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

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
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
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
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
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
An Oceana man disappeared in 2018, when he and another man entered an abandoned mine to steal copper wiring for scrap
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
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
Mingo County, West Virginia has a population 24,000 and sits on the state borderline with Kentucky
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
Unemployment in Mingo County peaked at 14.9% in February 2016 — it was 4.8% at the same time in 2009
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
400 people live in Kermit: five pharmaceutical distributors shipped 13 million prescription opioid pills to Kermit between 2006 and 2012
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”
884 people died of drug overdoses in West Virginia in 2016, the highest rate in the United States
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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

Images from this original work are published by Barren Magazine, in Issue No. 10, A Sun Apart.

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