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.

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.

What Virginia’s off-off-year elections mean for 2020 (New Republic)

Virginia’s 2019 elections saw Democrats win control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since the 1990s. These new majorities are more diverse and progressive than any legislative body in state history.

How did it happen? In this advancer that ran the week before the elections, I charted the events, individuals, and dynamics at play in Virginia’s historic “off-off-year” elections, in which no statewide or congressional offices were at stake but all 140 seats in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates were up for re-election. Read more in the story at the New Republic.

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