In Southern West Virginia towns, fewer jobs and more pills are available

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Wyoming County, located near West Virginia’s southern border with Kentucky, has a population of 23,000 and its mountains have yielded 566 million tons of coal from 1883 to 1998
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Coal mining remains the largest industry and source of employment, ahead of retail and health services – Wyoming County’s economy lacks diversity and is classified as distressed by the US government
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Pinnacle Mine, the largest private employer, ceased operations in 2018, eliminating 400 jobs and wiping out $1 million in tax revenue from the budget of Wyoming County Public Schools: “We had to make some really, really tough decisions regarding personnel,” the schools’ superintendent told local news
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The town of Oceana lost two additional businesses in 2018, when Hardee’s Restaurant and Magic Mart closed their doors: “We’re losing our jobs, but we’re also losing our place to shop,” said Joy Belcher, an employee of Magic Mart for 27 years interviewed by local TV
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Oceana has a population of just 1,394 people, yet pharmaceutical distributors shipped 4.4 million opioid pain pills to the town’s pharmacies between 2008 and 2015
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Driven by thefts, burglaries, and assaults, Oceana’s crime rate has worsened since 2002 — by 2014 Oceana’s crime rate was four times the national average
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An Oceana man disappeared in 2018, when he and another man entered an abandoned mine to steal copper wiring for scrap
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Oceana has responded to opioid abuse with a town ordinance allowing police to search motorists for drug paraphernalia, and by raising funding for the town’s first drug-sniffing police dog
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Wyoming County has no access to an interstate highway (a connector highway is under construction), and some areas lack cellular coverage — privately owned railroads have been moving coal to East Coast cities since 1909
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Mingo County, West Virginia has a population 24,000 and sits on the state borderline with Kentucky
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In 2007, 1,645 people worked in coal mining in Mingo County, producing 12.2 million tons of coal — by 2015, both employment and production had been cut in half
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Unemployment in Mingo County peaked at 14.9% in February 2016 — it was 4.8% at the same time in 2009
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In the tiny town of Kermit, in 1986, a state-federal taskforce arrested eight members of a single family for charges including drug distribution, corruption, and obstruction of justice — the Preece family used their illicit revenue to co-opt local public institutions, gaining influence over nearly a third of all available jobs in Mingo County
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400 people live in Kermit: five pharmaceutical distributors shipped 13 million prescription opioid pills to Kermit between 2006 and 2012
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The volume of pills shipped to Kermit by McKesson Corporation was 36 times above the limits set by McKesson’s own internal drug-monitoring program, yet the company reported to the US government that the opioid purchases in Kermit were “reasonable”
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884 people died of drug overdoses in West Virginia in 2016, the highest rate in the United States
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As of 2019, the West Virginia government has collected $84 million in settlements from drug companies associated with opioid pills — the opioid epidemic costs West Virginia an estimated $8.8 billion annually
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West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey settled a case with pharmaceutical distributor Miami-Luken for $2.5 million in February 2016: Morrisey is a former lobbyist for a trade association of drug distributors that includes Miami-Luken
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Patriot Energy became owner of several unionized coal mines in the area in 2007, and became responsible for the pensions and healthcare of 22,000 retired miners and spouses — after Patriot declared two successive bankruptcies in 2012 and in 2015, its mines were bought by Blackwater Energy, and de-unionized
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Labor union representatives believed — and Patriot Energy CEO Bennett Hatfield publicly suggested — that Patriot Energy was deliberately structured to go bankrupt, to wipe out healthcare and pension obligations it had acquired from other coal companies: over its first five years of operation, from 2007 to 2012, Patriot took over pension obligations from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, racking up $1.37 billion in liabilities
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In 2016, one year after Patriot Energy was liquidated, Bennett Hatfield was murdered at his wife’s grave in Mingo County — police said the killing was a random carjacking and Hatfield was not specifically targeted
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Two pharmacies in Williamson, a town of 3,000 people, accepted delivery of more than 20.8 million prescription opioids from 2008 to 2015 — 39,000 hydrocodone pills were delivered in one two-day period
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Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum was shot dead in Williamson on 3 April 2013 while sitting inside his police car, surveilling a suspected ‘pill mill’ pharmacy
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Months after Crum’s death, the federal government named him as a key conspirator with other Mingo County public officials in a massive case of extortion, conspiracy, and violations of constitutional rights — Crum allegedly arrested a local business owner on drug charges to avoid paying a debt owed to the business
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Job loss in Wyoming and Mingo Counties is partly driven by the use of mountaintop removal mining techniques, which require fewer workers than traditional mining — air and water pollution from mountaintop removal has been associated with increases in cardiovascular disease, birth defects, and cancer in nearby communities

 

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