Category Archives: Children and families

Big Energy’s Conspiracy with Attorneys General

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller --toady for Big Energy

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller –toady for Big Energy

By Peter Galuszka

What seems to be strong opposition to a host of initiatives by President Barack Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curtail carbon and other forms of pollution is no mere coincidence.

According to a deeply reported story in Sunday’s New York Times, some state attorneys general, most of them Republicans, are part of what seems to be a covert conspiracy to oppose carbon containment rules in letters ghost-written by energy firms.

And, there’s a big Virginia connection in former Democratic Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller and George Mason University which have been bankrolled by conservative and Big Energy money for years.

The cabal has drawn its modus operandi from the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the ultra-right, oil-rich Koch Brothers of Kansas. In that case, ALEC prepares “templates” of nearly identical legislation that fits the laissez-faire market and anti-government and regulation principles held dear by the energy and other big industries. Many marquee-name corporations such as Pepsi, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble have dropped their ALEC membership  after public outcries.

In the case of the attorneys general, big petroleum firms like Devon Energy Corporation of Oklahoma draft letters opposing proposals that might hurt their profits such as ones to regulate methane, which can be a dangerous and polluting result of hydraulic fracking for natural gas. The Times notes that Oklahoma Atty. Gen. E. Scott Pruitt then took Devon’s letter and, almost-word-for-word, submitted it in his “comments” opposing EPA’s proposed rules on regulating fracking and methane.

The secretive group involves a great deal of interplay involving the Republican Governor’s Association which, of course, helps channel big bucks campaign contribution to acceptable, pro-business attorneys general. In 2006 and 2010, Greg Abbott of Texas got more than $2.4 million from the group. Former Virginia Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli got $174,5638 during his 2009 campaign.

One not-so-strange bedfellow is former Virginia Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller who was in office from 1970 to 1977 and is now 82 years-old. He’s been very business promoting energy firms. As the Times writes:

Andrew P. Miller, a former attorney general of Virginia, has in the years since he left office built a practice representing major energy companies before state attorneys general, including Southern Company and TransCanada, the entity behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The New York Times collected emails Mr. Miller sent to attorneys general in several states.

“Mr. Miller approached Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma in April 2012, with the goal of helping to encourage Mr. Pruitt, who then had been in office about 18 months, to take an even greater role in serving as a national leader of the effort to block Obama administration environmental regulations.

“Mr. Miller worked closely with Mr. Pruitt, and representatives from an industry-funded program at George Mason, to organize a summit meeting in Oklahoma City that would assemble energy industry lobbyists, lawyers and executives to have closed-door discussions with attorneys general. The companies that were invited, such as Devon Energy, were in most cases also major campaign donors to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

“Mr. Miller asked [West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey] to help push legislation opposing an Obama administration plan to regulate carbon emissions from existing coal-burning power plants. Legislation nearly identical to what Mr. Miller proposed was introduced in the West Virginia Legislature and then passed. Mr. Morrisey disputed any suggestion that he played a role.”

Not only that, but George Mason has an energy study center that is bankrolled by Big Energy and tends to produce policy studies of what the energy firms want. It also has the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank bankrolled by the Koch Brothers.

So, when you see what seems to be a tremendous outcry against badly needed regulations to curb carbon emissions and make sure that fracking is safe, it may not be an accident. And, it comes from attorneys general who should be protecting the interests of average residents in their states instead of being toadies for Big Energy.

Rolling Stone Backs Down on Rape Story

 By Peter Galuszka

This just in. I am sure there will be plenty of comment. It seems that the descriptions that “Jackie” had of her alleged rapists don’t match reality. The very fact that Rolling Stone now says it has “misplaced” its trust is a huge and troubling step that will seriously damage its credibility.

The Tragedy of Unregulated Home Child Care

Joseph Allen

Joseph Matthew Allen

By Peter Galuszka

Virginia’s attitudes about light regulation are coming home to roost in a most sensitive area – day care for toddlers.

The point was underlined Wednesday when Chesterfield County charged Laurie F. Underwood, 46, with only a misdemeanor  involving the death of one–year-old Joseph Matthew Allen who died after a fire at Underwood’s house Oct. 21. She had been operating her day care operation without proper state licenses — a common occurrence in the state.

The death was a little more than a month after two children — 21-month-old Kayden Curtis and 9-month-old Dakota Penn-Williams – died at another unregulated home day care operation in Lynchburg.

Both operations were supposed to be licensed but neither had permits. And, in the Chesterfield case, no government agency cross-checked to see that Underwood’s home day care operation had proper licensing. Underwood did have a county business license.

Home day care centers handling from five to 12 children are supposed to be licensed by the state Department of Social Services. But no one checks on unlicensed day care centers, Joron Planter, a department spokesperson, told me in October. The only time they do check is if someone complains. She said: “we have no way of knowing [the child care provider] even exists.”

Home day care centers must get businesses licenses from their localities. In Chesterfield, there are 344 listed but the Department of Social Services has only 156 on its tally. One way to check would be for the county and the state to check each others’ records and investigate, but no one does that.

And that is why Virginia is among the eight worst states for proper home day care regulation, according to Virginia child resource group.ranks among the bottom eight states for its regulation of in-home day cares, according to Child Care Aware of America, a national watchdog group.

Even more jarring is the fact that The Washington Post ran a deeply reported series of stories earlier this year noting that since 2004, there were 60 children killed in home day care centers. Of them, the majority, 43, were in unlicensed operations.

In the Chesterfield case, a fire caused by disposed cinders began in a garage and spread to the rest of the house. Underwood tried to get the seven children out, but in the confusion, the one-year-old was left behind. He had been strapped in a car seat in the home. He was removed by fire fighters but later died of acute thermal inhalation.

The parents of the boy, Matthew and Jacquelyn Allen, have told reporters they are upset at the laxity of the criminal charges.

But then, this is Virginia, where pandering to the anti-regulation dogma is more important than protecting toddlers’ lives.

Enforcing the American Way of Poverty

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

A critical but unappreciated contributor to poverty in the United States is the paucity of “social capital” among the poor. Social capital is the term economists use to describe informal knowledge and networks in communities that enable people to collaborate for their mutual benefit and greater good.  The term encompasses such intangibles as trust, reciprocity and cooperation. The United States is rich in social capital, at least in the professional and middle classes. Outside of churches, however, America’s poor have little social capital. That lack is both an effect of their poverty and a cause of it.

Poor African-Americans once had significant of social capital when they had cohesive communities, even during the Jim Crow regime of discrimination and segregation. But planners, do-gooders and advocates of “civic progress” did tremendous damage to African-American communities in the post-World War II era through slum clearance programs, the blasting of freeways through their neighborhoods and other state/local government initiatives. It is widely acknowledged by scholars of all ideological stripes that misbegotten social engineering of the 1950s and 1960s not only demolished African-American communities but disrupted important social ties that ameliorated the condition of poverty.

Unfortunately, the current generation of government practitioners appear to be eager to repeat the mistakes of the past. Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, John Moeser and Shay Auerbach, warn that the campaign to “clean up” trailer parks in South Richmond could lead to the physical eviction and social disruption of thousands of poor, in this case, mostly Latinos.

Richmond has nine mobile home parks, all in South Richmond and all along the Jeff Davis, Midlothian and Hull Street corridors. Father Shay Auerbach, one of the authors of this column, is the Catholic pastor of the geographic area where all nine mobile home parks are located and knows well many of the residents of the parks and the social dynamics within their communities.

Most park residents are homeowners; they own their own manufactured houses and rent the lot. Some grow small gardens and, in some cases, raise chickens. Despite their sparse social safety nets, they resourcefully create communities bound by language and extended families that provide mutual support for child care, transportation, illness, loss and security. Connection, community and stability characterize park residents despite their tenuous economic status.

Thousands of energetic and hardworking people want to make Richmond their home. For their children, Richmond is the only home they know. Even the poorest members of this community are willing to work and make short-term sacrifices for their children’s future.

Purchasing an inexpensive manufactured home in a community is a crucial first step up the economic ladder for immigrant families. Whether these new city residents become fully integrated into Richmond life or over time lose hope and find that they have been relegated to a cycle of poverty depends largely on how the wider Richmond community embraces them.

Already, some residents are finding their mobile home communities being dismantled with no plan and very little support. Code enforcement “sweeps” — the building commissioner’s own term — are well underway in two of South Richmond’s mobile home parks and are planned for all nine. Remember, many of these homes are owner-occupied.

Bacon’s bottom line: Since the early 1900s, when the United States first introduced public housing, do-gooders have mistaken material poverty for spiritual (or cultural) poverty. Material poverty reflects a lack of income, a predicament tied to the business cycle and the availability of economic opportunity or the lack thereof. Spiritual/cultural poverty amplifies the challenges of material poverty through single-parent households, teen pregnancies, child neglect and abuse, substance abuse, criminality, dropping out of high school and other notorious challenges often associated with, but not caused by, material poverty.

It appears that the Latino immigrants living in material poverty in South Richmond have brought the resilience of their native cultures with them. They have not yet been fully acculturated to the American way of poverty. They own property. They grow their own vegetables. They collaborate to provide child care and transportation to work. They support one another in ways that the American poor typically do not. Now local authorities, mistaking material poverty for spiritual poverty, seem determined to disrupt these self-supporting communities. If this trailer-camp initiative is not thwarted, we can foretell the disruption of the Latino residents’ resilient culture and their conversion into “real Americans” who depend upon government for their subsistence.

Who Speaks for the Victims of the “Victims”?

disciplineby James A. Bacon

Cosmological theorists posit the existence of an infinitude of alternate universes. In one of those universes, perhaps there is one with a Henrico County School System that collects data showing that African-American students are more likely to suffer from violence and disrupted classes in school rather than data showing that African-American students are more likely to be suspended from school.

Unfortunately, in our universe, an array of political forces focuses public sympathy upon the kids who disrupt the learning environment rather than those whose learning is disrupted. The trouble makers are classified as victims. The victims of the victims are ignored.

As a result, readers of the Times-Dispatch are treated to yet another front-page hand-wringer about the disproportionate suspension of African-American students in Henrico schools. Over five years, it appears, Henrico has succeeded in reducing the number of suspensions from almost 10,200 in the school year ending in 2010 to 6,500 in the school year ending in 2014. Alas, in so doing, the percentage of African-Americans among all suspended students has increased from 74.6% to 77.7% over the same period. Reporter Ted Strong quotes the usual suspects on how the disparate results might reflect discrimination against African-Americans and gives a megaphone to School Board member Lamont Bagby, who wants more resources for more intensive therapeutic services for the kids creating the trouble.

This entire controversy is built upon the statistical disparity in suspensions between African-Americans and students of other racial/ethnic classifications. African-Americans account for 36.8% of the students in the school system but 77.7% of the suspensions. That disparity by itself is deemed evidence of discrimination as opposed to, say, evidence of lower incomes, rate of single-mother households or other sociological features of the African-American population. The Times-Dispatch has systematically mined the “discrimination” angle but given virtually no attention whatsoever to the socio-economic characteristics of the students being disciplined.

The Times-Dispatch skips over the fact that most suspensions take place in overwhelmingly black-majority schools where teachers and administrators are themselves disproportionately black. It apparently has never occurred to the Times-Dispatch to ask if African-American teachers and administrators are prone to discriminating against students of their own race or if they are simply responding to incidents on a case-by-cash basis, in which a disproportionate number of troubled, disruptive kids are black.

Perhaps worse, the Times-Dispatch has shown no concern whatsoever for the victims of the so-called victims. What are the standards and procedures for suspending a student? How much disruptive behavior are students permitted before they are suspended? The T-D does not tell us. Has the T-D interviewed teachers and principals to ask if they are frustrated by the limited means at their disposal to discipline misbehaving students? Are teachers frustrated by the disruption to their classes? Do teachers feel that the learning experience of other students is diminished by the disruption? No, of course not. Those questions never occur to the T-D.

How many hours of classroom time — in effect, stolen from students who want to learn — does a student have to disrupt before getting suspended? How many hours of classroom time in total have been lost due to misbehaving students? No one measures those numbers and the T-D does not think to ask.

What has been the impact of the Henrico public school policy aimed at reducing the number of suspensions? Has the number of disruptive incidents declined as well, or are school administrators simply tolerating more ill discipline in order to reduce the number of suspensions ? What has been the impact on academic achievement of Henrico school kids — in particular, what has been the impact on schools where the most incidents and suspensions occur? Is it possible that the crackdown on suspensions has led to an increase in the level of disruptive behavior that has had a deleterious impact on learning? And, if such a perverse consequence has arisen from the policy, to what extent have African-American students been the victims of it?

Henrico public schools do not measure the data needed to answer such questions, or, if they do, the T-D does not think to ask for it. Therefore, readers are left with the impression that the Henrico County Public Schools are likely discriminating against African-American students. Perhaps they are. But the case is far from proven. For all we know, the failure to discipline disruptive kids is discriminating against African-American students. Maybe in an alternate universe, an alternate Times-Dispatch is telling that story.

U.Va.’s Real “Existential Crisis”

Protesting rape on "Grounds"

Protesting rape on “Grounds”

 By Peter Galuszka

One wonders why the University of Virginia, arguably the state’s most prestigious college, seems to be hit with one bit of horrible news after the other.

We’ve gone through the May 2010 murder of student Yeardley Love, 22, by another student, George Wesley Huguely V, a lacrosse player from a privileged suburban Washington suburbs that included study at Bethesda’s elite Landon School.

Just a few weeks ago, the remains of student Hannah Graham, 18, were positively identified after being found in a rural part of Albemarle County. Jesse Matthew, 32, a hospital worker, allegedly met with Graham near Charlottesville’s bar scene before she vanished.

And, we had the bizarre dismissal of U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan in 2012 at the instigation of Board of Visitors member Helen Dragas who complained that there was an “existential” crisis because Mr. Jefferson’s “academical” village had somehow fallen beyond Ivy Leagues schools in setting up online classes. Sullivan was reinstated after a massive outcry “On Grounds” which is Wahoospeak for “on campus.”

Now comes the latest zinger, an explosive Rolling Stone report about a student called “Jackie” who went to a party at Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and ended up being raped and otherwise sexually abused by seven young men. University officials didn’t seem to take the matter seriously – until now.

What is behind this seemingly endless run of bad news? Is the university’s attitude that it is too elite to deal with very serious problems? Are administration officials so out of touch that they don’t know what’s going on and don’t care because it doesn’t fit some kind of mindset? Full disclosure: I am the father of a U.Va. undergraduate, so my interest is personal as well as journalistic.

The school has scrambled with protests and meetings and the (rather pointless) one-month suspension of fraternity and sorority activities. They have come out with a new “zero tolerance” policy regarding sexual abuse, but one wonders why it hadn’t been done long before.

One of the most damaging reports available is not the Rolling Stone piece, but a video made by WUVA Online which interviewed Dean Nicole Eramo who is the administration’s point person on sexual abuse case adjudication.

It was conducted on Sept. 16, months before Rolling Stone’s splashy article (but that’s par for the course with the magazine which tends to jump to the head of the parade with news others have covered).

In the 21-minute-long video, Dean Eramo says that in 2013, she received 38 complaints of sexual abuse. After review by the Sexual Misconduct Board, only nine cases actually progressed for further adjudication. Eramo says that cases can be reported to the police which she noted, “have search warrants and the luxury of surprise.” In some cases, the perpetrators are suspended for one or two years or are expelled.

The interview had a big stunner. Eramo seems to say that the university, with its famous honor code, somehow regards cheating on a test as more important than raping someone. The student interviewer kept returning to that point again and again saying she did not understand the distinction. Eramo held firm, saying that she had answered the question.

It is huge point. Rape is usually considered a very serious felony that can bring prison terms from five years to life. Using a crib sheet on a philosophy exam is usually considered not great to do, but not in the same category as rape.

This is the heart of the matter for the University of Virginia community. It prides itself on its Honor Code but in doing so, things have gotten very much out of whack.

Rolling Stone has done the school a favor, albeit in its typically nasty way. Consider this rather snotty scene-setter:

“A chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town, she’d initially been intimidated by UVA’s aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings, hurrying to classes, clubs, sports, internships, part-time jobs, volunteer work and parties; Jackie’s orientation leader had warned her that UVA students’ schedules were so packed that “no one has time to date – people just hook up.”

To be fair to the school, I must say that I have been “On Grounds” many times over many years and I have never noticed hordes of blond Super Students. Is Rolling Stone saying they are an Aryan race? That’s odd because 28.4 percent of the student body is non-white.  In any event, it is high time the University of Virginia got its head right.

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.

Former Massey Coal Chief Indicted

DonBlankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The indictment today in Charleston, W.Va. of coal baron Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of the notorious Massey Energy Company, for violating federal mine safety and securities laws, has been long awaited, especially by the families of the 29 miners who died on April 5, 2010 in a huge explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

It was the worst coal mine disaster in this country in 40 years. It topped off a wild run by Blankenship, who thought he had political potential and spoke for the Appalachian coalfields while dodging safety violations and blowing away mountains in horrific surface mining practices.

He was a poster man for the view, popular among this country’s business elite, that cost cutting and productivity are sacrosanct, human lives are cheap and environmental concerns such as climate change are mere diversions from the country’s true goals. At one point he literally wrapped himself up in the American flag to push his ideas.

A federal grand jury today turned those arguments on their heads. The four charges accuse Blankenship of conspiracy in blunting the numerous federal safety violations that lead to the catastrophic disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine.

For several years leading up to that fateful day, Blankenship allegedly connived to ignore concerns that the mine had broken equipment and excessively high levels of highly inflammable coal dust. He also is accused of keeping federal mine inspectors from doing their jobs.

The grand jury also claims that Blankenship violated federal securities laws by giving investors misleading information about Massey stock.

Blankenship was a huge celebrity in the Appalachian coalfields. Tying himself to a reactionary ideal of doing what he thought was best for America, he spent a million dollars at what was an anti-Labor Day celebration in West Virginia in 2009. He wore a costume formed from an American flag and hired testosterone-infused country music stars Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent to entertain his crowd.

The irony was that it was a holiday to celebrate labor unions while Blankenship and his firm were notorious for union-busting. He also had a habit of taking the chief justice of the West Virginia supreme court on vacation on the French Riviera.

Another irony is that Blankenship, like much of the U.S. coal industry, promotes the propaganda that there is a “War on Coal” and that coal is essential to “keeping our lights on.” Never mind that the free market and the flow of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling from the very same area, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are what is really hurting the Appalachian steam coal market.

The coal mined at Upper Big Branch, however, had nothing to do with power generation. It was metallurgical coal that was exported to make steel in markets such as China. At the time of Upper Big Branch, China’s steel market was hot and met coal prices were going through the roof.

The indictment reads that the group of mines associated with Upper Big Branch “generated revenues of approximately $331 million, which represented 14 percent of Massey’s approximately $2.3 billion in in revenue.” Obviously, it was in Blankenship’s interest to keep the steel-making coal flowing.

In that process, according to the indictments, Blankenship oversaw efforts to cut corners, dodge safety issues and keep miners on edge. They are rich in detail about poor ventilation; flawed water sprays to keep explosive coal dust down and warning when federal coal inspectors were on the prowl.

After he was forced to resign from Massey Energy with an over-sized golden parachute, Blankenship kept quiet for a couple for of years. Recently he came back on the scene with a self-made documentary just on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster. The movie was so tasteless that even Joe Manchin, a U.S. Senator from West Virginia who was quoted in the film, disassociated himself from it. Families of the dead mines were appalled.

The long-in-coming indictments illustrate the problems of coal as an energy and steel source and just how its issues have been ignored in the Appalachians for about 150 years. In the past, huge mine disasters, such as the 1968 blast at Farmington W.Va. that killed 78, sparked real safety reform.

Not so after Upper Big Branch. Pro-coal Republicans in Congress have blocked bills to toughen rules. This is a reason why the federal indictments are so important. They show that leading a culture of safety laxity will no longer be tolerated.

It may be curious that Blankenship’s indictments come just after President Barack Obama has just agreed to a turning point treaty with heavy polluter China to cut carbon emissions. But they should give some closure to long-festering problems in a part of the United States where industrial death and destruction are considered business as usual.

Kudos: U.S.-China Climate Pact

Shanghai: Soot City

Shanghai: Soot City

By Peter Galuszka

President Barack Obama’s trailblazing pact with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to limit greenhouse gas emissions through 2025 is welcome news and could do much to reduce carbon dioxide emissions since the two countries are responsible for about 40 percent of the globe’s total.

China is an economic powerhouse so energy hungry it builds a new coal-fired generating plant about every eight to 10 days. Its leaders have pledged to cap  carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier.

Obama announced a plan to cut U.S. emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This is a bigger cut than the 17 percent reduction by 2020 that he had announced earlier.

The agreement, reached in Beijing, is most welcome for the obvious reason that it would make a huge contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. It also undercuts the arguments by the fossil fuel industry, some utilities and their drum beaters that any steps the U.S. takes in cutting carbon pollution are pointless since China (or other Asian countries) will keep polluting anyway.

The arguments are crucial since Virginia’s Big Energy industry and the staff of the State Corporation Commission are attacking plans by the EPA to greatly reduce carbon.

Consider this gem of wisdom from another correspondent on this blog: “Virginia could revert to stone-age levels of zero greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, and the savings would offset the increase in CO2 from coal-fired power plants built in India and China in a year! (OK, maybe not a year, but over a very short period of time.)”

Sadly, this kind of mentality is regressive and, with the new Washington-Beijing pact, is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

One thing many American commentators don’t seem to realize is that China isn’t necessarily a primitive business juggernaut stomping on any rational plan to check pollution. Beijing and Shanghai have some of the highest rates of air pollution in the world and its leadership, especially engineers and policy makers capable of understanding how technology can help them, knows they just can’t continue as before.

Three years ago, I visited both cities to research a book on the coal industry (newly out in an updated paperback, by the way, see below). I also went to Ulanbatour, the capital of coal-driven Mongolia where the air was so bad, I felt delirious within hours after arrival and by the next morning I showed signs of pulmonary illness.

The promise for changing things seems to money and the system.

In the U.S., we have a regulatory oversight apparatus over energy generation. This is reasonable because it prevents electric utilities from using their monopoly power to stick customers with high rates. But the system is flawed because: (1) it too often favors big utilities over average consumers and; (2) it is rigged to prevent new, experimental and possibly transformative technologies that very well could allow the use of dirty and dangerous but still cheap coal.

In the latter case, the thinking seems to be to go for ephemeral cost benefits (like using natural gas) without having any long-term strategy that actually might save lots more money through better health and more efficient, less-polluting energy.

In several cases, regulators nixed pilot plants that burn coal but use special new ways of doing so that capture a lot of carbon either in a chemical process involving ammonia or by stripping off the carbon emission from the pollution stream and sequestering them safely away. The plants cost big money. They are much cheaper to do as greenfield sites but regulators are more inclined to prevent them in favor with the soup d’jour of power that happens to be cheapest at the moment, in our current case, natural gas. Continue reading

How Not to Spend Public College Money

vsu multi-use

Virginia State’s multi-use center

By Peter Galuszka

As Virginia’s students and their families struggle paying their tuition and related expenses, the state’s 15 public universities continue to charge excessively for mandatory fees for athletics and massive bricks and mortars projects.

These are the conclusions by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) which has issued a series of studies on college spending to the General Assembly. Dubious fees and a $7 billion collegiate construction boom are some of the reasons why the average tuition for in-state students has risen 122 percent over a decade.

One doesn’t have to look far to see the shiny new buildings. At Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, former President Eugene Trani spent decades expanding his school’s two campuses. In the process, he transformed downtown for the better but one must ask why the huge expansion seemed to get more attention and resources than raising the school’s academic status. . Late this summer, VCU ordered a $21 million budget cut to help the state with its $881 million revenue shortfall.

In Charlottesville, students at the University of Virginia can enjoy the recently completed $100 million South Lawn project that was a decade in the making and added a patch of new buildings. It is now adding a children’s medicine building at his health care complex.

For one of the stranger examples of dysfunctional spending, consider Virginia State University near Petersburg. The small, historically Black school is well into building an $84 million multi-use center that would serve students as well as offer a venue for community events, much like VCU’s Siegel Center which hosts graduation ceremonies for many area high schools.

As the center is being built, school officials plan to use it to help transform the surrounding areas of the small town of Ettrick. They are using the model of VCU about 25 miles up Interstate 95 as a blueprint for linking school expansion with local community development.

Yet VSU faces such serious financial problems that its president Keith Miller, stepped down unexpectedly on Halloween. Thanks to shortfalls in financial aid and other problems, the school ended up with a sudden $19 million shortfall. Attendance at the school is down 1,000 from last year and 550 short from what the administration had expected.

Students complain that they found out about cuts in their state and federal aid only at the very last minute and many had to drop out. VSU has been through a series of financial problems that have forced it to switch to a fast food-only menu at one of its dining halls. Laboratory equipment is scarce, students say.

They wonder why the school is busy erecting a huge new multi-use center when they have many more obvious and pressing problems at hand. A school spokesman says that funding for the new center is handled by a foundation and is not directly linked to the school’s financial system. VSU is expected to name an interim president later this week after more than 900 students signed petitions asking for a wholesale revamp of the school’s top management.

JLARC found other areas of concern, such as forcing students to pay mandatory fees for sometimes oversized athletic programs that tend to operate in their own worlds that have little relevance for most students. Not every student cares about all of the sports or has time to support every team. Plus, JLARC says that the state should reconsider its methods of handing out financial aid to make sure that low and middle income students are the ones who actually get it.

One hears a lot about overpaid professors and administrators. But the JLARC studies suggest their salaries may be less of a problem than using colleges as cash cows for construction projects and to prop up ambitious sports programs that may have very little to do with the schools they represent.