Glidepath To Recovery: Flying Squirrels And Spruce Forests Share Common Fate Monday, Mar 9 2020 

squirrel close up

U.S. Forest Service district biologist Shane Jones stands on an overlook high up on West Virginia’s Cheat Mountain. Behind him lush, red spruce trees stand like sentinels on this frozen landscape. As he looks out, small patches of green dot what is largely a view of the barren, brown trunks of leafless hardwoods. 

More than a century ago, this high-elevation ecosystem, now located inside the Monongahela National Forest, would have been dominated by the evergreen spruce. After being logged and suffering from fires in the 1880s through early 1900s, today an estimated 90 percent of this ice age-relic of an ecosystem has been removed from West Virginia. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A rare stand of old red spruce trees in WV.

And that has been a challenge for another iconic species: the West Virginia northern flying squirrel. 

“We always say as the spruce goes the squirrel goes,” Jones said. As he hikes through a rare virgin patch of red spruce forest, he explains the interconnected relationship the northern flying squirrel and red spruce forest share. 

Over the last decade, efforts to help both the squirrel and spruce recover are showing some promising signs, but that there is dispute about whether those efforts are enough. 

Tight Relationship

A mature high-elevation red spruce forest will have a mixture of trees of different ages. There will be big trees, as well as fallen trees that create a hole in the canopy that allows smaller trees to grow. The diversity makes the forest resilient. The cool, moist climate of red spruce forests, coupled with the dead needles — or leaf litter — the trees shed, allow rich soils to build up on the forest floor. 

“It’s completely different than the soil that develops under hardwood forests or other forests,” Jones said. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Cavities in older trees provide shelter for the squirrels.

And it’s important fodder for mycorrhizal fungi, which develops on the root tips of red spruce trees in the deep organic soils created in these high-elevation forests. The layman’s term for these mycorrhizal fungi: truffles. And that is the meal of choice for the northern flying squirrel. 

“They have this really tight relationship with spruce forest,” said Cordie Diggins, a research scientist at Virginia Tech who studies flying squirrels. 

The small, nocturnal rodents are notoriously hard to catch. And they don’t actually fly, they glide, she said. The northern flying squirrel spent almost three decades under federal protection. In 2013, it became one of the few species to have its protections removed under the Endangered Species Act, a process known as delisting.   

Recently, federal biologists released a status report for the West Virginia northern flying squirrel. It was largely optimistic. It found in the five years since delisting, the squirrels are still found across much of their range and in some new areas. 

Jack Wallace, Courtesy WV DNR

A flying squirrel in flight.

But not everyone is convinced the northern flying squirrel is thriving since its delisting. Noah Greenwald directs the endangered species program for the Center for Biological Diversity. The conservation group sued and won protections for the northern flying squirrel in the mid-2000s. He’s concerned wildlife managers don’t really know how many squirrels are out there. 

“They just have some, you know, sort of somewhat sporadically collected information showing squirrels to be present or absent in different areas,” he said. 

And he has concerns about the forest restoration work itself. 

“They’re taking out these big hardwood trees that are part of the squirrels’ habitat and they’re planting young red spruce which aren’t currently habitat and won’t be for a while,” Greenwald said. 

The small gliding rodent is notoriously challenging to trap, which is the traditional way biologists estimate population, said Diggins at Virginia Tech. 

“In a perfect world, we would be able to catch a ton of squirrels and get an idea of population, but that’s not always possible for rare species,” she said. 

Ugly Restoration 

Back in the truck, Jones, the USFS biologist, begins driving to the Mower Tract, a 40,000-acre parcel of land owned for decades by the Mower Land and Lumber Company that was logged and mined for decades. In the 1980s, the land was purchased by the Forest Service and for the last decade, this has been where much of the red spruce restoration has been happening in the Monongahela National Forest. 

At first glance, he concedes, it’s not the most pleasing picture. 

“We call it ugly restoration,” he said with a laugh. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A young red spruce grows in the Mower Tract in WV.

Under its reclamation obligations, the company restored much of the Mower Tract. It bulldozed the land back into roughly its original shape and planted trees on the surface. To an outsider it looks like, well, forest. 

But Jones points to signs the ecosystem here is not thriving. Trees have stopped growing and big, open patches of land show little sign of life besides some grasses. Soil testing in the region has confirmed a few centuries ago this land was red spruce forest. That is what Jones hopes it will be again. 

To get there, the restoration staff tries to recreate conditions conducive to a healthy red spruce forest. Dozers are used to tear through the earth and break up the ground so tree roots can penetrate through the soil. Some of the existing hardwood trees are ripped out of the earth and left on the landscape to decay. These “snags” as biologists call them provide crucial animal habitat. Contractors also build wetlands. 

About a year after this work is done, volunteers come in and plant a variety of species including red spruce. At one area of the Mower Tract, a few years old, knee high green baby spruce trees dot the brown landscape growing up among the twisted, decaying limbs of downed hardwoods. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

U.S. Forest Service district biologist Shane Jones.

“What we’re doing is we’re taking an area that was like a biological desert, stuck in arrested succession, the ground was compacted, and we’re putting it back into a forest that eventually, like a long time for now, will be a functional red spruce ecosystem,” Jones said. 

Restoration work on the Mower Tract is a partnership between USFS, Green Forest Works and the Appalachian Regional Reforestation initiative. Since 2011, more than 760 acres have been restored and more than 350,000 plants planted in the Mower Tract. More than 150,000 red spruce have been planted, according to a project report released in 2019. 

Jones said red spruce planted here have about a 90 percent survival rate. 

Barb Sargent, Courtesy WV DNR

Biologists tag and release a northern flying squirrel.

While re-establishing a red spruce ecosystem is the primary objective of the project, the work also creates early successional habitat, which supports hunting. The creation of wetlands helps with water quality and in the long term will boost the sequestration of carbon, Jones said.

The spruce restoration effort is also important in the face of climate change. Warming threatens the endangered ecosystem. Because of their status as high-elevation forests, they have little room on the landscape to shift northward as temperatures climb. Red spruce forests are also possible climate refugia for species that may flee lower elevation climates as they warm. The central Appalachian mountains are an important wildlife migration corridor, Jones said.

The work also increases the odds that one day the West Virginia northern flying squirrel will thrive here too. “I think 50 years [for] squirrels is not unrealistic,” he said.

 

Rural Americans Increasingly Concerned About Opioid Addiction, Study Finds Thursday, Jan 9 2020 

Researchers at Harvard University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that rural Americans identified drug addiction and economic concerns as the most serious problems facing their communities. 

An open-ended survey of 2700 rural adults aimed to identify the major concerns of rural voters, and found that 25 percent of rural Americans said drug addiction was their biggest concern for their community, and 21 percent said the same about economic concerns. The striking illustrate the dramatic toll of addiction on rural communities, which have generally struggled to recover from the 2009 recession.

A higher share of respondents, about four in 10, ranking opioid addiction the most serious problem facing their community was significantly higher in Appalachia, where the opioid epidemic struck sooner and harder than in other parts of the country. That matches separate research from 2017, which found that the rate of overdose deaths per 100,000 people is higher in rural places than in metro areas. 

“When you ask an open-ended question question like that, the idea that four in 10 people would say the same thing is unheard-of,” said lead researcher Mary Gorski. 

The findings suggest that in rural parts of the United States, which have struggled to recover from the 2009 recession, drug addiction has emerged as a significant problem on par with economic concerns. 

The findings come as rural communities across the country reckon with the consequences of the opioid epidemic. In 2015, 1.5 million people living in rural areas misused prescription opioids and heroin, and 5,000 rural Americans died of overdose that year. The Ohio Valley ReSource reported recently that schools are adapting to higher rates of children with neonatal abstinence syndrome, and Ohio Valley communities are at the forefront of creative programs for addiction recovery. 

Affordable healthcare was also identified as a problem in rural areas, with nearly a third of respondents saying they had trouble paying medical bills. 

Interestingly, respondents said they felt that outside help was necessary to sole their communities’ problems. 

“Rural communities have been traditionally characterized as very self-reliant, so we asked people, ‘Do you see a need for outside help?’” Gorski said. “A majority of respondents said they did see a need for outside help, including a major role for government to play.” 

The survey comes as the 2020 presidential election kicks into high gear, and both Democratic and Republican candidates are eager to win rural votes. 

“In this partisan era, opioids are one of the big bipartisan issues out there. Solving the opioid epidemic and bringing funding and treatment and some major policy solutions to rural areas is something that both parties will do something about,” Gorski said. 

President Donald Trump recently named the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, and the Department of Health and Human Services has awarded $1 billion to address the crisis. 

Portal 31: How A Closed Mine Opened New Prospects For One Coal Town Monday, Nov 11 2019 

Portal 31Devin Mefford is sitting in the squat metal buggy of a modified mantrip, the train-like shuttle coal miners use to travel underground. Mefford is dressed for work, in a hardhat and a navy shirt and pants with lime green reflective stripes.

It’s a uniform his father and grandfather — both Kentucky coal miners — would be familiar with.

Mefford does go into a mine every day, but not for the coal. He’s the tour guide at Portal 31, a train ride through a once-operational coal mine in Harlan County.

“People are amazed,” the 21-year-old says, gesturing to the dark mine entrance behind him.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Portal 31 tour guide Devin Mefford.

Portal 31 first opened in 1917. A subsidiary of U.S. Steel operated the mine and built the nearby community of Lynch, which was at the time the world’s largest coal camp. At its height, 10,000 people lived in the community, including a diverse immigrant population from more than 30 countries.

When it closed its doors in 1963, Portal 31 had produced more than 120 million tons of coal. More than 40 years later, in 2009, the mine reopened — this time to tourists.

For 35 minutes visitors ride the rail cars, often in pitch darkness, on a journey not just through the mine, but back in time. The drawling voice of an actor playing a miner named Mike Mackenzie, or Mac, narrates.

“We’re going to visit the miners and see how it’s changed over the years,” he says. “First stop, 1919.”

An animatronic miner materializes out of the darkness. Another actor gives voice to an Italian immigrant named Joseph, who recounts what it was like for the thousands of people who came to work in the mines in the early 1900s. Next to his lifelike form is a robotic mule and chirping canary.

“The mine she’s cool and safe,” he says. “You will see to that won’t you cantante. As long as I can hear your song I know I’m safe.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A scene from inside Portal 31.

Visitors hear what it was like to mine for coal before and after mechanization. They also learn about Harlan County’s bloody conflicts over union organizing.

“This is a story that never needs to die. It’s a story that needs to be told,” Nick Sturgill, director of Portal 31 said. “People need to understand what these guys went through, but they also need to understand how prosperous a place this was at one time — what coal not only did for this city, but for this region, for this country, for this entire world.”

He said about 5,000 visitors from around the world take the ride under Black Mountain each year. It’s a bright spot for Lynch, which today is home to just a few hundred residents.

Like many former mining communities, in recent years Lynch and neighboring towns have turned their sights on attracting tourists. It’s often a costly endeavor, but in recent years the federal government has expanded its support for repurposing old mine lands as new economic engines, including to draw new visitors.

Federal Role

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Portal 31 was part of that effort. In 2018, the attraction was awarded a $2.55 million Abandoned Mine Land Pilot grant. The funding will be used to update the ride as well as nearby historic buildings for use as retail and office space. Some of the money is slated to go to a new parking lot and scenic overlook at nearby Black Mountain.

“The main outlook on the AML grant is to really just be a shot in the arm for all of Lynch as well as Harlan County,” Sturgill said.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Central Appalachia has thousands of acres of abandoned mine sites that can threaten local economies and people’s health and safety. In 1977, Congress created the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program to clean them up. The funds come from fees paid by active coal mine operators on each ton of coal mined. The fee and authorization of the AML Program is set to expire in 2021 without Congressional action.

The AML Program chiefly provides funding for reclamation.  In the last five years, federal support has grown for a slightly different approach — going beyond merely sealing mine portals and treating polluted water to supporting projects that could grow local economies.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Appalachian Regional Commission in 2015 began investing in coal-impacted communities through Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER Initiative. Congress appropriated money from the U.S. Treasury to create the AML Pilot program in 2016, aimed at not only boosting reclamation work in the highest-need Appalachian states, but promoting projects that spur economic development and growth on abandoned mine lands.

“There’s significant economic benefits that communities can get from embracing mine reclamation,” said Joey James, with the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, which advocates for sustainable reclamation investment. “There’s also opportunities to repower some of these sites that were once the lifeblood of these communities.”

James, who is a senior strategist at West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies, said projects with federal backing can attract other investors looking to make an impact.

“While these federal programs are really, really important, and we need to have them, I think what the AML Pilot program does is it offers an opportunity to develop enterprises on former mine sites that might pull private capital and create models for redeveloping and reusing mine sites that won’t rely entirely on federal funding,” he said.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Portal 31 attraction takes visitors into an underground coal mine.

Another federal proposal, the RECLAIM Act, would accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine land by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period with an eye toward economic development. That bill has not been passed by Congress despite bipartisan support.

Critics argue the millions poured into these programs have failed to produce the desired outcomes. Some efforts planting lavender or apple trees on old strip mines have floundered. James said it’s important to objectively assess the effectiveness of projects receiving federal funding.

“If states are investing in projects that aren’t providing that opportunity in the future, we need to think of how we can be better,” he said.

Growing Pride

Back inside Portal 31, the mantrip snakes its way back toward daylight.

A group of visitors from South Carolina is milling around in the small gift shop. They’re visiting the area on a mission trip. A gaggle of middle school-aged kids excitedly share what they learned.

“We learned how difficult it was and how dangerous it is for them,” one says. Another adds his amazement that Portal 31 holds the record for most coal mined in a single day — a record set in 1923.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Devin Mefford emerges from Portal 31.

Mefford, the guide, takes questions at the end of the tour. He says the most common one he’s asked is if coal is coming back.

“In all honesty, coal mining is a thing of the past, and it’s sad to say that for small towns like mine,” he says.

But he adds that makes Portal 31, and federal investment into both preserving and showcasing Kentucky’s coal heritage, even more important.

“Every person in this community deserves to have something to be proud of, and that’s what we do here,” he said.

SOAR At Six: Group’s Lofty Goals For Coal Country Meet Challenges On The Ground Monday, Sep 16 2019 

In a conference hall in Pikeville, Kentucky, this September, Gov. Matt Bevin led an eager audience in a countdown. When the audience reached “One!,” a map on the screen behind the governor lit up with the promise of a high-tech future.

After years of delay and scandal, major portions of the commonwealth’s “middle mile” of high-speed internet were complete.

“There are so many negative haters, so many people who pooh-pooh things and say this can’t happen, it’s not possible,” Bevin told the crowd. “But I’ll tell you what. We’ve never quit.”

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Matt Bevin announce the completion of east Kentucky’s “middle mile” of high-speed internet.

The event was the annual summit of a group called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, founded in 2013 to help guide the flagging counties of Appalachian Kentucky into a new, post-coal economy.

SOAR leaders have largely emphasized improved internet service and increased industrial development. But despite the organization’s recent progress, local development officials struggle to fill vacant industrial parks, large areas still lack high-speed internet, and many coalfield residents remain unconvinced that the organization holds the key to a new future.

Limited Scope

SOAR began in the winter of 2013, when 1,700 east Kentucky business leaders, elected officials, agency heads and concerned citizens gathered in that same Pikeville conference center to hatch a bold new agenda. With 27 percent of east Kentucky coal mining jobs lost in just one year and no turnaround on the horizon, the only option was to chart a new path towards a more diverse central Appalachian economy.

Community leaders fanned out across the 54 counties comprising Appalachian Kentucky. They held listening sessions with thousands of Kentuckians and turned in recommendations that included items like involving incarcerated people in community gardens, supporting local artists, and identifying hotspots of air and water pollution resulting from coal mining.

The effort was bipartisan, spearheaded by east Kentucky’s longtime congressman, Republican Hal Rogers, and Democratic former governor Steve Beshear.

The Rural Policy Research Institute said of the inaugural summit, “Everyone there knew the region was ready to respond to the urgency of the moment with a renewed commitment to working in greater unison, toward a preferred future.”

But when SOAR’s leaders turned the working groups’ recommendations into a blueprint for the organization, working group members found them somewhat changed. The organization would start by championing KentuckyWired, the commonwealth’s fiber-optic internet system, and then, with that critical 21st-century infrastructure in place, it would go full throttle on improving health outcomes, developing a tech-savvy workforce, and germinating growth in the region’s industrial and small-business ecosystem.  As Congressman Rogers put it in 2019, the focus was “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Joyce Pinson of Friends Drift Inn Kitchen displays jams and jellies.

But KentuckyWired quickly became mired as costs ballooned and its timeline extended. As most of the eastern Kentucky lagged behind the rest of the country in access to internet, communities continued to struggle to retain residents and build a sustainable economy.

“[SOAR] started as a really great idea, where they were seeking a lot of input from a lot of different people,” said Ivy Brashear, Appalachian Transition Coordinator for MACED, an economic development organization that was involved in SOAR’s early working groups, but has since stepped back. “Over time it has shifted into their approach being outside investment and industrial recruitment,” she said.

Brashear pointed to a recent solar energy project MACED had financed, which helped four Letcher County groups adopt solar energy.

“We believe that shifting the way that energy works is a big deal, and it matters to communities, it matters to them saving money, it matters to what they then are able to do with the money they saved. And what we see in places where we’ve helped people transition to solar is, it can be the difference between them staying open and them closing their doors.”

SOAR officials did not return a request for comment, but its principals told the Lexington Herald-Leader last year that its objectives were long-term, and it had been successful in building connections across eastern Kentucky.

The crowd at SOAR’s sixth conference was a bit thinner – about 800, according to executive director Jared Arnett. The event featured a start-up pitch competition and 92 booths running the gambit from addiction recovery programs to an international drone port. Highly produced videos touted projects conceived of and championed by SOAR, projects like the high-tech greenhouse AppHarvest, and teleworks operation Digital Careers Now.

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Kentucky entrepreneurs show their products at the 2019 SOAR Summit.

Infrastructure And Industry

Some working at the ground level see a long way to go to meet SOAR’s goals.

“There’s tremendous opportunity that people can take advantage of with our workforce down here, and they don’t realize that,” said Bill McIntosh, who worked as a coal miner for 40 years before taking a grant-funded position as Perry County’s economic development coordinator. Part of his job is luring new businesses to the 236-acre Coalfield Industrial Park that Perry County shares with four nearby counties. Like other industrial parks in the region, this one was built on reclaimed surface mines in the hopes of attracting new businesses to a region desperate for a new source of employment.

McIntosh lamented that as more mine land across the region has been turned into build-ready land, companies have their pick of locations, and businesses he hopes to bring to the industrial park often find one thing or another to make them decide against it.

Siting industrial parks on mine land brings its own challenges. “Sometimes it is remote in that it doesn’t have gas, or it doesn’t have broadband or it doesn’t have rail,” McIntosh said. “That’s going to disqualify you as far as having your site selected for a company to come in and set up shop.”

Part of McIntosh’s job, he said, is shifting outsiders’ perceptions of who Appalachians are. “A lot of people are still seeing negative stereotypes: poverty-stricken area, uneducated workforce. That’s not true,” he said. “The major population group in our workforce, [people aged] 45-64, these are people that come from a industrial background. They can easily be cross-trained in other sectors of industry.”

Perry County’s Coalfields Industrial Park is currently home to a FedEx distribution facility, a trucking company, and a call center that is known for its frequent layoffs. A potential new development was recently announced for the industrial park, an aluminum company that could employ as many as 265 people once it’s up and running. The community in 2018 received nearly a million dollars to bring natural gas to the industrial park.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The focus on industrial growth hints, too, at an unstable future for the region. A recent Brookings Institution report found that manufacturing sector jobs are among the most vulnerable to automation. With other job losses likely in food service and transportation sectors, it is projected that the Ohio Valley could lose about one quarter of its jobs to automation. Some counties in the SOAR region could lose up to 65 percent of their jobs.

MACED’s Brashear said the region’s transition would require work on multiple fronts, but she worried about focusing too heavily on industrial development. “I think our history shows that that doesn’t necessarily work, it doesn’t necessarily build a sustainable economy that isn’t trying to figure it out every 10 years or so.”

Wired For Growth

Broadband access is a challenge across the Ohio Valley. The internet provider data service BroadbandNow estimates that 7% of Ohioans, 9% of Kentuckians, and 22% of West Virginians lack the critical 21st-century infrastructure. Those figures mark an improvement from just a few years ago. In 2017, for example nearly 20% of Kentucky homes lacked broadband service.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

SOAR officials hope that reliable, fast internet will help the region retain its workforce and compete for high-tech industries. In fact, SOAR was a part of early conversations about a statewide broadband network, for which bids were solicited in the summer of 2014. The Kentucky Communications Network Authority, a government agency, would spearhead the construction of 3,000 miles of fiber-optic cable, a “middle mile” that would bring high-speed internet to government offices and other key buildings, and would allow private internet service providers to hook in, for a price, to bring wireless internet to businesses and communities across the region.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

But the “last mile” to connect rural, dispersed homes and businesses, is still a challenge. KCNA interim executive director Deck Decker says residents may have to wait anywhere from six months to several years before broadband is available in their homes and businesses.

“We’re going to try to get in local civic leaders, business leaders, we’re going to get in a room and start discussing this last mile and see who has the best plan,” Decker told a small crowd at the SOAR summit. “I don’t think anybody in this room will tell you they’ve got a magic bullet that’s just going to automatically make the last mile appear in, you know, Harlan County, but we’re going to give it our best,” he said.

Decker said each community would need to find the best way for it to make use of the fiber-optic network, whether it be a private company, a public investment, or a public-private partnership. But the investment will likely be a hurdle for rural counties with far-flung communities.

“I’ve had major providers sit in my office and say, if they can’t get a payback on their investment in 18 months, they can’t do it, because they can’t build a business case for it,” Lonnie Lawson said. Lawson is a KentuckyWired board member and CEO of the Center for Rural Development. He hopes to provide some seed money to help internet service providers justify the investment expense.

Lawson said he hopes the network will allow more Kentuckians to work from home or in high-tech careers, and will help Kentucky students complete digital homework in their own homes.

“It’s about the only solution of trying to keep our best and brightest in the region,” Lawson said. “Otherwise, if we don’t have job opportunities, then our young people are going to leave, and our region is going to suffer year, after year, after year.”

‘Bloody Harlan’ Revisited: Blackjewel Miners Draw On Labor History While Facing Uncertain Future Monday, Aug 12 2019 

Curtis Cress sat in the gravel beside a railroad track in Harlan County, Kentucky. Tall and thin with a long, black beard, Cress is every bit a coal miner, or, he was until a month ago.

“It’s part of my heritage, you know? My dad and papaws had always done it,” he said. “And I’m proud of that heritage.”

Cress had been at these railroad tracks for days, with little sleep. Not far down the rails sat a row of hopper cars filled with coal from his former employer, Blackjewel Coal.

In the last month, Cress and his fellow miners have gone from moving coal out of the ground to stopping coal in its tracks. Blackjewel’s chaotic bankruptcy filing on July 1 left about a thousand miners like Cress with bounced checks and unpaid bills, and largely in the dark about their future.

Aerials_Miners_On_Tracks-2Curren Sheldon

An aerial shot of the encampment that has grown up around the protest site.

Days turned into weeks, and miners had no way to know if they still had jobs, or health insurance, or access to their retirement savings.

On July 29, five miners saw an opportunity. A train full of coal was leaving a Harlan County loading facility. The five men clambered onto the railroad tracks to block the train. More than a week later, they hadn’t left.

“If they can move this train, they can give us our money!” miner Shane Smith said.

That rag-tag group quickly grew to a full-fledged protest camp, complete with solar showers, a chore list, and a rotating schedule of miners to hold the place down. Community members brought food. Politicians stopped by to make speeches.  Kids played cornhole on the tracks.

“We’re suffering, our kids are suffering, water’s getting cut off,” Austin Watts said. “As long as I gotta stay here, I’ll stay.”

Miners_On_Tracks-37Curren Sheldon

Protesting Blackjewel miners in Harlan Co., KY.

Arnold Shepherd, a miner from Leslie County, Kentucky, was among those who said the protest recalled an earlier period in Harlan County history.

“This thing here, it puts you in mind of ‘Bloody Harlan,’ back years ago,” Shepherd said.

Bloody Harlan. The name comes from the nearly century-long and sometimes violent struggle between coal companies and workers seeking to unionize.

“Harlan is one of the locations used to undercut wage stability for the rest of the country,” Northern Illinois Univ. labor historian Rosemary Feurer said. Harlan miners started to organize in the 1920s, a struggle that culminated in a long and violent strike in 1931. Miners picketed again in the early 1970s, again sparking violence. “What the miners were saying is, we can’t be basically just extraction engines and robots and tools left to die of black lung,” Feurer said.

Today, the protest is peaceful. The union is largely gone from Kentucky mines. And the entire coal industry is a fraction of what it was decades ago. Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, though more chaotic than most, is just one of many recent shocks to a declining coal industry. Dozens of companies went under in the past decade, and despite a coal-friendly president rolling back regulations more have followed. In 2019 alone, BlackHawk Group LLC, Cambrian Coal LLC, and Cloud Peak Energy Inc. all went bankrupt.

With lower union representation and an expectation of more bankruptcies to come, miners’ advocates and industry watchers worry that coal miners and mining communities will suffer the brunt of the industry’s decline. The Blackjewel miners who took to the tracks are following in a long history of worker protest in Harlan County. They are also stepping into an uncertain future for themselves and their community.

Scene Of Labor Struggles 

“You have to look at ‘Bloody Harlan’ in a long history of a bloody coal industry,” said labor historian Feurer, who has written about the region and legendary labor organizer Mother Jones.

Feurer said the coal industry pushes the full cost of coal onto workers’ health, on workers’ wages, and on the environment. The United Mine Workers of America, Feurer said, arose from workers’ demands for better treatment.

Robert Gumpert, from the Appalshop Archive

Women of the Brookside women’s support group talk with tow truck operator at a roadblock in 1974.

“It’s not only bloody for the labor violence, but for the death toll,” she said, from mining accidents and black lung disease. “It’s more than most wars.”

The UMWA negotiated its first successful wage increase in 1898, and went on to fight for eight-hour workdays and standard measurement for coal. The union helped miners weather the mining industry’s boom and bust cycles, and many of the union’s hard-won health and safety standards are still in place today.

Mine operators viciously opposed miners’ efforts to unionize, particularly in Harlan County. In the bloody 1930s coal wars, miners known to be union members were fired and evicted from company-owned homes. Soon enough, most miners had gone on strike out of solidarity.

Conflict broke out again the 1970s in what was known as the Brookside strike. Two miners were shot, and one died in a strike that lasted over a year and resulted in a new contract.

Robert Gumpert, from the Appalshop Archive

Victory photo after the Highsplint mine voted to join the UMWA in 1974.

Labor Losses

But union membership is in decline across the country, and the miners’ union has declined faster than most. Between 1997 and 2017, overall mine employment in the Ohio Valley dropped by 50 percent. Union participation has declined much faster. Between 1997 and 2017, Ohio Valley miner participation in unions has dropped by 76 percent.

“The reason that unions have really been imperiled in the southern parts of the country,” said Feurer, “is because they’ve been told the only way the South can rise again is by being a non-union, anti-union reserve for companies that were moving from the unionized areas of the north.”

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Feurer said that even though the Blackjewel miners are acting without a union, their protest follows the tradition of labor action in the area.

“Putting their bodies on the lines is what I see is historically connected,” she said. “People who risk themselves, that is what has resonance to a long body of history.”

The Blackjewel miners still feel a strong sense of solidarity with their fellow workers. “If you work in the coal field, you spend more time underneath that mountain than you do with your own family,” said miner Shane Smith. “These men are like a brother to me.”

Some UMWA retirees and other union workers have joined the Blackjewel miners on the tracks in a show of solidarity.

UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith said he thinks Appalachian coal miners lost their sense for the power of unions in the coal slump in the 1970s. Mine employment was low for nearly a full generation of workers entering the labor force, Smith said, effectively breaking the chain of stories passed from father to son, stories of how unions improved working conditions and fought for better wages.

By 2017 there were no union miners left working in Harlan County, and only a handful in all of Kentucky.

Phil Smith worries that a weak union puts miners at risk of losing protections that previous generations of miners fought for. “The minute that a government who is intent on doing away with many of these worker protections feels like they can without there being any political blow-back from doing it, they’re going to do it,” he said.

Policies like so-called “Right to Work” laws, which have been passed in 28 states, including Kentucky and West Virginia, threaten the economic viability of unions. Still, Smith finds hope in teachers’ strikes around the country, and efforts to unionize other workplaces. “I think we’re seeing a resurgence in people making sure they have a voice at work.”

Curren Sheldon

A quiet moment for miners and their supporters.

Chris Lewis was one of the first five Blackjewel miners who blocked that train on July 29. The bankruptcy has been a struggle, he said, but he and his wife have it better than do workers with young children.

Lewis has complicated views on unions. “I was raised union, and I believe in the union. But I also believe in a man’s right to feed his family, you know what I’m saying?”

He resents miners who call strikebreakers “scabs.” Still, Lewis thinks he and his coworkers wouldn’t be in this predicament if they had been in a union.

After his experience with Blackjewel, Lewis isn’t ready to give up on the industry. But he is giving up on Kentucky. Lewis leaves Kentucky later this month for a job in a coal mine in Alabama. In that new job, he’ll be a part of a union.

‘The end game’

The uncertainty many Blackjewel miners feel about their future is true for the coal industry as a whole. Declining demand and competition from cheap natural gas from fracking has led to the closure of eight coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley since 2010, with more planned to shut down in the future.

“No matter what policies are developed and put forward in D.C.,” said the UMWA’s Phil Smith, “the fact of the matter is, coal-fired power plants are closing.”

Additionally, renewable energy makes up an increasing share of the nation’s energy portfolio. For the first time this year, renewable energy exceeded coal in percentage of energy generated in the United States.

In 1997, there were about 18,000 coal jobs in Kentucky. In 2017, there were about 6,200. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, coal production has fallen most sharply in Central Appalachia compared to other coal-producing regions.

Kentucky Coal Association spokesperson Tyler White said his group is committed to fighting for the longevity of the industry.

“The coal industry is still struggling with a lot of over-burdensome regulations that were put in place under the previous administration,” he said. Most energy analysts contest that view, and point instead to the market forces driving coal’s decline.

Similarly, the UMWA’s Smith said that he’s not ready to give up on coal. He fears significant regulation to prevent further climate climate could put the coal industry out of business, and he views the union’s role as advocating for policies that would promote clean, safe coal mining and keep miners employed for generations.

Blackjewel’s bankruptcy has been messier than most. But Clark Williams-Derry, the director of energy finance for Sightline Institute, a research organization based in Seattle, says we should expect more chaotic bankruptcies like it.

“We’re sort of in the early stages of the end game, I would say, of the coal economy,” he said.

Williams-Derry worries that in the chaos of Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, some mine lands may end up without money to pay for reclamation, and he thinks future bankruptcies may have the same result as fewer companies want to take on risky mines. The costs of worker pensions, land reclamation, and other debts may well be passed on to taxpayers, or left unpaid altogether.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” he said. “We don’t really know what happens when the industry is shrinking so rapidly that we see mines just simply abandoned.”

IMG_4328Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Blackjewel miners and supporters enter the federal courthouse in Charleston, WV.

Down The Line

A marathon bankruptcy hearing in federal court brought mixed news for the Blackjewel miners. The auction of Blackjewel properties attracted enough buyers to generate money to go toward some of the wages owed, and lawyers representing the miners were able to win some concessions from other Blackjewel creditors.

Still, when attorney Ned Pillersdorf addressed the protesting miners on the tracks, he was clearly managing expectations.

“You know I’ve told you that bankruptcy is kind of like a funeral home,” he said. “Nobody leaves happy.”

Kopper Glo, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based mining company that purchased some of Blackjewel’s Kentucky properties, has committed to pay $450,000 to cover miners’ wages. That is expected to cover about 35 percent of the total amount owed to Blackjewel workers. Kopper Glo has also said it hopes to rehire many of Blackjewel’s workers, though it has made no legal commitment to do so. Blackjewel miners worry Kopper Glo will pay less than Blackjewel did.

“I was a roof bolter, I made $25 an hour,” said Shane Smith. “A belt man, they make $22. A different company comes in, what’s to say everybody won’t make $20?”

Kopper Glo said it could not answer specific questions, but said in a press release that the company “has a plan to re-start certain operations and is confident this plan will bring jobs back to many of the former Blackjewel employees. Kopper Glo is also committed to funding to the portion of the back wages due to the employees.”

Miners_On_Tracks-63 (1)Curren Sheldon

Near the scene of the miners’ protest in Harlan Co., KY.

In days spent occupying the train tracks, the Blackjewel miners have plenty of time to consider what their future holds. Do they return to work and hope their new employer doesn’t meet the same fate as the last? Do they try to retrain in a new industry? Or do they look for another job, knowing they may never make as much money as they did in the mines?

“This ain’t a game, we ain’t a bunch of kids,” said miner Caleb Blevins. “We’re grown men with families. Around here in the Appalachian mountains, this is all we got, the coal mines. We’re too far in to try to go to college for 12 years. Our kids need us now, not in 10 years.”

Miner Tim Madden also just wants to get back to business as usual. “I think if they’d roll up here and issue us all a check, I’d be out of here, end of story.”

But Curtis Cress said he’s done with the industry. “You never know from one day to the next if you’re going to have a job,” Cress said. “They’ll get you used to making a whole lot of money and then take it away.”

A father of four, Cress is at risk of losing his home. He says he feels hopeless about what comes next, both for him and for central Appalachia. He thinks his best bet is to find work in manufacturing. He hopes his kids leave the region when they’re old enough.

The miners occupying the Harlan County train tracks say they’ll stand down when they see Kopper Glo’s money in their bank accounts. With mining starting up again in some of Blackjewel’s former mines, some men will likely be headed back underground.

But for many miners, and for the coal industry as a whole, it’s hard to know what’s coming down the tracks.

Benny Becker, Brittany Patterson and Jeff Young contributed to this story.

New Prescription: Ohio Valley Native Dr. Patrice Harris Is First Black Woman To Lead AMA Monday, Jul 15 2019 

Dr. Patrice Harris took the oath in June to become the first African-American woman to serve as president of the powerful American Medical Association, the largest professional association for physicians in the United States.

Harris also brings another unique perspective to the job as someone who grew up in rural Appalachia.

“I was born and raised in Bluefield, West Virginia, in the heart of coal country,” Harris said. “My father worked on the railroad. My mother taught school. So I have a unique and personal connection and understanding of the region.”

She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology, a master’s degree in counseling psychology and medical degree from West Virginia University. Though she has long practiced psychiatry in Atlanta, Georgia, she keeps her connection to the region with regular home visits and by serving on the WVU Foundation board.

Via AMA Facebook Video

Dr. Patrice Harris is inaugurated as the AMA’s president during a ceremony in June.

Dr. Harris, MD, MA, began serving on the AMA’s board of trustees in 2011 and was nominated to serve as that board’s chair from 2016-2017. She has led the organization’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic as chair of the Opioid Task Force since its inception in 2011.

She has also served in leadership positions with the American Psychiatric Association, the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association, the Medical Association of Georgia, and The Big Cities Health Coalition.

Harris was elected last year to lead the AMA.

I recently spoke to her about what the appointment means to her, her ties to the Ohio Valley region, and how she thinks the AMA can help the region face some of the nation’s toughest health challenges.

Breaking Barriers

AARON PAYNE: What does it mean to you to be the first African-American woman elected as president of the AMA?

PATRICE HARRIS: It is certainly an honor and a privilege to be the first African-American woman president of the AMA. I know that I can stand as tangible evidence that young girls from communities of color can aspire not only to be physicians, but to be elected to the highest office of the physicians of this country.

PAYNE: What do you think it means to the AMA to have a woman of color as president?

HARRIS: Being president of the AMA is the culmination of many years of work, dedication and sacrifice. Not just from me, but by those who have been my supporters in the AMA, also my physician colleagues in psychiatry and from Georgia. 

The president is the highest elected office of the AMA and is the primary spokesperson for the policies and the work of the AMA. I believe that the AMA is very proud, again of the work of all of its presidents, those proceeding me, but certainly there is some additional pride I believe in my currently being the first African-American woman to hold this office. 

And not only that, for the first time the AMA will have women as the immediate past president, the president, and the president-elect, so that is another wonderful accomplishment that the AMA is celebrating.

Courtesy AMA

AMA President Dr. Patrice Harris (center) stands with the immediate past president Dr. Barbara McAneny (left) and president-elect Dr. Susan Bailey.

PAYNE: With your connection to the region, what would you say are the most pressing issues specific to here that you feel the AMA can help address?

HARRIS: The AMA is an organization that sets policy and then advocates for that policy on the federal level and certainly with the partners at the state level, for instance, the West Virginia State Medical Association. 

We definitely highlight the burden, both the human cost and the financial cost of chronic disease. I know that in West Virginia, there is a significant burden for those who have diabetes, who have high blood pressure, those who have an opioid use disorder, so the AMA has strong policy. 

We’ve been advocating for increased funding. We want to make sure we increase understanding that substance use disorder is a brain disorder. It’s a chronic illness just like diabetes and hypertension.

At the AMA, we’re strong supporters of the Affordable Care Act because we wanted to make sure that those who were uninsured or under-insured had access to healthcare. We know that in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio there are a significant number of folks who don’t have access to healthcare.

Certainly the expansion of Medicaid was critical in getting access to healthcare, so that people can go to their physicians and get treatment for their diabetes, and their hypertension, and their opioid use disorder. And get treatment early, so that they don’t feel like they have to wait until the disease has progressed, or that they don’t feel like the only option for care is the emergency department.

Strategic Arcs

Harris’ tenure finds her working to improve the health of patients and improve working conditions for doctors in an interesting time.

The Affordable Care Act, which the AMA supports, is again being debated in a federal appeals court over questions of its legality. The case is likely heading to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Her time will also be spent implementing and advocating for policies that fall under the AMA’s core strategic arcs: attacking dysfunction in the healthcare system, re-imagining medical education, and confronting the chronic disease crisis.

HARRIS: Regarding attacking the dysfunction in healthcare, we know that regulatory burdens, electronic health records are a significant cause of physician dissatisfaction and, unfortunately, burnout in the physician community. The AMA is working on several fronts to address that issue certainly to reduce the amount of paperwork and the regulatory burden. In fact, we did a study several years ago that showed that for every one hour physicians spend in caring for patients we spend two hours in [paperwork and desk work], and so we’re working on many fronts in that area.

We have been working on those areas for some time regarding changing and innovating the way we train the next generation of physicians. We have, over the last several years, awarded grants to medical schools first and now to graduate medical education programs. Those are the residency training programs that we physicians do after we graduate medical school. The AMA has awarded over $30 million dollars in grants to schools and other affiliated institutions to innovate and look at how we can all innovate in training the next generation of physicians. 


When it comes to decreasing the burden of chronic disease, we are working in the areas of pre-diabetes because we are imagining what we can do if we prevent people from getting type 2 diabetes. We are working in the hypertension space. We know that so many of us are walking around with high blood pressure and don’t know it. We’re working with physician practices to develop ways to make sure that folks who have high blood pressure are getting the treatment that they need, and certainly we know that then prevents later strokes and other health issues.

Of course as a psychiatrist, I’m highlighting the connection and the importance of incorporating mental health into overall health care, the importance of addressing trauma early on, so that we can prevent a disease burden related to trauma.

And finally, increasing the diversity of the physician workforce and amplifying the AMA’s new work on health equity.

Addiction Policy

The Ohio Valley region has some of the highest fatal drug overdose rates in the nation. It was also considered a “canary in the coal mine” for the epidemic.

Opioid painkillers overprescribed by doctors and shipped in waves to “pill mills” by manufacturers and distributors fueled the addiction crisis in small, rural towns across the area. 

The AMA’s Opioid Task Force that Harris chairs recently released its 2019 Progress Report on the epidemic. It highlights how improving doctor education about opioid painkillers and overprescription contributed to successful reductions. It also offers recommendations the AMA believes can break down barriers to treatment.


HARRIS: I think it is important to talk about what’s working. We highlight the numbers regarding the decreasing number of opioid prescriptions that are written, around 28 percent nationwide over the last four to five years. Physicians have been enhancing our education on opioid prescribing on pain, and so there is progress.

I do want to say, now we do want to be judicious in our prescribing, but we also don’t want to limit patients who have pain. We don’t want to limit their access to appropriate pain care and opioids do play a role in pain care.

There is an area [that can be improved upon] regarding access to treatment. Across this country, only 2 in 10 people who want opioid use disorder treatment have access to it.

We highlight the fact that there are more physicians and other health professionals who are trained to provide MAT, or medication assisted treatment. That’s the evidence-based treatment for those who have an opioid use disorder. 

We need to make sure that we vigorously [minimize] regulatory burdens – we call those prior authorizations in our world. I may have to fill out a piece of paper or may have to make several phone calls before a patient can get into treatment. Well that delay in care could mean death, and so the AMA is highlighting that issue.

We work with several states also to make sure that state insurance commissioners are holding their insurers accountable for parity, making sure that coverage for substance use disorders and other mental disorders is on par, is the same, is at the same level as coverage for other medical illnesses.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Our progress report, as you note, highlights the progress that has been made and really points to areas where we need to continue to work. We can work with state regulators, and insurance commissioners, and attorneys general to make sure that barriers are eliminated.

PAYNE: Another recommendation made in the report is to lessen the burden of “step therapy,” where people with a substance use disorder will be required by insurance to try a certain treatment before they can be approved for another. In rural regions like ours where a treatment option may not be available, people are left with traveling miles and miles to get treatment. As advocates, how do you convince people making those decisions to take into account regions like ours?

HARRIS: The AMA always brings it back to the patient. We have to make sure that the patient is first and that the treatment options are based on what the patient needs, not what an insurance company has decided should be first. We always highlight the need to put the patient first, and take into account where the patient is, and the services available.                  

Regarding location, we need to make sure that services are available. We could use some innovation there. But you’re right, we should be looking at the patient, and the patient population, and the resources in making sure patients get what they need and not what’s on a piece of paper, or in an algorithm or in a step therapy document.

PAYNE: What do you see as the role of physicians in continuing to combat the opioid epidemic moving forward?

HARRIS: There are many complicated factors that lead us to where we are today in this opioid epidemic, but what we wanted to do [by forming the Opioid Task Force] was demonstrate physician leadership. You may be aware, our first set of recommendations came out in 2015, and those recommendations were specifically geared towards what physicians could do and it was to sign up for our state database programs.                                       

You may be aware, or your listeners may be aware of the physician drug monitoring programs. Those are the programs where physicians can check to see what other medications, particularly opioids and other medications that might interact negatively with opioids. What other medications our patients are on? We encouraged our physicians to do that.

We encouraged in those first recommendations for physicians to enhance our education…and they did as evidenced by the progress report. Our second set of recommendations, as we discussed earlier, was about what can we all do as a community because physicians alone cannot solve this problem. It requires partnerships with state and federal government. 

Mental Health

Harris plans to use her background as a psychiatrist to advocate for bringing mental health care into the primary health care system.

For rural areas like the Ohio Valley region where mental healthcare facilities can be scarce this will include making more mental health resources accessible.

Harris believes there are things that can be done to help this process along.

HARRIS: I am a child and adolescent psychiatrist, so certainly I’ve seen over the course of my career the importance of integrating mental health care into overall health care. For so many years there has been a stigma associated…with having a mental disorder, whether that’s depression, or bipolar, or schizophrenia, or a substance use disorder. Talking about it, elevating it in the conversation, bringing it into our primary care practices, there are many models to do that.

States and practices are using telemedicine, which means seeing patients through the use of computer and working with patients remotely. There are many models working. I believe New Mexico has a Hub and Spoke model, and again, not not just for mental health. There is innovation out there.

Actually, I keep in contact with the West Virginia University. I serve on the WVU Foundation and I’m back often. I know that in West Virginia they’ve been using, the psychiatry department, has been using telepsychiatry for many years.

Now it’s a matter of funding and making sure that those services are paid for in both our public and private payers. Again, a role that AMA plays in advocacy and of course a state medical association.

PAYNE: Is there anything you’d like to talk about that I didn’t ask about or anything additionally you’d like to add?

HARRIS: The only issue we haven’t talked about that I raised in my inaugural address was the need to focus on trauma and childhood trauma, ACES work. It stands for Adverse Child Experience Survey. We know that adults who experienced certain traumatic events in childhood are affected later…by cardiovascular disease, diabetes, heart disease.

The other issue that I just want to highlight, and I think we should talk more about in our country, is childhood trauma and the need to make sure that we have the resources available to address early socio-emotional learning in our children. And when our children have experienced trauma, we need to make sure there are systems in place to support them after they have experienced a trauma.