Despite suburban sprawl, apple orchards and farmers find ways to survive in Berkeley County

Despite suburban sprawl, apple orchards and farmers find ways to survive in Berkeley County

BERKELEY COUNTY — Apples are everywhere in Berkeley County.

Each of the county’s three water towers has a Red Delicious painted on the side. In downtown Martinsburg, a giant statue of an apple marks the location of a time capsule planted in 1990. And at Musselman High, the mascot is the Applemen. Today, it’s just a Red Delicious with a green leaf, but at one point the apple mascot included beefy arms and legs and a screaming face.

The “Big Apple Time Capsule” in Martinsburg, placed in 1990 to be opened in 2040. Photo by Tyler Dedrick.

The school’s namesake, an apple processing plant, went out of business years ago. Today, it’s a church.

While apples loom large in the area’s history and culture, the fruit itself is increasingly disappearing from the Eastern Panhandle. Orchards once dotted the landscape; in 1987, Berkeley County alone had almost 10,000 acres growing apples and peaches. But as the Interstate 81 corridor has developed and folks from the D.C. Metro area moved in, the trees have been hacked down, the land paved over and warehouses and housing developments built instead.

As of the 2017 agricultural census — the latest number available — the county’s orchard land was only about a quarter of what it was 30 years ago.

Despite the changes, there are still farmers and orchardists in Berkeley County. Not far from the buzz of I-81, where trucks haul goods up and down the Eastern United States, one can still find rows and rows of apple trees. But as the county changes, those farmers and orchardists that remain are searching for ways to hold on and continue the agricultural tradition.

A tale of two orchards 

Back in the 1940s, decades before the interstate gobbled up nearly 40,000 acres of farmland, a man named George S. Orr Jr. started piecing together plots of orchard land.

By the time he died in the late 1980s, Orr had amassed over 1,000 acres. Today, the land is split between two parts of the family — each with different routes forward in the ever changing county.

West of Martinsburg, one path leads down a little gravel road to Orr’s Farm Market.

According to market manager Katy Orr-Dove, George Orr’s granddaughter, the market started thirty years ago with a simple idea: people could pay to come in and pick their own fruit. Over the years, that idea blossomed into a pumpkin patch, a petting zoo and hayrides in the fall — at one point they even had a small herd of buffalo.

Orr-Dove said when she got involved in the business after teaching for a while in Hagerstown, Maryland, she wanted to figure out a way to combine her passion for education with her background in farming.

“I found there were kids who didn’t know the sound a pig or a cow makes,” she said.

Orr’s Orchard Farm and Market is a third-generation family farm and apple orchard. Diversification has been key to the orchard’s continued success, said Katy Orr-Dove. Photo by Tyler Dedrick

The market, sitting on half of Orr’s original orchard, is what is nowadays called an “agritourism” attraction, essentially a working farm that has visitors come to see what farming is like. It’s a growing industry, and about 300 farms statewide engage in the practice, according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.

With the influx of new people in the county and the wider region, Orr-Dove said she’s seen the business move away from the wholesale production of apples — in this area, mainly for sauce and juice — towards direct retail sales. She estimates when she first got involved, the market only accounted for 15% of the orchard’s revenue. Today, it’s 40%.

“Diversifying really helps,” she said. “During 2020, we saw a hit in tourism, but the wholesale was strong. Right now, the apples aren’t selling, so tourism helps.”

Right now, she’s getting a little bit of help from the state too — a backup of last year’s crop at the cold-storage facilities has caused the apple market to bottom out. A bushel, usually about 40 pounds of apples, is going for as low as 85 cents, almost half of it costs to pick them.

To keep the orchards going in the area, for the first time in West Virginia, the state Department of Agriculture and the USDA stepped in to buy up 600,000 bushels and send them to food banks.

Over the hill is another chunk of George Orr Jr.’s empire — the Appalachian Orchard Company — which chose a different road. Headquartered just off I-81 next to the Martinsburg Industrial Park, the company grows and ships apples for production — mainly for apple juice and applesauce.

Julie Bolyard, CFO and granddaughter of George Orr, said the apple market has always been different in the Eastern Panhandle and the wider Shenandoah Valley. While in high producing states a group of growers might ship apples to a central packing house, growers in the Panhandle have always packed the apples themselves and sent them directly to processors like White House in Winchester or Knouse Foods in Pennsylvania, which bought out Musselman in 1984.

With the closure of Musselman and cutbacks at White House, Bolyard said they’ve had to get creative. That includes landing a fairly lucrative contract with GoGo squeeZ, the pouches of applesauce known to parents everywhere.

Like her cousin Katy Orr-Dove, Bolyard said diversification is key to moving forward — she and her husband have also started their own meat business, with sales at local farmer’s markets.

“I think it’s good to not have our apples in one basket,” Bolyard said.

Shrinking farmland

While the big spreads of large crops are dwindling in the county, others are trying to make do with what they have — people like Ben Thompson and Kathryn Rowley, of Willow Bourne Farms.

Located at the base of North Mountain (Buck Hill, as the locals call it), the two grow and produce about a hundred products for sale at local farmers’ markets. And that’s just on five acres of land.

Unlike the Orrs, whose roots are fused to the soil of Berkeley County like the trees they grow, Rowley and Thompson are newcomers — she’s originally from Boone County, he’s from Western Pennsylvania.

But they needed a place to sell their products. And while there are long-standing farmers’ markets in Charles Town and Shepherdstown, Martinsburg never really had one.

With a few other local producers, the couple helped start the Martinsburg Farmer’s Market. Now, after years of sweating in blazing parking lots selling their wares, the farmer’s market has a permanent home in the Martinsburg Roundhouse, an old railroad interchange that was the starting point for the first nationwide strike in the country.  Many of the regular vendors are first generation farmers, just like them.

Rowley said they’ve gotten nothing but support from the established farmers in the area.

“I think the bigger farms like your Orrs have a bit of nostalgia because it reminds them of their grandfather or their great-grandfather selling produce on the side of the road,” Rowley said. “They’re not working to put people out of business — they’re rooting for us.”

A housing development encroaches on fields and farmland. Photo by Tyler Dedrick.

And the support for the market has been a mix of folks. Thompson and Rowley said they get visitors from the city of Martinsburg who don’t have fresh foods within walking distance. They’ve also benefited from the influx of people who usually live in houses built where farmland used to be: people who moved in from Northern Virginia looking for local foods.

“They’re more health conscious and are trying not to support Big Ag,” Rowley said.

Farmland preservation

While Berkeley County has seen runaway growth and loss of farmland, the county was the first in the state to establish a farmland protection program in 2003 — now there’s a statewide program and 17 county-run organizations.

With no zoning in the county, the protection program is one of the few tools for “responsible growth,” according to county director Resa Ingram-Orsini, a fourth-generation farmer herself.

The program is pretty straightforward: if a farmer wants their land to remain for agricultural use forever, they apply to the board. If they are selected for farmland protection, the board does a survey of the plot and conducts two appraisals — one at a farmland rate and one at either commercial or residential rate. The difference between the two values is paid to the farmer (up to $6,500 an acre).

In exchange, the farmer has an easement written into the property designating it for farming and agricultural practices only.

Ironically, the program is possible because of the increased development in the area. It’s funded through the transfer tax on property sales — a “Catch-22” according to board chairman Tom Gleason. After two decades in existence, 80 farms totalling 8,500 acres are under protection.

One of them is Appalachian Orchard, which in 2022 became the first working orchard in the state to undergo farmland protection, putting 350 acres of the company’s land into the easement.

Bolyard called it a “decision of the heart.”

“The downfall of the program is because the land is strictly agricultural, it’s worth less when you get a loan from the bank,” she said. “But that doesn’t matter — we did this because I have three kids and if they want to get into farming, they’ll have the land to do it.”

But most of the county’s 73,000 acres of farmland still isn’t protected, and developers have been grabbing up land in the Shenandoah Valley portion of the county, where water and sewer hookups abound.

That’s where, just west of Inwood, White House owns a massive orchard that adds up to nearly a third of the county’s remaining orchard land.

White House is still growing apples there. But during the building boom of the early aughts, a small subdivision started to bisect a portion of the land. In recent years, that subdivision has almost cut the land in half with houses.

A couple years ago, the land was put up for auction, cut into five parcels of land. At the time, it was advertised in The Washington Business Journal and other D.C. Metro publications as a perfect opportunity for more home building and development.

The land didn’t sell, this time, but could be relisted in the future.

But across the road is another orchard, owned by the Appalachian Orchard Company. This one, though smaller, is a 250 acre spread with trees dating back to the late 1980s.

“It isn’t protected yet,” Bolyard said. “But the key word there is yet.”

Despite suburban sprawl, apple orchards and farmers find ways to survive in Berkeley County appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Lawmakers gave WV firefighters a one-time cash infusion. Volunteer departments need a long-term solution.

EAST LYNN — Jim Asbury sits in the meeting hall of the East Lynn Volunteer Fire Department scarfing down a plate of biscuits and gravy.

It’s late in the morning on a Friday, and the cicadas shriek outside as the sun sits high in the sky. In this corner of Wayne County, there’s not much — the fire department, an elementary school, a Baptist Church, a post office and a country store with a gravel lot. Asbury is tired: he spent the prior evening up all night, working his paying job as an EMT for the Town of Wayne Fire Department a little more than 10 miles away.

“There’s no typical call,” Asbury said. His volunteer fire department has about a dozen active members responding to anything from house fires to car wrecks to rock slides.

But brush fires — caused by dried leaves catching in the winter — can pose a serious danger to the entire community, due to the unpredictability of how they spread. The winds can shift, putting firefighters clearing away debris directly in the flames’ path.

Out in the country, there are no fire hydrants. A tanker truck would help, but East Lynn doesn’t have one.

A member of the East Lynn Volunteer Fire Department battles a blaze. Courtesy photo Credit: East Lynn Volunteer Fire Department

The situation isn’t unique in West Virginia, where about 420 volunteer fire departments try to cover most of the state, except for cities like Charleston and Huntington. During August’s special session, lawmakers passed a bill putting aside $12 million in additional funding for the fire service. But whether the money is permanent depends on who one asks — lawmakers say it carves a place out in the budget, leaving open the possibility they’ll put more money in there next year; Gov. Jim Justice has called the money a “one-time fund” and said he’d find a way to make it permanent without raising taxes — a plan he would not elaborate on.

But in East Lynn, the situation remains the same: they still don’t have a tanker to tackle the remote hollers and hills where folks have lived for generations.

They have a surplus truck from the National Guard that holds a little water, a rescue truck that can spray off the road after an accident and a beat up pickup with a little tank in the bed.

“We have to really think ahead,” Asbury said. “We know which roads don’t have water access, so what’ll do if we get a call we’ll call for mutual aid.”

So that means a tanker will come from one of the other nearby departments — either in the county or from nearby Lincoln or Mingo counties.

Boot drives, hot dogs and spaghetti dinners — how West Virginia’s volunteer fire departments get funding

West Virginia’s volunteer fire departments don’t rely strictly on the state for money. They can charge insurance companies for their services, and 23 counties in the state — including Wayne — have special taxes in place to fund theirs. And then there are the classic boot drives, hot dog sales and spaghetti dinners.

But when it comes to state funds, since 2005 that’s been through a 0.55% tax on property insurance premiums.

For the past 15 years, lawmakers have pushed to raise it to an even 1%. Republican or Democrat majorities didn’t matter — the tax raise died every single time.

The East Lynn Volunteer Fire Department. Courtesy photo.

Sen. Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, said every time raising the tax came up “the insurance companies would get nervous” and lobby hard against it.

The bill actually gained a little bit of traction in the 2023 regular session, with a slight modification. Instead of fully funding volunteer fire with the tax, the difference in the increase would be split between fire and EMS.

In the House of Delegates, lawmakers ripped out the tax increase in favor of funding it with lottery money.  When it got sent back to the Senate, lawmakers in that chamber cut the lottery proposal and put the tax back in before volleying it back to the house.

Deeds, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services, said the latest effort “died on the vine” during the last days of the session.

“[Firefighters] were understandably mad and upset,” he said. “We let them down.”

Randy James, president of the state fire chief’s association, told lawmakers in April he was “burned up” and “very disappointed” with how that turned out.

“I don’t even know why I keep coming up here to Charleston,” he said. “I have people ask me why all the time, because y’all aren’t listening.”

When Justice called lawmakers into a special session in August, one of the bills on the list shifted money in the state coffers to give volunteer fire departments $12 million out of the general revenue fund. When they did that, they created a permanent line item in the budget — a specific place to park the money.

But since it’s general revenue money, that means the amount has to be voted on every year, along with the rest of the budget. The actual money isn’t guaranteed to be there year after year.

If the premium tax was raised — in April, a legislative lawyer ballparked that it could cost about $20 extra dollars a year for the average West Virginia household — lawmakers wouldn’t need to dedicate money each year. It would come automatically.

Deeds said he is confident — barring lean times like the mid-2010s — that $12 million will be budgeted every year during regular sessions.

“I don’t think anyone would want to cut the fire department funding,” he said.

In town and in the hollers, volunteer fire department coverage is “iffy”

Deeds, a former West Virginia State Trooper with family in EMS and the fire service, said rural departments like East Lynn would be the first to shut their doors, due to budget constraints and recruitment. He said in his hometown of Renick, the department there got so lean when a lighting strike caught fire to a church, Lewisburg had to respond from 30 minutes away.

But even in town, more often than not the fire service is volunteer. They might have an ambulance — the EMTs working those are paid — but the firefighters are all volunteers.

Back in Wayne County, the Huntington suburbs of Ceredo and Kenova sit along the Ohio River. Crammed in right next to each other — a rail bridge divides the two towns — the two have separate fire departments.

With Interstate 64, the Ohio River with bass boats and coal barges and the Huntington Regional Airport nearby, the two towns are a far cry from sparsely populated East Lynn 30 miles south.

Here, the calls are always coming, generally for the ambulance, which comes out for overdoses, cardiac arrests and “lift assists” — scanner jargon for someone on the floor that can’t get up.

This engine from the Ceredo Volunteer Fire Department was built in 1991. Courtesy photo Credit: Ceredo Volunteer Fire Department

Chief Rob Robson of the Ceredo Fire Department said he joined in 1998 when he was 16 years old. Sitting on the bumper of a fire truck that predates his time at the department, Robson said he’s seen the changes in the fire service.

“Back in the day, it used to be if you weren’t at the station and there was a call, you might as well not even show up,” he said. “There would be four or five pickup trucks lined up with the tailgates down and people talking and when the call came in, they were out immediately.”

Times have changed. Robson said he thinks the high cost of living — with folks working two or three jobs to raise a family — means less time to volunteer at the department.

The lack of manpower means Ceredo and Kenova constantly back one another up; When one is called out, the other responds unless told not to. The chief said staffing isn’t at crisis levels, but getting coverage during the day is “iffy.”

But the calls don’t stop. The night prior, Robson said his department put out an apartment fire, a car fire, responded to a false alarm and worked a fatal crash.

Unlike East Lynn, which can’t afford an ambulance and has to rely on the town of Wayne’s, Ceredo had two rigs. The keyword is “had” — one burnt up a few months ago so now they’re just down to one.

“I get concerned sometimes because I’ll hear a medical call come in, then wonder if we can respond to another one that comes in,” Robson said.

He says funding isn’t everything — the people are the most important part of the equation. But the two are connected in fundamental ways. When the money starts rolling from the state, he would like to use some of it to give his EMTs raises. But it’s a risky move, considering he doesn’t know if the money will actually be there the following year.

“I can’t give someone a raise one year then tell them they have to take a pay cut the next,” he said.

Lawmakers gave WV firefighters a one-time cash infusion. Volunteer departments need a long-term solution. appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Spurred by government funding, controversial waste-to-energy plants eye West Virginia

JACKSON COUNTY — When she first bought her house in Millwood nearly 20 years ago, Michelle Roach saw it as an investment for her family.

“I plan to give my property to my son,” she said. “That’s supposed to be his, and I’ve been telling him that since he was little.”

But now, for the first time, she’s reconsidering that plan in light of a plant to turn medical waste into energy proposed off state Route 2 — roughly a mile from her home.

“I don’t want to leave. I love it up there,” she said. “But that’s what everybody is talking about.”

Spurred by federal incentives meant for clean energy, these kinds of waste-to-energy facility proposals are becoming more common, especially in West Virginia. A plan for a plant in Follansbee was scuttled earlier this year, and there are two other projects in the works, including the proposed plant in Millwood.

There are some environmental benefits to these types of facilities. Waste incinerators are viewed as an alternative to landfills, and have been lauded as an eco-friendly substitute method for disposing of waste.

Millwood resident Michelle Roach pulls up on a map on her phone to show the proposed location of Thunder Mountain’s medical waste incinerator. Photo by Sarah Elbeshbishi.

But residents like Roach are concerned about what they see as a lack of transparency in the process, and they’re worried about the potential environmental and health effects of a new waste incinerator. Because these sites are proposing to use relatively uncommon chemical processes, Heather Sprouse, an organizer with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the consequences of the facility’s potential emissions are unknown.

“One of the challenges here is that many people don’t have understanding or no access to even understand what the long-term impacts can be because there’s very little information available about cumulative impacts,” Sprouse said.

A plan to convert needles and syringes into energy

The proposal by Thunder Mountain Environmental Services would build the medical waste facility in a warehouse space off Point Pleasant Road, right outside of Ravenswood.

The facility would dispose of solid medical waste by converting it into energy through gasification — a process that converts waste into synthetic gas, which can then be used to produce energy. The company plans to power the facility with that energy. It expects to employ between 15 and 20 people full time, according to Thunder Mountain President Bryan Fennell.

The waste the facility is incinerating will include used medical gloves, paper towels, bandages, needles, syringes, chemotherapy administration supplies, expired or tainted medicines and human or animal tissue or fluids generated during medical procedures. And while it will keep about 1,650 pounds of this waste from going into a landfill every hour, the incinerator will emit 12.29 tons of pollutants into the air annually, according to the permit engineering evaluation.

One of those pollutants is tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, otherwise known as TCDD, one of the most toxic kinds of dioxins.

While the engineering evaluation estimates that the Millwood site will emit less than two tenths of a milligram of TCDD per year, the chemical is a carcinogen — a substance or agent capable of causing cancer — and dioxins can be incredibly harmful even at low emission rates.

“They induce birth defects, they alter the immune responses, and so even exceedingly low concentrations are quite troubling for people,” said West Virginia Sierra Club chair Jim Kotcon, also an associate professor of plant pathology at West Virginia University.

The facility will operate “in strict compliance” with its permits, said Fennell. The site is permitted to emit nine nanograms of TCDD per cubic meter; 90 times greater than the emissions level permitted in the European Union.

Medical waste-to-energy facilities: An emerging trend

The proposal by Thunder Mountain Environmental Services marks the second recent attempt by an out-of-state company to establish a medical waste-to-energy facility in West Virginia.

“It does seem like we’re seeing this as a trend, and it looks like Central Appalachia might be kind of the bullseye for how these facilities are developing throughout the nation,” Sprouse said.

Concerns over medical waste-to-energy facilities in the state began following the proposal of a facility in Follansbee last year by Empire Green Generation. The out-of-state company proposed using pyrolysis — a process that thermally decomposes material into combustible gas — to convert medical waste into gaseous fuel. The company dropped the project following opposition from residents and city officials.

A June announcement by Gov. Jim Justice of another waste-to-energy facility, this time in Eastern Kanawha County, has only further heightened concerns.

Sprouse credits the sudden boom to state and federal governments incentivizing such facilities.

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act included a variety of incentives to promote clean energy and reduce carbon emissions. Some of those benefits were aimed at encouraging the commercialization of carbon capture and storage and hydrogen hubs.

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021 also allocated funds to invest in projects utilizing hydrogen technology in an effort to help the country transition to a zero-carbon economy.

“These tax credits are available for a variety of circumstances, but we’re seeing that it does create an environment where for business owners it can be ever more profitable for them to engage in this waste incineration technology,” Sprouse said.

While it’s unclear whether the Millwood or Follansbee facilities would qualify for the incentives, the interest in the capture of carbon from waste-to-energy plants has grown over the past decade, according to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

A community effort to educate

Millwood resident Henry Ligier, sat in his den, flipping through a stack of papers in his lap. A few stray papers were scattered around him, while his wife Adelle perched on a seat nearby, her own documents in hand.

“I’ve been doing a lot of research in reference to how this whole process works,” Ligier said. While he’s not an engineer, he previously worked at a recycling plant as a safety director before retiring. Over the past few weeks, he’s read the DEP’s engineering evaluation for the facility, researched the proposed processes and watched videos on the technology.

“I understand the recycling business and I understand safety,” he said. “I’m trying to learn this, and what I’m learning I’m passing on to all the community.”

Henry and Adelle Ligier go through research they’ve collected on waste-to-energy plants in their home in Millwood. Photo by Sarah Elbeshbishi

Most, if not all, of the information the community has on the proposed medical waste facility has come from research by either the Ligiers or Roach, and it’s what they plan to use as they now set their sights on mobilizing opposition in the neighboring town of Ravenswood.

But even as their effort grows, their underlying frustration has too. Despite their research, they still have a lot of unanswered questions and concerns over the overall impacts of a medical waste facility.

“Had we known that this was happening, we would definitely not have moved here,” said Ligier, looking at his wife. The couple moved to West Virginia just two years ago from New Jersey. “We would not have moved here at all.”

For now, whether Thunder Mountain’s plant will open down the road from the Ligier’s house is still unknown. The facility needs three state permits to operate: an alternative treatment technology permit and a commercial infectious medical waste facility permit from the Department of Health and Human Services and an air permit from the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality.

In early August, DHHR’s Office of Environmental Health Services denied two of the permits, saying the facility is classified as a large Hospital Medical Infectious Waste Incinerator, which are prohibited under the state’s Medical Waste Act. The site’s failure to qualify for the exemption to the rule also contributed to the permit denial.

While Fennell says the company hasn’t yet made any decisions, they’re still hoping to continue with the Jackson County project.

Spurred by government funding, controversial waste-to-energy plants eye West Virginia appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

‘This stuff is killing me’: After decades of delay, new black lung protections come too late for some West Virginia coal miners

Danny Johnson coal dust.

Over a decade into retirement, Danny Johnson still considers himself a coal miner. It was such a part of his identity that when his only daughter got married, he walked her down the aisle wearing his hard hat and mining coveralls.

Whenever Johnson dug into a new part of a mountain, he remembers feeling that he and God were the only ones who had ever seen that part of the earth.

“You’re going where nobody’s ever been,” the 69-year-old said while sitting on his front porch in Mercer County.

But his decades of mining had drawbacks as well. He worked long shifts at various mines in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky — sometimes going over two weeks in a row without a day off. He missed countless birthdays and graduations of his two children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

And the job took a severe toll on his health. When Johnson was 20, a 20-foot-long rock fell on his face, requiring him to get more than 100 stitches through his face and mouth. Later, he broke each of his feet and watched a nail fly straight into his pupil.

“I can see big stuff, but I can’t read nothing,” Johnson said, pointing to a blue artificial lens in his eye.

Danny Johnson mining hat.
Danny Johnson proudly displays his mining hat on his porch in Rock, West Virginia. Photo by Roger May.

While those injuries have scarred over, he’s still battling the consequences of the dust that lives in his lungs. Eleven years ago, at the age of 57, Johnson was diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe stage of black lung disease.

The disease has been a known threat to coal miners for over a century — it’s taken the lives of tens of thousands of Americans since 1968. While black lung became less common through the 1990s, it’s on the rise again. Now, even middle-aged miners have been diagnosed with advanced stages of the disease.

Severe black lung continues to disproportionately affect central Appalachia; from 2019 to mid-2023, nearly 30% of Americans diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis at federally-funded black lung clinics were West Virginians, according to the Black Lung Data and Resource Center at the University of Illinois Chicago.

That trend is widely attributed to more frequent exposures to silica dust. With the easily-accessible coal already mined, workers often grind through rock embedded with quartz to mine thinner and thinner seams. Grinding that quartz creates silica dust, which is 20 times more toxic than coal dust alone.

Debbie Johnson on her front porch.
Debbie Johnson, a nurse in Mercer County, talks about her husband Danny, a retired coal miner who has been diagnosed with silicosis and black lung disease. Photo by Roger May.

“It’s the silica dust that’s killing them,” Johnson’s wife Debbie said. As a black lung nurse at Bluestone Health Center in Kegley, she’s used to seeing patients like Johnson — miners who get winded from walking up their front porch stairs, on a daily basis.

“Now they’ve got black lung. He’s got black lung,” she said, gesturing to her husband. “A whole lot of them have black lung.”

Danny Johnson talks about the reality of work in the coal mines.

By now, coal workers weren’t supposed to get black lung. Half a century ago, 40,000 West Virginia miners went on strike until Congress passed landmark legislation to “eliminate conditions in mines which cause the disease.” Since then, regulators have also enacted federal rules to further limit workers’ overall dust exposure.

But the lingering and now increasing trend of silica-induced lung disease wasn’t directly addressed until this summer. After decades of delay, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed regulations to set and enforce a stricter limit on silica dust exposure.

Health advocates have expressed mixed feelings about the rule: while many are grateful that MSHA is acting, some are worried about whether the rule as written will actually protect miners.

But most of the people who have worked in coal mines or with coal miners agree: something needs to be done, and it has to be done right. Otherwise, Danny Johnson is confident his fate will be shared by the next generation of miners.

“You work hard for this and that, and everybody’s gonna end up like me — dead,” he said, pointing at his exposed chest. “This stuff is killing me more and more.”

Danny Johnson mask.
Danny Johnson holds a protective mask he wore in the mines for a single shift. It used to be white. Photo by Roger May.

‘It’s horrible to hear him sleep’

At the New River Health Clinic in Oak Hill, 69-year-old retired miner Roy Keith sat across from respiratory therapist Lisa Emery. It was Keith’s first health care visit in years; he was there to see if he qualifies for West Virginia’s black lung benefits program.

Like Danny Johnson, Keith spent decades mining coal underground, and his lungs are a constant reminder of the job’s effect on his health.

“I like to play softball, but I can’t run,” Keith said.

“It’s horrible to hear him sleep,” his partner, Peggy Dickens, told Emery.

Roy Keith black lung test.
Lisa Emery (left) consults Roy Keith (right) on how she’s going to test his breathing for black lung disease. Photo by Allen Siegler.

In her eighth year at New River Health, Emery said she’s been seeing more and more miners in their 30s and 40s with severe black lung. So many have no choice but to keep working the dusty jobs if they want to support their families, she said.

“It just makes me cry every day,” Emery said.

After Emery asked him questions about his breathing, Keith sat in a glass-paneled booth, a machine that tests miners’ lung capacity. In the transparent box, Keith nodded as Emery instructed him to inhale deeply and then exhale as quickly as possible.

Roy Keith Black Lung breathing test
Roy Keith tests his breathing to see if he is eligible for West Virginia state black lung benefits. Photo by Allen Siegler.

In his first few attempts, Keith couldn’t stop coughing, so much so that Emery had to restart the tests. His face vibrated and turned purple as his lungs expelled as much air as they could.

Watching her partner from a seat across the room, Dickens cringed as Keith shook and coughed. Her father was a West Virginia coal miner as well, and he had a silica-caused breathing disease when he died at 49.

“It just reminds me of Daddy,” she said.

Thoughts for a long-overdue problem

UMWA public comment
A United Mine Workers of America member testifies at a Mine Safety and Health Administration public meeting about a proposed silica dust rule. Photo by Allen Siegler.

On an August morning in Beaver, over 100 people filed into the dimly-lit auditorium of MSHA’s National Mine Health and Safety Academy. The agency was holding a hearing on its proposed silica rule and gathering comments from miners, miner advocates and representatives of mining companies.

It was the best opportunity for coal miners from central Appalachia, people like Terry Lilly, to share their thoughts directly with MSHA officials. The retired miner sat and spoke softly into a microphone.

“I’d like these young [miners] to realize they need to wake up,” Lilly told the panel, pausing between sentences to catch his breath. “One of these days you’ll be like me, and you can’t walk across the parking lot.”

Terry Lilly
Terry Lilly, a former miner with black lung, stands in a hallway after providing a comment at a Mine Safety and Health Administration meeting in Raleigh County about a proposed silica dust rule. Photo by Allen Siegler.

Lilly spent 30 years working underground and now has only 40% of his lung capacity remaining. He knows the way the mines were set up in the 1980s — and the way some are run now — do not make it easy for workers to avoid disease. Lilly remembers how some mine operators would pressure or force miners like him to manipulate dust samples and hide overexposure.

Terry Lilly talks about the effect black lung disease has had on his day-to-day life.

In fact, independent analyses of MSHA’s own coal mine dust samples show its previous silica dust exposure limits failed to adequately protect miners for decades. An investigation by NPR and PBS Frontline in 2018 analyzed MSHA’s data and found 21,000 instances of overexposure to silica dust since 1986.

While the proposed rule, in its current form, does require regular dust sampling, much of its effectiveness will depend on mining companies sampling their own mines and reporting it accurately and honestly. Although some companies may do that, Lilly worries there are still loopholes.

In the back rows of the auditorium, Roosevelt Neal and John Cline sat next to each other. Neal, a 71-year-old former miner from Raleigh County, received his black lung diagnosis when he was in his 50s. Ironically, he first took a job underground so his family would have access to health insurance.

“I know I got a little age on me, but…I’m out of oxygen just walking up steps,” he said.

At the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beaver, Roosevelt Neal (left) and John Cline (right) watch a Mine Safety and Health Administration public hearing about a silica dust rule proposal. Cline, a longtime lawyer in southern West Virginia, helped Neal, a former coal miner with black lung disease, win his federal black lung benefits case. Photo by Allen Siegler.

When the Department of Labor rejected his request for black lung benefits, Neal turned to Cline, a lawyer and longtime West Virginia labor rights advocate who played a key role in reforming the federal black lung benefits system. With Cline’s help, Neal won the money the federal government ultimately said he deserved.

Since the mid-1980s, Cline has worked with hundreds of West Virginia miners disabled by silica dust. While he views this rule-making process as part of a continued effort to keep miners healthy, he doesn’t forget that in the past, it’s been difficult for MSHA to pass and enforce dust regulations that prevent miners from getting this preventable disease.

“I’ve watched so many people decline and pass from this,” Cline said. “Not only the shortness of breath, but the effect it has on mental health and making life such a terrible struggle.”

Could be here today and gone tomorrow

If Cecil Matney Jr. had made it to Beaver, the 49-year-old Logan County coal miner planned to speak, using the half of his lung function he has left, about some of the activities he can no longer do: hunting, going on walks with his family, kicking a soccer ball around with his 12 and 13-year-old sons.

He may have mentioned that he’s still working as a miner: he can’t afford to retire from the mines despite having a disease that’s slowly killing him. Or that multiple pulmonologists have told him he’ll likely need a lung transplant soon.

“It feels like a ton of bricks laying on your chest when you’re trying to catch your breath,” Matney said. “My wife’s woken me up thinking I was dying because I wasn’t breathing.”

Front yard miner statue.
A coal miner statue in the front yard of Debbie and Danny Johnson in Rock, West Virginia. Photo by Roger May.

He often sees white specks floating in the air underground. The dust continues to cripple many miners like him with progressive massive fibrosis.

Cecil Matney Jr. talks about his uncertain future.

Matney recognizes what an effective silica rule could do for the thousands of West Virginia miners like himself. That is, if regulations are strict enough — and if there’s rigorous oversight and enforcement — to keep coal operators in line.

“If you’re not holding the company responsible for something, they’re gonna break that rule,” Matney said. “They could care less. That’s just the facts about it.”

But for him, the damage has literally crystallized in his lungs. Embedded silica particles and fibrotic tissue sap his ability to breathe. His disease, and his struggle for breath and continued life, is the result of the government’s past failure to act on silica dust.

Matney wants to live long enough to see his sons become adults, to teach them how to act and to watch them have children of their own. But he knows his decades of dust have made these aspirations ambitious at best.

“At the rate I’m going, that’s just something you don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I could be here today and be gone tomorrow. It’s just the way it works.”

Howard Berkes of Public Health Watch and Justin Hicks of Louisville Public Media contributed to reporting this story.

‘This stuff is killing me’: After decades of delay, new black lung protections come too late for some West Virginia coal miners appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

West Virginia lawmakers pour around $100 million into improving the jails system. It’s not nearly enough.

Two weeks ago, lawmakers gathered in Charleston to finalize Gov. Jim Justice’s plan to funnel $21 million to increase salaries for corrections officers and address the growing crisis with West Virginia’s dangerous jails and prisons.

Earlier this year, lawmakers also put $75 million towards long overdue repairs within the system, an amount the governor said he’s going to slightly increase.

On the same day, just an hour’s drive away in Beckley, a federal lawsuit was filed that made it clear the new money is a drop in the bucket of what is needed to fill large staff vacancies and complete important repairs at the state’s jails and prisons.

In the lawsuit filed on behalf of current and former inmates, officials who run or previously ran West Virginia’s jails and prisons system said that at least another $39 million is needed to get enough people working the cell blocks and at least $150 million is required to make those cell blocks habitable.

The problem isn’t new — back in 1946, the West Virginia Supreme Court recommended a regional jail system because county lockups had become “totally unfit for human habitation,” according to the suit. It took until 1985 before the Legislature did anything about it and another 20 years for the state to completely switch over to regional jails, the suit states.

Even Moundsville, the very first state prison, was taken to task in the early 1980s when a county judge found the conditions unconstitutional, per the suit.

The current staffing and facility issues have been going on for at least a decade, and state officials running the system said they have repeatedly told lawmakers and the governor about the dire needs.

“Prior to every legislative session, we have a meeting with the budget office,” said then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeff Sandy in a deposition earlier this year. “We provide them with our needs.”

“We told them,” he added.

Officer vacancies are a long-standing issue

With a little more than 700 vacancies in correctional officer positions, prison commissioner Billy Marshall told lawmakers this month that one jail in the Eastern Panhandle was “operating on smoke and mirrors” with a dozen officers working the floor, assisted by National Guard and civilian employees.

The raise, which would jump starting pay from $35,000 for new officers to $40,000 (about a $4 an hour raise), should help fill the ranks, according to Marshall. By an officer’s third year, they would top out at $48,000.

This isn’t the first-time correctional officers have had their pay increased; in 2017, base salary was hovering around the poverty line, at $24,000 a year. The following year, lawmakers raised the starting pay to $32,000 – officers later received a few small raises alongside other state employees.

Sen. Jason Barrett, R-Berkeley, during the recent legislative session. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Sen. Jason Barrett, a Republican from Berkeley County who sits on the jails and prison oversight and finance committees, said the latest bump doesn’t put the system “right where we need to be or want to be.”

He said this session was more or less an attempt to fill vacancies among low-rung officers, often in their first couple of years, who are day-in and day-out working the floor. Prison officials told lawmakers this month these workers account for 95% of vacancies.

“The way the system is currently set up, it’s capped out for those groups, so the only option they have is either to move into an administrative role or go find another job,” Barrett said.

In order to help fill the hole, Justice called out roughly 350 National Guard personnel to work the floor in August 2022. Marshall said the stop gap is costing the state more than filling the vacancies and raises across the board.

Guardsmen working jails aren’t new either — a little more than 100 worked at 18 facilities in 2018.

Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler, who chairs the House Jails and Prisons Committee, said the funding package also allows facilities with high vacancies to pay an additional $5,000 a year. Kelly said this will target border counties, such as in the Eastern Panhandle, where nearby Maryland prisons offer starting pay at $10,000 more than West Virginia’s new pay.

One group left largely out of the mix are support staff, such as counselors, cooks and maintenance employees. While they will get two bonuses, Elaine Harris, representative for the Communication Workers of America District 213 which represents corrections workers, said that’s not nearly enough.

“The bonuses for support staff will help, but we all know that bonus will get spent immediately on things they need,” she said.

Due to the chronic staffing shortage, support staff are asked from time-to-time to work the floor as an officer for a shift. For Kenny Matthews, who served time for the better part of a decade in West Virginia, that means inmates stay locked up longer.

“I got paroled in February 2020, but my institution parole officer had to work the floor and couldn’t get my home plan finished to be released until April,” he said. “That happens all the time.”

The staffing shortages can also increase the potential for violence — while serving at Mt. Olive, the state’s maximum security prison, Matthews said 60 to 70 men were kept in the same housing unit.

“Rec time was a crapshoot,” he said. “If there’s not enough staff to let guys out to take a shower, go work out or go to their educational program, that frustration builds, that anger builds and that leads to violence.”

Prisons and jails still need work 

Gov. Jim Justice displays the signed corrections bills in Beckley. Photo courtesy the Governor’s Office.

The physical state of prisons also creates unsafe conditions — Matthews recalled seeing an officer at a regional jail lock himself inside a room, requiring inmates and guards to pull open the door to cut him loose.

Stuck doors are one thing, but Matthews said cell doors that don’t lock at all can lead to assaults.

Annual funding requests from corrections officials to the governor and lawmakers over the last few years paint a dire picture of the system.

The top priority for this year was replacing locks and doors and fences. At two prisons in the northern part of the state, officials asked for a couple million dollars to repair fences that are threatened by hill slips – when a land starts gradually falling off a hill – and rust.

In Randolph County, the Huttonsville Correctional Center needs a sprinkler system to  comply with state code — in the most recent funding request, the division said the prison was facing fines from the fire marshal’s office.

Down the road in Pocahontas County, the Denmar Correctional Center has needed elevators dating back to at least 2019 — the prison is four stories tall and one request stated handicapped prisoners must walk up stairs. Like Huttonsville, it too needs a sprinkler system because the heads are painted over.

Right off the Ohio River in Mason County, the state’s women’s prison needs a heating and cooling unit as well as a “lightning suppression system” so the facility’s electronics can still work after being struck in thunderstorms. According to its request, this issue dates back to 2006.

“They’re not asking for money. They’re just asking for better conditions.”

Stephen New, a lawyer suing to fix living conditions in jails and prisons.

The federal lawsuit filed earlier this month seeks for a judge to compel the state to significantly increase funding to fix the facilities.

While both Justice and Marshall have stated the lawsuit is “just lawyers taking advantage of a situation,” attorney Stephen New, who filed the lawsuit, said no one is looking for a pay out.

“They’re not asking for money,” he said. “They’re just asking for better conditions.”

The lawsuit pegs the division’s list of repairs at $277 million as of April 2022, about in line with the $259 million cited in the fiscal year 2024 budget proposal.

Matthews said it’s just half measures.

“Look, they put up about $100 million — that’s only a third of the bill,” he said. “You want to know what happens if I pay a third of my bills? I end up homeless. But the DCR can just keep going on.”

Gov. Jim Justice addresses a group of corrections officers in Beckley before signing several bills into law. Photo courtesy the Governor’s Office.

Last week, Justice sat in a chair underneath a canopy tent, flanked by Babydog, the current Homeland Security Secretary Mark Sorsaia and Commissioner Marshall.

After a long winded spiel about getting his daddy’s shotgun fixed, Justice was ready to sign off the pay raise and other corrections bills — but the sun canopy was wreaking havoc on the photo op. So Marshall started moving the desk out into the sunlight when a uniformed officer said, “Why don’t we just move the tent?”

“That wasn’t our greatest moment there,” Justice said.

Another official joked, “Give that man a raise.”

After inking the bill, Justice, known for pumping up every piece of legislation he signs, said this wouldn’t be the silver bullet for corrections.

“Will this fix everything?” he asked. “Maybe not. Maybe not.”

West Virginia lawmakers pour around $100 million into improving the jails system. It’s not nearly enough. appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Regulators asked water districts across West Virginia if their fire hydrants work. Only half responded

When Ric Cavender’s house caught fire on May 5 in the Edgewood neighborhood of Charleston, the capital city’s fire department was on the scene within minutes to knock down the blaze. 

However, when firefighters hooked up to the hydrants in the area – literally yards down the street from the home – they found not one, not two, but three didn’t work, according to a lawsuit. 

While Cavender saw his earthly possessions burn up, he also lost a best friend: Duke, the family dog. 

Now, state regulators are trying to see if Cavender’s tragedy is a warning of a bigger problem plaguing communities. On June 30, the West Virginia Public Service Commission launched a statewide investigation into the number of working fire hydrants, but it turns out that’s easier said than done.

More than a week after the initial deadline, a little more than half of the state’s 301 water districts have responded.  

Now, regulators have extended the deadline to Aug. 25, threatening up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines for anyone who defies it. Most of the largest systems have submitted responses, with the notable exception of the Berkeley County Public Service Water District, which serves one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. 

As hydrant data trickles in, West Virginia ranks among worst states for fire deaths 

Fire protection is a huge problem in West Virginia; the state was ranked second in the nation from 2015-2019 in fire deaths per capita, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In 2022, at least 19 West Virginians died in house fires — the death rate of house fires is roughly double that than the rest of the nation, according to FEMA. 

But Paul Calamita, the general counsel for the West Virginia Municipal Water Quality Association, said the data requests are a bit overwhelming for small water districts, who he said might have to hire consultants to figure it out. He said the less than a month turnaround for data was an arbitrary timeline that didn’t give enough time for districts to respond. 

“We just think this move is tone deaf and it’s just the PSC seeing how quickly they can make people jump,” Calamita said. 

This empty lot is where Ric Cavender’s house once stood. Photo by Henry Culvyhouse

The association sent a letter asking for an extension for large systems (defined as serving 10,000 or more residents) until Sept. 15 to submit, followed by mid-sized systems submitting in November and small systems at the end of the year, Calamita said. 

In its extension order, the PSC stated information on fire hydrants are already supposed to be filed by the water utilities to the commission in an annual report. Those reports describe each  system’s inventory in broad strokes, like the number of fire hydrants and their size and capability. 

But the current 27-question survey sent to water districts dives deeper, asking questions about the age of the system, details on inspections and problems relating to the hydrants. 

A PSC spokesman declined to state whether the timeline has caused a disparity in information, citing its Aug. 7 order as “speaking for itself.”

However, Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, whose Joint Standing Committee on Technology and Infrastructure heard PSC testimony on the issue earlier this week, said he doesn’t think it will be an issue. 

“We’re working on a very aggressive time frame, but I wouldn’t view this as the end of our fact gathering process,” Linville said. Linville said the investigation isn’t about “finger pointing” at the water districts, but a fact-finding mission to inform lawmakers come the January 2024 regular session. 

Meanwhile, up on Chester Road in Charleston, Matt McKinney tinkers in his garage, directly across the street from the now-vacant lot where Cavender’s house once stood. 

He said on the night of the fire, his newborn woke him up – when he walked down stairs to fix a bottle, he saw the flashing red lights of the engines and the smoking billowing in the street. In the weeks following the blaze, McKinney said he saw West Virginia American Water trucks come and go in the neighborhood; he even saw workers dig up a line. 

“It’s definitely scary that it happened,” he said. 

Down the street stand two fire hydrants — one looks relatively new, while the other has an orange placard hanging off it stating, “not in service.”  A West Virginia American water spokeswoman said the broken one is being kept out of service due to an ongoing lawsuit over the fire. 

Regulators asked water districts across West Virginia if their fire hydrants work. Only half responded appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

West Virginia University faces budget cuts and layoffs. Here’s what to know

As students prepare to return to campus, painful cuts to degree programs and faculty positions at West Virginia University are on the horizon as administrators work to fix a $45 million budget deficit.

At this moment, almost half of the faculty are waiting to find out whether they will still have a job in a year or need to find work elsewhere. 

Based on enrollment trends and revenue, many degree programs across the campus are having to prove to administrators that they will be able to attract students and valuable tuition dollars in the years to come.

The process is expected to be finished by mid-fall and will result in some tenured professors being laid off as programs are downsized or eliminated.

“Please understand how demoralizing, heartbreaking, and scary it is to think you are secure in your faculty position only to now live in fear every day that it will be cut,” wrote a faculty member in a public comment — one of almost two hundred submitted in response to a recently proposed rule changes that will make it easier to lay off faculty. 

In one letter to the board, dozens of professors said that the way in which the layoffs are being done will make it difficult to recruit faculty, undermine academic freedom, imperil WVU’s research efforts and ultimately hurt students.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why is there a budget crisis at WVU?

Rhododendrons are in bloom on the downtown campus as seen Monday, May, 22, 2023. (WVU Photo/Jennifer Shephard)

Student enrollment, the single biggest source of revenue through tuition, has steadily declined over the past decade and is expected to continue going down. Today, around 5,000 fewer students are enrolled – and paying tuition – than in 2014.

The enrollment decline started before the COVID-19 pandemic but was exacerbated by it. Both in West Virginia and nationwide, fewer high school seniors are choosing to attend college than before the pandemic. 

At WVU, a long-term budget problem became an immediate budget crunch after the university enrolled smaller freshmen classes during the pandemic and administrators underestimated how many students would graduate in spring of 2022. More students left than were coming in, and tuition revenue went down.

WVU’s budget situation is also closely tied to actions by state lawmakers. Public funding has gone down over the last decade, forcing the university to become more dependent on tuition revenue, according to analysis from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. 

While both enrollment and state funding have declined, expenses have increased. Changes made by lawmakers earlier this year to the state health insurance plan will cost the university $10 million more next year. Inflation and higher wages have also affected the budget, according to administrators.

“At the end of the day, we’ve dropped enrollment,” Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives, said during a meeting with faculty earlier this summer. “Our expenses are up. Our state appropriations are not going to save us. And we’ve got to figure out a pathway collectively forward.”

What is WVU going to do about its budget deficit?

In March, WVU administrators announced the $45 million budget shortfall and quickly began a review of degree programs. By mid-summer, almost half were placed “under review” based on enrollment and revenue.

The list includes the law school, the education program, the creative arts college, the public health school, the pharmacy school, the math program, some engineering programs and more.

Faculty and leaders have defended their programs and made the case for why they should be kept. In light of the enrollment and revenue data collected by top administrators, leadership from each program have recently submitted plans detailing current and future efforts to increase enrollment and reduce costs.

Closing or shrinking programs and the resulting layoffs are the latest — and most drastic — cost-cutting measure that WVU has asked faculty to go through.

Since 2020, administrators have been looking to cut costs through a process that they’ve called “Academic Transformation.” Prior to the current review, they have merged two pairs of colleges and restructured other programs.

At the beginning of this year, budget officials implemented a hiring freeze and stopped spending on supplies, employee hospitality and travel in most situations. Printing on physical paper was specifically discouraged.

Who is to blame for the budget crisis? Who will fix it?

President E. Gordon Gee delivers his State of the University address earlier this year. (WVU Photo/Matt Sunday)

In a state with a declining college-going rate and poor economic conditions, several external factors have contributed to the crisis. 

President E. Gordon Gee, who just had his contract renewed through 2025 by the university’s governing board and says he plans to step down afterwards, has presented the budget cuts as a necessary step to continue attracting students to a smaller institution. 

“My friends, we have been overgrown for a very long time,” he said in a March address to faculty and students. 

After Gee was chosen as WVU’s president in 2014, he pledged to increase enrollment to 40,000 students, an increase of several thousand students. Enrollment has steadily gone down since and is now around 26,000

Administrators have been in the driver’s seat during this crisis. They’ve decided when to release information, changed rules to make it easier to lay off faculty members and, ultimately, will decide who to cut. 

Faculty acknowledge that the budget crisis must be dealt with but have sharply criticized the speed and manner in which cuts are being made. Several times, faculty members have asked why highly-paid senior administrators are not taking pay cuts to help with the crisis.

Alsop, who oversees much of the university’s business operations, has said that this would be bad for morale and make it difficult to recruit future job candidates.

How does this change what WVU will be in a decade?

In a decade, there will likely be fewer faculty, fewer staff and fewer students at WVU. 

Gee has presented a vision of a smaller institution that is focused on programs that students want. He has also frequently emphasized WVU’s health care and research wings as significant parts of the university’s future.

Those areas have grown in recent years with more grant revenue to do research and WVU Medicine’s expansion across the state.

Some high school seniors may find that the program they want to attend no longer exists at WVU. But it’s not clear yet exactly what programs these could be.

On August 14, WVU is expected to release information about which academic programs are on the chopping block and could be downsized or discontinued. Final decisions will be made in September.

West Virginia University faces budget cuts and layoffs. Here’s what to know appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

100 Days in Appalachia

What Thursday’s Supreme Court order means for the future of the Mountain Valley Pipeline — and for West Virginia

Lawyers were nearly half-way through their arguments in a federal courthouse Thursday in Richmond, Va. when one of the presiding judges informed the court that the Supreme Court had issued an order allowing construction to resume on the Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

The brief, unsigned order added another layer of complexity to the already-complicated case, leaving the future of a $6.6 billion controversial natural gas pipeline, endangered species and a national forest hanging in the balance. 

Here’s where things stand.  

How the Supreme Court got involved

The 4th Circuit issued two stays — temporary holds — on the project earlier this month after environmental groups filed motions requesting the pipeline’s construction to stop. The groups argued that, without a stay, the pipeline’s construction would cause “irreparable harm” while the current legal challenges worked their way through the courts. 

Lawyers for the pipeline responded by filing an emergency petition with the Supreme Court to get the holds removed and the two pending cases dismissed, citing the need for quick action in order to meet the project’s winter deadline.

They got some of what they wanted: the high court, in an unsigned order Thursday, threw out the stays, which means construction can resume on the last section needed to finish the 303-mile natural gas pipeline: a controversial 3.5-mile section that snakes through the fragile terrain of the Jefferson National Forest. But the Supreme Court didn’t weigh in on the pending cases, leaving the 4th Circuit to decide whether to move forward with the lawsuits.

The role of the 4th Circuit Court

The Supreme Court’s decision came down right as pipeline lawyers, environmental lawyers and judges were all gathered in the federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., to hear arguments on a motion to dismiss the current legal challenges against the pipeline. 

Those lawsuits, all filed by environmental groups, argue the pipeline’s plan doesn’t follow federal environmental law. One challenge stems from the U.S. Forest Service’s move in May to amend its land management plan: as proposed, the project violated several standards of the national forest’s original plan. Attorneys for the Wilderness Society petitioned the 4th Circuit Court to review the amended Land and Resource Management Plan, arguing that it violates several environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act. 

The lawsuit also argued that the permit granted to the pipeline by the Bureau of Land Management violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

The other pending lawsuit, filed by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2023 report that concluded endangered species wouldn’t be jeopardized by the pipeline. 

Thursday’s arguments revolved around a motion to dismiss the environmental groups’ cases. Backers of the pipeline argue that the 4th Circuit Court no longer has jurisdiction over the legal challenges, after Congress passed a debt ceiling bill that included a provision to fast track the remaining approvals needed to complete the pipeline and stripped the court’s power to review permits given to the project by federal departments. 

The provision also gave the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals sole judiciary authority over any legal challenges against the pipeline. 

While the pipeline says the 4th Circuit Court no longer has authority, the environmental groups disagree. As the news of the Supreme Court decision allowing pipeline construction to resume came down on Thursday, it was right as Kym Meyer of the Southern Environmental Law Center was arguing that Congress didn’t have the constitutional authority to reassign authority over the pipeline.

“You can’t use jurisdiction stripping, as Congress has intended to here, as a means to an end,” she said. Instead, the groups are arguing that Congress overstepped and violated the separation of powers doctrine, which is meant to prevent a governmental branch from having too much authority. 

Now, the court has to determine whether Congress overstepped its constitutional authority and if it even has jurisdiction to rule on the constitutionality of the pipeline provision enacted by Congress. 

The fate of the Mountain Valley Pipeline

Ultimately, the future of the pipeline is still uncertain. Its completion can’t be guaranteed as it still waits for the 4th Circuit Court to decide whether to dismiss the pending two cases challenging the project. 

If the court decides to dismiss the cases, the environmental groups could potentially pursue legal recourse through the D.C. Circuit Court, which was the court Congress granted jurisdiction through the debt ceiling bill. But if the court decides not to dismiss the lawsuits, the environmental groups could try to halt construction again as their cases continue to work through the court. 

For now, what comes next will be determined by how the 4th Circuit Court rules over the motion to dismiss the cases. Until then, construction on the pipeline can continue.

What Thursday’s Supreme Court order means for the future of the Mountain Valley Pipeline — and for West Virginia appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Battle over books: Wood County residents pressure library to restrict titles with LGBTQ, sexual themes

PARKERSBURG — Brightly colored doodles, poetry and character sheets for role-playing games line the walls of the teen section in the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library. Each month, several groups of teenagers gather here to create characters, battle monsters and explore fantasy worlds as a part of the branch’s long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

“D&D is a hobby of mine,” said teen librarian Edain Campbell, who takes on the role of Dungeon Master. “Getting to share that with these kids and see how stoked they get, especially about really ridiculous stuff — there’s nothing more satisfying to me.” 

The library’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign and other role playing games have become so popular that there’s even a waiting list to get in.

Getting teenagers to the library is a win. With games, crafts and other activities, they have a place to express themselves in an environment where being different is encouraged. And it’s all working. Teen participation in library programs is up 500%, Campbell said.

Still, a small, but vocal group of local residents sees something more dangerous among the books. On a nearby shelf, two sex education books — Let’s Talk About It by Erica Moen and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson — are sandwiched between other titles. 

Both books have recently been at the center of controversy for the library, as concerned parents and residents urge library administrators to remove these titles from public collections that children have access to.

An array of sticky notes adorning a wall in the teen section of the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library. Photo by Julia Garrison.

As some have tried to get books removed from West Virginia libraries, a group of people in Wood County is eying a more forceful approach. They’ve taken aim at library funding, urged elected officials to restrict books and are seeking to seat a supporter on the boards that oversee public schools and libraries.

They have even worked with a local state senator to propose a sweeping bill to regulate books — and tried to have library leaders thrown in jail.

To librarians working with the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library, the most valuable aspect of the library is free access to information. They say the library exists to educate — even when the conversation gets tough.

“Just because something frightens you or is uncomfortable or makes you upset doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value,” Campbell said. “In fact, I would argue that things that are upsetting and difficult are even more important.”

Book bans and police reports

On a weekday afternoon in April, Wood County residents Jessica Rowley and John Davis walked into the Parkersburg Police Department carrying a stack of library books and documents. 

They sat in the police chief’s office and complained that they had evidence of a crime:  The Parkersbug and Wood County Public Library and its director Brian Raitz were violating state law by showing obscene material to minors. 

This wasn’t the first attempt by Rowley, Davis and other Wood County residents to restrict access to certain books in the library’s collection. In fall of last year, a display for “Banned Books Week” that included the adult graphic memoir Gender Queer almost caused the library’s censure by the Parkersburg City Council. 

In the following months, members of the small but vocal Mid-Ohio Valley Citizens Action Coalition spoke about Gender Queer and other books at public meeting after meeting, unsuccessfully campaigning against levy votes that provide crucial funding to the library and pushing public officials to restrict the books to adults only. Rowley and Davis are both members of the citizen action group. 

The teen section of the Parkersburg and Wood County Public library including a display of a handful of its nonfiction titles. Photo by Julia Garrison.

In January, Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, introduced a bill that the group helped craft to expand the definition of obscene material and ban it in public schools and nearby facilities  – such as libraries. It would also criminalize “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display to any minor.”

He said the bill, which did not get out of committee during this year’s session, was intended to prohibit three specific books from Wood County libraries and schools.

In March, Rowley lodged a challenge, the library’s formal process for objecting to material, against Let’s Talk About It, saying the book taught teenagers how to engage in sexual activities. She asked that the book be replaced with a children’s Bible; however, her request was denied. There are several children’s Bibles already at the library.

In the chief’s office, Rowley and Davis told the police chief and another officer that they did not want to remove books entirely from the library’s collection, but instead place them in a separate location where children could not access them. 

“There appears to be an ongoing effort to sexually groom young children, and it must stop,” Davis wrote to the police in an email shortly before the meeting. “If not, it will surely lead to more children being harmed by adults seeking pedophilia relationships.” 

But documents show that the Wood County Prosecutor advised that the current definition of obscene material — which would have been expanded by Azinger’s proposed law — would prevent prosecution. The case was closed.

Which library books are being challenged?

The books challenged in Parkersburg all contain mentions of sex, in text or illustrations, either as a plot-point or a sexual education device. The most cited sexual reference at public meetings throughout the county has been from Gender Queer, when one character performs oral sex on another character who is nonbinary. No contested titles are in the children’s section, two are in the teen section, and the rest are part of the public library’s adult collection.

But while those opposing the inclusion of these books at the Wood County library are pushing to restrict access, the only books the library keeps locked up are ones that are archival or potentially fragile. Raitz said that access is the guiding principle for selecting a diverse range of books for the collection, and that restricting these titles — as the library’s critics have suggested — is not the library’s role.

“We leave it to the parents and guardians and the individual to make that decision for themselves,” he said. The library’s policy states that any parent or guardian is responsible for the content checked out on a child’s library card.

A photo of books in the children’s “our society” section of the library. Photo by Julia Garrison.

But Sean Keefe, a member of the citizen action group pushing for the removal of the books, doesn’t agree. 

“It should not be available only to that child,” said Keefe, who said he does not own a library card. “It should be available to the parent.”

Putting some books into a separate collection will have the same effect as censoring the books from the library completely, said Courtney Young, former president of the American Library Association.  

“It is perceived as a compromise, but is still not a good thing,” she said. 

Young said separating the books and making patrons specifically request access would both create a fear and stigma surrounding the book and also make it more likely that children will search for the material. 

A national movement to challenge and ban books

Challenges to books are on the rise across the country. And Wood County is not the only place in West Virginia where contentious conversations about books have come up in recent years. 

In 2021, a Pocahontas County teacher faced criticism from parents for including The Hate U Give in the year’s curriculum; the parents complained the book contained a large amount of sexual content. Last year, a petition garnered almost 300 signatures to try and have The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison removed from the high school English curriculum at a Berkeley County school over concerns that minors were being exposed to adult themes.

Public libraries across the country have also become political battlegrounds. In Washington State, officials in a Spokane suburb tried to take control of the library after a challenge to its inclusion of Gender Queer and a library in one Michigan town was defunded for keeping a LGBTQ+ title in its collection. 

Librarians across the country face harassment and judgment, while new programs emerge out of the controversy to help them better understand the importance of libraries with large and diverse collections. 

Young, the former American Library Association head, said she is scared for librarians who have to deal with issues of censorship and book challenges in their daily work. 

“You should not be attacking them personally because there is bound paper on a shelf in a building,” she said. 

Lots of noise, but few formal book challenges

While community members have repeatedly spoken against the books at public meetings, political events, and on social media, only a handful of challenges — the formal process for a book to be removed from the library collection — have been brought to the library director.

Raitz, the library director, said local residents have filed a total of three challenges in the last year. All have been denied. 

That’s been frustrating for Rowley and other members of the community action group. 

“The ones that are even supposedly on our side won’t even speak out against it,” Rowley said in May. “They won’t say anything.”

Bookshelves in the young reader’s room of the Parkersburg & Wood County Public Library adorned with flags hung up by librarians for their themed summer programming “All Together Now” Photo by Julia Garrison.

Earlier this year, the group changed tactics and is now pushing to get one of their members on the library board that has the final say about what books are and are not at the library. 

The group has backed Chad Conley, a substitute teacher who has criticized the books in the library and the selection process for its board, to be appointed to the library board. He is also running for a board of education seat in 2024 under the tagline of “Protecting Our Children” after an unsuccessful run last year. 

Applications closed earlier this week and the Board of Education expects to announce their selection in August. The newest member of the board will serve alongside four other board members.

While heated discussions continue about what books are in the library, Raitz is focused on showing that the library is more than a few controversial books. 

The library has undergone significant changes to house more patrons and provide more spaces for collaboration, Raitz explained as he walked through the basement of the library. The new linoleum flooring was a mid-pandemic renovation to replace 20-year-old carpet.

The library has also expanded to provide more space for programs like tax filing prep and the biweekly Friends of the Library used book sale. No matter what material or resource people are looking for, Raitz said that the library will be a place that protects the freedom to read — not censors.

“Once you start opening that door, where does the line get drawn?” he said.

The Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library’s main entrance on Emerson Avenue. Photo by Julia Garrison.

Battle over books: Wood County residents pressure library to restrict titles with LGBTQ, sexual themes appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.