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

West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The billionaire Wilbur Ross is headed for Senate confirmation hearings as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of the Department of Commerce. Ross made it to ultra-rich status in part by salvaging coal and steel assets in Appalachia and the Rust Belt.

His business dealings leave a mixed legacy in the Ohio Valley region, from rescued steel mills to the site of a searing workplace disaster, and raise questions about the leadership he would bring to the president’s cabinet.

Mary Meehan

Sitting on top of the Bible on Pastor Brad Epperson’s desk at the Clay City First Church of God is a list of goals for his small congregation written in a looping cursive hand.

“Our community ought to see the love of God in us, not just by our understanding of a compassionate Gospel, but our public acts of love,” is near the top.

Epperson was born and raised in Powell County in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.

It is one of nearly 100 counties in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia designated at high risk for HIV infection by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 10 counties the CDC identified as highest risk are all in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. Powell County ranks 15th in the nation. Wolfe County, next door, ranks a sad number one.

Picturing The Future: A Coal Community’s Comeback

Jan 2, 2017
Rebecca Kiger

Can a photograph help a community grow? One photographer is shedding some light on ongoing efforts in a region looking for some new ways to sustain itself.

Rebecca Kiger is a documentary and portrait photographer born and raised in West Virginia. The images she captures are often exceptionally emotionally evocative. She says it takes a lot of patience, and a little faith in both her process and her subjects.

“You have to imagine anything’s possible,” Kiger said while mousing over some of her recent images at her studio in Wheeling, West Virginia. “It allows these magical things to happen in the frame.”

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

At the age of 38, a coal miner named Mackie Branham Jr. was diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, a debilitating and terminal form of an illness that was supposed to be a disease of the past — black lung. But Branham is among many miners afflicted by a resurgence in the disease, and officials are just beginning to realize the scope of the problem. A review of health clinic records shows roughly a thousand such cases, many times more than federal officials had thought existed.

Driving into Pike County, Kentucky, the welcome sign tells you that you’ve entered “America’s Energy Capital.” Sheer rock walls line the highway, evidence of a community that’s extremely skilled at cutting through mountains.


Becca Schimmel | Ohio Valley ReSource

During the presidential campaign I visited two regional manufacturing executives who do business in the same county but hold views on trade that are worlds apart. Now that Donald Trump is the president-elect, I asked them and some regional economists how the new administration’s approach to trade might affect the Ohio Valley region.


Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World

On Nelson Key Road in Murray, Kentucky, lies a 30-acre tobacco farm and there sits the road’s namesake, Nelson Key himself. He’s just at the end of this year’s harvest, which was brought in with the help of migrant workers.

“I used American workers up until 1991 then I went to the migrant workers and I’ve had them ever since,” he explained.

Over the years Key found it harder to hire domestic labor despite offering pay above minimum wage. Migrant workers now fill the gap. He uses the immigration service’s H-2A program for temporary agricultural workers. Key has to show that he tried to hire locally before he’s eligible to hire foreign labor for seasonal work.

That’s how he found Jose Humanez, a 33-year-old from Nayarit, Mexico. He grew up around tobacco and has worked for Key for 11 years. He said the H-2A process wasn’t too complicated.

Sarah Jane Sanders

Candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup. Those are the four basic food groups according to Buddy the Elf. And this time of year, the gluttonous season, it seems like he is onto something.

But researchers say that mindful eating –choosing quality over quantity and savoring your meals instead of, say, plowing through another pint of Ben & Jerry’s while watching “Westworld” — can make a difference.

That’s especially important because the Ohio Valley has a serious problem. In Ohio more than a quarter of adults are obese. In Kentucky it’s about a third. And in West Virginia, it’s even higher.

 

“For this exercise let’s just go ahead and close our eyes.” University of Kentucky Professor Dr. Geza Bruckner starts his class on Mindful Eating at Lexington Healing Arts.

There are about 20 people in the class, mostly middle aged women, although there are a few men and, as might be expected, some Birkenstocks are in view. The strain shows on their faces as they try to clear their heads and do what should come naturally: breathe.

Robert McGraw/WOUB

The electoral map of Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia is a sea of red with a few islands of blue. Of the 263 counties in the three states only nine went for Hillary Clinton, most of them around the region’s cities.

The Ohio Valley ReSource looked to voters and voting data to learn more about what motivated Donald Trump’s supporters and what they hope he will do as president.

“More than Obama did!” Judy Collier said from a grocery story parking lot in Whitesburg, Kentucky. “We need jobs.”

“I don’t think Trump is some savior,” Athens County, Ohio, native Rebecca Keller said. “But he is somebody with a different perspective.”

“I will keep my fingers crossed that he can effect some real change in this country,” Jack Rose said in Wheeling, West Virginia.

US Army Corps of Engineers

A recent breakdown at an Ohio River dam served as a wake-up call about the aging infrastructure that keeps river commerce flowing. The Ohio is one of the country’s busiest working rivers and some navigation controls are approaching the century mark. I went to see these ailing structures and a new multi-billion dollar project in the works.

Barges are once again moving through this section of the Ohio near Paducah, Kentucky, after a failure at the aging Lock and Dam Number 52 forced a two-day closure in September.

“It’s one of the busiest locations on the inland waterways,” said Army Corp of Engineers Colonel Christopher Beck. “We pass about 90 million tons of cargo through here every year. So it’s critical to both this region, to industry and the nation.”

Lock and Dam 52 uses wooden structures called wickets that work a bit like a bathtub to keep the river at the depth needed for boat traffic. When three wickets broke free of their bases and even more wouldn’t cooperate, a hole let too much water through. That threatened both navigability and a water intake facility used by nearby chemical manufacturing plants.

Alexandra Kanik

The opioid epidemic is on the agenda for political campaigns from the presidential race down to the local level in the Ohio Valley region. Election Day could shape the response to the crisis in states with some of the nation’s highest rates of addiction and overdoses.

Pat Fogarty, Director of Business Development and Mission Advancement at The Healing Place treatment center in Louisville said he’s seen the political discussion about addiction change for the better.

“There’s less stigma around addiction by the way it’s been approached by our leadership,” he said. “That needs to continue to snowball for the future and not be put on the backburner.”

Addiction specialists say that while they’ve seen progress, there is still need for treatment resources, prevention programs, and aid for law enforcement across the region. They hope candidates in this year’s election cycle understand those needs.

Dave Mistich, WVPB

For more than half a century along the Ohio River, the chemical company DuPont provided jobs for thousands of people. One chemical they produced is PFOA, commonly known as C8. It was a remarkably useful compound, used in “Teflon” non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and even in some food wrappers.

Over time, researchers have found that C8 is also toxic. DuPont and other companies phased out U.S. production a few years ago. Now it’s made in China.

But because the chemical can persist in water, communities along the Ohio River — and around the U.S. — are still grappling with the environmental fallout of contamination from C8 and similar chemicals. The ReSource generated a map using water testing data available from the U.S. EPA. It shows 12 water systems in 10 counties in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia where these chemicals were detected in the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory this year for C8 levels in drinking water, and many of the water systems that detected C8 and related chemicals found them at levels lower than the EPA advisory. However, a growing body of science indicates that the EPA advisory level is not sufficiently protective of human health, and many researchers recommend far more restrictive thresholds for exposure.

Nicole Erwin | Ohio Valley ReSource

Mount St. Joseph in Daviess County, Kentucky, may appear calm with the Green River flowing past  homes that dot the farmland here. But there is trouble in the air and it comes along with the smell of a large hog farm.

Sixty-three year old Jerry O’Bryan was born and raised on a farm in Daviess County. By the time he was 22 he had lost both parents and was left 150 acres to support his family.

“Back when I started there was two things that a young man with very little money could do to get started in agriculture, one of them was tobacco and the other one was hogs,” explained O’Bryan.

Now he produces more than 200,000 market hogs a year. Recently, he built a hog truck wash, Piggy Express LLC., to sanitize five semi trucks used a day to transport hogs to market. The facility upset local residents. They’ve formed  a group called CAPPAD, or Community Against Pig Pollution and Disease. Don Peters, a retired engineer, is a member.

Aaron Payne | Ohio Valley ReSource

The sound of sirens in Cabell County, West Virginia, has a good chance of indicating an overdose these days.

The county’s Emergency Medical Service had responded to 622 overdose calls this year as of September 24, according to ES Director Gordon Merry. Last year it was more than 900 overdoses, which surpassed the total of the previous three years combined.

The county received national attention in August after responding to 26 ODs in just four hours.

“That many overdoses in that short of time was a challenge,” Merry said. “It just took us off guard there.”

All 26 victims that night survived, thanks in part to the medication naloxone. Naloxone, also known by its brand name NARCAN, is becoming more a part of everyday life due to the epidemic that’s gripped the Ohio Valley. The life-saving drug is a welcome addition for emergency responders but they caution that it is no silver bullet for the addiction crisis.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

The Democratic candidate for governor in West Virginia has never held public office. Jim Justice is instead running on his record as a businessman. He runs coal mines, farms, and a luxury resort, and according to Forbes, he’s also the wealthiest person in the state, worth $1.56 billion.

A review of records by NPR and the Ohio Valley ReSource shows that his coal companies owe more than $12 million in overdue county, state, and federal taxes, as well as over $2 million for mine safety violations. Add a lengthy list of environmental violations and damaged mine sites, and a pattern emerges: Justice’s business liabilities have in many cases become public liabilities, and the costs often fall hardest on already cash-strapped communities in the Appalachian coalfields.

Becca Schimmel | Ohio Valley ReSource

Bowling Green, Kentucky is one of twelve refugee resettlement areas in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. The International Center of Kentucky, in Bowling Green, will be resettling forty Syrian refugees this month. Those new arrivals will join a community of more than 10,000 asylum seekers from around the world the center has helped to resettle since beginning operation in 1981.

Ohio Valley ReSource reporter Becca Schimmel recently sat down with a former refugee to better understand his journey, and how the small business he has started is creating a community of support for new refugees.

 

From the Middle East to the Midwest

In 2013 Wisam Asal opened Jasmine International Grocery, a small family run store with sweets, religious items and food from many countries.

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