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Faith and Switch: These Congregants Feel They Were Baited into Giving Money to Closing Churches

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Jean Ripepi, 87, remembers her first mass at St. Anthony Church. The building had two wings separated by a bell tower and stood atop a hill overlooking downtown Monongahela. She was entering a new faith and a new marriage. Ripepi had been raised in the Polish Catholic Church — a sect not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church — and converted to her husband Angelo’s denomination after they wed.

Italian-American identity was the cornerstone of St. Anthony. The Diocese of Pittsburgh established the parish in 1904 to connect an Italian-speaking priest to the throngs of immigrants settling in industrial river towns like Monongahela. St. Anthony went through a few buildings and makeshift locations before the church that was completed in the 1950s. Jean Ripepi’s husband’s family was Italian, so of course they attended St. Anthony.

“We attended [our]first Mass in 1957 and were active members since,” she said. “My husband’s family helped sustain it.” In addition to tithes, she says various Ripepis have put in countless hours of “sweat equity,” working on repair projects and volunteering for the annual festival for its patron saint held the third weekend in June. She was confirmed as a Roman Catholic there.

Now, St. Anthony is shuttered. A sign prohibiting loitering, skateboarding and other nuisance uses that plague empty parking lots stands awkwardly outside the ornate entranceway and neatly trimmed hedges.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh closed it in 2014, claiming that Monongahela — whose population had decreased by half since its 1950 prime of 8,922 — could not support both St. Anthony and its other parish, Transfiguration. After a long and contentious process, the Diocese merged the two into a new parish, called St. Damien of Molokai, and chose the former Transfiguration building as its site of worship. (There is a difference between a parish and a church: a parish is a spiritual community recognized by a Diocese and usually allotted a priest. A church is a building where that community meets. The two words are often used interchangeably, but the distinction is important when discussing Catholic bylaws.)

St. Anthony’s Church located on Park Avenue in Monongahela, Pa. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

Not every former St. Anthony congregant has marched into the fold of St. Damien of Molokai. Some meet weekly in the Ripepi home to share covered dishes, prayers and Bible verses.

“We’ve done it ever since [the closure],” said Barbara Falappi. “We have a prayer service. It’s an excuse to get together. We do a lot of things. This is a spiritual family.”

Some of them also meet to plan a legal strategy. Five former St. Anthony congregants are suing the Diocese of Pittsburgh, accusing its leadership of defrauding them. They say the Diocese baited them into investing money to save St. Anthony when the Diocese had already decided to close the church.

“We felt like a franchise,” said Falappi, one of the plaintiffs, “that we either had to pay up or they were taking their name off the building.”

They aren’t the only ones. Former congregants of St. Agnes in Richeyville, another Washington County town, have enlisted the same lawyers — Steven Toprani and Michael Hammond of Dodaro, Matta and Cambest — and filed suit, alleging the Diocese also defrauded them into giving money to sustain a church whose fate was sealed. St. Agnes ceased regular services in 2017 and the Diocese consolidated its parish into a “mega-parish” grouping of former parishes in Washington County.

Ann Todora, 88, and Mary-Beth Gregorini, 63, listen during a meeting between plaintiffs at a house in Monongahela, Pa. on August 9, 2018. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

“They keep asking [for donations] until the parishes are merged and that’s the game they play,” said Hammond.

In the case of both mergers, the Diocese had several church buildings from which to choose as a home for the new consolidated parish. Both lawsuits say the Diocese  chose to close more desirable buildings — whose upkeeps were the result of donations and work from congregants who are being displaced. Hammond said the Diocese is intentionally shuttering the churches that fetch more on the real estate market.

Bob DeWitt, a spokesperson for the Diocese, said the organization won’t comment on ongoing litigation. Plaintiffs from St. Agnes declined to speak to PublicSource.

In November, a judge in Washington County Common Pleas Court dismissed the cases, arguing that First Amendment freedom of religion and precedents of Pennsylvania case law prevented the court from ruling on internal matters of the Diocese. An appeal to the Vatican also failed. The plaintiffs have appealed the civil court case.

Hammond said he wants to force the Diocese into discovery, the legal process by which evidence in a civil suit is viewed by both parties. He said that may shed light on Diocese financial practices. “We want to see their books,” he said.

Parish consolidation, the process that left congregants of St. Anthony and St. Agnes disillusioned and combative, will play out across the Diocese in the coming years. Citing a priest shortage and a diminishing Catholic population, the Diocese of Pittsburgh announced that it would shift its 188 individual parishes — spread out across six counties — into 57 groupings. They will no doubt shut down some churches and redirect their attendees to others.

This process can be “brutal,” pitting parish against neighboring parish, said Peter Borre, co-chair of the Council of Parishes, a Boston-based organization that advocates for individual parishes within the Church hierarchy and advised the St. Anthony congregants. “There are three or five [pre-existing] parishes trying to compete against each other, trying to survive. It can be like a circular firing squad.”

Money recently donated may again become an issue. In the years before its massive reconsolidation, the Diocese of Pittsburgh embarked on a fundraising effort, Our Campaign for Church Alive!, which was an astounding success. When the campaign began in 2012, its goal was to raise $125 million. The Diocese announced it had received $149.8 million from the faithful, with a total of $234 million pledged. Those parishioners gave under the promise of benefits to their specific parishes, parishes that the Diocese may soon effectively eliminate.

The growth and decline of Catholicism in and around Pittsburgh

When the Diocese of Pittsburgh begat St. Anthony Parish to minister to Monongahela’s Italian-speaking population, Italian immigrants were spreading across Western Pennsylvania in a vast wave, working in coal mines and steel mills. They helped build up the ranks of Catholics within the Diocese of Pittsburgh, from 270,000 in 1897 to a peak of 962,412 in 1975, according to church directories.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh located at 111 Boulevard of the Allies. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

More recent shifts in demographics have not been as kind to the Diocese. In the 1980s, deindustrialization and an exodus of young people diminished the population of Pittsburgh and its suburbs. Bishop Donald Wuerl led a consolidation of the parishes, from 332 to 218.

Catholic Church membership has actually grown nationwide by 68 percent since 1965, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. It has been buoyed in part by a new immigration wave, from Latin America. But in depopulating areas like Pittsburgh, the ranks of Catholics continue to dwindle. In 2016, Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh stood at 632,138, down by about a third from 1975.

And today’s Catholics are less reliable churchgoers. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, fewer than 40 percent are in church on any given Sunday — down from three out of four attending church weekly in 1955. Many people who are counted as Catholic by confirmation do not actually participate in the church, said Borre, and aren’t financially supporting any parishes. “Lapsed Catholics are in the millions,” he said. “Society has become too secular or consumerist.”

Another major challenge is a priest shortage. While the number of priests stays steady worldwide, in the United States, it has dropped from 59,192 in 1970 to 37,181 in 2017.

“You cannot staff everything with religious sisters and deacons. There is a terrible lack of religious vocations,” wrote Jack Ruhl, a professor of accountancy at Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business and an expert on Diocesan finances and restructuring, in an email to PublicSource.

It’s not an attractive profession, after years of sexual abuse scandals, he said. “I had a priest friend in Chicago who told me that when he would go out somewhere [and] strangers would glare at him in disgust or would actually say nasty things to him. Who wants to be a priest today?” There are the disincentives of a celibacy vow and low pay and “like the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, they ‘don’t get no respect.’”

St. Damien of Molokai Parish located on West Main Street in Monongahela, Pa. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

The Church is ordaining fewer priests in the U.S. and the Diocese of Pittsburgh has fewer Catholics for them to serve than in decades past. Taking all that into account, Bishop David Zubik unveiled a plan last April to reduce 188 individual parishes into 57 groupings, with decisions to come concerning which churches in each grouping stay and which are shuttered. (In some cases, churches that are part of “mega-parishes” stay open as auxiliary sites, available for weddings, celebrations and/or holiday Masses.)

In Washington County, a process like this started 10 years ago.

The saint of lost things

In 2007, the Diocese launched a study to determine the viability of parishes in Monongahela, Donora and Charleroi, three depopulated towns in the Mon Valley. Two years later, the study was completed and recommended the merger of St. Anthony and Transfiguration. Zubik issued a decree merging the parishes in 2011.

According to the lawsuit, then began two years of meetings of parishioners and clergy to discuss the possibility of keeping open both churches, served under one parish. St. Anthony still had regular services. Plaintiffs say that Diocesan representatives led them to believe that if enough funding was raised, St. Anthony would remain open. They claim they reduced the church’s debt load of $144,000 to $44,000 in one year and a private donor offered to pay the remainder, but the priest of the new St. Damien of Molokai parish refused it. They also claim that $2 million was spent on renovations, including the installation of a new roof.

Laura Magone, one of the plantiffs, blesses herself after leading the opening prayer at a meeting at Jean Ripepi’s house in Monongahela, Pa. on August 9, 2018. Photo: Kat Proyck/PublicSource

Laura Magone, one of the plaintiffs, said she and other congregants gave as much as they could to “show that we have an interest and ability to sustain it.”

The lawsuit states that in his decree, Zubik made arguments referencing the “financial distress” of St. Anthony. These statements were “blatant falsehoods,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that the St. Anthony building is in better condition than the former Transfiguration one, which has no parking lot and had no bathroom until after the merger, at which point the parish spent $30,000 installing one.

The plaintiffs claim the Diocese kept open the former Transfiguration building and shuttered St. Anthony because it had long planned to sell the St. Anthony building, which would fetch more on the real estate market. They claim their fundraising efforts only went to making it even more profitable.

The suit alleges fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment, among other claims. It seeks injunctive relief, essentially asking a judge to prevent the Diocese from selling the building.  

At the heart of the lawsuit over St. Agnes is a similar claim, according to Hammond: the Diocese consolidated parishes and left congregants in a less desirable building, so a better one can raise capital at sale.

The church building that until recently housed St. Agnes parish was constructed in the early 2000s. The lawsuit claims that in February 2015, Pastor Edward Yuhas advised the congregation via letter that St. Agnes would be closed and its parish merged with four others nearby. A month later, Yuhas allegedly told them the closure had been rescinded. The next nine months were reportedly filled with confusion over its fate, but parishioners continued to attend Mass and provided tithes, donations and offerings of at least $100,000.

A meeting between plaintiffs at a house in Monongahela, Pa. on August 9, 2018. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

The suit claims that an engineering study, ordered during the consolidation process, showed that St. Agnes’ building would have the lowest future maintenance costs. It also asserts the building is the one most central to the five former parishes, but the Diocese instead chose to house the new St. Katharine Drexel Parish in a church building in Bentleyville that dates to 1909.

The former St. Agnes parishioners are also seeking an order preventing the Diocese from selling the building.

The plaintiffs are in the uncomfortable position of battling, in court, an institution that guided their spiritual lives.

“I used to be a Roman Catholic,” said Falappi, a retired healthcare worker. “Now I am a roaming Catholic. I will never, ever give up the Catholic faith.” But she said she hasn’t joined a Diocese-sanctioned parish yet and says she lost confidence in Zubik, a defendant in the lawsuit.

The Ripepis went to a few services at St. Damien of Molokai, but Angelo has mobility difficulties and the church relies on street parking, whereas St. Anthony has a parking lot with handicapped spaces. It was too difficult to coordinate their attendance, Jean Ripepi said. A lay minister comes to their home to perform the communion ritual, a vital part of maintaining status as Catholics for them.

Attendees at the meeting between plaintiffs at Jean Ripepi’s house in Monongahela, Pa. on August 9, 2018. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

At the weekly get-togethers at their home, congregants light devotional candles to St. Anthony of Padua. A Franciscan friar who left his home country of Portugal and spent time preaching in Italy, he was an obvious choice for the patron saint of St. Anthony Parish when it was founded; he was an immigrant and familiar in the country of origin for the Italian-born congregants.

For a congregation that lost its church and its faith in its leaders, he has a new significance: St. Anthony is the saint of lost things.

The diocese is awash in donations but its spending on parishes and churches is a mystery

Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh are fewer these days, but they are generous.

When a fundraising effort, Our Campaign for the Church Alive! began in 2012 with a goal to raise $125 million, Zubik promised to split the money between individual parishes and Diocese-wide efforts.

St. Damien of Molokai Parish located on West Main Street in Monongahela, Pa. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

“It will focus first on individual parishes – on the ways that parishes can continue to fulfill a vision that limited resources have denied,” he wrote in the pamphlet announcing the effort. “It will also focus on some goals for us collectively as the Church of Pittsburgh.”

Specifically, the campaign assigned each parish a fundraising goal, based on financial history and membership numbers. For every dollar raised from that parish, 40 cents was promised to go back to the parish — until it reached its goal. After that, the parish would receive 60 cents of each dollar. (Seven percent went to pay off fundraising costs and that portion was taken evenly from parish and Diocese-wide funds.) Some parishes ran campaigns concurrent to Church Alive! that went only to that parish.

The Diocese spent the money collected for its central fund on Catholic schools, tuition assistance, charitable causes, continuing education for priests and lay leaders, retirement funds for clergy and evangelizing efforts, among other uses.

Church Alive! far exceeded the Diocese’s expectations. In its 2015 report to donors, the campaign announced $62.6 million had been raised and donors had committed $230 million in pledges to be paid through 2019. In its 2016 report, the campaign had $105 million in the bank. By 2017, it blew past its goal, with $130 million in donations on hand. By 2018, that number had budged to nearly $150 million, with $234 million pledged.

The first pamphlet for Church Alive! stated that “each parish is in the best position to determine its extraordinary needs, and among them its most urgent priorities.” However, the Diocese did not simply give pastors a sum to spend as they saw fit. Each parish came up with a “case statement” detailing their desired use of the money, usually written by a pastor in consultation with lay leadership, said Diocese spokesperson Dewitt. They submitted that to an advisory council of 15 pastors from parishes across the Diocese for approval.

“Much of the campaign funding earmarked for parishes was expended on long-deferred repair projects for buildings and properties that needed to be completed regardless of future use of parish sites,” DeWitt wrote in an email. “Some donations were invested in [Americans with Disabilities Act] access, such as wheelchair ramps and automatic doors. Campaign funds also have been invested in parish programs such as faith formation and evangelization.”

Many parishes did not spend as much as they wanted to on building improvements, according to a church official involved in Church Alive! who spoke on condition of anonymity and who said his motive to talk was a need for greater financial transparency within Catholic institutions. The pastors’ advisory council routinely rejected expensive renovations and case statements that solely or largely requested money for building repairs. The Diocese had already decided that many of its buildings would be put up for sale in the coming years and preferred funds spent on evangelical and educational expenses, even at the local level, he said. The Diocese “did not want to repair buildings,” he said.

In 2015, at the height of the fundraising effort, the Diocese launched Our Mission for the Church Alive!, the program to review and consolidate all its parishes. Despite the very similar name, it is a different project from Our Campaign for the Church Alive!

There is no publicly available accounting of how much Church Alive! money went to brick-and-mortar projects. When asked for one, DeWitt pointed to the 2015 annual report. In addition to only detailing the campaign’s earliest stages, the report does not have any account of spending in parishes, only a list of “campaign results,” showing the sum pledged and percent of a target reached for each parish.

Such results by parish were only included in the first annual report. In an email to PublicSource, DeWitt wrote that  $70.8 million in total has been received by parishes for their local priorities. But the Diocese did not provide an account of how much went to individual parishes or how it was spent.

However, the campaign kept donors well informed of how the Diocese-wide money was spent from 2014 to 2017. Annual reports detailed grants totaling $44,770,400: $1 million to underwrite the costs of a full-time dentist at the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center, $1 million to create a program for “pro-life” outreach to expectant mothers, $151,080 for new servers and software for website of The Pittsburgh Catholic, $50,000 for print and electronic media to recruit men to the priesthood and $32,000 to increase attendance at the annual Gathering of Catholic Men.

The Church Alive! campaign also issued quarterly “Good Works” newsletters. For several years, the newsletters included a section entitled “Progress in the Parishes” that outlined anecdotal church improvements across the Diocese: roof replacements, stained glass repairs, ramp installations, repaved parking lots, new boilers. Unlike Diocese-wide spending, no dollar amount was attached to these projects and there was no comprehensive account.

The summer 2016 newsletter was the last to feature a “Progress in Our Parishes” section. There seemed to be a shift in focus: In spring of 2017, the newsletter highlighted Father Michael Decewicz of St. Juan Diego Parish in Sharpsburg, for using a smaller portion of funds than anticipated on parish hall renovations and redirecting them to ministry projects for the young and the elderly.

St. Anthony’s Church located on Park Avenue in Monongahela, Pa. Photo: Kat Procyk/PublicSource

DeWitt wrote that the Diocese “neither emphasized nor de-emphasized these parish projects. They were developed, promoted and managed at the local parish level, and continue to be handled locally.” Many were “completed” so the Diocese’s “more recent updates have focused on diocesan-wide grants.”

One project promised to channel some of the Diocese’s share of funds from the campaign to “struggling” parishes outside the city. The 2013 brochure outlined the “Grants for Parishes in Need” program, saying that  $7 million would “help our sisters and brothers in parishes that are struggling in those areas in our Diocese where the Church must remain present…. where, if a parish disappears, the presence of Church disappears as well.”

“When we speak about our Diocese we speak of it as the ‘Church of Pittsburgh,’” it reads. “Yet it is important to always remind ourselves that our Church stretches from the most northern tip of Lawrence County to the most southern parish boundaries in Greene County.”

But millions from that program didn’t go to the Diocese’s geographic fringes, according to annual reports. . In 2016, $250,000 from the program went to St. Stephen in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hazelwood to help convert a school into a community center. In 2017, $2,203,200 earmarked for “Grants to Parishes in Need,” went to a plan to reach youth in Pittsburgh, to “support of Hispanic ministry in Diocese” and to “Our Mission for The Church Alive!” – the program to consolidate parishes. (No other money for that program has been accounted for.)

DeWitt said that outreach to other cross-sections of the church was a consistent interpretation of the original intent. “Part of the diocesan-wide funds are meant to help our sisters and brothers in parishes that are struggling in areas of the diocese where the Church must remain present — and this includes assistance for urban youth and the Hispanic community,” he wrote.

One may wonder why a Diocese whose parishioners have just pledged nearly double what it asked in a fundraising campaign is drastically reducing the parishes to which those donors belong.  

The anonymous church official said the timing of the two efforts was not coincidental. Despite the sunny verbiage of Church Alive! promotional materials, the Diocese expected to have fewer buildings and less of a presence in the future, he said. Church leaders saw that congregations had aged and Church Alive! was prompted by the knowledge that Baby Boomers may be the last sizable and wealthy cohort involved in churches in the Diocese. For some parishes, this would be the last era in which they would be able to pay off a debt load. The official said, “There was frank recognition that going forward, we would have fewer people.”

Who Owns a Church?

Parish consolidations have occurred throughout the history of the church and have been prevalent recently in parts of the Rust Belt and Northeast where Catholic participation is declining, said Borre, who founded the Council of Parishes to counter parish mergers in his native Boston. The Pittsburgh plan is the widest and most comprehensive he’s seen.

These plans can play out with acrimony, particularly when churches are closed. “That’s when it hits the faithful right in the gut,” Borre said. Many churches have been parts of congregants’ lives since birth and the site of confirmations and weddings. It’s particularly fraught when the Diocese sells the location and former congregants look at their old church building and see “a bar or some condos.”

Often parishioners go to lengths to demonstrate to the Diocese that their congregation can support itself — or at least do better than the other congregations nearby whose church may remain open as the home of the newly merged parish.

Borre said he helps parishes apply all the way to the Vatican, but in the end they have to accept: “The Catholic Church is not a democracy.”

Laura Magone, one of the St. Anthony plaintiffs, said parishioners in the Mon Valley always understood the Diocese of Pittsburgh controlled how their church was run. “We know that money goes up the river and orders come down from it,” referring to the Monongahela River with which her town shares a name.

None of the St. Anthony plaintiffs gave to Church Alive!, instead dedicating their money to trying to save their church — which they ultimately consider theirs.

“We think of our church as our church,” Magone said. “The Diocese said everything belongs to the Diocese.”

They’ll press their claim in court. Magone hopes that as the Diocese merges other parishes and as other congregations consider pressing their case against a Diocesan decision, their effort shows that there are options besides just shuffling into a pew in a church across town. “We didn’t know what to do or who to believe when this started,” Magone said. “Now we can show others what they can do.”

This article was originally published by PublicSource. PublicSource is a nonprofit news outlet that empowers citizens in the Pittsburgh region by exposing wrongdoing, reporting untold stories and engaging the community in creating a better future for all. Visit us at publicsource.org.

Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who has written for Reuters, Slate, Mental Floss, Vice, Nerve and the Village Voice. Reach him at nickkeppler@yahoo.com.

This story was fact-checked by Oliver Morrison.

Appalachia

Coal Comeback? Coal At New Low After Two Years Under Trump

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It’s been two years since President Donald Trump took office and began rolling back environmental regulations on the coal industry.

At a November rally in Huntington, West Virginia, the president took credit for a coal comeback in front of a cheering crowd.

“We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal and we’re putting our coal miners back to work,” he said. “That you know better than anybody.”

But federal data about the industry tell a different story.

Mine operators and independent contractors are required to report regular employment information to the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. Preliminary figures for 2018 show 80,778 people were employed by mine operators and contractors. That’s a record low, and about a thousand fewer than were employed by coal in the last year of the Obama administration.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley Resource

Nationwide, coal plant retirements neared a record high, and overall coal production dropped to the lowest level in nearly 40 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a non-partisan government agency that tracks energy trends.

In the Ohio Valley, things looked much the same. In 2018 two prominent Ohio Valley utilities announced a spate of coal power plant closures, federal data show the region lost 150 industry jobs, and Westmoreland Coal, which has a substantial presence in Ohio, declared bankruptcy.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley Resource

However strong exports of one type of coal continued to support jobs for those who provide metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel. That boosted employment in West Virginia, where the president’s supporters say he is keeping his promise to revive the industry. Elsewhere, others aren’t convinced and are looking for ways to fill the void left by coal’s decline.

Environmental Rollbacks

The Trump administration has leaned heavily on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to try to boost the region’s coal industry. In March, 2017, Trump signed an executive order that kicked off an in-depth review of a series of environmental regulations. Since then, the administration has proposed a series of regulatory rollbacks aimed at helping struggling coal plants and operators.

In August, the EPA proposed a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation that aimed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by one-third over the coming decades in an effort to stem the effects of climate change.

The Trump EPA has also moved to roll back existing regulations that govern the storage of toxic coal ash. In December, the agency proposed a rule revision that would allow coal plants to emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity generated by scrapping a requirement that plant operators install expensive technology that reduces emissions. The agency in December also proposed weakening a regulation that limits mercury and other toxic emissions from coal power plants.

The Trump administration last year was also embroiled in an ongoing attempt to bail out struggling coal-fired power plants, which has since stalled.

But many industry analysts believe Trump’s looser environmental rules have not helped the industry.

“So we had some pretty significant regulatory rollbacks in 2018,” said Trevor Houser, a coal analyst at the independent research company Rhodium Group. “And yet, 2018 was a record year in terms of coal plant retirements.” [Story continues below map]

Houser said there is also little indication any utility in the country is planning on building a new coal-fired power plant, even under the current, more relaxed regulatory environment.

Last month, S&P Global Market Intelligence reported Longview Power LLC, which operates one of the newest and most efficient coal-fired power plants in the U.S. just outside of Morgantown, West Virginia, is seeking investment to shift some generation from coal to natural gas and solar. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited the power plant in the summer of 2017 to tout the benefits of coal in a competitive energy market. 

Across the Ohio Valley, utilities announced more coal power plant closures in 2018. After Ohio-based FirstEnergy Solutions declared bankruptcy, it announced it would close two coal-fired power plants, one in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio. Another of its plants in West Virginia will close by 2022. Another major utility, American Electric Power, announced it was moving up the closure date for some units in its Conesville plant in Ohio to 2019.

A report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an energy think tank, found cost is the biggest force in coal’s decline. Renewables and gas-fired generation continue to provide a cheaper and more flexible alternative.

The Met Demand

With more power plant closing there are fewer places to sell thermal coal, which is burned to make electricity, and that has a major impacts coal producers in the region.

“If you look at the share of where the coal was headed, the domestic utility market for West Virginia coal continues to decline,” said Jason Bostic with the West Virginia Coal Association. “And that’s extremely concerning.”

Nationwide and as well as in the Ohio Valley the amount of coal mined dropped to the lowest level in nearly 40 years. Coal exports, however, were up, driven largely by international demand for metallurgical, or met coal, by Asian countries.

Kudzu grows near a coal preparation plant in eastern Kentucky. Photo: Jeff Young, Ohio Valley Resource.

“There’s the kind of continual disconnect between the poor fate of the thermal coal market and a little bit more resilient met coal market,” Houser said.

To meet higher met coal demand, some mines in West Virginia and Virginia have reopened. Federal data from MSHA show West Virginia mines added a little over 500 jobs in 2018.

Tom McLoughlin trains coal miners in southwestern Virginia, where some met coal mines have ramped up production. He said he’s been busy since Trump took office.

“As soon as Trump got elected It was like somebody taking the finger out of the dam,” he said. “There was all kinds of activity including especially the training, and it’s held up fairly well since.”

But even in West Virginia, where things have looked slightly better for the industry, there were also some high-profile mine closures. A mine in Wyoming County shut its doors in October, putting about 400 miners out of work.

There are a lot of indications that the international demand for met coal, especially by China, is cooling off.

“In 2019 we have some pretty troubling signs about the outlook for the Chinese economy this coming year and that could take the wind out of the sails of the metallurgical coal market pretty quickly,” said Houser with the Rhodium Group.

Temporary Bump?

It’s possible that West Virginia’s bounce in production could be a brief one. Elsewhere around the Ohio Valley coal employment has been stagnant, at best. Ohio mines added just 16 jobs last year, and Kentucky lost almost 400 jobs, according to MSHA data.

Retired Kentucky miner Larry Miller said it’s not surprising the data show the industry has not bounced back. He added that he didn’t have a lot of faith in Trump’s ability to revive the industry in the first place.

“I don’t think it’s sustainable,” he said. “The EPA relaxing of the rules might help some, but I don’t think it’s the main driver for the job loss.”

Miller worked for more than two decades underground and said he made a good living. In his own backyard he said he’s seeing first-hand that coal is often no longer an economic source for electricity. For example, near his slice of western Kentucky a group of utilities is installing an 800-acre solar farm, further evidence, he said, of coal’s declining importance.

“It’s not going to be gone but it’s not going to be the economic engine that it once was,” Miller said. “And I made a good living in coal for a long time and I liked it, so I don’t take pleasure in saying that.”

TVA’s new gas fired facility, with the older coal units in background. Photo: Becca Schimmel, Ohio Valley Resource.

Recently, the EIA adjusted downward its coal forecast. It says coal production is expected to hit a record low in 2019. Appalachia will see its overall coal production drop from 201.5 million tons in 2018 to 170.1 million tons in 2020, according to the EIA forecast.

Limited Retraining

That doesn’t bode well for miners. Houser, with the Rhodium Group, said while the Trump administration doubled down to boost coal, it has not offered any additional aid for job retraining.

“The past few budget proposals from the Trump administration have actually reduced the amount of support for retraining and economic diversification and coal retraining in coal country,” he said.

Clemmy Allen has been retraining coal miners for more than 30 years for the United Mine Workers of America.

Since 2012, the UMWA’s Career Training Centers in Appalachia has relied on a Department of Labor grant, which provides $5000 in tuition assistance and a $20 daily stipend to West Virginia miners who have been laid off or lost their jobs. He said thousands of miners have taken advantage of the program, but acknowledged it’s also limited.

“It’s very, very difficult for for a person just to … just shut down and go into training and not have money to, you know, meet their monthly obligations,” he said.

Allen said in previous years the center had more federal grants to retrain miners in other states, and he says there are thousands of miners who have lost their jobs over the years who have since found work, but would like to be retrained to do something else.

“We never have enough resources, never,” he added.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Appalachia

Rural’s Connection to Environment Means Bigger Climate-Change Impact

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Mainstays of rural American culture and economy – such as timber, agriculture, tourism, ranching, hunting, fishing, winter sports – could see major disruptions from climate change. The impact will be big enough to disrupt the national economy, a federal report says.

Rural communities face clear economic and environmental risks from a changing climate, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment.  

The report documents changes in the timing of seasons, temperature fluctuations, increased incidence of extreme weather and change in rainfall – all patterns with the potential disrupt rural economic activities.  

Climate change in rural communities poses an outsized risk to the national economy, the report says. 

Although the majority of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, most of the country is still classified as rural. In this map, counties are classified as rural if they do not include any cities with populations of 50,000 or more. (Figure source: USDA Economic Research Service).

“Rural America’s importance to the country’s economic and social well-being is disproportionate to its population, as rural areas provide natural resources that much of the rest of the United States depends on for food, energy, water, forests, recreation, national character, and quality of life,” the report stated.  

While not all regions face the same impacts due to increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, the assessment explains how increased volumes of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will lead to changing climatic patterns. The report’s authors predict that changes will likely increase volatility in agricultural commodity markets, shift plant and animal ranges, increase the number and intensity of droughts and floods, and increase the number and size of wildfires throughout the rural landscape.  

Tourism is often climate-dependent as well as seasonally dependent. Increasing heat and humidity – projected for summers in the Midwest, Southeast, and parts of the Southwest by mid-century (compared to the period 1961-1990) – is likely to create unfavorable conditions for summertime outdoor recreation and tourism activity. The figures illustrate projected changes in climatic attractiveness (based on maximum daily temperature and minimum daily relative humidity, average daily temperature and relative humidity, precipitation, sunshine, and wind speed) in July for much of North America. In the coming century, the distribution of these conditions is projected to shift from acceptable to unfavorable across most of the southern Midwest and a portion of the Southeast, and from very good or good to acceptable conditions in northern portions of the Midwest, under a high emissions scenario. (Source: National Climate Assessment).

For portions of rural America with an economy based on agriculture, climate scientists are most worried about shifting geographic suitability of particular crops and abnormal timing for planting and harvest. These changes may result in additional use of herbicides and pesticides, which could create additional health risks from chemical applications. Crop and pasture yields and profitability could also be affected by changes in rainfall, temperature and extreme weather events. Increased flooding could increase soil erosion and water pollution from agricultural runoff, according to the report.  

Rural communities with an economy based on recreation and tourism also face significant challenges due to climate change, according to the report. Rising seas could damage rural Florida’s multi-billion dollar recreational fishing sector and cause further ecological damage to the Everglades region.  

Coastal erosion and rising oceans throughout the nation could affect wildlife habitat, disrupting hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other wildlife-related activities. 

Rural places with significant winter recreation activities could face risks as snow-pack is expected to decrease.  

Forest-dependent rural communities are likely to face significant change as well. Forest geographies and species composition are likely to shift as the climate changes. The number of pests and disease will increase. These factors could decrease timber and pulp harvests in some places. Forest fires are also expected to continue to increase in number, intensity and cost.  

The report identifies certain demographic trends in rural communities that make climate change adaptation more difficult.  

“Modern rural populations are generally older, less affluent, and less educated than their urban counterparts. Rural areas are characterized by higher unemployment, more dependence on government transfer payments, less diversified economies, and fewer social and economic resources needed for resilience in the face of major changes,” the report states. That combination of an aging population with higher poverty rates increases vulnerability of rural people and places to changes in climate.  

“Emergency management, energy use and distribution systems, transportation and infrastructure planning, and public health will all be affected,” the study states. State, regional, local and tribal governments in rural communities tend to be under-funded and rely heavily on volunteers.  

“Even in communities where there is increasing awareness of climate change and interest in comprehensive adaptation planning, lack of funding, human resources, access to information, training, and expertise provide significant barriers for many rural communities,” the report concludes. 

This report is the fourth National Climate Assessment, and summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States. The report process was established by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 and mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the president no less than every four years.  

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee developed the report. Scientists and researchers from federal, state and local governments, tribes and Indigenous communities, national laboratories, universities, and the private sector volunteered their time to produce the assessment. Information was gathered through a series of regional engagement workshops that reached more than 1,000 individuals in over 40 cities. Listening sessions, webinars and public comment periods also provided valuable input.  

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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Appalachia

When Losing 14 to 1 is a Win — Sort Of

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Matthew Ferrence is a writer and college professor who ran a 14-day write-in campaign against an unopposed Pennsylvania state legislator. He got clobbered but finds something positive in the results. Photo: submitted by the author
A last-minute write-in campaign against an unopposed Pennsylvania state representative yielded 900 official votes. It wasn’t nearly enough to win, but it was enough to show that there’s more to Appalachia than the average TV pundit claims.
Well, I didn’t win. Let’s get that out of the way.But on the night of November 6th, 2018, after launching a last-minute zero-budget Green Party write-in campaign against an unopposed Republican incumbent, in a Pennsylvania district that perpetually votes at about a 70 percent clip for even Republicans who get absolutely blasted in statewide races (see: gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, soundly defeated by Tom Wolfe), I wound up making a nearly 5 percent dent.

The how isn’t quite as important as they why, I think, but in brief: exactly two weeks before the election, I announced on Facebook my intention to mount a write-in campaign for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, disgusted that for the fourth time in seven elections, the local incumbent — Brad Roae — faced literally no competition. Nobody squared off against him in the Republican primary and nobody ran on the Democratic ticket. In fact, only twice in his tenure has he faced opposition from Democrats, each of them throttled to the tune of 60-40 or thereabouts in the general election.

As an even sorrier indication of the state of political engagement in the rural part of Northwestern Pennsylvania where I live, only once has a Republican ever challenged him in a primary. It’s smooth sailing every two years, which leads to a tepid, basic and uninspiring legislative track record. Taxes are bad, he says. And, oh, let’s have some laws to weaken environmental protections for gas well drilling. He has made public media posts that appear to equate school boards to Hitler, and he has argued that state funding shouldn’t support students who major in “poetry or some other pre-Walmart major.”

Yeah, that’s who I lost to, my 900 votes or so to his 13,000. And that’s the guy who has gone to Harrisburg for more than a decade representing my home. Among the many things that gall me about his incumbency is the way that, outside of Appalachia, a lot of people would probably nod their heads and say, yup. Brad Roae is the kind of representative people think Appalachia embraces, is the kind of person so many non-Appalachians see as purely representative of who we are and what we stand for.

But here’s the thing. I’m finding hope in my two weeks as a candidate, and in the sudden flurry of interest and support. I ran because there had to be some opposition for democracy to have any chance at all, and when I did so I hoped I’d get 1 or 2 percent, not embarrass myself, shoot for the bar of 300 votes. That would be the same number of votes I would have needed as signatures to get on the ballot had I, say, planned ahead.

Then a funny thing happened. I started making videos introducing myself and my ideas, and put together a platform paper, and people started sharing these materials on Facebook, and I had to work through the anti-Russian Bot regulations the social media site now has so I could finally “boost” two of those posts on the morning of the election, and even before all that the organic sharing of an electorate dying for something, anything, that pushed against Appalachian political stereotypes meant 9,000 people had seen my stuff. Then, even though people had to first know I was running and then actually bother typing my name in, I fared okay. I earned about 65 votes for each day of my campaign. And I spent $50 on stickers, $20 on my Facebook ads.

Brad Roae poses in the Pennsylvania House chamber with Pennsylvania dairy princess LeeAnn Kapanick. Roae has represented the 6th House district since 2007. The district covers parts of Crawford and Erie counties in the state’s northwest corner. Photo: Pennsylvania State Legislature webpage

Official county returns compiled right before Thanksgiving gave me 851 votes. The Monday following, I reviewed the official computations and found another 60+, if I include misspellings like Matt Terrance and, Michael Ferrence, and Matthew Fetterman (for a voter who maybe confused me with our Democratic Lt. Governor candidate John Fetterman), and That Guy Whose Name Starts With F, as well as The Guy on Facebook Ask (name redacted), as well as a litany of close-but-no-cigar last names coupled with Matt or Matthew: Ferrer, Ferraro, Fetter, Farreah, Ferrenc, Ferrous, Ferris, Ferentz, Ferrick, and DeFerence. I got 14 votes in neighboring state districts, and four votes for the U.S. House Race. Among other write-ins, I beat a slew of names that received a single vote or a handful, tough competitors like Brad Roae (who a few people wrote in, even though he was on the ballot), Stephen Colbert, Anyone But Him, Anyone Else, Jesus, God, and Red Breasted Nuthatch.

Look, my day job is writing and teaching. I’m a professor at a small liberal arts college, chair of the Department of English, writer and teacher of creative nonfiction. I was born in southwestern Pennsylvania, among the played out coal fields and strip mines an hour east of Pittsburgh. I earned a Ph.D. at West Virginia University, where I specialized in Appalachian literature. I wrote a memoir about my brain tumor, and the geology of the Allegheny Plateau, and the curious exile of inhabiting the weird position of Northern Appalachian, which means you’re not quite normal American and not quite Appalachian. None of that adds up to politician, but all of it adds up to frustration. I’ve spent most of my life, other than brief adult stints in Arizona and France, living in a region that skews way right, even as that right continues to exploit and degrade the people and place. All Appalachia ever has been allowed to be is exploited. That’s it. And that’s all the rhetoric of the GOP offers, when you boil it down. Let’s Make America Great Again, like when black lung wrecked lives on the regular and, newsflash, is now roaring back to life since the unions have been busted, and the economy of the region stayed busted, so the people crawled down into mines without the protections hard fought with blood and love by the striking workers of Blair Mountain, and the striking workers of Pittsburgh steel, and the striking auto workers of the Rust Belt.

Ferrence knocked on some doors and created a Facebook page to promote his campaign. He did several short videos to explain why he ran and discuss issues. Photo: Matthew Ferrence for PA House, District 6 Facebook page

Public historian Elizabeth Catte gets it right (she’s the author of “What You’re Getting Wrong about Appalachia”) when she argues that Appalachians have been socialists all along. They just don’t know it. They gathered together. They fought the power of industrial dominion. They powered America with their coal, yes, but they also fueled the national movement for respect and dignity for labor. Then the GOP figured out how to weaponize hatred and fear, and there you go. You get Joe Manchin, alleged Democrat. And you get a region that votes more than 2/3 for Trump and Trump-esque troglodytes like Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, who claims that global warming is probably just accumulated body heat from a larger human population or happens because the earth is getting closer to the sun, and campaigns by saying he’ll dance on the governor’s face while wearing golf spikes.

It boils down to this: I am so tired of waking up on November Wednesdays in Appalachia, seeing election results and, worse, national punditry that says this is all we are and all we’ll ever be. The election map of my state is bright red, other than around a few urban centers, just like most of Appalachia. That seems to translate to the same conclusion we get over and over and over again: dumb hillbillies voting for the worst. That conclusion seems to be supported by the simple math of our state politics, where more than half of state legislators run unopposed in their general elections, and our incumbency rate is about 90 percent. Few candidates ever put up a fight to change that.

So what’s an Appalachian creative writing professor to do? You run a last-ditch campaign. You tilt against the windmills in a manner that is both impotent (because you get crushed at the polls) and, at least for me, hopeful. Because having a choice, any choice, other than the incumbent mattered to the 2,000 people who either voted for me or tossed in a symbolic protest write-in. Because people stopped me when I walked by, and messaged me on Facebook, and were angry when they learned about the campaign only after they voted because, damn it, they couldn’t vote for the incumbent, and leaving it blank is just what the GOP has wanted for so long. The story of Appalachian politics has been about that blankness, a cultivation of the sense — and you can read this in almost every national outlet at some point in the last two years, usually with a quote from that faux-Appalachian pseudo-pundit J.D. Vance — that there’s nothing but right-wing fools in these hills and hollers. Appalachia is given up for dead again, this time just as a tarnished example of the hatred and backwardness of politics in this strange, strange land.

That’s just not how it is. That’s not the Appalachia I know nor the one I saw in my brief campaign. Heck, I ran this mini-campaign focused specifically on lefty sustainability, as in ecology and tree-hugging, as well as economies that stop repeating the boom-bust cycles of our past, and I drew a mighty good swipe of votes all at once, in the end. There are a lot of people in my county who believe in the value of the environment, and the necessity of fine educations, and the rightness of universal healthcare, and the imperative of social justice, and the glory of love in all its forms. There are progressives in these hills, you know. And a lot of them, but also a lot who hear those same old stories and worry about what the neighbors will think, so they don’t vote, or accept the inevitability of political monoculture. Thus the slam happens again. And again. And again. Unopposed Republican. Platforms of no taxes. Tacit acceptance of the Confederate Battle Flags that flutter on too many once-Union farmhouses.

Yeah, I got creamed. But I think we also won something that night. And we’ll keep coming back for more, riding a blue wave tinged with green, fighting for a change in the rural center of America that so many figure is lost forever. You know the joke, about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and a lot of Alabama in between. Well, Alabama has a Democratic Senator, and so does Pennsylvania. We can do more, do better, push against the dogged stupidity of a right-wing cultural war that makes us all weaker and worse off. We can step into these races, and we can square off and say, hit me, and we can get hit, and eventually we can win. I know I’ll give it another shot – with my name printed on the ballot next time. I’ll need at least a couple of months next time, to get enough votes to be competitive, if history holds. But I’ll vow, and I hope others will too, that no one gets to run unopposed anymore. No one gets to spit out tired political bullshit and not get called out. This is our Appalachia too.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder

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