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.

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.

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.

Roller derby, pipelines, hip-hop & hillbilly comics

If you’re looking at that headline trying to figure out a connection, those are all topics featured on Blue Ridge Free State in recent months.

The podcast was included in a Poynter story about independent journalism projects in under-covered parts of America. It’s a thrill to be included alongside Southerly and Postindustrial, among others.

Check out our recent episodes:

8: One team, one goal (w/ Twin Valleys Roller Derby)

This episode is all about roller derby in Appalachia, through the lens of Twin Valleys Roller Derby in Roanoke. We visited their home finale double-header, with Twin Valleys Roller Derby versus Rail City Rollers and then Virginia All-Stars versus the World. Interviews with team skaters Black Bolt, Tar Hellion, Wedneslay Addams & Speed Junkie. We also talk to Arrak-kiss of Houston Roller Derby, Bettie Lockdown of the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes, and Slingin Gritz of  Carolina Wreckingballs Mens Roller Derby—all past NRV Rollergirls. Plus, Mason spiels about his own past as a derby ref.

9: Inside the fight to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline

On this episode, we talk about the 2018 battles we saw in court and on the ground to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile interstate natural gas line connecting the Marcellus Shale formation in northern Appalachia with lines in the Southeast U.S. We hear a segment from West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia involving Mason’s reporting on tree sits to block the line in April. We hear more reporting from over the summer with the Mountain Valley Watch, a group of citizen scientists monitoring pipeline construction. And we wrap up with a look at where the movement goes from here, via a visit by a former Virginia State Water Control Board member to the Bent Mountain community on Jan. 2, 2019.

10: #TruthIsNotHate (w/ Poe Mack)

Byron Mack is a rapper, promoter, and beat maker from Salem, Virginia, who performs as Poe Mack. We talk about what it takes to rise up from the grassroots in a scene that doesn’t want to take chances on hip-hop, and what it takes to keep going strong 20 years into the game. We talk about how a new daughter and broken leg shaped the production of Poe Mack’s new album “#TruthIsNotHate.” Also: How the hip-hop scene in Appalachian mountain towns differs from that on the coast, how to build a home recording studio in the ’90s, and how to sell your CDs in the Walmart electronic section.

11: A century of Barney Google and 85 years of Snuffy Smith (w/ John Rose)

This episode features an interview with John Rose, the cartoonist who creates “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith,” the syndicated comic strip that turned 100 this year. Rose talks about how he goes about writing and drawing a century-old legacy strip, from his daily routine to the changes he’s brought to the characters since taking over in 2001. He also addresses Barney Google’s origins as a sporting strip all about horse races and boxing; Snuffy’s moonshining origins; why he brought back Barney after a 15-year absence; and how he responds to criticisms of the broad hillbilly stereotype that gave rise to Snuffy and which he still exemplifies.

12: Snuffy Smith through the eyes of an Appalachian historian (w/ Bob Hutton)

Like Mason, Bob Hutton grew up reading Snuffy Smith in the pages of his local newspaper. Unlike Mason, Dr. Bob is a history professor at the University of Tennessee who specializes in the American South and Appalachia, which gives him a great perspective on Snuffy’s place in pop culture and how it fits into the broader history of the hillbilly stereotype. This is a fun interview that goes in some unexpected directions.

Central Appalachia’s local government crisis (Southerly)

Coal’s decline in central Appalachia has decimated the tax base for local governments, and some are now cutting into waste management and even law enforcement.

The revenue squeeze from that diminished tax base is exposing financial mismanagement, worsening a dire economic situation, and resulting in partial government shutdowns and cutbacks in core government services like infrastructure, education, and healthcare.

I wrote for Southerly about this broad-based problem that’s affecting local governments around central Appalachia, but particularly in eastern Kentucky. Read the whole story at Southerly.

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.