As schools consolidate in rural Harrison County, students and alumni worry kids will suffer

As schools consolidate in rural Harrison County, students and alumni worry kids will suffer

SALEM — Salem Elementary School always felt like home to Angel Smith and Joshua Griffin.

Smith remembers adventures looking for bugs on the trail behind the school. Classes were small, and her classmates were people she’d grown up with. There were teachers who’d spend their own money on pizza for the class and took extra time with her on more difficult subjects. 

Now a mother, she had hoped her nine-month-old son would get to have a similar experience.

“I want him to be able to go up to Salem, right where I went,” she said.

Griffin said he struggled in school, but his time at Salem was a bright spot where teachers gave him more personal attention — attention that was tougher to come by in high school.

“The larger the classes got, the harder it was to actually get that individual help,” he said.

Now, following a school board vote, Salem Elementary and other Harrison County schools are expected to consolidate, and bigger schools and classrooms will result. County officials say the main reason for the consolidation is staff vacancies — and the problem is compounded by fewer students due in part to new state laws encouraging students to transfer to private schools and homeschooling.

If Harrison County school board consolidation plans go through, Salem will lose its only school, Salem Elementary School. Photo by Erin Beck.

Under the plan approved by the county, six schools will be combined into three buildings. While the other consolidating schools are all in Clarksburg, Salem will be left without a school. If state educational officials approve the plan, it would be implemented in the 2025-2026 school year.

Harrison County Board of Education President Gary Hamrick said that fewer teachers are entering the workforce, adding that state lawmakers have devalued teaching degrees by making it easier to obtain alternative certifications. He also said teacher shortages have become worse over the years; some schools are reliant on long-term substitutes, and some days, no substitute is available at all.

“And then it puts the onus on the permanent teachers there to cover a couple classrooms, just to make it through the day,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Harrison County is struggling with people moving away and an aging population, even as other recent laws are making it easier for students to leave public school for virtual schools, charter schools and homeschooling. 

Liberty High School may be merged with another Clarksburg school, Robert C. Byrd. Photo courtesy Wayne Shuman.

Now, Hamrick said the school board has no choice but to try to prevent future funding deficits by increasing class sizes — some currently only have around ten students.

“Our primary concern is making sure that we educate the students and do it in a way that there’s not an extra burden on the taxpayers,” Hamrick said.

Harrison County Superintendent Dora Stutler and her office’s spokesperson didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, including requests for records supporting stated rationale for the plan.

But Ryan Deems, a teacher at Mountaineer Middle School and president of the Harrison County Education Association, confirmed teachers are leaving the profession. He said the reasons include stress from working with kids with behavior problems, burnout from covering multiple classrooms and low pay.

“Most of my personal friends are teachers,” he said. “And I’m not sure I could name a teacher who hasn’t looked at leaving.”

And some kids are leaving too. In 2021, lawmakers created the Hope Scholarship program to allow students to leave public schools and use the state funding allocated for them on other options, including private schools and homeschooling. 

James Watkins of Emmanuel Christian School leads students in singing during chapel. Photo courtesy Josiah Batten.

Josiah Batten, headmaster of Emmanuel Christian School in Clarksburg, said his school saw an increase in enrollment from about 60 students last year to 95 this year, in large part due to the Hope Scholarship. After the state pays nearly $5,000 a year per child, parents are responsible for about $500 more for the school’s tuition. 

Batten said parents tell him public schools don’t reflect their conservative values, and they thought discipline issues at these schools were going unaddressed. He said because Emmanuel administrators believe parents have a Biblical right to be the educators of their children, parents and teachers work together when discipline is needed.

“If a kid is engaging in what we typically call attention seeking behaviors, it’s because they need attention,” he said.

He said he knows many local families who’ve decided another alternative educational path, homeschooling, is best for their children.

Wayne Shuman and Emily Sendling, students at Liberty High School, speak about their worries about the planned merger of their school with another high school. They talked over lunch at T&L Hotdogs. Photo by Erin Beck.

But even though small private schools and homeschooling can provide individualized attention, Emily Sendling and Wayne Shuman found that in public school, too — and they worry the pending consolidation will change the feel of their close-knit community. 

Sendling and Shuman are 11th graders at Liberty High, which would be combined with another Clarksburg high school — Robert C. Byrd — if the state approves the consolidation plan. The new school would have more than 1,000 students, which they worry will be overwhelming. 

Over lunch at T&L Hot Dogs, Sendling, Shuman, and Liberty cross country coach Jerry Burgess recalled sporting events at the high school with stands filled with supporters.

Burgess, who has coached at multiple schools, said students surround him wanting photos with him at games.  

“That’s never happened anywhere else,” he said.

Jerry Burgess, Liberty High School cross country coach, opposes the merger of the school with Robert C. Byrd High School. Photo by Erin Beck.

While Shuman will have graduated by the time the proposed consolidations take place, he worries about his younger sister, who has a developmental disability. When consolidation plans were announced, one of the special education teachers who helped his sister left in fear for her job.

“I can tell you, if this was reversed, teachers would come back,” Burgess said.

Right now, Shuman’s sister is a sophomore at Liberty, and the small class sizes mean she gets support and one-on-one attention. But all three agreed that attention might be harder to come by when the size of the school more than doubles. 

“She’d get swallowed,” Burgess said.

As schools consolidate in rural Harrison County, students and alumni worry kids will suffer appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

West Virginia is required to have a five-year plan outlining its energy priorities. It hasn’t published one in nearly a decade.

West Virginia, a state that continues to laud its role as an energy producer, hasn’t had an energy plan on the books for a decade, despite a state law requiring it. 

Under state code, the Department of Economic Development’s Office of Energy must develop and submit a five-year energy plan to the governor and Legislature. The report is intended to set the state’s energy policies and direct the private sector. The office is required to submit a new plan six months before the previous plan is set to expire.

But under Gov. Jim Justice’s administration, no plans have been finalized. The office’s last report was completed in 2013, mapping out the energy plan through 2017. Although the Office of Energy held public hearings and received public comments and recommendations on the next iteration — 2018 to 2022 — no finalized report was ever published.

Christy Risch, senior research analyst for the Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University, said these types of plans are important for a state like West Virginia because they lay the groundwork for establishing state energy priorities.  

“The purpose of these plans is to address policy and take stances on the broad categories of energy supply, energy use and energy production,” she said.

When asked about the missing energy plans, Office of Energy Director Nicholas Preservati said there were drafts but no finalized reports. The office is currently working on a draft for a new five-year plan, according to Preservati. 

Behind a statewide energy plan

West Virginia has only created two five-year plans since the requirement was created in 2007 when the state also established the Office of Energy, which was called the Division of Energy at the time. 

Such statewide energy plans aren’t unique; most other states also produce similar reports, which can “enable states to capitalize on existing energy resources, infrastructure, and human capital through targeted goals and directives to encourage economic development” and “set forward-thinking energy policies for the state,” according to the National Association of State Energy Officials

In West Virginia, the five-year plans are also supposed to be accompanied by annual energy development plans, reports where the agency outlines its efforts to implement the state’s energy policy over the previous year as well as propose any legislation recommendations. While there hasn’t been a five-year plan in place since 2017, state energy officials have submitted annual plans to the Legislature every year since 2008 except for in 2018, 2022 and 2023. 

Per state code, the energy plan must address a variety of topics, including energy efficiency, infrastructure, the development and production of new and existing energy sources and the implementation of renewable and technically innovative energy projects. The development process also must include public hearings and meetings to allow the public to provide input on the proposed energy policies and plans.

Because the Office of Energy is also charged with promoting collaboration between West Virginia’s colleges and universities, nonprofits and private companies, Risch was one of several people who helped the state agency with updates to the plan. She said she never received feedback on her 2017 submission, a report on renewable energy, which was supposed to be incorporated into the 2018 to 2022 plan.

“I’m not sure where they were going on that,” Risch said, noting that, at the time, she was waiting for feedback from the Office of Energy before finalizing her portion of the plan. 

Since West Virginia’s last energy plan, there have been significant developments in the industry, including new technologies that prompted the growth of renewable energy sources and investments in battery manufacturing and hydrogen production. This, Risch said, only further underscores the need for a state plan.

“It is important,” Risch said. “An energy plan will show that the state has been considering these issues and understands where they are.”

So far, the state has been able to attract a string of industry and economic development spurred by clean energy investments, including a battery plant in Weirton, the Nucor steel plant in Mason County and the recently-announced LG innovation center. 

But even though the state has already begun to invest in several of the newer parts of the energy industry, a state energy plan is a way West Virginia can ensure it will maximize its investments, said Ann Eisenberg, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University. 

“I think with these novel energy developments right now, there’s very much a Wild West environment throughout the whole country that is getting sort of directed and shaped by federal leadership, but now, states have this opportunity to be more intentional about it as well,” added Eisenberg.

And West Virginia’s unique role as an energy-producing state amid the rapidly developing and expanding energy sector could be in jeopardy. Without a statewide energy plan, the state could be at risk of falling behind other states, according to Risch.   

The absence of an energy plan “shows the state has not put forward the effort to take positions” on newer developments in the energy sector, she said, noting that nuclear is one energy resource West Virginia could further utilize and invest in. 

“Some things you don’t want to miss out on,” Risch added. “But you don’t want to be too early on things that don’t end up being helpful or that are very costly.”  

West Virginia is required to have a five-year plan outlining its energy priorities. It hasn’t published one in nearly a decade. appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Walgreens closure is latest blow to Parsons in decades-long fight against decline

The scene is dark with only the Walgreens lit up, and a dead end sign marks the nearby road.

PARSONS — Driving on U.S. Route 48 from the north into the Tucker County seat, drivers used to be greeted by a three-business plaza. 

But now, with the closure last month of Walgreens, the only store left in the plaza is the Family Dollar. 

“It just looks so empty on this side of town,” said long-time resident Dana Corcoran. “It just looks like a ghost town.” 

When Walgreens announced it would close the Parsons location — one of 150 store closures across the country — it prompted criticism from Gov. Jim Justice, who sent a letter to the corporation decrying the economic loss and lack of warning. 

In Parsons, there’s another option for prescriptions; the St. George Clinic Pharmacy is just a half-mile away. 

But for many, the Walgreens closure is the latest in a long string of closures — a large number of which occurred after the 1985 flood — that has resulted in fewer and fewer places to buy household essentials.

One evening several days after the closure, the indoor lights of the Walgreens still shined on part of the parking lot as former Walgreens workers loaded up a semi-truck with storage totes. 

Some Parsons residents had to rebuild their houses on stilts after the 1985 flood. They said the town never recovered from it and they have few retail options now. Photo by Erin Beck.

Just a short walk away, Mary Moore, 85, lives in a house by the river with her husband, Okey. 

Moore knows well the role pharmacies can play in a community. She worked for Parsons’ locally owned pharmacy, Barb’s Drug Store, for years before it closed, as well at the Rite Aid that followed. She said community members would even walk in to ask for recommendations on other local businesses, such as advice on a good plumber or electrician.

“I miss my people,” she said.

The Moores’ house is one of many in Parsons on stilts — reminders of the Cheat River flood of 1985, which many say irreversibly damaged the town. After that, Parsons’ population dropped: from about 1,900 in 1980 to about 1,300 in 2020.

Insurance agent Bob Gutshall’s original office was wiped out by the flood. He said he had to swim out to survive, gesturing to his chin to describe the height of the water. 

“It’s the flood of ‘85 that killed us,” he said.

But before that, he said the town was once a bustling place, full of restaurants, stores and pedestrians.

“Sometimes you parked your car the night before just to have a place to park for Saturday coming up,” he said.

The Walgreens in Parsons shuttered in mid-December. Photo by Erin Beck.

That was nearly 40 years ago. Now, residents have to drive to cities half an hour to an hour or so away like Elkins, Clarksburg or Morgantown for items like appliances and clothing. And the recent Walgreens closure will mean residents will have to leave town for even more items like seasonal decor, cards and higher-quality toiletries. 

Rob Klein watched a sense of complacency envelop the town following the flood. He wants to see local officials focus more on infrastructure and economic development, but said residents are slow to change. Klein cited one example, when about eight years ago, residents voted down a fee increase for expanded ambulance services. 

“We’re a very gray-haired state,” he said. “And I think Tucker County’s super gray haired.” 

Tucker County Commission President Michael Rosenau said the county is working on economic development — commissioners apply for grants to improve infrastructure, and they are working to promote the river as a kayaking destination.

“We only have like 6,400 residents in our county,” he said. “So there’s not a lot of funds to work with.”

As she makes goodies inside her bakery, Crystal Nutter said as businesses close in Parsons, fewer jobs will be available for her children. Photo by Erin Beck.

There is also some forward-looking planning going on elsewhere in the region, including plans for Corridor H to connect Weston to Front Royal in Virginia, through scenic West Virginia ski areas. 

The planned route will go right past Parsons, but Crystal Nutter, owner of Crystal’s Bakery, said completion will mean less reason to visit their town.

“Why would you get off the four-lane just to come in here to Crystal’s Bakery?” she said. 

Nutter noted the Walgreens closure also meant the loss of jobs. She worries her kids will have to leave town for work.

“I honestly don’t know if anything could survive here because there’s nothing here,” she said.

Walgreens closure is latest blow to Parsons in decades-long fight against decline appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

2023’s Biggest Hits: Our Staff’s Favorite Stories This Year

As we prepare to close the book on 2023, the staff here at 100 Days is thinking back on some of the writing that resonated with them this past year. With topics ranging from religion to community, check out some of their favorites below.

‘Harm Reduction Saves Lives’: Meet the Appalachians Doing the Work

by Taylor Sisk

Every weekend, Ainsley Bryce, the executive director of Holler Harm Reduction, sets up a syringe exchange in the back parking lot of a Dollar General in western North Carolina, where people seek help across state lines. Photo: Stacy Kranitz/For 100 Days in Appalachia
Every weekend, Ainsley Bryce, the executive director of Holler Harm Reduction, sets up a syringe exchange in the back parking lot of a Dollar General in western North Carolina, where people seek help across state lines. Photo: Stacy Kranitz/For 100 Days in Appalachia

There’s a phrase writers often use to describe good writing: “Show, don’t tell.” It’s a concept my colleague at 100 Days Taylor Sisk understands and applies very well in the story “‘Harm Reduction Saves Lives:’ Meet the Appalachians Doing the Work.”

Taylor takes us into the work of people like Ainsely Bryce, director of Holler Harm Reduction based in the North Carolina mountains. On a hot Saturday morning, Bryce and a colleague discreetly distribute supplies like clean needles, naloxone, lip balm and Pedialyte from the parking lot of a Dollar General Store. Taylor also describes the people who show up for help. They are human beings who need help, and Bryce provides it, no questions asked.

Taylor’s writing, along with Stacy Kravitzs’ photos, showed the community and respect – the humanity –  of those giving help and those receiving it.

There are lessons here, I think, about central Appalachia and the people who live here. Our region has run politically red for the past several election cycles, and as Taylor points out, conservative political leaders have not passed policy that aligns with the science of harm reduction.But our people keep showing us that there is another way. A way to address the region’s challenges with kindness and tenacity; with the conviction that ultimately we have to help each other to solve our problems. That we are more than any simplistic red state trope. This is the kind of reporting that I love, and it’s our bread and butter here at 100 Days. We can be honest about the challenges our region faces while lifting up the work and humanity of the people who live here.

– Laura Harbert Allen, Religion Reporter

Protestant Leaders Balance Cultural Divides as LGBTQ Issues Split Appalachian Statehouse

by Laura Harbert Allen

In this April 19, 2019 file photo, a gay pride rainbow flag flies along with the U.S. flag in front of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan. Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo, File
In this April 19, 2019 file photo, a gay pride rainbow flag flies along with the U.S. flag in front of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan. Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo, File

What I love about Laura’s work on our religion beat is that it complicates the often black-and-white story people outside our region seem to want to tell about it. Religion, and its role in our lives, is as nuanced as any other aspect of it.

I always appreciate Laura’s capacity to tell stories with empathy, but it’s a skill that’s especially important when tackling a topic like LGBTQ rights in the church. This story is a great example of that.

Like all good journalism, this story doesn’t push an agenda, but simply shows what the conversation around gay rights within Appalachian religious communities looks like.

– Jesse Wright, chief data officer and contributing editor

The West Side: A Community Defining Its Future

by Laura Harbert Allen and Taylor Sisk

The city of Charleston is viewed from the Fort Hill overlook on Wednesday, May 17, 2023, in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia
The city of Charleston is viewed from the Fort Hill overlook on Wednesday, May 17, 2023, in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Lexi Browning/100 Days in Appalachia

My favorite story of the year was actually a series of stories – a series in which I was privileged to be involved. It’s titled “The West Side: A Community Defining its Future,” and it was a collaboration with 100 Days religion reporter Laura Harbert Allen. The four-part series explores the challenges Charleston, West Virginia’s West Side community is facing and how the community is responding, both on a day-to-day basis and more strategically.

There are two primary reasons I’ve selected it as my favorite. First, because collaborating with Laura was a great experience and a pleasure. Religion and health care (my beat) are major themes in the series, and I think we complemented each other very nicely.

The second reason is that it was a rare opportunity to do deep-dive journalism. Laura and I spent quite a bit of time reporting (nearly a year), and I’m very grateful for being given that opportunity. I hope and trust more such lies ahead.

See the series for yourself here.

– Taylor Sisk, Health Care Correspondent

Creators and Innovators Newsletter: “A live memory of a dead reality.”

by Tucker Jones

The author hides behind his viola. Photo: Provided.

Tucker Jones and I first met in the airport as we were flying to Dublin for a three-week study abroad. I knew immediately he was something special. His writing for our Creators & Innovators Newsletter Series in November was tender, vulnerable and deep yet at the same time whimsical and humorous.

This one, in which he discusses finding the beauty even in ‘dead’ grass, is one I particularly enjoy – I won’t call it my ‘favorite,’ because as Tucker writes, favorites “suffice as responses to settle the dreaded burden of small talk, but I think that’s all they’re good for.”

– Skylar Baker-Jordan, Contributing Editor for Community Engagement

Appalachian DIY and the Places that House it

by Griffin McMorrow

Moshing and Dancing at Collision, April 23rd, 2023. Photo: Tyler Jacob/@TylerJacobThompson on Instagram

Each week, Skylar Baker Jordan is writing beautiful prose in his newsletter, but this summer while Skylar studied abroad in the UK for his masters, he handed the reins over to some Appalachians with new and different perspectives on the region.

One of those, and one of my favorite newsletters of the year, came from a West Virginia native Griffin McMurrow. In this specific dispatch, “Appalachian DIY and the Places that House it,” Griffin laments on the loss of a Pittsburgh-based underground music and art space where you could experience punk, amateur wrestling and burlesque all in one night. A place where for a generation of young people, art wasn’t hierarchical but a celebration.

– Ashton Marra, Executive Editor

This Pride, ‘I Love My Hometown Whether It Loves Me Back or Not’

by Dani Lamorte

A child looks on at a drag event during the Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, 2023 PRIDE in the Park event. Photo: Ava O'Bien/100 Days in Appalachia
A child looks on at a drag event during the Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, 2023 PRIDE in the Park event. Photo: Ava O’Bien/100 Days in Appalachia

Pittsburgh-based artist and writer Dani Lamorte revisited his hometown of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, for its PRIDE in the Park event in June 2023. Similar to many people in the region, Dani has a complicated relationship with his hometown – “Unreturned messages formed by queer youth in this small Appalachian town. I sent out little signals about my desires and needs, about the images I wanted to make of myself, and of the guttural ache to not be knocked around by school boards and church leaders. I wanted to ask for room to breathe.”

“When I opened my mouth, those same leaders crammed it full of words I couldn’t swallow…I choked until I left that town, found people who were throwing up all the same garbage as me. I found people who could return my message.”

Dani hasn’t lived in Vandergrift for 20 years, but upon returning for the town’s inaugural LGBTQ+ Pride event, he spent time with some of the town’s younger residents who are pushing for change.

While I’m not part of the LGBTQ community, many of the people I hold dearest to me are. And this uncomfortable existence in a town that isn’t willing to support your needs that Dani describes is a similar sentiment that my loved ones from around the region also hold of their hometowns. It’s also one I can personally relate after I too returned back to my hometown this summer, away from my found community, after not living here for a few years. I’ve spent a lot of time the last few months reflecting on all the ways growing up I felt like an outsider in my community, and even now at moments, for not existing amongst the norms set in my upbringing.

This piece, with the accompanying stunning images from Ava O’Brien, is a reflection about the fractured relationship to place that many in the region – across identities and generations – can relate to.

“It’s a difficult and indelible feeling, belonging to a place even if you can’t quite belong in a place,” Dani writes. “It’s the feeling that brought me to Vandergrift. I didn’t belong in Vandergrift when I was growing up, but now there are people who are willing to hear the messages I’m sending out.”

– Kristen Uppercue, Deputy Editor for Special Projects

The post 2023’s Biggest Hits: Our Staff’s Favorite Stories This Year appeared first on 100 Days in Appalachia.

West Virginians could get stuck cleaning up the coal industry’s messes

This article was produced with ProPublica as part of its Local Reporting Network initiative. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

West Virginia’s fund to clean up abandoned coal mines is in such dire shape that it threatens to stick taxpayers with hundreds of millions — perhaps even billions — of dollars in cleanup costs. And yet, little is being done to turn things around.

The bankruptcy of just one significant mining company could wipe out the fund, according to the state’s top regulatory official. And auditors for the Republican-controlled Legislature said at least five major companies were “at risk” of dumping cleanup costs on the state.

At $15 million, the state’s fund for restoring land is at its lowest level in more than 20 years. The program’s latest published actuarial report in 2022 warned that a related water cleanup trust fund will lose half its balance over the next 10 years.

These are costs the coal industry was supposed to cover. Unreclaimed mine sites can not only damage the environment but also endanger coalfield residents who live nearby. Coal waste dams sometimes leak or break, flooding downstream communities. Cliffs of rock and debris left behind after mining can collapse. Runoff that isn’t contained or treated often poisons fish or water supplies.

This crisis is emerging in other coal states like Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which have also had problems with their mine reclamation programs. But West Virginia offers perhaps the clearest and most troubling portrait of what could happen as the coal industry’s decline continues.

The state fund’s problems have been depicted as a recent phenomenon tied to a wave of coal company bankruptcies over the past decade. But a detailed review by Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica reveals that they are far from that.

Coal stockpiles at a transfer station in Wharton, West Virginia. Coal production has declined dramatically over the past decade in the face of cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources. (Dane Rhys, special to ProPublica)

State and federal officials have been warned repeatedly over the past 40 years that this reckoning was coming but have failed to prepare for it. Again and again, the review found, auditors questioned whether West Virginia’s reclamation program would have adequate funding.

But neither state lawmakers nor regulators required coal companies to have enough reclamation bonds as insurance should they go belly up. Nor did legislators raise the tax on coal production enough to make up the difference. Federal officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations who were supposed to oversee the state program cautioned there were problems but didn’t step in.

Just two years ago, West Virginia’s legislative leaders ignored recommendations from their own auditors to bolster the fund. Instead, they called for an $8 billion bailout from the federal government. And last month, Gov. Jim Justice’s administration removed a key critic from an advisory panel that monitors the fund, just as the group was about to review a new study on the fund’s future health. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Environmental groups have pleaded with the Biden administration to focus on the reclamation crisis in the coalfields. But nearly three years into his term, President Joseph Biden still hasn’t nominated a director to lead the agency charged with enforcing the mining reclamation law.

As a result, a close examination of the fund’s finances and the state of the coal industry shows, the problem is no longer something out in the future.

“The system never fully worked,” said Peter Morgan, a Sierra Club lawyer who has advocated reforming the system for years. “It limped along for a while, but it is completely broken today.”

In response to questions, Interior Department spokesperson Giovanni Rocco said the agency’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement regularly reviews state reclamation programs and in 2021 told West Virginia officials to better track cleanup liabilities. Rocco referred OSMRE nomination questions to the White House, which did not respond.

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Terry Fletcher said in an email that the agency will continue to work “to improve the overall financial viability” of the program. The agency has about $1 billion that could fund reclamation projects, including available coal company bonds. But environmental groups predict the cost will be much more than that.

One of the firms that could tip the fund over the edge is Lexington Coal Company, which grew rapidly in recent years by cobbling together permits held by mining firms that went bankrupt.

In 2017, Alpha Natural Resources, once the nation’s third largest coal producer, paid Lexington, then a little-known company, hundreds of millions of dollars to take permits with massive reclamation problems off its balance sheet. Lexington promised the move would “accelerate reclamation” within five years.

Today, Lexington holds nearly 200 permits in West Virginia, making it one of the state’s largest coal companies on paper. But there’s little evidence that the company is producing much coal — and lots of evidence that it’s struggling to do the reclamation work it’s currently obligated to do.

Lexington officials did not respond to questions.

One of its operations, the Twilight Mountaintop Removal Mine, was once among the largest in the state. Over its quarter-century life, the main mine at the Twilight complex about an hour south of Charleston produced more than 60 million tons of coal to provide electricity and help make steel. Last year, it produced less than 200,000 tons.

Left behind is the rock and dirt that mine operators shoved into valleys, burying streams. Remnants of coal silos and preparation plants have been overtaken by brush. Most dramatically — and only fully grasped from an aerial view — are massive moonscapes of gray and brown rubble where the mountains were once lush and green.

Junior Walk of Coal River Mountain Watch takes a water sample at an acid mine drainage seep along the Coal River in Packsville, West Virginia. (Dane Rhys, special to ProPublica)

“It’s a post-apocalyptic nightmare,” said Vernon Haltom, a leader of Coal River Mountain Watch, a grassroots group fighting the coal industry. “It looks like a vast, sparse wasteland, like after a nuclear war.”

Ignored warnings

From the earliest days of coal mining in the United States, mining operators took what they could from the hills and hollows and moved on to the next mine, often leaving a mess for residents to live with.

President Jimmy Carter’s signing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 was intended to stop that. The law required coal companies to clean up the damage and restore the hills and creeks, a process known as reclamation.

And there was supposed to be a backup funding plan. States were required to make mine operators post bonds as a type of insurance to cover reclamation costs if the companies went bankrupt. Bonds were to be set at amounts sufficient to reclaim the mined land and treat polluted water.

But Congress also created an industry-friendly alternative. Coal companies could post smaller bonds if they paid a production tax into a state-run fund that regulators could use to reclaim abandoned mines. Under federal law, these pooled systems were required to be as effective at cleaning up mines as full-cost bonding programs. Lawmakers charged OSMRE with ensuring the state programs worked.

In West Virginia, this system proved to be inadequate from the start, according to a review by Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica. OSMRE was initially supportive when the state proposed a bond pool in 1980 but also asked for more proof that it would provide sufficient funding to cover long-term cleanup costs.

Two years later, a preliminary study warned that reclamation costs were expected to exceed bond coverage. Though state officials were optimistic the coal production tax money would make up the difference, the actuarial study cautioned that “there is a great deal more to be done before this study should be considered conclusive.”

The questions raised were never answered. But the following year, the Reagan administration approved West Virginia’s pooled system anyway, deciding that it “appears to be basically sound.”

Despite the administration’s confidence, West Virginia’s financial problems became apparent by the mid-1980s. One congressional audit documented delays in cleaning up abandoned mines. Another warned that the reclamation fund was millions of dollars short. Another that the program didn’t account for the escalating costs of treating contaminated streams.

Both the Bush and Clinton administrations warned the state that its program needed more money. But West Virginia officials again did little.

When coal companies started to blast apart the hills to create the Twilight complex in the mid-1990s, industry officials and their political supporters scoffed that mountaintop removal mining would destroy the environment and promised to put the land and water back the way they found it. (Dane Rhys, special to ProPublica)

“Everyone knew it was a sham,” said Pat McGinley, a longtime West Virginia University environmental law professor. “State and federal regulators and politicians winked and nodded while the law was violated for more than four decades.”

Then, in 2001, environmental groups thought they might be looking at a breakthrough. They’d filed a lawsuit to reform West Virginia’s reclamation program, and it had landed before Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II. Though considered a conservative judge, Haden had shown no patience for coal industry abuses or lax regulatory attitudes.

Things had also changed in the West Virginia governor’s office. In 2000, Democratic former U.S. Rep. Bob Wise defeated a Republican onetime coal company executive. Wise promised to strictly enforce environmental protection laws in the mining industry and appointed a former federal prosecutor known for taking on coal companies to run his enforcement agency.

The agency proposed increasing required bond amounts and the coal production tax rate. But lawmakers weren’t interested, and the legislative package died.

A few months later, Haden issued a blistering opinion in the federal lawsuit, decrying the decadeslong inaction as “a climate of lawlessness, which creates a pervasive impression that continued disregard for federal law and statutory requirements goes unpunished, or possibly unnoticed.”

The judge, however, deferred to OSMRE, saying agency experts were better suited to prescribe how the state’s reclamation woes should be addressed.

Partly in response, OSMRE in 2002 started drafting a new federal rule to ensure enough money was set aside for expensive long-term treatment of water pollution. But agency officials delayed publishing the proposed rule a half-dozen times. Then they dropped the idea without explanation. The agency’s spokesperson said that action occurred too long ago, and under a previous administration, for him to explain without more research.

West Virginia officials did slightly increase the special reclamation tax and created a task force of industry, government and environmental players to monitor the fund and recommend fixes.

But, as McGinley recounted in a law review article, those changes were a modest compromise.

“The final product of the closeted consultations with industry representatives,” he wrote, “was a DEP-backed bill intended to marginally satisfy OSM, while minimizing, as much as possible, financial burdens on coal companies.”

The breaking point

By the 2010s, as coal faced growing competition from natural gas and renewable energy, the long-predicted crisis began to arrive.

Since 2012, more than 60 coal companies, including some of the biggest in the country, have gone bankrupt. That left thousands of acres abandoned or shuffled to other companies. Many more companies are teetering on the financial brink.

An old coal processing plant owned by Lexington sits idle alongside the West Fork Pond Fork river in Bandytown, West Virginia. (Dane Rhys, special to ProPublica)

By 2021, even the auditors working for the Legislature were taking aim at the crisis. The reclamation bonds carried by coal companies would cover less than 10% of cleanup costs, their audit reported. And the state had enough money on hand for less than 40% of the sites that would need to be cleaned up over the next 20 years.

One at-risk coal company, ERP Environmental Fund, was in such bad shape, the auditors noted, that West Virginia regulators convinced a local judge to put the company into receivership, a move that avoided bankruptcy but left the future of its unreclaimed sites unclear. The head of the state environmental agency cautioned in court filings in 2020 that ERP’s bonds were nowhere near enough to cover its reclamation costs, warning the firm’s bankruptcy “would overwhelm” the state’s cleanup fund “both financially and administratively.”

An attorney for ERP didn’t respond to a call for this story. The firm didn’t object to the state’s receivership motion, and the receiver said in an email that he’s working to sell the firm’s assets so they can be reclaimed.

The legislative auditors suggested concrete steps to shore up the state’s fund: Lawmakers could increase the bond amounts, or regulators could force companies to begin cleanups more quickly after a mine stops producing coal.

But instead of following their recommendations, Senate President Craig Blair, a Republican from the Eastern Panhandle, called for a federal bailout, and state lawmakers passed a resolution asking for $8 billion for mine reclamation projects. Blair said the government owed it to West Virginia to pay for the cleanups, blaming coal’s decline on federal regulations.

So far, there hasn’t been much movement on a federal bailout. A separate proposal in Congress last year would have diverted money from an underfunded program to reclaim older mines — abandoned before the 1977 mining law — to new mines that coal companies, bonds and reclamation funds were supposed to cover. But the legislation went nowhere.

A spokesperson for Blair said the senator has “demonstrated his commitment to solving this issue.” Blair’s office cited his legislation creating a new state-funded insurance company for the mining industry. That firm doesn’t address the reclamation fund’s financial problems, but it does give coal operators another option for buying cleanup bonds.

West Virginia lawmakers will have another chance to address the problem when their session opens in January. Delegate Evan Hansen, a Democrat from Morgantown, said he will introduce a bill to increase required bond amounts  — a measure he unsuccessfully proposed two years ago and that environmental groups have been urging for decades.

It could be a tough sell, given the Republican supermajority at the statehouse. Both Blair and West Virginia House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said last month that it was too early to discuss any potential plans for the session.

Recent political events also suggest that’s the case. Two days before a key meeting in November, the Justice administration removed a longtime critic from the advisory council that monitors the state’s reclamation fund.

John Morgan, a mining engineer who for 20 years represented environmental groups on the council, had consistently used his spot to push for a fuller accounting of the risks posed by the monumental changes in the coal industry. Morgan was planning to raise concerns about two issues: the large number of permits with no production and the risks that relying on a smaller number of mines poses for the production tax that provides much of the program’s revenue.

On the agenda was reviewing a draft of an actuarial study, obtained by Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica, that shows a surprisingly large improvement in the fund’s financial position.

The most recent actuarial report, published in 2022, projected the fund’s liabilities had grown to $565 million. But according to the new draft, the liabilities dropped by $115 million as of June, and the reclamation fund will remain solvent through 2043. Study author Daniel Lupton of the firm Taylor & Mulder attributed the change to improvements in how the state estimates liabilities related to building water pollution treatment operations.

“The projection’s actually great,” Rob Rice, a WVDEP deputy director, recently told Congress.

Morgan says such estimates are unrealistic. “I get very worked up about the fund because everyone is ignoring reality,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can say that it’s solvent.”

Environmental groups say even the 2022 liability figure was an underestimate. An Appalachian Voices analysis warned that West Virginia’s price tag could ultimately be close to $3.6 billion, with only about a third funded by bonds.

Lupton acknowledged that the concerns Morgan had been raising aren’t fully addressed in his firm’s study and said state officials haven’t provided adequate data to do so.

“No matter how good my model is, there are some elements to what’s going on in the industry that are related to politics and human decision making that will always be beyond the reach of my numerical modeling,” Lupton told Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica in an email.

Without such data, environmental groups have pushed the Interior Department to at least conduct a financial “stress test” of major mining bond providers and state programs.

“Because reclamation burdens are so high, and available bonds so inadequate,” Appalachian Voices and other groups wrote last month, “regulators have every incentive to paper over the problem and avoid forcing the issue.”

A mine on the edge

Tony Rumberg, who was a coal miner at the time of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion, visits a memorial for the miners killed in the blast. After the disaster, the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, was bought by Alpha Natural Resources, and many of its mines were later acquired by Lexington when Alpha went bankrupt. “They really should reclaim these mountains better than they do,” Rumberg said. (Dane Rhys, special to ProPublica)

One critical piece of data that West Virginia doesn’t collect is a mine’s expected reclamation costs. Pressed by an environmental group lawsuit, federal regulators ordered the state to track such liabilities in 2021, noting that the state’s program “contains the same or similar deficiencies” as federal reviews found two decades earlier.

But so far, the state’s database includes only the number of acres needing restoration. Fletcher from WVDEP said the state can compare that to average costs from past reclamation projects “as needed” to calculate liabilities.

Because the state doesn’t have specific mine-by-mine estimates, though, critics say it has no way of assessing whether a company’s bonds will cover a cleanup or what the burden on the state’s fund might ultimately be. For instance, while the state audit report said that Lexington’s permits have $167 million in reclamation bonds, there is no information about the company’s liabilities.

A look at Lexington’s recent struggles reveals why that lack of information matters.

With nearly 200 permits, Lexington commands a vast amount of mining land in West Virginia. But with just 135 employees statewide, the company appears to be on the financial edge. If it’s true, as auditors’ estimate, that bonds typically cover only 10% of reclamation costs, the numbers show a Lexington default could easily drain the reclamation fund.

Lexington is managed by Jeremy Hoops, and court records show the firm is owned by a Hoops family trust. In emails disclosed in court, family patriarch Jeff Hoops said Lexington was formed in 2004 out of the bankruptcy of another firm to take that company’s “bad assets.” Jeff Hoops also founded Blackjewel, whose 2019 bankruptcy left behind dozens of unreclaimed mines in eastern Kentucky, as Mountain State Spotlight and ProPublica outlined this spring.

In an email, Jeff Hoops declined comment, saying he has “no involvement” with Lexington. Earlier this year, he said that creditors forced Blackjewel into bankruptcy and that the company responded promptly to environmental violations.

Now Lexington seems to be in trouble. State environmental records and federal court filings document that Lexington doesn’t appear to have the resources to complete its reclamation work. And efforts by regulators and courts to intervene have been largely ineffective.

In 2021, a WVDEP inspector cited Lexington for failing to remove a highwall, a cliff of rock and debris leftover after mining, at its Twilight complex. The WVDEP inspector considered the violation serious enough to require correction by the following day. That never happened. In the two years since, the agency has pushed back the deadline to correct the problem 25 times, accepting Lexington’s explanation that weather conditions hampered its work.

In July, federal inspectors visited the site after citizens complained about WVDEP’s handling of the situation and said that the agency shouldn’t have allowed that as an excuse for two years. Those OSMRE inspectors noted that Lexington had stopped reclamation work at the site for three months in late 2022 and since then had moved one piece of equipment doing cleanup at Twilight back and forth to another mine.

An old coal processing plant owned by Lexington Coal sits idle beside the West Fork Pond Fork river in Bandytown, West Virginia. (Dane Rhys, special to ProPublica)

In 2022, three sections of hillside at the Twilight mine collapsed, sending mud and debris into a small stream. Regulators ordered the creek cleaned and the hillsides stabilized. The mess still hadn’t been cleaned up six months later, prompting West Virginia officials to suspend the mine’s permit. But the state and the company quickly settled. The stream was cleaned, but other violations continued.

Lexington’s problems, and a lack of tough regulation, are also visible at other mines it owns. A federal judge has grown so tired of Lexington’s delays in addressing illegal levels of toxic selenium and other pollutants in the runoff from two mines in Mingo County that last year he held the firm in contempt of court.

In court filings, Lexington has said it is working diligently and making progress toward compliance. But on Nov. 17, a federal judge ruled that Lexington “is moving at a sluggish pace, with no sense of urgency or diligence.” He fined Lexington $50,000, the latest in a series of court orders related to payments or deadlines the company missed to clean up its mines.

“They are just hanging by a thread,” said Michael Becher, an attorney for the citizen groups.

West Virginians could get stuck cleaning up the coal industry’s messes appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

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.