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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

A Regional Focus on Health Care, Community by Community

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

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

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

— 100 Days in Appalachia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Appalachia

Distress Grows For Ohio Valley Farmers As Trade Deals Stall

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

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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

Listen to the story from the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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

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

Video: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Size Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farms At Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Farmers

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Appalachia

Plastics: The New Coal in Appalachia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map: Ethane Cracker Plants on the Ohio River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rising Demand, but Also Pushback on Plastics

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

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

Illustration: Plastics: From the Gas Plant to Your Home

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

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

Chart: 3 States' Natural Gas Boom

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

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

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

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

Visions of an Appalachian Plastics Hub

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

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

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

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

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

The Energy Department is thinking big, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economic Benefits, with Health Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two More Communities Could Get Cracker Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are just in the way,” he said.

This article was originally published by Inside Climate News.

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