Category Archives: Agriculture & forestry

Virginia’s Very Own Keystone XL

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

The rise of natural gas keeps raising more questions about the proper future of Virginia’s and the nation’s energy policies. What just a little while ago seemed a benign source of energy has gushed into a mass of controversy and advantage.

One focus of the conflict – good and bad – is the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Dominion Transmission and three other southern utilities want to build from the booming natural gas fracklands of northern West Virginia, across sensitive Appalachian terrain and on through Virginia and North Carolina.

The pipeline is unusual since it doesn’t follow the usual post World War II path – Gulf States to the industrial northeast — but it shows just how the U.S. energy picture is being turned on its head.

People in West Virginia have faced the raw end of energy issues for a century and a half, but it is a new matter for the bucolic areas of Nelson County and some of Virginia’s most pristine and appealing mountain country.

Here is a story I wrote for Style Weekly on the promises and problems of Virginia’s very own Keystone XL.

My Drive Through Two West Virginias

A natural gas well fire in nothern West Virginia

A natural gas well fire in northern West Virginia

 By Peter Galuszka

It was a biting eight degrees when I hit the road in Beckley, W.Va. last Wednesday morning having held a book signing and given a talk in Charleston the night before.

I wanted to drive two hours up to Harrison County, where my family lived from 1962 to 1969, and see what had changed. I hadn’t been there in a few years.

Harrison and neighboring counties Doddridge and Lewis had long been coalfield areas along with natural gas. Coal had pretty much played out after the 1980s but there are still some big mines. Its real claim to fame is the underground rock formation ideal for glass-making. In the 1890s, it had attracted hundreds of craftsmen from Italy who made Clarksburg an important glass center and home to the locally-famous “Pepperoni Roll” – a small loaf of bread with a long stick of pepperoni inside.

As I drove up Interstate 79, I noticed the first signs of the area’s most recent transformation. There were plenty of oversized truck rigs with oddly-shaped machines. A number carried long steel pipes.

When I drove on familiar roads, I noticed that small lots that might have stored strip coal mine gear were all now filled with bright-orange wellheads. Davisson Run, a small creek where we used to hunt for frogs, is now near a large new building for Dominion Transmission — yes, that Dominion based in Richmond — which plans a $5 billion natural gas pipeline from the area through Virginia and North Carolina.

Welcome to Fracking Central. This part of northern West Virginia is booming thanks the Marcellus Shale formation rich with hard-to-get natural gas. In just a few years, hydraulic fracking, using high pressure water and powerful chemicals to fracture underground gas pockets and pump them out, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

My mission (which failed) was to find a woman living in a rural house in the rolling hills and dairy farms of western Harrison County. She had been on YouTube two years ago complaining how her neighbor had sold gas rights and turned pleasant pastureland into an obnoxious industrial site with all-night floodlights and diesel generators roaring 24/7. Huge trucks carrying water for high pressure injection clogged narrow county roads.

I drove through Salem, a tiny college town, and noticed signs reading “Antero Resources” that reminded truck drivers supplying rigs to drive slowly and not to “Jake Brake” – use brakes on some trucks that make a loud, machine gun sound as they tap engine exhaust to slow down.

Antero Resources was a big clue. They are an independent gas and oil firm based in Denver that has hit the fracking craze in a big way. They have rights to something like 384,000 acres of gasland in the surrounding area. Having gone public only recently, the company has revenues that have zoomed from $195 million in 2011 to $259 million in 2012 to $689 million last year.

Antero has had its problems. In July 2013, “flowback” material from a Doddridge Count well exploded, badly burning five workers and killing two. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a case operations order to Antero because of tank ruptures. The firm has also been accused of released methane into the private wells of 12 individuals.

I couldn’t find out if some are enjoying the economic benefits of fracking. One reads of people suddenly drawing $1 million a year in royalties. I did notice was that there was a lot more drilling support activity and more shopping malls.

My road trip was in marked contrast to one I had taken the day before in the southern part of West Virginia.

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

I was on my way to give a talk in Charleston about the paperback edition of my book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” I had the time so I chose to head up fateful Route 3 through the Coal River Valley where I have spent a lot of time in the past four years.

Route 3 in Raleigh County is a lot different from any road in Harrison County. The peaks are taller, steeper with more distinct hollers. Rock outcrops jam out at you, unlike the gently rolling hills of the north. The late fall sun is dramatically restricted.

This is the road that suddenly became flooded with ambulance and fire trucks on April 5, 2010. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine owned by then-Richmond-based Massey Energy killed 29 miners. Before then, it had been Ground Zero in the environmentalists’ vigorous war against Mountaintop Removal, which is strip mining on an obscenely large scale. Hundreds of feet of mountaintops are lopped off by gigantic drag lines. The leftover dirt and trees are dumped into creek beds destroying habitat.

I headed north along Big Coal River, which is anything but. Its valley provides just enough space for a road and a CSX rail line in some areas. I went past the new Marsh Fork Elementary School that Massey Energy was forced to build to replace one a few miles away that was threatened by its mine operations.

There was Jarrett’s store (new sign) where bystanders watched all the police cars and ambulances that fateful April day. Soon, the old Marsh Fork school appears. It had been a focus of yet another battle over coal but today it is abandoned and fenced in. Its playground is close to huge coal storage towers. Soaring above them is an earthen dam holding back a lake with about 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

There was very little activity – odd since the coal of the valley is the best in the world. Then it came – Upper Big Branch mine – lifeless. It was sealed after the disaster. Past roads with signs reading “Ambulance entrance” there was the portal where the UBB miners came and went. There is a lonely memorial of 29 black helmets at the base of a steel tower. Another memorial to them is a few miles north at Whitesville – a classic coal town filled with empty stores, although the florist shop is still busy.

No coal trucks, no pickups, for miles. The only activity was at the Elk Run deep mine at the very top of Route 3.

Why? One reason is that fracked natural gas from Harrison County and its region is stealing electric utility market share away from coal.

The other reason is Asia’s economic slowdown. Coal River and UBB provide metallurgical coal used for export to smelt steel in foreign mills. (They don’t anything to do with “Keeping Our Lights On” as the pro-coal propagandists say.) Met coal can be enormously lucrative but its prices are down two thirds from three years ago.

That’s bad news for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey for $7 billion after the disaster. Alpha is in such bad straits that hedge funds are lining its stock up for shorting trades, according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Well, that’s my road trip. Not to worry, though, I’ll be back soon. The criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship, former Massey CEO and otherwise known as “The Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” starts Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Beckley.

Sticking it to the Chinese

factory manBy Peter Galuszka

This  is a review of “Factory Man,” a book about the Virginia furniture business and dealing with the inequities of Chinese trade by Beth Macy (Little Brown, 451 pages). This was first published in the October 2014 Bulletin of the Overseas Press Club of America in New York of which I am a member.

The hills around Danville Va. are blessed with some of the finest hardwoods around such as oak, hickory and cherry trees. It is those trees, and the people who work with them, that have made for one of the more vicious global trade wars in recent history.

They also represent one of the few trade victories American industry has had, according to Beth Macy, a Roanoke Times reporter who has written a lively and deeply reported book about Vaughan Bassett, a local firm that is now the largest American furniture maker. Boss John D. Bassett (“JBIII”) refused to succumb to an onslaught of cheap Chinese labor and government subsidies that helped shutter 63,300 U.S. factories and five million jobs from 2001 to 2012. By standing up to Beijing, he saved his company and 700 jobs.

Macy’s first book is of value to anyone who covers global trade issues. She punctures the conceit, held by many journalists in the New York-Washington axis, that globalization is a great and inevitable thing. I heard this constantly at BusinessWeek where I worked as an editor and bureau chief in the 1980s and 1990s.

What’s lost in the laud of so-called “free” trade is what happens to the people who lose. Their secure employment turned overnight into a new world of Medicaid, food stamps and family strife.

Big Journalism doesn’t seem to care much. “Even globalization guru Tom Freidman, writing in “The World Is Flat,” briefly acknowledges the agony caused by offshoring.” But she notes that it’s easy for him to say since Friedman, “lives in an 11,400 square foot house with his heiress wife” in Bethesda, Md., a “cushy” Washington suburb five hours by car from the turmoil farther south.

For years, Bassett and its sister factories were part of a network of Southern-style company towns with their own issues, such as paying African-American workers half of what whites got. By the 1970s, U.S. furniture quality and productivity were slipping. A Taiwanese chemist discovered how to make rubber trees useful for furniture after they stopped producing latex, giving rise to an expanded Asian export furniture business.

Chinese industrialists took over. They visited U.S. factories, where, according to Macy, naïve executives handed over their production secrets. In short order, cheap Chinese knockoffs were stealing market share from the Americans. A Chinese executive named He Yun Feng bluntly suggested to JBIII that he shut his plants and hand his business over. Proud JBIII didn’t turn tail. Instead, he shored up his production and cut costs while preserving as many jobs as he could. He also bucked his reluctant industry and challenged the Chinese for dumping and manipulating their currency to give them unfair trade advantages.

“The last thing they wanted to hear was that China may have been breaking the law.” Macy quotes JBIII as saying. That’s the nut of Macy’s excellent book. A tighter edit, especially in the early history of the Basset family, might have helped, but her story is powerful and well told.

OPC member Galuszka lives in the Richmond, Va. area and is author of “Thunder on the Mountain; Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

Support Your Local Goat Herder

Goats at work. Photo credit: Goat Busters

Goats at work. Photo credit: Goat Busters

by James A. Bacon

A common reed plant, known by the scientific name of Phragmites australis, introduced into the United States in the 18th century from Europe, has invaded the eastern marshes of North America. Like many invasive species, Phragmites out-competes native marsh plants. When the reed establishes expansive mono-cultures, plant diversity declines precipitously. And when plant diversity declines, so does the diversity of insects and the rest of the food chain dependent upon the plants.

Over the past five years, land managers and private organizations have treated more than 80,000 hectares of marsh with herbicides at a cost of $4.6 million per year to control Phragmites. Mowing and burning the plant hasn’t proven economical, given high labor costs. And insect control often does greater damage to native strains than to the invasive plant.

In desperation, the marine science and conservation division of Duke University tested a new technique for controlling the plant: grazing goats. At a fresh water marsh in Beltsville, Md., the scientists penned goats in enclosures where they had little but Phragmites to eat. While the goats didn’t eradicate the plant pest, they substantially reduced its biomass — from 94% of ground cover to 21% on average — allowing native species a better chance of competing, investigators concluded.

Across the country, government authorities are discovering the virtues of goats for clearing unwanted brush, even tending lawns. The hardy ruminants have an appetite for plants that other animals shun.

There is a small but active goat industry in Virginia. The Virginia State Dairy Goat Association lists 33 members. Jack & Anita Mauldin’s Boer Goats page lists 34 goat farms. My impression is that most goat products fall into the organic or artisanal agriculture category — goat meat, goat cheese, goat milk, maybe some goat wool. But perhaps the most interesting enterprise is Goat Busters, based in Afton, which specializes in land clearing. As its website says, “Goat Busters is quite simply the most environmentally sensitive method to clear land or control invasive species vegetation ever, short of going out and hand-pulling each and every little weed.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia government, businesses and property owners need to Get Goat. They should more aggressively explore the use of goats as a tool for clearing brush and controlling invasive species. Transporting the goats and setting up the pens is more labor intensive than attacking a patch of brush or Phragmites with a Bush Hog or a tankful of herbicides, but goats don’t compact the soil and they don’t leave behind chemical compounds laden with heavy metals. They do leave behind fertilizer, enriching the soil.

In economic development parlance, substituting locally raised goats for imported herbicides and rotary mowers is called “import substitution.” The practice keeps money in the region, supporting local enterprises and jobs. It’s hard to imagine the goat industry transforming the face of Virginia agriculture, but every little bit helps make our rural counties more economically viable.

Tobacco Commission Needs Huge Makeover

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

One more glaring example of mass corruption in Virginia is the grandly named Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission formed 14 years ago to dole out Virginia’s share of a $206 billion settlement among 45 other states with cigarette makers.

I’ve been writing for years about how millions of dollars are doled out with little oversight to economic development projects supposedly helpful to the former tobacco-growing parts of the state from the bright leaf belt around Dinwiddie out west to the burley leaf land of the mountains.

There have been no-strings giveaways to absentee tobacco quota holders, a board member sent to prison for siphoning off grant money and the shenanigans of the extended Kilgore family which is very politically powerful in those parts. The commission even figured in the McDonnell corruption trial starring the former and now convicted governor and back-slapping witnesses for the prosecution, entrepreneur and tobacco-believer Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

I revisit the issue in Sunday’s Washington Post and I ask the obvious question of why no one seems to watching the commission. I raise broader ones, too, such as why the commission  serves only people in the tobacco belt. That doesn’t seem fair since the Attorney General’s office represented all of the state in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement against four major tobacco firms. People in Hampton Roads, Arlington, Onancock and Winchester should be benefit but get nothing from the settlement. They didn’t  because tobacco road legislators pulled a fast one back in 1999 when they set things up.

There needs to be a thorough disassembling of the commission’s current governance structure with many more people far from Tobacco Road included. There’s far too much family and friend back-scratching as it is. It is like watching a vintage episode of the Andy Griffith show but it really isn’t funny.

(Hat tip to James A. Bacon Jr. who spotted the commission as a great story back in the year 2000 when he was publisher of Virginia Business).

So, please read on.

The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines

atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

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Let the Grass Grow Free

Native meadow grass

Native meadow grass

There’s a movement afoot in Henrico County to make it easier to grow grass. Not marijuana. Meadow grass.

Lawns are one of the banes of suburbia. They are biologically sterile, supporting very little wildlife. They require constant maintenance, including applications of fertilizer that washes into the watershed and causes algae blooms in the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries. They hold little water during a downpour, contributing to the problem of storm water management. Last but not least, they require mowing, and small, inefficient lawnmower engines contribute disproportionately to air pollution. As a society, we’d be better off without lawns. Just one little problem: Homeowners love them.

If people want to keep their lawns, that’s fine with me. But people who want to convert their lawns to prairie grass should be free to do so. Trouble is, they can’t. Suburban county ordinances require homeowners to cut their grass.

In Henrico County, according to the Times-Dispatch, land within 250 feet of a residential property must be cut to a foot or less in height. But the Board of Supervisors is considering an ordinance that would loosen that restriction to 150 feet, and even 50 feet if a property owner is involved with a bona fide conservation program.

“This is a very positive step that the county is taking,” said Nicole Anderson Ellis, chairwoman of the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District Board.

Added Mark Strickler, head of Henrico’s Office of Community Revitalization: “We had a case where somebody wanted to let their property go natural, and there really wasn’t a mechanism to allow that under the code.”

– JAB

Nash Nails Neanderthal GOP

crabbersBy Peter Galuszka

Imagine Norfolk spending $300 million for light rail only to have it covered in salt water. Or consider that Virginia’s statewide mean temperature has risen 0.46 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1975. Or that, due to carbon dioxide emissions, the sea level on the Virginia coast is expected to rise by two feet by 2050 and by 5.6 feet by 2100.

And consider that the state’s Republican politicians are mostly sticking their heads in the rising tide about climate change.

That’s the point of an intriguing essay in the Local Opinions section of this morning’s Washington Post by Stephen P. Nash, a research scholar and former journalism professor at the University of Richmond. His book on the rising water and climate change involving Virginia is due out this fall.

As Nash correctly explains, the state’s GOP leadership takes a “ho-hum” attitude about climate change and is loath to accept the fact of what is happening around them. You hear a lot of the echos on this very blog.

Nash is absolutely right. He should be listened to. As he points out,what is especially odd is that today’s deniers are running contrary to the traditions of their own Republican Party which gave us Theodore Roosevelt who set aside great expanses of land for preservation. Even Richard Nixon proved to be one of the most influential environment protectors in modern U.S. history.

I did a piece last year quoting scientists about how fishing patterns are already changing for Virginia’s watermen due to climate change.

Do the sea creatures know something that the GOP House of Delegates doesn’t know? Most likely they do.

Why Executive Fiats Are Needed

idiot gets shotBy Peter Galuszka

Two initiatives — one on the state and the other on the federal level– show just how untenable the politics of confrontation has become. It is forcing the executive side to take charge at the expense of the legislative.

Democrats Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Atty. Gen. Mark Herring are exploring ways to have the governor take emergency authority to continue operating the state of no budget is passed by June 30. Herring has brought in a constitutional ringer from the University of Virginia to help out.

Meanwhile, on Monday, President Barack Obama will unveil new rules to stem carbon dioxide pollution at electricity power plants. This will most likely involve some kind of cap and trade system that actually has worked for a couple decades for preventing emissions that contribute to acid rain.

Obama is late in promulgating the rules because King Coal and its well-paid lobbyists and members of Congress want to blunt the impact on coal-fired electricity plants that provide about 40 percent of the electricity in this country. They and the annoyingly boring global change naysayers have rendered Congress useless in addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time. Result? Gridlock.

So, Obama is taking executive power through existing law, namely air pollution laws that date back to Republican Richard M. Nixon.

It’s a shame that there can’t be intelligent discussion about either issue. In Virginia’s case, the stubborn resistance by conservative Republicans in the House of Delegates to expanding Medicaid has deadlocked action on passing a $96 billion two year budget.

Turns out that the fiscal situation is even more dire because of a $350 million shortfall this year in revenue which is the result of many wealthy Virginians taking advantage of capital gains tax law changes that made it better to ditch stocks last year as they did. The shortfall will only snowball if nothing is done. Localities and state employees will be severely impacted.

Hence McAuliffe is seeking out a Constitutionally-acceptable way to keep the government going regardless of what hard-liners like House Speaker Bill Howell do.

So, there you have it: rule but executive fiat. To be sure, in Virginia’s case, there are possible ways to get out of the mess, namely Republican Sen. Emmet Hanger’s compromise plan on Medicaid. But when it comes to global warming, forget it. The power of the Koch Brothers and the fossil fuel industry is simply too great. No matter what practically every climate scientist in the world says, we are having to answer to the deniers.

Hang on. June will be a lively month.

The Perils of Child Labor in Tobacco

tobacco child labor By Peter Galuszka

The humidity was wet as a warm washcloth one July morning at 4 a.m. some 43 years ago. I was an 18-year-old cub reporter working college summers at the Washington (N.C.) Daily News, a small afternoon newspaper on the fringe of North Carolina’s bright leaf tobacco belt.

About a dozen youngsters, maybe 10 years old, sleepily sauntered on the school bus used by the state employment agency hired by tobacco growers. The children were heading out to the tobacco fields where they’d spend the day working tobacco leaves.

They’d cut off the top of the flowering buds and eventually “prime” or cut bottom leaves first so they could be tied to sticks for placement in a hot, flue-heated barn. The point is to get the best smoking flavor but also the optimum amount of nicotine, which, of course, is the deadly and carcinogenic chemical that gives tobacco cigarettes their addictive kick.

Apparently, those kids in Bertie County N.C., might have thought the pin money they got from their hard field work might buy them candy or a movie ticket or a Coke at Hardees. But regularly handling tobacco leaves, it was later found out, exposes the kids to about 50 cigarettes-worth a day of nicotine and that causes the “Green Tobacco Sickness” which can involve nausea, vomiting and other maladies.

Using U.S. child labor to harvest tobacco is a time-honored tradition in the tobacco belt, especially in North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. But it is a dangerous business and young people shouldn’t be doing it, notes the Human Rights Watch.

Virginia is actually a fairly small producer of tobacco – only 7 percent – and only has about 895 tobacco farms that hire seasonally. But they rely on child labor and much of it does not involve alien workers.

Nicotine’s dangers have been highlighted more recently in electronic cigarettes which are a growing craze and now will be lightly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. One issue is that the e-cigs or “vapes” have small containers that hold nicotine although the user doesn’t get the other bad stuff in the smoke. The right amount of nicotine can be fatal if ingested by a child which is a concern if e-cigs are somehow broken apart if children play with them.

In the tobacco fields, the kids get into nicotine when they handle the leaves, which they do for hours at a time. There have been proposals to restrict working in tobacco fields to kids older than 16.

But guess who but the kibosh on that? That socialist Barack Obama, that’s who. His administration announced there would be no regulations on child labor in tobacco fields because of protests from tobacco growers.

Down South, some traditions never change.