Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Fast-tracked bills, coal ash, and contradictions

Last week, I had conversations with two people living in two different versions of Kentucky, fighting different battles.

One was with Attica Scott, a Democratic state representative from Louisville who made headlines early last year when she became the first black woman to hold a seat in the state legislature in two decades. With a progressive agenda and a demanding presence, Scott has been gaining traction here for quite some time. She spent the last two weeks fighting a series of fast-tracked bills the GOP-led legislature introduced, which were all signed into law. This weekend, she is protesting the closure of a grocery store in a food desert in urban Louisville and rallying at a women’s march, in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington.

The other was a healthcare professional in Owsley County who asked to remain anonymous because she said she was burned by the media several years ago. Owsley, a small county in Appalachia, has the highest cancer mortality rate in the country. This woman told me how she spends every day trying to convince people to get screened for colon cancer, or schedule a mammogram, or stop smoking. “It’s hard to educate here in a rural area,” she said. There are many efforts to help people access the care they need, and 66 percent of the county is now insured through the Affordable Care Act. But most people are resigned to the fact that things won’t get any better. Nearly 84 percent voted for Donald Trump. I asked what she thought would make a difference. “I wish I knew,” she said. “That’s the magic question.”

These glimpses into Kentucky rhetoric, as well as this week’s journalism picks, reflect the wide array of battles people have been fighting. Understanding the region’s contradictions, investigating and finding its truths, has never felt more important than it does under a Trump administration.

Stories worth your time

Hat tip to a Nashville subscriber who sent me alt-weekly Nashville Scene‘s latest cover story on coal ash pollution in the Cumberland River. A Gallatin, Tennessee coal-fired power plant, operated by Tennessee Valley Authority, burns 4 million tons of coal annually and until recently, disposed of the toxic coal ash in ponds on the property, which is near housing communities. Environmental groups sued the company over groundwater pollution; this story walks us through the little-known history of environmental pollution in the area.

Two gut-wrenching pieces came out this week, both profiles of black men imprisoned in the 1970s in the Deep South, kept in the criminal justice system for decades. One was by The Marshall Project: the story of Phillip Chance, imprisoned for his involvement in a murder in 1971 in Alabama, released, and imprisoned again for the same crime years later. The people who kept going after him have ties to the incoming administration — Attorney General candidate Jeff Sessions used him as a “political pawn” in Alabama, Chance’s family says, and the Alabama governor who refused to grant him parole is on Trump’s short list of Supreme Court nominees.

The other was The New Yorker‘s recent cover story about Albert Woodfox, one of the Angola 3, imprisoned initially for armed robbery and retaliated against for his allegiance to the Black Panther Party. Angola, in Louisiana, is the largest maximum security prison in the U.S. Woodfox lived in solitary confinement for 40 years, longer than any other American. A line from the piece that struck me: “He said that, in the early two-thousands, inmates at Angola began telling him, ‘Thanks for not letting them break you.’ It was the first time he grasped that, by staying sane, he had done something unusual.”

Meet the eco-right, a group of Republican politicians, leaders, and think tanks that are attempting to prove the importance of climate change to their party, and to Trump. The Atlantic talks to one of these self-described “energy optimists,” a former South Carolina Congressman named Rob Inglis.

President Obama designated five new national monuments this week, three of which commemorate Civil Rights Movement landmarks in Alabama and South Carolina. Read interviews with four of the Freedom Riders.

News flying under the radar

The “feedback loop” of nourishing beaches, or supplementing sand as they are eroded, described by online magazine Anthropocene: new study shows development on Florida’s coast means more erosion, which means more protection, which means more nourishment, leading to a false sense of security. Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands seen through the lenses of environmental photojournalists at, who revisit places on the coast decades later. West Virginia Public Broadcasting dedicates an episode to hope vs. fear in Appalachia as Trump enters office, interviewing a diverse range of people. Then watch a timelapse map showing 30 years of mountaintop removal mining in the area. The Colonial Pipeline, which carries gasoline throughout the Southeast — a section of it exploded in Alabama about two months ago, killing two workers — started leaking near the Tennessee River in Chattanooga; the local newspaper is just about the only place reporting it.

Looking forward to seeing what comes of a new collaboration between West Virginia Public Broadcasting, The Daily Yonder, and West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media called “100 Days in Appalachia,” which will ask contributors to submit photos, words, and multimedia that answer questions about identity politics and diverse communities in the region.

Thanks for sticking with me as I find the Southerly stride. As always, shoot me a note if you have questions, comments, or stories to read and write!