Can a new kind of West Virginia Democrat emerge from its 3rd congressional district? (The New Republic)

West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district went 73/23 for Trump over Clinton last year, but Democrat Nick Rahall held that seat up through 2014. With the seat open again (Evan Jenkins is running for Senate), I wrote about how Democrats are trying to engage voters and address the real challenges of poverty & economic disruption there (including at least two who are doing so by running for the Republican nomination).

My story for the New Republic looks at several present and past Democrats in the district (including some current Republicans) who are now maneuvering for the open seat. The story focuses largely on Richard Ojeda, a veteran and state senator who supported Trump in 2016 but is building a campaign that combines his brawling anti-establishment style with a generally progressive platform.

Summer stories for 100 Days in Appalachia

From mid-June through mid-August I worked as a contributing editor for 100 Days in Appalachia.

I posted a short thread on Twitter about my departure from the digital publication.

I contributed a number of stories to 100 Days in Appalachia through the summer:

Trump’s Proposed Infrastructure Improvements Remain a Windy Road for Commuters in Appalachia

Can ‘Berniecrats’ Win in Appalachia?

How a Rash of Tick-Borne Illnesses is Challenging Appalachian Health Systems

How the Annual Remote Area Medical Clinic in Wise, Virginia, Became Ground Zero for Parachute Journalists Writing about Healthcare in Appalachia

What Congress Can Learn from West Virginia About Tax Reform and Budgets

With Trump, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice Announces he’s Becoming a Republican. Again.

How a 40-Year-Old Federal Law Literally Changed the Appalachian Landscape

Appalachia Can’t Close the Health Disparity Gap Until it Fixes its Hospitals

Probably my favorite story for 100 Days involved visiting Camp Linoln, a Goldwater-era conservative leadership camp near Webster, WV, where I watched teenagers debate recreational marijuana and practice political maneuvers to introduce last-minute legislation and push it into law.

If I squinted, I could see the future.

100 days in, here’s what Donald Trump has meant for Appalachia (Vice)

Donald Trump dominated Appalachia on Election Day, 2016, and he wasted no time in loosening regulations on the region’s coal industry. In the big picture, however, the regulatory shifts mean an extension of the status quo.

His proposed budget, however, which would gut the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, the USDA’s infrastructure budget and other programs crucial to economic development efforts, may well wipe out any job gains from the coal industry.

For Vice, I tried to sort out the impact of federal actions on Appalachia under Trump. Read it here.

How a billionaire Democrat could win election as governor in one of Trump’s strongest states (Politico Magazine)

When the billionaire entered the primary, longtime politicos scoffed. He had no political experience, had switched parties repeatedly over the previous decades, and had a spotty track record in business. Yet he vanquished his establishment candidates in the primary and headed into the general election running an unorthodox campaign based around his personality.

It’s not Donald Trump, of course, but Jim Justice, West Virginia’s only billionaire and owner of the Greenbrier Resort and the largest privately held coal company east of the Mississippi River. Justice stands as a figure simultaneously beloved—he coaches high-school basketball and bailed out the historic Greenbrier when it faced potential closure—and reviled, as his coal company has developed a reputation for not paying debts, taxes or environmental obligations.

Read more about Justice, his Republican opponent Bill Cole, and what may be the weirdest undercard election in America at Politico Magazine.

The coal depression’s downstream effects (Roanoke Business)

The combination of competition from cheap natural gas, a decline in overseas construction and enforcement of federal clean air regulations have sent the U.S. coal industry into a tailspin.

It’s not just miners who are suffering, however, but also the various downstream businesses that support the coal industry. For Roanoke Business, I wrote about how railroads, equipment manufacturers and other support businesses are dealing with the slump.

Read the story in the April issue of Roanoke Business.

Appalachian Power’s big shift from coal (Roanoke Business)

In late October, Appalachian Power President Charles Patton made headlines in West Virginia when he told a summit of energy executives that coal just isn’t coming back, even if federal rules on power plants get rolled back.

Sure, that may be conventional wisdom in much of the country, but this speech came from the president and COO of Central Appalachia’s biggest electric utility, which has relied on coal as its dominant source of generation since its inception in 1911.

Two weeks later, as he walked into Appalachian Power’s offices in Roanoke, Virginia—his news-making remarks were delivered in the West Virginia community of the same name—he acknowledged that his comments were not what the room wanted to hear. After all, the economy in southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia was built around coal mining, and many there today still fervently hope that a coal comeback will fuel a new round of economic prosperity.

The problem for them is that, even as elected officials still continue to fight the so-called “war on coal” in state houses and on Capitol Hill, Appalachian Power already is taking action that will only cement the move away from coal when it comes to producing electricity. That’s not to say the utility won’t continue to rely on its existing fleet of coal-burning power plants, but, according to a document filed with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, but Appalachian Power has begun a substantial pivot away from the fossil fuel that defined its first century. The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) filed with the SCC on July 1 includes a dramatic decrease in its use of coal, as well as a corresponding increase in natural gas and renewable energy such as wind and solar.

Read more in “Old King Coal Dethroned,” my special report for Roanoke Business.

Coal kingpin faces possible prison sentence after mine explosion (Grist)

I spent much of 2015 tracking the criminal trial of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who was indicted on criminal charges relating to West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

None of the three felony charges directly accused Blankenship of causing the disaster at Upper Big Branch mine, which happened when a spark from a longwall shearer ignited a fireball that hit accumulated coal dust, triggering a massive explosion.

Yet, the explosion overshadowed and informed every bit of the trial.

On Thursday, Blankenship was convicted of misdemeanor consipiracy to willfully violate mine safety regulations.

Read my story at Grist covering the trial and its outcome.

Going solar: the Solarize movement in Montgomery County (Roanoke Business)

On a recent sunny afternoon, gaggles of people gathered to listen as New River Valley elected officials and renewable energy advocates announced the launch of Solarize Montgomery. It’s an effort to get homeowners to purchase solar panels that expands upon a Solarize Blacksburg effort in 2014.

That pilot “Solarize Blacksburg” program invited solar installers to bid on a group of installations to help lower costs, then offered financing options. Of the 468 people who responded, 92 were from outside Blacksburg, and thus the program’s boundaries.

Solarize Montgomery is targeted at those 92, along with others in Montgomery County interested in going solar. Sign-ups run through July 22.

After filling out an online form at SolarizeMontgomery.org, applicants receive a satellite assessment, basically meaning that installers look at the location and orientation of the site via Google Earth to determine if it might be a good fit. Next, installers visit the site for an in-person assessment. For many homes, it may make more sense to install basic energy conservation measures.

If the site visit shows the home would benefit from solar energy, however, installers submit a proposal and price estimate. If applicants choose to move forward, they’re eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit and long-term financing assistance.

Of the 468 people who applied through Solarize Blacksburg, 168 followed through far enough to get an on-site assessment and proposal from an installer. Fifty-six homeowners actually pulled the trigger – a fraction of the initial response, but “a really high conversion rate for something this complex,” says Blacksburg Sustainability Manager Carol Davis.

Read more in my story on western Virginia’s Solarize movement in Roanoke Business magazine.

This Democratic coal baron wants to be the next governor of West Virginia (Grist)

For a half-decade now, Republicans have slammed Democrats running for office in Appalachia for propagating a so-called regulatory “war on coal.”

They may find it considerably more challenging to make that argument stick against Jim Justice, owner of the largest privately held coal company east of the Mississippi River, who announced last month he’s running for the 2016 Democratic nomination for West Virginia governor. The only West Virginian in the Forbes 400, Justice is worth an estimated $1.69 billion.

Justice is not to be confused with another wealthy West Virginia coal baron, “Dark Lord of Coal Country” Don Blankenship, the former Massey CEO who will soon be tried on charges that he conspired to skirt safety regulations at Upper Big Branch mine, where a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners.

Justice too has a reputation for ignoring mine regulations, but he’s built up a positive reputation in the state in other arenas. His public images feel contradictory in a way that eludes easy caricature. (The Justice campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.)

In eastern West Virginia, Justice is beloved for buying the historic Greenbrier, a luxury resort that famously served as Congress’ personal fallout shelter, out of bankruptcy. He established a PGA event, the Greenbrier Classic (Tiger Woods is among the golfers competing this year), and built a $30 million training facility for the New Orleans Saints on the Greenbrier grounds. Justice invests lots of his time in youth sports; he’s been president of Beckley Little League since 1992 and has coached boys and girls basketball for 30 years, racking up 761 wins and 156 losses. He’s donated millions to charities such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Cleveland Clinic, and Marshall University.

At the same time, Justice’s coal companies, some inherited after his father’s death in 1993, have racked up millions in fines for labor, safety, and environmental violations. In November, NPR reported that Justice owed nearly $2 million in overdue fines.

Justice’s outsized profile means that announcement of his gubernatorial candidacy last month attracted notice from national press — more than might otherwise be expected for a first-time candidate.

Read more in my profile of Jim Justice at Grist.

What do we do with all these dead coal-fired power plants? (Grist)

About 13 gigawatts worth of coal-fired power plants are closing this year to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule.

From a national perspective, these plants represent a fairly small chunk of the nation’s overall electrical capacity. For the communities in which they’re located, however, their closures mean much more than just a smaller carbon footprint: The resulting loss of jobs and local tax revenue leaves an economic void as well. And then there’s the question of what to do with these plants, many of which sit on land that, if it can be properly cleaned up, could be valuable for redevelopment or recreation.

Consider American Electric Power’s (AEP) plant in Glen Lyn, Virginia, a tiny town once known as Hell’s Gate that sits near the West Virginia border. The 96-year-old plant is one of seven AEP plants to be shut down by May 31. (Another two plants will be converted to burn natural gas.) All told, AEP is retiring more than 6,000 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired generating capacity.

Only 31 people worked at the Glen Lyn plant, but then, the town has a population of just 115, according to the U.S. Census. The plant’s employees and retirees are an “integral part of the community,” says Giles County Economic Development Director Chris McKlarney. “You can never replace that.”

Read more in my story at Grist.