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

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.

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.

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.

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.

How tying flies changed a veteran’s life forever (Inside Appalachia)

This story for West Virginia Public Broadcasting‘s Inside Appalachia program marks my first official foray into radio. I met Kyle Chanitz while writing a story for the Roanoke Times veterans magazine, and it stuck with me. So when I was hired as part of WVPB’s Folklife Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council, I immediately thought of Kyle and his flies.

Check out the story at Inside Appalachia.

If you dig these fishing flies, check out Kyle’s Instagram page at www.instagram.com/kyle_chanitz_fly_tying/

#folklife #realAppalachia

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.