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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

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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