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In Hail Mary effort, national org calls on Biden to save ex-Mylan plant 10 days from closure

A national political organization delivered a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, calling on him to invoke the Defense Production Act in a Hail Mary effort to save jobs at the former Mylan Pharmaceuticals plant in Morgantown.

In less than 10 days, 1,246 plant workers will be laid off as part of the new operator’s “global restructuring initiative,” with another nearly 200 workers to be kept on until the facility completely shutters in March 2022. Mylan and Upjohn, a company under Pfizer, merged last November, which created the corporation Viatris. After one month operating as Viatris, the company announced its plans to send those jobs overseas, to India and Australia.

United Steelworkers Local 8-957 members have fought tooth and nail to save their jobs since December and stop the abandonment of the Chestnut Ridge Road facility — once Mylan’s flagship location. But union officials have run into wall after wall trying to find a new operator for what was formerly one of the largest generic drug manufacturers in the world.

Our Revolution, a progressive political group that spawned from Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I-Vt., 2016 presidential run, authored and delivered the letter to Biden, calling on him to immediately intervene in the situation. The letter leads with a quote from Biden’s Build Back Better plan, in which the president declared this moment to be crucial in rebuilding the American economy for families in the next generation.

The organization asked him to be true to his word.

“He committed to rebuilding America’s industrial base, and by allowing the plant to go abroad, he’s breaking his pledge,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director for Our Revolution.

The Defense Production Act of 1950 would allow the federal government to repurpose the former Mylan facility and use its workers to produce essential materials and goods needed for national defense. This would keep the plant in operation until Biden or his successor revokes the order.

Nearly 850 of the almost 1,500 jobs to be lost are those of well-paid union workers. Biden has specifically highlighted high-paying union jobs as a major key to rebuilding the economy. Geevarghese said that, if Biden doesn’t act on this issue, the story in Morgantown will be the same as it has been nationwide in recent decades: Well-paid manufacturing workers will be forced into low-paying service-sector jobs, and the region’s economy will tank.

Geevarghese questioned why the president has stayed silent. But he said Biden isn’t the only powerful politician allegedly ducking the plant’s workers.

“The fundamental problem is, no elected official at the federal level, whether it’s members of Congress or the president, have spoken out on this issue. I think that is a betrayal of what elected officials are supposed to do,” Geevarghese said. “Their No. 1 job is to raise the standard of living for their constituents, and this plant closure — allowing it to happen is a betrayal.”

The White House press office did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

Local 8-957 President Joe Gouzd, a 22-year plant veteran, said that, since December, all West Virginia elected officials, save for two local delegates, have not seriously engaged in the process of helping these workers. Members bused to the West Virginia Capitol on June 8 to drum up support from state-level officials, and while some said then that they would help, there hasn’t been any word returned since.

“These people have all ducked and hidden, and they’ve stayed away from us like we haven’t showered for a week,” Gouzd said.

Viatris and the United Steelworkers’ international office reached a severance agreement July 2, which members believed “was nothing more than average,2 at the very best,” Gouzd said. After they are laid off, workers will receive two weeks of pay, benefits and insurance for every year they worked for the plant. These benefits were supposed to last until March 2023 — the end date of the union’s last contract — but there is zero chance any workers will receive payments until then.

Dozens of other national and local organizations co-signed Our Revolution’s letter, which warns of dire consequences for working families and people who need affordable generic drugs.

“The timing couldn’t be worse — with international supply chains shaky and the nation of India still firmly in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter reads. “How do we know that Americans will continue to receive their medications as needed? We simply don’t.”

Mylan’s closure brings further American reliance on foreign drug makers. In 2019, roughly 40% of the world’s generic drug supply was manufactured in India. A full 80% of the active ingredients in all drugs, whether brand-name or generic, are made in India and China.

Generic drugs have become essential to affordable health care, but corporations repeatedly have fled overseas to escape American regulations. While the Food and Drug Administration routinely inspects domestic pharmaceutical facilities, years can lapse between agency inspections of overseas generic manufacturers. And, with the pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, those inspections will be further delayed.

The group closed the letter with a dim vision for the future, if Biden does not take action.

“The alternative looks grim: massive layoffs, drug price hikes and delayed shipments of life-saving medicines. Time is running out,” the letter states. “We strongly urge you to use every lever at your disposal to save this plant. If there is a will, there is a way. Please do something.”

"Sentry Storm" involves military personnel from eight states in training across WV

A weeklong training exercise testing the ability of U.S. military personnel from several branches of the armed forces to stage operations from austere, remote locations, as well as established, traditional bases, is underway at sites across West Virginia.

Sentry Storm 2021, hosted and coordinated by the West Virginia Air National Guard, involves 200 soldiers and airmen and 300 support personnel from Air National Guard, Army National Guard, U.S. Air Force, Air Force Reserve, U.S. Navy and Civil Air Patrol units in eight states.

The event got underway Monday, when members of the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron parachuted onto Camp Branch, a West Virginia Air National Guard base in Logan County with a 3,500-foot dirt runway, in a simulated airfield assault.

Once the airfield was “secured,” C-130 Hercules aircraft from Charleston’s 130th Airlift Wing and the 143rd Airlift Wing of the Rhode Island Air National Guard began air-dropping supplies and equipment at the site, later used for staging flight operations for the Air Guard C-130s. The remote airstrip is one of only a few dirt airfields in the nation certified for use in military training flights.

“Camp Branch essentially became the forward operating base” for the exercise, said Master Sgt. Eugene Crist, of the 130th Airlift Wing’s public affairs staff.

Many of those taking part in the exercise were quartered in air-conditioned tents at Camp Branch. The site also was used by Navy MH-60S Seahawk helicopter crews from the Norfolk area to practice sling-load operations, with help from a Kentucky Army National Guard unit.

One of the benefits of the exercise is learning how to communicate effectively between the participating service branches, all of which have their own protocols and jargon.

“We’re learning how to talk to each other and be understood,” said Brig. Gen. Bill Crane, West Virginia’s adjutant general. “Getting to work together with all the different units from around the country has been a great opportunity.”

Sixteen military units are taking part in Sentry Storm 2021, which ends Friday. The exercise involves 21 aircraft, including C-130s, C-17 Globemaster IIIs, MH-60 helicopters, A-10 “Warthog” close-air support jets and UH-1 “Huey” helicopters. The aircraft are expected to fly more than 150 missions by the end of the exercise.

On Wednesday, a trio of Navy MH-60S Seahawks landed at the 130th Airlift Wing’s flight line at Yeager Airport to transfer mock victims of combat wounds into one of the Air Guard’s C-130s for air evacuation. Just prior to the transfer, a C-130 from the Rhode Island Air National Guard landed at the Charleston airport, lowered its cargo ramp and discharged a truck-mounted High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which immediately simulated a launch sequence.

The HIMARS unit, operated by the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 623rd Field Artillery, is capable of reaching targets up to 185 miles distant, Crane said.

A C-17 from the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg flew to Louisville, where two HIMARS units, each weighing 32,800 pounds were loaded aboard and flown back to Shepherd Field, where they were transferred to C-130s for transport to Sentry Storm sites.

With the focus of U.S. armed forces transitioning from threats posed by guerilla and revolutionary fighters to threats posed by former Cold War adversaries, military leaders are taking a new approach to defending against future adversaries.

“We have been training for fighting in a counterinsurgency environment, but we now know that different type of conflict is more likely, with China and Russia as peer competitors,” Crane said.

While threats from the air have been largely absent during fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, they become real with China or Russia as potential adversaries.

“Our aircraft will be operating in a much different environment,” Crane said.

That’s one reason why military leaders are encouraging training in “agile combat employment” concepts, which include the ability to operate from remote, no-frills bases and airfields, as well as conventional staging areas, to provide more dispersed combat capabilities.

“The unique topography of West Virginia, and the numerous airfields in play, allow the teams to practice realistic agile combat employment concepts and scenarios” during Sentry Storm, said Brig. Gen. David Cochran, West Virginia’s assistant adjutant general for Air National Guard operations.

WVSU president's Cabinet members ask board to remove her, less than year into tenure

Dr. Nicole Pride has been chosen to become the 12th president of West Virginia State University in Institute. Photo courtesy WVSU

Most members of West Virginia State University President Nicole Pride’s senior Cabinet have asked the school’s Board of Governors to remove her “to allow for an investigation.”

The request, in a letter of “no confidence” last week, comes just about a year after the board hired Pride as the first woman to lead the institution since its founding in 1891. It’s one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Board Chairman Chuck Jones said Pride’s first day was Sept. 1, so she’s been working less than a year in the role.

Pride didn’t grant an interview request Wednesday.

The letter, obtained by the Gazette-Mail from an anonymous source, was signed by the university’s provost, general counsel and top financial official, along with its vice president overseeing university advancement and its vice president overseeing research and public service.

That’s more than half of the members of Pride’s senior Cabinet, according to the university’s website.

Some of those who signed are Black women, like Pride. Three who signed started in their positions in November or December, during Pride’s tenure.

The only senior Cabinet members who did not sign were Pride’s executive assistant, Pride’s communications liaison, Pride’s chief of staff, the athletic director and the interim vice president for student affairs, Trina Sweeney.

Sweeney, according to the letter, resigned July 12 after 22 years working for the Institute school. The letter starts off with this incident, saying she was “publicly berated and humiliated by the President,” most recently in a Cabinet meeting.

The letter says that, during a Cabinet meeting on July 13, Pride “openly discussed the contents” of Sweeney’s resignation letter and said Sweeney lied to her. The Cabinet members’ letter is dated the following day.

“The executive leadership team was stunned by Dr. Pride’s violation of privacy,” they wrote, adding that Pride spoke about “performance issues” regarding Sweeney and said she thought Sweeney had sent her resignation letter to others.

“Condescending and abusive dialogue are common in exchanges with Dr. Pride,” the Cabinet members wrote. “Her harassing dialogue and bullying behavior have contributed to a ‘hostile work environment.’ Her executive leadership team has continued to dwindle as a result of a psychologically unsafe and chaotic work environment.”

“Dr. Pride is known for her retaliatory practices,” the Cabinet members wrote.

They asked the board for her removal, requested “a thorough investigation” and also addressed their letter to the state’s higher education chancellor.

Jones, the board chairman, said Wednesday that “the board takes the letter seriously and we are inquiring about it. We’re doing an investigation.”

But he said of Pride, “absolutely, she’s still the president.”

The letter comes as the university struggles with its enrollment and finances.

The university paid Washington, D.C.-based AGB Search $85,000 for the search that ended in hiring Pride, not including additional expenses. The Gazette-Mail requested the amount of these additional expenses from the school and the search firm late Wednesday afternoon and is awaiting response.

Jones previously said AGB Search promised to waive the $85,000 search fee, but not new expenses, to redo the search if the new president left during his or her first year.

On Friday, the Board of Governors held an hours-long closed session during what it called an emergency meeting. The agenda said the closed-door discussion was “to discuss a personnel matter.”

“It was a personnel issue, and that’s really as much as I can really say about it,” Jones said.

New reports make case that natural gas production boom was a bust for Appalachia, urge economic transition

Appalachia’s natural gas boom turned out to be an economic bust that local and state officials can rebound from if they embrace the rising clean energy economy.

That’s the bottom line of two bottom-line-focused reports released Tuesday by nonprofit think tank Ohio River Valley Institute making an economic case for transitioning away from fossil fuels, especially natural gas development that has failed to convert production into prosperity.

“We know that the Appalachian natural gas boom hasn’t just failed to deliver growth and jobs and prosperity so far. We now know that it’s structurally incapable of doing so,” Ohio River Valley Institute senior researcher Sean O’Leary contended during a webinar on the reports Tuesday. “[That] means that a lot of economic development strategies in the region need to be rethought.”

The Ohio River Valley Institute’s analysis focuses on changes in income, jobs, population and gross domestic product — the total market value of goods and services produced — in 22 counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania from 2008 to 2019 that suggest a rise natural gas production in that span did little to lift up the economies in those counties.

One of the reports calls those 22 counties — which include Doddridge, Harrison, Marshall, Ohio, Ritchie, Tyler and Wetzel counties in West Virginia — “Frackalachia” based on the slang term for hydraulic fracturing of deep rock formations to extract natural gas or oil.

Jobs increased in the counties that comprise “Frackalachia” by just 1.6% from 2008 to 2019, 2.3 percentage points behind all West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania counties and 8.3 percentage points below the national average, the report notes.

The report concludes that a dramatic increase in gross domestic product in “Frackalachia” over the same span that came with the natural gas boom didn’t yield economic prosperity because the boom depended heavily on out-of-state workers and service suppliers, yielded less leasing and royalty income for property owners than expected and generated comparatively little income going to employee compensation.

The report find that from 2008 to 2019, when 97% of gross domestic product growth nationally was realized as personal income, that figure was just 21% in the 22 counties across West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania — something that the study attributes to three quarters of growth in those counties taking place in the mining, quarrying, oil and natural gas extraction sector.

“We’re not looking at this from a pro-fracking or anti-fracking perspective or a pro-industry or anti-industry perspective,” O’Leary said. “We’re looking at the fact that the counties are getting a bad deal economically. Whether you’re pro-industry or anti-industry, pro-fracking or anti-fracking, ... you look at the numbers, it’s a bad deal.”

The report highlights a recent study from researchers at the University of Akron and Ball State University finding that micropolitan-area counties with higher quality of life experience higher population and employment growth. The study found no “statistically significant relationship between quality of the business environment and growth in micropolitan areas.”

“This finding should come as no surprise to policymakers in many micropolitan and rural regions and states that have premised economic development strategies on providing the best possible business environment — low taxes and minimal regulation — for the natural gas industry only to be disappointed with the result,” states the report authored by O’Leary, fellow Ohio River Valley Institute staff member Ben Hunkler and three University of Washington researchers.

“We have things like the natural resource curse,” said Amanda Weinstein, an associate economics professor at the University of Akron who co-authored the micropolitan-area county study cited in the Ohio River Valley Institute report. “These areas that tend to extract their natural resources tend to do worse ... What we’ve seen in the Appalachian area is that they haven’t invested in that quality of life, making sure that as they take out those resources that they’re doing something to maintain their environment and the physical capital, this kind of natural capital that they have in that area.”

In August 2019, Gov. Jim Justice established a task force to bring manufacturing opportunities to West Virginia ahead of an anticipated expansion of the petrochemical industry in Appalachia. Justice’s office said that expansion would bring billions of dollars in investments and more than 100,000 new jobs to the region.

O’Leary said that will never happen because the natural gas industry doesn’t support a large enough workforce to produce its output, arguing that Appalachia should instead embrace the more labor-intensive energy efficiency industry.

“Energy efficiency is heating, ventilation and air conditioning and insulating, and door and window replacement, things that are done by local suppliers even in relatively small towns,” O’Leary said. “These are very labor-intensive businesses. They’re locally delivered. These are businesses that are done by local contractors, and so when you spend money with them, the money stays in the local economy. They hire local workers, and it has a multiplier effect locally.”

O’Leary noted that residential energy efficiency measures for low and moderate-income residents, along with clean energy technologies and worker retraining, were priorities for economic transition funding in Centralia, Washington, where a plant owner-funded $55 million economic transition plan was finalized in 2011 to help that community deal with the closures of a coal mine and plant.

The Ohio River Valley Institute’s other report released Tuesday highlights that transition model, which O’Leary has touted as an example replicable in areas like Marshall County, which faces the possible early closure of the American Electric Power-controlled, Mitchell coal-fired generation facility that serves as an economic engine for the county.

Federal infrastructure proposals inching their way through Congress and savings that American Electric Power would realize from closing the facility in 2028 instead of at the end of its planned life in 2040 could fund such a transition plan for Marshall and surrounding counties.

“[T]he concept of economic transition really needs to take root in the region,” O’Leary said.