Value of Statistical Life

If frack dump and pipeline development projects go forward in our communities, we’ll be assaulted by the constant sounds of engines running and the stench of diesel fumes on our porches. We’ll be dealing with exposure to the associated pollutants, pipeline leaks, and more.  Some of us will die. It’s a risk we’re forced to take whether we want to gamble with our lives or not.

That’s why frackers target poor people, because poor communities can’t afford the same legal protections that wealthy or middle class communities can. Poor communities like ours actually bear the largest burden from fracking.

The Cost-Benefits of Fracking

Cost-benefit analyses should be standard procedure for resource extraction projects. The essential questions we need to ask are these:

  1. What is the cost?
  2. Who will be paying it?
  3. Who benefits?

We need to know the exact costs of the externalities of fracking, and must also take into accountthe loss of the things we value.

The Declaration of Independence talks about our  inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Inalienable. And yet, the two proposed pipelines, Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipeline, would have significant economic costs for us: “Those living along the pipeline’s route would face extensive disruptions during construction — and the loss of land use after — while the utilities and investors reaped the benefits.”

The MVP and ACP are fundamentally a transfer of wealth… from poor communities to wealthy investors and the politicians they influence.

According to the GAO report on fracking impacts, “Construction of the well pad, access road, and other drilling facilities requires substantial truck traffic, which degrades air quality. Air quality may also be degraded as fleets of trucks traveling newly graded or unpaved roads increase the amount of dust released into the air…” Additionally, scouring is a particular danger here due to the many stream crossings through our hollers.

Think explosions don’t happen? Think again.

The victims, members of two extended families, were camping early Saturday morning near the Pecos River, about 200 to 300 yards from the below-ground explosion….

The 30-inch pipeline exploded around 5:30 a.m. Saturday, and left a crater about 86 feet long, 46 feet wide and 20 feet deep. Police say the resulting fire probably lasted 30 to 40 minutes. It reportedly was visible about 20 miles to the north in Carlsbad, N.M.

Authorities said one end of the ruptured line became a virtual flame-thrower, showering fire on the victims camped beneath a bridge about 200 yards away.

“The evidence out there at the scene indicates it was horrendously hot,” State Police Capt. John Balderston said. “It incinerated everything in its path. If it burned for as long as we think it burned, that explains the extensive damage to the vehicles and to the property and people.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he added. “We’ve had some tragedies but this is the worst I’ve seen.”

If you live near one of these pipelines, do you know how big the evacuation zone is? It’s roughly a mile and a half from a 42 inch pipeline.

Here’s why:

A tornado, a giant storm, an airplane crashing. That’s how neighbors describe the sound of the explosion that took place at 8:13 a.m. on April 29, in a field in Salem Township, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh.

“The noise was so loud — it was sickening,” Dave Alund said. “All the oxygen rushing — it consumed all the oxygen around here — you had a devil of a time breathing.”

Tell me, have you been properly warned? Have you seen maps showing whether your home is in the blast zone or incineration zone? What about the homes of your friends or family? Your workplace? Your daycare provider…? Have you been apprised of the evacuation plan?

Were you aware that in real life situations the blast radius can be much larger—75% larger than it “should” be?

And if you are lucky enough to avoid a direct cost to yourself in such a tragedy, you’ll still be paying to deal with the aftermath if a pipeline disaster happens in your area. While you may be counting your lucky stars to have survived, knowing that a local small town has been wiped off the map, burnt away… can you really be relieved?

The thing is, we NEED jobs. But we also need to make sure the jobs that our politicians are fighting to bring here actually benefit our communities in the long term. And the truth is that we don’t have to choose between the health of our communities and whether or not we have jobs. We have to fight for both—we have to bring the right jobs here, and we have to fight to make sure gas and oil workers (and miners) have clean, good paying jobs with benefits to transition to as we take steps to protect our poor, rural communities that bear so many of the costs of Extraction Debt.

Value of Statistical Life

There’s a very cold calculation used in scenarios like this, which you may not have heard of. It’s called “VSL,” or the Value of Statistical Life. In other words, it’s a calculation that assigns an economic value to someone’s life. VSL is not how much you’d personally pay to avoid death, but it’s the value placed on changes in the likelihood of death occurring. It’s an evaluation of risk.

For instance, when Antero Resources chooses to bury frack waste in the peripheral zone of concern for the drinking water of Harrisville and Pennsboro—the two largest towns in our county (plus Cairo, a smaller, third town)—the likelihood of our illness and even death is vastly more than if it were located in a more reasonable location, away from our drinking water.

Antero has calculated that they’ll save money by endangering our water; the value of our lives is not their concern. Their concern is profit.

Government agencies place a statistical value on the changes in the risks to your life. They use a few different figures, depending on department. The EPA  values a single life at about $9.1 million. (That value has gone up in recent years; under Bush it was as low as 6.1 million.)

Businesses like Antero or these pipeline developers don’t place as much value on your life or the lives of your family, friends, and neighbors as you do. Why? Because it costs money to operate safely, and it costs money to prevent spills and to clean them up. Their aim isn’t to make you safe, their aim is to profit— to carve up this state and take the biggest shares for themselves.


Be aware that whenever you hear propaganda about “EPA overreach,” you can be reasonably assured that the whining is originating from business interests who quite literally value your life and the lives of your children less than you do. Resource Barons prefer to frame the discussion as “higher costs” (for them) rather than accusing the EPA of valuing your life too much.

When businesses and politicians talk about “EPA Overreach,” they’re looking at what profits can be made where your life or your child’s life is just a statistic.

They want to frame these regulatory changes as costs they’re paying, divorcing that from the fact that otherwise regular people are paying with their lives. That’s what’s happened in McDowell, where the average life expectancy is the lowest in the nation. And that’s what they’re bringing to this part of the state with fracking.

When the EPA improves air quality standards and water quality standards, when they make those safer for us, they are valuing your life at about $9.1 million dollars. As our energy technology improves and the costs to save lives decreases thereby, the EPA’s air and water quality standards should indeed increase, presuming the VSL stays the same.

Every time you hear Sen. Joe Manchin or Rep. David McKinley demanding that regulations be streamlined for these extraction companies, make sure you understand that they’re essentially arguing that we pay Resource Barons with years stolen from our lives.

Your tax dollars pay the salaries of people meant to represent you. But those representatives seem more interested in whether they can win the next election.

One thing we deserve is full disclosure. How many of us are they calculating will die? How many will get sick? How many will lose property values, lose water wells, lose hunting, fishing, and more? How many will have the quality of their lives affected for the worse?

So… before we let these Resource Barons into our communities without a fight, let’s just ask them. Actually, let’s not ask. Let’s demand answers.

We want to see the cost-benefit analysis to make sure Resource Barons are paying their fair share.

They must pay their fair share, not just snuff us out.

After all, if West Virginia benefited from the extraction of our resources, our coal communities would be glorious beacons of prosperity. They’re not.

Before any extraction project moves forward, we need to demand a cost-benefit analysis. Because we don’t want to be forced to pay this Extraction Debt with our lives.

We are NOT a willing sacrifice.

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