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A January chemical spill in West Virginia that left 300,000 without tap water was just the most recent episode of contamination in a state that has suffered more than its share. Bob Kincaid, a liberal radio host and co-founder of Appalachian Community Health Emergency, said in West Virginia "everything has been for sale to the highest bidder," with the toll taken out on the health of the people who live there.
"We have sacrificed everything in order to enhance those corporate profits for people who are outside this state," Kincaid said on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. "Let's understand that most of West Virginia is still owned, in excess of 90 percent, by out-of-state interests."
That number jumped out at us and when we got in touch with Kincaid, he was quick to say he had made a mistake.
"The number is lower," he said. But whatever the number, Kincaid said it wasn’t central to his point. "The germane fact remains that 300,000 human beings are involuntarily participating in an unconscionable experiment on them, and that is a terrifying reality."
West Virginia has been rich in coal and timber and the trade-off of who benefits the most from mining and logging is a topic that has simmered for many decades in the state. A landmark 1974 study by a local investigative journalist found that absentee landlords owned or controlled two-thirds of the state’s private land. (That’s obviously well short of 90 percent.)
In 2013, a follow-up report from the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, a group that focuses on the needs of the moderate and low-income people, and the American Friends Service Committee, found that the fraction of land concentrated in the hands of relatively few owners is much less today.
The 10 largest landowners are all headquartered out of state and they hold title to about 12 percent of the state’s private acreage.
Laying claim to what’s on the surface misses a big piece of West Virginia’s wealth picture. A huge sum of money lies in the mineral rights, mainly the coal and gas. Owning the land doesn’t necessarily mean you own what’s underneath it. But Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, is reluctant to make hard and fast claims as to who owns that part of the state.
"All you can say is that a large fraction of the mineral rights are held by out-of-state interests, but beyond that, we just don’t have the data," Boettner said.
Kincaid said during the broadcast that more than 90 percent of West Virginia is owned by out-of-state interests. He told us he realized his mistake after the show and apologized for his error.
Kincaid gets credit for his readiness to correct his original statement, but we fact-check what he said on air. His claim was wrong. We rate it False.
MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry, Jan. 19, 2014
West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and American Friends Service Committee, Who owns West Virginia, December 2013
West Virginia: Documents in the history of a rural-industrial state, Absentees dominate land ownership, December 1974
Washington Post, West Virginia chemical spill in Elk River poses a new test for lawmakers, Jan. 19, 2014
National Geographic, A century of controversy, accidents in West Virginia’s chemical valley in lead-up to spill, Jan. 16, 2014
Interview, Ted Boettner, executive director, West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, Jan. 21, 2014
Email interview, Bob Kincaid, Jan. 20, 2014
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