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Coal Ash Uncovered: Polluted Groundwater Found At 14 Kentucky Sites

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For decades, Kentucky’s own coal stoked the fires that generated most of its electricity. And while some of those power plants have shut down or switched to natural gas, their legacy remains today in the leftover coal ash that’s stored all over the commonwealth.

Now, new data show the coal ash buried in landfills and submerged in ponds at many of these sites has contaminated local groundwater.

This new look at coal ash pollution comes from the power plants themselves; they were recently required to make public a first round of groundwater monitoring reports under new federal rules.

A WFPL News and Ohio Valley ReSource analysis found contaminated groundwater at 14 Kentucky power plants. That’s every power plant covered under the new federal rules.

Those pollutants include known carcinogens like arsenic and radium.

Seven of the 14 sites covered under the EPA rules exceeded federal drinking water standards for arsenic. Tests at three sites showed radium levels above drinking water standards.

Environmental advocates say the first round of data demonstrates contamination is ubiquitous, not just in Kentucky, but at coal ash sites around the country.

“This is one of the things about the rule that has me bashing my head against the wall because everyone can look at the data and know that there’s contamination,” said Abel Russ with the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. “There’s unsafe levels of arsenic, unsafe levels of cobalt, lithium whatever it is. It’s as plain as day, but the way the rules are written, they don’t have to do anything about it yet.”

Industry representatives first informed Kentucky officials of the results at a meeting in May, said John Mura, spokesman for Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet. Representatives from six of the seven utilities covered under this rule have told the state they need to do additional testing — as outlined under EPA rules — before taking action.

“Based on the data we have, we have no indication that there is any imminent danger to human health at any of the sites right now,” Mura said.

Identifying The Threat

A year ago, it was clear that there was a problem near Big Rivers Electric Corporation’s Green Station in Henderson County. The station sits on the banks of the Green River. And directly underneath the plant’s massive coal ash landfill, the banks were leaching orange liquid.

Riverbank discoloration near the coal ash landfill at the Green Power Station in Henderson County in June 2017. Photo by Erica Peterson.

Around the same time — June 2017 — state inspectors from the Division of Waste Management visited Green station’s landfill. In a letter sent to Big Rivers in January 2018, Solid Waste Branch Manager Danny Anderson summarized that trip’s findings: regulators found multiple places where contaminated water was flowing out of the landfill. Some of it was going into ditches, and some straight into the Green River.

“The available groundwater data and the presence of high-flow leachate outbreaks present at the facility indicate a significant potential threat to human health and the environment from this facility,” Anderson wrote.

At another Big Rivers plant, aerial photos suggest coal ash pollution could have been flowing into an unlined ditch for more than a decade. It contained 980 times more arsenic than the federal standard. And in Central Kentucky, coal ash pollution flowed into a popular recreational lake for years from a Kentucky Utilities plant.

These cases and others show the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection was already aware of potential problems at several power plants. But the new groundwater monitoring data, provided by the utilities themselves, suggests coal ash pollution is far more widespread.

WFPL News and OVR analyzed groundwater monitoring reports for all 14 power plants with coal ash waste sites covered under the EPA rules in Kentucky. For each site, reporters averaged the groundwater samples collected by utilities and compared them to background levels. This is a simplification of the complex statistical analyses used by utility companies.

Every power plant showed signs of contamination from multiple pollutants. In some cases, the chemicals found in the groundwater were exponentially higher than background levels.

Contamination Across The Commonwealth

Most of Kentucky’s coal ash sites were built in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Most are unlined — meaning there isn’t any sort of barrier between the coal ash and the soil.

Boron, sulfate and chloride are among the common contaminants. These chemicals are also sort of the “canaries in the coal mine” — the first contaminants to appear in the water column. Though it’s currently included on a list of less harmful pollutants, the EPA recently proposed reclassifying boron. In acute doses, it can cause rashes, nausea, ulcers, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the EPA.

But when it comes to the most harmful contaminants — carcinogens like arsenic and radium — there’s evidence they’re leaching into groundwater at multiple Kentucky sites.

  • At the Mill Creek Generating Station in Louisville, operated by Louisville Gas & Electric, the WFPL News analysis found monitoring wells that contained up to 40 times more arsenic than federal drinking water standards.
  • At the Paradise Fossil Plant, located on the Green River in Muhlenberg County, testing found levels of arsenic more than eight times higher than federal drinking water standards. That plant is owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority: a 2008 coal ash spill at the utility’s Kingston Fossil Plant spilled more than a billion gallons of slurry onto nearby land and into waterways.
  • At Kentucky Utilities’ Ghent Generating Station north of Carrollton, radium levels at a groundwater well near the ash pond were 33 times the drinking water standard. In a well near the ash landfill, the radium levels were 10 times the standard. Tests done at Ghent also revealed elevated levels of arsenic, antimony and beryllium, among other contaminants.

Abel Russ said generally, the bigger the site, the more extensive the groundwater contamination. He has studied coal ash waste sites at several states around the country while working for the Environmental Integrity Project.

From what Russ has seen, the signs of coal ash contamination in Kentucky are indicative of what’s happening around the country.

“Basically anywhere you’ve buried coal ash in the ground without a good liner, it will have leaked into the groundwater, so I don’t think Kentucky is better or worse from that perspective,” Russ said.

Click here to explore our interactive coal ash map >>

Michael Winkler is the Environmental Program Manager for Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities. He said the company has always known that water from unlined coal ash ponds can diffuse into the groundwater at sites like Mill Creek.

“So we’ve had [monitoring wells] that indicate different levels of metals in there, but again the groundwater flow has always been directly towards the river and all the river samples have indicated that’s always trace amounts, so we are not impacting any waters in such a way to cause a problem for human health,” Winkler said.

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said the results are preliminary and do not mean there are issues with groundwater protection or impacts to drinking water.

“Under the [Coal Combustion Residual] rule it requires further study to evaluate and to characterize what is going on at each of those locations,” Brooks said.

Other utilities that spoke with WFPL News echoed that: the EPA designed the first round of testing to look for statistically significant increases of contaminants in groundwater. If contamination is found, the EPA rules require a second round of testing to validate the threat.

Already, six of the seven utilities in Kentucky that fall under EPA rules said they will do that additional testing after finding evidence of contamination.

But the preliminary nature of these initial results hasn’t stopped American Electric Power from notifying nearby communities that the groundwater around the Big Sandy Power Plant in Lawrence County could be contaminated.

“We wanted them to hear from us what the data was starting to show,” said John McManus, senior vice president of environmental services. “Particularly, as we talked about, for some of these parameters that have drinking water standards like arsenic.”

Threats To Surface Water

All of the testing so far has only looked at groundwater underneath the coal ash disposal sites and may not reflect the conditions farther away.

Abel Russ of the Environmental Integrity Project said if there is contamination, it’s most likely to affect private wells in communities near disposal sites.

“There’s no legal protection for those people, they are stuck with what they are drinking,” he said.

Depending on the flow of the groundwater, coal ash contamination could also affect surface water. These coal-fired power plants are typically next to rivers and large bodies of water; Russ said coal ash pollutants including mercury and selenium can build up in sediment and bio-accumulate in fish creating a hazard for entire food chains.

Selenium poisoning has already been documented in Herrington Lake. It’s a popular fishing and boating spot that also serves as a drinking water source for Danville, though for years regulators have known the coal ash site at Kentucky Utilities’ E.W. Brown plant was discharging into the lake.

Pollution from the coal ash pond at the Brown power plant seeps into Herrington Lake. Photo credit Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection.

 

And this problem of groundwater contamination compounds as you move downstream, said Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.

“We as a nation, have developed an interesting way of utilizing our water resources, both as our toilet and our drinking sources,” FitzGerald said. “You have this legacy of all these ponds that are leaching levels of metals of concern that become part of the great background.”

The contamination is less of a threat to people who drink from treated water, said Mura, the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman.

“Public drinking water sources are required to be treated prior to consumption in order to ensure that drinking water standards are complied with and human health protected,” Mura said.

State Response

The federal Environmental Protection Agency unveiled the new regulations for coal ash in 2015. The agency required utilities to comply, but didn’t create any mechanism to enforce the rules.

Instead, the agency left it up to the public to interpret the groundwater testing data and sue if they found evidence utilities were in violation.

States were also given an option of adopting the federal regulations to enforce the rules. Kentucky started down that path in 2015, but after more than a year of backroom meetings with utility industry representatives, the final version of the state’s rules didn’t pass legal muster.

A Franklin County Circuit Court judge overturned major parts of the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s coal ash rules earlier this year, and the state is back at the drawing board. This time, they’re meeting with stakeholders including environmental groups such as the Kentucky Resources Council.

Currently, the state has four field geologists that review groundwater monitoring data and about 60 inspectors who look at all types of waste facilities, including coal ash, state officials said.

Leachate seeping from a coal ash landfill at Big Rivers Electric Corporation’s Green Station in Henderson, Kentucky on June 6, 2017. Photo credit Kentucky Division of Waste Management.

The law allows regulators to fine polluters up to $25,000 per day in penalties, but the state often works with utilities to solve violations before they are issued.

“It’s often more important to get things fixed than to collect fines,” Mura said.

Right now, only two Kentucky coal ash sites are working through state-mandated corrective action: Big Rivers’ D.B. Wilson Power Plant in Western Kentucky and Kentucky Utilities’ E.W. Brown Generation Station near Danville. Coal ash pollution at both sites were the subject of WFPL News investigations last year.

Kentucky Spokesman John Mura said the state will enforce federal regulations as required.

“The Cabinet has the necessary tools at our disposal to address the issues, including inspections, agreed orders, administrative hearings,” he said.

He said because of this first round of testing, and early indications that the state’s utilities won’t meet federal standards, the Energy and Environment Cabinet has set up meetings with utilities to review current data and proactively address any problems.

What’s Next

Following the second round of testing, every coal ash site that is leaking will have to retrofit or close, according to EPA rules.

Utilities can choose to enclose the ash in place or remove it. If they close in place, the utility has to remove the water, install a cover and monitor the groundwater for at least 30 years.

“The whole idea of the contamination is that it’s kind of like a tea bag in a pond and it’s steeping out,” said Winkler, LG&E’s environmental programs manager.

Dry storage and cap systems will help prevent groundwater pollution, he said.

At least four of Kentucky’s largest utilities have already committed to closing their ash ponds and moving to dry storage, including Louisville Gas & Electric/Kentucky Utilities, Duke Energy, American Electric Power and Tennessee Valley Authority.

But the rules could change. In March, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed the first of two rules that would amend current coal ash regulations.

The proposal would allow states to ignore federal regulations and adopt their own standards, rules, remedies and in some cases, suspend groundwater monitoring altogether.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley Resource.

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ARC Summit: Appalachian Economies Need Workforces Prepared for the Future

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Mississippi is the manufacturing anchor of Appalachia. At least, that’s how Tim Thomas sees it.

Thomas is the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, the government agency that oversees economic development for the region. This year, the commission held its annual summit in Tupelo, Mississippi, known for being the birthplace of Elvis Presley and at one time, one of the poorest cities in the poorest state in the nation. But Thomas said Mississippi is changing.

“Mississippi made some great strides…relative to manufacturing, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries,” Thomas said, “so workforce supply for them is key.”

Tupelo, Mississippi. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

It’s part of the reason the ARC chose to hold its summit in one of the southernmost states in the region this year– the changing face of its manufacturing industry and the state’s focus on developing and training a workforce to support it.

Mississippi has emphasized vocational training, as well as the creation of high-tech hubs and collaborative worker training programs with companies like Toyota, but depending on the part of Appalachia you’re in, workforce development and workforce training might mean different things.

Central Appalachia, for example, has been left with a significant number of workers trained for an industry that has faded away rapidly over the past decade.

According to a 2017 study by Downstream Strategies, presented during the “Planning for Mine Land Reclamation” panel at the summit, 1.6 percent of West Virginia’s total workforce was lost due to the decline of mining jobs between the fourth quarters of 2011 and 2014. Kentucky lost 0.6 percent of its workforce during that same period.

So, instead of training workers to keep up with the technological advances of the industry they’re already in, coalfield states have to work to retrain workers to enter a new field.

That has been one of Thomas’ priorities since being sworn in as federal co-chair in April– reviving coal economies by helping them move beyond mining operations and addressing such issues as distribution and supply chains there.

According to Thomas, the downturn of the coal industry and its impact is far broader than often recognized. He sees its impact in transportation, both on land and on the water, and in the manufacturing of heavy equipment.

“We are seeing some efforts for retraining from mining,” Thomas said, adding some of those efforts have been promising. Among them, coding and other high-tech skills being taught to the former coal miners of the region.

“That is going to be the key to further diversify the coal regions themselves, to get some other entities in place to provide employment, in addition to [those] directly tied to the mining industry,” he added.

Thomas laid out two additional priorities for Appalachian governors at last weeks summit. The governors of all 13 states serve as co-chairs of the ARC alongside him.

Those priorities also have links to workforce development– strengthening and supporting the tradition of Appalachian entrepreneurship and combating the opioid epidemic.

Substance abuse in the region has contributed to the greater suppression of local economies by decimating the workforces in communities and creating the danger of significant public health threats, like outbreaks of HIV or Hepatitis C due to the sharing of needles for intravenous drug use.

But the problem goes beyond just health impacts. In many cases individuals who struggled with substance abuse disorders can still find themselves unable to return to the job market because of a criminal record.

Thomas declared readiness to devote co-chair funds to address these problems. He said Appalachia will need to embrace some non-traditional candidates, including those recovering from substance abuse disorders and nonviolent drug offenders.

“We cannot have a population who wants a career and a job overwhelmed by opioid abuse. We cannot,” echoed Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

Thomas also signaled the ARC’s intention to start reviewing its Power Initiative program, which was created three years ago. The federal grant program targets funding for economic diversification to communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry to invest in workforce development, create new jobs and attract new sources of investment. It is one of the ARC’s most sought after grant programs.

Thomas said the agency needs to reassess the program to assure they are not over-investing in some communities and underinvesting in others.

“Innovation” Remains the Key Word for the Region

So, what industries could be the key to a prosperous future in Appalachia? Again, it depends on what part of the region you consider, but a number of them were shared at the ARC Summit.

Nathan Hall with West Virginia’s Sprouting Farms suggested that the most promising course for the reclaimed land of Central Appalachia’s abandoned mine sites is reforestation, sustainable agriculture and agroforestry.

Conference attendees were required to fill out these forms to select panels and breakout sessions to attend. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

According to Hall, the cultivation of tree fruits (paw paws, apples), berries (blackberries, raspberries), nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts) and herbs on these sites in the region could potentially challenge such major producing states as California.

Gov. Bryant sees the future of Mississippi among the stars, leading in aerospace technologies and being at the forefront of modern manufacturing, robotics, automation and advances in healthcare services.

Entrepreneurs like Marsha G. Folsom believe new industrial crops could also change the face of the region. Folsom is the co-founder of Resource Fiber, an Alabama company that is working to expand the bamboo manufacturing industry in the state.

Folsom has plans to plant up to 200,000 acres of industrial bamboo by 2020 and believes it could be planted as far north as West Virginia. According to Folsom, bamboo has both economic and environmental benefits. It is proven to absorb more carbon dioxide, while producing up to 35 percent more oxygen than other plants, she said, and is a low maintenance and renewable resource that, according to the company, produces 20 times more fiber than regular lumber.

Ohio University is producing paint pigment out of acid mine drainage, while cleaning the contaminated water.

While many of the conference presenters were realistic about the challenges that face Appalachia and the amount of time it will likely take to overcome them, the overarching message was that economic development in the region must be tied to industries and technologies of the future and not those of the past and Appalachia states must prioritize training a workforce for those industries.

That is certainly Mississippi’s goal, according to Gov. Bryant.

“Man will go to Mars and come home safely one day,” he said of his state’s future, “but will have to pass through Mississippi first.”

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West Virginia’s ‘Bad News Bears’: Chico’s Bail Bonds More a Social Club Than Softball Team

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It’s an early August evening on Libertore Field at White Park in Morgantown. The orange prison jumpsuit jerseys of Chico’s Bail Bonds are impossible to miss — and so is our play. But, that’s not necessarily a compliment.

On this evening, the team loses in typical Chico fashion.

The team name, of course, comes from the 1976 film The Bad News Bears, in which a down-and-out and cheap beer-swigging Walter Matthau coaches a group of rag-tag Little Leaguers and tries to whip them into shape.

Morgantown’s Chico’s aren’t too far off from their fictitious counterparts.

On this night, there are flashes of defensive greatness in the outfield from Chico veteran Sean Kelley and rookie Dave Lawson. A few Chico batters turn infield errors into a few runs, thanks to some heads-up baserunning.

We hold our own against an outmatched and much younger rival, Gene’s Beer Garden, only to crumble when we needed to come through.

But all isn’t lost, as it never is with Chico’s. The night is still young. Win or lose, the team had yet to get to the best part of the Chico’s game-night experience.

Chico’s part-time catcher Eric Ramón strides effortlessly towards first base. The opposing team was likely napping on the field. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Becoming a Chico

I found myself a part of this group of gentleman misfits somewhat by chance, but looking back on it all, it makes perfect sense.

It was a Wednesday night in late winter or early spring of 2017, and I had popped into 123 Pleasant Street after a long day at work. I sat down, looking for some sort of reprieve from the heaviness that can be my job. I stopped in to catch up with my friend, Tyler Grady.

“You said, ‘Hey dude, is there a softball team around here or anything?’ And I don’t remember if I even said anything other than, ‘Come with me — follow me right now,’” recalled Grady, a Morgantown musician, car salesman, entrepreneur and a bartender at 123 Pleasant Street.

Chico’s part-time first baseman and the author of this article swings mightily at a pitch on June 16, 2017. His arms do not normally appear this muscular — although, they do in this photo because of pure grit, determination and zen-like focus. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“We walked around the bar and I took you downstairs to the lower bar that was not open at the time. I stood up on the liquor shelf, I climbed up and I got down our trophy that was given to us — the Olivia Newton-John trophy, our 0-and-23 trophy. And I was like, ‘The greatest softball team of all time is here,’ ” Grady, who plays right field, remembers.

The Olivia Newton-John trophy is a reference to Tommy John surgery — a procedure baseball pitchers undergo after tearing a tendon in the elbow of their throwing arm. Any baseball fan surely would get the joke.

I immediately understood the sense of humor that informed Chico’s. I could also tell I didn’t necessarily have to be good — this was about goofing off and having fun.

But Chico’s is an institution — with a history far longer than my two-season career platooning at first base.

Among the many stories of Chico’s lore include a player being picked up from jail to make a game, a player buying an orange Miata and getting a vanity license plate with ‘CHICO84’ and strange nicknames like ‘Meatball.’

A Staple of Morgantown Softball

With just one season under their belt as the Nyabinghi Dance Hall, the team took on the Chico-moniker 20 years ago — in 1998 — the same year the bar took on the name of its address, 123 Pleasant Street.

Morgantown native Louis “LJ” Giuliani took over ownership of the bar and sponsorship of Chico’s. He says Chico’s immediately embodied the open-minded identity of 123.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, straight or gay, or whatever. It’s all kinds that take the field when Chico’s takes the field,” Giuliani said, noting that 123 held the same values from the beginning.

Chico’s utility player Jon Vehse, who works in construction and other odd jobs, remembers the early days of 123 Pleasant Street the same way.

“This bar — especially when it started — it was the bar for everybody that didn’t have a bar. Everybody got along. You know, it was the place for everybody that didn’t have a place. In a lot of ways, Chico’s is kind of like that,” Vehse said.

Chico’s rookie right fielder Dave Lawson rounds first base during a June 6, 2018 game against Davis Cabinetry. The game proved to be the only outright win for Chico’s during their 2018 campaign. His dreadlock-friendly hats and visors are known on the team as a “helmet.” Photo: West Virginia Public Broadcasting

After 20 years, many Chico’s have come and gone from the team and from Morgantown. But even those who have moved on still stay connected to the team and look back on the early days with fondness.

“It was probably, really, to do something healthier besides sitting in the dark bar. I think to go out and do something that was more participatory and less spectator-driven — because, we all sat around and watch baseball together at that time. So, it was nice for us to go out and do something [and] get out in the sun and see the day together,” said Greg Leatherman, a journalist now living in Florida who was around when the team began.

Morgantown’s Music Scene and 123 Pleasant Street

Giuliani, now retired from the softball field, says Chico’s was always rooted in Morgantown’s music and art scene.

“A lot of the players that they grabbed on to just happened to be musicians. Brian Porterfield, Tom Batchelor, you’ve got Jeff Goodwin who is a musician. He’s playing on the team now,” said Giuliani, recalling some of the players who have exercised their musical talents from the stage at 123 and other local venues.

Softball wasn’t their first talent — nor their second, third or fourth, Giuliani said with a laugh.

Top photos: Tom Batchelor is well known around the region for his work with rock and reggae groups like Rasta Rafiki and The Tom Batchelor Band, as well as his time as a Chico. Bottom: Jeffrey Goodwin has been a part of punk and metal bands such as Law Biting Citizens and Ghost Road. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It was a way to bring like-minded folks [together] that liked talking about music or art or how many shots of Jameson they had. It was based more on like-mindedness,” he explained.

Following each Chico’s game, as it has been since the beginning, the Bonders gather at 123 for cheap beers like Black Label and Pabst Blue Ribbon — and, as Giuliani mentioned, celebratory shots of Jameson.

For Vehse and other Chico’s, the post-game celebration is the perfect cap — with seemingly disparate people milling about, discussing music, sports, politics and sharing stories of life’s misadventures.

“More often than not, it is the highlight of the evening. But there’s there’s just a certain camaraderie. I think there’s a genuine affection between people,” he said.

Among Chico’s, Vehse is known for his love of curating the music from the jukebox in the lower bar.

“From Beethoven to Bob Wills, from the Rolling Stones to Prince Far I. There’s everything on that jukebox. It is an eclectic evening. It is awesome,” Vehse said of the musical selections.

Chico’s shortstop Jim Antonini (center) and loyal fans hoist a shot of Jameson at 123 Pleasant Street during a post-season party to celebrate a successful 3-25 season. With an expanded roster in 2018, it’s possible the Bonders broke a single-season record for most fluid ounces of alcohol consumed. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Creating the Chico Mythology: Game Summaries Recap the Misery

But, even after a few drinks at 123, a Chico’s game night isn’t over until it’s been recapped and shared on the team’s Facebook group.

Part comedy, part mythology, the game write-ups exaggeratedly highlight the ups-and-downs over an always hard-fought seven innings. If Chico’s doesn’t get clobbered into a 10 or 15-run mercy rule before getting through all 7 innings, that is.

“There’s three of us that have kind of done this and that’s myself, David Forman and Jim Antonini,” Greg Leatherman said. “And, basically, it is sort of like the literary connection to Chico’s softball team — is that we’ve always captured the games win, lose or draw and written up how the game went — in both a serious, professional, sort of sportscaster way but also with a lot of humor.”

Shortstop, team manager, Morgantown native and occupational health science researcher Jim Antonini has taken over the write-ups in recent years.

“It’s the same story and it’s gotten harder to write them — because, we continue to lose. There’s only so many ways you could describe a loss and drinking beer after a softball game,” Antonini explained.

If you were at any given game, you would know what is and isn’t absolutely true. If you weren’t, well, that’s left to your own imagination to decide.

A commemorative Jeff Ryan bobble head sits on the liquor shelf at 123 Pleasant Street. Catcher Eric Ramon gifted Ryan with his bobble-head likeness on Jeff Ryan Bobble Head Night at BOPARC on August 9, 2018. Photo: Jesse Wright/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Here’s one of Antonini’s write-ups from a game back in 2011:

The clock struck midnight. Down 19-18 in the last inning with two outs and two Bonders on, hot-hitting Ethan Wells hit deep, majestic drive to center field, bringing the roaring Chico followers to their feet. To the Bonders’ dismay, the Colasonte’s left center fielder dashed out of the darkness and fog of the thick, hazy summer night and made a diving, stabbing, tumbling, catch — ripping the hearts out of the Chico followers and team members.

In disbelief, first baseman Leatherman retreated to his car and wept — not about the loss, but about the pride he felt for his fellow Bondsman.

On this night, Chico’s were everything they had not been this forgettable season: Daring, hustling, bold, youthful. Not wanting to go home, six or seven Chico’s milled aimlessly around the closing 123 bar at 3 a.m.

An exhausted and worn down Vehse stood over the darkened jukebox — with the power long shut off after last call — still trying to make selections…just wanting to hear Peggy Lee sing “Is That All There Is” one more time.

Another Losing Record, But No Giving Up

Chico’s finished their 2018 campaign with a record of 3 wins and 25 losses. Two of those wins came as a result of a no-show forfeit from the opposing team, while the third came on a gloriously executed 7 innings against Davis Cabinetry.

Such a pathetic record should make anyone reconsider their motivations to keep playing softball. But, if you can’t tell, Chico’s isn’t about winning. Antonini says no matter what happens over the course of a season, it’s hard to imagine hanging it up.

Chico’s Bail Bonds poses for a team photo on June 16, 2018, following a win against Davis Cabinetry. The game served as the team’s only outright win of the 2018 season. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“I think every year there’s a point in the year — probably after you’ve played 18, 20 games and it’s like ‘Why are we doing this?’ We come out and sometimes we really get humiliated,” Antonini said. “But, then, the game ends and then you get together and everybody has a few beers and then it’s it doesn’t seem that bad. It’s a pretty good way to spend a night.”

Giuliani, despite having not played in recent years, feels the same.

“Chico’s is kind of a state of mind in the sense that we’re not here to judge, we’re here to support and we’re here to spend time with each other. And that’s the bottom line. We’re a softball team that’s more of a social club than an actual softball team,” Giuliani said.

So, if you ever find yourself around 123 Pleasant Street surrounded by orange softball shirts, you’ll know you’re hanging out with the Chico’s. Buy a few of them a drink and strike up a conversation. After all, we assuredly just got beat.

This story is featured on an upcoming episode of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s podcast ​Inside Appalachia focused on the impact of baseball throughout the region. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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Grandma Underground: The 80,000 Kids in Kin Care

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In the wake of the opioid crisis, kinship and foster care systems in Kentucky have been stretched to the limit, with the number of children in the homes of relatives or close family friends rising by over 50 percent. It is not clear how elderly kin will afford to care for these children.

Over the past two years, Norma Hatfield has collected stories: One grandmother, living on a $700 per month disability check, who woke up to the state delivering six kids to her doorstep in the middle of the night. Another single grandmother who found out the night of her grandson’s birth that she would be parenting the infant, born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. She had to quit her job. She closed off every room in her house but one, because she could not afford to heat them.

Hatfield is a kinship caregiver. She has permanent custody of her granddaughter and another unrelated child. She took them in after the adults in the mother’s house were arrested for drug use. Looking for assistance, Hatfield went to support groups for kinship caregivers. There, she met a grandmother who was selling her own clothes on Facebook to try to raise money to buy school clothes for her 8-year-old granddaughter, whom she was caring for. 

“She had to quit her job to care for all five children; she went from a two-income home with two people to a one-income home with seven people,” Hatfield said in an interview with Rewire.News. “That’s when I started paying attention to what was going on around me.”

To support other kin caregivers like herself, Hatfield has become an organizer and advocate, lobbying the legislature and the governor in her home state, Kentucky, over the past two years. A reporter dubbed her statewide organizing the “Grandma Underground.” The name stuck.

In the wake of the opioid crisis, kinship and foster care systems in Kentucky have been stressed to their limits. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of Kentucky children in kinship care, children who live with and are cared for by relatives or close family friends instead of their parents, rose by over 50 percent.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data center, 8 percent of children in Kentucky, more than 80,000 kids, are in some form of kinship care—the highest percentage in the United States; neighboring Appalachian states West Virginia and Ohio each have 5% of children in kin care. At least 12,000 Kentucky children are in kin care because the state removed them from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or parental incarceration. Despite the increasing prevalence of this kind of care, Kentucky lacks the resources to meet the needs of kin caregivers.

Families Foot the Bill

Placing children with relatives instead of foster parents who are strangers to them is often the least traumatic option for children who end up in custody of the state; it gives children a semblance of familiarity. In an interview with Rewire.News, Wendy Welch, who conducted dozens of interviews with former foster kids, foster parents, and social workers across Central Appalachia for her book Fall or Fly: The Strangely Hopeful Story of Adoption and Foster Care in Appalachia, explained kinship care’s role in lessening the trauma for children whose parents get arrested: “Harm reduction would be calling grandma as soon as the [police] raid is over and saying, ‘We have your grandchildren in the backseat of a police car. We would very much like to bring them to your house instead of the foster care system.’”

While better for children’s well-being, immediately placing them in relatives’ homes, rather than processing them through the foster system first, is one of the ways the state denies funds to caregivers.

This past July, a comprehensive foster and adoption reform law went into effect in Kentucky. Thanks partly to advocacy efforts by Hatfield and others, the legislature added $4.9 million to the budget over two years to a fund called kinship care, designed to support relatives caring for children who have been removed from their homes.

There are two separate programs for caregivers who take in children related to them: kinship guardianship assistance and relative foster care payments. Kentucky has neglected both during the last four years of the state’s meteoric rise in child placements with relatives. Now, there is money in the new kinship care fund—but state officials announced yesterday that only kin fostering children on a temporary basis will receive it.

Kinship guardianship assistance was formerly a $300 per child per month payment to low-income caregivers who had gained permanent custody—adoption or assumption of legal guardianship—of related children. But in April 2013, the state ended enrollment in that program and removed recipients whose eligibility temporarily lapsed, due to such issues as late filing of renewals. 

After that, “it was next to impossible for the elderly to care for kids on their fixed incomes,” wrote Anna Houston, director of the Family Resource Center for the Danville, Kentucky, Independent School District, in an email to Rewire.News.

Houston has run a support group for relative caregivers since 2010. Newer members in Houston’s support group who have sought financial help from the kinship guardianship assistance program since passage of the legislative reforms have been either rejected or deferred. Currently, only around 5,000 families receive these kinship guardianship payments, down from more than 11,000 in 2013, according Shannon Moody, policy director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, in an interview with Rewire.News.

Hatfield recalled a woman who was the guardian of two grandchildren; when social workers called about a third, the child had to be sent to foster care because the grandmother could not afford to care for all three children herself. “If she had received that additional per diem of kinship [guardianship assistance] … all those children would be in her home.”

Relative foster caregivers are in a different position. When children are taken in by the state, social workers try to find relatives to care for them instead of sending them to nonrelative foster care. Until an October 2017 federal court decision, Kentucky did not provide these relatives with the support payments nonrelative foster caregivers receive.

In 2014, Richard Dawahare, an attorney in Kentucky, sued the state of Kentucky for refusing to grant foster care maintenance payments, around $750 per month per child, to relatives who take in children on a non-permanent basis. In October 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with Dawahare’s argument. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the state, some caregivers began getting payments, but many still aren’t, Dawahare says. Dawahare filed another lawsuit three months ago to challenge this practice.

The state is now obligated under court order to reimburse relative foster caregivers. Kentucky’s Department of Community Based Services had already warned that the bulk of the $4.9 million put into kinship care could go to the court-ordered payments for these short-term, relative foster parents. Funds will not be available for guardianship assistance anytime soon for the low-income, elderly relatives who have already established permanent custody of children.

Hatfield, organizer of the Grandma Underground, is frustrated by this decision by the state, which speaks to the dearth of resources to deal with the influx of children who need care—and caregivers who need help. “This lawsuit was already in the works for a few years. The Cabinet should have been prepared for this … Even the money that they allocated to kinship care wasn’t a lot.”

Relatives who take in children do become eligible for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), but that only amounts to $186 per month, said Moody, policy director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. They also become eligible for child care assistance for 12 months, and a one-time $350 per child placement support benefit—but many kin caregivers do not receive it because they are not made aware of it in time.

“Aside from that,” Moody said, “there’s not a whole lot else out there for relative caregivers right now.”

Confronting stereotypes

Many foster parents and kin caregivers in Appalachia feel uncomfortable talking about needing more resources. They feel keenly the stigma of caring for the children of relatives or friends involved with drugs, and the stereotype that caregivers abuse the system for personal financial gain.

Welch, the author of Fall or Fly, pointed out the implicit judgment many people make about low-income foster and kin caregivers: “Grandmothers who give their children back [to the state] because they can’t afford to keep but one of them are the subjects of [people’s] judgment, not the system that says you can only have this much money,” she said. “The public doesn’t go after the system; they go after the grandma.”

“People who have to have the money to foster or provide kin care aren’t necessarily in it for the money,” Welch said. “What the public doesn’t know are the thousands of points of light that some of these people are.” Kin caregivers and foster parents clothe, feed, house, educate, and provide emotional support to children who have been through extreme trauma.

W (who asked that a full name not be used for privacy reasons), a single foster parent in eastern Kentucky who works full time, wrote in a statement to Rewire.News that their stipend has been critical to covering their child’s essential needs like diapers and child care. “There’s a disconnect in our society when we talk about taking care of young ones and how we talk about assistance. I myself am happy to pay taxes if it means they’re going to help keep a young child safe in a loving home,” W wrote.

Hatfield said, “It’s very easy for people to say, ‘Why would you pay a relative to take care of their own kin?’ [But] that money is for the child. This is about neglected and abused kids.”

She noted that when she started collecting stories from kin caregivers, many relatives “were afraid to say much publicly,” to avoid association with drugs or with being in dire need. In the past two years, as the opioid crisis has increased the need for kin care even more, caregivers have started opening up. At Kentucky’s legislative session, Hatfield hand delivered a petition of over 6,000 stories and names of kinship caregivers to every state senator. “We united here in Kentucky for the children,” she wrote.

This story was originally published by Rewire.News.

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