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
Virginians and West Virginians have been battling the Mountain Valley Pipeline in regulatory and legal arenas since it was announced in 2014, and on the ground since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved it in late 2017. The pipeline passes about 15 minutes from my house, and I’ve been covering it since the beginning.
Most recently, I looked at the long-running Yellow Finch encampment, which has blocked the pipeline in a hollow near Elliston, Virginia, for nearly two years. For Mother Jones, I spent time at Yellow Finch to consider how the site functions as a place where locals spend time with pipeline fighters from around the U.S., and how they all influence each other.
Read my Mother Jones story, “How a “Bunch of Badass Queer Anarchists” Are Teaming Up With Locals to Block a Pipeline Through Appalachia.”
More recently, I reported for the Daily Yonder on how the activists fighting MVP felt about the July cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a similar natural gas transmission project that’s twice as long and a couple of hours north of here.
I asked Red Terry, a landowner who occupied a tree sit on her own land for 34 days, what she’d say to others facing pipeline battles of their own. “These people need to fight it for everything they’re worth,” she told me. “Never give up.”
Read my story for the Daily Yonder.
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:
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.
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.
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:
The first day of Harlan County train blockade, July 29, 2019, in which Blackjewel miners stopped a coal-laden train from leaving a mine until they got their backpay, coincided with other ongoing protests in Appalachia:
- Day 89 of a 24/7 protest in Kingsport, Tennessee, over a monopolistic health care provider’s move to downgrade a hospital’s emergency services and close its neonatal intensive care unit, where sick newborns are treated.
- Day 328 of the Yellow Finch Lane tree-sits in Montgomery County, Virginia, where two anonymous tree-sitters and a small support camp block construction of the 303-mile, 42-inch wide Mountain Valley Pipeline.
That doesn’t include the region’s widespread teacher strikes of 2018, or the campaign against mountaintop removal mining that shook the coalfields in the mid-’00s.
For Yes! Magazine, I wrote about Appalachia’s heritage of protest and direct action just in the years since 2000, and how this legacy is being upheld, largely by women. Read the full story at Yes! Mag.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
A task force is expected to propose new regulations to limit leaks from landfills and natural gas infrastructure.
A bill awaiting the governor’s signature would create a state authority to win grants and other research funding.