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.

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 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.

How coal companies use bankruptcy to shed their obligations to employees and the environment (Southerly)

From late July well into autumn, Blackjewel miners in Harlan County blocked a coal-laden train to protest for the backpay they were owed by the bankrupt coal company.

For Southerly, I drilled deeper, looking at how coal companies have used bankruptcy to shed their obligations both to pay employees and to restore strip-mined land to federal standards.

Most if not all of Blackjewel’s mines came to it through previous bankruptcies; many produce no coal but have laid unreclaimed for years. I looked at how companies exploit state regulations to avoid reclamation and then dump those properties during bankruptcy. I also looked at how this process might end—with the abandonment of these mines to be reclaimed using bonds that may well fall short of the actual costs.

Read the full story at Southerly.

Pipelines, politics & more stories from southwestern Va. (Virginia Mercury)

I wrote a fair number of stories for the Virginia Mercury over the summer and fall that involved mud. Whether created by the cutting of a right-of-way swath for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, or flung by political opponents in Virginia’s 2019 elections, mud seems to be a recurring theme.

Mud—and erosion and sediment control—sits at the center of the pipeline fights. It factored into the various legal and regulatory blockades to the pipeline that largely remain in place. It was part of the landscape when I looked across from the wooded Yellow Finch tree-sit to a cleared part of the right of way in late July. And it covered my boots after a visit to a Franklin County farm that’s been abandoned because the pipeline cuts through it.

I saw a different kind of mud when I covered a rough southwestern Virginia Republican primary. That primary signaled a new phase in Virginia’s 2019 legislative elections, in which every seat in the 140-member General Assembly is up for grabs, with redistricting power on the line. I covered the elections from a GOP mass meeting in Scott County, to a “Trump Republican for Commissioner of Revenue” in Washington County, to the numerous Democrats running in tough rural districts across the commonwealth.

As the Mercury’s southwest Virginia correspondent, I also covered the following stories:

A new title: Southwest Virginia correspondent (Virginia Mercury)

Earlier this year I started writing stories for the Virginia Mercury, an independent, nonprofit online news organization covering state government and policy.

Check out my first half-dozen stories for the Mercury:

Southwest Virginia lawmakers push legislation to boost a struggling region

Southwestern Virginia’s economic struggles explain why conservative Republican lawmakers who might not otherwise carry bills that could legalize casinos and create new taxes find themselves doing just that.

Inside the furious social media fight over proposed I-81 tolling

As traditional media has fragmented and more people are turning to social media for their news, interest groups are using those platforms to lobby Virginians on state policy issues like tolling on Interstate 81.

Amid federal criminal probe and a state lawsuit, why hasn’t the Virginia DEQ stopped work on Mountain Valley Pipeline?

Fifty weeks after a governor’s press release heralding an expansion of Virginia’s ability to protect its waterways, the DEQ hasn’t once used those powers to stop work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, despite the fact that the DEQ and a state contractor recorded more than 300 violations of erosion, sediment control, and stormwater regulations on the MVP between June and November.

Division over bus station move exposes downtown Roanoke’s ‘growing pains’

An influx of new residents in downtown Roanoke have complicated policy decisions in a district that’s traditionally been home to citywide and regional public services. And as to the question of where to locate Roanoke’s Valley Metro bus service, many residents responded in a way that’s far older than the neighborhood itself: “Not in my backyard.”

Softer tone emerges in meetings between community, military over munitions plant pollution

What happened to smooth out relations between officials from the Radford Army Ammunition Plant and its neighbors in the New River Valley? A simple willingness to listen and share concerns. Also, $150 million-plus in recent and planned investments by the Department of Defense to build new facilities that will cut 95 percent of the plant’s emissions by 2023.

‘You’ve got to make your own:’ Rural parents struggle to access mental health services for kids

Parents who raise children with mental health challenges emerge with more wisdom and knowledge. Now, a growing number of programs seek to tap into that hard-won knowledge by utilizing these experienced parents to help other families dealing with the same issues.

Can elk help restore wildlife habitat and soil on strip mines? (YES! Magazine)

Central Appalachian communities are home to more than a million acres of former strip mines, many of which have been restored on the cheap.

Faced with the quandary of what to do with these lands, several states have used them as reintroduction sites for elk in hopes of enriching the habitat for diverse animal species—and, more to the point, the potential for an economic boost from tourist dollars spent by wildlife watchers and hunters.

For YES! Magazine, I visited an elk reintroduction site in southwestern Virginia and asked whether it might be a viable solution for reclaimed mineland. The answer: It’s complicated. Read more at YES! Magazine.

Virginia considers new methane regulations & pumped-storage hydro-fueled R&D (Southeast Energy News)

Virginia is considering regulatory action to restrict methane emissions, and the state legislature passed a bill to create a research and development authority based around the potential for pumped-storage hydropower and renewable energy development on former coal mines in southwestern Virginia.

Both of those stories were featured in 2019 in Southeast Energy News. Check them out.

Will 2019 be the year Virginia cracks down on methane emissions?

A task force is expected to propose new regulations to limit leaks from landfills and natural gas infrastructure.

Could pumped-storage hydro help Southwest Virginia reclaim its role as an energy hotbed?

A bill awaiting the governor’s signature would create a state authority to win grants and other research funding.

Can an outdoor adventure economy take root on former mines? (Ensia)

Communities throughout central Appalachia are looking for a future after coal. Part of that challenge involves figuring out what to do with former mines.

For Ensia, I visited St. Paul, Virginia, one among the many Central Appalachian coalfield communities building outdoor recreation opportunities to benefit the regional economy and fill a gap left by the dwindling coal industry. I found the early signs of an outdoor industry taking hold, and other communities like Dante, several miles up the road, seeking to follow the same path. Change doesn’t come easy, however, and the growing outdoor industry faces challenges from the effects of coal’s remnants on the environment, economy and culture.

Read the story at Ensia.

Supreme Court case looms over Virginia uranium ban, & local pipeline politics (Southeast Energy News)

The photo above shows the largest uranium deposit in North America, just north of Danville in rural Pittsylvania County, Virginia. It was discovered in the 70s, but Virginia lawmakers placed a moratorium on uranium mining in 1982. In early November, however, the Supreme Court of the US heard lawyers argue over whether the state moratorium runs afoul of federal law.

I looked at the history of the deposit, talked to locals, and previewed the case for the Energy News Network. Read the story at Southeast Energy News.

Also for Energy News Network, I looked at a pair of supervisors in Franklin & Montgomery counties (Va) who won election last year on platforms that included opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline. But their opposition is being tested with local decisions on gate stations that advocates argue could boost economic development. Read the story at Southeast Energy News.