Protests and pandemic: Virginia’s historic 2020 General Assembly session (Virginia Business)

The extraordinary 2020 General Assembly session in Richmond memorably demonstrated the extent to which COVID-19 has disrupted Virginia and most of the world. Yet the drama somewhat obscured what had been a momentous 2020 General Assembly session — the first since the 1990s in which Democrats controlled both chambers of the legislature. The partisan flip and sweeping changes to Virginia law will be felt across the commonwealth.

I covered what the session meant for labor and commerce, for Virginia Business. Read my story about the 2020 General Assembly session, along with a sidebar on its legislative highlights.

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.

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.

Three generations of car restoration in Roanoke (Inside Appalachia)

Appalachians have been tinkering for cars as long as there have been cars. The art of making moonshine and smuggling it from the mountains led to early stock-car racing and the roots of NASCAR.

Today, the Bennett family is sustaining the automotive tradition another way, by restoring vintage cars into pristine conditions, and sometimes by building them from the frame out. From Jack Bennett and his ownership of Perfection Auto Body, to his son Jeff Bennett restoring custom cars from the ’30s, to grandson Jeremy specializing in VW Beetles, the Bennetts are carrying on a family tradition.

Read and listen to my story on the Bennetts at Inside Appalachia, a program on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Or check out the full episode here.

On a related note, I’m honored to announced that Inside Appalachia has picked me up for a second year as part of its Folkways Reporting Corps, along with a number of talented individuals. Read more about the project and the other members who were selected.

Why Bernie Sanders won Floyd County (Virginia Mercury)

 On Super Tuesday, only three Virginia localities voted for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders over former Vice President Joe Biden in Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary: Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Floyd County.

On Wednesday, people were like, yeah, Charlottesville and Harrisonburg are college towns. Younger voters like Sanders, that makes sense. But rural Floyd County?!

As it happens, I reside in Floyd County, and so know a little bit about its peculiar melting pot of politics. A lot of this story is translatable to rural mountain politics writ large, and some of it’s unique to Floyd.

I had a blast reporting and writing this story. Read it at the Virginia Mercury.

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:

Virginia hemp growers face an uncertain 2020 (Virginia Mercury)

Farmers beginning the second year of Virginia’s legalization of commercial hemp are seeing a lot of uncertainty, both in governmental regulation and in dealing with processors.

Lots of hemp farmers jumped into the new market last year, resulting in a bottleneck among processors who turn the raw hemp into cannabidiol (CBD) oil. On top of that, federal regulators are still making changes to how they oversee hemp growth. State regulators are forging ahead on their own in the meantime.

It all adds up to a complicated market and regulatory environment for growers.

Read my story at the Virginia Mercury for more.

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.

As rural Virginia loses young people, schools look hard at consolidation (Virginia Mercury)

This one hit close to home.

I grew up in Alleghany County, Virginia, just outside the then-city limits of Clifton Forge. In 2001, Clifton Forge reverted from city to town status—an important distinction that significantly affects governance, taxes and services. The city had long since consolidated its schools with Alleghany County at that point. The school consolidation happened in 1983, just about the time I was starting elementary school.

Now, Alleghany County and the city of Covington are considering a similar school consolidation. And so are several other localities around Virginia, mostly in areas experiencing population loss. Alleghany County, for example, has seen a 16% and Covington a 22% decline in population from 1990. But consolidation and local identity can be tricky, with decisions involving many more factors than just figures on paper.

Read the full story at the Virginia Mercury.