A Tomato Mystery, Radioactive Waste, And Reunited Families


Many oil and gas workers come into contact with a fracking byproduct called brine. The gas industry says it’s safe. But is it really? This week on Inside Appalachia, we’ll talk with reporter Justin Nobel, who says some workers are being exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity, which could be making them, and their families, sick. And, as we head into garden season, we’ll check in with an update on a mystery about mortgage-lifter tomatoes.

In This Episode:

Families Reunited Through Treatment Court

Family Treatment Court Coordinator Stephanie Smith speaks at a graduation ceremony for the first five families to successfully finish Nicholas County's program.

Emily Allen
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Family Treatment Court Coordinator Stephanie Smith speaks at a graduation ceremony for the first five families to successfully finish Nicholas County’s program.

This week on the show, we meet families who are being reunited after spending the last year working through family treatment court. It’s a program for parents who struggle with substance use disorders, which helps them get into recovery. During the pandemic, most haven’t been able to see their kids in person. As Emily Allen reports, families recently gathered at their local courthouse in Nicholas County to celebrate graduation from the program.

Ninety miles away in a different courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia, the nation’s three biggest opioid distributors are currently on trial. A federal judge will hear questions about how much responsibility drug companies bear for their role in the opioid epidemic — and how much money they should pay to help communities across Appalachia rebuild. The judge’s answers might set a precedent for other communities, and the trial itself could last months.

New Book Explores How Art And Opioid Epidemic Overlap

Those who have found recovery during the pandemic face especially tough odds. Opioid overdose deaths spiked last year. At least 88,000 people died between August 2019 and August 2020, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 27 percent higher than the year before. So not only has our region still not healed from the opioid epidemic — but it’s still playing out.

Travis Stimeling is a professor of musicology at West Virginia University and the editor of a book called, “The Opioid Epidemic and US Culture: Expression, Art, and Politics in an Age of Addiction.” The book collects 23 essays by academics, artists, and activists about how art and the opioid epidemic overlap. Inside Appalachia co-host Caitlin Tan spoke with Stimeling about the book.


Fracking Byproduct May Be Harmful To Workers

Journalist Justin Nobel has been looking closely at fracking and natural gas development. He’s been reporting on the place that’s ground zero for natural gas production in Appalachia: the Marcellus and Utica shale in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He spent two weeks on the ground learning from residents and activists in the region. Towards the end of his trip, a community organizer mentioned that the waste produced from gas development was radioactive. That was three years ago.

A drilling rig in Butler County, Pa., in 2013. Pennsylvania is now dotted with more than 7,000 active wells.

Jason Cohn
A drilling rig in Butler County, Pa., in 2013. Pennsylvania is now dotted with more than 7,000 active wells.

Last year, Nobel published an investigative piece about the dangers of radioactive oil and gas waste in Rolling Stone. The story gets into worker and community safety and health concerns over the wastewater that comes out of fracked wells. We’re talking about billions of gallons of salty waste that’s pumped into injection wells underground, which have even been used as a de-icer on roadways in Pennsylvania, though that’s been discontinued. Last February, just after he published his article, Nobel talked with the Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple about his story.

We should note that not everyone agrees that brine is toxic to human health. There’s been some pushback from the oil and gas industry to Nobel’s article in Rolling Stone. You can read the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s response to Nobel’s reporting on their website.

mortgage lifter tomatoes

Zack Harold
Dean Williams, grandson-in-law of Mortgage Lifter creator William Estler, turned his Huntington, West Virginia garage into a plant nursery to raise some of the Estler family’s cherished heirloom tomatoes.

An Update On A Tomato Mystery

If you have a garden, this is the time of year you may be thinking of putting tomatoes in the ground. Last year, we told you about an Appalachian heirloom tomato called the Mortgage Lifter. But, like we reported, there’s more than one tomato called the Mortgage Lifter. If you buy seeds from a catalog, you’re probably getting a variety bred by a guy named Radiator Charlie in Logan County, West Virginia. But there’s another, lesser-known Mortgage Lifter that goes back even farther — back to the 1920s. That Mortgage Lifter was first cultivated by a man named William Estler in Cabell County, West Virginia. And his descendants are still growing them.

Folkways reporter Zack Harold says there are some new wrinkles in the Mortgage Lifter saga.


Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, John Wyatt, and Blue Dot Sessions.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.