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.”

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive their biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

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.

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


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.”


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.