Small Towns Host Black Lives Matter Marches As Movement Spreads Beyond Cities Tuesday, Jun 9 2020 

IMG_0921 2By now it’s become a familiar scene: Marchers fill the streets with placards proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” and chants fill the air as the demonstrators recite the names of those lost. 

But there’s something different about some of these protests around the Ohio Valley in the past week. They’re not just happening in the larger cities such as Louisville, Lexington, Columbus and Cincinnati. Smaller college towns such as Athens, Ohio, and Morgantown, West Virginia, have seen marches. Communities in Kentucky farmland and the heart of Appalachian coal country, such as Hazard and Harlan, Kentucky, have seen people protesting against racial injustice and police violence. 

“Because prejudice here is as old as our dialect here for some people, and it’s inherited,” Bree Carr said. The 18-year-old from Harlan, Kentucky, said she protested to be an ally for people of color so they will know they have support. “There are so many other people behind them that support you, and hear you, and want to see you.” 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

A Black Lives Matter demonstration in Harlan, in eastern Kentucky’s coal country.

Bowling Green, Kentucky, has seen consecutive days of protest, drawing up to a thousand people at one event. Civil Rights activist Charles Neblett sang with the Freedom Singers in the 1960s to fight segregation. Neblett said he was thirteen when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. He told protesters at the Warren County Justice Center that prejudice and injustice have persisted for too long.

“When is it gonna stop? I’m tired. And more people got to step up and do this thing,” he said. 

The protests in smaller cities and towns have been overwhelmingly peaceful. But they have not been without confrontation. A protest planned for Charleston, West Virginia, was postponed after organizers said they received threats, although a smaller group went ahead with a demonstration. Carr said she received threats over the demonstrations in Harlan, and in western Kentucky marchers have faced assaults.

A video from a march on June 2 in Murray, Kentucky, showed a white motorist using pepper spray on marchers as he drove by. The man, who was from Paducah, Kentucky, was arrested. Another white man was later arrested for pointing a weapon at demonstrators in Murray.

Courtesy Audrey Elizabeth Kellett

A Facebook video shows a man assaulting marchers in Murray, KY, with chemical spray.

The marchers in Murray invoked the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, both killed by police. But another issue is animating the protests here as well. Demonstrators are calling for the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee next to the Calloway County courthouse, spurred by an open letter issued by a football coach at the local university.

As in other places, the protests here are reviving older debates about statues and memorials dedicated to the Confederacy. Louisville officials on Monday removed the controversial equestrian statue of John B. Castleman, a Confederate officer, something city leaders had proposed years ago. 

It remains to be seen if the same will happen in small towns like Murray. On Monday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear called for Murray’s statue to come down after being asked a question about it during a press conference.

The calls to remove Confederate memorials in rural communities are also part of a larger theme of confronting a history and stigma of racism in some smaller towns.

In Marshall County, Kentucky, where the population is nearly 98 percent white, more than a hundred people marched on Friday around the courthouse square. Only a few months earlier the county’s judge-executive had allowed a confederate battle flag to fly at the courthouse before a backlash forced its removal.

Liam Niemeyer | Ohio Valley ReSource

A protest in Marshall Co., KY, where a confederate flag recently flew over the county courthouse.

Malique Humphries, a 23-year-old black man from neighboring county, says he was afraid to protest in Marshall County after being in other protests because of the county’s perceived racist reputation.

“I have a six-year-old daughter,” he said, “and I felt uncomfortable to come here, you understand that?”

Yet he came anyway to join other Marshall County residents to start a larger conversion about racial injustice, police accountability, and loving one another.

“We should feel comfortable anywhere we want to go, we should be allowed to go anywhere we want to go, it shouldn’t matter if the majority is white or not, we should feel comfortable anywhere on this earth.”

Humphries said he hopes protests like these will start to bring change where it is needed, at the local level.

Claudia Cisneros, WOUB

Demonstrators in Athens, Ohio.

ReSource reporters Sydney Boles, Brittany Patterson, Aaron Payne, and Becca Schimmel contributed material for this story.

Just Transition: Amid Climate Debate And Coal’s Decline, West Virginia Considers Its Future Monday, Feb 17 2020 

On a recent soggy Wednesday evening, dozens of West Virginians packed a conference room inside the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center to discuss the need for a “just transition” for coal-impacted communities.

As the nation grapples with climate change, the need for a fair transition for workers and communities that depend upon coal jobs and revenue has also gained traction. Nearly every 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful has touted some version of the idea, ranging from the expansive “Green New Deal” championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to former Vice President Joe Biden’s more modest mix of worker training and direct assistance for coal country.

In West Virginia, discussions are starting to get attention in the state’s capital despite strong political support for the coal industry.

“When you’re hearing a call for a just transition for coal-reliant communities, folks are saying ‘look, starting now and into the future, we’re going to decarbonize the economy,’” said Ann Eisenberg, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “There will be disproportionate losses imposed on coal-reliant communities. And that’s unfair. So we’re going to offset the losses. And that is where I think this is a good thing. And it’s also tricky.”

Eisenberg was one of a handful of experts who spoke at the event hosted by West Virginia University’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, the nonprofit West Virginia Center on Climate Change (an offshoot of conservation group Friends of Blackwater), and the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Three groups hosted a just transition discussion on Feb. 5, 2020 in Charleston, WV.

The speakers facilitated a conversation about what constitutes a “just transition” as well as how West Virginia and other regions that depend on coal could actually get there.

Adele Morris with the Brookings Institution said the first step is to acknowledge the clear data about coal. Even without a comprehensive climate policy, the fuel is already losing ground in the region and across the country. Low natural gas prices and the falling cost of renewable energy have priced many coal plants out of the market.

hindsight2020-mine-empAlexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Federal data show since 2009, mining employment and coal production has fallen by about 50 percent in the Ohio Valley. The energy shift is already underway, Morris said, but without the part that would help communities make the transition.

hindsight2020-mine-prodAlexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

“We’re in it. We’re in the transition,” said Morris, who is a senior fellow and policy director at the nonpartisan think tank. “And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But it’s not fair. And that’s what I think should be urgently at the top of the agenda of the policymakers from coal country, and they’re not, in my opinion.”

Legislative Attempt

One lawmaker is making a pitch in West Virginia. State Del. Evan Hansen, a Democrat representing the north-central county of Monongalia, has introduced a bipartisan bill that would create a state Just Transition Office, and a community-led advisory committee that would focus on helping West Virginia communities affected by the decline of coal.

“The primary goal here is to write a just transition plan for the state of West Virginia that would look at ways to funnel funding into these communities and other types of resources into these communities in a manner that’s led by what people in those communities think is best,” Hansen said.

The bill is modeled after similar legislation that passed in Colorado. On Wednesday, the West Virginia version passed out of one of the two committees to which it was referred, but Hansen acknowledges it faces a long road to becoming law with the state’s legislative session more than halfway done.

Still, he believes the appetite is growing among the state’s lawmakers to address coal’s decline.

“I would say privately many legislators of both parties acknowledge that there is a transition going on and that this is one of the most important issues that we need to deal with as a Legislature,” Hansen said.

Not everyone is a fan of the bill, including the West Virginia Coal Association.

“Sounds to me like that they think that it would be much better if it were something other than the coal miners,” said the group’s president Bill Raney. “And that bothers me a whole lot because we got the best coal miners in the world.”

Raney’s group is pushing a bill this legislative session that would require West Virginia coal plants to burn the same amount of coal they did in 2019 in the years ahead, regardless of what makes most economic sense.

Of major note during the discussion was how to pay for a “just transition.”

Today most economic transition work in the region comes from federal programs including the Appalachian Regional Commission and Abandoned Mine Land program funding, which offer grants to coal-affected communities in the millions of dollars range.

Morris has estimated the region will require tens of billions of dollars over the next decade and would require some kind of regulatory leadership from Washington, D.C., preferably a carbon tax. Democratic candidates who have supported the idea have differing ways to fund it, although most rely heavily on investing in clean energy and decarbonizing the economy through a “Green New Deal.”

Some in the region have encouraged lawmakers and candidates looking at these climate policies to engage with residents directly.

That includes Cecil Roberts, head of the United Mine Workers of America. In September, he spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He expressed concern the type of sweeping change Democratic presidential candidates are promising may be too big of a lift for Congress given its past track record in helping coal country.

“We want our health care saved, and if you can’t do that, and it’s been 10 years, how do you think we’re going to believe that you’re going to be able to give us a just transition from the coal industry to some other employment?” he said.

Kentucky Conversations 

Chuck Fluharty, President and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, helped to organize a community-centered, just transition model in eastern Kentucky called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR. He said SOAR has shown this type of work is possible, especially if a community-centric approach is embraced. However, it’s not easy.

SOAR’s premise is built upon a collective impact investing model that engaged the public, private and philanthropic sectors.

IMG_4112Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Kentucky entrepreneurs show their products at the 2019 SOAR Summit.

“The real proof of the pudding is in how broad collective commitment is, and is it there for the money or is it there for the future?” he said. “How much it is about investing and not simply dropping dollars on the table.”

Some politicians hope to engage coalfield communities directly about how to balance implementing climate legislation while protecting workers and investing in communities. Kentucky Democratic state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker recently launched a series of town meetings on the subject in the heart of eastern Kentucky coal country.

Even among those who support a just transition, questions remain about how best to do it. Morris said there is little data on what has worked in economic transitions in the past. Her team has looked at the impact of military base closures, for example, but said the analogy isn’t perfect. Worker retraining efforts often have mixed results.

“There’s this policy design challenge of how do you get from the wholesale dollars of the federal government into well designed retail level grants and assistance and so on,” she said. “I’m still struggling with exactly how you do that in a way that gets those resources out, but does it in a way that that gives people comfort that it’s responsibly allocated.”

In a report published last July, Morris and colleagues at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University quantified just how much of a coal-producing county’s budget came from coal, and how big a hole their budgets might face without coal revenue.

Then the authors turned to the various policy proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which would set a price on each ton of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere.

Morris said that the revenue generated by such policies could be steered into the type of investments needed and at a scale that would make a just transition more likely.

For example, a carbon tax of $25 per ton would likely raise a trillion dollars in revenue over 10 years, she said.

“And that kind of revenue allows for a very generous support for coal-reliant areas,” Morris said.

Rural Water Loss Investigation Reveals Widespread Financial Challenges Monday, Nov 25 2019 

Kentucky’s Public Service Commission has released results of a months-long investigation into high rates of water loss in certain rural water districts. The findings point to systematic financial and managerial challenges facing rural districts, and solutions would likely require sweeping legislative change.

The PSC launched its investigation in March after 11 rural districts, most of them in eastern Kentucky, drew the commission’s attention for water loss rates exceeding 35 percent. High rates of water loss indicate leaky pipes, which in addition to raising a system’s operating costs, also expose customers to infiltration of untreated, potentially dangerous groundwater into the pipes. 

Eastern Kentucky’s Martin County has long been the poster child for struggling rural water districts: Water loss has at some points topped 70 percent, and discolored water, boil water advisories and days-long outages have left residents mistrustful of the government’s ability to provide basic services. But this PSC investigation into what PSC spokesperson Andrew Melnykovych calls the “Leaky Eleven” demonstrates that Martin County’s challenges, though dramatic, are far from unique in Appalachian Kentucky. 

“Many small water systems lack a sufficient customer base to support their continued operations,” said PSC Chairman Michael J. Schmitt in the report. “Board members and managers find themselves constrained by political and societal pressure when it comes to raising rates or exploring merger, consolidation or sale, even though taking such actions might be the best long-term solution for the water utility and its customers.”

In perhaps the most damning statement of the investigation, the commission said, “Though well meaning, many of the water utility commissioners lacked basic business acumen and any understanding of the importance of following industry standards and business best practices.”

The districts examined in the report each served only a few thousand customers, and included districts serving Harlan, Clay, Floyd, Leslie and Knott Counties, among others. Many were required to submit safety plans, training schedules and updated policies and procedures to the PSC, indicating those districts either did not previously have such materials, or existing materials were deemed insufficient.

As part of its report, the PSC recommended sweeping legislative and regulatory change, including expanding the commission’s ability to force water districts to merge, and requiring more extensive training for local water officials. Under the recommended changes, district general managers would be required to hold a college degree, and all districts would need to employ a qualified engineer.

“If the legislature doesn’t act, we’re going to continue to see these kinds of problems,” Melnykovych said. “In the case of utilities particularly in economically stressed areas, they’re likely to get worse.”

No relevant bills have been proposed on these issues for the 2020 legislative session. Bills including some of the PSC’s recommendations have not passed in previous years. 

Legislative and regulatory changes, however, are unlikely to completely solve Kentucky’s infrastructure challenges. The most recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the commonwealth would need to invest $8.2 billion over the next 20 years to ensure its drinking water remained safe and affordable in the coming decades.