Ohio Valley ReSource

WKU Public Radio is part of a new regional journalism collaborative known as the Ohio Valley ReSource.  It's made up of public media stations across Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.  The collaborative will focus on the changing economy in the region and its effect on jobs, healthcare and infrastructure. 

Each station taking part in the Ohio Valley ReSource is hiring a reporter to contribute to the effort.  WKU Public Radio's reporter is Becca Schimmel, who will be based in the Bowling Green newsroom. 

The Ohio Valley ReSource is made possible by member stations and through a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting. 

Ways to Connect

White House video

As President Donald Trump addressed farmers at a national conference Monday Ohio Valley agriculture leaders said they are standing by his effort to renegotiate trade deals. But some leaders cautioned that costly tariffs on farm products need to end soon.

President Trump doubled down on his fight for better trade deals during his speech to American Farm Bureau Federation members at their convention in New Orleans.


Mary Meehan

The Juul fits easily in the palm of your hand. You don’t light it, you trigger it with a click of a finger. The mist that is exhaled is so fine it’s hard to see. The nicotine is delivered via a pod the size of a AAA battery, with each pod containing the equivalent of 20 cigarettes.

That combination of small size and potent power makes the Juul the vaping device of choice for many teen users. A group of students from Casey County, Kentucky, affirms those features make “Juul-ing” – yes it has become a verb – rampant in class.

“Yes, oh yes,” they all nod in agreement.


Becca Schimmel

Following a failed attempt to address a looming crisis in many multi-employer pension programs, two Ohio Valley lawmakers have introduced a bill in Congress to shore up the shaky pension plan for coal miners. The bill also aims to protect health benefits and restore funding for the federal trust fund providing benefits for thousands of miners sickened by black lung disease.

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is one of six Democrats sponsoring the American Miners Act of 2019, which seeks to fund the pension plan for coal miners guaranteeing retirement and health benefits from cradle to grave. Brown says the fund is at risk of insolvency due to a downturn in the coal market, the 2008 recession, and coal company bankruptcies.


MSHA records

Just a few months ago, the U.S. coal mining industry was on track for its safest year in history. But in an eleven-day span in late December, three miners died after separate incidents, bringing the total number of fatalities in 2018 to 12, even as coal mining employment continued its decline.

“It is a reminder to enforcement agencies and companies who are responsible for miner safety that you always have to be vigilant, you can never let up your guard,” Kentucky lawyer and mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard said.


Sydney Boles

With just days left before a Congressional deadline, advocates for black lung treatment are still pushing Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell to secure funding for miners’ benefits.

About two dozen people demonstrated Wednesday near McConnell’s regional office in London, Kentucky, carrying placards reading “Black Lung Kills” and singing along with a banjo tune modified for the occasion.

“Oh, Mitch McConnell, when will you answer? Somebody’s knocking at your door.” 

Marcy Tate

Marcy Tate grew up in southwest Virginia in a coal mining family.

“My father-in-law was a coal miner, my father was a coal miner, my grandfather was a coal miner, my great-grandfather was a coal miner,” she said. Tate knew what black lung disease looked like.

In 2003, her father-in-law passed away from what Tate believed to be black lung disease, though he wasn’t diagnosed. Around the same time, her father started showing the same familiar symptoms of shortness of breath, mucus, and wheezing.


NPR

NPR is reporting that more than two thousand coal miners are now suffering from the most severe form of black lung disease, Progressive Massive Fibrosis, or PMF. And despite clear warnings, investigative reporter Howard Berkes shows, the mining industry and government regulators did little to stop it.

Data loom large in this story: Berkes took a deep dive into 30 years of dust monitoring data from coal mines. That analysis revealed that miners were frequently exposed to toxic levels of silica dust. And a review of federal records showed that industry and regulators knew the deadly consequences long ago.


Greg Kelly's grandson, Caden, scampers to the tree-shaded creek behind his grandfather's house to catch crawdads, as Kelly shuffles along, trying to keep up. Kelly's small day pack holds an oxygen tank with a clear tube clipped to his nose. He has chairs spaced out on the short route so he can stop every few minutes, sit down and catch his breath, until he has enough wind and strength to start out again for the creek.

Sydney Boles

On a cool but clear November day about a dozen residents from eastern Kentucky’s coal mining region crowded into the lobby of an office building in the small town of London, Kentucky. That’s where Kentucky’s powerful senior senator, Mitch McConnell, has his local field office. 

McConnell’s staff let the local advocates for black lung treatment into the office a few at a time to make their case for funding the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

There was a lot of laughter and plenty of selfies, but there was tension, too. Many of these residents know miners and families affected by the deadly disease who depend on benefits from the fund, and they know the clock is ticking on a tax that has supported the fund for more than 35 years.


Sydney Boles

Jason Walker spends $50 per month on bottled water. He spends three hours each week standing by the small stream that runs near his house, pumping creek water into a thousand-gallon tank.

“You have to catch the creek at the right time, when it’s clear,” Walker said. “Whatever you pump, whatever the creek looks like, is what you’re going to pump, and that’s going to pump right into your house.”

Walker, 31, used to get water from a well he shared with his mother, Sherry Walker, who lives next door. But they noticed changes after mountaintop removal mining started nearby.


MSHA

The United Mine Workers of America is suing the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, after the agency reduced its heightened oversight of a West Virginia coal mine with a poor safety record.

MSHA has the power to declare mines with a history of significant safety violations as having a “Pattern of Violations.” Known as “POV status,” the declaration is an enforcement tool that allows the agency to increase regulatory scrutiny at a mine with repeated safety issues.

Brittany Patterson

More than 100 people braved freezing temperatures to both listen and have their say in front of Ohio environmental officials at a recent hearing in Belmont County, Ohio. For the three dozen or so people who testified, the stakes were high.

The hearing at Shadyside High School focused on a nearly 300-page, densely technical, draft air quality permit. The permit is one more step towards a massive, multi-billion dollar petrochemical plant proposed for the banks of the Ohio River just a few miles away from the auditorium.


Mary Meehan

New federal data show the Ohio Valley again led the nation in rates of fatal drug overdoses last year.

The data confirm what local officials have reported: Synthetic opioids are fueling the increase.

West Virginia had the nation’s highest rate of fatal drug overdoses in 2017 with 57.8 deaths per 100,000 people.

Ohio had the second-highest rate with 46.3 deaths per 100,000 people. And Kentucky was fifth in the nation with a rate of at 37.2 deaths per 100,000 people.

CDC

Health officials are tracking record-breaking rates of sexually transmitted disease, including a resurgence of some infections which had been considered rare, such as gonorrhea and syphilis. These STDs are on the rise amid cuts to public health budgets dedicated to testing, prevention, and public outreach.

In the Ohio Valley, for example, a review of state and federal government data shows some communities in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia have seen chlamydia infections rise by more than 200 percent between 2011 and 2017. And in four counties in Kentucky and West Virginia, reported cases of gonorrhea jumped by an astonishing 1,000 percent or more in that period.

J. Tyler Franklin

Grant Oakley’s second day of work was the last day of his life.

Seventeen, sandy-haired and tall, Grant liked to fish, tinker with motorcycles with his father, Mike, and play tuba in the school marching band. He was excited in the fall of 2015 when he landed his first part-time job at a farm supply business. The location was convenient; Bluegrass Agricultural Distributors was just across the highway from the Oakley family’s farmhouse near Lancaster, Kentucky, in rural Garrard County. 


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