Category Archives: Crime and corrections

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.

The Ironies of Virginia’s Growing Diversity

Midlothian’s New Grand Mart taps state’s growing diversity

 By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly immigration is popping up as a major issue in Virginia and the nation.

Virginia Beach has been dubbed a “sanctuary city” for undocumented aliens by Fox News and conservative Websites. GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump is scarfing up poll number hikes by calling Mexicans trying to enter the U.S. illegally “rapists” and proposing an expensive new wall project to block off the southern border. Pro-Confederate flag advocates are pushing back against anti-flag moves, but they can’t escape the reality they are conjuring up  old visions of white supremacy, not their version of respectable Southern “heritage.”

So, if you’d like to look at it, here’s a piece I wrote for The Washington Post in today’s newspaper. When I visited a new, international food store called New Grand Mart in Midlothian near Richmond, I was impressed by how large it was and how many people from diverse backgrounds were there.

Looking further, I found one study noting that Virginia is drawing new groups of higher-income residents of Asian and Hispanic descent. In the suburbs, African-Americans are doing well, too.

The Center for Opportunity Urbanism ranked 52 cities as offering the best opportunities for diverse groups. One might assume D.C. and Northern Virginia would rank well, and they do. More surprising was that Richmond and Virginia Beach rank in the top 10 in such areas as income and home ownership. True, mostly black inner city Richmond has a 26 percent poverty rate but it seems to be a different story elsewhere.

Stephen Farnsworth of the University of Mary Washington says that economic prosperity and jobs that had been concentrated in the D.C. area, much of it federal, has been spread elsewhere throughout the state. It may not be a coincidence that New Grand Mart was started in Northern Virginia by Korean-Americans who undertook research. It revealed that the Richmond area was a rich diversity market waiting to be tapped. They were impressed and expanded there.

Other areas that do well in the study are Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C. and ones in Texas, which show a trend of job creation in the South and Southwest outpacing economic centers in the Northeast, Midwest and in parts of the West. Another story in today’s Post shows that there are more mostly-black classrooms in Northern cities than in the South. The piece balances out the intense reevaluation of Southern history now underway. A lot of the bad stuff seems to have ended long ago, but somehow similar attitudes remain in cities like Detroit and New York.

This progress is indeed interesting since old-fashioned American xenophobia is rearing itself again.

In Virginia, the long-term political impact will be profound as newer groups prosper. They may not be as inclined as whites to embrace Virginia’s peculiar brand of exceptionalism, such as their emotional mythology of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson. Their interest in them might be more dispassionately historical.

And, as the numbers of wealthier people from diverse backgrounds grow, they may be less willing to keep their heads down when faced with immigrant bashing. That’s what people of Hispanic descent did in 2007 and 2008 when Prince Williams County went through an ugly phase of crackdowns on supposed illegals. They could strike back with their own political campaigns.

Whether they will be blue or red remains to be seen. It’s not a given that they’d be Democratic-leaning. Farnsworth notes, however, that as more diverse people move to metropolitan suburbs, whites in more rural, lower-income places may become more reactionary out of fear. Hard-working and better-educated newcomers might be out-classing them in job hunts, so they might vote for politicians warning of a yellow or brown peril.

In any case, New Grand Mart presages a very crucial and positive trend in Virginia. It shows the irony of the hard right echo chamber peddling stories designed to inflame hatred and racism, such as the one about Virginia Beach being a “sanctuary” for illegals. In fact, the city is attracting exactly the  well-educated and hard-working newcomers of diverse backgrounds upon whom it can rest its future.

But we’re in an age of bloated billionaires with helmet hairdos and no military experience claiming that former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a shot-down Navy pilot who spent five years in a brutal North Vietnamese prison, is not a hero. If Virginia can ignore such time-wasters and embrace diversity, it will be a better place.

Memories of a Klan Rally

KlanersBy Peter Galuszka

I was looking through a some old clips today and spotted this Golden Oldie that ran in the Jan. 30, 2000 edition of BusinessWeek magazine where I worked for about 15 years. Bloomberg now owns rights to it and I hope they don’t mind me re-running it.

Mindful of the lofty rhetoric one reads on this blog about being Southern and symbols, I thought this might be an interesting read about how nothing is sacred. Not the Confederate Flag. Not even Stonewall Jackson.

It also shows how little things change. The flag and statues of Confederate generals are still flashpoint issues and people like GOP presidential candidate hopeful Donald Trump are running around making offensive statements about Mexican immigrants. (For the record, the late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia had been a Klan member early in his life and he later renounced his membership).

The Ku Klux Klan rally I covered was on Nov. 6, 1999.

Here goes:

Letter From West Virginia

The High Price of a Klan Rally

Studying me solemnly from across his desk, Thomas A. Keeley sighs and says in his West Virginia twang: “I have to take care of my people.” I kid Tom that he sounds like the sheriff who was battling coal-company thugs in the 1988 movie Matewan. Tom grins. He puts up with me, since we go back 35 years–to grade school here in Clarksburg, a town of 18,000 nestled in the hills of central West Virginia. Today, Tom, as president of the Harrison County Commission, is the county’s top elected official, and I’ve come to find out how he intends to take care of “his people” in what could be one of the biggest crises Clarksburg has ever faced.

In two days, the Knights of the White Kamellia, one of 55 units of the Ku Klux Klan, will hold a rally on the front steps of the Harrison County Courthouse in downtown Clarksburg. The Klan picked the spot because of its dramatic statue of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, born in Clarksburg in 1824. The Klan figures that Stonewall, riding north against the Yankees, will make a dandy prop for its November rally. So will the 70 state troopers, city police, and county deputies who will be providing the security. The Klan believes that the police presence not only will make it appear to be an oppressed group but will also increase the media coverage.

The city-county expense for the Clarksburg rally will be about $50,000–pin money compared with what 40 cities spent in 1999 hosting the Klan. Security at Cleveland’s August rally ran $600,000, although only 21 Klansmen showed up. But Harrison County is in the heart of the Appalachian poverty belt, and it desperately needs the money for other things. The hamlet of Marshville, for example, badly needs help, since its groundwater has been polluted by coal mines. “It’s costing us a lot of money to accommodate a bunch of white-trash bigots, and you can quote me on that,” says Tom, leaning back in his rumpled suit.

But he doesn’t have much choice. Not only is the Klan making noise, but a far more dangerous ultra-right-wing group is also active locally: the Mountaineer Militia, a cabal of heavily armed survivalists ready to fight what they consider excessive federal power. Militia members from the Clarksburg area hatched an Oklahoma City-style plot in 1996 to bomb the new $200 million FBI fingerprinting center in Clarksburg. The installation employs 3,000. After the FBI infiltrated the group, five men were convicted or pleaded guilty to explosives charges; one was convicted of selling blueprints of the center.

IDENTITY CRISIS. Taking a cue from New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has also had to deal with a Klan demonstration, Tom is forbidding the wearing of masks at the rally, figuring that fewer Klansmen will show up if they are not able to keep their identity secret. At this point, nobody is sure who they are. The only known Klansman is Cletus Norris, who wrote Tom the letter announcing the rally, using a post office box in Grafton, 20 miles to the east. Norris is a former road worker, once employed by the city. The next day, as I drive to Grafton in search of Norris, I try to recall if the Klan had been active when I lived here back in the 1960s.

In the Deep South at that time, the Klan was bombing black churches and killing civil-rights workers. But from what I remember, not much happened here. Besides, Klansmen in these parts traditionally weren’t so much antiblack (there were few blacks here) as anti-Catholic. That was in reaction to the Italian immigrants who streamed into the area in the 1800s to build the Baltimore & Ohio’s main line to St. Louis, taking jobs away from Protestant backwoods types. The animosity was resolved naturally over the years as boy met girl and both defied ethnic hostility. Today, largely due to intermarriage, 40% of local folk are of Italian descent.

As luck would have it, driving down a Grafton street, I spot a parked gray Dodge pickup with bumper stickers bearing Confederate flags and the slogan, “Racial Purity Equals American Security.” Bingo! I walk up the crumbling concrete stairs to a yellow clapboard house and knock on the door. A slim man with a reddish-blond beard answers. “I am the Grand Dragon,” confirms Cletus Norris. He invites me to sit in the warm autumn sun on the front porch of his parents’ house. The experience is unnerving because for an hour, this 33-year-old is talking softly, pleasantly, almost seductively, but is expounding truly hateful ideas. At one point, Norris asks gently, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” I reply: “No, but I am Catholic.” Norris says: “That’s O.K.”

A Klansman for five years, Norris claims his group is peaceful and interested only in protecting white rights. “Our rally,” Norris reassures me, “will set a lot of minds at ease. They’ll listen to us and see that we’re just normal Christian men.” Their agenda? “By the year 2040, we will be outnumbered by the combined nonwhite races of this country, and whites won’t get a fair shake.” The message is spreading through cyberspace. “We have some people in Europe and Australia, thanks to the Internet,” he says, as he hushes a dog barking inside the house. Norris insists he doesn’t hate blacks, only “race-mixing.” As for Mexicans, the border to the south should be closed. And Jews? “Christ didn’t have one good thing to say about the Jews.”

Later, I contact Mark Potok, editor of The Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery (Ala.) nonprofit that tracks hate groups. He says Klan membership is static at about 5,000, but that 200,000 belong to other hate groups: Membership in those groups is increasing 25% a year.

PEPPER GAS. The following day–rally day–the police are nervous. Clarksburg looks as if it’s occupied by an invading army. Police vehicles include a bomb disposal truck. There are SWAT teams wearing black Wehrmacht-style helmets and face masks. “If things really get out of hand,” says policeman J.P. Walker says at a press briefing, “you’ll hear a siren, and then you’ve got 10 seconds until the pepper gas goes off.” The rally site has three fenced-in pens–one for Klan supporters, one for the press, and one for protesters. Participants must go through detectors, and attendees can’t bring in anything more than a car key.

Right on time, Norris, head up and confident-looking, dressed in white robe, leads the Klan parade out of the courthouse onto the front plaza, right past Stonewall. He is followed by eight Klansmen and two Klanswomen in brightly colored robes and hoods–no masks. About 150 protesters and 20 supporters shout insults at each other. “This country will go down the tubes,” shouts Norris, but he is barely heard above the noise because Tom won’t allow loudspeakers. When a rumor sweeps the crowd that one Klanswoman is a local English teacher (which turns out to be false), she yells good-naturedly: “There’ll be a test Monday morning.”

After two hours without incident and only one arrest–for disorderly conduct–the Klanspeople are escorted to a city parking lot, where they get into three cars, with Missouri, Ohio, and Virginia plates. Norris announces that a rally the next day in Fairmont, 20 miles north, has been canceled. Is that because the mayor refuses to provide security, I ask? “No, we just don’t want to make a nuisance of ourselves,” Norris says. The irony of that is not lost on one police officer. As he waves to the departing caravan, he mutters: “Goodbye, you sons of bitches–and to think I had seats on the 50-yard line at the West Virginia-Virginia Tech game today.”

By Peter Galuszka; Edited by Sandra Dallas

Don’t Stop a Welcome Purge

confederate flag dayBy Peter Galuszka

The Confederate Battle flag is quickly unraveling throughout the Old Dominion. With it are going many icons of an era racked with controversy and hatred, along with mythology, which regretfully will still continue in some form.

Following the example of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley who asked that state’s legislature to take the Confederate flag off State Capitol grounds, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to stop issuing specialty license plates showing the flag along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans logo.

National retailers such as Walmart and Amazon likewise nixed the flag and removed items displaying it from their shelves and warehouses.

Two events helped push this national movement with remarkable speed.

One was a U.S. Supreme Court decision – split evenly between liberal and conservative judges – that Texas had the right not to allow the Confederate flag on its license plates. The other was the shooting death of nine African-Americans by a self-styled white supremacist as they prayed at a Charleston church.

It’s about time some movement was made on this matter. But in Virginia, as in other parts of the South, there’s a lot more to do. Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue has the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. Why aren’t they dismantled?

Richmond area schools have “Rebels “or “Confederates” as their mascots, namely Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville and Douglas S. Freeman in Henrico County.

Throughout the state are street names celebrating the Southern war machine. There are Jefferson Davis Highways in Alexandria and South Richmond. Only recently were flags removed from the Confederate Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and at private Washington & Lee University.

Of course, the flag is an insult to those oppressed by it, notably African-Americans. But mythology – about an honorable South tragically plundered and lost – has provided cover and let it fly 150 years after the Civil War.

Having grown up mostly in the South or Border States in the 1950s and 1960s and then having worked there for years, I have dealt with the Confederate flag for years. I don’t find it absolutely shocking as some do, but I have always wondered why it keeps flying on public property.

It wasn’t until I was in college in the Boston area when I started really asking myself questions. For one course, I read “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” historian C. Vann Woodward’s 1955 masterpiece. He demolished the idea that legal segregation was a long-time Southern tradition. Instead, it started up in the 1890s, he pointed out.

That’s not a very long time, especially for white Southerners who purport to be so sensitive to history. Instead, they have invented a mythology. Virginia is becoming more diverse and includes people who have no family tie to state during the mid-19th century. One reason Gov. Haley had the fortitude to do what she did was that she is an Indian-American, born in South Carolina. In other words, she is neither white nor black according to the old rules and didn’t need to be guided by them.

My immediate concern is that this long-needed purge won’t go far enough. And as long as the generals preside over Richmond’s Monument Avenue, the fairy tales will endure.

New Lease on Life for the Death Penalty

Dylann Roof -- the face of evil

Dylann Roof — the face of evil

I’ve been wavering in my support for the death penalty in recent years — repeated stories of people wrongfully convicted ending up on death row wore me down. Once the state has executed someone, there’s no going, whoops, we made a mistake, so sorry about that. But, then, along comes an incident like the murder of nine African-American church goers in Charleston, S.C., and I think, there are crimes so heinous and unforgivable that death is the only appropriate redress.

We’re finding out now that the suspected killer, Dylann Roof, was a loner. He had emotional problems. He was taking a drug, suboxone, which has been connected with sudden outbursts of aggression. I’m sure he’ll find some lawyer who will plead that it wasn’t his fault, the drug made him do it.

Now, Roof deserves his day in court to present a defense, but based on what we know now there are no facts that can possibly mitigate the horror of the crime he committed. Roof had been delving into racist ideologies and ranting about injustices to the white race. He then took it upon himself to go to a black church and sit in a bible study class for an hour before shooting and killing nine people. “I have to do it,” he allegedly said. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

If the act transpired as portrayed in the media, it could not possibly have been more calculated and premeditated. While Roof may have been emotionally disturbed, he displayed total clarity of mind. The appropriate response to such a crime is to expunge him from the face of the earth.

Update: Heart wrenching beyond words: “The man suspected of killing nine people at a historically black Charleston church told police that he ‘almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,'” reports MSNBC. The statement demonstrates that he clearly knew right from wrong. No excuses. Definitely time for South Carolina to warm up the electric chair.

— JAB

“Spankdown” at Woodlake

S&MBy Peter Galuszka

Homeowners Associations are double-edged swords. They can preserve home values by enforcing covenants but sometimes  morph into Neo-Nazi privatized governments that make life miserable by meddling.

One HOA in suburban Richmond is in something of a unique situation.

Woodlake, a 2,800 home, 1980s-styled PUD in Chesterfield County, has been having problems. The realty firm that owned its extensive swim and recreational facilities sold them to the HOA in 2010 which ended up $700,000 in debt.

It has caused lots of gnashing of teeth because no one wants a special assessment. I don’t live there but I play tennis there and hear a lot about it from my friends.

The board is new, the old community manager left and they hired a new manager who has an extensive professional background in the field.

The manager, Bethany Halle, also has another life. She’s the author of about 70 erotic fantasies specializing sado-masochism, bondage and other delights, including ones involving the paranormal. She enjoys exploring “murder and mayhem” at HOAs in her literary life.

Here’s my story about it in the Chesterfield Observer.

Halle’s books have been published by such houses as “Naughty Nights.” She blogs and has radio shows about erotic literature. The HOA board supports their decision to hire her , saying they knew about her other life but she was the best qualified to run the HOA.

Halle writes under her own name or “Cassandre Dayne” and “Dakotah Black”

One of her titles is “Spankdown.” Maybe that’s just what Woodlake needs.

Important Road Trip Advice

Source: WalletHub

If you’re thinking about loading up your “go” cup and taking a  road trip this summer, my advice is to head north to Maryland or, if you’re in a pinch, south to North Carolina. The penalties against drunk driving aren’t nearly as severe there as they are in Virginia.

According to WalletHub, Virginia ranks 8th in a list of states based on the harshness of penalties meted to drunk drivers. Maryland is 47th (woo hoo! pop me another Budweiser!), while North Carolina is 27th (yeah, baby, I’ll take another swig of Ripple). It would be big mistake, however, to head west. West Virginia has the 4th toughest laws in the nation.

Oh, if your road trip culminates in Washington, D.C., you’re in good shape. D.C. has the 2nd most lax drunk driving penalties in the country. Hmmm…. D.C…. Congress… Minimal penalties for drunk driving… Coincidence? I don’t think so.

— JAB

Will the “Ferguson Effect” Kill Urban Renewal?

by James A. Bacon

Baltimore is the East Coast’s answer to Detroit, a once-prosperous city hollowing out from decades of mismanagement under the Blue State governance model. By the time the Washington Village Development Association (WVDA) filmed its documentary, “Fleeing Baltimore,” in 2013, 31,500 residents had abandoned Maryland’s largest city over the previous decade. Sixteen thousand buildings stood vacant. The documentary described how heroic efforts of middle-class Baltimoreans, both black and white, to clean up trash, combat crime and provide positive experiences for inner city youth were overwhelmed by the ineffectiveness of the city’s criminal justice system.

If conditions were hostile to the middle class two years ago, imagine what it is like now. Last month, a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, died under mysterious circumstances in police custody, raising concerns about police abuse and laying bare a history of strained relations between police and the city’s poor black population. Riots ensued, and now gun violence is up 60% compared to the same time last year. Thirty-two shootings took place over Memorial Day weekend.

Similar explosions in violence are occurring in cities across the United States as as police and inner-city populations react to a series of incidents in which unarmed black men died at the hands of white police. In what what urbanist Heather Mac Donald calls the “Ferguson effect,” police are disengaging from discretionary enforcement activity, the criminal element is feeling empowered and a wave of violence has reversed much of twenty years’ decline in crime rates.

If the surge in murder and violence is foreshadowing of things to come, it will have a tremendous impact on the livability of major urban areas. Two outcomes can be predicted. First, middle-class households with the means to do so will flee the urban core. Second, law-abiding African-Americans living in high-crime neighborhoods but lacking the means to flee will suffer the most.

I’m not disputing the ugly reality that police abuses occur in poor African-American communities. I’m not disputing the fact that police sometimes commit violent crimes themselves, or that African-Americans have a basis for mistrusting the police in some cities. These are real problems that our society must grapple with. But I’m also arguing that the over-reaction to these problems threatens to un-do much of the progress we’ve made in the past twenty years in fighting the scourge of crime and revitalizing our central cities.

Police officers increasingly second-guess themselves in the use of force, writes Mac Donald, writing in the Wall Street Journal. “Any cop who uses his gun now has to worry about being indicted and losing his job and family,” one policeman told her. If police are more timid in applying force, the bad guys will be emboldened in their criminality. She continues:

Even if officer morale were to miraculously rebound, policies are being put into place that will make it harder to keep crime down in the future. Those initiatives reflect the belief that any criminal-justice action that has a disparate impact on blacks is racially motivated.

In New York, pedestrian stops — when the police question and sometimes frisk individuals engaged in suspicious behavior — have dropped nearly 95% from their 2011 high. … Politicians and activists in New York and other cities have now taken aim at “broken windows” policing.

Meanwhile, the move to end “mass incarceration” is gaining momentum across the country. Across the board, Americans are second-guessing the strategies that largely won the “war on crime.” The results will look a lot like Baltimore as productive, law-abiding citizens flee jurisdictions where anarchy and disorder prevail for the safety of suburban jurisdictions.

Watch the WVDA documentary, and you’ll wonder how the city of Baltimore can ever reverse its decline. One of the most basic human needs is a desire to feel safe from physical harm. If the rebound in crime is more than a passing blip — if peoples’ perceptions of crime in American cities undergoes a major change — the human cost will prove devastating and urban jurisdictions once again will slip into the corrosive spiral of rising crime, middle-class flight, shrinking tax base and busted budgets from which we hoped they had escaped.

New Film Documents Horrors of Coal Mining

blood on the moutain posterBy Peter Galuszka

Several years in the making, “Blood on the Mountain” has finally premiered in New York City. The documentary examines the cycle of exploitation of people and environment by West Virginia’s coal industry highlighting Massey Energy, a coal firm that was based in Richmond.

The final cut of the film was released publicly May 26 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the “Workers Unite! Film Festival” funded in part by the Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the New York State Council of the Arts.

Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, the film shows that how for more than a century, coal companies and politicians kept coal workers laboring in unsafe conditions that killed thousands while ravaging the state’s mountain environment.

As Bruce Stanley, a lawyer from Mingo County, W.Va. who is interviewed in the film and has fought Donald L. Blankenship, the notorious former head of Massey Energy, says, there isn’t a “War on Coal,” it is a “war waged by coal on West Virginia.”

When hundreds of striking workers protested onerous and deadly working conditions in the early 1920s, they were met with machine guns and combat aircraft in a war that West Virginia officials kept out of history books. They didn’t teach it when I was in grade school there in the 1960s. I learned about the war in the 1990s.

The cycle of coal mine deaths,environmental disaster and regional poverty continues to this day. In 2010, safety cutbacks at a Massey Energy mine led to the deaths of 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Mountains in Central Appalachia, including southwest Virginia, continue to be ravaged by extreme strip mining.

As Jeff Biggers said in a review of the movie in the Huffington Post:

“Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields — and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the “extraction state” — and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners’ uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today’s fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.”

The movie (here is the trailer) is a personal mission for me. In 2013, after my book “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” was published by St. Martin’s Press, Mari-Lynn Evans called me and said she liked the book and wanted me to work with her on the movie project. She is from a small town in West Virginia a little south of where I spent several years as a child and thought some of my observations in the book rang true.

I drove out to Beckley, W.Va. for several hours of on-camera interviews. Over the next two years, I watched early versions, gave my criticisms and ideas and acted as a kind of consultant. Mari-Lynn’s production company is in Akron and I visited other production facilities in New York near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Interesting work if you can get it. My only forays into film making before had been with my high school film club where he videographed a coffin being lowered into a grave (in West Virginia no less). I was greatly impressed when I saw the movie at its New York premiere.

Mari-Lynn and Jordan have been filming in the region for years. They collaborated on “The Appalachians,” an award-winning three-part documentary that was aired on PBS a few years ago and on “Coal Country” which dealt with mountaintop removal strip mining.

They and writer Phyllis Geller spent months detailing how coal companies bought up land on the cheap from unwitting residents, hired miners and other workers while intimidating them and abusing them, divided communities and plundered some very beautiful mountains.

Upper Big Branch is just a continuation of the mine disasters that have killed thousands. The worst was Monongah in 1907 with a death toll of at least 362; Eccles in 1914 with 183 dead; and Farmington in 1968 with 78 dead (just a county over from where I used to live).

By 2008 while Blankenship was CEO of Massey, some 52 miners were killed. Then came Upper Big Branch with 29 dead in 2010.

At least 700 were killed by silicosis in the 1930s after Union Carbine dug a tunnel at Hawks Nest. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

While state regulation has been lame, scores West Virginia politicians have been found guilty of taking bribes, including ex-Gov. Arch Moore.

The movie is strong stuff. I’ll let you know where it will be available. A new and expanded paperback version of my book is available from West Virginia University Press.

Blankenship is scheduled to go on trial on federal charges related to Upper Big Branch on July 13.

Finally, Tobacco Commission Gets Reforms

Feinman

Feinman

By Peter Galuszka

Virginia’s infamous tobacco commission appears to be finally getting needed reforms 15 years after it went into existence.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced today that he was appointing a new executive director, Lynchburg native Evan Feinman, ordering a slimmed down board of directors and requiring a dollar-for-dollar match on grants the commission doles out to support community development in Virginia’s old tobacco belt.

In another break with the past, McAuliffe is renaming the old Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

That might sound cosmetic, but any change is welcome given the commission’s history.

Since its formation after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and four large cigarette makers, the commission has been spending millions of dollars won from the tobacco firms supposedly to help tobacco growers in a region roughly following the North Carolina border wean themselves off of the golden leaf toward economic projects that are far healthier.

Instead, the commission has been racked by scandal after scandal, including the conviction of a former director, John W. Forbes II, for embezzling $4 million in public money. He is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.

The commission also figured in the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell since it was suggested my McDonnell as a possible source of funding for businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. during McDonnell’s trial for corruption. Williams, who was the star prosecution witness against McDonnell, got help from McDonnell in promoting one of his vitamin supplement products. McDonnell was convicted of 11 felonies and is now appealing.

The old commission also has been criticized by a major state audit for funding dubious projects and not keeping track of whether the money it has doled out has done much good. It had been criticized for acting as a slush fund for projects favored by Southside and southwestern Virginia politicians.

McAuliffe’s reforms include reducing the commission’s board from 31 to 28 members and requiring that 13 of them have experience in business, finance or education.

Feinman has been deputy secretary of natural resources and worked with McAuliffe’s post-election team.

It’s too soon, of course, to know if these changes will bring results, but anything that moves the commission away from its past and the grasp of mossback Tobacco Road politicians is welcome.