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The Struggle to Stay

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Some call it the Rappahannock Hustle, and the many who do it need no further description.

It’s the way to make ends meet by stitching various small jobs, formal and informal, into a livelihood. It helps prop up the local economy. But it also hews tightly to two challenges facing Rappahannock County’s younger population: stable, well-paid work and affordable housing.

Addressing those challenges matters more as the overall population ages and as other rural counties compete to draw in people who bring new ideas and vibrancy.

After years of population loss, rural areas added around 33,000 residents nationwide between 2016 and 2017, the first time since 2010, according to an analysis of census estimates by the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Quality of life is the No. 1 factor pulling people toward more rural, low-density counties, says Ben Winchester, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Extension who studies what he calls “brain gain.”

“That includes things like recreational opportunities, less traffic, less congestion,” Winchester says.

Those things and more are what draw people to Rappahannock — home to rolling hills, starry night skies and a slower pace of life seldom found so close to a bustling metropolis. All ages and political persuasions here harbor a love of the natural environment.

Gaining access to it means facing certain challenges, and if you are young those hurdles can be higher.

Artist Kat Habib, 33, moved to the county in 2013 and has picked up work doing everything from painting houses to making coffee to bartending to property management.

Twenty-four year-old Tessa Crews has worked as a shop attendant and served at wedding parties. She now works as an innkeeper at the Inn at Mount Vernon Farm, does part-time design work for an Australian publishing company and picks up babysitting shifts.

“It’s incredibly hard to make a living,” says Habib. “And it’s beautiful to be here and it’s good to be here, but the cost of living is very high.”

The Hustle is typically associated with urban communities, the grind of which many who move here are escaping, but local housing’s high cost and limited stock, paired with that paucity of reliable, steady work, make it a necessity.

A shortage of full-time jobs that pay a living wage, with benefits — particularly for college graduates — impacts all age groups in Rappahannock, not just those under 40 like Habib. Piecemeal work and part-time gigs — frequently as part of the underground economy — are more readily available. Folks cobbling these work opportunities together are often younger and single.

The rural economy has become more diversified, said Winchester, who studied rural communities in Minnesota and Nebraska. He found evidence there of people holding a diverse array of jobs and more self-employment. Those characteristics have echoes here in Rappahannock.

“You have to be more creative when you live out here,” says Sperryville Realtor Cheri Woodard, herself a long-time entrepreneur. “You have to think about what you can do, what skills you’re bringing, what can you offer to people.”

Tessa Crews, 24, traveled the world after leaving Rappahannock and decided to bring some of her experience home. She’s piecing together jobs as an inn keeper, digital marketer, babysitter, server, shop attendant and herbalist-in-training.
Photo: Sara Schonhardt, Rappahannock News

That’s true for Crews, who grew up in Rappahannock and officially moved back late last year. She’d been gone long enough, she says, to realize what was special about the county.

Like others, she discovered that knitting together an income in the Hustle economy relies on word of mouth.

“If you look online it doesn’t exist, but as soon as you start talking to people, that’s how it happens,” Crews says.

Forming that local connection isn’t always easy or immediate, but the advantage often goes to those like Crews who grew up here or have some connection to the county.

A numbers game

Job availability is one thing; willing workers is another. Help Wanted signs hang in windows around the county, but small business owners say they struggle to find employees.

“I cannot find young people that want to do the work that we do,” says Adam Kerr, 39, the founder and president of Rappahannock Landscape & Nursery. That’s not unique to Rappahannock. But part of it here is also a numbers game. “There’s not a lot of young people,” he says.

Kerr pays his employees well and offers them some retirement benefits.

But finding a way to pay Rappahannock rents often over $1,000 a month is tough on a $10-an-hour salary, which is more common.

“There’s work here if you want to work,” says Habib. “The question is, can you rely on it from week to week, and that’s tricky.”

Cara Cutro grew up seeing her parents leave the county to make their livings, so when she decided to come back after six years away, she just knew she’d find a way.

“Part of what’s allowed me to survive here, aside from feeling very strongly that this was my home, was working multiple jobs, having multiple hats,” she says.

Cutro started working in restaurants and then created a mobile massage business. She diversified her services to include private online coaching and medicinal herbs. In 2016, she opened a physical location in Sperryville, Abracadabra Massage & Wellness, but has continued to pick up landscaping work when needed. She also shares her home with a roommate.

“You have to be determined that you’re going to live here, and you have to make it work,” she says.

That determination often comes with some deeper connection, and people who haven’t grown up here may be less inclined to stick it out.

Aron Weisgerber, 33, built the home he now shares with his wife and two children on land his parents own. He realizes that gives him an advantage — though he still pieces together work in construction, solar panel installation, realty and outdoor education.

Born and raised outside Sperryville, Weisgerber always knew he would come back to Rappahannock. Now a construction worker, solar panel salesman and installer, mountain adventure guide, licensed realtor, he says he rarely gets to enjoy what he loves about the county because he works so much.
Photo: Sara Schonhardt, Rappahannock News

Woodard concedes that real estate is expensive overall. There are homes under $250,000 and some rentals under $1,000, which she says are “very desirable.” But Airbnb is taking up some potential rental spots, and some are tucked away on private property, reserved for friends and family.

“Our inventory here is small,” she says.

Community is key

Another shortfall, say some residents under 40, is the lack of a social scene or a place to meet new people.

“There’s nothing here, aside from going to the bar, and there’s not that many of those either,” says Kerr, who picked up side work in order to build his business.

He has a young son and much of what’s kept him in the county is the support of his family. For a young family to come here and do it on their own, he says, “that is just mind-blowing to me.”

Habib looked at other counties in the region and liked them because they were more affordable and had larger populations of people under 40. She chose Rappahannock, she says, because it felt like the Virginia of her childhood.

What’s kept her here are the outdoors and finding a house that she says really feels like home. More importantly, she’s found a creative, supportive community.

“There’s many of us that are creative and seeking our dreams,” she says. “We’re not the nine to fivers. If we were we wouldn’t be here because we couldn’t survive.”

Others agree; it’s the people that make this place.

Researcher Winchester says he’s found that jobs are less of a priority for people looking to move to a place like Rappahannock.

“Ultimately people would look around, and they looked for a community before they looked for a job,” he said.

But that can lead to underemployment, said Winchester, be it a lack of full-time work or work that deviates from one’s skill set.

Not all doom and gloom

It’s not unusual for high school graduates to leave small towns for college or other opportunities, says Winchester, who cautions towns against “feeling bad about losing their young people.”

“What they should be working on is letting their young people know they have some place to come back to,” he adds.

Habib, who is from Warren County, grew up coming to Rappahannock and loving it. She is a studio potter and makes floral arrangements. She also has a steady part-time job managing a career and college access program at Headwaters, a nonprofit group supporting local public education, that provides about half of her income and allows her to spend more time in her artist studio.

While the Hustle makes life hard, for many younger residents it can allow them the flexibility for creative projects and passions.

Maya Atlas, 28, makes her livelihood here as a lavender farmer, bartender, part-time butter churner and property manager. She says Rappahannock is “the city of ideas.” The challenge is implementing them.
Photo: Sara Schonhardt, Rappahannock News

Maya Atlas, 28, found her path to Rappahannock through her mother, who bought a home and started harvesting lavender. Atlas, who moved out with her partner last September from D.C. to take over the farm, bartends at Francis for a paycheck and helps milk cows and make butter for a neighbor. She has picked up various jobs both out of necessity and a desire to meet people.

Atlas says she brought some of her city pace with her and has since learned to scale back a bit. But the learning curve has “been exponential,” she admits. Like many who just make the leap, she says she was perhaps naively unconcerned with finances.

“We will make it work,” she says. “It’s just a matter of what level of hustle you have to put in.”

Still, a slower pace can frustrate people wanting to see progress made, including better broadband access.

For Erin Antosh, 34, who runs an online consulting business, connecting with clients took a toll. She found herself driving to Warrenton, where she had a small office, and spending less and less time being able to enjoy the things that brought her to Rappahannock — the scenery and outdoor recreation. She moved up to D.C. recently to be better connected.

“Rappahannock has the potential to be a place for young people to live and thrive,” says Crews, who sees her job at the Mount Vernon inn as a way to advocate for what’s special about the county. “But there are serious hurdles that still need to be overcome.”

This article was originally published by Rappahannock News

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Officials Push Petrochemical Expansion, Protestors Fight Back

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Protesters in front of the Waterfront Marriot Hotel Tuesday, April 9, in Morgantown, W.Va. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

State and federal politicians announced initiatives this week to move forward an effort to build a major underground natural gas liquids storage facility in the Ohio Valley, an effort opposed by environmental activists who fear a petrochemical expansion in the region will threaten not only the environment but public health.

The Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub has been in the works for almost a decade. Developers are seeking billions in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy.  

This week, Gov. Jim Justice met with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy to discuss the hub and developing the petrochemical industry in West Virginia. In a press release the governor said he would appoint a liaison to work with Energy Department officials on these issues.

“It is absolutely vital that we create a petrochemical industry in West Virginia versus building more pipelines that leave our state without creating any long-term manufacturing jobs,” Justice stated.

Officials from West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania support efforts to bring cracker plants and other plastics manufacturing infrastructure to the Ohio Valley, which sits upon two of the nation’s most productive natural gas and natural gas liquids repositories, the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

A 2018 study by the Department of Energy estimates the largest growth in natural gas liquids production is expected from this region.

“Ethane production in Appalachia is projected to continue its rapid growth in the coming years, reaching 640,000 barrels per day in 2025 – more than 20 times greater than regional ethane production in 2013,” the report states.

The announcement coincided with the Marcellus to Manufacturing Development Conference held this week in Morgantown. The conference, organized by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, brought together officials and business representatives from across the region, largely to discuss expanding petrochemical manufacturing in West Virginia.

Conference keynote speaker West Virginia Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch told attendees his agency actively wants to help bring plastics and other petrochemical manufacturers to the state.

“The sun’s about to shine on this wonderful state,” he said. “Opportunities abound in West Virginia.”

‘People Over Petro’

Protestors in front of the Waterfront Marriott Hotel Tuesday, April 9, in Morgantown, W.Va. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

Not everyone sees it that way, and those opposed to the petrochemical buildout say they’ve struggled to be heard by elected officials.

“Petrochemicals are not energy. It’s plastic,” said Belmont County, Ohio resident Bev Reed. “It’s a dead product that doesn’t go anywhere except to poison people.”

Reed was one of about 40 protestors who gathered outside the conference. Protestors carried colorful signs, some with plastic grocery bags attached that whipped in the wind, and chanted “people over petro, people over plastics, people over profit.”

Activists voiced concerns that turning the region into the next plastics manufacturing center would place the state’s natural resources at risk, and harm its people, many of whom are already impacted by resource extraction.

Lawmakers in favor of the proposed of the petrochemical expansion often cite an American Chemistry Council study that projects the industry would bring 100,000 jobs to the region. It also estimates 60 percent of plastic production would be for food products.

Potential investment into the Ohio Valley’s petrochemical buildout comes at a time when some cities and companies around the globe are pledging to discontinue use of single-use plastic.

Protestor BJ McManama with the Indigenous Environmental Network pushed back on the argument that a petrochemical future is the only one that can bring new jobs to the area.

“They shout jobs, jobs, jobs, making it sound like we don’t want jobs. We want handouts. We don’t want you guys have jobs. No, that’s not right,” she said. “We want clean, safe, sustainable jobs that create resilient, happy and peaceful communities.”

Federal Support

A long-sought, and key component, to creating a petrochemical industry in the Ohio Valley is building storage for ethane. Ethane is a component of the natural gas liquids abundant in the region, and a building block of plastic.

Both of West Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, support the Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub.

At a budget hearing last week, Manchin pressed Energy Secretary Rick Perry about its progress.

“Are you all looking seriously at a natural gas storage hub in the mid-Atlantic region, and advancing that as quickly as we possibly can to have that backup for security? And how does that play into the national security of our country?” Manchin asked.

Perry said the hub was “not happening as fast as I’d like to see it,” but noted the Trump administration’s support.

“I think there is extraordinary potential in those four states and the Appalachian region – Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio,” he said.

About a year ago, the project got approval for the first of two application phases for a $1.9 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee.

To bolster the argument that this development would improve national security, this week Manchin introduced a bill, the Appalachian Energy for National Security Act, which would task the Energy Department with studying the national security benefits of the proposed gas hub.

But for the protestors who picketed Tuesday, the fight isn’t over.

“We need to keep them from taking away what we have left,” said Ashley Funk, with the Mountain Watershed Association, an environmental group based Fayette County, Pennsylvania. “We must stand together from death alley to the Ohio River Valley to say to these companies that want to profit from our communities that we are not disposable.”

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Rare Conservation Win In Congress Helps Ohio Valley Parks And Monuments

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An island managed by the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Janet Butler/USFWS

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge’s namesake is apparent upon stepping outside its visitors center in Williamstown, West Virginia. Gazing past bird feeders and the forested bank of the Ohio River, a skinny island looms large.

“So Buckley Island is right across the water from us,” says Michael Schramm, visitor services manager at the refuge.

Buckley Island is one of about 40 river islands spanning hundreds of miles of the Ohio River. The islands were formed by rock and gravel deposited during the Ice Age, and they serve as important habitat for wildlife on the Ohio River, including migrating birds. Over the years, as the river channel has deepened, some of the islands have eroded away. Today, the refuge manages 22.

“Part of the concept of the refuge and why it’s so widely scattered along the Ohio River is that it’s sort of like a little Noah’s Ark that the wildlife can use as they migrate,” Schramm says.

The islands have a unique history. Some were used for farming, oil was drilled on others. Schramm spots a rafter of wild turkeys near an abandoned barn on Buckley Island, about a quarter mile from the visitors center. A century ago, it was home to an amusement park.

Since the refuge’s founding almost three decades ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acquired these river islands, the bulk of which are in West Virginia.  A handful fall in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Largely, the agency has used millions of dollars from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The LWCF, as it’s often called, was created by Congress more than 50 years ago as a way to protect the country’s natural areas and ensure Americans have access to them. It’s funded with revenues from royalties on offshore oil and gas drilling.

Across the Ohio Valley, more than $700 million from the LWCF has been invested at federal, state, and local parks, forests and wilderness areas and to increase recreation access.

“We like to say the Land and Water Conservation Fund is the most important conservation program that nobody knows about,” said Matt Keller, senior director at the conservation group, The Wilderness Society. “It’s a program that had pretty positive and dramatic impacts all over the country, including West Virginia, and Ohio and Kentucky.”

Despite its popularity, the program hasn’t always been functional. Congress must both authorize the program and fund it, and previous authorization for the LWCF expired on September 30, 2018.

Keller said in today’s divided political atmosphere, passing bills in Congress even with broad bipartisan support can be a challenge, but in February both the House and Senate resoundingly passed S. 47, the Natural Resources Management Act.

Buckley Island is one of 22 islands managed by the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

In March, President Donald Trump signed it into law.

“It’s a remarkable moment for conservation of public lands,” Keller said. “There haven’t been a whole lot of victories and positive things moving forward in the past couple years, but this is a notable exception.”

Congress, he noted, still needs to provide funding for the program.

The public lands package has a wide reach. Not only did it reauthorize the LWCF, the bill folded in measures that increase access to public lands for hunters and anglers, and designate more than 1 million new acres of wilderness. The legislation also renews for seven years the Every Kid Outdoors program, which gives all fourth graders and their families free access to U.S. National Parks.

More than 100 smaller bills were also added into the final version. Most authorize regionally-specific projects, including in the Ohio Valley.

Battlefield Victory

Historic reenactment events draw visitors to Mill Springs Battlefield. Photo: Courtesy Mill Springs Visitor Center and Museum

For years, Mill Springs Battlefield, located near Nancy, Kentucky, was ranked one of the most endangered battlefields in the country. Under the new bill, it’s now a national monument. It will receive funding and support from the National Park Service.

“It’s a big deal for us, something we’ve been working on for about 15 years,” said Bruce Burkett, president of the Mill Springs Battlefield Association.

The non-profit has since 1992 purchased and preserved more than 400 acres of land associated with the 1892 Battle of Mill Springs, the first major Union victory in the Civil War’s western theater.

Burkett said the national monument designation will raise the profile of the battlefield and draw more visitors in to learn about the role Kentucky played in the Civil War.

“Kentucky, for the most part, you know, is truly the brother against brother in this county,” he said, adding that the inclusion of Mill Springs Battlefield as a national monument is an important step. “I think it does help further the understanding the American Civil War.”

A second Kentucky Civil War battle site, Camp Nelson, which was one of the largest training depots for African-American soldiers, was also designated in the bill.

Historic actors at Mill Springs Battlefield in Kentucky. Photo: Courtesy Mill Springs Visitor Center and Museum

Forest Heritage

A few hundred miles away, the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area is also getting a new name, adding “national” to its title after years of being stalled by Congress.

“We’re just incredibly excited about this. We’ve been working on this for so long,” said Phyllis Baxter, executive director of the nonprofit that manages the diverse, 18-county swath of forest highlands in West Virginia and western Maryland.

She said the official National Heritage Area designation increases the resources available to promote the area.

“This will get us branding on the National Park Service website,” Baxter said. “We can do a Passport program. There’s a lot of things that we could do, that will have access to now that we didn’t have access to before.”

Baxter said one hope is that national visibility boosts tourism in some of the rural communities in the heritage area, providing a sustainable source of economic diversification.

“Whatever we can do to help those small towns find ways to diversify their economy and whether that’s, you know, tourism or other small business or whatever works in each place we want to support that,” she said. “And we hope that this will help.”

Economic Boost

The Natural Resources Management Act also includes language that increases funding for all National Heritage Areas, and specifically expands the funding cap for the Wheeling National Heritage Area, from $13 million to $15 million. WNHA was established in 2000 and encompasses a 12-square-mile region throughout Wheeling, located in West Virginia’s northern panhandle.

A 2017 economic impact analysis found from 2014-2016, WHNA  generated $86.6 million in economic impact largely from tourism. The heritage area also supported 1,109 jobs and generated $6.4 million in tax revenue.

Supporters of the LWCF also point to billions of dollars in economic benefits associated with outdoor recreation.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the program benefits communities at all levels and has played an important role in expanding the state’s whitewater rafting industry.

“When we think of river access, I mean LWCF immediately comes to mind in the ways that it’s benefited rivers like the Gauley, which of course attract tens of thousands of people from all over the world to experience our world-class, whitewater rapids,” Rosser said.

Every public access site on the Gauley River was made possible using funds from the LWCF.

“Whether it be a town swimming pool, or state park or national forest or driving by Seneca Rocks, almost everyone has been touched in some way by the support of the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” she said. “It’s made those places what they are today and accessible for us all to enjoy.”

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Study Finds Coal Ash Contamination Widespread In Ohio Valley

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A 2011 aerial photo of Little Blue Run, the largest coal ash waste site in the country. Photo: Robert Donnan

More than 90 percent of the nation’s regulated coal ash repositories are leaking unsafe levels of toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater, including ash sites at more than 30 coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley.

A new analysis released Monday by the Environmental Integrity Project and other advocacy groups looked at federally-mandated groundwater data from 265 coal plants and their more than 550 coal ash sites across the country.

The data show unsafe levels of pollutants including lead, arsenic and mercury are leaking into nearby groundwater from coal ash sites at 14 coal-fired power plants in Kentucky, 10 in Ohio, and 7 in West Virginia.

“This is a crisis because coal ash is poisoning an invaluable and irreplaceable resource,” said Lisa Evans, senior counsel with the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, and one of the co-authors of the report. “Even if this water is not now used for drinking, contaminated groundwater flows to lakes and streams and can contaminate these waters making them unsafe for fishing, recreation and irrigation.”

The groups analyzed industry-supplied groundwater data required by the U.S. EPA under its 2015 coal ash rule. The Obama-era regulation requires utilities to not only conduct groundwater monitoring at ponds and landfills, but close leaking ash ponds and clean up polluted groundwater.

The first round of data was posted last spring and includes eight rounds of testing for 21 pollutants.  

While the 2015 rule does not apply to all coal ash sites across the country, Abel Russ, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project and lead author of the report, said the new analysis provides the most up-to-date picture of how pollutants contained in coal ash are leaching into the environment.  

“Our report provides a unique, nationally comprehensive snapshot of the industry and it’s confirmed that virtually all coal plants are contaminating groundwater,” he said.

Regional Contamination

The report’s findings mirror those published last year by the Ohio Valley ReSource and member station WFPL. In Kentucky and West Virginia, every power plant covered under the EPA rules had coal ash waste sites with evidence of contaminated groundwater.

In some cases, the data showed levels of pollutants many times higher than the federal drinking water standards. For example, coal ash sites near West Virginia’s Pleasants Power Station had levels of the neurotoxin arsenic 16 times what the EPA deems safe. The radioactive and cancer-causing pollutant radium was found at levels six times higher than acceptable.

The groundwater data was collected close to the unlined coal ash pits and landfills. More testing is needed to determine to what extent those contaminants affect drinking water.

Kentucky’s Ghent Generating Station — located along the Ohio River about an hour northeast of Louisville — ranked among the 10 worst contaminated coal ash sites in the country.

The report’s authors said in light of their findings, federal and state regulators must move to regulate all coal ash repositories and quickly.

However,  the Trump administration has moved to weaken the 2015 coal ash rule.  The EPA extended the deadline for utilities to stop using some coal ash ponds by more than a year, and has allowed utilities to assure regulators that leaking contaminants won’t get into groundwater. It is expected to release further changes to the rule this year.

This story was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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