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Appalachia on the Hill

Hands Up: D.C. Correspondent Jan Pytalski on Bringing Appalachia to Capitol Hill

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100 Days’ political reporting includes “Appalachia on the Hill” — our unique take on politics and policy that connects regional issues to national context for our readers, and provides a meaningful presence for the region on Capitol Hill. Our D.C. correspondent Jan Pytalski conducts reporting, research and outreach to legislators and policymakers on the Hill and ensures 100 Days in Appalachia has its hand up for questions on the issues that matter most to our region.

— 100 Days in Appalachia

You feel strongly about Appalachia having a voice on the hill — talk about why this matters and what it means to have a DC correspondent on the ground for 100 Days in Appalachia.

I think having a correspondent directly on the Hill, or at the White House, matters for reasons that are fairly obvious, but are easy to forget. When I go to speak directly with representatives or senators, or when I try to squeeze in a question at a White House press briefing, I’m always asking questions that directly speak to the issues of this region. While national and international issues matter a lot, so do local and regional problems, and in my experience, major politicians in Washington don’t address those pressing issues at home unless they have the opportunity to benefit from it.

For example, everyone is eager to talk about the opioid crisis and how they want to help as the issue has catapulted into national consciousness, but very few politicians or administration officials want to talk about the lack of access to reliable public water infrastructure in Appalachia. Unless a community experiences some form of contamination that’s of national interest, a CNN reporter won’t ask about that. I will.

Appalachia is massive. It is made up of 13 states, millions of people, has extremely varied geography and climate and plays host to any number of industries crucial to the health of our country. Appalachian issues are American issues, but that narrative hasn’t been fully realized by those outside of the region.

You bring a unique perspective to this topic. Tell us about your own background and how that informs your political and economic perspective.

I am a native of Poland, where I studied American Studies at the University of Warsaw. It’s a program that taught me about American culture and politics from Mark Twain to the New Deal. I traveled between the States and Poland for many years, first working as a translator then a freelance journalist before finally moving to the U.S. permanently to be with my wife, who is American.

Before I made the decision to move to the U.S. permanently, I thought I’d end up translating fiction for the length of my career. But then Russia invaded Ukraine. I was living in Rochester, New York, at the time, and the media coverage of the event infuriated me. I decided to change my path and become a journalist.

I returned to Poland for a time and began reporting for Reuters — my first real journalistic experience. I was as green as they come and the learning curve was steep, but I loved my newsroom and the professionalism of my colleagues. The Warsaw Reuters newsroom taught me what it means to report the news and suss out the facts.

If you follow international politics and news, you know that over the past several years, Europe has paved a similar path to the U.S. in regards to a shift to nationalism. My native Poland makes headlines in the U.S. every now and then, but it is often used as an example of “what went wrong” in a post-communist country that became a member of the European capitalist family. Like most narratives, I don’t think it’s that simple. Just like I don’t believe the current turn in U.S. politics and Donald Trump’s rise is simple to explain. It’s not racism in a vacuum. It’s not poverty on its own that led to the divides we see in our country today. As someone who used to be on the outside of this country looking in, I didn’t think a split to this degree was possible here, but it reminds me of my home. There is an “Us vs Them” divide that, in its worst cases, can devolve into the dehumanizing of people whose opinions are different than your own.  

I think my perspective can be helpful in writing about those issues in Appalachia, and in the U.S. as a whole, because I can also look at America from a distance. It’s less personal, but also familiar. This country is a modern day empire, and empires tend to look inward much more than outward. This country thinks its problems are original, but they’re not.

I remember anti-fascist protests on the streets of Warsaw 10 years ago, and I remember white nationalists marching in my own neighborhood and Antifa responding with their own brand of militarism. This country’s “Alt-right”, to me, smells a lot like home. Investigating those ties, investigating those ideas that were shipped across the ocean can tell a worthwhile story. My experience and my perspective helps to find those stories.

What kind of content can we expect? Can you give us some examples of the ways a political and policy coverage strengthen the role of 100 Days on behalf of the region. 

As I mentioned, I truly believe the issues of Appalachia are American issues: energy policy, environmental policy, international trade, opioids – pick your poison. When I think about the people who read the work of 100 Days in Appalachia and our partners, I think about two distinct groups. There are the policy makers and people of Appalachia.

I want my coverage to be reliable so if you live in a small town affected by mountaintop removal, you’ll trust that the data and facts I listed are true; not partisan, not ideological, but true. And the same goes for the policymakers. If they happen upon my work while they’re doing research of their own, maybe while writing legislation, I want them to be able to trust the facts that I present and not be weary of some kind of spin.

The issues I cover may seem dry, but they’re important and they impact the entire region. My writing style won’t wow you with wit, but it will shed light on the important details behind policies that are being proposed, giving those details context and forcing you to ask questions of your own. If Trump were to “bring back coal” and find a way to make it clean, I promise I’ll give him credit. But if a lack of oversight results in increased environmental problems in our regions, I’ll be pointing that out as well.

Beyond the more daily reporting on policies, politics and the politicians that impact this region, I will deliver long-form, in-depth stories that blend reporting on Washington policy with on-the-ground insights on how they impact the people that live here. The strength of 100 Days in Appalachia is that we don’t parachute into the region for a day and make overarching assumptions. We are on the ground. We are Appalachians. It’s me who parachuted into D.C.  

How might this Appalachia-centric D.C. reporting complicate established narratives that get fed to Appalachia from D.C. — what is the potential impact you hope for?

My hope is that we will help people in Washington, people across the country, and even people around the world realize that Appalachia is a vast, diverse region that is much bigger than Kentucky coalfields and West Virginia hollers. And if we have an impact, I’d hope that we can shift the narrative to become more nuanced and sensitive towards the richness and span that is Appalachia.

Much of the political reporting and commentary that readers see in their social feeds reinforces divides — talk about how you build relationships across the aisle, report from facts — in essence — remind our readers what non-partisan journalism is (or used to be):

There is a tribal feeling in politics today that says if you’re not visibly with one or the other, you’re automatically under suspicion. As I interact with politicians in Washington, sometimes Republicans assume 100 Days is a media organization from what they perceive as “the liberal world of academia” and assume we have an agenda. Democrats make a similar assumption and seek to use our platform to share their own political agenda with potential voters.

My job is to be persistent and build those relationships to get both sides comfortable speaking with me so I can tell the whole story. I wrote an article about gun control shortly after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year, and one official who attended a White House roundtable hosted by Pres. Trump to discuss solutions agreed to talk to me. Later, he reposted our article on Facebook, saying it was fair and balanced. I couldn’t have been happier. That’s exactly the kind of dialogue I’m after – we had people for more gun control speak to us, we had people for arming teachers speak to us, we shared every side of the story and nobody felt attacked or misrepresented. It’s what we do every day.

You’ve got plans to build a D.C. wire service — talk about what this is, who can use it, and why it’s necessary.

Although it’s still in the planning phase, we’re developing a subscription-based service designed to serve small, local newsrooms in Appalachia. It would deliver news from Washington, D.C., that’s already filtered for relevance to the region. The hope is to create a source of information, a tool for writing local news coverage enriched with the national and federal policy perspective. Our service would also allow for republishing of our content, interviews and articles, as well as other original work 100 Days is putting out.

I think now more than ever it’s important to have a service that directly supports local news organizations. At a time when local newspapers are being bought up by national conglomerates, making local new harder and harder to come by, I think it’s essential we do what we can to make it stronger. This service would help local newsrooms provide their readers with regionally relevant content that is critical and give them space to put their resources toward covering what’s happening outside their front door.

 

Appalachia on the Hill

Miners Urge Congressional Action On Pensions, Black Lung Fund

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Retired coal miners and coal community activists are on Capitol Hill this week urging action on two important issues for miners: pensions and black lung benefits. Advocates say funds supporting both pensions for retired miners and the federal benefits for those sickened by black lung disease are at risk if Congress does not act.

Pension Problem

A United Mine Workers of America spokesperson said the miners’ pension fund could become insolvent by 2022. Congress created a Joint Select Committee to shore up this and other similar pension funds that are in jeopardy. But UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith is concerned that the committee is not making enough progress. Smith said Congressional Democrats have proposed a potential solution but Republicans have not responded.

“They’ve had a few meetings and they’ve had a few hearings but they really didn’t hear much from workers,” he said.

If the miners’ pension fund goes under, it would be backed up by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. But lawmakers have expressed concern that the failure of large pension funds could in turn overwhelm the PBGC.

“Society at the end of the day, and taxpayers at the end of the day, are going to have to pick up that cost,” Smith warned.

A union miner at a rally for pension protection in Ohio. Photo: Aaron Payne/Ohio Valley ReSource

Black Lung Fund

Retired Kentucky coal miner Larry Miller is also skeptical about whether the committee will find a solution to the miners’ pensions. And Miller is also concerned about what’s ahead for miners who depend on federally-supported black lung benefits.

An X-ray image of an Appalachian coal miner with black lung lesions. Photo: Adelina Lancianese/NPR

Miller mined coal for more than 20 years and is on Capitol Hill this week talking to lawmakers about the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which covers the costs for miners who worked for companies that have gone bankrupt.

The fund is supported by a tax paid by coal companies which is set to be reduced unless Congress intervenes. In June the Government Accountability Office found that the fund could be in financial trouble without Congressional action. The issue is personal for Miller, who has been diagnosed with stage one of black lung disease.

“The doctor said you could live like this the rest of your life and not see any lung impairment,” he said of the progressive disease, “or you could start to go down tomorrow.”

The Ohio Valley has seen a surge in cases of black lung disease. That will likely mean more demand for benefits from the trust fund, which is already in debt.

Miller said the prospect of reductions in both pensions and black lung benefits is a frightening one-two punch for miners and retirees. Coal miners who developed black lung rely on those benefits and their pensions to live because they can’t work and support themselves due to their illness.

“I based our retirement on social security and this pension. If we lose one leg of that retirement, pensions, we’re going to be looking at some tough financial decisions,” he said.

And he said those effects could ripple through the economies of many communities that have already lost jobs because of coal company bankruptcies.

Congress has until the end of the year to reinstate the tax supporting the black lung trust fund. The Joint Select Committee is to present its recommendations for shoring up multi-employer pensions by November 30th.

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource

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