The Year in Appalachia: What Happened in 2018

From rural organizing to pepperoni roll evangelizing, here are some notable stories from the central Appalachian region that you may have missed this year.

[Photo: Woman in a cap, jeans, and flannel shirt works on a laptop near a field of green plants.]
This year, women in Appalachia did what they’ve always done: try to save the world. Or at least keep their hollers as safe as they can from industry interests, fascism, and the devastation of systematic poverty. Shutterstock.com

Appalachia continues to capture the nation’s imagination and interest. But not all the stories emerging from the region are hopeless—or held back by outdated narratives focused on coal, poverty, or ignorance. This year’s central Appalachian coverage at Rewire.News includes positive change and progress in the region: stories to witness—if you missed them the first time—and newsmakers to watch out for in 2019 and beyond.

No Apathy (or Elegy) From Appalachian Youth

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is that dubious gift that keeps on giving, much like the stomach virus passed around the day care. So when Vance was selected to give a panel presentation at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Cincinnati last April, young people protested his slick version of the culture-of-poverty narrative that’s long dogged the region.

West Virginia’s Crisis of Court and Confidence

We’ve heard about court packing, but how about court sacking? This year, the West Virginia Supreme Court made national news because nearly every justice on its bench was removed, had to resign, or was under threat of impeachment due to ethics concerns, including exorbitant spending on office furniture, payments to former judges, and wire fraud. After removal proceedings for some of the justices were halted, the court didn’t turn over, but any possible changes to that court don’t bode well for abortion access in the state.

Rural Activists Rock, Especially Women and Queer Folk

This year, women in Appalachia did what they’ve always done: try to save the world. Or at least keep their hollers as safe as they can from industry interests, fascism, and the devastation of systematic poverty. Women like Elizabeth Catte have emerged as strong voices against Vance-ism, supporting the people power that has always run Appalachia, long before the rest of the country paid attention to the region. But more Coleman lanterns need to shine on the work of rural organizers, particularly rural queer folk

The Teachers’ Wildcat Strike

The historic strike of public teachers in Appalachia caught fire across the country, garnered national attention and support, and, for West Virginia teachers, resulted in a pay increase that will hopefully help teachers in the region continue to make remarkable change in students’ lives, both inside and outside the classroom

[Photo: A street corner with three businesses, in brick buildings, in Loudon, Tennessee.]
Before there can be a renaissance, there needs to be a dose of reality about what Appalachian food is. (JNix/Shutterstock.com)
Sen. Joe Manchin: The Only Democrat to Vote “Yes” to Confirm Kavanaugh

Manchin’s tendency to skew conservative has vexed his fellow Democrats, but it probably kept him alive in a red state. His Democratic colleagues’ frustration likely reached new heights when the West Virginia lawmaker cast his vote to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, despite Christine Blasey Ford’s credible and incredible testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Why Did Hep A Happen?

Opioids continue to garner a lot of attention regarding health in Appalachia, especially when those struggling with addiction are white. But a large and unprecedented outbreak of hepatitis A also spread through West Virginia this year. Health officials and local law enforcement were at odds over possible causes and the best way to help.

Opioid Strike Force

Meanwhile, the federal Department of Justice announced the formation of an opioid “strike force,” based in Cincinnati and Nashville. The Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force will reportedly be tasked with identifying and prosecuting those accused of drug crimes, while those who work with people struggling with addiction say what’s really needed is more options for treatment, not more punishment. We’re left wondering if the federal “strike force” will be as effective as the president’s proposed “space force.”  

[Photo: Heavy machinery mining coal using mountain removal in front of a patch of woods.]
How much devastation might yet another resource industry leave in its wake in Appalachia? (Steve Heap/Shutterstock.com)
Cases of Black Lung Disease Hit 25-Year High

President Trump vowed to make coal great again, but how about keeping workers healthy? Even with the industry’s decline, cases of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP)commonly known as “black lung disease,” a debilitating and fatal respiratory condition experienced by miners and others who inhale damaging silica and coal dust—have jumped. Our friends at 100 Days in Appalachia and PolitiFact took a look at a study that found cases of black lung disease are at a 25-year high and concluded its findings were valid. Undoubtedly there will be more cases, but states like Kentucky are trying to make it harder for people to get diagnosed or make legal claims against the coal industry.

The Pressure for Energy Jobs

The world’s largest power company, based in China, committed to invest more than $83 billion in West Virginia for projects including storing natural gas, generating power, and chemical manufacturing, though that investment may be a casualty of Trump’s tariff wars. Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy Rick Perry recently called for an “energy hub” in Appalachia. But it remains to be seen how many actual jobs for Appalachians this might create and how much regional devastation yet another resource industry might leave in its wake.

Appalachian Food Renaissance?

We keep hearing that mountain food is the “next big thing.” Even Anthony Bourdain filmed a particularly lovely and respectful Parts Unknown episode in West Virginia (RIP, Tony). But as chef and 100 Days in Appalachia food editor Mike Costello put it, a lot of that buzz comes with a heaping dose of stereotypes alongside the pepperoni roll, and it comes from folk outside the region saying, “Let’s offer something Appalachian—Spam and beans in a tin can, which we’ll call ‘best darn’ something-or-other.” Before there can be a renaissance, there needs to be a dose of reality about what Appalachian food is.

The Fight for Clean Water

Flint, Michigan, still doesn’t have clean water. And neither do many places in West Virginia and Kentucky.