Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design


Agricultural and Resource Economics

Committee Chair

Heather Stephens

Committee Member

Randall Jackson

Committee Member

Peter Schaeffer

Committee Member

Daniel Grossman

Committee Member

John Deskins


This body of work consists of three research projects developed around a central theme – what might cause a person to leave the place where they live? As a native and resident of West Virginia, this question is not a purely academic one. My region has long struggled with how to retain our “best and brightest” in the face of challenging socio-economic conditions. Looking at the question differently, understanding what negative influences may exist to cause a person that might otherwise have remained in a place to leave, could provide large influences on policy and strategy for retention of residents in the area – and help to answer the “who” in the questions of economic and social redevelopment. My research utilizes econometric techniques to analyze questions related to demographic, natural resource, environmental, health, and regional economics. In this work, I have examined three different topics that may be related to the loss of regional populations, with a principal focus on rural and exurban counties in the United States (US), Appalachia, and the state of West Virginia (WV).

My first essay focuses on examining whether there are population losses, specifically of working-aged adults who may be out-migrating, caused or influenced by drug overdose deaths, including opioid deaths, and the concurrent economic impacts. Specifically, does a higher overdose death rate lead to increased population loss via out-migration from a place, particularly in rural areas? The opioid epidemic has been extensively studied, and is known to be more prevalent in rural and lower income places, with particular concentrations in Appalachia. For example, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky were the top 4 states in the 2017 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) rankings for overdose death. If these higher death rates are causing outmigration, then the implied costs to those regions are higher than have been previously discussed, due to possible lost productivity and workforce losses. My results suggest that there is a strong, negative relationship between higher overdose death rates and future population change across the US.

My final two essays examine what, if any, long term population change effects result from two separate industrial “disasters” that impacted water supplies. The second essay focuses on the Elk River Spill (also known as the Freedom Industries spill) that occurred on January 9, 2014. A storage tank, owned by Freedom Industries, ruptured, spilling a toxic chemical, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), into the Elk River. This spill contaminated the potable water of 300,000 residents in nine counties in the Charleston, WV, area, and rendered the water unusable for any purpose to residents for several weeks. Analysis using a synthetic control approach (SCM) suggests that this spill did have long term negative population effects on the most heavily impacted counties of the spill, notably in Kanawha County, where Charleston, WV, is located.

My final essay focuses on the impact on population change from the contamination of water by another chemical known as PFOA, which affected 10 counties in WV and Ohio along the Ohio River. While this analysis also utilizes a synthetic control approach, it also makes a contribution to the literature by helping advance the application of the SCM method to events that have an unclear “treatment” time. In this case, the timing is unclear due to the slow release of information. Its potential impact ranges from late 2004, when DuPont (the polluter) agreed to a $107.6 million legal settlement, to 2012 when an independent panel – the “C8 Science Panel” – release its findings, establishing a probable link to six disease categories, including cancer and thyroid disease. The extended time period over which information was released presented the largest challenge to our research, as there is a seven-year period of imperfect information about the impact of PFOA on residents of these counties. After isolating the timing, my results suggest that this spill also has had long term negative population effects in the impacted counties, with the cost of the loss of population greatly exceeding the cost of punitive fines and settlements in the aftermath of the incident.