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After A Cluster of Rare Cancers, This North Carolina Town Is Looking for Answers: A Q&A with the Author



Duke Energy's Marshall Steam Station in Sherrills Ford, NC, Feb. 25, 2019. Photo: Kevin J. Beaty

The effects of industry can be seen on the surface of many Appalachia communities, from strip mining in the central coalfields to the new construction of natural gas pipelines, but for decades, people living there have pointed to these and other industries as causing something much deeper, more internal– disease. 

It is not new for researchers to spend years looking at the impact industry is having on the health of a local community in Appalachia, but in some, the connections they find just aren’t clear, and in others, there isn’t enough evidence to even say it exists. 

That’s the case in Huntersville, North Carolina, near Lake Norman, where a small group of people began being diagnosed with some rare cancers several years ago. A number of community members are suspicious that the diseases are linked to pollution from local energy plants, including Duke Energy’s nuclear plant that sits on the lake’s shore, and have demanded environmental testing in the area, but the company, local leaders and outside researchers say that testing would be too difficult– they don’t know where to test or even what they’re testing for. 

Huntersville-native Kevin Beaty, a reporter and photojournalist for Denverite in Denver, Colorado, returned to his hometown to report on the community’s struggle for answers for Southerly. He spoke with 100 Days in Appalachia’s Kristen Uppercue.

KU: You note throughout the story that Huntersville, North Carolina, is your hometown and some of the people who were impacted by cancer in the area were people that you knew growing up. Did you worry at all that your closeness to this story would ever impact your ability to be balanced in your reporting?

KB: It’s definitely something that I kept in mind. But I was actually really excited to do a story about people that I was close with. I mean, Summer Heath is not somebody that I knew, although she went to my high school and her brother played football with my brother, for instance. But we talk a lot about parachute journalism and how it’s something that we want to avoid. We are always sort of striving to make sure that we have the right context to tell stories about communities that we’re not familiar with. And this felt like the polar opposite. And it was really kind of nice [to be] literally going home to talk about it.

KU: Aside from the personal connection, why was this story so important for you to tell to a wider audience?

KB: I left North Carolina in 2013 and at the time, I would not have considered myself a reporter, I was interested in environmental issues, but I’d had no experience in the field. I didn’t go to [journalism] school. I studied film production so I was working on documentaries. But [when I left Huntersville] this issue was sort of beginning to bubble up, that there was sort of these unknown health issues and the community was struggling to have recognition that those were happening. And so I kept a pretty close eye on it. 

I always sort of felt bad that I wasn’t qualified to tackle it journalistically when I lived there. And so when I had the opportunity to produce and publish this piece, it was something that I just felt like I needed to do. So it sort of gets back to that question about being so close to it. This is something that I just didn’t want to fade away. 

KU: Tell me about your research process in a complex story like this. Was it difficult to find the data you needed? Or did you find that a lack thereof was an important part of the story?

KB: A lot of what I reported on in this piece had sort of come to light or had hit the public consciousness throughout the five or more years that this has been an issue for Huntersville. I hadn’t seen them all pulled together into a single sort of narrative to try and bring it together. 

The thyroid cancer issue and the ocular melanoma issue were sort of reported on separately, sort of quick-hit updates. I was really interested in how the communities sort of played off each other and grew. And some of that actually was kind of cut out from the piece. I was personally really interested in sort of the community push to get testing done and how, when the Iredell County group and the Huntersville group sort of realized that each other existed, they bolstered each other’s efforts to do that. 

KU: Lake Norman is manmade and was created by flooding communities, which created a sense of adventure and mystery around it. But that mystery has turned into concern over potentially negative impact to the health of the people living near it. I’m curious if you felt a sense of wonder about the origin story of the lake when you were young. And has that view of the lake changed for you personally into adulthood? 

KB: It’s funny, the lake is one of the only things that I really miss about living in North Carolina. It was a place that I went every weekend. I was constantly jumping fences with my friends to go swimming and fishing so I still have a lot of affection for it. 

I should say that there are no answers to what’s going on here. I found it really interesting that the lake and the town itself [were] really created as a result of these sort of industrial pushes from the ‘20s. And there are a lot of people who don’t know that because it grew so fast. 

There are so many people who have relocated there from other parts of the country and not everyone does their homework and figures out why this lake exists, right? It’s just a place you go boat on the Fourth of July or whatever. 

So, I think there is a sense for a lot of people who live there, including myself, there’s sort of this dual feeling about it, where on one hand, it’s this great feature and on the other hand, people wonder is the industrial activity that’s happening around the lake, having any impact on us? 

Those pieces of infrastructure are things that people drive by all the time. If you go from one town to the next, you will pass by the dam and it’s huge and you can’t miss it. When you’re a kid growing up there, we had nuclear fallout drills, like what do we do if the nuke plant explodes. That’s something that was really present for people who spent some time there. [But] I still want to go jump in the lake at midnight on a hot July night. 

But I mean, people wonder and that’s really the crux of the story. All of these questions are now being raised. I spent a lot of time talking about Duke Energy because they built the lake and because the coal ash issues in North Carolina have sort of made people look in their direction. They’re the biggest player in town.

I’m not saying anyone has any idea why these things are happening. They just asked those questions, and the resistance that people have gotten to getting answers to those questions is potentially more damaging or more interesting than the unsolved mystery at the moment.

KU: As you mentioned, throughout the story, you quote representatives of Duke Energy and even some researchers, as saying it would be incredibly difficult to test the communities around Lake Norman for environmental contamination because they don’t know what they’re testing for or where. At any point, did it seem like that answer was reasonable for the people in the community who are concerned about potential health impacts?

KB: I’d say people are pretty upset that the drumbeat answer that they’re getting is “sorry, we don’t know what to test for and we can’t test for anything.” 

The gentleman, a retired ophthalmologist, who leads the Huntersville ocular melanoma group is basically leading that charge to not test. That committee controls where the money that the state allocates goes and he has said that it would not be scientific for them to just start digging holes and sampling stuff. 

And so people are frustrated. When something like this happens in a town, people start seeing specters and ghosts everywhere. And suddenly, it’s not just, “this is a scientific-method issue,” it becomes “somebody is purposely trying to stop us from knowing the answers.” The way that those rumors sort of spread as a result happens all over the place. An old person in your neighborhood gets lung cancer and suddenly that’s related too, and it’s really hard to sort of balance the demands of the community that are in pain. How do you? How do you find answers? 

It’s unacceptable to some of these people that they don’t know what causes ocular melanoma, and we don’t know what’s in the soil generally, you know, and sorry, but you might have to wait a decade or more for answers. It increases the pain they’re feeling, I’d say.

KU: Concerns of the environmental impacts of industry are common across Appalachian communities that have relied on the energy industry, including coal and natural gas production that we see more commonly today. What can the communities that are attempting to push back against industry learn from what’s happened and is happening in Huntersville?

KB: I quoted a sociologist from Florida in my story and her message was that she studied multiple cases, not just in the south and not just in Appalachia, where communities have tried to get to the bottom of health issues that are related to local industry. Her message was…there’s not usually a happy ending. But she has seen cases where communities have stuck together and were able to find answers. It just seems like it takes a lot of persistence. And it takes using some mechanisms like finding a reporter who wants to talk about the concerns in a community and trying to find state legislators or city council members who will stick to the issue. It’s really easy for these concerns to be downplayed and for the issue to sort of disappear. 

[But] for as persistent as the Huntersville folks have been, they still haven’t gotten environmental testing done and they still don’t have answers. My job is to sort of figure out what they’ve done and try and pull all these disparate pieces together. The Huntersville folks have certainly stayed in regular contact and haven’t given up. 


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



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



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



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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