A tree-sit occupied by "Acre" at the Yellow Finch encampment near Elliston, Virginia. Photo by Mason Adams

6 months co-hosting Inside Appalachia (West Virginia Public Broadcasting)

I began co-hosting WVPB’s Inside Appalachia with Caitlin Tan back in November 2020.

It’s been an amazing ride, and a new challenge for me to adapt to radio. It’s weird to hear one’s recorded voice on the computer, much less on my local WVTF/Radio IQ. I really enjoy working on the program. The team behind it is fantastic and it’s a joy to work with them.

Co-hosting Inside Appalachia also has given me the chance to 1) share stories by journalists across the region; 2) interview amazing people; 3) engage with meaningful stories through a regional frame. #3 sounds wonky but it’s a lot of the reason I got into journalism back in 2001.

Here are some of the stories I’ve produce for Inside Appalachia. A lot more to come, y’all!

Below, find a selection of episodes and stories for Inside Appalachia.

I’m excited to continue making these shows and working with such a great team.

Nina McCoy, left, and her husband Mickey McCoy. Nina is the leader of Martin County Concerned Citizens. Photo by Lyndsey Gilpin

What happens to local governments when coal revenue dries up (Southerly)

Two years ago, I wrote about how some eastern Kentucky counties were struggling with falling tax revenues, largely due to coal’s decline. Some places struggled to provide basic government services such as law enforcement and waste management, while others held partial government shutdowns.

Last week Southerly published an update, which like the 2019 story looks largely at Martin County, Kentucky. A lot of people are excited about the possibility of a major federal infrastructure package that could shower the area with project money. Yet after more than a half century of the War on Poverty, many others feel skeptical about the prospects of positive, meaningful change.

Read “Biden vows to support struggling Appalachian counties. But residents are weary of failed promises.” at Southerly.

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

Pipeline resistance continues (Mother Jones, Daily Yonder)

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.

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:

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.

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.

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 short history of direct action in Appalachia since 2000 (Yes! Magazine)

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.