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Q&A: ProPublica and the Gazette-Mail’s Guide to Every Natural Gas Well in WV

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Screenshot of the imaging tool used by ProPublica in "A Guide to Every Permitted Natural Gas Well in West Virginia." 2019

In West Virginia, natural gas is booming. For landowners, natural gas development on private land previously meant hidden wells in the woods, which may have been a minor nuisance for those on the surface. But the advent of a drilling process called horizontal drilling now allows producers to drill for miles underground in all directions from a single point. In 2006, the state had issued only a dozen total horizontal well permits. As of last year, that total had reached over 5,000, according to data from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

In order to build horizontal wells, gas producers must first clear acres of rural landscape, bringing loud and disruptive trucks, machinery and construction to previously calm rural areas. Until 2011, there weren’t many restrictions on where natural gas producers could put well pads. Now, regulations only dictate a 625-foot buffer from homes from the center of the well pad, meaning the large well pads themselves could end up much closer than that to dwellings. This disruptive construction can still happen on public land, near schools, or on private property where landowners don’t have mineral rights, disrupting their quality of life and the utility of the land itself.

In their recent deep-dive into the issue, “A Guide to Every Permitted Natural Gas Well in West Virginia,” ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail used software to show in detail aerial imagery of as many as 1,500 of these well pads. 100 Days in Appalachia spoke with Gazette-Mail reporter Kate Mishkin and ProPublica news applications developer Al Shaw about the process that went into creating this monumental report, and their hopes and predictions for the future of this industry.

100 Days in Appalachia: Why did you feel like creating this tool was necessary? What information does it provide that people don’t already have access to?

Al Shaw: We did a project at the end of last year called Powerless with the Gazette-Mail about the impacts of gas drilling on residents, and kind of what it’s like living near this kind of development. But that project was super anecdotal, and was really based around a couple individual cases. After doing that, I was kind of left with questions about what the scale was across the state. I just started with that question and went down the rabbit hole in the data that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) provides. As I discovered how they did these things I wanted to show and tell people how big they are, and how many of them are there there are. So as I did that, I kind of came across a couple techniques to extract aerial imagery from data and kind of come up with the idea of just showing every single well they had, because they’re all acres wide. The key was showing the cumulative effect of drilling across the state, because that’s how large how large footprint has.

Kate Mishkin: It kind of like, well, we have this anecdotal story, right before the legislature started. So I think the question on my end was, what are people going to do about it? Not a lot, it turns out.

100 DiA: What were some of the challenges of creating such heavily data-driven report?

AS: The DEP data doesn’t have a concept of a well pad in it, it only has the concept of well permits. I learned when I was doing the Powerless story that the data can sometimes be out of date, too. So it’s kind of hard to tell which wells are active, or which was completed, or which wells are in the process of being built. So there’s some data challenges there. I started with just this data set of well permits, and then had to come up with a way of clustering them together to find the pads, because the well pads are really a bunch of wells in a pretty tight location, set up in a cluster. I had to match them in a geospatial database. The next big challenge was trying to figure out how to get the aerial imagery from those clusters. And thankfully, there’s this thing called Google Earth Engine, which is really powerful tool for programmatically processing large amounts of aerial and satellite imagery. One of the data sets they offer is dataset called the USDA NAIP, which is the national agriculture imagery program. It’s this really cool free data set, where they take pretty high resolution images of the entire country every couple years. Using Google Earth Engine, you can tap into anywhere in the country and get a radius around point.  What we did was we we set in all of the points that were the center of these clusters of well permits into Google Earth Engine, and came up with these 1,500 images. And you can kind of see them in all stages of development, because the imagery might be too old to see the development started. Some of them are fully completed, where you can see the roads spider out from them, and you can really see the kind of impact they have on the environment. Each one of these images has a 250 meter radius. So you can really tell how big these developments are—they’re acres wide. And when you compare them to the way gas wells used to look, you see what they look like before horizontal drilling, like they wouldn’t even show up on these images. They’d be the size of a pixel. So the difference in scale is just exponential from what they used to be. And there’s 1,500 of these.

100 DiA: What about this study or its findings surprised you?

KM: I didn’t realize how history just repeated itself. Since these studies. These studies were completed in 2013, but the same bills have been presented over and over every single year, sometimes by the same people. It seems like in some cases, they were kind of handed off onto a different group of lawmakers. Repeatedly, it’s just never been acted on. It’s kind of interesting to talk to some lawmakers who are like, “Oh, yes, I forgot about that,” or, “Oh, yeah, there’s something there, maybe we should act on it.”

AS: It’s interesting how quickly all this happened. In 2008, there weren’t any of these pads. And so in the course of 10 years, the amount of space devoted to to natural gas development in West Virginia has just exploded. Each one, on average, is 2.4 acres now, and that’s about double what they what they were in 2007. It’s just a massive amount of space given up to two gas drilling. And we know that they they don’t produce forever, but that scar will be there forever. There’s not a whole lot of regulation. That was the law that was passed in 2011 which put some restrictions on where you put the pads. But that law didn’t put any restrictions on pads next to schools or other sensitive areas like public land, and so there’s still not a whole lot of restrictions on where you can put these.

100 DiA: Have you talked to people directly affected by having gas wells on their properties? If so, what did they say? Were there any comments that weren’t included in the court cases?

KM:  In the Powerless story that kind of preceded this one, we spoke with a lot of people about some of that information that up in in the record and in court. I think it’s worth noting that these cases are still being played out. One is being heard by the Supreme Court this week. One of the residents said that living near a site is like living next to Mountaineer Field. It’s something that people here probably know very acutely what that looks like. And that’s something that other people may not think.

100 DiA: Lawyers for the Harrison plaintiffs say that this kind of development was never contemplated when mineral rights were sold a century ago. Can you speak more on that?

AS: So when we were reporting the previous story, a lot of the people we talked to, who don’t own the mineral rights told us that they knew natural gas development was going on on their land. For them it didn’t really matter at the time because of how light the footprint was. There might be a well up in the forest somewhere, and someone might come out and check on it now and then, but it really didn’t affect their lives. They could still do their farming, they still have their forests, they could go hiking, and they still you had their water sources. But with the advent of horizontal drilling, all of that kind of changes, because it wasn’t just that well up in the forest that someone comes and looks at every now and then—now it’s putting in a huge road, taking down trees, flattening the hilltop, putting in a gigantic gravel pad, constant truck traffic, constant drilling. It’s a much different process. It’s turning what would be a rural peaceful town into a industrial zone. So I think that’s what some of these plaintiffs are getting at with this idea of the contemplation of the parties that back then—maybe this kind of industrialization of the landscape wasn’t contemplated when they sold mineral rights. There is still this idea of the surface owner being able to use the land for for their needs without completely turning it over to the gas drilling or to whoever owned the mineral rights to do with what they want it.

100 DiA: I was shocked to read that as horizontal drilling technology gets better, well pads are getting bigger. Can you explain more about how developments in this industry could mean harsher effects for those on affected land?

AS: Some surface owners say that the centralized well pads are actually a lighter touch on the environment than having a whole bunch of dispersed well pads, or that they have a lesser effect on individual people, because there’s only one pad rather than pads everywhere. But then that means that there’s kind of a disproportionate impact on the people that are next to those pads. And the impact is cumulative, so it’s pretty much greater. It is a bit of a trade off from lots of vertical wells everywhere to to individual centralized centralized pads. But it is it does have a much bigger footprint and requires much more reconstruction more heavy machinery, and more of kind of all the stuff that comes along with rapid industrialization. And I only expect that’ll get bigger as the technology gets better.

100 DiA: Passed the statistics quoted in the piece, what are your predictions for the long-term impacts of this gas boom on WV’s people? Is another bust approaching?

KM: I think a lot of experts will say that there is a bust coming, and a lot of those jobs are temporary jobs. When we talk about what was like fathomable or contemplated in the past, I wonder what is going to be in the future that I can’t even contemplate right now? Or we’re not thinking about interest as far as construction and energy and stuff like that. I think that I think a lot of people would say that it’s not as rosy as it as the industry maybe wants folks to think it is.

100 DiA: What are your hopes for the future use of this tool? What could be accomplished with it?

AS: I hope that people can use it as a tool to really see what’s going on there. And especially people outside West Virginia that might not know that that’s where their energy is coming from. There’s so much resource development. I’m not super confident because of how captured the legislature and the Supreme Court are right now that much will change, but hopefully it will raise raise awareness and it’ll be a good resource for people in the state to find out where the development is near them. Because a lot of people, even if they live near wells might not know how extensive the development is around them.

100 DiA: What about your call to action—what do you hope to gain from folks reaching out with their experiences?

AS: The call to action to hear more from people affected by this story is something that’s been at the bottom of every Local Reporting Network story that we did last year. And I think it’s already proven to be really helpful because we don’t want to just put something in the newspaper and forget about it. We want to be able to actually talk to the people who are affected and make sure that we’re engaging with these people and these communities. There’s so much to report on, and it’s constantly evolving.

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Q&A: Regional Journalism Collaboration Takes Deep Dive Into The Ohio River Watershed

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Photo: Kara Lofton/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The Ohio River is an important ecological and economic force in the region. It provides drinking water for 5 million people, but it’s also one of the most polluted rivers in the U.S. A new regional journalism collaborative is digging into what it means to live in the Ohio River watershed. 

For the next several weeks, the Good River project will be publishing stories about the river’s watershed, which covers 15 states including West Virginia.

WVPB Energy and Environment Reporter Brittany Patterson chatted with the project’s managing editor, Halle Stockton with PublicSource, to find out more.

BP: This project is called the Good River Project. Tell us about the significance of that name. And why the focus on the Ohio River?

HS: Good River is the translation of the word Ohio or ohi:yo’ in the languages used by Seneca and Iroquois tribes. And so we wanted to pay homage to that origin and also we found it interesting kind of how modest that the adjective is of ‘good’ in that because we throughout the project are paying attention to both the beauty of the Ohio River and its watershed, as well as the threats facing it.

BP: You have all sorts of mediums and really partners from very different types of journalism, in some cases, tell us a little bit about those choices and what you were trying to accomplish by bringing different perspectives to this story that you’re tackling?

HS: Sure. So, our seven partners which span five states– five of the 15 watershed states, do have a lot of different specialties. Some focus on environmental journalism, others are a little bit more focused on some digital aspects, and so by bringing everyone together in this watershed region, we talked a lot about how we can show all the different aspects of the watershed through all of our strengths. So, from the radio stories to the virtual reality experience in the Cheat River to the in-depth and investigative reporting that we’ve already shown in the project after only a couple of weeks, we’re trying to appeal to people of all different levels of interest and knowledge of the Ohio River and the 15-state watershed. We want it to be not only educational and informational, but also kind of surprising and entertaining.

BP: I was really fascinated by one of the earlier stories by your partner 100 Days in Appalachia that looked at how pollution in the river has changed and sort of how that came about. So can you tell us a little bit about how things have changed and what else might be changing across the Ohio River watershed that people might not know about?

HS: One of the most fascinating anecdotes within that 100 Days in Appalachia story was right at the beginning, where there’s a researcher who’s talking about the fish traps that they would deploy and then pull up to check to see how the fish population was doing.

There was a story about how when, you know, one day they pulled this gargantuan fish trap up, and there was only one fish and that was a huge shock and kind of a wake-up call in like what is going on with this river? The fish can’t survive in it. You know, people often say like, definitely don’t swim in the Ohio. They still say that to this day. But after a lot of remediation efforts and just sustained attention on the Ohio and also different methods of how those fish traps are done…they’re regularly deploying those and seeing a lot of fish life still thriving in the Ohio River now.

And one of the researchers says, you know, it’s not perfect, but it’s a functioning ecosystem at the moment. And that’s a very kind of positive anecdote, but unfortunately, as recently as 2015, the Toxic Release Inventory that tracks how many pollutants are dumped into rivers throughout the U.S., still shows that the Ohio River that year was the most polluted river in the United States.

BP: Yeah, this is an industrial river, this is a working river, but it also seems like some of the stories that the project is telling include ways that communities are reimagining how to use the Ohio River. Can you talk to us a little bit about what you’re finding?

HS: We’re seeing these very, like broad big partnerships to try to figure out new innovative ways, even such as finding rare earth elements and how those can be sold for a profit to benefit remediation down to this individual level. And it’s kind of heartening to see because a lot of times we found, we talked about this as partner newsrooms early on, that you almost never hear about the Ohio River watershed. It’s very, you know, the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Great Lakes watershed are talked about so much more. And so, as we got deeper into the reporting, it was interesting to learn about these different levels of effort.

BP: You’re in Pennsylvania. I’m here in West Virginia. Most of our listeners that are going to hear this live in the Ohio River watershed. What are you hoping that the Good River Project conveys about this river?

HS: We hope that people just kind of start to feel that the Ohio River and the watershed is part of their identity. That they are residents of the Ohio River watershed not just of West Virginia or Pennsylvania or wherever they may be. And by that becoming part of their identity, they want to know more about it and feel empowered to talk about it, to care about it, to really be able to seek the information that they then feel they need to know because yes, they may be drinking it or bathing in water from the Ohio River and its tributaries. And they are participants in the health of this very, you know, vast water resource in our country.

This piece was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Q&A: A Conversation with W.Va.’s New Roman Catholic Bishop

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St. Joseph Cathedrial in Wheeling, W.Va. Photo: Farragutful/Wikimedia Commons

West Virginia’s new Roman Catholic bishop was installed late last month at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Wheeling. Bishop Mark Brennan was previously auxiliary bishop of Baltimore.

Pope Francis named the 72-year-old Brennan to replace Bishop Michael Bransfield, who resigned in September 2018 amid allegations of sexual and financial misconduct. Glynis Board spoke with the new bishop. Here’s some of that conversation.

LISTEN: An extended version of the conversation with West Virginia’s new Roman Catholic Bishop Mark Brennan.

**Editor’s Note: The following has been edited for clarity and length.

GB: The former Bishop Michael Bransfield left the diocese in a crisis of confidence. Archbishop Lori described a culture of fear that was created under his tenure, and there were measures put in place to try to ensure a higher degree of transparency and safeguards against abuse. What actions do you hope will address that eroded trust?

MB: I’ve long believed the only way to overcome evil is with good. You have to just do good things. Our faith is not meant to be sterile, it’s meant to be fertile, to produce good things. So to try to live our faith well, and to the works of charity and justice that our faith really propels us to engage in — that’s I think how you overcome bad behavior over the past. You can’t ignore it the past, you can’t deny that it happened. On the other hand, you also can look forward and try to live a better way. And I hope that I can be the kind of shepherd for the flock of this diocese that will lead by example, not just a words, to overcome a legacy of mistrust and fear and by a different kind of style of leadership.

GB: Are there decisions yet to be made that have anything to do with Michael Bransfield, that you have to make?

MB: I think as you’re probably well aware of the Holy See imposed on Bishop Bransfield two very significant prohibitions. And they are significant. He was planning to retire here.  I’ve seen the very nice apartment that was built for him. He’s not going to get to live there. He’s not allowed by the pope to live in the state of West Virginia. The second one is that he’s not allowed to celebrate any public liturgy.  The Catholic mass is that is the most common liturgy, but a baptism ceremony, a funeral outside of mass, a wedding ceremony outside of mass, those are liturgies too. For someone who has been doing that for nearly 50 years to be told, ‘You can’t do that anymore,’ no public masses, no public luxury of any kind — it’s a very significant prohibition.

What I’m asked to do is to oversee a process of him making some kind of amendment for the damage he caused to individuals and to the diocese. And that is in process. I’ve already begun consulting with people here. We were doing some analysis of spending to see what is an appropriate way to ask him to make amends. If he cooperates with this process it will show, I think, another side of him, which I hope we will see. If it is not cooperate we’ll still be able to impose a kind of amendment process on our own. [It would be] better with his cooperation, but it can still be done without it.

GB: It’s increasingly well known that the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese is one of the more wealthy dioceses in the country. And yet here we are sitting in one of the poorest states and even one of the poorest neighborhoods in this region. How is that wealth being used to combat those cycles of poverty? Or how do you think it could be used in the future?

MB: There are things that I have learned there already, things that are done by the diocese with the money that it has — some of which comes from somebody who left us some oil wells down in Texas, and mineral rights somewhere. I’m going to find out more about that. At any rate, yes, there’s an endowment which seems to be fairly large — several hundred million dollars. The diocese is using that to support small schools and parishes that otherwise would otherwise close. They can’t maintain themselves. I think there are efforts being made by Catholic Charities in West Virginia to assist in in meeting the opioid crisis, which, this is like the epicenter for the whole country, from what I’ve learned, and I’m going to see if we can do more — remember, I’ve only been bishop here for eight days, so there’s a lot more for me to learn — but the resources are being used in a healthy way to sustain good works of the church and its schools and parishes and agencies.

GB: Michael Bransfield retired as many bishops do at 75 — and forgive me if this is an ageist question — some parishioners have expressed concerns since you’re already into your 70s that you won’t be here long enough to sustain positive change. Can you address that concern?

MB: Sure. It was intimated to me when I was asked, would I come here, that the room would be very flexible about that 75 age limit. Now, I could drop dead tomorrow. My doctor at an appointment on the 30th of July, he said Father Brennan, your parents gave you good genes, and you’ve taken pretty good care of them. So I have pretty good health, stamina, and keep going. So assuming that I can then I think 75 will come and go without any change in the leadership here.

Some Catholics may remember — and it was a boy when this happened — a fellow named Roncalli was elected Pope by the Cardinals 1958. And he was I think 77 years old. He lived another four or five years. He called the Second Vatican Council which just had a tremendous impact of life of the Catholic Church worldwide. In his brief, brief time as Pope.

It is possible to get something done if you work at it with purpose and determination and trusting God. So I hope that all that can be true.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A Slow-Motion Emergency: Opioid Distribution Pattern Doesn’t Surprise Author

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Two decades after health officials in Southwest Virginia sounded the alarm about the devastating impact Oxycontin was having on the region, hard numbers confirm that drug manufacturers and distributors carpet-bombed Central Appalachia with the powerful drug and other opioids.

An investigation by the Washington Post shows that pharmaceutical distribution of the opioids oxycodone (the narcotic in Oxycontin) and hydrocodone grew by more than 50 percent from 2006 to 2012. On a per-capita basis, rural Central Appalachia was an outsized target of that distribution.

One person who is not surprised by the findings is journalist Beth Macy, author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America (Little, Brown and Company). Her 2018 book starts with Oxycontin’s arrival in Southwest Virginia in the 1990s and the pleas of healthcare professionals there to the Food and Drug Administration to do something before it was too late.

Macy’s 2018 book has just been released in paperback. A new discussion guide provides some information on what has happened since the hardback version was released last year. In the new section, Macy argues again for greater emphasis on medical treatment for addicts, rather than relying on criminal-court measures to address the epidemic.

We last talked to Macy in January 2019. Now we wanted to get Macy’s reaction to the current spate of state-government lawsuits against Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma and the new reporting from the Washington Post.

Macy continues to cover opioid addiction. She has a forthcoming article in The Atlantic, and she’s done an Audible documentary about Tess Henry, a central character in Dopesick. The Audible production will be released in October.

Tess, as Macy identifies her in the interview below, became addicted to Oxycontin after a doctor prescribed the powerful painkiller for a routine ailment. Tess’ story follows a familiar path of Oxycontin addicts: from legally prescribed medication, to illegally procured medication, to street drugs like heroin. A 2014 study found that the three-quarters of heroin addicts said the first opioid they used was a prescription drug. Overdose deaths involving heroin climbed more than 600 percent from 2007 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tim: Let me start with a question about the Washington Post and whether you’ve had a chance to look at any of the data. Does it confirm any of the things you spent years reporting on?

Beth: Absolutely. To me, anybody in Central Appalachia would look at that data and would say, “Duh. Duh.” I mean, it was shocking, the numbers. But I wasn’t surprised, at all. I’m surprised by the Washington Post, just now, saying this is a major story. …

Tim: So the issue has not received the attention it deserves?

Beth: I still don’t see the urgency. …

Tim: I think back to how the Purdue criminal case in federal court in Virginia was settled in 2007, relatively early in the whole arc of this story. And, as you say, there was little sense of urgency about their illegal branding the drug so many years ago. It didn’t change things?

Beth: Right. And it’s worse now. And, in fact, Purdue sold even more Oxycontin after that settlement. The U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case in western Virginia thought that the message from that would be that this drug is always dangerous. He hoped there would have a slowing effect. He didn’t take it off the market. And, in fact, if you go back and you look at those stories about [the 2007 settlement], very few people mention that, “Oh, in fact one of the punishments is that Purdue isn’t going to be able to get business with Medicaid, Medicare, and Tricare as a punishment.” But actually, that punishment was for the holding company, Purdue Frederick, not Purdue Pharma. [So Purdue Pharma could continue to manufacture and sell Oxycontin.

And then, Purdue just simply double-downed on their marketing and they sold even more Oxycontin the next year. And I think a lot of people just thought, “Oh, well we’re done. They picked up a big fine.” Of course, it was really just getting started.

Tim: Do you feel like we’re getting any closer to people understanding what’s at stake and who’s responsible? Is any of that changing with the lawsuits and the criminal complaints on the state level?

Beth: Yeah, I mean there’s so much media about it that I think that there is an understanding of the role that big pharma played in this. I think most people have gotten that message, although still people tell me, “I didn’t know Oxycontin and heroin were related until I read your book, that they were chemical cousins.” But still, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done.

Tim: Your book Dopesick is just coming out in paperback. What has changed since Dopesick was published in 2018?

Beth: Well, I just feel what I hear and see from my own reporting and by going out in the middle of the country now. Things have slowly started to change, while we still need a lot more dollars to put toward treatment. [One estimate is that it’s] going to take $80 to $100 billion to turn this around, and that’s the level of what happened with HIV and AIDS funding. The Trump administration has added like $3 billion. But he said he fixed it. He fixed the opioid crisis. It’s a joke. So there’s a lot more work to be done. And frankly, I don’t think that whatever we get from the opioid lawsuits are going to be anywhere near that amount. But it could make a difference if it’s all handled responsibly.

I have some new reporting coming out in The Atlantic in December about a treatment innovator from Kentucky who’s working in Indiana now and is trying to get the criminal justice system onboard with healthcare to help these folks so they’ll stop this cycling in and out of jail. There are people making some really good innovations now.

We know what works because we’re starting to see reduced deaths in places like Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont. If you have one person in power who’s willing to step out on a limb and see these people as human beings, and make policy, it can make a huge difference.

In the reader’s guide [to the new paperback edition], I talked about the head of the emergency department at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Six hospitals in western Virginia, and how he didn’t believe in MAT [medication-assisted treatment], and didn’t think it was his job, and so they’re basically just NARCAN-ing people [administering NARCAN, naloxone, which treats opioid overdoses] and sending them out into the street with no help at all, no follow up, and can you imagine someone doing that to somebody having a heart attack.

So I heard the head of the emergency department changed his mind, and I called him up and he said, “Yeah, we read your book, and then we looked into the research and we said, ‘how can we not be doing this?’“ So now he’s got 24/7 a doctor in the ER, waivers to prescribe enough buprenorphine [an opioid used to treat withdrawal symptoms] to get them to their bridge appointment with the outpatient provider. And when you ask him how he feels about it he says, “I feel like doing cartwheels every day because we’re having success with it. We’re not seeing the same people over and over.”

When I was in Burlington, Vermont, I saw the same response. In Burlington, the police chief, who supported the mayor and hired an opioid response director, of course, they’re an early Medicaid expansion state. And they realized that out of the 34 overdose deaths, every single person had come into contact with police [before their deaths]. So they decided that they’d de-criminalize heroin and even if you’re selling just to use, they don’t arrest you for that, they actually take you to treatment and the opioid response director sort of oversees it like a social worker. And they talk about every single person, every two weeks in a meeting, and their overdoses went down 50 percent in a year … 50 percent. So we know what works, we’re just not doing it to scale to match the scale of the epidemic.

Tim: You’re out there talking to a lot of different groups and I’m just curious if you can summarize what the response is with these different communities that you’re visiting.

Beth: Well it just depends. We’re such a varied country. When I go to small towns, people would come up after and they’d say, “It’s even worse than you said.” So when I go to a city, there’s always people, … usually sitting in the front row, that are crying because they’ve lost loved ones.

A truck driver in Maine said he had lost 15 people. He’d been in recovery I think two years now. He said he hadn’t been able to cry about any of it until he read about Tess at the end of my book.

[Author Robert Gipe] said he was talking about how Purdue should pay reparations to Appalachia and somebody [in recovery who had read Dopesick] came up to him afterwards … and said, “I didn’t understand that I was part of a bigger story until I read that book. Before I read that book, I thought I was just a f— up.”

Tim: Wow.

Beth: That’s the way I felt too. Because it’s a slow-motion story, and people didn’t get it. Even people who were intimately involved in it. So, I’m grateful for those comments.

One woman reached out to me and she said she was reading the book and her sister had been in recovery for two years and she was getting to the part she thought Tess was going to die, but she didn’t know. And the woman kept saying, “Oh, we’re so lucky, we’re so lucky.” And before she finished the book, her sister relapses, OD’s and dies. She was in Indiana and I was going to be speaking in Ohio the next week or maybe two weeks later, wasn’t long at all, and she and her dad came over to meet me. I still think there’s a huge amount of stigma and that people were suffering are grateful that people are talking about what’s happened and they’re not just seeing these human beings as addicts and criminals and moral failures. They’re seeing that it’s that it’s part of a larger story of greed and putting profits before people.

Tim: Tell me about these other projects you have going.

Beth: I have an audio documentary coming out by Audible on October 3rd (2019), and that is taking Tess’s story and telling it, but in her own words, you hear her. I recorded all our interviews not knowing I was going [to use them in an audio program]. After her death, her mother and I decided to try to retrace her last steps. So we went up to Las Vegas once by ourselves and we went another time with an Audible producer. We found the person who found her body in the dumpster. We found people she had crossed paths with who had helped her. We interviewed the police. We wrote about the homeless addictive community in Las Vegas, which is a lot different than being homeless in Roanoke. It’s really rough out there.

She told her mom she was being gang-stalked. No one in power even would admit that that was a thing, but we interviewed a lot of people who used to be on the street and they told us all about it. We learned a lot about her final days and weeks that were both worse than we thought and, in some ways, better than we thought in that she did have a community out there.

There’s also something that, as a journalist you don’t really get to go back and take a hard, hard look at something such that when I was listening to her, the very first time I interviewed her in 2015 when I’m listening to her with my 2019 ears, I’m saying, “Oh she knew exactly what she needed.” She talked about urgent care for the addicted. That’s what’s happening now at Carilion. Instead of being thrown out into the street, they’re actually treating them now. She was trying so badly to get home, to get on Methadone. Anytime she lost access to her [medicine-assisted treatment] things spiraled downhill. And when you look at it, knowing what we know now, you can see that she knew exactly what she needed.

We’re sad but there’s some happy things at the end of it. Her mother is now raising her son. They talk about Tess every night. “Tess loves you.”

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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