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.

How tree sitters hope to delay and block the Mountain Valley Pipeline (Blue Ridge Outdoors, Belt Magazine)

Since late February, a series of tree sitters and their allies have placed their bodies in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile interstate line intended to move natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the Southeast.

I’ve covered this story a few different times in a few different places.

For background, read my 2015 Roanoke Business story on the various pipeline proposals and my 2014 Grist story about how craft brewers were lining up against them.

The tree sits first went up on Peters Mountain, beside the Appalachian Trail near the Virginia/West Virginia line, in late February. In early April, a mother and daughter stationed themselves in trees on their land in Bent Mountain, and later that month, tree-sitters went up in Franklin County, to the east.

My first story on the tree sits appeared in Blue Ridge Outdoors in late April and covered what had happened up to that point.

In early May, however, Red and Minor Terry, the mother-daughter pair on Bent Mountain, were forced down by a court order. I live-tweeted their descent and collected those tweets at Medium. Another story also was published by Blue Ridge Outdoors.

When I was writing that first story for Blue Ridge Outdoors, a guy said to me, “Those people are way too late. They should have been fighting it years ago.” Thing is, the pipeline opponents HAVE been fighting for years, and they’ve more or less done everything right along the way: Packing open houses, filing public comments that right time, activating opposition around assets such as the Appalachian Trail, collecting scientific data to refute the pipeline’s filings, etc.

So I wrote a story for Belt Magazine specifically for the Rust Belt, Appalachian & Midwestern communities that stand in the paths of more than 100 pipelines planned for the near future, many of them moving fracked natural gas from the Marcellus & Utica shale formations. What can they learn from the tree sits & the broader fight against the Mountain Valley Pipeline? You can read that story here.

Meanwhile, the battle between the tree-sitters and MVP construction crews continues. The Franklin County tree-sitters were forced down by a federal court on Memorial Day, leaving one original tree-sitters on Peters Mountain, plus a nearby aerial blockade of a National Forest access road that was blocked for more than 50 days by one woman who has since been replaced by another.

The odds against stopping the pipeline remain long, but the sitters are buying time for a half-dozen or more court proceedings to play out. The story is still unfinished.

Don Blankenship has turned WV’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate into a 3-way race (New Republic)

When he first entered the West Virginia Republican primary for U.S. Senate, I kind of wrote off Don Blankenship’s campaign as an effort at rehabbing his image after a year in prison. But now, five weeks out from the primary election, it appears that the former apex predator of blood capitalism is in the hunt.

Read my story about Blankenship’s background & the current moment at The New Republic.

How Roanoke reinvented itself by bringing housing to a fading downtown (CityLab)

In 1979, Roanoke was a blue-collar New South city built around the Norfolk & Western railroad. The city core was decaying as businesses and residents moved outward to suburbs and adjacent counties.

Today, the Star City has become what so many cities of its size, geography, and history want to be. It’s burgeoning, chock full of craft beer, and eminently welcoming to outdoorsy Millennials. As small cities struggle to retain young people, Roanoke is attracting them.

How did this happen? And what does downtown’s transformation mean for nearby neighborhoods like historic Gainsboro?

Read the full story at CityLab.

Appalachian communities hoping to build a new outdoor economy see threat from Trump (100 Days in Appalachia)

After years of building their regional economy around extractive industries, many Appalachian communities now are tapping into their bountiful outdoor assets to draw tourists—-and perhaps manufacturers and other job creators.

Places like Roanoke, Virginia, have created a new model for economic development, pairing traditional lures like workforce and infrastructure with an emphasis on livability and access to outdoor recreation.

Substantial challenges remain, however—-including President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which would gut a number of programs crucial to economic diversification efforts.

Read the story at 100 Days in Appalachia.