Dino vs soldier

Dinosaurs meet the Civil War at Dino Kingdom II (Inside Appalachia)

At a roadside attraction in Natural Bridge, Virginia, dinosaurs face off against Civil War soldiers in a series of bizarre scenes. In one, a steampunk Stonewall Jackson with a trench coat and telescoping arm battles a Spinosaurus. Elsewhere, President Abraham Lincoln sits atop a building as a pteranodon makes off with his speech.

This is Dinosaur Kingdom II, a theme park that acts as a funhouse mirror that squeezes the nation’s history into an absurdist revisioning complete with slime monsters and mazes to nowhere.

As part of the Folkways Reporting Corps for West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia, I reported on Dino Kingdom II creator Mark Cline, his long road into weirdness, and how he’s passing the tradition on to younger artists like metal-playing, action figure-sculpting Brently Hilliard.

Listen to the Dino Kingdom II story at Inside Appalachia.

Image of Gatlinburg, TN

The history and future of work in Appalachia (100 Days in Appalachia)

100 Days in Appalachia asked me to think about the “the future of work” and what it looks like here. I considered how these kinds of stories often lean on utopian images of people with a high quality of life and plenty of leisure time — despite repeated historical patterns showing that technological advances like mechanization don’t often benefit workers and their families, which ultimately hurts communities.

Read Disrupted, the 100 Days in Appalachia series on the future of work.

For this series, I focused on three communities that represent a swath of themes and dynamics that repeat in variations across Appalachia.

In Georgia, Gainesville‘s proximity to metro Atlanta and tight-knit ties between public and private sectors make it one of the Appalachian localities best positioned for the future, according to the McKinsey firm. But its reliance on an under-documented, immigrant workforce starkly illustrates the income inequality that often accompanies economic prosperity. The pandemic exposed the cracks in the system even more.

In Tennessee, Sevier County‘s Dollywood, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have become models for other counties looking to emulate their success in attracting visitors. But Sevier County also suffers the ill effects of a global industrialized economy, and even a successful tourism economy relies heavily on part-time seasonal jobs with few benefits.

In Virginia, Dickenson County is emblematic of the challenges faced by coalfield communities across central Appalachia. As the coal industry has spiraled into waves of bankruptcy, historic mining communities face depopulation, struggling healthcare systems and failing infrastructure. Prisons have replaced mines as the most stable employer, but a rising generation of leaders hopes for a brighter future based around adventure tourism and telework.

Gainesville, Georgia, Sevier County, Tennessee, and Dickenson County, Virginia, present a snapshot of three communities on different paths. Collectively, they illustrate what’s at stake in Appalachia, and how we may yet author our own fates.

Read the three-story Disrupted series at 100 Days in Appalachia.

Central Appalachia, Powder River Basin coalfields face an uncertain future (Energy News Network, WyoFile)

Over the last several months, I collaborated with Wyoming reporter Dustin Bleizeffer on a six-part series about transition in coal communities of central Appalachia & Wyoming’s Powder River Basin

The difference between the regions is that central Appalachia has been on this path for decades — the lead anecdote in the final story is a 20something miner talking about the industry’s demise, all the way back in 1956 (via Howard B. Lee’s “Bloodletting in Appalachia”) — while in Wyoming, the decline has arrived much more suddenly, as state officials figured they had 200 more years of coal prosperity.

Read the full series:

Part one: What’s next for coal country?
Part two: Coal country faces a healthcare crisis
Part three: Coal communities increasingly rely on federal health programs
Part four: How lax fiscal policy has left states flat-footed as mining declines
Part five: Coal country envisions paths forward in manufacturing, reclamation and renewables
Part six: Survival is anything but certain for coal country

The Roanoke Tribune, recording and making Black history since 1939 (Inside Appalachia, WVTF)

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Roanoke Tribune publisher Claudia Whitworth three times in my journalism career.

A good 50% of the reason I bought an audio rig two years ago was because I wanted to capture a long interview with Claudia. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia gave me an opportunity to report not just on her, but three generations of her family, for a story on the Roanoke Tribune, which has been serving the city’s Black community since 1939. Claudia’s been there since 1945.

Check out my story on the Roanoke Tribune for Inside Appalachia. Although there’s a web story, this piece was intended for radio, so make sure to listen via the widget there. The story runs a little less than 9 minutes long.

A shorter version can be heard at the Roanoke NPR affiliate, WVTF.

Protests and pandemic: Virginia’s historic 2020 General Assembly session (Virginia Business)

The extraordinary 2020 General Assembly session in Richmond memorably demonstrated the extent to which COVID-19 has disrupted Virginia and most of the world. Yet the drama somewhat obscured what had been a momentous 2020 General Assembly session — the first since the 1990s in which Democrats controlled both chambers of the legislature. The partisan flip and sweeping changes to Virginia law will be felt across the commonwealth.

I covered what the session meant for labor and commerce, for Virginia Business. Read my story about the 2020 General Assembly session, along with a sidebar on its legislative highlights.

As coronavirus spreads, West Virginia is losing hospitals (Huffington Post)

As the coronavirus pandemic spread throughout March, two communities in West Virginia — a state whose health outcomes rank among the worst in the nation — grappled with the news that Williamson Memorial Hospital, in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, and Fairmont Regional Medical Center, located between the northern and eastern panhandles, were closing. And other hospitals across the state, and rural America, are struggling.

Read my story for Huffington Post, “For West Virginia’s Hospitals, The Financial Crisis Came First.

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.