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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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/
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
A task force is expected to propose new regulations to limit leaks from landfills and natural gas infrastructure.
A bill awaiting the governor’s signature would create a state authority to win grants and other research funding.