The Elk, The Tourists And The Missing Coal Country Jobs Thursday, Oct 22 2020 

Stacy Kranitz, special to ProPublica

Recently strip mined land at the Appalachian Wildlife Center.

Standing at the site of a long-abandoned, multimillion dollar industrial park in November 2016, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers urged residents in southeastern Kentucky’s Bell County to envision the tourism potential for miles of open land.

Joined by Matt Bevin, then Kentucky’s governor, and local politicians, Rogers pointed to the expanse of forestlands and mountaintops in the distance as he unveiled a $12.5 million federal grant for the Appalachian Wildlife Center. Rogers, a Republican who represents the state’s Appalachian region, had helped secure the money through the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program, a federal initiative designed to foster economic development around former coal mine sites in Kentucky and other states. 

The proposed state-of-the-art facility would include a museum and local artisan market where visitors could learn about nature. The center’s biggest attraction: the elk that roam the area.

“Let me assure you this is a worthy project that we are investing in,” Rogers said during the gathering. “The Appalachian Wildlife Center has the potential to transform tourism in our region. There is no place in the country with a better story than eastern Kentucky.”

Nearly four years after the announcement, and three years after the wildlife center was first supposed to be completed, the land is still largely untouched except for a few pens to hold elk and some water utility construction. The projected infusion of hundreds of thousands of tourists has not materialized. And Bell County residents, a third of whom live in poverty and fewer than 1 in 10 of whom have a college degree, are still waiting for an influx of jobs from yet another effort promising to help the area recover from the decline of the coal industry.

The AML Pilot Program, created in 2015, is among the latest efforts that pledged to change the fate of eastern Kentucky. State and federal leaders have directed hundreds of millions of dollars to the region over the past 50 years as part of multiple economic revitalization efforts.

Those investments have resulted in some improvements, including new hospitals and other health care facilities, job-training programs, and some businesses that have come and stayed. But many projects haven’t lived up to expectations, leaving residents waiting for an economic lifeboat that never seems to arrive. 

Stacy Kranitz, special to ProPublica

Downtown Pineville, Kentucky, a small town in Bell County near the future site of the Appalachian Wildlife Center.

Since its inception, the AML Pilot Program has awarded $105 million to 43 projects in the state with little vetting. Some projects like the wildlife center have taken far longer to complete than promised, with no consequences. And lofty projections for job creation, visitation and tourism revenue made by the wildlife center and other projects went largely unchallenged by the state, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica found. 

An industrial park in Martin County was awarded $3.37 million in September 2019 even after a consultant warned that the project had “fatal flaws,” including its location near a federal prison. Two other industrial parks that received funding have already lost, or are at risk of losing, major businesses after pledging large numbers of jobs and related economic growth.

And a $2.5 million grant to Harlan Wood Products LLC in 2016 was tabled after the company was unable to obtain additional private funding. The Harlan County business, which is now dissolved according to the Kentucky secretary of state’s office, had planned to produce wood pellets for biomass fuel, employ up to 35 people and create about 60 indirect jobs.

For the wildlife center, pledges of economic turnaround soared even as the projected opening date was repeatedly delayed. The center is now expected to open in June 2022, according to the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, the nonprofit organization that is responsible for its construction.

“We’re actually building it. Nobody’s ever done anything for tourism like we’re doing,” said David Ledford, president and CEO of the nonprofit foundation. He said project delays have been primarily due to construction challenges on the reclaimed mine site and a request by federal authorities for an additional environmental assessment. The coronavirus pandemic also has pushed back construction, according to recent reports submitted to the state by the foundation.

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which oversees the distribution of AML Pilot Program funding to states, did not respond to a request for details about its application review process. But three officials familiar with the process, who aren’t authorized to speak publicly, told KyCIR and ProPublica that the agency does no independent scrutiny of grant applicants’ claims. 

State officials also could not provide KyCIR and ProPublica with records showing that they verified the tourism and job projections. In fact, a committee appointed by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet secretary has helped to dole out millions in taxpayer dollars without maintaining any records of discussions or votes, as required for public bodies, KyCIR and ProPublica found.

The committee, which helps determine how the program’s federal tax dollars are spent, is not required to comply with state transparency laws, according to state officials who argue that it is not a public agency because it serves in an advisory capacity to the cabinet secretary. 

State and local programs across the country that offer incentives for economic development repeatedly come under scrutiny for failing to achieve job creation and revenue benchmarks. 

The AML Pilot Program falls within a gray area that sometimes escapes deeper examination. 

The federal government has gradually given states more decision-making authority over grant distribution and oversight, said Brett Theodos, a senior fellow and director of the community economic development hub at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. 

But the AML Pilot Program stands out because the federal agency responsible for distributing the funds does not appear to have provided clear parameters and measurements for success, he said. 

“The lack of expert decision-making, public meetings or outcome tracking makes (the AML Pilot Program) open for abuse,” Theodos said.

Disney-like Experience

The announcement on building the wildlife center came nearly two decades after the failure of an industrial park project on the same site.

The state spent more than $10 million to buy the land, build a bridge over the Cumberland River and run a three-lane, paved road up to the mountaintop, where the industrial park would be located.

But no industry came. The park sat empty for more than a decade. 

Stacy Kranitz, special to ProPublica

This sign is all that remains of a proposed industrial park. Nearly two decades later, the Appalachian Wildlife Center would choose to build on the same site.

Then, in 2014, Ledford announced plans to construct the Appalachian Wildlife Center. At the time, Ledford said he was considering five counties as potential locations for the center, which would be funded solely through private donations.  

The following year, Ledford chose Bell County.

Ledford said in 2015 that the project, which would encompass 12,000 adjoining acres, would draw 580,000 visitors and generate more than $113 million for the region in its fifth year in operation. “We will not seek any government funding for the project. It will be funded thru private donations,” Ledford said in a news release that projected a 2017 completion date. 

After three years of operating at a net loss, the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation sought to bolster funds for the center by seeking an AML Pilot Program grant.

In an application filed in 2016 by the county, the foundation offered more ambitious tourism numbers than it had a year earlier. Not only would the center draw 638,000 visitors in its fifth year in operation, it would spur the creation of more than 2,000 jobs in the region.

By the time Rogers announced the AML Pilot Program funding later that year, the foundation was projecting that the center would be complete in 2019.

Ledford did not respond to a request to explain why he sought government funding after vowing not to do so. He has said that the state and federal governments vetted the economic projections. 

But hundreds of pages of federal and state documents related to the Appalachian Wildlife Center project show no indication of any independent assessment or critical vetting by the state or the federal government of the tourism and job creation projections. At least three federal documents, including a 2019 report, repeat almost verbatim the project application’s claims for visitation, job creation and revenue generation. 

In 2019, foundation leaders estimated that the center would open in June 2021. By its third year, it would make $8.5 million after operating expenses, they said. The projection was based on new estimates of 850,000 visitors annually, starting in its third year, and average per visitor spending of $44 on admission fees, food and gift shop items.

“We’re going to build a first-class tourism destination and we’re going to deliver a Disney-like experience,” Frank Allen, a foundation board member, said during a presentation last year. “I know it sounds ambitious and it is but, bear with me, at one point so was Disney World. Ultimately, all you need is a great plan and a lot of money. We’ve got the plan and most of the money.”

Stacy Kranitz for ProPublica

A screenshot of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s Facebook post in 2016 announcing the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program grant for the Appalachian Wildlife Center and showing the proposed rendering

Stacy Kranitz, special to ProPublica

Four years later, the future site of the visitor center still lies empty.

The Appalachian Wildlife Foundation’s tourism projections exceeded by nearly 300,000 the number of visitors last year to western Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, one of the region’s leading tourist attractions and home to the longest-known cave system in the world. 

Ledford said the projections stem in part from his belief that the wildlife center will generate more visitors and revenue than the Keystone Elk Country Alliance in northwest Pennsylvania, which was created in 2009. The facility attracts more than 481,000 people annually, according to its website.

The wildlife center hopes to capitalize on tourists traveling to other destinations, including resorts such as Pigeon Forge, a mountain town two hours away in eastern Tennessee that is home to Dollywood, and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, which is a seven-hour drive from Bell County. About 94% of the center’s visitors would be from outside the state, according to the foundation’s estimates.

“Our visitors are not going to spend three or four days here,” Ledford said in an interview. “It’s not the end destination. It’s a stop on the way to someplace.”

Stacy Kranitz, special to ProPublica

An elk pen at the future site of the Appalachian Wildlife Center in Bell County, Kentucky.

Jeffrey Larkin, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor who teaches ecology and conservation, is skeptical that the wildlife center will be able to live up to its projections.

“I would say that the challenges that lie before the Kentucky facility would be, ‘If you build it, would they come?’” said Larkin, who received his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Kentucky and who once conducted fall elk tours in the Appalachian area of the state. “It’s in a part of Kentucky that’s not often visited by a lot of people.”

A New Program, Another Promise

Nestled in the southeastern corner of the state at the juncture with Virginia and Tennessee, the land that would become Bell and Harlan counties was cemented in the region’s history when frontiersman Daniel Boone blazed a trail through the Cumberland Gap in 1775.

The counties also reflect in many ways the Appalachian region of which they are a part: They are breathtakingly beautiful, largely rural, overwhelmingly white and significantly poor. 

The remote counties, among 38 deemed economically distressed in eastern Kentucky, have long wrestled with high poverty and unemployment rates. But a struggling coal industry hastened economic contractions for rural communities in Appalachia.

In the past decade, coal production in the state’s Appalachian region dropped from 67 million tons to 13.6 million, forcing the elimination of most mining-related jobs, which plummeted from 13,000 in 2010 to 3,400 in 2019. 

“Coal’s hold over eastern Kentucky has long dampened creativity, long-term planning, alternative economic development, the ability to think in terms of the public good rather than personal gain and adequate taxes with which to support public infrastructure and services,” said Ronald D. Eller, former director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky and a retired history professor.

Rogers, the politician who earned the nickname “Prince of Pork” because of his success earmarking funding for his district, has been at the center of many of the infusions of federal dollars for the region he represents. In June 2015, he chaired the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, which pushed for the AML Pilot Program as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill.

Lawmakers created a new pot of money, setting aside $90 million in 2016 to create new job opportunities and stimulate the economies of Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia by developing reclaimed mine sites. The program later expanded to include three additional states and three Native American tribes.

The federal government distributes the money but allows state officials to develop their own criteria for selecting the projects and monitoring their progress.

“This is a thoughtful alternative to help hard-hit communities reinvigorate their economies by using abandoned mine land to develop hospitals, community centers and much more,” Rogers said in a June 2015 news release after his committee’s approval. 

Rogers has since promoted the program as a key economic driver in Appalachia. In a 2018 news release, he called it “one of the most successful job creation and tourism initiatives that we’ve ever had in Eastern Kentucky.” At the time, none of the projects had been completed.

Rogers defended the money spent on various projects that have drawn limited results. 

“There isn’t a silver bullet that can lift our region out of generational poverty, and none of our local officials who have applied for an AML grant believes that one project in an industrial park or an exciting new tourism project will lift their county out of poverty,” Rogers said in an email. 

Kentucky officials acknowledge that the state’s oversight of the projects focuses on planning and construction, not on expectations for economic development. Once construction is complete, state oversight largely ends, leaving no consistent accountability system for measuring whether the investments drew promised economic changes to the area.

John Mura, a spokesman for the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, said the administration of Gov. Andy Beshear is committed to helping to improve the economy in coal communities and considers the AML Pilot Program an effective tool. 

While agreements with grantees do not clearly articulate oversight responsibilities once projects are completed, Mura said the cabinet “may require that the grantee continue to submit an annual report on various metrics such as job creation.” 

“This program has brought a good measure of economic vitality to eastern Kentucky in the past four years and there is every expectation that under the Beshear administration, it will continue to produce new jobs and new economic vitality in this part of the state,” Mura said in an email. He did not respond to questions about which circumstances might trigger the request for annual reports.

Mura pointed to two projects that he said have led to an additional 44 jobs in eastern Kentucky. 

Dajcor Aluminum, a business operating in the Coal Fields Regional Industrial Park in Perry County, has hired 31 employees since the county received a $6.5 million AML Pilot Program grant in 2018 to buy equipment for the company. SilverLiner, a tanker truck manufacturing company, also has hired 13 employees, Mura said. The company is located in Pike County, in the Kentucky Enterprise Industrial Park, which received a $5 million AML Pilot Program grant in 2016. 

Stacy Kranitz, special to ProPublica

A coal miners flag in the front yard of a home in Middleport, Kentucky.

James P. Ziliak, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky, said the eastern part of the state could be in worse shape without government investments such as the AML Pilot Program. But he worries about the lack of a broader strategy. 

 “It’s kind of a failure of economic development policy,” Ziliak said. “A lot has been spent, but has it been spent in the right places? And there have been a lot of empty promises over the years.”

Banking on Tourism

The Appalachian Wildlife Center is not the only tourism project in eastern Kentucky banking on big promises to uplift the region.

A Letcher County nonprofit, the EKY Heritage Foundation Inc., was awarded two AML Pilot Program grants totaling nearly $3.5 million in 2018 and 2019 after promising to transform more than 100 acres of “stagnant land” into Thunder Mountain, a “world-class” sport-shooting and archery resort park. The park would draw an estimated 40,000 annual visitors, according to the nonprofit’s application.

The completed project would employ 40 to 50 people and include shooting ranges, campgrounds with cabins, an amphitheater and a training site for law enforcement and the military. 

The application offers no supporting evidence that Thunder Mountain could attract the number of tourists it projects. And while the application asserts that Thunder Mountain would be a “valuable resource” for personnel at a federal prison to be built in Letcher County, plans for construction of the prison were shelved last year.

Missy Matthews, president of Childers Oil Co. and of Double Kwik, a chain of more than 40 convenience stores and gas stations in the southeastern Kentucky region, formed the nonprofit that proposed the project. She did not respond to interview requests. 

State Rep. Angie Hatton of Whitesburg, an EKY Heritage Foundation board member, declined to discuss claims for the project in detail. She provided a statement that she attributed to Sally Oakes, a Childers Oil Co. employee who served as the foundation’s grant writer.

“The estimates in the grant application are based on various sources of information including reports, journals and magazines as well as communications with other owners/operators of shooting ranges,” the statement said. Oakes could not be reached for comment.

About 130 miles northeast of the proposed site for Thunder Mountain, another tourism-related project, in eastern Kentucky’s Boyd County, received a $4 million AML Pilot Program grant after pledging to double the number of visitors for an existing off-road park.

The grant, awarded in 2017 to Boyd County government, would assist with water, sewer and road improvements intended to primarily benefit Rush Off-Road, a business owned by E.B. Lowman III, who also is president of a real estate company in eastern Kentucky.

In its application, Boyd County government officials said the improvements would help the park increase to 100,000 the number of visitors. It did not provide a timetable for the increase and offered no evidence or documentation to support the claim. 

Project documents cite, but do not include, a market research study by Marshall University in West Virginia, which Lowman said found that the park had a $5 million-plus economic impact on the county in 2017. Lowman declined to provide KyCIR and ProPublica with a copy of the study, and university officials said they were unable to find one. 

Boyd County officials did not respond to repeated requests from KyCIR and ProPublica to discuss the project. Federal and state officials did not reply to specific questions about the project. 

Shawna McCown said she struggles to understand how the four-wheelers roaring by her house in Rush, Kentucky, will help her or her neighbors. 

“They’re saying it’s going to help the community, but we don’t see any benefit for us at all,” McCown, a schoolteacher, said of the project. “How does that help me? I want a community center, a library.”

Residents Left Waiting

Stacy Kranitz, special to ProPublica

Cynthia Gooch watches her niece Lillian Howard at the unfinished park in Pineville.

By now, the Appalachian Wildlife Center, which has rebranded itself as Boone’s Ridge, was supposed to be pumping millions of dollars into Bell County. It was expected to have created more than 1,000 direct and indirect jobs in the region, as many as the county’s two largest employers combined: Smithfield Foods, which produces a variety of hams and smoked meats with 500 workers, and the Bell County school system, which has about 430 employees.

Instead, a countdown clock on the project’s website winds down to the most recent opening date: 593 days away.

Meanwhile, Rome Meade, a 26-year-old who lives in the area, has for six months hunted for a full-time job without success. 

“I believe it’s gonna turn around,” Meade said. “At least I hope so.”

He’s better off than some. He draws a salary as pastor of the Winchester Avenue Church of God in Middlesboro. And he, his wife and their two young children live rent-free in the church parsonage.

Meade makes too much money to qualify for food stamps or most other government benefits, except for health care.

“I want a job. I’ve always worked, but I can’t get no help,” Meade said.

Meade wishes the government would focus more on helping create well-paying positions that will allow him to stay in the area and not “on things that don’t matter, like an industrial park.”

“All of the tax dollars are going for things that people see no benefit to,” Meade said. “They’re getting frustrated. People are bustin’ their tails, trying to make a living for their families.”

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This article was produced as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

The post The Elk, The Tourists And The Missing Coal Country Jobs appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

New Appalachian Journalism Outlets Tackle Stereotypes, Media Economy Friday, Oct 2 2020 

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It wasn’t too long ago that Michael Farmer, a pastor in Charleston, West Virginia, received an email asking him a question that was already on his mind: “As a Black Southern Baptist pastor in West Virginia, what is my role in telling our stories?”

The email was from Ashton Marra, the managing digital editor of a news organization called 100 Days in Appalachia. Marra was inviting Farmer to be a part of a new project, the Appalachian Advisors Network. 

“The Advisors Network is really three parts,” Marra said, “And the first part is a database of creators.” This way, Marra said, rather than national or international news outlets sending a journalist from New York City or Los Angeles to cover rural Appalachia, those same outlets could hire a freelance journalist rooted in those same communities, who could tell a more nuanced story. 


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Back To The Land: The Future Challenge And Opportunity Of Appalachian Agriculture Wednesday, Sep 23 2020 

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A line of blue and yellow pop-up tents stand along the North Fork of the Kentucky River during a sunny September weekend in downtown Whitesburg, Kentucky, and Valerie Horn is doing her part to keep the Letcher County Farmers Market rolling. 

Pumpkins and watermelons fill tarps laid out on the ground next to a farmer, and another is offering bottles of maple syrup. As chair of the farmers market, Horn finally has a moment to relax after a busy week leading up to this day. 

Part of a series of stories revisiting themes in the book “Appalachian Fall.”


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Remembering A Miner Who Personified Coal’s Contributions And Costs Sunday, Sep 13 2020 

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Charles Wayne Stanley ran underground mining machines for some 20 years, cutting coal from beneath the hills where Virginia meets Kentucky along the Cumberland ridge. He spent another decade as a roof bolter, work that kept the rock above from falling in on his fellow miners.

Stanley was 53 when the Ohio Valley ReSource and NPR’s Howard Berkes first interviewed him in 2016. As he spoke about his long career in coal his pride in the work was clear. 

A family snapshot of Wayne Stanley before his illness.


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‘The Proof Is In The Pudding:’ Coal Country Responds To Democrats’ Clean Energy Transition  Monday, Aug 24 2020 

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Democrats made their pitch to the American people during a largely virtual Democratic National Convention and addressing climate change emerged as a central tenet of the party’s plan. 

The party platform spells out a major investment in green energy jobs and infrastructure in order for America to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emission no later than by 2050. Environmental justice is a key component of the Democrat’s climate plan and it references ensuring fossil fuel workers and communities receive investment and support during this clean energy transition. 

“As President, Joe Biden will rejoin the international climate agreement, and the United States will once again lead on this critical issue at home,” New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said while standing in front of a field of solar panels. “He’ll invest in energy workers and he will deliver for working families across the U.S., helping them build meaningful careers, while accelerating our nation and world into a clean, green 21st century and well beyond.”


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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.

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