Thursday, April 24, 2014

04/17/2014 at 5:39am

The Mountain Eagle In this photo from the late 1960s, Pat Gish, left, folds papers with her daughter Sarah. Husband Tom and son Ben are in the background. The photo ran in the Mountain Eagle this week, along with a story about Pat.  

In the mid-1970’s I was making $78 a week as one of the editors of a literary magazine, Mountain Review. A filmmaker named Allida Herrick offered me half of her second job, driving the Mountain Eagle, Whitesburg’s weekly paper, to the printer. That was another 40 bucks every other Wednesday. Groceries and/or beer.

The Mountain Eagle was famous. It had already won the John Peter Zenger Award for Freedom of the Press. The New York Times had won for the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post for Watergate, and the Eagle next for pluck. The downtown office had been burned to the ground by cops after reports on police abuse and local corruption. The paper then moved up to what was once a hardware store on Tunnel Hill, the quarters made even tighter by stacks of newspapers and months of Congressional Records that shaped a makeshift anteroom.

That’s where I sat, because it was rare that the paper was put to bed by the time it was supposed to hit the road. I loved that waiting part. Tom and Pat Gish would preside over the last-minute business of finishing the make-up, getting stories and ads to fit. And I would read through those Congressional Records and crack wise trying to get a grin out of the more taciturn Tom at his desk or acknowledgement from Pat, who was the impresario giving directions and making last minute changes. She had both a knowing smile and a winning laugh. That I strived for. Then with a nod toward fatalism, she would entrust me and the camera-ready proof sheets to their weathered station wagon. Each time she told me in detail about the shortcut past Pyramid and David that saved 15 minutes to Prestonsburg. And each time I flew passing overloaded coal trucks on nearly straight stretches, switching back and forth between the two cassettes in the front seat, the Eagles “On the Border” and Dicky Betts “Highway Call.” That was good work.

04/16/2014 at 11:36am

Photo by Jim Urquhart/Reuters Citizen protesters gather at the BLM’s base camp, where Cliven Bundy's cattle were being held.

The rural story of the week seems to be the armed stand-off between the Bureau of Land Management and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Bundy refuses to recognize the authority of the BLM to impose grazing fees, he says, because his herd has been eating off those acres since before agency existed. So, unlike other ranchers in the area, he stopped paying. Bundy now owes the government over $1 million in fees and penalties.

If Bundy’s reasoning somehow holds up under scrutiny, I’ll have to change my tactics when dealing with meter maids. “I’m sorry, officer, I would pay the fee but I’ve been parking my car here since long before there were meters.”

- Shawn Poynter


Mourners will gather Thursday in Whitesburg, Kentucky, to refute the proverb that a prophet is not without honor except in her home town.

Pat Gish, part of the team that published the nationally recognized weekly newspaper The Mountain Eagle, will be memorialized at Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church 1 p.m. Thursday. Gish died Sunday at the age of 87.

Pat Gish and her husband, Tom, who died in 2008, published the Eagle for more than half a century, taking on government corruption and revealing the ravages of strip mining, while at the same time printing school menus and civic-club news.

At Tom’s 2008 memorial, the minister spoke of the difficulties Tom faced locally because of the way the paper took on some local leaders and questioned the power of the coal industry. The minister used the proverb about “a prophet in his own land” to explain Tom’s important and complex role in Letcher County.

It’s true that Pat and Tom weren’t always honored locally, especially by corrupt politicians, coal bosses and the people who depended on those folks for their daily bread. It’s also true that the Gish’s brand of journalism was prophetic, especially when you look at how their concerns about the environmental and political consequences of coal mining have played out.

04/16/2014 at 5:50am

ABC News produced this report with the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) on the role of Johns Hopkins doctors in refuting miners' black-lung claims. CPI won a Pulitzer Prize this week for their series on black lung.

I have mixed emotions over the Center for Public Integrity’s winning of their first Pulitzer Prize for the investigative report by Chris Hamby on black lung. 

The series focused on the southern West Virginia coalfields and miners who are suffering and dying from black lung, while the top lawyers, doctors, coal operators and hospitals are paying big bucks to each other to defeat these sick and voiceless miners and their families.

The people of the southern West Virginia coalfields owe a debt of gratitude to Chris Hamby, the Center for Public Integrity, ABC News and others for taking on what no one inside the region has been able to do – tell the world that the Appalachian coalfields are corrupt.

Workers like black lung attorney John Cline of Piney View, West Virginia, Dr. Donald Rasmussen of Beckley and many others have worked tirelessly to help these miners suffering from black lung in the face of this powerful and corrupt opposition. 

04/15/2014 at 6:39am

Bureau of Labor Statistics/Daily YonderThe map shows change in unemployment rates for nonmetro counties from February 2013 to February 2014. Green and blue counties improved. Red and orange counties worsened. Metro counties are gray. Click the map for an interactive version.

Unemployment in rural America ticked up between January and February of this year, with the nation’s least populated counties experiencing the worst jobless rates, according to the most recent data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unemployment in noncore counties (the most rural) climbed from 7.9% in January to 8.6% in February.

Micropolitan counties (those with towns between 10,000 and 50,000 residents) saw their unemployment rates rise from 7.4% in January to 8% in February.

The unemployment rate in metropolitan counties (those around cities of 50,000 residents and up) increased from 6.9% to 7.4%.

During the early years of the recession, which began in late 2007, rural areas often had lower unemployment rates than cities. In the last few years, however, unemployment rates in rural America have surpassed those in metropolitan counties.

In February of this year, the unemployment rate in the noncore counties was more than a full percentage point higher than in metro counties — 8.6% compared to 7.4%.

In the last year, the unemployment rate in these counties has barely budged, dropping from 8.9% last February to only 8.6% this February.

04/14/2014 at 12:51pm

Photo by Gary Tramontina/Bloomberg Construction has begun on the nation's priciest coal plant near Meridian, Mississippi.

Mississippi is betting on a new way to process coal, and they’re betting big. Huge, in fact. Construction is underway for the costliest power plant ever built in the U.S. Way over its initial $1.8 billion, the new estimate for the completed project is $5.8 billion. That’s $6,800/kilowatt compared to $1,000/kilowatt for a natural gas burning plant.

The builders of the plant, the Southern Company, say it will use cutting edge technology to extract nitrogen and hydrogen, which will then be burned to produce low-cost electricity. Skeptics say the technology won’t work and point to the fact that natural gas is already a low-cost power solution.


One hundred thirty-eight oil and gas workers died on the job in 2012. Yet requiring additional federal work-safety regulations would be “like prescribing painkillers for a paper cut,” says an Oklahoma City oil executive.

Oil and gas wells are exempt from “process safety management standards,” which the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration applies to other industries. Oil field deaths reached a 10-year high in 2012 as production increased.

Oil and gas extraction workers have a fatality rate of 24.2 per 100,000 workers. That’s 1400% higher than the chemical manufacturing death rate of 1.7, according to data from Texas A&M.

OSHA tried to expand worker safety of oil and gas workers in the 1990s but backed down. The agency is looking at its rules again.

The Houston Chronicle reports that more than a dozen oil companies and trade groups oppose the proposed rule changes.

04/14/2014 at 6:07am

Leaders of Montrose, Colorado, a city of 19,000 on the Western Slope, think their economic future is tied to faster Internet connections. Colorado law required citizens to vote in support of municipal participation in broadband buildout.

My little San Juan Mountains town in western Colorado on April Fool’s Day voted by an overwhelming 74% to reclaim the right to provide our own broadband, cable, phone and other telecommunication services.

In 2005 that right was taken away by corporate Internet giant lobbyists who persuaded the state legislators it would be unfair competition to allow rural areas like mine to provide their own gigabit Internet speeds if the giants refused to do so.

Supporters are already dreaming that tech savvy-young ones who develop Apple and Google apps and like to kayak, mountain climb, bike, hike, ski and live in safe, livable small cities will start a migration to Montrose. The city’s ambition is that every business and premises in the city will have the broadband capacity of Chattanooga and the dozen cities that are getting the same capacity through Google Fiber.

Montrose, a city of 19,000 about 65 miles from the Utah border, is a typically conservative rural area, overwhelmingly Republican but with a populist bent. Like all of the Western Slope of the state, it is not participating in the robust economic recovery seen in the Front Slope cities of Denver, Ft. Collins and Colorado Springs.

Internet service here is currently a hodgepodge. Some of us depend on broadcast towers, some on DSL from CenturyLink and some on cable service from Charter. Service is generally at less than 10MB. It’s expensive, and customer service is erratic.

04/11/2014 at 6:13am

Photo by Bruce Barrett Crocuses, like the ones planted by George and the author.

Megan pulled up in the driveway next door with her baby Julie the other day. She came over to dig flowers and bulbs from the place where her Great Uncle George had lived in Jackson County, North Carolina, for many years.

George passed away a couple of years ago, and before that he had lived with his sister Julia over in Wayehutta, in the house by the  river. But George continued to come by the old house and tend his garden and flowers. The house had stayed in the family with one of George’s nephews continuing to live there. It also served as a gathering place for family reunions.

It’s actually a pretty special house. It was the original Jackson County, North Carolina, jail going back to when Webster was still the county seat. George’s parents had moved here in the early 1940’s when their place in Clay County was taken as part of the Fontana Dam project. The house has 18-inch thick masonry walls, and the upstairs floor rests on an I-beam, the first in Jackson County, and has a poured concrete floor. For many years the family ran a small store from the house and the old Webster Post Office, a 12 X 16 building still sits on the property.

All told there’s about nine acres, a couple of barns and some outbuildings. George ran cattle on the land, tended bees and had one of the biggest, most productive gardens in the area. When I became postmaster of Webster in 1998, George and I took to each other right away, and I quickly became his gardening partner. George’s thumb was greener than most. He always had another trick for growing something better or smarter. He was also infinitely curious about learning new methods or trying new crops. My grape vine, a Fredonia, was one of the last things we planted together. It’s lovingly named “George,” and this should be the first year it really bears.

George in front of a tulip bed at the author's house.