Coal Towns Were Counting On Tourism For New Jobs. Then Coronavirus Hit. Monday, Jun 29 2020 

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On a recent sunny weekday, Bill Currey proudly walks among 30 neatly stacked, brightly colored plastic kayaks. Birds chirp merrily, and the soothing sounds of the meandering Coal River permeate the background — nature’s version of a white noise machine. 

For the tanned Currey, who also owns an industrial real estate company, being here, on the river, is as good as it gets. His goal is to share this slice of paradise with as many people as will listen. 


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Women’s soccer takes second loss to Virginia Monday, Oct 28 2019 

By Gabriel Wiest —

Louisville women’s soccer lost to No. 1 Virginia 3-0 at Klockner Soccer Stadium Oct. 24.

This comes as their second ACC loss, losing to University of North Carolina 3-0 earlier in the season.

Virginia (13-0-3) and Louisville (11-2-2) had tension in the first half. The ball bounced between both teams, as the offenses struggled to maintain possession.

The Cavaliers scored their first goal in the first half. Virginia led shots 7-2 to Louisville as the Cardinals struggled to get past the Virginia offense.

Louisville’s only shot on goal occurred in the first half. The Cardinals were not able to gain traction the rest of the game.

UVA scored another two goals in the second half, capitalizing off of a tired Louisville defense. Virginia ended the game with 17 shots compared to only two by Louisville.

The Cardinals had five saves on goal by redshirt junior Gabby Kouzelos for the game.

While this is a hard loss at the end of the season, Virginia is an undefeated team with conference dominance.

The Cardinals play North Carolina State next at Lynn Stadium Oct. 31 at 5:00 p.m.

File Photo // The Louisville Cardinal

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Louisville field hockey taken down by No. 9 Virginia Monday, Oct 14 2019 

By Mariam Prieto-Perez —

No.5 Louisville field hockey loses to No.9 Virginia with a score of 2-1 on Friday Oct. 11. This game with mark the first loss since the Cardinals four-game winning streak and a second division loss.

The first quarter of the game saw 14 scoreless minutes. Finally, in the last 30, junior Mercedes Pastor broke through with assists from juniors Alli Biting and Meghan Schneider. This brought the first quarter score to 1-0.

In the second quarter the Cards (10-2, 2-2) had the opportunity to take a 2-0 lead with a penalty-corner goal. But the goal was disallowed due to an obstruction call against Louisville, with the call upheld after being challenged. The Cards held on to the lead, finishing the second quarter 1-0.

The third quarter saw Virginia (10-3, 2-2) gain momentum and playing an aggressive offense. The Cavaliers finished the quarter with 3 shots, compared to Louisville’s 2.

Virginia gained the upper hand in the last quarter when Virginia evened the score. With less than five mins left in the game, the Cavaliers scored again, ending regulation 2-1.

Louisville played a tough defense, ending with five saves versus Virginia’s three. Senior Bethany Russ led the defense alongside Pastor.

The Cardinal will be back in action against No. 16 Stanford on Tuesday Oct. 15 at Trager Stadium.

File Photo // The Louisville Cardinal

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Meet The Coal Town Betting Big On Outdoor Recreation  Monday, Sep 30 2019 

Fred Ramey

Standing on the breezy outlook at Flag Rock Recreation Area, Norton City Manager Fred Ramey is taking in the panoramic view of downtown Norton, Virginia. The brick building-lined streets are framed by the verdant, rolling Appalachian mountains. Jagged, brown scars from mountaintop mining operations can be seen in the distance, reminders of the region’s history of coal production.

“It’s a great overlook of the city, and people really are surprised when they get up here at the view,” he says. “It’s truly beautiful, and it’s unique. It’s something that we have that not everyone else has.”

This view — and Norton’s abundance of nature and outdoor recreation opportunities — are what Ramey and others here are hoping will be the next chapter in the region’s history.

Fred RameyBrittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Norton City Manager Fred Ramey poses at Flag Rock Recreation Area.

The first chapter was coal.

Norton was named in the 1890s after the president of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. The community of about 4,000 sits in Wise County, which borders eastern Kentucky. Coal has been mined in these mountains for more than 140 years.

But since 2008, coal production has fallen by about 50 percent in Virginia. The trends look similar across the Ohio Valley. Over the last decade, coal production decreased more than 65 percent in Kentucky and Ohio, and decreased roughly 40 percent in West Virginia.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

“In a certain way, our community has found itself at another intersection due to the loss of coal,” Ramey said. “And that’s when we had to really start thinking differently.”

Norton, like many regional communities, began looking at how to diversify its coal-based economy. One resource it has in abundance is nature.

Recreation Opportunities

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The city is located near Jefferson National Forest and Stone Mountain. Its peak, High Knob, is the wettest area in Virginia and the area is rich in biodiversity. For example, more than 20 species of salamander are known to live in the region.

In the 1970s, Norton began developing the Flag Rock Recreation Area, a 1,000-acre park a few miles from downtown. Norton ramped up those efforts more recently and the park is a central piece of the city’s plan to reorient its economy to outdoor recreation. New campgrounds and hiking trails have been built. A visitor’s center that will be easily accessible from downtown is in the works.

The city has also built eight miles of mountain bike trails, with more in development.

“When you have mountain bikers come to your to your town, they’re going to come out of the woods and come down and frequent your restaurants,” Shayne Fields said. He’s trail coordinator for Norton. “If we get enough trails here then they’re going to come and stay multiple days. So, you’ll have patronage at your restaurants, your hotels, any little shops you have in town.”

bike trailsBrittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

New bike and hiking trails at Flag Rock Recreation Area in Norton, Va.

Fields would know. An avid cyclist himself, he and his friends have traveled around the country in search of good mountain biking.

“Normally, when we go someplace, we come out of the woods hungry,” he said. “And the first thing you want to do is go find some really good fatty food and and a craft beer somewhere.”

Fields grew up in Norton. He can remember the heyday of coal and has seen the impact its decline has had on the region. Wise County is losing population. About 23 percent of its residents live under the poverty line and the region is often considered ground zero for the opioid epidemic.

Recreation isn’t a silver bullet, Fields said, but it could be a key part of the solution.

“If we want to get an industry here — something other than the coal industry, you know, since it’s probably not coming back — we’re going to have to provide some kind of environment here that’s going to make those young working people want to stay here,” he said. “If we’ve got a good recreational economy-based setup here, we’ll have venues for people to come and play.”

Transition Challenges

Researchers who study economic transitions in coal-dependent communities say diversification is not easy. Many of these communities are located in rural areas, isolated from cities and lacking their amenities. In some cases, political leaders cling to the idea of coal comeback, which stalls action.

“The biggest problem is the loss of employment, particularly of high wage jobs,” said Mark Haggerty, with the Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics. “And just as important is the loss of revenue that supports schools and libraries and local services that keep these communities vibrant and attractive places.”

Haggerty has been studying coal community transitions for a decade and said several communities have had success making the transition from mining to outdoor recreation. He pointed to Gallup, New Mexico, a former hard rock mining community, which has now designated itself “The Adventure Capital of New Mexico.” Due to its proximity to the New River Gorge and world class river rafting, Fayetteville, West Virginia, has boomed in recent years.

get outside in NortonBrittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Norton, Virginia has launched a “Get Outside” campaign showcasing its natural resources.

Recreation can be a tool, and a powerful one for coal-dependent communities seeking to diversify their economies, but shouldn’t be the end goal, Haggerty said.

“Recreation is really a means to an end,” he said. “So what a recreation strategy does for you is it makes your community more attractive, and it has to be set within a broader economic development strategy that includes making sure you have broadband connectivity, making sure you have good schools and healthcare in place and other kinds of cultural amenities.”

The cost of doing business in coal-dependent communities can also be higher due to the legacy costs left by the coal industry, said Chelsea Barnes, the new economy program manager for the environmental group, Appalachian Voices.

“There are safety hazards or health hazards, or they’re lands that are just not ready for a new business to come and build,” she said. “And we have to make sure that the land that people are visiting is safe, and the water they’re drinking is safe, before you invite large crowds of people to come and visit.”

Federal Role

Norton City Manager Ramey said the city is clear-eyed about the limitations of its budding outdoor recreation industry. In addition to questions about mine cleanup, some have expressed concerns over the wages of tourism-related jobs — selling hiking gear or serving beer often pays less than the mining jobs of the past.

“We’re not saying that tourism is going to be our answer, but we believe it can be part of the solution,” he said. “For a small community to have this kind of asset, you know, is a phenomenal opportunity for us, and it has to play into the discussion as we discuss our community’s future.”

On the other side of town, Norton is engaged in another economic diversification effort. With a federal Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program grant, the city is converting a 200-acre, vacant surface coal mine into an industrial park. Ramey said they hope the space will attract manufacturing and technology companies. University of Virginia’s College at Wise is nearby, providing an educated workforce. Once completed, the project is expected to create 63 jobs.

Without federal investment, Ramey said, the city’s efforts to diversify would be greatly hampered.

“Without those types of opportunities, the hole we would be digging ourselves out of would become so much deeper,” he said. “It acts as a lifeline to a certain extent having resources, not just the financial resources, but the people resources that these agencies provide, to come in and help.”

The Woodbooger Effect

Norton has also held help from an unlikely source. In 2011, Animal Planet filmed an episode of its program “Finding Bigfoot” in southwest Virginia.

A local legend about a bigfoot-style creature, dubbed the “Woodbooger,” got national exposure.

“No one even knew they had been here,” Ramey said. Soon, tourists in search of the “Woodbooger” were flocking to the area. Norton leaned in. In 2014, the city declared Flag Rock Recreation Area a “Woodbooger Sanctuary.” Local businesses pitched in to buy a larger-than-life Woodbooger statue. The local hardware store downtown does a steady business selling t-shirts with the hairy creature’s likeness.

woodbooger statueBrittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Woodbooger statue in the Flag Rock Recreation Area in Norton, Va.

A Woodbooger Festival in October draws hundreds of visitors.

It’s hard to measure if the region’s nascent efforts to boost tourism are working yet. But Ramey points to lots of anecdotal evidence, including multiple trail races that have sprung up in recent years.

On a recent visit to top of the High Knob Observation Tower, Ramey turns in a slow circle pointing to Virginia’s neighbors. Four states are visible on a clear day from this perch, 4,200 feet in elevation.

“West Virginia would be that way,” he says. “Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, is that way. Tennessee and North Carolina is that direction And of course Kentucky over there.”

Down in the parking lot, Ramey smiles.

“Interesting fact, at Flag Rock, we had two cars there from North Carolina, and at the tower, we have two vehicles here from Florida,” he says. “So, I would say that’s a sign that the tourism efforts are paying off.”

Idle Lands: Justice Coal Group Top User Of Loophole Allowing Mine Lands To Sit Idle Thursday, Sep 5 2019 

Standing at an overlook on the top of Black Mountain — the tallest point in Kentucky —  the wooded Appalachian mountains stretch on like a sea of green for miles.

For many, this mountain is synonymous with the coal industry. It straddles the state line separating Harlan County, Kentucky and Wise County, Virginia, two communities that have long relied on mining the black gold contained in its depths.

Among the lush forests, barren, brown spots dot the landscape, a testament to this history. These are coal mines, created when the tops of these mountains were removed. From the top of Black Mountain, one sprawling mine and its towering high wall dominate the view.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Matt Hepler of the advocacy group Appalachian Voices.

“So, we are looking currently looking at Looney Ridge surface mine number one,” says Matt Hepler, an environmental scientist with the advocacy group Appalachian Voices.

Hepler has for years been following action, or lack thereof, at the Looney Ridge mine, which is operated by A&G Coal, a coal company run by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

Coal has not been produced here since at least 2013 when A&G Coal asked Virginia regulators to place the mine in what is called temporary cessation. The permit status allows mining to pause, giving mining companies flexibility on requirements for land reclamation until it becomes more economically feasible to begin extracting coal again. And, as the name implies, this idling of mines is supposed to be temporary.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

View of the Looney Ridge surface mine from atop Black Mountain.

An analysis of mine permit data conducted by the Center for Public Integrity finds Central Appalachia is home to about half of all idled coal mines in the country. CPI found more than 200 mines are idled across West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. About half have been that way for three or more years. Warehousing mines using this permit status throws workers and nearby communities into limbo all while crucial environmental cleanup is delayed.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The analysis shows that the Justice companies are the nation’s most frequent users of coal mine idling. Thirty-three mines and a coal preparation plant owned by the Justice family’s companies were idled as of mid-August. Fifteen of those have been in that status for at least three years, according to CPI’s analysis. In West Virginia, one Justice mine in McDowell County has been idled for almost a decade.

That number doesn’t include the Looney Ridge mine or others nearby in Virginia where coal also hasn’t been mined for years. That’s because in early 2014, state mining regulators entered into a compliance agreement with the Justices to force them to reclaim the site.

Hepler, with Appalachian Voices, said that agreement has not resulted in much actual reclamation. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has amended the compliance agreement multiple times.

“It’s looked like this for as long as I’ve been coming up here,” he said, pointing to the same broken-down bulldozer that has been there for years.

Tarah Kesterson, a spokesperson with the Virginia DMME, said the agency is pushing the Justices to clean up the site and is actively monitoring the situation as well as conducting inspections.

“We are doing everything within our enforcement authority to ensure that this gets done,” she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Justice companies defended the reclamation work and said idling permits is a standard practice across the industry.

But as the nation shifts away from coal toward more economic options for power generation, such as natural gas and renewable energy, some fear the use of mine idling can be used as a stepping stone to abandon mines, passing the responsibility for cleanup to the government and taxpayers.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border.

Community Impact

Idle mines, especially those left untouched for years at a time, can negatively affect the economy, health, and environment of nearby communities.

“When mines become inactive or idle, they starve a local community, and they deprive the community of the coal mining jobs and other related jobs,” said Joe Pizarchik, former head of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the federal agency in charge of regulating surface coal mines, during the Obama administration.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

When mines enter temporary cessation employment plummets. CPI’s analysis found coal operations that have been idled for at least three years had 85 percent fewer full-time employees after switching into idle status than they did a year before.

“It also puts that land in a totally non-productive state,” Pizarchik said. “It’s not making money on anything for anybody for the community, and it can be a potential pollution source.”

In addition to being unsightly, there are health and safety risks associated with leaving mines unreclaimed, said Emily Bernhardt an ecosystem ecologist and biogeochemist and professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Mines left idled can expose residents to coal and silica dust. They can also pose a risk for landslides and flooding. During surface coal mining, operators pile tons of rock and liquid behind earthen dams. When left idle, those impoundments face a greater likelihood of failing.

“You can’t actually make any improvements when you’re just sort of on hold,” Bernhardt said.

Who Pays?

Federal regulators have made two attempts since the 1990s to reform the way temporary cessation is used, according to public records obtained by CPI. Both have stalled. That’s despite a 2010 survey of state regulators that showed most states believed there should be limits on how long mines could be idled.

Federal law only requires that mining companies notify regulators when a permit will be in temporary cessation longer than 30 days.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Black Mtn. holds both natural beauty and scars of resource extraction.

State regulators can reject applications to change mines to an idled status if they find noncompliance or ongoing pollution. Kesterson with the Virginia DMME said before an operator can apply for temporary cessation, reclamation must be up to date. In Kentucky and Virginia, inspections continue while a mine is idled, and operators are fined if violations are found.

While in the past, mine operators may have used idling to pause production to allow coal prices to rebound, Pizarchik worries the nation’s shift away from coal means the chances of idled mines being cleaned up are shrinking.

“I believe it’s extremely unlikely that those mines will ever be activated again because the price of coal is never going to go up,” he said. “The demand is only going to continue to shrink.”

If operators walk away from idled mines, states could face challenges with mine reclamation depending on how coal mine bonds are regulated, and that could leave taxpayers on the hook for paying for reclamation.

In Virginia, for example, Justice mines have an estimated $200 million worth of cleanup liabilities, according to minutes from an April 2017 Coal Surface Mining Reclamation Fund Advisory Board meeting.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

While Virginia is moving away from allowing coal operators to “self-bond” — or not put up a cash bond or buy a bond from an insurance firm if a company is deemed to be in good financial health — some A&G Coal permits remain self-bonded, Kesterson said. That means if the company were to go under, the state would get none of the money required for cleanup.

The state has in the past allowed coal companies to pay only partial bond amounts into a shared pool. The bond pool is meant to supplement cleanup for more than 150 permits, but the pool has less than $10 million cash.

“The reclamation would cost more than what we have in a pool bond,” Kesterson said of liabilities owed by A&G Coal. “So that’s why we’re trying to work with them, to get them to pay for the reclamation.”

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Not all states are concerned. John Mura, spokesperson for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said in an email that only 10 percent of Kentucky’s coal mines, or 150 permits, are in temporary cessation.

CPI’s analysis examined federal MSHA data on idled mining permits and is likely an undercount of idled mines because state and federal data are incomplete and often not comparable.

Mura said that following an order in 2011 by OSMRE to reform the state bonding program, base bond amounts have increased by about 60 percent.

“Kentucky has made great strides to ensure that reclamation bonds are adequate to complete reclamation in the event of bond forfeiture,” he said.

As the industry contracts, more bankruptcies are likely, which can open the door for companies to walk away from mines where buyers can’t be found.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A truck enters a mine belonging to the now-bankrupt Revelation Energy.

That’s one concern currently playing out with the Blackjewel LLC bankruptcy, which has left more than 1,000 miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia without their last paychecks.

CPI’s analysis found Blackjewel and other subsidiaries owned by former CEO Jeff Hoops had 21 coal mines and related facilities temporarily idled as of mid-August, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data, and seven of those had been paused for at least three years. Many of those mines have not been purchased since Blackjewel’s bankruptcy.

At least 16 additional operations owned by other companies in bankruptcy sit in idle status, all of them in Central Appalachia, according to federal data.

‘Raped Out Mountains’

Retired coal miner and mine inspector Larry Bush knows firsthand how idle mines can impact the environment.

Bush lives below two Justice mines — one that is active and Looney Ridge. Sitting under a covered gazebo at a park in the town of Appalachia, Virginia, where he has lived almost his whole life, Bush said he sees the environmental toll unreclaimed mines can have on the environment.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Former miner Larry Bush lives near two large coal mines in Virginia.

“There’s a little stream that’s pretty much filled up with silt,” he said. “Nothing can live in it. I mean, there’s nothing, I don’t think.”

The 70-year-old Vietnam veteran is soft-spoken and sports a pair of reflective aviator glasses.

Bush wants to see this region rebound as the coal industry declines, but he struggles to see how that can happen with idled mines marking the landscape.

“If they’re not actively employing people, or actively working the site, they should be forced to do their reclamation work instead of just leaving raped out mountains,” he says.

This story was produced in partnership with High Country News and the Center for Public Integrity. CPI’s Mark Olalde contributed reporting and Joe Yerardi produced CPI’s data analysis.