Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

January 25, 2014

Fact Check: Activist says outsiders own 90% of W. Virginia

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.

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