took up their cause.

The refinery occupied OVEC’s attention for years. Then OVEC discovered mountaintop removal mining. OVEC had a new boogeyman in Massey Energy. It eventually forgot the refinery, presumably because all the problems there had been solved.

I wrote those words in a blog post that was adapted into a column that ran on this page in 2007. Diane Bady, now deceased and one of OVEC’s founders, replied in a counterpoint printed that same day.

“OVEC has always worked on the issues our active members want to work on. We didn’t arbitrarily ‘forget’ the refinery or ‘forget’ Tri-State air pollution issues,” she wrote.

“In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposed their largest-ever (at the time) fines on Ashland Oil for numerous, serious pollution violations. The refinery was also forced to spend many millions of dollars on improvements to bring it into compliance with pollution laws. Many OVEC members worked for more than 10 years to make this happen. …

“At the time of our 1998 victory, our members who worked so hard on air pollution here were not interested in continuing the fight. We had a big success, and many people wanted to step back from air activism. Again, staff do not work on issues without the active involvement of many members.”

More recently, OVEC had been concerned about the growth of the natural gas industry in Appalachia, whether it was pipelines or the storage facility to be known as the Appalachian Gas Storage Hub. The storage hub would likely have been in northern West Virginia or an adjacent area of Ohio or Pennsylvania. Again, OVEC’s mission took it further from its roots and duplicated work of other, larger, more well-known groups.

After 32 years, most of OVEC’s core group of founding members have either retired or died, and this generation of activists has different goals. Most of OVEC’s old foes are gone, too. BASF sold the Huntington plant to Flint Group Pigments, which closed and demolished it. Ashland Petroleum was absorbed into Marathon Petroleum. Market forces killed mountaintop removal mining.

OVEC performed a valuable public service in its time, but its time may be over. Is this the end of OVEC, or could it return in the same or different form? That’s to be determined. But some things are certain. Change is inevitable. So is mission creep.

Jim Ross is development and opinion editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email address is jross@hdmediallc.com.

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