Posts Tagged ‘appalachia’

Do bankrupt coal company executives really deserve bonuses?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 - posted by brian

Debt-ridden companies are slashing worker benefits, struggling to clean up pollution — and handing out bonuses.

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Early Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr.

Before we explore that question, I’ll admit, the immoral logic of corporate compensation used to justify gigantic executive bonuses has always mystified me. I’m not highly educated on the matter, nor am I impartial.

Sure, I’d be willing to entertain an answer in the affirmative. But in the case of Alpha Natural Resources, which is swimming in debt and trying to navigate its way out of bankruptcy, it really seems resources could be better spent elsewhere. Paying taxes, for example. Communities in Appalachia could put millions of dollars owed by Alpha to good use.

But, no, they want their bonuses. So let’s hear them out.

Back in December, lawyers for Alpha asked the U.S. bankruptcy court to approve an “Incentive Plan for Certain Key Insider Employees,” a fancy way of saying $12 million for 15 top executives. Their argument is pretty simple — bankruptcy stinks and high-level employees may decide to cut their losses. The obvious solution: make it seem like they’re not losing — at all costs.

According to Alpha’s court filing, bonuses will go to executives “who are vital to the [the company’s] successful restructuring and the maximization of value for the benefit of all parties in interest.” OK, I can sort of see how this becomes logical for a company in bankruptcy.

Alpha has been struggling for years, though, and these bonuses actually exceed the payouts executives received in years past, even as the company barreled toward bankruptcy. The last time Alpha recorded a profit was in 2011. In the past five years, the company’s stock fell from $65 a share to around 35 cents.

Over the same period, it laid off 4,000 employees and shut down dozens of mines, mostly affecting communities in Central Appalachia where the company operates. Just yesterday, Alpha announced plans to close 10 mining complexes and lay off 886 coal miners and other personnel in southern West Virginia.

But in 2015, the year that Alpha declared bankruptcy with billions of dollars in debt, the maximum bonus pool for top staff was $8.4 million, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. If only Alpha’s balance sheet looked like its executives’ bank accounts.

It’s becoming difficult to give Alpha the benefit of the doubt. We don’t even know the names and positions of these supposedly high-performers keeping the company on course. And it looks like we never will.

Alpha’s lawyers argued that disclosing the executives’ identities, salaries and bonuses “may facilitate the hiring” of those executives away from Alpha “by competing businesses and, therefore, increase the likelihood that the Debtors will lose the valuable services of the [executives].”

Now it’s too hard to fake. Witnessing the irresponsibility and one-sidedness of the major coal bankruptcies in Appalachia and their aftershocks goes to show who has a voice and whose voices the system values.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee's scathing objection to Alpha's bonus plan.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee’s scathing objection to Alpha’s bonus plan.

Last year, Patriot Coal — while in its second bankruptcy — hatched a plan to pay a portion of its legal fees with millions of dollars earmarked for workers’ health care. There is growing concern nationwide that bankrupt coal companies, a group that now includes Arch Coal, won’t be able to afford to clean up their mines. And right now, Alpha is trying to revoke medical and life insurance benefits from retired miners and their spouses to save around $3 million a year.

The U.S. Trustee, a watchdog division of the U.S. Department of Justice, summarized the vast disconnect between what is right and what Alpha wants in its objection to the bonuses:

Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time incurring more than $1.3 Billion in losses for 2015. Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time seeking to cut off the health and life insurance benefits to some 1,200 rank-and-file retirees because it claims it desperately needs to save $3 Million a year. Alpha seeks this relief after demonstrating to this Court that it is so hopelessly insolvent that its shareholders have no chance of seeing any return on their investments into the companies.

Makes sense so far. Go on …

According to Alpha, these executives need these bonuses as an incentive to do the very jobs they were hired to do, that they are already highly compensated for with generous salaries, and which their fiduciary duties already compel them to do. Such bonuses cannot be justified under the facts and circumstances of this case.

Another common argument is based purely on the merits of the bonuses. How can it be possible that the same handsomely compensated executives who took home bonuses while steering Alpha into bankruptcy get sizable bonuses to help Alpha exit bankruptcy? Well, as lawyers for the United Mine Workers of America argue in their objection, the bonus plan was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it.”

Until recently, I never thought of “bankruptcy” and “bonanza” as being synonymous. Maybe rather than being mystified I’m just mad, and I can’t claim anything close to the level of outrage or broken trust thousands of Appalachian families can. But, like U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennekens said last week as he OKed Alpha’s bonus plan, “Cash is king.”

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Coal, Congress and the art of lying

Monday, January 11th, 2016 - posted by tarence
By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that's finding an audience in Congress.

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that’s finding an audience in Congress.

It’s amazing how much work goes into stretching the truth. It’s even more amazing when media outlets and political leaders latch onto that “truth” and peddle it without scrutiny.

A recent and relevant example: an economic impact analysis of the Stream Protection Rule, commissioned by the National Mining Association and written by Ramboll Environ, which is a member of the NMA. In short, the analysis predicts that the Stream Protection Rule will all but deal a lethal blow to the American coal industry. It is 82 pages of the kind of overblown, headline-grabbing hysteria found in modern politics, filled with doomsday scenarios, disingenuous methodologies and misinformation.

Doomsday Scenarios

The proposed Stream Protection Rule is intended to protect American streams from the worst environmental impacts of mountaintop removal. It represents an update on science and policy that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has not addressed since 1983, the year the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule was added to the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

The NMA’s analysis of the Stream Protection Rule is grim: between 50 and 95 percent of the nation’s current coal workers will lose their jobs as a direct result of the rule. Its predictions for Appalachia are even grimmer: 30,000 to 52,000 workers, or 60 to 105 percent of the current Appalachian coal workforce, will be cut. 105 percent, that’s truly unbelievable.

According to Jonathan Halpern, a former economist at the World Bank Group and a current professor of energy and infrastructure economics at Georgetown University, the NMA’s projections are seriously flawed. Halpern points out that the NMA relied on unrealistically high coal projections for the 2020-2040 forecast period that do not take into account how factors such as natural gas production, coal seam access and availability, and national policies such as the Clean Power Plan will impact production. Additionally, the study factored in loss of access to coal reserves that are not currently controlled by coal or landholding corporations to project future “losses” in production and employment. As Halpern points out, “[This] inclusion … exaggerates the size of the economic resource base and the consequent ‘loss’ which the study posits.”

In other words, the NMA forecasted a falsely optimistic future for coal, then compared that future to a grim post-Stream Protection Rule future, and projected a doomsday scenario. There is a litany of other problems with the analysis:

  • It uses out-of-date information about the overall financial health of the coal industry. The figures used for coal production, new permits and number of employed miners only go through 2013.
  • It expands the definition of a coal worker to include 20,000 workers not currently employed by the coal industry. The study posits that these workers – which include the freight rail workforce, contractors to the mining companies, and service providers – are employed as the coal mining workforce base, against which the NMA applied employment and income loss multipliers to estimate overall job losses over 25 years. As Halpern points out, this inclusion greatly magnifies the resulting estimates of job loss.
  • It assumes an immediate implementation of the Stream Protection Rule. This is simply not the case, as the rule has not been finalized and won’t be implemented for at least another five years.

Disingenuous Methodology

Ramboll Environ, the NMA member commissioned to conduct the analysis, chose a curious methodology for estimating the Stream Protection Rule’s impact on future coal production. They sat down with 18 unnamed mining companies and asked them how they thought the Stream Protection Rule would impact their bottom lines. It probably doesn’t have to be pointed out that there is nothing scientific or objective about this approach.

Another serious shortcoming of the report is that it rejects any cost-benefit framework. In other words, this is simply a cost analysis. According to Halpern, we would likely see billions of dollars in benefits in the form of safety and health improvements for communities as a result of the Stream Protection Rule. A 2011 study estimated that the public health burden coal operations put on Appalachian citizens costs around $75 billion every year.”

But the NMA refused to take into account any benefits that the rule could provide.

“We don’t know what it’s worth exactly in dollars,” Halpern told me. “But we know what it’s worth in human terms. People are just as afraid of getting sick, of their crops and livestock withering, of their fisheries drying up and their surroundings being degraded, as they are of possible loss of coal mining jobs.”

Misinformation

As mentioned above, one of the biggest fallacies in the NMA’s report is its assumption that the Stream Protection Rule will be implemented immediately, rather than gradually. But to add to this, the study — or at least the coal executives who were polled for the study — assumes a 100-foot buffer zone around streams. This absolutely isn’t the case, and it’s the reason so many clean water advocates are disappointed with the draft version of the rule. (Such a policy would have completely prohibited all mining activities within 100 feet of streams.)

Perhaps the biggest — and most perplexing — fabrication in this report is its claim that the Stream Protection Rule will replace the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule. It will not. The Bush-era rule was tossed out by a federal judge in early 2014, so its inclusion casts further doubt on the validity of the report.

What Communities Really Need

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a study predicated entirely on the fear-inducing prospect of job loss that fails to even consider the potential benefits of environmental protection, of clean water, of lowered risks to health. This fact alone tells us where the NMA’s interests really reside; an organization whose mission is to protect coal mining profits, rather than promote the well-being and empowerment of miners, their families and their communities, can really only claim to be concerned with production loss, rather than job loss. It’s incredible and a little sad that the NMA spent 82 pages trying to convince us that it cares about anything else.

Unfortunately, without a strong policy program to replace lost mining jobs — whether that’s in the form of New Deal-like jobs programs, robust federal funding and grassroots initiatives, or something else entirely — studies like this will continue to impact federal legislation.

For example, this week the House is set to vote on the STREAM Act, which seeks to effectively kill the Stream Protection Rule. Members of Congress who are voting on this piece of legislation will no doubt have seen the headlines, strategically broadcast by the NMA, claiming that the Stream Protection Rule will slash nearly one hundred thousand coal jobs.

Without voices pushing back on this narrative in regional and national media, this disingenuousness has the unfortunate effect of holding back progress for coal miners who may face losing their jobs due to a failing industry, rather than presenting them with tangible solutions.

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Bleak outlook for coal in 2016

Friday, January 8th, 2016 - posted by brian

The new year brings more bad news for a battered industry

It probably comes as no surprise that, after the dismal year coal had in 2015, more hard times for the industry are ahead. Nowhere is the struggle more real than here in Central Appalachia.

The latest look into a window of coal’s burning house comes courtesy of Downstream Strategies. The West Virginia-based environmental consulting firm has been charting Central Appalachian coal’s decline for years and is urging policymakers to plan for a future in which coal is no longer king.

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies "All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?"

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?”

The group’s new white paper, creatively titled “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?,” tells the story of Appalachian coal over the past few decades in five simple charts like the one above. It also considers how coal’s decline contributes to the budget deficits wracking West Virginia. In summary:

Future demand for Central Appalachian coal will likely continue to decline—primarily due to the increasing cost of mining thinner, harder-to-access coal seams and competition from cheaper natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency improvements at homes and businesses. Future environmental regulations on coal mines and power plants, such as the federal Clean Power Plan, may further reduce demand for West Virginia coal.

For data related to regional coal production and projections, Downstream Strategies looked to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Just today, that agency shared its own update on coal prices and production in 2015. While the main lesson from the chart above is probably that it’s best to be skeptical when it comes to EIA projections, the severity of the situation in Appalachia becomes even clearer when the region is viewed relative to other domestic coal reserves.

Screen shot from EIA's Today in Energy "Coal production and prices decline in 2015."

Screen shot from EIA’s Today in Energy “Coal production and prices decline in 2015.”

According to the EIA, the amount of coal produced in the Central Appalachian basin in 2015 was 40 percent below its annual average during the period from 2010 to 2014. Wherever coal is still competitive, less and less of it is coming from Central Appalachia.

Anyway, back to the Downstream Strategies report, which wraps up with yet another firm reminder that coal’s steep decline and its consequences are anything but unexpected. As the authors conclude:

For years, we have known that coal production was likely to drop significantly in southern West Virginia, and that coal production will likely continue to decline in the future. Now that these projections are coming true, the state is grappling with fewer jobs, bankrupt companies, and declining severance tax revenues.

Together, these present unprecedented challenges not just for southern West Virginia counties, but also for the state as a whole.

New approaches are needed.

When it comes to coal, the question for regional policymakers now is not so much how to make it better, but what to do when it gets even worse. If we may suggest a resolution for the new year: Don’t wait any longer. Recognize and respond to the realities of today’s energy market and the economic challenges facing the region.

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Coal’s death knell in Kentucky

Monday, January 4th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Industry’s decline produces a political shakeup in the Bluegrass State

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

The final months of 2015 may prove to be a historic moment for Kentucky’s politics and the state’s struggling coal industry.

When Governor Matt Bevin took office at the beginning of December after a surprise victory over Democratic challenger Jack Conway, he took a brazen shot at environmentalists by appointing former coal executive Charles Snavely to oversee the state’s environmental protection cabinet. Snavely was an executive with International Coal Group (ICG), a company that Appalachian Voices, along with allied groups, sued for covering up thousands of water pollution violations in the state.

To make matters worse, state Representative Fitz Steele was appointed this week to chair the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, after Representative Jim Gooch switched to the Republican party earlier in the week. House Speaker Greg Stumbo greeted the move with this statement: “Rep. Steele has built a strong reputation as a defender of sensible environmental laws and is an excellent choice to lead this committee as we ready for the legislative session.”

Stumbo’s statement is perplexing; back in 2012 Fitz boasted that he “can take [a mountain] down and put it back better than what it is.” If that view of mountaintop removal coal mining is what Stumbo thinks is a “sensible environmental law,” then we really are in trouble.

But it’s not as if Steele is all that different from Jim Gooch, the man he is replacing. For example, here’s Gooch’s statement from Monday on why he left the Democratic Party: “Let my departure from the Democrat Party send a message loud and clear. I stand behind the thousands of Kentuckians who have lost their jobs all across the coalfields.” This is coming from a man who blames impoverished eastern Kentuckians for their water problems, rather than mining companies and coal executives like Charles Snavely.

Gooch’s departure — as well as Bevin’s election win — are hardly surprising if we are to look at West Virginia. In that state, large numbers of Democrats have either left the party or have been voted out, due in part to the industry’s “war on coal” campaign. It has become increasingly clear that this campaign was an incredibly cynical crusade to consolidate political power in an uncertain market environment. The political realignment of West Virginia — and now Kentucky — is proof of that.

As the Bevin administration moves into its first year, and as Central Appalachian coal prices continue to fall, it remains to be seen how the coal industry will maintain political power in the state. However, if recent developments serve any indication, we can almost guarantee that elected leaders in Kentucky will continue using “war on coal” rhetoric to exploit the fears of many, while ignoring the very real issues of clean energy, healthcare access, low wages and environmental catastrophe.

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Help protect North Carolina’s forest wilderness

Monday, December 14th, 2015 - posted by matt

LostCoveWSA_Forest

In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, a law that provided protections for some of America’s most precious natural areas. It was passed to ensure that increasing population and mechanization would not degrade or alter the entire landscape, leaving no lands protected in their natural condition.

But today, more than 50 years after the Wilderness Act was signed into law, less than a third of one percent of North Carolina’s land area has been protected as wilderness. To put that number into perspective, if North Carolina were a 1,500 square-foot house, the amount of land we have set aside as wilderness would be smaller than a linen closet.

Right now, the US. Forest Service is revising its plan for the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests and we need your help to ensure that more of North Carolina’s most beloved natural treasures are protected as wilderness.

Please join us in asking the U.S. Forest Service to recommend Harper Creek and Lost Cove for wilderness designation in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest Plan Revision.

ncforests_lostcove

According to the Wilderness Act:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

There are few places in North Carolina more fitting of that description than Lost Cove and Harper Creek, two roadless areas in the Pisgah National Forest just south of Grandfather Mountain that are among the most popular backcountry recreation destinations near Boone, Blowing Rock, Banner Elk, Morganton, Lenoir and Hickory.

These areas were protected as “Wilderness Study Areas” by Congress in 1984 and have been recommended for wilderness designation by the U.S. Forest Service since 1987.

Unfortunately, timber companies and other extractive industries have long sought to remove protections for Lost Cove and Harper Creek. While we support other recreational uses of our forests, there are ways to do that without the risk of allowing extractive industries access to these areas.

We hope you will join Appalachian Voices, the Friends of Harper Creek and Lost Cove Wilderness and other local groups and businesses in asking the U.S. Forest Service to once again recommend Harper Creek and Lost Cove for wilderness designation in the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest Plan Revision that is currently underway.

Please take action now.

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West Virginia Communities Still at Risk Despite Idled Mines

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 - posted by interns
An aerial drone video from Coal River Mountain Watch shows the Edwight Source Mine and Shumate coal sludge impoundment in fall 2015.

By Tarence Ray

As of the end of November, Alpha Natural Resources will have idled two of its coal mines near the community of Naoma, W.Va, citing “adverse market conditions” as their reason in both instances. In early October, 92 miners received notice of the impending layoffs. The decision follows Alpha’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August.

One of the mines, the Edwight Source mountaintop removal mine, has affected several nearby communities in addition to Naoma, such as Sundial, Pettry Bottom and Edwight. The 2.8 billion gallon Shumate coal sludge impoundment is located 400 feet above the now­-abandoned Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial.

The Shumate coal sludge pond, which holds roughly twenty times the amount of coal sludge that was released in the fatal Buffalo Creek flood of 1972, is fed by Alpha’s Goals prep plant. It remains to be seen whether Alpha will idle operations at this prep plant.

The impoundment is listed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as a Class C dam — the type of dam “located where failure may cause a loss of human life or serious damage to [buildings and roads].” A report by the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation found that if the Shumate impoundment were to fail, it would release a wall of sludge more than 20 feet high. Within five minutes, the sludge would reach the community of Edwight a half-­mile downstream. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials have also cited the dam for safety violations on multiple occasions.

Map layer courtesy West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, design by Haley Rogers

Map layer courtesy West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, design by Haley Rogers

In April of this year, Appalachian Voices published a study of 50 communities in central Appalachia that are similarly “at risk” of the worst impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

These impacts include, but are not limited to, increased blasting, diminished water quality, and negative health, wealth and population trends. Sundial is Number 25 on this list of “Communities at Risk.”

According to Vernon Haltom, executive director of Naoma-­based Coal River Mountain Watch, these risks do not often get reported in local, or even national, media. Haltom references a recent New York Times article that claims “mountaintop removal…has all but ground to a halt.” “I wish somebody would tell Alpha that,” Haltom says. He points out that, although Alpha is idling its Edwight mine and recently filed for bankruptcy, it is still applying for permits in the area, including a new mountaintop removal mine one mile upstream from Sundial.

“Bankruptcy doesn’t mean that you go out of business,” Haltom says. “It means you get some special financial treatment, a loan from Citibank. Yeah you shut down, you lay some people off. But they don’t just immediately shut down and go away.”

According to Haltom, the back and forth between idling mines and re­applying for permits has had depressing effects on local communities like Sundial. “You see For Sale signs on a number of houses,” he says. “There’s houses been for sale for five or six years at least. So there’s nobody rushing in to buy it up. But people shouldn’t have to leave. You shouldn’t have to be a refugee.”

“It’s one thing to go someplace else to find work,” Haltom says. “It’s another thing to leave because you can’t live there because it’s toxic.”

To view maps and information about other communities at risk from the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, visit: ilovemountains.org/communities­at­risk

Wide-Angle: Contemporary Photography

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

Broadening our view of Appalachia

Compiled by Melanie Harsha, Lou Murrey and Molly Moore

Photo by Clayton Spangler

Photo by Clayton Spangler

Ed Shepard has owned a gas station in the town of Welch, W.Va., for over sixty years. A prominent local figure, Shepard is depicted in the mural behind him. Spangler says, “He was telling me what was in place in the county when it was a boomtown when he was a young man. He was telling me the stories of his town and he was so proud of it.” Visit claytonspangler.com, Instagram @ClaytonSpangler


George Etheredge image of Zhada Johnson

Photo by George Etheredge

Zhada Johnson holds a chicken at Gardens United’s Pisgah View Peace Garden, a community growing space that raises awareness of healthy eating and creates jobs for a public housing neighborhood in West Asheville, N.C. Etheredge consciously tries not to perpetuate visual stereotypes of the region. “I don’t think that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to portray something, but you must have a moral compass.“ Learn more at georgeetheredge.com/splash


Aunt Rita in Red Jacket, West Virginia. Photo by Roger May. Visit rogermayphotography.com, Instagram @walkyourcamera

Aunt Rita in Red Jacket, West Virginia. Photo by Roger May. Visit rogermayphotography.com, Instagram @walkyourcamera

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in the United States and images of Appalachia became its poster child. Fifty years later in 2014, Roger May, a photographer with roots in Kentucky and West Virginia, started a web-based project in which he asked photographers to submit images that explore the diversity of the region and expand the visual narrative. The project takes place on an annual basis, and photos must be taken within one of the 420 counties designated as Appalachia by the Appalachian Regional Commission. May makes an effort to say that he is “making” rather than “taking” photographs, because making a photograph invites the subject to be a part of the creation of the image. “Whether it was coal, mineral rights, or images, the people in Appalachia have already had enough taken from them.” Visit LookingAtAppalachia.org, Instagram @LookingAtAppalachia


“Gossip Girls” by Suzi Phillips

“Gossip Girls” by Suzi Phillips

This image of two clogging dancers at Plott Fest in Haywood County, N.C., was a Culture Finalist in the 10th Annual Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition. The competition, now in its 13th year, recognizes images of “the unique character, people, places, and pursuits that distinguish the Southern Appalachians.” “It’s real people and real landscapes,” competition coordinator Rich Campbell says. “I really feel like it’s important to try to create a collection that is authentic.” Vist appmthphotocomp.org









Left photo by Tynaijha Habersham,  right photo courtesy Know How

Left photo by Tynaijha Habersham

In fall 2014, students at Vine Middle School in Knoxville, Tenn., created a book documenting the community history of their school. The youth took photos of their current experiences, drew maps highlighting their neighborhoods’ strengths

Photo courtesy Know How

Photo courtesy Know How

and interviewed community members. The project was facilitated by the grassroots organization KnowHow, which supports leadership development and community engagement among young people through youth-led programs in the arts and media. Learn more at knoxknow.wordpress.com.






photo_preadpatjarrett_fiddlers_rgb

Youth Night is one of the most anticipated events at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention. ”It’s important for me to be part of the community,” says Jarrett, who works for the Virginia Folklife Program, a cultural heritage organization that showcases images of the region. “I would happily sacrifice a great photograph for a great relationship in a community.” Learn more at patjarret.com, Instagram @patjarrett


Greene County, Tenn., police officers, part of “Hispanic Appalachia” by Megan King

Greene County, Tenn., police officers, part of “Hispanic Appalachia” by Megan King

“My goal is to present the people I was photographing without a political rhetoric,” King states, “just to present these people as they are and to strip away all these ideas that people put on them just to show that they are ordinary people just like the rest of us living here in Appalachia just doing their thing.” The day after this picture was taken a person called the police station to report that two “Mexicans” were seen impersonating officers and stealing the cop car, King says. “It just reiterates the point of my project.” Learn more at www.megangking.com, Instagram @mgking_


Stormy, near Nitro, West Virginia by Kate Fowler

Stormy, near Nitro, West Virginia by Kate Fowler

“Nitro,” a project originally about the company Monsanto, focuses on a small West Virginia town. “After spending time in the town and meeting with residents and activists,” Fowler states, “I began to realize that at its heart it’s a story about Appalachia.” Referring to this photograph of Stormy walking home from school, Fowler says, “For me, this image was an important reminder of the cultural shift that’s taking place in the region as the economy begins to diversify away from coal and chemical manufacturing.” Learn more at www.kateelizabethfowler.com, Instagram @kateelizabethfowler


Pulling Leaves/Stripping by Sarah Hoskins

Pulling Leaves/Stripping by Sarah Hoskins

Fifteen years ago, Chicago-based photographer Sarah Hoskins began to document African American communities near Lexington, Ky., in a project titled “The Homeplace.” “They are positive images and we see way too many negative images of African Americans,” Hoskins states. “I’m in love with the area, I’m in love with the people.” Learn more at sarahhoskins.com

Read a related article about the history of stereotypes in Appalachian photography.

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial in Whitesville, W.Va. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial in Whitesville, W.Va. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

“Kingpin” of coal conspiracy faces a maximum of just one year in prison

After a six-week-long trial that included 27 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits, followed by a week and a half of dramatic deliberations, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been found guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws.

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Blankenship could face up to one year in prison.

Blankenship was indicted in November 2014 of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws, a misdemeanor, and cover up violations by giving workers advance notice of inspections. He was also charged with lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to investors in an effort to stop plummeting stock prices following the April 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners.

He was found not guilty of the charges related to securities fraud.

The prosecution was led by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Booth Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby. If you haven’t been following the trial, Ruby summarized the government’s case against Blankenship in six sentences.

“If you violate the laws and gamble with the lives of your workers, you will be held accountable,” Goodwin said at a press conference after the verdict was announced.

Prosecutors argued that Blankenship was the “kingpin” of a vast conspiracy operated by “yes men” that he oversaw using intimidation, fear and propaganda.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts called the verdict “a measure of justice.”

“The truth that was common knowledge in the coalfields — that Don Blankenship cared little for the safety and health of miners working for his company and even less for the laws enforcing their rights – has finally been proven in court,” Roberts said in a statement.

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which works to improve safety conditions for coal miners, hopes the conviction will bring industry-wide changes.

“The verdict should broadcast to coal industry management that business as usual must change — if the resurgence of black lung and horror of disasters such as Upper Big Branch does not wake them up, then perhaps criminal convictions will,” the group stated.

Blankenship was not specifically charged in the explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Whitesville, W.Va. But the investigation into the disaster resulted in four convictions that led up the Massey corporate chain — and eventually to Blankenship’s indictment.

As the prosecution repeatedly pointed out during the trial and in its closing arguments, however, hundreds of serious and preventable safety violations occurred at Upper Big Branch, including “the most unwarrantable failure orders of almost any coal mine in America.”

Through emails, memos and recorded phone calls, the prosecution also argued that Blankenship knew that the Upper Big Branch operation was systemically violating mine safety laws.

A 2011 report commissioned by West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin called the story of Upper Big Branch “a cautionary tale of hubris” and concluded that responsibility for the explosion lies with Massey management.

Judy Jones Peterson, the sister of Upper Big Branch victim Dean Jones, has been particularly visible throughout the trial. Today Peterson told reporters that the verdict “sends a message to all CEOs and operators.”

“Even if Don Blankenship wasn’t convicted of all of these crimes, he is guilty, my friends,” she added.

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Student leaders support the POWER+ Plan

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
Members of the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Renaissance Initiative at Whitesburg City Hall. Photo courtesy of ARI.

Members of the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Renaissance Initiative at Whitesburg City Hall. Photo courtesy of ARI.

Yesterday, a group of student leaders in eastern Kentucky took a commendable step in support of Central Appalachia’s youth and economic future.

By a unanimous vote, the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative Student Senate passed a resolution of support for the POWER+ Plan, a White House initiative to build more diverse economies in communities hardest hit by the coal industry’s decline. More than 13,000 coal jobs have been lost in Central Appalachia since 2011 alone.

The group, which is comprised of high school juniors and seniors from seventeen school districts, has a particular interest in seeing economic prospects in the region improve. Rural communities in Central Appalachia are struggling with population loss due to a lack of opportunities.

“This POWER+ Plan can remove the need for people to leave,” said Kiley Short, a Junior Senator from Letcher County Central High School. “It stimulates economic growth and business opportunities, which are imperative to the fate of my home, my culture, my people, and my future.”

In Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan — and calling on their elected leaders to do the same. More than two dozen localities in Central Appalachia’s coal-bearing region have passed resolutions similar to the one approved by the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative.

Specifically, the POWER+ Plan directs millions of dollars in additional funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Department of Labor and other federal agencies focused on economic development. It also calls for an additional $200 million per year over the next five years for the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program to restore dangerous unreclaimed mines.

According to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which administers the program, additional funds would assist communities most severely impacted by coal “in a manner that facilitates economic revitalization on reclaimed lands and restored waterways.”

But the fate of that key component of POWER+, which must be approved by Congress, remains unclear.

Regional groups including Appalachian Voices are committed to seeing the POWER+ Plan succeed. And we’ve been inspired by the level of local support in spite of the uncertainty this bipartisan plan faces in a highly partisan Congress.

The need for new investment in Central Appalachian communities is urgent. In supporting POWER+, these young leaders aren’t just voting for their future, they’re voting for their families’ and neighbors’ present.

As Stacie Fugate, a Junior Senator from Hazard Independent, said after the vote: “My brother has recently been laid off from work. This plan hits home for not only me, but the majority of people in our region.”

We congratulate the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative for its vision and thank its members for speaking up for the region’s future.

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I heard it through the pipeline

Friday, November 6th, 2015 - posted by brian
Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects' primary backers. Photo by Will Solis, willsolisphotography.com.

Among opponents of the pipelines, the McAuliffe administration’s actions are only deepening skepticism of the governor and his relationship with the projects’ primary backers. Photo by Will Solis, willsolisphotography.com.

From Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s perspective, it’s probably best to just keep a lid on what state officials say publicly about the controversial natural gas pipelines proposed to cut through the state.

Based on reports this week, that’s exactly what he wants to do.

According to the Roanoke Times, a new policy compelling officials to brief McAuliffe’s office before commenting on the pipelines resulted from a meeting in Richmond that included representatives from 13 state agencies involved in overseeing permitting and construction.

“There’s no effort to muzzle anyone,” assured Brian Coy, a spokesperson for McAuliffe.

McAuliffe backs both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline and spoke strongly in favor of each months before either had been officially filed with federal regulators.

READ MORE: Pipe Dreams: The push to expand natural gas infrastructure

I get it. Having more than a dozen agencies handling projects as contentious, and politically precarious, as the pipelines would be difficult enough. Knowing that the press and the public are prodding officials at those agencies for information only complicates things further for the administration.

But that doesn’t make suppressing speech any less problematic. And regardless of how representatives from Richmond describe the tactic, that’s what it is. Rather than speak out of turn or hold their breath while waiting for the official OK, we can assume agency officials will just speak less often and be more guarded when they do.

“This is a gag order, pure and simple,” said Ernie Reed of Friends of Nelson County, in a press release yesterday.

Among opponents of the pipelines, the administration’s actions have only deepened skepticism of McAuliffe and his relationship with Dominion, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s primary backer.

“There’s only two possible reasons the Governor would want state agencies to ‘coordinate’ their comments — one is to control those comments and the other is to vent them through his contacts with Dominion,” said Friends of Nelson President Joanna Salidis.

Friends of Nelson and many other groups across Virginia have been dismayed at McAuliffe’s repeated emphasis on the pipelines’ potential benefits, especially when paired with his apparent ignorance of the threats they pose to landowners, natural resources and the climate.

TAKE ACTION: Urge Complete Environmental Review of Pipeline Proposals

Last week, Friends of Nelson invited the governor to visit Nelson County to speak to residents about his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and, presumably, to hear their concerns. As of today, McAuliffe has not responded to that invitation.

The Roanoke Times reminded readers of how McAuliffe campaigned on a platform of government transparency. Friends of Nelson added that the governor promised to prioritize clean energy. His abiding support of what’s good for the pipelines is putting both of those positions at risk.

In another half-hearted attempt to defend the decision, McAuliffe spokesperson Brian Coy told the Roanoke Times, “Things work better when the left hand is aware of what the right hand is doing, preferably before it winds up in the paper.”

I’m glad that wound up in the paper.

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