Posts Tagged ‘appalachia’

Residents in Mountain Valley path pipe up at hearing

Thursday, May 7th, 2015 - posted by hannah
The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. Siltation from tree clearing and pipeline construction could further threaten the endangered species. Click to enlarge.

Turnout was tremendous at the first of two hearings this week in Virginia, where federal energy regulators are taking public comments on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Residents of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties and nearby areas told their stories and highlighted their environmental concerns on Tuesday night in Elliston in an effort to make sure the impact study process on the project is thorough.

Most commenters shared common themes: that the companies proposing the Mountain Valley Pipeline would not be able to carry out their vision for the 330-mile natural gas pipeline without egregiously damaging the area’s ecological treasures, and that the project is not in local residents’ interest and should not be allowed to proceed.

Citizens voiced a wide range of environmental concerns, many of which relate to issues unaffected by the potential rerouting of the pipeline. Among the risks that can only be prevented in a no-build scenario include:

  • Creek and river siltation from the tree clearing and installation process that threatens populations of James River spinymussel in Craig County. This species was also hard-hit by the Dan River coal ash spill in 2014. A precedent exists for protecting these areas from development based on the potential negative outcome for threatened creatures; in the ‘90s a high-voltage transmission project was undone in part due to the anticipated adverse impact on freshwater mussels.
  • Unique caves in the area, including Pig Hole Cave and Tawney’s Cave, have been used for years by cave diving explorers for recreation and have provided research opportunities for Virginia Tech students. While building is not normally allowed over their mapped passages, the proposed pipeline route lies directly over Pig Hole Cave and would make it inaccessible during construction and possibly permanently unsafe. New species of cave-adapted arthropods and other rare specialized lifeforms have only recently been found to exist there.
  • Numerous area homeowners also spoke about the proximity of their homes to the “centerline” or middle of the up-to-40-yard-wide swath proposed for each of the various possible alternative pipeline routes. Homes, wells, gardens, trees and creeks are all in the path of proposed routes. In the event of a pipeline rupture, if the combustible gas the pipeline would carry were to ignite or explode, some neighborhoods would have no road outlet. Local leaders spoke about those fears, adding that the increase in housing in Montgomery County in the past 20 years makes it difficult to avoid these kind of direct impacts by rerouting.

Several speakers described the sense of looming danger generated by the pipeline proposal, and articulated their feelings about the project in memorable ways: as a tentacle of a symbolic Kraken representing the fossil fuel industry seeking greater profits at the expense of communities; as a wrong-headed distraction from the right of residents’ to their own property; and as a destructive force that perpetuates the exploitation of Appalachian counties threatening what is among the nation’s most valued, biodiverse and scenic environments

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has only scheduled hearings for Virginia in Elliston and Chatham this week. Organizers and local leaders are currently petitioning for an extended comment period beyond the current deadline of June 16.

Click here to submit your comment about the Mountain Valley Pipeline to federal regulators.

UPDATE: FERC will also hold public hearings in Weston, W.Va., on May 12 and Summersville, W.Va., on May 13. Learn more here.

Appalachian Crayfish: Canaries in a Coal Mine

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Dac Collins

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that two species native to Appalachia — The Big Sandy crayfish (pictured) and Guyandotte River crayfish — be listed as endangered under federal law after determining the species are in danger of extinction “primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities” such as mountaintop removal coal mining. Photo by Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University on Flickr

If you find yourself at a crawfish boil anytime soon, don’t be afraid to go back for seconds. The two species that are sold commercially — red swamp and white river crayfish — are prolific. They can be found in the wild throughout the South and are especially abundant in Louisiana, where they are also farm-raised in ponds.

But here in Appalachia, some of our native crayfish populations are teetering on the brink of extinction, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Whether or not they are pushed past the point of no return depends largely on the outcome of a recent proposal by the agency to add them to the federal list of endangered species.

Like most creek-dwelling crawdads, the two species in question — the Big Sandy crayfish, which are native to the Big Sandy River basin in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, and the Guyandotte River crayfish, a closely related subspecies found in West Virginia — spend a majority of their lives wedged into the crevices of the creek bottom. These nooks and crannies shelter the crayfish from predators and serve as places to lie dormant during the winter months. But when these rocky creek beds are covered up in sediment, the habitat that these creatures depend on to survive is lost entirely.

This is precisely what is occurring in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River drainages of West Virginia. The sedimentation has become so severe in recent years that the Guyandotte crayfish population has retreated to the mid-reaches of a single stream, Pinnacle Creek, in Wyoming County.

If the crayfish disappear completely, the ecology of these creeks could change drastically. The freshwater crustaceans are a primary food source for many of the native fish species, including smallmouth bass and trout, which also happen to be the two most sought after sport fish here in Appalachia. Take away the food source and these creeks might eventually be fishless.

The cause of siltation is obvious when you look at where these creeks are located. There are 192 active coal mines in the area, many of which are mountaintop removal mines that are dumping their waste into the headwaters of streams, effectively burying them. And that’s just standard operating procedure. If an accident occurs, a toxic slurry of silt and chemicals spills into the creeks that feed the rivers that run into the reservoirs we drink out of, wreaking havoc on species like crayfish along the way.

The Fish and Wildlife Service specifically mentioned mountaintop removal coal mining in its report on the two crayfish species. The agency determined that, “the Big Sandy crayfish and Guyandotte River crayfish are in danger of extinction, primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities that increase erosion and sedimentation, which degrades the stream habitat required by both species,” and that, “an immediate threat to the continued existence of the Guyandotte River crayfish is several active and inactive surface coal mines, including MTR mines, in the mid and upper reaches of the Pinnacle Creek watershed.”

The FWS report also called attention to impaired water-quality — especially hazardous concentrations of sulfate and aluminum — in areas where most of the mines are closed, proving that “the detrimental effects of coal mining often continue long after active mining ceases.”

The proposed endangered species listing could have considerable impacts on the coal mining industry. If the Big Sandy and Guyandotte crayfish are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it would lead to more strictly enforced water quality regulations, which could affect ongoing mining operations in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River basins as well as coal companies seeking permits to mine in the area.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on this proposal until May 16. Click here to take action and ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect these two Appalachian species.

Appalachian communities at growing risk from mountaintop removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 - posted by brian
Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Announcing a new tool to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams

Coal is in the news a lot these days. The market forces and much-needed environmental and health protections cornering the dirty fuel are topics of endless interest as America’s energy landscape shifts toward cleaner sources. And yes, all signs point to coal’s continued decline.

In many ways though, the forces chipping away at coal’s historic dominance are overshadowing another big story — one that Appalachian citizens still need the public and policymakers to hear — about just how much the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal coal mining persist in Central Appalachia.

That mountaintop removal is an extremely dirty and dangerous way to mine coal has never been better understood. The overwhelming body of evidence is built on a foundation of the countless personal stories found in communities near mines and bolstered by dozens of studies investigating disproportionate health problems in coal-producing counties compared to elsewhere in Appalachia. More recently, advocates have employed technological tools to visualize complex data and add another dimension to arguments against the practice.

Appalachian Voices is committed to both creating a forum for those personal stories and sharing the most up-to-date data available about the ongoing risks mountaintop removal poses to our region’s communities and environment. Today, we’re excited to share a web tool we developed to reveal how mining continues to close in on nearby communities and send a resounding message to President Obama that ending mountaintop removal is a must if we hope to foster economic and environmental health in Appalachia.

Explore Appalachian Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal on iLoveMountains.org

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

The centerpiece of “Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal” is an interactive mapping tool on iLoveMountains.org that allows anyone to explore mountaintop removal’s expansion over the past 30 years.

Created using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, and mapping data and consultation from the nonprofit SkyTruth, the tool gives users greater perspective into the decades-long scourge surface mining has had on the Appalachian landscape and generations of families that live in the region.

The Communities at Risk tool also concentrates on impacts at the community level, where the powerful personal stories that first brought mountaintop removal to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and agenda for environmental change are found.

Fifty communities spread across Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are identified by the tool as being the most at risk. By clicking on a community icon on the map, you can see the number of acres classified as active mining within a 1-mile radius of a particular place over time. In some communities, the number has fallen. In others, it has grown dramatically in recent years even as regional coal production has plummeted.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at a handful of these communities, sharing local perspectives on how the proximity of mountaintop removal has affected local livelihoods. Our first “featured community” is Inman, Va., a small town in Wise County, where residents have successfully battled back a proposed mountaintop removal mine while experiencing the devastating impacts of another that began operating in the early 2000s. You’ll also see stories about featured communities on AppalachianVoices.org and in upcoming issues of The Appalachian Voice newspaper.

Learn about Inman, Va., from local residents Matt Hepler and Ben Hooper

If you want a fuller picture of the data we used to create the mapping tool, check out the companion white paper, which describes the background, methods, results and implications of our initial research.

Over time, we’ll work with impacted citizens in communities near active and proposed mines to expand the use of the tool and update our maps with current, high-resolution satellite imagery we’ll obtain through a partnership with Google’s Skybox for Good project.

Read our white paper for an in-depth look at the ways mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk.

The constant flow of news describing something close to the death of the Appalachian coal industry could leave outside observers with the impression that the problems of mountaintop removal have been resolved by the industry’s impending collapse. That impression, however, is at odds with the personal experience of many Appalachian citizens, the visible impacts of mining in communities across the region and the data that comprises Communities at Risk.

Visit CommunitiesAtRisk.org to explore the mapping tool, learn more about the 50 most at-risk communities and tell President Obama that more must be done to protect Appalachian communities.

Regional Report Details Victories, Challenges Over Poverty

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Lorelei Goff

A report released in February by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Appalachia Then and Now: Examining Changes to the Appalachian Region Since 1965, examines the impact of improved infrastructure, education and job opportunities across the region.

According to the report, Appalachia’s poverty rate dropped from 31 percent to 16.6 percent over the last five decades. The region also made significant economic gains while becoming less dependent on employment in resource-extraction industries, such as coal, and increasing employment in service-related sectors.

Since 1965, the federal economic development agency funded nearly 25,000 investments in professional and technical services, manufacturing, trade and construction industries, resulting in nearly 312,000 added jobs and $10 billion in added earnings in the region, the report found. Funding also included $9 billion in matching funds from other federal, state and local sources.

In education, high school graduation rates are now nearly equal to the nation as a whole. However, the area continues to lag behind in university graduation rates and apprenticeships.

Other improvements include infant mortality rates, availability of potable water and the development of nearly 3,000 miles of highways in the region.

Challenges remain, including the availability and affordability of high-speed internet, and a steady out-migration of young adults seeking employment and opportunities.

“The challenge going forward is to use the Region’s assets: a history of hard work, innovative solutions to complex problems, and strong families and communities to leverage today’s emerging economic opportunities into a diverse and vibrant economic future,” said ARC Federal Co-Chair Earl F. Gohl in a press release.

The will against poverty: ASU students serve in rural Appalachia

Friday, February 6th, 2015 - posted by jmcgirt
Appalachian State University students volunteering during the annual MLK Day Challenge.

Appalachian State University students volunteering during the annual MLK Day Challenge.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is known for directly addressing the poverty he witnessed. In his last address before he was assassinated, he said “I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia … Living in conditions day in and day out where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished. ”

Jan. 19 marked the twentieth year since President Clinton passed legislation to encourage U.S. residents to volunteer on MLK Day. Rather than spending this holiday as a day off, many people gather in neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country for a “day on.” Universities are no exception.

Appalachian State University has celebrated with the MLK Challenge for sixteen years. Having participated in the challenge as a student, I couldn’t help but want to participate again. But I never knew I would serve by spelunking in a 79-year old woman’s crawlspace.

How does one get herself into a crawlspace in the first place? Dr. King has something to do with it: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” I suppose I can say I had the “resources,” though they are not what you are thinking. As for the will:

Anna Mae Shook of Zionville, N.C., applied to our High Country Home Energy Contest in November. She is spending close to 20 percent of her monthly income on her utility bill, which ranked her as one of our ten contest finalists. She was ecstatic to be considered. Yet, upon a walk-through assessment of her home, Appalachian Voices energy policy director, Rory McIlmoil, and Energy Contest business partners Sam Zimmerman and Sarah Grady of Sunny Day Homes found her home in disqualifying condition. She had a kerosene leak (which saturated her crawlspace), mold contamination and rotten flooring.

Despite not being eligible, the Energy Savings team felt we should help her in some way independent of the home energy makeover contest. I felt we could pull it off, and Sam Zimmerman, having assessed her home before, felt the same. Zimmerman wanted to donate his expertise but he expressed that we needed as many hands as possible. “Where are we going to find ten or so people to do this?”

Then it dawned on me — the ASU MLK Challenge would be equipping groups of ten students to perform service across the county in the coming week. In a matter of days, we made a plan to collect donations and muck-out the crawlspace with a team of students from ASU.

Appalachian State students serve at a local Watauga County resident’s home during the sixteenth annual MLK Day Challenge.

Appalachian State students serve at a local Watauga County resident’s home during the sixteenth annual MLK Day Challenge.

On Monday morning I met the group and saw that we were five short of the help we needed. Some were not dressed for getting dirty, much less for crawling under a house. Jim Street, a sixteen-year MLK Challenge alumni and their faculty service advisor for the day chuckled and said, “You should have seen those girls’ mouths drop when they heard ‘crawlspace’ and ‘spelunking.’” I just thought about the old MLK Challenge mantra, and retorted “It’s all a part of the challenge.”

By noon, we left town for Mrs. Shook’s house with a 12’x12’ piece of carpet from Abby Carpeting, safety equipment from Boone Area Missions, and promises of ply board and 2”x10’ boards from Watauga Building Supply, all of which were donated.

Seeing the crawlspace, the students were apprehensive. Who wouldn’t be when confronted with kerosene-saturated soil and mold in a tight, dark space? Some stayed outside, shuttling the contaminated soil to a dump trailer and others scrambled right in. Zimmerman and two students, Jelani Drew and Anne Carpenter, acted as the “miners,” digging out the kerosene-saturated soil. “Crawling in a crawlspace was not something I thought I was skilled at but it was not as scary as I thought,” said Carpenter.

By 4 p.m., we had removed the saturated soil, sprayed a bleach solution for mold, and spread a plastic liner to act as a moisture barrier, finishing our project in the crawlspace. Meanwhile Rory McIlmoil worked upstairs to repair Mrs. Shook’s floor for the rest of the evening. By the next weekend, he had re-floored the room and installed the donated carpet. Of course, the work would have been in vain had Mike Green, a local oil-monitor repairman, not stopped the kerosene leak for no charge.

Anne Carpenter (left) and Jelani Drew “spelunking” in Anna Mae Shook’s crawlspace. Photo by Jim Street

Anne Carpenter (left) and Jelani Drew “spelunking” in Anna Mae Shook’s crawlspace. Photo by Jim Street

Knowing that some of the students wanted to serve at the nursing home or the humane society, their service advisor Jim Street asked them if they felt their service site was a “winning ticket” after all, and to my surprise, they all felt so. Reflecting on the day of service, Carpenter noted, “We might not have been skilled but we brought a desire to serve an area that we really do impact with our choices — despite being in a campus bubble at times.” She felt our service was a great point of growth for everyone, including herself. “I’d go back under,” she said.

Mrs. Shook was extremely grateful and I was so glad the students had an opportunity to leave their campus bubble to serve in rural Appalachia for a day. I hope that they too now carry the mantra, “It’s all a part of the challenge.”

Obama budget creates opportunities for Appalachian communities

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
The Obama administration's budget includes several proposals that would create economic opportunities in central Appalachian communities struggling to weather coal's decline.

The Obama administration’s budget includes several proposals that would create economic opportunities in central Appalachian communities struggling to weather coal’s decline.

Central Appalachian communities weathering coal’s long decline would see a boost in funding under the White House budget released on Monday.

The Obama administration’s 2016 budget calls for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to be spent cleaning up abandoned strip mines, and to support economic development and workforce training in mining communities facing massive layoffs as coal is increasingly outcompeted in America’s energy mix. More than 13,000 coal jobs have been lost in central Appalachia since 2011.

One of the most significant proposals included in the budget is 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.”

The program is funded through a combination of a per-ton tax on coal production and discretionary spending, but has consistently fallen short of its goals. More than $3 billion worth of high-priority sites remain unreclaimed — most of which are in central Appalachia. The Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands, for instance, lists $445 million worth of unfunded projects. Groups working in the region have called on the administration to reimagine the way funds are distributed through the program by coupling workforce development and environmental restoration.

Other funding increases called for in the president’s budget include $20 million for the Labor Department’s Dislocated Workers program to provide employment services and job training specifically for laid-off coal miners and power plant employees to help them transition to jobs in other fields. The Appalachian Regional Commission would see its $70 million budget grow by roughly one-third, with $25 million in new funding directed to communities “most impacted by coal economic transition” to support a range of economic development initiatives.

The need for job creation and economic diversification in Appalachia could not be clearer. As Congress debates the president’s budget and puts forward its own proposals in the coming months, we hope they will carefully consider ways to build a truly sustainable economy in the region.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate Thom Kay:

There’s a great deal the president must do to help build a robust clean energy economy and ensure that disproportionately impacted areas like Appalachia are not left behind. The Obama administration’s proposed budget shows that the White House understands the need for economic diversification in Appalachia. It shows that the calls of Appalachian communities for new opportunities have been heard.

Proposals are not actions, however, and the proposed budget may never become law. The good news is that not every action to diversify the Appalachian economy requires changes to the federal budget. We will continue to use every tool available to urge the White House to commit to turning the proposals in this budget into realities, regardless of the actions of Congress.

An interview with Christopher Scotton, author of “Secret Wisdom of the Earth”

Thursday, January 8th, 2015 - posted by brian
Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

By Brian Sewell

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth,” the debut novel by Christopher Scotton released this week, is a coming-of-age story that takes familiar themes — tragedy and the quest to find healing — and explores them with the backdrop of a Central Appalachian community beset by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Set in 1985 in the fictional Medgar, Ky., a richly conceived town full of even richer characters, “Secret Wisdom of the Earth” traces the summer 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly spent at his mother’s childhood home in the mountains, as he comes to grips with the tragic death of his younger brother.

With Kevin as the narrator, Scotton weaves together stories spanning generations of Medgar residents, close friends and unabashed enemies, including many who are struggling with questions of identity and whether or not to abide by the bounds of tradition.

Mountaintop removal, at first, is depicted as a pervasive but rarely-seen evil encroaching on Medgar, with a prideful, blustering coal baron acquiring more and more land surrounding the town. Ultimately, however, it’s the friction created in the small community by mountaintop removal that precipitates a spellbinding story of family, friendship and overcoming the odds that will change Kevin’s life and the town of Medgar forever.

Released on Jan. 6, the ambitious novel is popping up on lists of new and noteworthy titles and editor’s picks. On Jan. 11, Scotton will start a 15-date reading tour, stopping in many cities in Appalachia and across the Southeast.

After reading an early release of the novel, we spoke with Scotton about its heartrending themes, its Appalachian setting and his enduring relationship to the region.

Brian Sewell: You started working on the novel more than a decade ago. Looking back, can you talk about how you initially conceived of the story and went about shaping it into the novel we get to enjoy today?

Christopher Scotton: The kernel of the idea came to me when I was in my twenties. I met a friend’s mother, who was this beautiful women that had this intrinsic sadness about her. I don’t know if you’ve met people like that that have a facade of happiness, but in their unguarded moments you can see that there’s something not quite right. I asked my friend about it and he told me the story of how his older brother died. This was before he was born and his older brother was three and died in the most horrific accident in their front yard that you could possibly imagine, and 30 years later the mom who witnessed it still hadn’t healed. I was so absolutely aghast by that and I knew I had to write a novel about it; how could you ever possibly heal from that?

Now that I’ve become a parent many years later I can understand exactly why she would often look through me when I was talking to her at some place in the past. And now I know why, because you can’t fully heal from something like that. That spurred the idea in my head to write a novel about that awful tragedy and its effect on a family. I wanted to write a coming of age novel so I thought that having Kevin as the narrator, having him recover from that tragedy I figured would make a good story. A parent could never really recover, but maybe a sibling could.

The next question was setting. Do I locate it in the suburbs, where I grew up? When I was in my twenties, I was doing a lot of backpacking, camping and backcountry survival stuff with my college friends and I just fell in love with Appalachia. As I visited the region, I just fell in love with the people and the mountains. It’s such a beautiful place. I went down to eastern Kentucky and realized the paradox of that particular part of Appalachia and thought it would make a good backdrop for Kevin’s story.

I really didn’t connect mountaintop removal to it right away. I had started writing a story centered in eastern Kentucky. The tragedy was there, I had developed the characters, but I hit a narrative logjam and nothing was connecting. I went down to eastern Kentucky for research again and saw my first mountaintop removal mine and could not believe that this practice was allowed to go on. Once I saw that, it all clicked in; the permanent loss of the mountains in eastern Kentucky became so obviously allegorical to the loss that the main characters feel. Once I connected those two together, the rest of the story flowed so easily.

BS: Tell us about some of the other characters such as Kevin’s grandfather Pops that we really get to know. Did they emanate from the setting itself or personal experiences?

CS: I spent a lot of time in eastern Kentucky just meeting folks and listening to their stories and getting to know them. In small towns throughout Appalachia, you just meet wonderful, quirky, interesting people who you want to write about because they’re so real and interesting. You also meet some awful people, just like everywhere else. You meet wonderful people and awful people in New York City too. There are pockets of beauty and pockets of evil absolutely everywhere. A lot of the town characters that I wrote about are just folks that I observed and met while in Kentucky.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

I didn’t have a grandfather like Pops in my life when I was an adolescent. Pops is the grandfather I wish I had and the grandfather that I hope to become; a kind of amalgamation of those two people. Everyone needs a wise mentor in their life and I didn’t have one growing up. Kevin certainly requires it given the tragedy he’s gone through. Adolescence is hard enough, even in the best of circumstances. But when you’ve gone through something like he’s gone through and layer on the guilt from his father, you need someone who can ground you, and Pops definitely does that for him.

BS: Characters like Pops challenge the simplistic images of Appalachian prevalent in media and pop culture. Could you remark on the different brands of wisdom found in the book?

CS: You could argue that in the novel there are several stereotypical characters; Paul is a gay hairdresser and you can’t get much more stereotypical than that. But the reality is that there are elements of truth in stereotypes and you see that everywhere. One thing that my trips down to eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia really taught me is that, sure, there are stereotypical folks in that region but there are many folks that don’t fit that mold and they’re probably there in equal measure. There is wisdom in both.

Pops is someone who loves the land and has the capacity to listen to the earth. He goes off by himself into the woods and just is, existing in the woods by himself. At times in my life when I have done that, when I’m off camping by myself for a few days, I listen to the earth and appreciate the earth in ways that you can’t from an office or even camping with friends. You gain so much wisdom and appreciation for how complex and interconnected the earth is when you do that.

The people in Appalachia tend to be rich just in and of itself. If a capable writer can create good characters, they can do that in any setting and any plot. Appalachia gave me great material to work with and I’m very thankful for that.

BS: You introduce mountaintop removal from an almost innocent perspective. From Kevin’s perspective it’s this off-in-the-distance, over-a-couple-of-ridgelines thing going on. But as you get deeper into the book and Kevin grows into the community, you get closer and closer to the destruction.

CS: Kevin’s experience with mountaintop removal is very similar to mine. I visited the region, eastern Kentucky specifically, three or four times before I had seen a mountaintop removal mine. I had been camping and backpacking extensively but never come across it. You really don’t see it until you get off-trail. I had no sense of what was going on.

I was down in Williamson, W.Va., and heard an explosion and asked someone what’s going on and they described the blasting. That Sunday, I snuck through a fence and climbed through the woods and came to the edge of the operation and looked over two miles of moonscape. It disgusted me. So Kevin’s experience was very much my experience.

BS: Something the novel does well, considering when it takes place, is looking at mountaintop removal as a human issue and a little-understood emerging threat that’s dividing the communities where it’s taking place.

CS: After I saw the mountaintop removal mine, I probably asked someone, “Do you have any idea what they’re doing up there?” But you talk to someone whose family member works up there, they have a very different perspective. I was struck by how it divided the folks that I talked to. I thought that was a really sad and interesting aspect of it. Those that live near it and have the put up with the devastation often hate it, but some of them have relatives that work in the mines so it really is a sad paradox.

Now the pendulum has swung to where, in towns beset by large mining operations, there seems to be a majority of folks that really don’t want it there. It’s gotten so far out of control and the damage is so well documented by organizations like yours. Certainly in 1985, when the novel takes place, and even in 2000, when I was doing the bulk of the mountaintop removal site work, there was less understanding of the damage.

BS: What’s your relationship to the region after writing “Secret Wisdom of the Earth?”

CS: Calling it a second home wouldn’t be accurate because I don’t visit as much as I would like. But I feel a kinship with eastern Kentucky and with the people there because, without their help and support and endorsement, I couldn’t have created this world in my head to tell Kevin’s story. I feel a tremendous connection to that region and the people. I’m so looking forward to spending time in the region and getting to know it again.

BS: You’re heading back to the region to do a reading soon. Have you gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers in Appalachia?

CS: A lady from a major coal-mining county in Kentucky who told me, “You did this region proud.” That was the best praise I think I’ve gotten — from someone who is from the area and felt I did the region justice, dealing with the region with humanity and with truth.

Fighting Mountaintop Removal During the Obama Years

Friday, December 26th, 2014 - posted by molly

Appalachia’s Health Checkup

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

Region faces escalating medical need, responds with community-based initiatives

By Molly Moore

Some days people meet The Health Wagon at the Lee County airport in southwest Virginia. Other days, it’s the community center in Dickenson County, or a local church. No matter where the mobile clinic vehicle pulls up, local residents step into a small waiting area, where they are greeted by a local volunteer before heading to one of the clinic’s two exam rooms to meet with a nurse-practitioner for a donation-based or free medical appointment.

Nearly 25 years after Sister Bernie Kenny first traveled the mountain roads in a Volkswagen Beetle bringing healthcare to those in need, her ministry has grown into a full-fledged southwest Virginia nonprofit organization with two stationary facilities and two mobile units.

volunteer2

Volunteers facilitate a vision test at a health fair in Wise, Va., organized by The Health Wagon. Nearly all patients at the free healthcare clinics hosted by the aid organization Remote Area Medical are in need of dental and vision care, says founder Stan Brock. Photo courtesy The Health Wagon

Today The Health Wagon is run by Dr. Teresa Gardner, a family nurse practitioner. She began working alongside Sister Kenny in 1993 and speaks about the region’s health needs with genuine passion and determination.

“I have never seen the need more dire in my 22 years that I have been here,” Gardner says. “The need is phenomenal. We have patients on a waiting list.”

In 2013, The Health Wagon saw 4,167 separate patients and provided $2.2. million in free medical care. The patients visiting The Health Wagon are likely at risk for the same ailments that saddle the region as a whole. Appalachians are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and specific cancers such as lung, colorectal and cervical, according to “Appalachian Health and Well-being,” published in 2012. Kidney disease, mental and oral health, traumatic injuries and substance abuse are also regional concerns.

Dr. Joseph Smiddy, medical director at both the Health Wagon in southwest Virginia as well as Body and Soul Ministries in Belize, says more people in the region are falling out of the healthcare system now than when he began charity work 15 years ago. In his experience, cancers are now being diagnosed later in life than they were several years ago, and dental work is now more expensive relative to the economy. People are not receiving mental health or preventative care, he says, and epidemics of lung disease, diabetes and obesity are worsening.

Learn More

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation publishes annual county-level information about health outcomes and factors that influence health. Explore data about your area at countyhealthrankings.org.

The gap in healthcare coverage is evident at free clinic events that nonprofit organization Remote Area Medical hosts across the country, as hundreds of people wait in line overnight to receive medical care the following day.

Remote Area Medical, based in Rockford, Tenn., formed in 1985 to deliver airborne medical care in developing nations, but began operating in the United States in the early ‘90s. The organization has since hosted 742 events in 11 states. The nation’s largest annual event is held in partnership with The Health Wagon in Wise County, Va. At the RAM clinics, volunteers set up scores of dental chairs and examination facilities, and doctors arrive to donate their services. Some bring their own equipment too; Smiddy arrives with a 70-foot tractor-trailer rigged with two digital X-ray machines.

Most patients who make the early-morning journey to the temporary health clinics are motivated by a pressing need to see the dentist or eye doctor, but while waiting in line they are encouraged to also visit other medical specialists at the event. Through these visits, RAM providers have identified thousands of cases of previously undiagnosed diabetes, hypertension and cancer.
Similarly, every visitor to The Health Wagon is screened for diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and coronary artery disease. The organization also hosts regularly scheduled sessions to address specific issues, such as respiratory disease, wound care and endocrinology — sometimes in collaboration with specialists from the University of Virginia, who provide care remotely via sophisticated, secure video technology.

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A new mobile health unit recently replaced an aging vehicle that had become unsafe to drive. Mobile units allow The Health Wagon to reach patients in remote areas, and also provide low-cost facilities that help keep overhead costs low. Photo courtesy The Health Wagon

Gardner is frank about the Health Wagon’s financial limitations. The economic struggles in southwestern Virginia mean there is extraordinarily high demand for the organization’s services at a time when resources are especially tight. The nonprofit’s capacity is also taxed by the addition of new services such as monthly screenings in Wise to help diagnose cervical cancer and other women’s health issues. Despite this, she says, “We have to do something for these patients because there are patients that are dying here without care.”

Steps Toward Transformation

Margaret Tomann, program manager at the Healthy Appalachia Institute — a collaborative effort at University of Virginia’s College at Wise — acknowledges the need in the region but believes it’s just as important to recognize local examples of success. Indeed, the Healthy Appalachia Institute’s stated goal is “to transform Central Appalachia into a leading model for rural community health throughout the world.”

That transformation can take place on a local level, says Dr. Sue Cantrell, director and acting director of Virginia’s LENOWISCO and Cumberland Plateau Health Districts. Social and environmental factors such as neighborhood crime and the ability to commute on safe roads are inextricably linked to health outcomes, she notes. For example, obesity leads to a host of health problems, but more kids will walk to school if sidewalks are available and the community is safe.

By examining barriers to positive health choices, these circumstances can be addressed, piece by piece. To encourage morning and early-evening walkers, a greenway trail system in Big Stone Gap now sports solar-powered lights, and Pennington Gap in Lee County, Va., recently received funding to install exercise stations along their walking trails. In addition to countering obesity and heart disease, establishing an active routine can also help people break the cycle of substance abuse.

This holistic approach is being employed across the region. In eight western North Carolina counties, an initiative called MountainWise is surveying the health impacts of a vast suite of community policies — such as transportation and park plans — in an effort to integrate health goals into county and town development.

The ambitious undertaking is the first of its kind in the United States, according to MountainWise, a project of the North Carolina Community Transformation Grant Project and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The results of the assessments will be used to facilitate access to healthy food, provide opportunities for physical activity and support tobacco-free areas.

Improvements in physical activity and nutrition are most achievable when there is a solid foundation of education and economic security, says Cantrell. Someone juggling multiple jobs is less likely to have the time and energy for physical activity, she says, and people who succeed in school are more likely to have health insurance — and are better positioned to navigate the healthcare system.

At the Healthy Appalachia Institute, Tomman adopts a like-minded view. After noticing similar patterns of poor health indicators in counties in East Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the Healthy Appalachia Institute hosted an event to build cross-state, regional awareness of the issue. Attendees included leaders in health, economic development and education, fields that Tomman says “are so closely intertwined you can’t really do one without the other.”

In one Virginia initiative, more than 20 regional collaborators are creating an outdoor recreation plan called “Health is Right Outside” that combines health and economic goals. The beauty of the Appalachian Mountains offers tourism and economic development opportunities, and Cantrell hopes that efforts to market area trails and rivers to visitors will also entice locals to nearby outdoor activities. “There’s a lot here that the average person living in this area can benefit from and enjoy,” she says.

Cantrell reflects that some actions to improve health must be taken on an individual level, but other changes, such as improving the high school graduation rate or building a trail network, can be accomplished together. “We can do it as a community and impact more people, and potentially their children and grandchildren.”

What will Obama’s legacy be on mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 - posted by thom
After six years of the Obama presidency, mountaintop removal is still putting communities are at risk, leading many to wonder what his environmental legacy will be.

After six years of the Obama presidency, mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk, leading many to wonder what his legacy on the issue will be.

The Obama administration has taken steps to limit mountaintop removal coal mining pollution in Appalachia. The president and agency officials have also made quite a few promises. But mountaintop removal continues, so what have they actually done?

The Alliance for Appalachia, a coalition of groups including Appalachian Voices, just released a Grassroots Progress Report examining the administration’s successes and shortfalls in dealing with mountaintop removal. There have been successes, to be sure, but as the report clearly demonstrates, there have been many failures.

Large scale surface coal mining is still a huge problem in Central Appalachia. Although the pace has slowed due to the declining coal economy, many new permits are issued every year. In 2013 Virginia issued 9 new surface mining permits and 2 acreage expansions, West Virginia issued 25 new permits, and Kentucky issued 30. Only Tennessee issued no new permits. - Grassroots Progress Report

The report covers not only the scale of ongoing mining, but paints a clear picture of the costs that mountaintop removal continues to have on Appalachian communities. The poor economic outcomes and human health problems associated with mountaintop removal have not improved over the past six years. These issues are closely linked, and neither can improve without action from the White House.

The White House has already made commitments. A 2009 Memorandum of Understanding, signed by all of the relevant regulatory agencies, outlined a series of actions the administration was prepared to take to deal with mountaintop removal. The Alliance report goes through those commitments one by one, pointing out the shortcomings of the actions taken, and the failure of the administration to take further, stronger actions.

The report is not simply a list of grievances, however. There are four policy recommendations as well.

1) a Selenium Standard to ensure that citizens maintain the ability to test for selenium pollution in their own water,
2) a strong Conductivity Rule based on scientific research US EPA has already conducted because we, and our federal agencies, know that high conductivity can be a key measure of dangerous water,
3) a Stream Protection Rule that preserves a strong stream buffer zone requirement so that mining waste can no longer be dumped into our streams, and
4) a strong Minefill Rule to address the currently unregulated dumping of coal burning waste into abandoned mine sites.

If you’re interested in what the Obama administration has and has not done in dealing with mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, take a moment to read the one-page summary or the full report.