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Analysis: The Pharmaceutical Colonization of Appalachia

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To fight the opioid epidemic, first we need to identify the enemy. Research on the theory of historical trauma – affecting entire populations and regions – could point us toward more effective treatment.

I am a West Virginian and have worked in the substance abuse field for around 30 years. I didn’t start my career in mental health wanting to work with addictions, but as anyone who works in mental health will tell you, there is no way to avoid it, or at least no way to avoid it in West Virginia. Over those 30 years, I have learned that most of what we thought we knew about addictions is wrong or, more accurately, woefully incomplete. This is important because how folks attempt to address the problem comes directly from how they think about it. What causes addictions and substance abuse? What keeps it going? Why does it affect certain people and not others? Why do people have a hard time stopping? We need to answer these questions to ever have a chance of getting a handle on addiction in rural regions like Appalachia where there are problems with addiction.

Our views of addiction have developed over hundreds of years and have ended up becoming a mish-mash of moralistic and medical thinking. Add to this the current view that substances themselves are addictive and that our genes are a likely accomplice and you pretty much have the modern-day definition of addiction. Currently, most learned scientific societies and institutions define addiction as a chronic brain disease. Wonderful! Now all we have to do is find a cure for brain disease and we will be home free. So, how does one cure a brain disease?

Just as our view of addiction is a mish-mash from our past, so too is its treatment. We have moved from locking folks up in asylums and making them right through guided prayer to a process of detoxification, medically-assisted treatment, and on-going recovery. Medicine-assisted treatment (MAT) is a cleaned-up way of saying behavioral therapy with the help of pharmaceuticals. There have been improvements demonstrated by the current cures. However, you rarely hear any mention of preventing the problem before it gets started. I am happy for the folks who have been helped by current treatment methods, but it sure seems to me that we should be aiming a lot higher.

Throughout my career, I have witnessed many addiction treatments in action and have even participated in them directly. Generally, they are marginally successful. If one measures success as not using for six months or longer, then the picture looks a little brighter. However, if we want to see people restored to health and well-being, then it doesn’t look so good. Less than 10% of the people needing treatment for addictions in this country are actually receiving it, estimates say. There is not nearly enough capacity to treat everyone who needs it, and not many folks who need it can afford it. It is definitely a big problem. This, however, is only part of the problem. If treatment is all we needed, then you might think that in 10 years we would be able to take care of the problem. But the number of new people becoming addicted is growing much faster than they can be treated. In other words, there are more people coming into the system than are going out. This is a problem we all can understand. A parable illustrates this point well.

One afternoon, a group of townspeople sees a baby in the river. One person dives in and rescues the infant. But as he climbs ashore, one of the other townspeople spots another baby in the river in need of help. Then another. And another. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of babies, the townspeople grab any passer-by they can to help them.

Before long, the river is filled with desperate babies, and more and more rescuers are required to assist the towns people. Unfortunately, not all the babies can be saved. And, tragically, some of the brave rescuers occasionally drown. But they manage to mold themselves into an efficient life-saving organization and, over time, an entire infrastructure develops to support their efforts: hospitals, schools, foster care, social services, trauma and victim support services, lifesaving trainers, swimming schools, etc.

At this point one of the town citizens starts walking upstream.

“Where are you going?” the others ask, disconcerted, “We need you here! Look how busy we are trying to save these babies!”

The citizen replies: “You carry on here. I’m going upstream to find the bugger who keeps chucking all these babies in the river.”

This story really spoke to me when I first heard it years ago. At the time, I was working in substance abuse prevention at the local and state level. We had a team of 40-plus people working in nearly all 55 counties in West Virginia. Our primary work was helping communities develop prevention programs to deal with their problems . All the programs we were using were well researched and evidence-based. So, one would think, they would help deal with the substance abuse-problems and reduce the need for treatment. Some very positive things happened, but overall, I would have to say they were also only marginally successful. Why they were not more effective was certainly not because of the folks I was working with. They were all bright, caring, passionate, and resourceful people who knew the programs well and worked their tails off trying to make a difference.

I eventually discovered that a good bit of the failure was due to the nature of the programs we were using. It was not because they lacked sufficient research or evidence. The problem resided in the view the program developers had of addiction and thus how to address it. They all viewed addiction as a disease that primarily affected individuals, and the programs were all created in places quite different than West Virginia. This view, at best, is limited, which means that the programs they developed were likewise limited. If we seriously want to slow down and stop all the bodies being thrown in the river, then we are going to have to change the way we think about the problem of addictions.

There have been several “truths” I have learned about addiction over the time I have worked in the field. These are a few:

  • Addiction comes about through a highly complex interaction of our biology, psychology, and sociology. It never boils down to just our genes or our brains or our family. It is all of them all at once, all the time, and more.
  • People can heal from addiction, but there is no one single way. It usually takes a village and many approaches.
  • One cannot adequately understand a person’s addiction without understanding the context within which they live.
  • People who are addicted are generally in pain, and their behavior is intended to relieve themselves of this pain.

No one factor alone will cause addiction. However, there are contexts that give rise to more addictions than others. Essentially, certain contexts create more people vulnerable to addictions than others. By context, I mean the physical and social environments in which people live, work, and play. Usually, this is their community.

The big questions to me are 1) which communities are most vulnerable in the U.S. and 2) why are they more vulnerable than others?

 

Question #1: Vulnerability

In August 2016, the Appalachian Regional Commission released a report they commissioned from the Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis entitled, “Appalachian Diseases of Despair.” The study looked at the impact on deaths related to the three main diseases of despair. The three diseases are

  • Alcohol, prescription drug and illegal drug overdose.
  • Suicide.
  • And alcoholic liver disease/cirrhosis of the liver.

The deaths from these three diseases of despair was 37% higher in Appalachia than the rest of the nation, and this number is growing significantly faster in Appalachia than in the rest of the country. Deaths for people in the 25 to 44 year age range was 70% higher than the rest of the country. Interestingly, this higher rate of death doesn’t necessarily correlate with economic conditions, at least at the national level. So other factors are in play.

When comparing the sub-regions in Appalachia, the greatest number of deaths occurred in the North Central and Central sub-regions. That is all of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.  Many of the counties in the North Central and Central sub-regions are designated by the ARC as distressed counties and these counties had disease rates 34% greater than the non-distressed counties in Appalachia.

More evidence of Appalachia’s high addiction rates is found in the annual Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, which looks at interrelated elements such as financial security, physical health, and the strength of community and social relationships. The two states with the lowest well-being in the country are West Virginia and Kentucky.

The author found that the West Virginia counties with the highest addiction risk tended to be ones with coal production. (Appalachian Regional Commission)

Question #2: Coal Connection

The second question is why communities in Central Appalachia are so vulnerable to addiction. The ARC report and many others point to a host of issues such as poverty, unemployment, violence, poor health, school failure, etc. But these answers seemed turned upside down. Are they saying that poverty causes this vulnerability? It seems much more likely that these problems, just like the diseases of despair, are symptoms and outcomes rather than its causes. What is it that creates this vulnerability? Obviously, something deeper is happening here.

Years ago, my organization attempted to quantify which West Virginia counties had the greatest substance abuse problems. To find the answer, we gathered data from economics, health, mental health, education, criminal justice, and others. As a way to make sense of what we were seeing, we put this data on county maps of the state and color-coded them by county based on the rates of each of these problems areas. There were separate maps for the counties with the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, family violence, arrests, and others. There were a few “outlier” counties, but by and large, most of the counties with the highest rates of problems overlapped closely. The counties with the highest rates of poverty also generally had the higher unemployment, worse health outcomes, lower educational attainment, more family violence, etc. This did not surprise those of us who knew the state well, because all one had to do was spend a little time in these counties before you knew they were struggling.

I pondered our maps trying to figure out what set these apart from the rest of the state. Then it occurred to me that there was coal mining in most of these counties. I put together another color-coded map marking the counties that currently or historically mined coal. The counties in this map, by and large, overlapped with the counties that were experiencing social and economic difficulties.

A miner and children at a coal camp of the Kingston Pocahontas Coal Company in West Virginia in the 1940s. (U.S. Department of Interior)

I was not surprised, but perplexed. What was there about coal mining counties that grouped them with these other problems? I was aware that folks who were struggling with addictions most often came from families and communities who were also struggling with addictions, but this was usually accounted for through family dynamics. In other words, dysfunctional families begat dysfunctional kids who became dysfunctional adults who begat more dysfunction. However, the explanation did not really explain anything other than it was a problem of the people themselves and that is usually where the explanation ended. There was nothing about how the dysfunction got there in the first place or what kept it going. The only thing this explanation was good for was more subtly and “scientifically” blaming the people for their problems. But that explanation is bogus. What was happening here was different.

Within a year, I discovered an article entitled “Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma across Three Generations” by an Israeli researcher named Rachel Lev-Wiesel. She did extensive interviews with three generations of three different families who were from different cultures. The older generation in each of the three families experienced three different kinds of group trauma. She wrote:

“Trauma included experiencing the Holocaust, being placed in a transit camp following immigration from Morocco, and being forced to dislocate as the result of a war. The representatives of successive generations were administered qualitative, open ended interviews regarding their life as survivors or victims, or as the second/third generation of survivors/victims. A content analysis revealed that the intergenerational transmission of three types of trauma was perpetuated across three generations.”

This got my attention. Traumatic events experienced by grandparents get passed down to future generations. Could this be what was happening in Central Appalachia? Could this link the current opioid epidemic, as well as other substance abuse problems, to the thing all these counties had in common: coal mining?

Since I first read that article approximately 10 years ago, a lot more research has been done that supports Lev-Wiesel’s original piece. This research was coming from all around the world and from different cultural contexts. Even though it has been called by various names, historical trauma has so far been identified among groups of people who have experienced deliberate inflicted trauma in the forms of genocide, slavery, war, and colonization. There is documentation that it has been experienced by North American Indians, Holocaust survivors, Alaskan natives, Australian aboriginal people, Palestinians, Canadian indigenous people, African-Americans, Romanians, Japanese-Americans, and many others. Research has begun uncovering the complex and diverse impacts on numerous groups of people around the world as well as in the United States.

In this growing body of research, essentially none of it has focused on Appalachia. Given the numerous biological, psychological, and social problems experienced by people in the region and the documented vulnerability to substance abuse, it seemed worthwhile to look into. To understand how historical trauma made it into Central Appalachia first requires an understanding of the history of the region.

An excellent, well researched description of how this happened in one valley on the Kentucky-Tennessee border was given by John Gaventa in his 1980 book, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Gaventa points out that for nearly a century before the late 1800s, rural communities within Central Appalachia lived an agrarian existence. They developed slowly in relative isolation and were “scarcely influenced by the rapid industrialization to the east, north, and west.” However, the region had vast natural resources that were desired by industrialists, so the industrial colonization of Appalachia began. It occurred through multiple processes over a relatively short time beginning with land acquisition. As Cratis Williams put it, “The industrialists invaded Appalachia and exploited it as if it were a colony imbedded within the nation itself and left its people demoralized and in poverty.” Ron Lewis made the case that the region became the “frontier of American industrial capitalism” during this period of time. As an example of the extent of land acquisition, he points out that by the 1970’s, two thirds of the privately held land in West Virginia was controlled by natural resource corporations from outside of the state.

Following land acquisition came the economic boom. Railroads were built in the area, followed by tents and other company housing along with coking furnaces, iron works, planing mills, lumber mills, stores, and saloons. Timbering and coal mining started in earnest. In the Clear Fork Valley described by Gaventa, within a two to three year period the area was transformed from a relatively self-sufficient agricultural community of approximately 60 families to a city of 5,000 people with 57 industries operating or planned and six banks. Between 1880 and 1920, the population of the coalfields of Central Appalachia exploded, and nearly 80% of the population lived in company-owned towns.

Unemployed miners in West Virginia attending a meeting of the Workers Alliance Council of Scott’s Run in 1937. (Lewis Hine-U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Along with this economic boom came “the development of social stratification and the establishment of absentee, concentrated economic control of resources and the means of their extraction.” The colonizers built the buildings and infrastructure of the town and created the social institutions necessary to maintain them. In Lewis’s words, the coal mine operator became not only the employer, but “also filled the roles of landlord, merchant, postmaster, provider of entertainment, and sanitation officer.” In addition, the companies provided fire and police protection along with “medical, spiritual, entertainment, and educational services.” The industrial colonization brought with it a worldview and ideology promoting the virtues of civilization over the culture that previously existed in the mountains, thus imposing new values and beliefs on the population that simultaneously degraded the traditional culture of the people of Appalachia. Companies further exercised domination by imposing their control on the socializing agencies of government, churches, and schools, thus permanently shrouding inequalities to ensure unquestioning participation by the non-elite in the new order. As the typical economic cycle of boom and bust proceeded over the years within the region, communities suffered and deteriorated. In a short time, the citizens of Appalachian had lost their land, their way of life, and their ability for self-determination. Mining camps became what Ron Lewis called, “the rural equivalents of the ethnic ghettoes which served as transitional communities for foreign immigrants in the cities.” The industrial colonization of Central Appalachia clearly meets the criteria of historical trauma. The nature of the trauma has been chronic and the associated stress nearly constant.

What emerges from Gaventa’s account of the colonization and subsequent domination of the Clear Fork Valley shows a pretty clear example of how trauma and chronic stress find their way into the daily lives of people a community. This particular story is unique to the area in and around Middlesboro, Kentucky, but it is quite similar in overall theme to most coal mining areas in Central and North Central Appalachia. Life in the coal camps continues to the present day as do the traumas in the forms of mine disasters, environmental degradation, and social fragmentation. This scene has repeated itself across Central and North Central Appalachia for four generations or more. Coal mining communities today do not experience the same situation or context as their ancestors, but they clearly show the consequence of such a history. (Though Appalachia is the region I know best, it is by no means alone in experiencing historical trauma. The research on this theory has delved more deeply into the experiences of Native Americans and African Americans.)

In Appalachia, the stories and consequences have clear common themes. The evidence for this plainly shows up in the region’s indicators of social, economic, and health issues. In the Gallup-ShareCare Well Being Index (2016), Central Appalachia has the lowest overall well-being of any region in the nation, and it has been like that since the survey started in 2008. Similarly, these Appalachian counties consistently rank in the lowest quartiles within their states for both health outcomes and health factors. The conditions described in this survey have been going on in the region for at least a century.

Appalachians never asked for addictions and its associated problems. It was all bestowed on us as a direct consequence of the massive group trauma brought about by industrial colonization.

The historical pattern of industrial colonization in Central and North Central Appalachia is a clear example of how a unique form of historical trauma develops in communities and creates a

context that significantly degrades well-being, compromises people’s abilities to exercise self-determination, and leaves the population vulnerable to a host of problems in the present including substance abuse and addictions.

We now know where the most vulnerable communities in the country are located and we have some pretty solid evidence what got them started down that path.

I can partially go along with the idea that addiction is a chronic brain disease. It is true that addiction affects our brains and the rest of our bodies.. However, to attribute this brain disorder to messed up brain chemistry, faulty genes, poor learning, inability to control impulses, inability to connect with others, poor coping skills, inability to deal with stress, etc. seems “bass-ackwards.” I’ve worked with quite a few addicted people, and all of them had experienced some form of trauma at some point in their lives, and all of them were in pain. Whether it was physical pain or emotional/psychological pain makes no difference. To your brain, it is all the same.

Appalachians never asked for addictions and its associated problems. It was all bestowed on us as a direct consequence of the massive group trauma brought about by industrial colonization. Under this colonization, a large percentage of the people of Central and North Central Appalachia were seriously wounded. Under the imposed social order, the population’s wounds got infected, abscessed, and became chronic. The wounds were passed down from one generation to the next. The imposed context continually wounded people who, over time, showed the wear-and-tear that comes from this.

The context became physically and socially toxic. It was diseasing and killing the community. This should not come as a surprise, because it happens all over the world. Anytime one group of people colonizes another group, there will be trauma and it has consequences that can last for generations. What has been wrought through industrial colonization has, over time, taken a great toll on the people and made them quite vulnerable to the things that ease their pain.

The current opioid epidemic is not surprising when you see it in its proper historical context. If you take any group of humans and force them into a wounding environment, as Appalachians were, they will become traumatized and seek relief. Any one of us would do the same because it is part of our nature as humans. The seeking of relief by this large chunk of Appalachians did not go unnoticed by other industries, particularly the pharmaceutical companies, who have been all too happy to help out with the relief seeking … at a price of course. They have flooded North Central and Central Appalachia with billions of pain killers.

An online source defines colonization as, “the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area.” In Appalachia, we are clearly experiencing colonization by opioids. Appalachians are being thrown in the river at an astonishing rate, a rate that has overwhelmed our ability to handle.

Question #3: What’s Next?

Now we have a different way to think about addictions, so I hope we can apply this new thinking to creating new ways to handle it. We can no longer view addictions as a problem of an individual, and we can also no longer avoid the tight relationship between addiction, poverty, unemployment, financial stability, health, violence, and all the rest. They are all inextricably connected to the lives of a community. It is a challenge for us all. Maybe if we start looking for answers to one last question, we might just stumble onto something that could work.

And here is the last question:

How can Appalachian communities — and others affected by historic trauma — heal from these wounds and go about the business of creating the kind of communities they really want? Answer this question, and we will go a long way toward solving the problem of addiction.

Wayne Coombs is a native of West Virginia, where he was a counseling professor at Marshall University and director of research and development at the West Virginia Prevention Resource Center. He currently lives in Johnson City, Tennessee.

This article was originally published in The Daily Yonder. 

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Appalachia

A Regional Focus on Health Care, Community by Community

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Understanding Appalachia requires coming to grips with the complexities and challenges of rural healthcare.

It means understanding that addiction isn’t just an opioid issue, as methamphetamines make a comeback in our communities. It means understanding that health goals reflect a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs chart from one community to the next, and that how we define wellness is as diverse and place-based as other forms of Appalachian culture. It means understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in the creative ways that our communities tackle addiction, vaccines, mental health, access and affordability.

With support from Jim and Alexis Pugh, we hired a part-time editor/reporter for developing this beat. We’d like to introduce him to our readers and invite story pitches for tackling this topic together.

— 100 Days in Appalachia

Introduce yourself to the 100 Days audience. How does your background inform your perspective on health and health care issues in Appalachia?

I’ve been covering rural health throughout the Southeast for some years now. Appalachian born, in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I began writing about health care on a regular basis in 2008 with a series of articles on the breakdown of the mental health care system in North Carolina. I then began to more fully appreciate the complexity of health care issues and the range of repercussions of the decisions we make societally about health care.

I worked for a couple of years under a grant to cover rural health issues in North Carolina, and that job allowed me to spend a lot of time on two-lane roads – those roads William Least Heat-Moon coined the “blue highways” for the color in which they appeared on old Rand McNally maps. I’ve since been doing the same work as a freelancer, from the Finger Lakes region of New York to the Mexico border. I love driving those roads, realizing that I’m now somewhere I’ve never been before, then arriving at my destination and exploring how the issues this particular community is grappling with are the same and different as others elsewhere.

I’m looking forward to now returning my focus to Appalachia. I divide my time between Nashville, Tennessee, and Carrboro, North Carolina. I make the trek between those two cities every couple of weeks, and whenever I’m headed west and begin the climb up Old Fort Mountain or headed east and hit Pigeon River Gorge, I feel the tug. It’s less than a hundred-mile stretch, but it’s so distinctly Appalachia.

With 100 Days, I’m psyched to reorient along a roughly north-south axis, unfolding this region that ambles from Schoharie County, New York, to Kemper County Mississippi. Granted, much of this work will be done from my desk in Nashville or Carrboro. But I’ll always be looking forward to that next excursion.

Of course, not all of Appalachia is rural. I do enjoy Appalachia’s metropolitan areas, love discovering them anew, and look forward to further delving into their particular health care issues and successes.

Urban or rural, I’m intrigued by the role that place plays in the health care issues communities face and in their outcomes. I’m so looking forward to witnessing Appalachia.

When people see that we’re launching a health vertical, it might seem like we’re late to the game, that any number of outlets already have a strongly established focus on issues in this area. In what ways do you hope to lead the conversation about health in Appalachia?

Appalachia is facing some considerable health care challenges. In addition to the rising costs of care, rural communities are experiencing diminishing access to services, including hospital closures, and difficulties in recruiting health care professionals. Rural and urban communities alike have been particularly hard hit by opioids.

But Appalachia isn’t a monolithic region, and there are nuances to these issues from one sub-region to the next, from community to community. While underscoring shared concerns, I intend to draw out those distinctions. I most especially want to bring attention to the particular ways in which communities are finding solutions

When I write that I’m from Western North Carolina, I capitalize the “W,” as those in the region commonly do – because beyond identifying the region geographically, “Western” is an integral part of a proper noun, denoting cultural distinctions. I could ramble on about what those distinctions are – the libertarian instinct, etc. My point is that place matters. Murphy, North Carolina, in the far southwestern corner of WNC, is 355 miles from Raleigh, the state capital.

There are four other state capitals closer to Murphy. To assume that all North Carolinians share a sense of place, an identity, would be a mistake. I want to explore the contours of geography and culture, and how they shape health, health care, attitudes, practice and policies.  

I intend to report on the challenges individual communities are facing and their responses to those challenges, and on decisions that the federal and state governments make and the outcomes of those decisions – whether to expand Medicaid coverage, for example, and the implications of that decision.  

Are there any specific topics you think media outlets outside of the region do a bad job of covering here or that have perpetuated stereotypes of the people in Appalachia? In what ways do you hope to challenge those views?

I think there’s a perception that Appalachia is waiting for a handout, that people in the region are expecting the federal government to solve all their problems. I hope to help counter that narrative.

The first piece I wrote for 100 Days was titled “New Report Cites Economic Woes, Addiction and Optimism in Appalachia.” It was about the results of a survey conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Public Radio and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health titled “Life in Rural America.” Those results underscored the loss of jobs and the scourge of addiction. But the researchers also found that rural Americans are largely optimistic about their future, placing their faith in a shared sense of community. I described how that sense of community is expressed in Moorefield, West Virginia.

I strive to take a solutions-oriented approach to my work. I’ve written about the closures, mergers and acquisitions of hospitals and the ripple effects they have on communities. That’s certainly an issue today in Appalachia. In reporting on these transactions, I’ve described how communities have responded – at times, rebelled.

I intend to tell the stories of ground-level, multi-fronted responses to the health care challenges Appalachian communities are experiencing.

The focus outside, and inside, the region, in terms of covering health in Appalachia, is largely focused on the opioid epidemic. In what ways do you hope to shine a new light or further the conversation around this topic?

I refer to my answer to the previous question: solutions. Whenever possible, I intend to report on solutions.

Recently, I attended a listening session hosted by the Appalachian Regional Commission in the small town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The objective was to discuss workforce issues related to the opioid epidemic. Participants brainstormed job-placement strategies and how communities can engage substance-abuse treatment programs, recovery initiatives and other services. They shared information on available resources in the community. People had driven up to three hours to attend – health care professionals, business owners, social workers, elected officials, academics, law-enforcement officers and plain-old concerned citizens. It was an impressive display of solution-oriented community resolve.

I’ve reported on naloxone initiatives, needle-exchange programs, law-enforcement assisted diversion programs and health care professionals assisting mother and child in alleviating the effects of neonatal abstinence syndrome, addressing the stigma attached to medical-assisted treatment. I’ve ridden along with a peer support specialist who helps former inmates in recovery and others who assist those exiting the criminal justice system.

I intend to remain attentive to programs focused on the treatment, care and recovery of those with substance-use disorders and on the prevention of addiction, but with an eye toward how we are solving these problems in our communities.

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Appalachia

Distress Grows For Ohio Valley Farmers As Trade Deals Stall

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Barry Alexander with a handful of yellow soybeans. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

West Kentucky Farmer Barry Alexander doesn’t have an answer on when the Trump administration will reach a trade deal with China, now a year into tariffs that have hamstrung some Ohio Valley industries.

Listen to the story from the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Alexander is optimistic these continued negotiations will be worth it, but his plan in the meantime lies in massive, silver storage bins on Cundiff Farms, the 13,000-acre operation he manages.

He pulls a lever, and out tumbles a downpour of pale yellow soybeans.

Video: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

“These beans have been in here since Halloween day,” Alexander said. “The large bin on the right, that’s 350,000 bushels. The next-size bins down, that’s 180,000 bushels. To give reference, a thousand bushels is one semi-truck load.”

He’s been trying to hold onto about half of his soybean and corn bushels, waiting to see if he can sell for a better price before he’s forced to start planting again in early April.

Crop prices have crashed partly because of Chinese tariffs, and the losses have put a strain on some farmers he knows.

Barry Alexander, a lifelong west Kentucky farmer, in his small office. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

“There are farmers that have decided to retire because they didn’t want to work through these things now. We’re to that point,” Alexander said.

Alexander said he’s survived in part because his sprawling farm has resources to work with: eight full-time employees, two new $550,000 combines he traded up for, and the storage bins to help ride out bad crop prices.

“Our large structures are not cheap, but financially for our farming operation, they’re a necessity for us to do what we do,” Alexander said.

Farmers like Alexander are coping with losses from tariffs and a continuing trade war, and it’s not clear when it will end. A March 1 deadline for negotiations with China was delayed indefinitely by President Trump, and an agreement with Mexico and Canada that Trump signed in November has yet to be ratified by Congress. The retaliatory tariffs on U.S. crops and dairy remain, compounding problems caused by overproduction and low crop prices, and small farmers are suffering the most.

Massive, steel storage bins, half-full with grain, on Cundiff Farms in west Kentucky. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

Size Matters

“If you look at all the large farmers, these guys have the storage facilities to wait out bad prices,” Kent State University-Tuscarawas Agribusiness Professor Sankalp Sharma said. “For a lot of these small guys…they couldn’t actually store their commodity, they still had to deal with those lower prices.”

Sharma and others argue grain prices have been low for five years because farmers are overproducing, and tariffs are only making the situation worse.

“The United States soybean harvest this year in general was just crazy. There was a bumper crop, and prices were down because of that,” Sharma said. “This was just your classic demand and supply situation.”

Both Ohio and Kentucky set records for soybean harvests in 2018: 289 million bushels and 103 million bushels, respectively. This is up significantly compared to two decades ago, when Ohio harvested 162 million bushels and Kentucky harvested a little over 24 million bushels in 1999.

Farmers are also becoming more efficient than ever before — Ohio set records in 2018 for most corn and soybean bushels produced per acre.

Oversupply problems haven’t been limited to grains, though. Small dairy farmers are also dealing with excess supply and tariffs, with hundreds of cases of extra milk being dumped at Ohio Valley food banks.

Farms At Risk

Greg Gibson’s operation is small, but his family has made it work for decades. He milks 80 cows at his dairy farm in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, and he took over the operation in 2002. The past year of tariffs hasn’t been easy.

“Everything’s down. Historically, if milk price is down you can sell some corn or you could sell some replacement animals are something,” Gibson said. “But nothing has a lot of value to sell right now, so it’s really hard to generate any additional revenue. And a lot of that is because of the trade problems we’re having.”

Like many Ohio Valley farmers, Gibson is receiving payments from the $12 billion in federal relief from the Market Facilitation Program intended to to help those who suffer losses from tariffs.

Small farms are squeezed by the dairy crisis. Photo: Nicole Erwin/Ohio Valley ReSource

Gibson appreciates Trump’s efforts to renegotiate trade deals, and like Alexander, is cautiously hopeful about the prospects of new trade deals.

But he said he’s also disappointed in Trump because the payments are not nearly enough to recoup his losses. He says milk’s price has plummeted nearly a dollar per hundred pounds of milk sold and the payments only reimburse 12 cents of that.

“I would have rather him said ‘I got to do this. You’re going to take the hit. Sorry.’ Don’t promise me you’re going to take care of me and then don’t,” Gibson said.

Some commodity associations including the National Corn Growers Association and the National Milk Producers Federation have called on the Trump administration in past months to bolster what they call lackluster relief payments.

Gibson’s squeezed budget has had him extend paying off his farm loans and put off paying several repair bills. He’s also had to put up his 150-year-old family farm as collateral for his loans.

Farm lenders say Gibson’s situation isn’t unique right now. Senior Vice President of Agricultural Lending Mark Barker helps oversee lending for Farm Credit Mid-America, which serves most of Ohio and Kentucky.

“Are we doing things differently? Well, sure,” Barker said. “Because we have customers coming in now and telling us ‘I’m struggling at this point. I’m challenged.’”

Barker said while most people are making their loan payments right now, the rapidly increasing amount of debt farmers are taking on to deal with depressed prices is concerning, especially for smaller operations.

“It seems like the larger producers, you think about their equipment and everything else, they’ve got some added advantages,” Barker said. “It doesn’t mean the smaller producer is necessarily ‘out,’ but I do think they got more challenges in this current environment.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture economists predict nationwide farm debt will reach $263.7 billion in 2019, levels of debt not seen since the 1980s farm crisis, when thousands of farm families defaulted on their loans amidst a trade embargo with the Soviet Union and high loan interest rates.

New Farmers

Tom McConnell leads the Small Farm Center at West Virginia University’s Extension Service and tries to help small farms succeed, in a state that has the highest proportion of small farms in the nation. He’s lived through the 1980s farm crisis and saw many dairy and beef farmers lose their farms.

He said one solution for small farmers to withstand these depressed prices is to switch to crops that bring a higher value, like vegetables. But those can be more labor-intensive, and the transition can be difficult.

“If you’ve been in a family that has milked cows or grown row crops for three generations, and I suggest you grow three acres of sweet corn and five acres of snap beans, there will be some resistance to that,” McConnell said.

McConnell said it might take a new generation to redefine what a successful small farmer business model can look like.

One of those younger small farmers is Joseph Monroe, who moved from Indiana to central Kentucky to raise beef cattle and grow tomatoes and greens. Monroe believes a way forward for smaller farms is to find ways to work together to sell products and have a greater market impact.

“I think there needs to be some pioneers and some examples out there of how to draw up a contract to work together,” Monroe said. “I think we need to throw all the darts and see what hits.”Share on Twitter

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Appalachia

Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia?

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Gas processing plants like this MarkWest plant in Butler County, Pennsylvania, separate natural gas liquids from natural gas. Photo: James Bruggers

With the natural gas fracking boom, plastics production is spreading in the Ohio River Valley. But at what cost to health and climate?

MONACA, Pennsylvania — Along the banks of the Ohio River here, thousands of workers are assembling the region’s first ethane cracker plant. It’s a conspicuous symbol of a petrochemical and plastics future looming across the Appalachian region.

More than 70 construction cranes tower over hundreds of acres where zinc was smelted for nearly a century. In a year or two, Shell Polymers, part of the global energy company Royal Dutch Shell, plans to turn what’s called “wet gas” into plastic pellets that can be used to make a myriad of products, from bottles to car parts.

Two Asian companies could also announce any day that they plan to invest as much as $6 billion in a similar plant in Ohio. There’s a third plastics plant proposed for West Virginia.

With little notice nationally, a new petrochemical and plastics manufacturing hub may be taking shape along 300 miles of the upper reaches of the Ohio River, from outside Pittsburgh southwest to Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. It would be fueled by a natural gas boom brought on by more than a decade of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling process that has already dramatically altered the nation’s energy landscape—and helped cripple coal.

But there’s a climate price to be paid. Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030. Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050.

Map: Ethane Cracker Plants on the Ohio River

Despite the climate and environmental risks, state and business leaders and the Trump administration are promoting plastics and petrochemical development as the next big thing, more than three decades after the region’s steel industry collapsed and as Appalachian coal mining slumps.

“We have been digging our way out of a very deep hole for decades,” said Jack Manning, president and executive director of the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce.

“When Shell came along with a $6-to-$7 billion investment … we were in the right spot at the right time,” he said.

Everyone wants jobs and economic growth, said Cat Lodge, who works with communities in the Ohio River Valley affected by the shale gas industry for the Environmental Integrity Project, a national environmental group. But not everyone wants them to be based on another form of polluting, fossil fuels, she said.

“While the rest of the world is dealing with global warming, Pennsylvania and Ohio and West Virginia are embracing developing plastics, and that just appalls me,” Lodge says. “It’s just not something I see as the future and unfortunately that seems to be the push to make that the future. And that’s upsetting.”

Lodge and her husband moved from Pittsburgh to the countryside 18 years ago in search of fresh air and open land. They have a small farm in a corner of rural western Pennsylvania, where winding roads trace the contours of Appalachian hills and a stark transition fueled by a shale gas boom is underway.

“We still love it, but little by little, and quickly over the last several years, we have become totally surrounded by the oil and gas industry,” she said.

Rising Demand, but Also Pushback on Plastics

The natural gas that’s pulled from deep underground in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations has done more than outcompete coal for electricity generation.

Drilling companies have also extracted a lot of natural gas liquids, particularly ethane, also called wet gas. It’s used to produce ethylene, which then gets turned into plastics, providing an additional revenue stream for the oil and gas industry. It’s the industry’s latest play, and it comes at a time when industry analysts and the federal government say the demand for plastics is skyrocketing.

Illustration: Plastics: From the Gas Plant to Your Home

“These materials are hooked into just about every part of the economy, from housing to electronics to packaging,” said Dave Witte, a senior vice president at IHS Markit, a global data and information service. “Today, the world needs six of these plants to be built every year to keep up with demand growth.”

IHS Markit calls the Appalachian or upper Ohio River region “the Shale Crescent.” Last year, it reported that the region’s gas supplies could support as many as five large cracker plants, like the one Shell is building. The plants “crack” ethane molecules to make ethylene and polyethylene resin pellets and would be in close proximity to a number of manufacturers that use those products to make everything from paints to plastic bags.

Chart: 3 States' Natural Gas Boom

IHS does see some headwinds, including an international backlash against plastics. It published a report last summer that found that worldwide pressure to reduce plastic use and increase recycling was one of the biggest potential disruptors for the plastics industry and was “putting future plastics resin demand and billions of dollars of industry investments at risk.”

The oil and gas industry might find themselves with stranded assets, needing to abandon Ohio River valley communities, said Lisa Graves-Marcucci, a Pennsylvania-based organizer for the Environmental Integrity Project.

“Do they really care,” she asked, “if they can make money for the first 10 years or 20 years of their operation, but then plastic goes away in the world? What happens to the communities that are left behind?”

She said she is also worried about such a major investment in oil and gas as the world grapples with the effects of climate change.

Visions of an Appalachian Plastics Hub

The idea for a plastics hub in Appalachia got a lift in December with a reportto Congress from the U.S. Department of Energy. It described a proposal for the development of regional underground storage of ethane along or underneath the upper Ohio River.

Storage is needed to help provide a steady and reliable stream of ethane to ethane cracking plants, and it would be important for the development of a regional petrochemical complex in the upper Ohio River valley, the report concluded.

Storage is another growing part of the plastics pipeline as natural gas is turned into natural gas liquids and eventually into plastics. Credit: James Bruggers
Storage is another growing part of the plastics pipeline as natural gas is turned into natural gas liquids and eventually into plastics. Credit: James Bruggers

A West Virginia business, Appalachia Development Group LLC, has proposed developing storage for ethane, possibly in mined salt or limestone cavernsdeep underground. It’s in the second phase of an application process for $1.9 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy for the project, according to the department.

“We have sites of interest in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia,” said Jamie Altman, a representative of Appalachia Development Group. “We are aggressively pursuing private capital.”

The Energy Department is thinking big, too.

Its report projects ethane production in the Appalachian basin would continue rapid growth through 2025 to a total of 640,000 barrels per day, more than 20 times greater than five years ago. By 2050, the agency said ethane production in the region is projected to reach 950,000 barrels per day.

China Energy signed an agreement with West Virginia in 2017 to potentially invest $84 billion in shale gas development and chemical manufacturing projects in the state. Late in January, West Virginia’s development director, Mike Graney, told state senators that China Energy was looking at three undisclosed “energy and petrochemical” projects. An announcement could be made later this year, he said, though President Donald Trump‘s trade war with China was causing delays.

Other experts see a natural gas industry that’s subject to booms and busts and question whether the region is headed down another unsustainable path, like coal.

“We are less optimistic than the industry that this will really boom out,” said Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an environmental think tank that just published a reportdetailing how the natural gas industry in West Virginia hasn’t lived up to earlier expectations for jobs and tax revenue.

There is a huge amount of international competition for plastic production, she said. “All of the major oil exporting countries in the Middle East are talking about making massive investments in petrochemicals over the next five years or so,” she said. “That contains the risk that you will be exporting into a market that would be oversaturated with products.”

Increasing amounts of plastic waste are ending up in streams and oceans. Credit: Rosemary Calvert via Getty Images
IHS Markit, a global data and information service, published a report last summer that said worldwide pressure to reduce plastic use and increase recycling was one of the biggest potential disruptors for the plastics industry and was “putting future plastics resin demand and billions of dollars of industry investments at risk.” Credit: Rosemary Calvert via Getty Images

The Energy Department report also cited “security and supply diversity” as a benefit of developing a new plastics and petrochemicals hub in Appalachia. The bulk of U.S. plastics and petrochemical plants are currently along the Gulf Coast, where they face supply disruptions caused by hurricanes, it said.

Vivian Stockman, the interim director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition based in West Virginia, called that a “hugely ironic” justification for an Appalachian plastics hub, since science is showing that global warming can intensify hurricanes.

Economic Benefits, with Health Concerns

The Shell plant was lured to Beaver County by Pennsylvania officials with some $1.65 billion in tax incentives. It’s scheduled to open “early next decade,” company spokesman Ray Fisher said. This year, as many as 6,000 construction workers will be working on it, and Shell says it plans 600 permanent jobs to run the plant.

It’s in Potter Township, a community with fewer than 700 residents. Rebecca Matsco, who chairs the township commission that gave Shell the local zoning permits, said she sees the plastics plant as an industrial upgrade from a dirty zinc smelter that had stood on the property for about a century, and that Shell cleaned up.

“It had become a real environmental burden, and we do feel like Shell has been a real partner in lifting that burden,” Matsco said.

Others, however, see the cracker plant as its own environmental burden—a new source of emissions that cause lung-damaging smog and heat the planet.

People in Pittsburgh were sad to see so much of the steel industry go, but they don’t miss the dirty skies, said Graves-Marcucci, an Allegheny County resident. The economic resurgence that followed was centered around health care, academic institutions and cleaner industries, she said.

Pittsburgh has been brushing off its sooty steel city past and is now pledging to slash its carbon emissions. But the Shell cracker plant alone, just 25 miles away, would emit 2.25 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, effectively wiping out nearly all the gains in carbon reduction that Pittsburgh plans to achieve by 2030, said Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s chief resilience officer.

The Shell plant will also emit as much smog-forming pollution as 36,000 cars driving 12,000 miles year; that would equate to about a 25 percent increase in the number of cars in Beaver County, said James Fabisiak, an associate professor and director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh.

The environmental and health threats will only increase with a plastics hub buildout, and no regulators are looking at those potential cumulative impacts, Graves-Marcucci said.

Two More Communities Could Get Cracker Plants

About 70 miles southeast of the Shell plant, another community waits for news about what could be the region’s second major ethane cracker plant, in Belmont County, Ohio.

PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner, Daelim Industrial Co., Ltd., could announce any day whether they intend to proceed with an ethane cracker plant after getting state permits in late December. That plant would be along a section of the Ohio River in Belmont County where hulking old manufacturing plants and shuttered businesses paint the very picture of the nation’s Rust Belt.

Bellaire, Ohio, is a few miles from another proposed cracker plant. Belmont County officials are waiting to hear whether PTT Global Chemical and its partner are going to invest $6 billion to build the facility. Credit: James Bruggers
Bellaire, Ohio, is a few miles from another proposed cracker plant. Belmont County officials are waiting to hear whether PTT Global Chemical, based in Thailand, and its Korean partner are going to invest $6 billion to build the facility. Credit: James Bruggers

“Do you know what the biggest export is from Belmont County? Our youth,” said Larry Merry, an economic development officer with the Belmont County Port Authority, overlooking the Ohio River bottomlands where the cracker plant would be constructed on the cleared-away site of a former coal-fired power plant.

Merry, who has been working to secure the plastics plant, called the oil and gas industry “a great employer for us that’s provided a lot of investment that’s helped.”

But it’s not fully made up for losses in steel and coal, and this cracker plant “is about jobs and opportunities so people can make the most of their lives,” he said.

He brushed aside any concerns about climate change or too much plastics. “How are we going to live and have products? Until you come up with a solution, don’t expect the world to shut down,” he said.

A spokesman for PTT American said he could not say when an investment decision will be made.

A third potential cracker plant is planned for Wood County, West Virginia, but it has been delayed because of unspecified “challenges” with its parent company, the Department of Energy report said.

“It just blows my mind that there could be three or four cracker plants, or even one,” said Steve White, a western Pennsylvania builder. “That’s some serious investment. It just shows you where everything is headed and how much development is coming.”

White is also a pilot, and he said he has observed from the cabin of a Cessna 3,000 feet aloft the spread of oil wells, pipelines and processing plants across shale drilling zones in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, slicing up farms and encroaching on homes, schools and businesses.

“We are just in the way,” he said.

This article was originally published by Inside Climate News.

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