Coronavirus hits a reeling Appalachian healthcare system (100 Days in Appalachia)

Rural America’s healthcare providers, which have struggled to stay financially viable for the last decade, face the loss of further revenue as they freeze non-emergency procedures and prepare for a potential surge in patients as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.

The NC Rural Health Research Program at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research lists 168 hospitals that have closed since 2005, and 126 since 2010, not counting one in Fairmont, West Virginia, that closed last week. Of those hospitals, 28 of them, or 17 percent, were in the Appalachian region.

Read more in my story at 100 Days in Appalachia.

Three generations of car restoration in Roanoke (Inside Appalachia)

Appalachians have been tinkering for cars as long as there have been cars. The art of making moonshine and smuggling it from the mountains led to early stock-car racing and the roots of NASCAR.

Today, the Bennett family is sustaining the automotive tradition another way, by restoring vintage cars into pristine conditions, and sometimes by building them from the frame out. From Jack Bennett and his ownership of Perfection Auto Body, to his son Jeff Bennett restoring custom cars from the ’30s, to grandson Jeremy specializing in VW Beetles, the Bennetts are carrying on a family tradition.

Read and listen to my story on the Bennetts at Inside Appalachia, a program on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Or check out the full episode here.

On a related note, I’m honored to announced that Inside Appalachia has picked me up for a second year as part of its Folkways Reporting Corps, along with a number of talented individuals. Read more about the project and the other members who were selected.

Why Bernie Sanders won Floyd County (Virginia Mercury)

 On Super Tuesday, only three Virginia localities voted for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders over former Vice President Joe Biden in Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary: Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Floyd County.

On Wednesday, people were like, yeah, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg are college towns. Younger voters like Sanders, that makes sense. But rural Floyd County?!

As it happens, I reside in Floyd County, and so know a little bit about its peculiar melting pot of politics. A lot of this story is translatable to rural mountain politics writ large, and some of it’s unique to Floyd.

I had a blast reporting and writing this story. Read it at the Virginia Mercury.

Pipeline coverage (and the lack of it) spotlighted in Columbia Journalism Review

Two major natural gas transmission projects—the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline and the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline—run through a significant swath of country that qualifies as a news desert. Lyndsey Gilpin wrote about the challenge in a story for Columbia Journalism Review that includes my perspective as a journalist who’s been covering both pipelines since they were announced 2014.

Read the full story at Columbia Journalism Review.

And for a list of selected stories I’ve written about the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, check out this Twitter thread:

Virginia hemp growers face an uncertain 2020 (Virginia Mercury)

Farmers beginning the second year of Virginia’s legalization of commercial hemp are seeing a lot of uncertainty, both in governmental regulation and in dealing with processors.

Lots of hemp farmers jumped into the new market last year, resulting in a bottleneck among processors who turn the raw hemp into cannabidiol (CBD) oil. On top of that, federal regulators are still making changes to how they oversee hemp growth. State regulators are forging ahead on their own in the meantime.

It all adds up to a complicated market and regulatory environment for growers.

Read my story at the Virginia Mercury for more.

The raging granny versus the pipeline (Virginia Mercury)

Duff Benjamin picked up her forest name supplying Julia Butterfly Hill when she lived in a tree in Humboldt County. She later joined the Raging Grannies of Madison, playing washboard and singing satirical lyrics set to traditional songs during protests against Wisconsin’s then-Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to limit collective bargaining.

More recently, Benjamin attended a workshop by Appalachians Against Pipelines, an anti-pipeline organization that grew out of the mountaintop removal coal mining protests of the early 2000s. She began visiting the Yellow Finch tree sits and support camp.

On Friday, September 27, 2019, the 75-year-old Benjamin locked down to equipment at an MVP construction site on Cove Hollow Rd, near the tree sits outside of Elliston.

Four months later, I sat in a Christiansburg courtroom and watched as she pleaded not guilty to a charge of trespassing, but acknowledged the evidence against her would be enough to return a conviction. In return, she received a $200 fine that would be suspended on the conditions that she keep at least 100 yards away from the pipeline and its construction sites and that she not harass MVP employees or contractors.

Benjamin meekly nodded her head as the judge ruled. But a few minutes later, as she walked out of the courtroom, she grinned like the cat that ate the canary.

Read the Virginia Mercury for my full profile of Duff Benjamin and the path that led her to lock her body to a piece of pipeline equipment.

As rural Virginia loses young people, schools look hard at consolidation (Virginia Mercury)

This one hit close to home.

I grew up in Alleghany County, Virginia, just outside the then-city limits of Clifton Forge. In 2001, Clifton Forge reverted from city to town status—an important distinction that significantly affects governance, taxes and services. The city had long since consolidated its schools with Alleghany County at that point. The school consolidation happened in 1983, just about the time I was starting elementary school.

Now, Alleghany County and the city of Covington are considering a similar school consolidation. And so are several other localities around Virginia, mostly in areas experiencing population loss. Alleghany County, for example, has seen a 16% and Covington a 22% decline in population from 1990. But consolidation and local identity can be tricky, with decisions involving many more factors than just figures on paper.

Read the full story at the Virginia Mercury.

What happens when a Superfund site is discovered near an outdoor adventure attraction (Southerly)

The communities near West Virginia’s New River Gorge have become models for many other mountain towns looking to reinvent themselves after coal. As the coal industry declined in Fayette County, West Virginia, cheap housing and storefronts opened the door for a booming whitewater rafting industry.

But beginning in the ’80s, residents of Minden grew increasingly concerned about the toxic legacy of a shuttered equipment company whose employees had dumped thousands of gallons of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCB, at its site near Arbuckle Creek, just upstream from the New River. In 2019, Minden was added to the Superfund National Priorities List.

For Southerly, I explored how Superfund stigma around Minden has affected the outdoor recreation industry—and how the industry itself is responding. How can an outdoor recreation-based economy can flourish when toxic sites are everywhere, and what happens when some people are left out of that growth? Read the story at Southerly.

The impossible cost of rural health care (In These Times)

I was covering a Republican Party meeting when I first heard about patients in a southwestern Virginia county who were being charged upwards of $40,000 for emergency helicopter flights to hospitals.

That anecdote led to a larger story about what’s happened in Lee County, Virginia, since its hospital closed in 2013, and since two competing providers merged through a process that eluded federal oversight.

Over the summer and into the fall, I conducted nearly 40 interviews for a story that ultimately ran on the cover of In These Times magazine. The reporting wrapped in hospital closures, $44,000+ air ambulance bills, health care monopolies, and reduced access to services in Appalachia and rural America. Read it at In These Times.

About a month after the story was published, WBUR’s On Point had me on to talk about the story, along with a rural health expert and an official at Ballad Health. Check out that episode, along with related links, at WBUR.

100 Days in Appalachia also interviewed me about the story. Listen to the segment that ran on West Virginia Morning and read the transcript of the Q&A at West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

What Virginia’s off-off-year elections mean for 2020 (New Republic)

Virginia’s 2019 elections saw Democrats win control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since the 1990s. These new majorities are more diverse and progressive than any legislative body in state history.

How did it happen? In this advancer that ran the week before the elections, I charted the events, individuals, and dynamics at play in Virginia’s historic “off-off-year” elections, in which no statewide or congressional offices were at stake but all 140 seats in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates were up for re-election. Read more in the story at the New Republic.