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

Over the last several month, 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.

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.

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.

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.

A podcast about politics, culture, history & life in Appalachia

In late September, I soft-launched Blue Ridge Free State, a podcast about politics, culture, history & life in Appalachia. If you remember There’s Nothing to Do Here!, my regional zine 2003-05, it’s like that but with all the politics I’ve covered since then.

Since the launch, we’ve released six episodes, with more coming soon.

Subscribe on iTunes or on Stitcher.

Here’s a brief rundown on the first seven:

 

1: Our Nerds in Washington (w/ Amy Friedenberger)

In our first episode, we talk about why Donald Trump is campaigning in West Virginia. We also interview Amy Friedenberger, politics reporter for the Roanoke Times, about the 2018 midterm races in Appalachian Virginia.

 

2: Mountain State Melee (w/ Jake Zuckerman)

On this episode, we talk about Donald Trump’s recent swing through Appalachia for Republican candidates for US Senate, and why he’s trying to make it all about himself. We also interview Jake Zuckerman, politics reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail about the West Virginia teacher’s strike, Gov. Jim Justice’s recent PEIA presser, the Manchin/Morrisey race for US Senate, the Miller/Ojeda race in southern West Virginia, and how healthcare is playing as an issue.

 

3: Can Democrats win in a post-Trump Appalachia? (w/ Kyle Kondik)

On this episode, we talk with elections analyst Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, about a variety of House, Senate, and gubernatorial races in the Appalachian region. We consider how opposition parties have fared in midterms since the 1990s, with a focus on Appalachia.

We also hear an excerpt with Mason and Madelyn Beck of Harvest Public Media from Us & Them, a West Virginia Public Broadcasting podcast about political and cultural divisions in America.

 

4: MDC—Marcin Dishes Candidly (w/ Deanna Marcin)

On this episode of Blue Ridge Free State, we talk about punk and LBGT history in Roanoke, Virginia, and how those two came together at the Backstreet Cafe.

We interview Deanna Marcin about the recent controversy of MDC’s show, how it was cancelled, and how it was rescheduled. She also talks about her journey as a transsexual woman, how she landed in Roanoke, how she came to work at the Backstreet Cafe, the atmosphere there in the years that followed a fatal shooting rampage, how she started booking punk and metal, and what’s happened since then.

 

5: Under Construction—Trauma, Urban Renewal, & 25 Years of Activism in Roanoke (w/ Brenda Hale)

On this episode, host Mason Adams interviews Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke Branch NAACP. Topics include childhood trauma, urban renewal, politics, activism, the Confederate invasion of the 2015 Roanoke Christmas parade, and much more.

 

6: 2018 Midterm Election Wrap-Up

On this episode, Mason looks back on the 2018 midterms and how they played out in Appalachia. And he looks ahead to the podcast’s near-term future.

 

7: Mountain healthcare, from VW Beetle to Drone Delivery (w/ Teresa Gardner Tyson of SWVA’s Health Wagon)

On this episode, we interview Teresa Tyson Gardner of the Health Wagon, a free clinic serving a vulnerable population in Southwest Virginia’s coal counties.

Teresa talks about the past, present, and future of the Health Wagon, the challenges to addressing healthcare in the mountains—but also how that need drives innovation and creative approaches.

Also, Mason talk about why a Roanoke city school superintendent gave copies of JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” to all of her principals ahead of the 2017-2018 school year.

Legendary West Virginia energy writer wins “Genius Grant” (Southeast Energy News)

I’m an unabashed fan of Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Ken Ward. I started reading his stories and Coal Tattoo blog when I was a reporter at the Roanoke Times, and I was fortunate enough to meet him in person during an Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) training in Charleston.

So I was pretty thrilled when Southeast Energy News asked me to do a Q&A with Ward about being awarded a MacArthur Grant.

Read the Q&A at Southeast Energy News.

How a Democrat is poised to win re-election in one of Donald Trump’s best states (The New Republic)

West Virginia gave Donald Trump gave Trump his second-biggest percentage of the vote (67.9 percent) and his second-biggest margin of victory (41.7 percentage points) in the country in 2016, with only Wyoming voting bigger for the president.

Yet as the summer of 2018 wound down, incumbent U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin maintained a tangible lead over Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey——even with Trump campaigning for Morrisey in Charleston.

I wrote for the New Republic about how Manchin’s near-universal name recognition, his campaign’s tight focus on West Virginia, and his draw of a challenger—-as well as how his strengths matched up against Morrisey’s weaknesses–put him in position to win re-election even in one of Trump’s best states.

Read the story at the New Republic.

Coal baron Don Blankenship is standing trial after 29 people died in his mine (Grist & Vox)

The autocratic, micro-managing, bludgeoning style that won throwback Appalachian coal baron Don Blankenship the ire of environmentalists, the fear of underlings, and the title “Dark Lord of Coal Country” from Rolling Stone may finally have caught up with him.

The opening arguments began this month in Blankenship’s federal criminal trial. He faces charges of conspiring to avoid safety laws and lying to regulators that could put him behind bars for up to 31 years.

Blankenship casts a long shadow over the Appalachian coal industry. Since the early 1980s, he’s fought labor unions, regulatory agencies, environmental activists, and other coal companies. Under his guidance, Massey Energy grew to become the fourth largest U.S. coal producer, and the largest in Appalachia, by the time of his retirement at the end of 2010. He became known not just for his business exploits, but for railing against “greeniacs” (his term for environmentalists) and what he called a “War on Coal,” carried out by federal government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Blankenship’s downfall was triggered by the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 men and was the worst coal disaster in 40 years. Four separate investigations found that poor safety practices in the mine allowed for the explosion, which occurred when a spark from a longwall machine, which cuts huge slices of coal, ignited a pocket of methane, creating a fireball and triggering a bigger explosion when it hit piles of coal dust.

Read my preview of Blankenship’s criminal trial at Grist or at Vox.