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2018 Appalachian Primaries Concluded – Tennessee Results

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Thursday’s primaries in Tennessee concluded the 2018 primary season for the 13 Appalachian states getting ready for midterm elections on November 6.

Tennesseans selected candidates for each of the state’s nine congressional districts, as well as candidates for one U.S. Senate seat and the Governor, and others.  

Congressional Districts 1, 2 and 3 are comprised entirely of Appalachian counties. Districts 4 and 6 fall partially in the region, while District 7 is home to only two counties (Lawrence and Lewis) that are considered by the Appalachian Regional Commission as part of Appalachia.

The Senate race on November 6 will be held over the seat currently occupied by a Republican Senator of 11 years, Bob Corkerr, who announced earlier this year that he would not be seeking reelection, opening the field for Republican candidates.

Race for that Senate seat will be one of the most closely watched in the nation come November, as Democrats seek an upset in traditionally Republican stronghold states.

Corker’s party put forth four candidates, and U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn won with almost 85 percent of the votes. Democrats picked between Billy Bailey and Phil Bredesen, with the latter winning the party nomination.

All of the six Appalachian Congressional Districts in Tennessee are in firm Republican grip, but in the case of Districts 2, 6 and 7, GOP incumbents decided not to seek reelection. Marsha Blackburn, currently representing District 7, decided to fight for Bob Corker’s vacated seat in the Senate.

On the GOP side, the District 1 primary went to the Incumbent Phil Roe, and District 2–with its crowded field of 7 candidates–went with Tim Burchett, the Mayor of Knox County.Incumbents took the Republican nominations in District 3 and District 4, where the nomination went to Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais, respectively. District 6 saw four candidates, with businessman John Rose winning the nomination. District 7 will have the State Senator, Mark Green, running for the Congress seat. He ran uncontested in that District.

Martin Olsen was the only Democratic candidate in District 1, as was Danielle Mitchell in District 3.

Out of the two candidates running in District 2, Renee Hoyos took the nomination, winning over 70 percent of the votes. Mariah Phillips will fight for the District 4 seat in November and so will Dawn Barlow in District 6. Justin Kanew won the primary in District 7.

Governor’s race will be another one of the closely anticipated attempts to undermine the Republican supremacy in Tennessee. According to Vox, the gubernatorial race has already cost over $50 million.

Democrats picked former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. He will face off with Bill Lee, a businessman from south of Nashville.

While all Republican candidates ran campaigns heavily aligned with the “Trump agenda,” Vice President Mike Pence’s endorsement of Diane Black was not enough to push the favored candidate over the finish line. November 6 should be a great litmus test of President’s popularity among Tennesseans.

___

UPDATE:

Georgia held its primary runoff on Tuesday (July 24), completing its list of candidates on both sides of the aisle for the November 6 midterms.

Brian Kemp, the current secretary of state of Georgia, won the GOP Governor nomination with almost 70 percent of the votes.

Democrats picked their candidates for the U.S. House Districts 6 and 7, where Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux took the party nominations respectively.

They are joining growing ranks of female candidates selected for the midterm races – an election battle of great importance to the Democrats, who are currently a minority in both the House and Senate.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in Tennessee on August 2.

Primary season for the Appalachian states is slowly coming to an end. Two more states, New York and Maryland, held their primary races on Tuesday, leaving Tennessee as the last remaining of the lucky thirteen.

Both New York and Maryland are marginally represented in Appalachia in terms of the number of counties being part of the region. New York’s Appalachian southern tier represents three congressional Districts (19, 22 and 23), while Maryland’s northwestern tip is fully contained within the 6th District.

You can see official Appalachian Regional Commission’s map of Appalachian counties here.

NEW YORK

On November 6, New Yorkers will vote for members of the U.S. House, Senate, as well as for their governor and lieutenant governor.

In all three Appalachian districts of New York the GOP is currently in power. The Republican incumbents–John Faso in District 19, Claudia Tenney in District 22 and Tom Reed in District 23– all ran unopposed.

The Democratic field was a little more crowded. Out of seven candidates in District 19 Antonio Delgado took the nomination by a margin of four percent. District 22 saw one uncontested Democratic candidate, Anthony Brindisi, a state assemblyman representing District 119. In District 23, Democrats had five candidates to choose. Max Della Pia and Tracy Mitrano got 32.4 and 32.3 percent of the vote, respectively. As of press time, the winner has not been called yet.

New Yorkers also picked their candidates for the November 6 U.S. Senate midterms, but in these districts, the primaries were largely symbolic.

Current Democratic incumbent, Kirsten Gillibrand, will face the GOP’s Chele Farley, who ran unopposed. Farley is a New York Republican operative with background in the finance industry and with Wall Street giants like Goldman Sachs.

New York’s closed primaries for the state’s governor and lieutenant governor will take place on September 13. Political commentators have widely speculated that the upset in District 14, where Democratic incumbent Joseph Crowley lost the primary to 28 years old newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could be an indicator of a generational groundswell that could challenge Gov. Cuomo’s position.

The primary race for New York governor this fall will see the actress Cynthia Nixon and Greg Waltman as Cuomo’s challengers.   

MARYLAND

Maryland’s District 6 field was crowded and interesting on both sides of the aisle. The Democratic incumbent, John Delaney, did not run in the primaries, as he focuses on his bid for the White House in 2020.

Delaney’s decision not to run left the doors open for eight other Democratic candidates. David Trone won the Tuesday’s primaries with 40.4 percent of the votes.

Meanwhile, the GOP had four candidates, with Amie Hoeber emerging victorious.

Maryland is another state in which a crucial Senate general election will take place on November 6, a race that will prove to be particularly important for the Democrats as they try to regain control of the Senate and defend the seats they already have. Maryland, however, is considered a safe blue state. The last time the state saw a Republican Senator was in 1987.

Democratic incumbent Senator, Ben Cardin, faced seven opponents and won with 80.4 percent of the votes. The second place went to Chelsea Manning, with 5.7 percent.

The GOP field was packed with the total of 11 candidates, where Tony Campbell took the nomination.

Last but not least, Maryland also held its primaries for the state’s governor. The GOP’s incumbent, Larry Hogan, ran unopposed, while Democrats chose from among eight candidates. Ben Jealous won the race with comfortable lead of over 10 percent over his closest opponent, getting the total of 39.8 percent of the votes.

SOUTH CAROLINA AND MISSISSIPPI RUNOFFS

Two Appalachian states that already held primaries (see all the primary races recaps below) held runoff races on Tuesday as well.

Henry McMaster won a GOP nomination for the South Carolina’s Governor with 53.6 percent of the votes, defeating John Warren.

In Districts 2,4 and 7 Sean Carrigan, Brandon Brown and Robert Williams won the nominations on the Democratic side.

William Timmons was the winner of the GOP runoff race in South Carolina’s District 4.

In Mississippi David Baria faced Howard Sherman in a runoff race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Baria won with 58.5 percent of the votes.

On the GOP side Michael Guest defeated Whit Hughes and will be the candidate for the Congressional seat representing District 3.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in Tennessee on August 2.

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Two more Appalachian states held their primaries on Tuesday (June 12). Voters in Virginia picked candidates to run for one of the state’s US Senate seats and all 11 Congressional Districts. South Carolinians picked candidates to run for their seven Congressional Districts, the governor and several other public offices.

VIRGINIA

Democratic Incumbent and Hillary Clinton’s presidential running mate Tim Kaine secured his spot on the ballot running uncontested. GOP voters picked Corey Stewart, a Prince William County supervisor.

The format of the midterm elections for several of the Congressional Districts was a little different in Virginia than in other states, with both parties holding conventions to select their candidates for the District 5, and the GOP holding conventions for Districts 6, 7 and 8. Results for these Districts are not yet available.

In Districts 1 and 9 GOP incumbents Rob Wittman and Morgan Griffith ran unopposed. The Republican Incumbent from District 2, Scott Taylor, secured a comfortable win over  Mary Jones, winning with 75.9 percent of the votes. The GOP did not file a candidate in District 3. Ryan McAdams took the nomination with over 72 percent of the ballots in District 4. District 10 Incumbent, Barbara Comstock, defeated Shak Hill, while Jeff Dove ran uncontested in District 11.

In Districts 3, 4, 8 and 11, Democratic Incumbents Robert C. Scott, A. Donald McEachin, Don Beyer and Gerald E. Connolly respectively, ran unopposed.

Districts 1, 2, 6, 7 and 10 all saw female candidates securing nominations. Vangie Williams, Elaine Luria, Jennifer Lewis, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton will seek to win the House seats on November 6 for the Democrats for their respective Districts.

District 9 went to Anthony Flaccavento who ran away with the nomination, securing over 78 percent of the votes.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Come November 6, South Carolinians will choose their next governor. Democrats picked James Smith as their candidate, while on the GOP side the Incumbent Henry McMaster failed to secure over 50 percent of the votes, forcing a runoff race with John Warren. Runoff races in South Carolina will take place on June 26.

In Districts 2, 3, 5 and 6 the GOP Incumbents ran unopposed. Joe Wilson, Jeff Duncan, Ralf Norman and Gerhard Gressman respectively secured their spots in the November general election. Incumbent in District 7, Tom Rice, secured a comfortable victory, with over 83 percent of the votes, over Larry Hammond.

District 1 was probably the biggest surprise of the entire GOP primary. Incumbent Mark Sanford lost to Katie Arrington by almost four percent of the votes.

Sanford, who openly spoke against President Trump seems to have paid the political price. Arrington was endorsed by the President in the hours before the closing of the polls.

District 4 will hold a GOP runoff race with Lee Bright as one of the candidates. As of press time the second candidate was not yet announced, as the votes are still being counted in a close race between the next two candidates.

On the Democratic side, the only Incumbent, James E. Clyburn in District 6, ran unopposed. District 1 picked Joe Cunningham, District 3 Mary Geren and District 5 Archie Parnell.

Districts 2, 4 and 7 will see runoff races. Annabelle Robertson will face Sean Carrigan, Doris Turner will run against Brandon Brown and Robert Williams against Mal Hyman, respectively.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in New York and Maryland on June 26.

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Mississippi and Alabama, two of the southernmost Appalachian states, held their primaries on Tuesday, June 5.

MISSISSIPPI

The state of Mississippi will elect one of its Senators in the general election on November 6 and the second one in a special election.

GOP voters picked the incumbent, Sen. Roger Wicker, over Richard Boyanton, a small business owner and anti-establishment candidate who openly rejected donations and assistance from the Republican party, to run in the regular race.

Mississippi  holds a nonpartisan special Senate election, also in November, in which voters will pick a replacement Senator for  the Republican Thad Cochran, who retired from the US Senate due to health issues.

The Democratic field in the Senate primaries for the state looked significantly broader, with six candidates running. David Baria, State House minority leader, will face Howard Sherman in the runoffs.

Three out of the four Congressional districts of Mississippi are currently in GOP hands. Out of the three incumbents, only two — Trent Kelly in District 1 and Steven Palazzo in District 4 — ran in the primaries, leaving District 3 entirely to the new candidates.

Incumbent Trent Kelly ran unopposed in District 1, while Steven Palazzo won his race in District 4 against his only opponent E. Brian Rose.

Democrat Bennie Thompson is the incumbent in the District 2 and ran unopposed in his party primary. The GOP didn’t file a candidate.

District 3 saw a competitive race on the GOP side, with six candidates. Michael Guest and Whit Hughes will go against each other in the runoffs. Democrats presented a two-candidate field, with State Representative Michael Evans, winning the nomination.

ALABAMA

Alabama picked candidates for all of it’s seven Congressional Districts, as well as for governor and several other public offices, including the state’s Supreme Court.

The GOP incumbent Governor, Kay Ivey, faced three other candidates (Michael McAllister, fifth name on the ballot, passed away in April) and took the nomination with 56 percent of the votes.

But the Democratic field was even more crowded. Out of six candidates, the voters picked Walter Maddox, Mayor of Tuscaloosa, to represent their party. He won with 53 percent of the votes over Sue Bell Cobb, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, among others.  

Of the seven Districts, the GOP has control over six of them. In Districts 1, 3 and 6 GOP incumbents, Bradley Byrne, Mike Rogers and Gary Palmer respectively, are unopposed.

In District 2, the incumbent Martha Roby will face off with Bobby Bright, former Democratic U.S. Representative, now a Republican.

District 4 and 5 each had two GOP candidates. Robert Aderholt, the incumbent, won District 4 with overwhelming 81.5 percent of the votes, while District 5 also went to the incumbent, Mo Brooks, who won over Clayton Hinchman by margin of over 22 percent of the votes.

The GOP didn’t have a candidate in the District 7, where the Democratic Incumbent, Terri Sewell, ran unopposed.

Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4 had two Democratic candidates each, while in District 5 Peter Joffrion ran uncontested after Butler Cain dropped out of the race in February. District 6 saw Danner Kline also run uncontested.

Robert Kennedy, Tabitha Isner, Mallory Hagan and Lee Auman won Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively in the Democratic primaries.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in Virginia and South Carolina on June 12,

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KENTUCKY

Kentuckians were next in line to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s (May 22) primaries. All six Congressional districts were up for grabs and both parties had candidates running in all of them. GOP politicians currently fill five of the Congressional seats.

Rep. John Yarmuth is the only Democratic Incumbent who will be defending his seat on November 6. He was uncontested in yesterday’s primaries.

On the other side of the aisle, districts 1,2 and 4 also saw uncontested incumbents, with James Comer, Brett Guthrie and Thomas Massie respectively getting ready to defend their seats in November general elections.

In the third District, the GOP voters chose Vickie Yates Glisson to run against John Yarmuth. Glisson has experience in public service as secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. She was appointed to the post in 2015 by Governor Matt Bevin.

District 5 incumbent, the “Prince of Pork” Hal Rogers won against Gerardo Serrano by a landslide, getting 84 percent of the votes.

Rogers earned his nickname by bringing a lot of controversial investments to his District, like prisons, with another one on the horizon to be the most expensive prison built in the history of the United States. Yet, some of the counties he represents remain consistently among the poorest in the country. He’s been in office as the fifth District’s Representative since 1981.

In District 6, the GOP incumbent Andy Barr faced off with Chuck Eddy and won with almost 84 percent of the votes. He will face Amy McGrath, a marine fighter jet veteran, who defeated Lexington’s Mayor, Jim Gray, and State Senator Reggie Thomas.

Here are winners of the Democratic primaries:

District 1: Paul Walker

District 2: Hank Linderman

District 3: John Yarmuth

District 4: Seth Hall

District 5: Kenneth Stepp

District 6: Amy McGrath

GEORGIA

In Georgia, voters picked candidates for all 14 Congressional Districts, State Legislature, the Governor and several other public offices.

In Appalachian Congressional 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 14 districts all GOP candidates were incumbents, and won their respective races. In District 13 Incumbent David Scott run uncontested on the Democratic side.

In the third District, Drew Ferguson defeated Philip Singleton with an overwhelming 74.4 percent of the votes. District 10 went to Jody B. Hice who defeated two other opponents with almost 79 percent of the votes.

Karen Handel and Robert Woodall won GOP primaries in District 6 and 7, respectively. Handel run uncontested, while Woodall won easily, getting almost 72 percent of the votes.

Lucy McBath and Kevin Abel in District 6 and Carolyn Bordeaux and David Kim in District 7 qualified for the runoffs in the Democratic races.

Districts 9 and 11 saw republicans Doug Collins and Barry Loudermilk take the nominations after uncontested races.

Democrats will see Chuck Enderlin running as the third District candidate, Josh Mccall in the District 9, Tabitha Johnson-Green in District 10, Flynn Brody in District 11, David Scot and Steven Foster in District 14. Brody and Foster run uncontested.

In the Governor’s race primaries the Democrats elected Stacey Abrams to be the candidate in November, while on the GOP side Casey Cagle will face off with Brian Kemp in June 24 runoff. Abrams is the first African American major party nominee for Governor in the history of the United States.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in Mississippi and Alabama on June 5 and Virginia and South Carolina on June 12,  

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Pennsylvania’s Tuesday primaries were another highly anticipated, bellwether political event this year, ahead of the November 6 midterm elections.

Primaries took place after highly controversial Supreme Court ruling in January of this year that ordered a redrawing of the state’s 18 congressional districts. The new districts, previously shaped by Republican gerrymandering efforts, were intended to result in more balanced race. (Here’s the New York Times detailed map of the new districts.)

Republicans’ hopes were somewhat restored on  Tuesday following a blow during the March special elections in Pennsylvania’s 17th District, where Democrat Conor Lamb defeated Rick Saccone. The majority of the GOP winners this week were endorsed, strong pro-Trump candidates.

Rick Saccone took a second shot at elections, taking on the State Senator Guy Reschenthaler in the redrawn 14th District. Saccone repeated his March failure and lost to favored Reschenthaler by over 10 percent of the votes.

In the Senate primaries, the Democrat Bob Casey Jr. ran unopposed, while on the Republican side, Lou Barletta won the race against Jim Christiana, securing a victory with 63 percent of the votes.  Barletta was endorsed early on by the President Trump, who, soon after the results were called, congratulated him on twitter.

Democratic Governor, Tim Wolf will face off with Scott Wagner after defeating two opponents, Paul Mango and Laura Ellsworth by comfortable margins of around 7.5 and 25.5 percent respectively.

Results in Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Congressional Districts:

DISTRICT DEMOCRATIC winner REPUBLICAN winner
7 Susan Wild Marty Nothstein (projected)
8 John Chrin Matt Cartwright (incumbent, uncontested)
9  Denny Wolff Dan Meuser
10  George Scott (projected) Scott Perry (incumbent, uncontested)
12 Marc Friedenberg (projected)  Tom Marino (incumbent)
13 Brent Ottaway (uncontested) John Joyce
14  Bibiana Boerio Guy Reschenthaler
15 Susan Boser  Glenn Thompson (incumbent, uncontested)
16 Ron DiNicola  Mike Kelly (incumbent, uncontested)
17 Conor Lamb (incumbent, uncontested) Keith Rothfus (incumbent, uncontested)
18  Michael Doyle (incumbent)  —

 

Another fact that made the Pennsylvania’s primary stand out this year was a number of female candidates running–and winning–across all 18 districts.

In the 11 Appalachian districts three of the winners were female, while in all 18 districts, 8 women won their races. The current 115th Congress’ Pennsylvania caucus is all male.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in Georgia and Kentucky on May 22.

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First Wave of the Primaries – Roundup

 

This Tuesday (May 8, 2018) brought the first wave of primary elections before the House and Senate midterm elections on November 6.

Some of the highest profile races that grasped the attention of the national media took place in Appalachia: West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina.

WEST VIRGINIA

Among the most anticipated and scrutinized races was the GOP Senate primary in West Virginia, where two mainstream Republican politicians, Patrick Morrisey (West Virginia Attorney General) and Evan Jenkins (Congressman from West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District) faced off with an outsider, ex-coal baron and Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, best known for serving a year in prison for his involvement in a tragic mining incident that left 29 miners killed.

Patrick Morrisey won the race, taking 35% of the votes. Jenkins came in second with 29% and Blankenship third with just under 20%.

In a rare instance of a top-to-bottom party unity, the entire GOP establishment came together to denounce Blankenship and urged West Virginia voters to reject the controversial candidate, whom President Trump portrayed as unable to defeat the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Joe Manchin III.

Manchin won his party’s primary with an overwhelming 70% percent of the votes, defeating challenger Paula Jean Swearengin.

The Democratic Primary race for the West Virginia’s U.S. House District 3 was another  highly anticipated race, where an unorthodox candidate, Richard Ojeda pulled off a landslide victory over his opponents, with over 50% of the votes. He will face Carol Miller, the winner of a much tighter GOP primary.

Richard Ojeda, a US Army veteran and a member of the West Virginia Senate, is an unconventional Democrat, whom many point out as the kind of candidate that the Democratic party might need to win back at least some of the West Virginia seats.

Most notably, Ojeda can boast the support of worker unions. Recently, he has shown support for West Virginia teachers striking across the state.

In West Virginia U.S. House Districts 1 and 2, the Democratic primaries were won by Kendra Fershee and Talley Sergent respectively. They will face GOP incumbents, David B. McKinley and Alex X. Mooney.

OHIO

In Ohio, a number of consequential primary races took place last night.

Richard Cordray celebrated a comfortable win over Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic Senate primary, earning over 60% of the votes to Kucinich’s 20%. Cordray, the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will face Republican Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Attorney General and a former U.S. Senator.

DeWine defeated Mary Taylor with an almost 20% lead.

GOP voters had a chance to vote for their candidate to the U.S. Senate and picked Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH 16). He will run against the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Sherrod Brown. It was Brown who unseated current GOP’s governor candidate Mike DeWine in 2007. Renacci was endorsed by President Trump and will be at the frontlines of a contest over what is perceived as part of a lost Democratic territory.

Ohioans voted for candidates in all 16 U.S. House Districts. Here are the detailed results compiled by the New York Times.

Ohio voters also voted in support of Issue 1, a bipartisan proposal to change the rules for redistricting in Ohio. The bipartisan proposal is an attempt to fix the process, which has a long and scandalous history in the state. It was approved with an overwhelming support of almost 75% of the votes.

NORTH CAROLINA

In North Carolina voters picked candidates for all 13 U.S. House Districts. Some races, like District 1, had uncontested candidates on both sides of the aisle. Others, like District 2 Democratic primary, where Linda Coleman took the victory over Ken Romley, or District 9 GOP race, where Mark Harris narrowly defeated the incumbent Robert Pittenger, turned out to be slightly more competitive.

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Appalachia

Diving Deep into Harm Reduction

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Medicine worker disposing medical waste into plastic containers with protective glove. Photo: Adobe stock.

Part 1: Why W.Va.’s Largest Needle Exchange Closed

In December  2015, with support from the city of Charleston, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department launched a harm-reduction program that included a needle exchange. The primary goal was to reduce the risk of diseases commonly spread by sharing needles.

Now, only thing that remains of the harm reduction program is a syringe kiosk where people can deposit used hypodermic needles.

At its peak  the program served more than 400 people a week,mostly from Kanawha County. But some came from surrounding counties as well,a factor that became a point of contention for many in the city.

“It became basically, a line of people just to line up to get needles between 10 and 4 on any given Wednesday,” said outgoing Charleston mayor, Danny Jones who been an outspoken critic of the program.

In the months before it closed, Jones publicly called the program a “needle mill” and “mini-mall for junkies.”

“On any given Wednesday, they might have given out 12,000 needles,” he said during a recent interview.

In reality, the average number of needles given out during the weekly Wednesday exchange was about 5,000 serving about 190 visitors, according to data obtained from the health department. That’s about 26 needles per person, per week. The highest number of  needles the program ever gave out in a single week was just over 11,000 to 417 people.

While 5,000 seem like a lot, the average heroin user injects several times a day. So 26 needles a week gets a person about three injections a day with a clean needle.

“A syringe exchange program should really be called a harm reduction program,” said Dr. Artis Hoven, an infectious disease specialist with the Kentucky Department of Health.

She said harm reduction is an all-encompassing idea to reduce the risk of many things associated with addiction such as “provide naloxone, provide referral to care for people with substance use disorder, they do HIV and Hepatitis C testing.”

And in Charleston, it seemed to work.

While the Charleston program was open, the city did not see an HIV outbreak, according to interviews conducted by Charleston-Gazette Mail. During that same time period, 15 counties in southern West Virginia did have a small HIV outbreak — none of the three counties where the outbreak started had a harm reduction program, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Report.

Recorded incidents of Hepatitis C rates in West Virginia did increase — by a lot — during the course of the program, but so did efforts to test more people.

But in Charleston, reports of discarded needles in the community began to skyrocket and people were alarmed.

Firefighters reported having to crawl over them while putting out fires in abandoned structures; a local elementary school requested a biohazard container from the city so they could clean up an alley before school; and police officers reported finding huge numbers of syringes on people who were arrested.

Both the Fraternal Order of Police and the Charleston Professional Firefighters Association wrote letters to City Council expressing major safety concerns for first responders.

Concerns might have been exacerbated because the program grew really fast. In the two years the program was open, more than 651,000 needles were distributed. Only about 66 percent of those needles were returned.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of contracting HIV is nominal for for healthcare professionals stuck by needles on the job — around .3 percent — with some studies suggesting even less. Outside experts like Peter Davidson from the University of California San Diego say needle litter is an annoyance but not the major public health concern an HIV or Hepatitis C outbreak would be.

“No one in the world has ever obtained HIV from stepping on a needle in the street,” said Davidson. “Needles in the street are a piece of trash. It’s not something you want seeing laying in the gutter, but they’re not actually a very hazardous object.”

In some ways, it doesn’t matter what the risk is. If someone finds a dirty needle on a playground or in a shopping mall bathroom, public reaction is strong. And for non-users, any risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis from a dirty needle is too much.

But closing a harm reduction  program in the biggest city in the state could have huge public health implications for the region, according to former state Commissioner for Public Health Rahul Gupta. Gupta said it’s “not in the best interest of the community” when needle exchange programs like this one are shut down “reactively.”

“It plays into that stigma and is more harmful long-term than it is beneficial,” he said in an interview shortly before he left his job.

Gupta said it’s more harmful because not only are you removing your best tool for preventing needle-born illnesses, but, as we’ll hear later in this series, the closure may impact public perception and support for other harm reduction programs across the state that are trying to open or stay open.

Part 2: Public Safety and Public Health

Best practices for harm reduction programs call for flooding a community with clean hypodermic syringes. Research shows that in addition to reducing the prevalence of blood-borne pathogens in the community, well-run programs help remove potentially infectious syringes from the community. But some people say that wasn’t happening in Charleston.

Photo: Todd Huffman via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

Reports of needles found in public places in Charleston began to escalate in early October 2017.

Mayor Danny Jones said the city tried numerous times to complain and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department didn’t do anything to address their concerns.

Then city health officer Michael Brumage took issue with that accusation,pointing to efforts, such as the founding of the statewide harm reduction coalition. He said one of the objectives of the coalition was to bring needles into other communities so there wouldn’t be such a burden on the city.

But in October 2017, the city public safety office established a code for needle pickup calls to help the city accurately collect data on locations, numbers and types of needles to be picked up.

About a week later, the city proposed running a pilot program with retractable needles. The idea was that if the needles could only be used once and then retract into a plastic chamber, it would reduce the risk of needlestick injuries to the community and first responders.

At the time, Brumage was all for the idea. He wrote an an email, which was part of documents released to West Virginia Public Broadcasting through a Freedom of Information Act request, to city attorney Paul Ellis.

“[T]he limitations … are acceptability and cost. Should we get support or donated supplies, I am all in for a pilot with evaluation. This could be a very interesting trial. We would like to bring in some researchers for this as well. Let’s do it! It’s worth a shot.”

Over the next few weeks, the Charleston Fire Department found a manufacturer willing to donate the needles in exchange for tracking how well they worked. After consulting with Brumage and his staff, the city requested 250,000 needles from the manufacturer for a six-month trial.

Everything seemed to be on track to start a pilot project using retractable needles in early spring 2018.

At least that’s what the city thought. Meanwhile, Brumage was in communication with a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The researcher reinforced something with him that  he said he already knew — that “retractables were unpopular among people who used IV drugs.”

In 2010, the national Harm Reduction Coalition issued a statement against auto disable syringes. They said the syringes do little to help control epidemics of HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne viruses among people who inject drugs because many people inject drugs a half dozen times a day. Without needles you can use more than once, users revert back to sharing equipment.

“So, at that point I was kind of in a bind since I told the city we would implement the retractable syringe program. But now knew if I did, we’d actually be putting the public at risk,” said Brumage.

So given the current recommended practices, Brumage and the Johns Hopkins researcher decided to reduce the pilot instead to about 10 to 12 people. In meeting minutes from a call, also released in the FOIA,, Brumage’s staff appeared to confirm the new plan with the company that had agreed to donate the syringes.

Brumage said he thought the needle manufacturer then told the city about the change. But no one did. So city officials said they felt blindsided several weeks later when they learned the pilot program no longer included the entire patient population.

“They refused retractable needles,” Jones said in an interview.

It was more complicated than that, but it probably felt like a refusal to the city because of the  change in plan wasn’t communicated. And I mean, remember, law enforcement, emergency responders and some members of the community were now expressing a lot of concern about needle litter and felt like they had to do something.

“I want to protect the public. I want to protect the law abiding public,” said Jones.

In late March of this year, Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper decided — as he was legally empowered to do — that the health department may only give out retractable needles.

Essentially, Brumage said, the police were “ directing the health department to adopt — what appeared to be from the medical literature to be dangerous and unethical practices.”

But other public health experts said making a harm reduction program fit the needs of the community takes a lot of compromise.

“Public health has never been and will never be about my way or your way. It will always be what’s the best way to input science and marry it with art and put it into practice,” said former public health commissioner Rahul Gupta.

From a public health perspective, harm reduction programs are still the best tool the city a city? has to prevent the spread of needle born illnesses. But politically — at least in the state’s largest city — it’s closed indefinitely.

Part 3: Community Acceptance, Perception and Stigma

A girl is telling her friend a secret. Photo: Adobe Stock.

Less than two years after it began, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department shut down it’s harm reduction program. Among other things, the program provided thousands of clean needles to drug users with the goal of reducing needle borne diseases, but faced significant pushback from some in the community.

As the state continues to grapple with the drug epidemic and its impact to public health, those running harm reduction programs in other West Virginia communities say the closure of the Charleston program, and the narrative that the needle exchange program was destroying the city, is having a negative impact on public perception of harm reduction efforts.

“Everyone understands that this drug epidemic is the biggest public health issue that we have dealt with,” said Terry Harlin, administrator of the Fayetteville harm reduction program. “I feel like what happened in Charleston hurt us a little bit.”

Harlin said when the Charleston program closed in [insert when here], members of the community began questioning the necessity of the Fayette County program.

“We definitely started hearing people locally, ‘well it didn’t work in Charleston so why would you continue doing that here?’” she said. “Even though there’s lots of evidence and research out there that show that harm reduction does help to prevent the spread of disease and does help to get people the help that they need.”

A Shifting Narrative

The trickle effect to other programs like Fayetteville’s likely happened in the last six months the Kanwaha-Charleston program was open, when the narrative around the program shifted. Outgoing Charleston Mayor Danny Jones was especially outspoken critic of the program.

“Needles were everywhere and our property crimes went through the roof,” he said.

No study has been done quantifying whether the harm reduction program caused an increase in needle litter, making it hard to confirm the veracity of the claim. But we do know, according to data from the health department, that during the two years the program was open, more than 650,000 needles were distributed and only about 66 percent of them were returned.

West Virginia University public health researcher Robin Pollini said that doesn’t mean the unreturned needles ended up on the street. In West Virginia it is legal to dispose of sharps in the trash if you package them and label them in a certain way, she said.

“And so the Charleston program, just like many programs across the state, gives out puncture proof containers and information on how to dispose of those safely,” said Pollini. “And so we don’t have any idea how many of those ended up properly disposed of in household trash and how many didn’t.”

Dr. Susan Gardner, assistant dean of the University of Charleston School of Pharmacy, said she has seen little evidence of widespread needle litter.  The school of pharmacy was one of the volunteer groups very involved in the Kanawha-Charleston Harm Reduction Program.

“There are times where I just took a walk on the East End looking — looking!,” she said. “[I say to myself] ‘ok, if it’s this bad surely I’ll see it.’ And the only time I’ve ever come across a needle in Charleston is doing a syringe cleanup.”

Us Versus Them

But without a study of Charleston’s needle litter, there’s also no way to prove that the 200,000 unreturned needles didn’t end up on the streets.

Members of the Charleston police department said they’ve observed much less needle litter since the program closed, but the department also has reams of photographs from first responders and community members of needles found in public spaces.

Comments on news articles and Facebook posts seem to paint a community drowning in needles.

On some level, needle litter itself, isn’t the issue.

“So part of the narrative that was built around the Kanawha program was this us and them of like ‘we’re the community and those people are drug users,’” said Pollini, from WVU. “Those people are part of our community they’re West Virginians right?”

In Wyoming County a Different Narrative

Wyoming County launched its needle exchange program in May. Executive Director Fred Cox said their program has been relatively well-received — he guesses because they had a small HIV outbreak prior to the program opening.

“A picture’s worth a thousand words I’d guess you’d say,” Cox said. “So, that picture was really clear to us here and I really do think that help changed some minds.”

He said if they hadn’t had the outbreak he doesn’t think they would have had to support to open the program as a prevention measure.

Some speculate that may be another reason Charleston’s program struggled in the end.

Outgoing Charleston mayor Jones said there were no reports of outbreaks of hepatitis C or the AIDS virus prior to the launch of the city’s harm reduction program.

“It’s not up to us to ruin a town over the fact that people have communicable diseases,” he said.

Rahul Gupta, formerly the head of the state’s public health department, said harm reduction is a multifaceted idea that encompasses not just needle exchange, but testing and family planning and treatment of diseases.

“And other issues that come across that are consequential in some ways like needle litter and other things there have to be plans in place to address those — what we can’t afford to do is ignore them,” he said.

There often are demands, Gupta said, to do things differently. But he believes there’s always a middle ground you can get to with negotiation. And you do that, he said, because “people’s lives are at stake.”

Part 4: Best Practices vs. Community Acceptance

Current best practices for harm reduction programs include a couple provisions: No retractable needles should be distributed, patients should get as many needles as possible regardless of how many they bring back, and barriers to accessing needles should be as low as possible. But sometimes those recommendations are at odds with community acceptance for the practices.

Photo: Ashton Marra, 100 Days in Appalachia

In late March, shortly after the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department closed its harm reduction program, Mayor Danny Jones wrote a letter to Rahul Gupta, then state commissioner for public health, asking that the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health audit the program.

“The review provided very specific recommendations that needed to be met in order to restart the program,” Gupta said.

These included improving data collection and analysis about exactly how many people were using the program and what services they were using; putting in place a plan to deal with needle litter; improving communication with community stakeholders and requiring that people pick up needles they need in person.

After the audit came out, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department requested a review of the audit from seven harm reduction experts around the country, including Dr. Peter Davidson from the University of California San Diego. All seven letters were critical of the audit.  

“I think the best way to describe it was that the people who wrote the audit had a very particular idea in mind about what a syringe distribution program should look like,” said Davidson.

In his letter Davidson wrote that “almost all of the recommendations in the audit represent severe, and in some cases unconscionable, barriers to effective, evidence-based, primary prevention of blood borne virus transmission.”

“You know one of the reasons syringe distribution programs exist in the way they exist at all is because is because the sort of traditional public health clinic model hasn’t served people who use drugs very well at all,” Davidson said. “And it hasn’t been very good at providing them with the basic tools they need in order to prevent the transmission of infectious disease and prevent overdose.”

Davidson said ideally, harm reduction programs have as low a barrier of entry as possible so the maximum amount of people will participate. And the recommendations made in the audit would raise the threshold of how easy it was to access resources, but he also says there’s room to adjust programs to fit the communities they serve.

“I wouldn’t expect a needle exchange in rural Appalachia to look the same as a needle exchange in San Francisco for example,” he said. “That would likely lead to a program that didn’t serve the population very well at all.”

And in Charleston, there were actually two harm reduction programs being held simultaneously: the one at the health department and a much smaller, clinic-based program operated by Health Right, the biggest free clinic in the state.

“Back in 2011 we noticed an increase in patients that were coming in with various stories, histories of being diabetic, they would pick up the needles for the program but not the insulin,” said executive director Angie Settle.

She said they began to suspect an increase in IV drug use among their patient population.

“So we kind of quietly started the program with the needle exchange it was mainly internal not something we broadcasted, but those patients that needed it knew of the service and as they came in we were screening every patient for IV drug use,” Settle said.

Because Health Right is a clinic working with a limited number of patients with whom they already have close relationships, they could run their program differently than the health department, which was trying to do a mass public health push, serving the whole city.

Health Right is also a one for one exchange — you bring a needle back, you get a fresh one — which for most harm reduction experts is not considered best practice. But since patients can come as many times a week as they want, Settle said it seemed to be the best choice for her program.

They also require every patient to meet with a counselor when they come in for needles. Basically, participation in Health Right’s program requires a lot more effort from patients, which means not everyone will use it, but Settle said that running a conservative program is preferable to not having a program available at all.  

“You know the reality here is you’ve got a drug-using population that, in fact, is going to keep using drugs whether or not you have a syringe exchange program or not,” said Dr. Artis Hoven, an infectious disease specialist with the Kentucky Department of Health.

But without a program, she said, the community is just opening itself up to the easier spread of communicable diseases.

“There is something called the art and science, if you will, of risk or harm reduction,” said Hoven. “And for many of us we are still learning what that art is and what that science is. We’re trying to make it better and to make it something that is effective.”

But if Charleston were to consider harm reduction again, a lot of community healing, conversations, and compromise would likely have to occur. And the biggest barrier may be one of the most intangible ones — addressing stigma.

Part 5: A Community Divided

When the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department closed its harm reduction programs, one of the biggest criticisms of the program was that it led to an increase in crime, vagrancy and homelessness. Those claims are not without merit.

Photo: Adobe stock

“I mean, that’s some of the stuff that people don’t really think about,” said Sgt. Matt Webb, who has been on the Charleston Police force for 20 years. During a ride-along, Webb was tracking a case of a man who was stealing vehicles and using them in other crimes. He pulled into an office parking lot where about eight cars were parked around a side-by-side ATV – effectively making it impossible to access the off-road utility vehicle.

“It’s the bigger picture of the drug issues. Guys out stealing somebody’s side-by-side … those people probably work hard every day to try to take care of their families and have things like that, and here he’s trying to support his drug habit and he goes and steals a side-by-side.”

During the 2018 mayoral election, crime and safety related to the drug epidemic became a political theme.

“One of the issues we have in our downtown area and is not just perception — it’s become reality unfortunately — is there is a belief that there is a public safety issue in downtown Charleston,” said mayoral candidate J.B. Akers during a fall debate between him and then-candidate Amy Goodwin televised by WCHS.

Akers was publicly critical of the syringe exchange component of the Charleston harm reduction program during his campaign. In the months leading up to the election, the program increasingly became a politically charged, divisive issue.

This fall, the City of Charleston completed a $100 million renovation on the Charleston Civic Center. The Civic Center overlooks the Elk River and abuts the Charleston mall. On other side? The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

“That health department shouldn’t be there,” said outgoing mayor Danny Jones.

The Charleston harm reduction program happened once a week. And as the program grew, that meant up to 400-some patients were coming through in a six-hour period for needle exchange as well as getting vaccinations, testing for diseases and accessing family planning services, among other services. This volume was a big deal for the downtown community.

“Having a program that was outside the city limits or at least within the city limits but in a less trafficked place by regular business people and people doing shopping in the city of Charleston would be an important thing to do as well,” said former city health officer Michael Brumage. Brumage said one of the lessons learned from the program was that they’d likely rethink the location.

Over the last couple of years, complaints of vagrancy and a rise in a criminal transient population have increased — a change Jones attributes to the harm reduction program and the geography of the state.

“It’s the confluence of the interstates,” he said.

Charleston is at the intersection of two major interstates — 64 running east to west and 77 running north to south, which Jones said made it easy for people outside of the city to come in and utilize resources meant for residents.

“I know it’s been a long time since I’ve started this profession, but when I first began this profession, I knew of two homeless people in town,” said Sgt. Webb. “And now, I mean, they’re all over the place.”

Sgt. Webb said that addiction and a bad economy go hand-in-hand.

“I’m pretty certain that the addiction aspect of what we’re dealing with has a lot to do with the economy,” he said. “You know, when you’re down on yourself you look for ways to make yourself feel better. I’m far from a doctor, but I’m sure a lot of people who are out here addicted to drugs had some kind of traumatic experience or they’re trying to fix something.”

A few months after the program closed, a Facebook group started, called “Charleston Has Had Enough!”, where members post photos of other people using drugs, stealing packages, panhandling, etc. Now, almost one of every 10 Charleston residents is a member.

None of the ten administrators or moderators returned requests for an interview, but in a Sept. 16 post, one of the founders wrote: “Word is going around that this group is all about shaming junkies. Anyone who believes that is an idiot. No. This is a group about shaming the so-called leadership that got us in the mess, namely the Kanawha County Health Dept. who convinced the city that free needles were a great idea.”

Danny Jones is a member.

“It was a really bad situation for our city. Needles were everywhere. Property crimes went through the roof. And now that it’s over, our property crimes have gone way down,” Jones said.

That’s a slightly misleading assertion. Larceny — meaning theft of personal property — has actually fallen considerably from 2014-2017, according to data obtained by West Virginia Public Broadcasting from the Charleston Police Department.

Burglary/breaking and entering spiked in 2016 (the first full year the program was in operation) but then fell to pre-program levels the second full year the program was in operation.

Breaking and entering into a car has risen continuously since 2014. And there was a massive spike in auto crimes in 2016 and no decline during the program’s second year of operation. But data like this does not prove why some crime went up after the harm reduction program opened and some went down. And speculations only seem to divide community.

In an off-the-record conversation, a member of the Charleston Fire Department said the closure of the Charleston program had set the city back 10 years in terms of acceptance of harm reduction. How to move forward is a subject incoming mayor Amy Goodwin addressed in the October debate televised by WCHS.

“Leaders lead,” she said. “Leaders don’t take the blame or cast the blame on someone else. They look at what they’ve done wrong and they say, ‘let’s improve it.’ They look at something that may be a problem in the city and they work with everyone; they bring everyone to the table. They don’t villainize; they don’t marginalize folks.”

At this point, bringing everyone to the table is going to take a lot of work, but it’s not impossible.

“I would be interested in being on some kind of board where they hold discussions about trying to find answers to these questions,” Sgt. Matt Webb said. He said it’s really challenging working with a population struggling with addiction.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “If we go to somebody’s house and they’re having a heart attack, we send them to a doctor and the doctor can hopefully fix their heart. They give them a heart cath, they give them open heart surgery, they’ll do bypass – whatever. When it comes to somebody who is addicted to opioids – a lot of times, I know it’s not true, but they give off the impression that they don’t want help but it’s because the addiction is so great they feel like they don’t want help.”

And if someone does want help, he said, it doesn’t get much easier.

“Are there beds available in rehab places? How are they going to pay for it? Those are sometimes hard answers to get.”

But whether a board is created to discuss these issues like Webb mentioned — or even if enough people are willing to sit down and really listen to one another to address the still present public health risk of needle borne diseases — remains to be seen.

This series was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Read them individually: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5

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Appalachia

Groups Say Smart Reclamation Of Mine Lands Could Be “Appalachia’s New Deal”

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Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

From solar farms in Virginia to a green energy subdivision in Kentucky, a new report by a group of regional advocacy organizations highlights 20 ready-made projects across the Ohio Valley that could give abandoned mining operations that were never cleaned up a second life, and create new economic opportunity across the region.

In the report, released Tuesday, the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, which advocates for high-impact mine reclamation projects throughout Central Appalachia, says innovative mine reclamation “could be Appalachia’s New Deal.”

“This report marks an important step as Appalachia citizens continue to re-imagine and work toward a future of sustainable and healthy local economies, where young people can find meaningful work and stay to raise their own families,” Adam Wells, regional director of community and economic development with Appalachian Voices, said in a statement.

Courtesy Ohio Valley Mushroom Farm
Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) at an Ohio wetland.

Virginia-based Appalachian Voices is one of the members of the coalition. Other organizations include Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, Coalfield Development Corporation in West Virginia, Rural Action in Ohio, and Downstream Strategies in West Virginia.

Projects highlighted in the report run the gamut and include proposals to use acid mine drainage in Perry County, Ohio, to create paint and a proposal by a West Virginia wholesaler to build a livestock processing facility in Kanawha County.

The region has struggled to clean up thousands of abandoned coal sites since the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund was created in 1976. State and local governments have sometimes struggled with how to find new uses for old mine sites, and some high-profile projects have fizzled.

In the report, the authors argue, well-planned reclamation projects can spur economic development and offer best practices for how they should be proposed. Those include selecting appropriate locations near infrastructure and ensuring redevelopment projects are environmentally sustainable and financially viable over the long term.

Stream restoration work in progress on an old mining site in West Virginia. Photo: Courtesy CVI

In recent years, Congress has boosted resources available for that effort. Beginning in 2017, more than $100 million was appropriated for the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program. Many of the projects highlighted in the report have applied for funding through the AML Pilot Program.

But another federal effort has not been passed by Congress despite bipartisan support. The “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More,” or RECLAIM Act would accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine lands by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period with an eye toward economic development.

Combined, the report’s authors say, the 20 projects would require about $38 million of investment but would generate more than $83 million in economic output as well about 540 jobs to the region.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource

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Appalachia

‘If We Can’t Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?’

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In this excerpt from the book After Coal, documentary filmmaker Tom Hansell describes how his media work in the coalfields of Central Appalachia led to a different understanding about what might come next for coal communities.

“EPA = Expanding Poverty in America.”  

See also: BEYOND COAL: Appalachia and Wales. Jim Branscome reviews Tom Hansell’s book “After Coal”

This statement is written in three-foot-high letters on a banner stretched over a bandstand in a public park in Pikeville, Kentucky. It is June 2012 and I am just starting production of the After Coal documentary. The crowd around me is dressed in the reflective stripes of mining uniforms or in T-shirts reading Friends of Coal and Walker Heavy Machinery. I am documenting a coal industry-sponsored pep rally before a public hearing on new water-quality regulations proposed for mountaintop-removal coal mines.  

The speaker onstage is speaking proudly of his family’s heritage in the coal industry. He concludes his passionate statement with a question: “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do in eastern Kentucky?” 

Good question. As a filmmaker who has spent my career living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and documenting coal-mining issues, this is an important and difficult question to answer. My earlier documentaries Coal Bucket Outlaw (2002) and The Electricity Fairy (2010) were intended to start a civil conversation between workers in the coal industry and other community members about a shared vision for good jobs, clean air, clean water, and a safe working environment. However, the conversations almost always broke down as soon as someone pointed out the obvious: the coal industry had long been the only model of economic development in the central Appalachian region. More examples of what life after coal might look like were desperately needed to move the conversation forward.  

As I struggled with the haunting question “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do?” the image of Welsh mining villages rising from the ashes left by the coal industry captured my imagination. I thought that if I could just learn a few details about how Welsh communities made the transition, then I could identify specific solutions to help coal communities in Appalachia. However, I quickly learned that the secret to life after coal was not that simple. …  

The author (holding the boom mic). (Photo provided.)

On my own quest for solutions, in 1990, I began my career at Appalshop, a rural, multidisciplinary arts center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky—the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. From my young and naively privileged perspective, moving to eastern Kentucky was an act of opposition to the materialistic consumer-driven world. I had a goal of living self-sufficiently, fulfilling my needs with what I could make or grow, and buying as little as possible. And, as an aspiring environmental activist, the clear moral lines around the issues in the Kentucky coalfields, especially strip mining, were appealing. The battle call of union songs such as “Which Side Are You On” charged up my little post-punk heart.  

However, my experience at Appalshop quickly taught me that the struggles of coal communities were not as simple or straightforward as I had imagined. Working as part of this artistic collective, I produced radio and video documentaries and taught community media workshops. As a young artist and activist, I quickly absorbed Appalshop’s mantra of providing a platform for mountain people to speak in their own words about issues that affect their lives. I attended hundreds of community meetings: school board, the fiscal court, mine permit hearings, and union meetings. I also documented dozens of direct actions where citizens blocked roads to stop mining, took over government offices to protest the lack of enforcement, and set up picket lines to enforce union contracts.  

Retired Welsh miner and labor leader Terry Thomas (left) meets retired Kentucky miner Carl Shoupe (right). (Screenshot from the documentary, After Coal)

My experiences working on the front lines of the environmental justice movement in Appalachia gradually developed my understanding of the complexities of how culture, place, and politics had shaped the situations I was documenting. I witnessed firsthand the incredible power of community to support people as they faced threats against their homes and families. As a result, I expanded my ideas about self-sufficiency from an individualistic vision of each person taking care of their own needs to a larger vision of individuals living in symbiosis with their neighbors and the natural environment—community self-sufficiency. 

Participating in cultural exchanges at Appalshop also provided me with valuable lessons. Meeting artists from the mountains of western China and rural Indonesia opened my eyes to some of the universal challenges faced by regional cultures in an increasingly globalized economy. I hoped that an international exchange with another coal-mining region such as south Wales could identify resources and strategies that would help Appalachian coalfield communities create a future beyond coal.  

The process of creating the After Coal documentary took more than five years. During that time, I learned to stop looking for concrete solutions and start supporting an ongoing conversation about how to create healthy communities in former coal-mining regions. International efforts to address climate change make this challenge especially intense for coal-producing regions. As our economy shifts from fossil fuels, how can we ensure that places where fossil fuels were extracted do not continue to bear an unfair share of the costs of extraction?  

I believe there are as many solutions for life after coal as there are residents of mining communities. I hope these stories from south Wales and central Appalachia will inspire people to discover solutions that work in their home communities. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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