There’s a story I like to tell — I’m frankly not sure if it’s true — that more than a few years back a top West Virginia political leader called over to the agency that we now call the Department of Environmental Protection. This politician, an elected official, wanted the agency’s director to issue a coal-mining permit that was being held up over concerns about the damage that might be done.
As the story goes, the agency director assured the elected official that the permit would be issued that day. But, the agency director said, “I’m going to have to put a note in our files that we issued it on your orders. You know the files I mean … the ones that Nyden looks at all the time.” The elected official, without even debating the issue, said, “Just forget it,” and hung up.
That in a nutshell is what Dr. Paul Nyden has meant to West Virginia. I’ve often told people that the greatest single piece of journalism in West Virginia history is “Who Owns West Virginia,” the remarkable project produced in 1974 by Tom Miller, then of the Huntington paper. But for my money, no one reporter’s career has lived up to former Gazette publisher Ned Chilton’s mandate for “sustained outrage” more than Dr. Nyden’s has.
As many readers probably know, we’ve been going through a difficult process here at Charleston Newspapers, as we combined the newsrooms of The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail into one newsroom for the new Charleston Gazette-Mail. This morning’s paper included the news that, as a part of that process, Paul is retiring.
Obviously, this is a huge loss — for the Gazette-Mail, for West Virginia, for me and others who have been mentored by Paul, and for anyone who values context and history as part of the coverage of the nation’s coal industry. But I don’t want to write about my friend here as if he’s dead or something. He’s very much full of life — and I look forward to him continuing to contribute to the public discussion about West Virginia’s past, present and future. Hopefully he’ll keep writing book reviews about foreign policy, so I won’t have to read those books myself. And there’s a project or two I have in mind I hope he and I will work on together. Maybe Paul will have more time to take in baseball games.
This is as good a time as any, though, to stop and think about Paul’s journalism, and remember his contributions and see what the rest of us can learn from them, both about how to do journalism and about what West Virginians might try to do to help move the state forward as the coal industry Paul has covered for so many years continues to decline.
For one thing, Paul’s coverage of the lax permitting and enforcement practices of the old state Department of Energy set the standard for how a local journalist can and should hold a government agency accountable. When I had been at the Gazette barely a month, I was actually assigned to write up a story documenting how the Gazette, through Nyden’s reporting, was really doing DOE’s job for it:
Division of Energy attorney George V. Piper likes to joke that Paul Nyden is the agency’s best investigator. To others, the situation isn’t very funny.
So far this year, the Gazette’s investigative reporter has uncovered more than $1 million in outstanding environmental fines and fees owed to the DOE or the federal Office of Surface Mining by coal companies. Since 1989, Nyden has revealed nearly $2 million in unpaid fines and fees … Perry D. McDaniel, a Charleston lawyer and president of the West Virginia Environmental Council, said, “”It’s a shame The Charleston Gazette has to fund the job that the coal industry should be doing and that is proper review of permit applications, especially with regard to reviewing files for violations and the proper follow-up for the imposition of civil penalties.”
My personal favorite, though, was always a piece from 1990 headlined, “Flashing blue lights reflect a boiling feud within DOE.”
William “Bolts” Willis wants to install flashing blue lights, a siren and a state police radio in a Division of Energy vehicle for his own use. Energy Commissioner Larry George has not approved the request. Willis apparently wants the lights and siren in case he has to drive to a mine disaster.
Flashing blue lights reflect a larger feud boiling up rapidly.
George and Willis, who is George’s administrative assistant, have been attacking each other privately for more than a week.
George believes Willis is trying to torpedo his recent administrative reforms. Willis apparently sees those reforms as a threat to his own turf within the agency.
Willis said Tuesday that he has no problems with George. “We have been friends too long to let anything like this happen,” he said. Willis failed to return several telephone calls on Thursday and Friday.
Behind the scenes, Willis has been lining up support for more than a week from the governor’s office. He has been calling his political allies in the United Mine Workers.