Category Archives: Disaster planning

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 Mathew, 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.

Fracking Our Pristine Mountain Forests

GW forestBy Peter Galuszka

Is nothing sacred? Of all groups, the U.S. Forest Service should protect the lands it controls, but today it introduced a plan that would allow limited hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest which straddles Virginia and West Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had opposed lifting the ban, although he supports other proposed gas projects in the state, such as the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would stretch from the fracked gaslands of Northern West Virginia over the mountains and southeastward to Southside and Hampton Roads and North Carolina.

Forest lands help supply drinking water to 4 million people including those in Richmond and Washington. Some of the forest land has so-called “Karst” topography made up of rock formation that can be dissolved. In those conditions, any leakage of methane, or the toxic, powerful chemicals used in fracking would be more, rather than less, likely to poison drinking water.

The only good news out of the new USFS plan is that before some 995,000 acres could be available for drilling and that amount will now be limited to 177,000 acres.

But what can’t they let it all be? If you head west where the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation has become one of the mega-meccas of fracked gas, you hear of impacts of all types from drilling. These have included fire, explosions, diesel generators roaring 24/7, drinking water effects, bright floodlights and so on. In fact, I am embarking on a drip in about an hour that will end up in frack-land and will report when I get back.

To be sure, natural gas drilling has been going on for decades in the Appalachian Plateau of the western slopes of the Appalachians. Few pipelines crossed eastward over mountains and it was rare to find many drilling rigs in those areas.

But the fracking craze continues unabated and is now a $10 billion industry in the Marcellus Shale formation. One potential new target could be a different formation that starts from Fredericksburg and slips under the Potomac northeast into Maryland. A Texas firm with a letter drop address has been talking about leasing rights for fracking. One assumes that if the leases are in place, they’ll be quickly flipped to an actual drilling company, but you won’t know who. Virginia is only in the very early stages of setting up state rules for fracking.

Environmentalists say natural gas can be an even worse carbon polluter than coal should methane be released. Some others believe that the biggest damage comes not from the actual fracking process with millions of gallons of water and chemicals but from faulty wells.

One can make an argument that gas is good because it has completely reorganized the global pecking order in terms of energy. It means the U.S. need not be beholden to machinations of the Middle East, Central Asia and the likes of Vladimir Putin.

What bothers me is the rush to frack. I remember back in the 1960s in West Virginia when mile after mile of mountain side had been ripped apart by surface miners. It was a cheap way to get at coal. Mystery companies were supposed to reclaim the mine site but rarely did because they’d bankrupt one alphabet soup firm merely to create a new one.

The fracking craze, if not properly regulated, could yield even worse environmental disasters.

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

Steve Nash’s Important Book

Nash bookBy Peter Galuszka

Stephen Nash, a former journalist who teaches at the University of Richmond, has written an important new book about how climate change could affect Virginia. His detailed reporting is impressive and I think he shatters the arguments of global warming deniers.

Here is a book review I did for Style Weekly:

“Imagine it’s a fall day in 2114. You get ready for a jog down by the James River.

It’s pleasant by the towering palm trees, but you must keep an eye out for alligators and the venomous cottonmouth moccasins as big around as your thigh. It’s best to exercise early because the rest of the day will be typically steamy and windless.

This is what Richmond very well could be like within 100 years if carbon-dioxide emissions stay at the same levels as today. Virginia’s climate could warm up to something like that in northern Florida, according to Stephen Nash, a part-time journalism professor at the University of Richmond in his new book, “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests” (University of Virginia Press).”

To read more, click here.

Why Private Space Firms Need Oversight

By Peter Galuszka

Virgin galacticDoes bad news come in twos or threes?

First, on Oct. 28, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket bound to supply the International Space Station exploded seconds into its take off at Wallops Island on the Virginia Eastern Shore.

Three days later, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo designed for space tourism broke in two during a test flight over the Mojave Desert in California. One pilot was killed and the second was seriously injured when he parachuted to safety.

Both incidents involve private companies pushing ahead to commercialize space which used to be the province of the federal government, NASA and the military. The Orbital incident brought the usual cries that the government should continue its hands off policies about regulating the private space industry. The Virgin Galactic accident changes that equation.

For some background, here’s space.com:

“Thus far, the private space industry has resisted oversight from federal regulators, but that could change in the wake of the accident.

“I suspect there will be pressure for tighter regulations,” (John)  Logsdon (of George Washington University) said.

“In 2012, Congress passed a bill that extended the “learning period” for the commercial spaceflight industry. The measure was championed by Congressman Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, whose district covers the Mojave spaceport.

“The provision essentially prohibited the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, dubbed AST, from issuing regulations designed only for the protection of passengers until October 2015. The idea behind this hands-off approach was to allow the spaceflight industry to gain real-world data from their first licensed commercial launches; the FAA would, in turn, use this information to eventually craft regulations.

“In the wake of the accident, Virgin Galactic and the National Transportation Safety Board — the federal agency leading the investigation — have warned against speculation until the ongoing investigation is complete. But critics have made strong claims about risks the company took.

“Tom Bower, a biographer of Branson, told BBC Radio 4 that the accident was “predictable and inevitable.” Joel Glenn Brenner, a former Washington Post reporter who has been following Virgin Galactic’s progress, made similar charges shortly after the accident in an appearance on CNN, adding: “I don’t see them at least being able to carry anybody into space in the next 10 years.

“Andrea Gini, of the Netherlands-based International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, criticized Virgin Galactic for a lack of transparency about its safety procedures.

“We don’t know how Scaled Composites approached this particular test,” Gini told Space.com in an email. “Virgin Galactic has always refused to participate to the public discussion inside the space safety community, and has never sought the support of independent reviewers.”

“Gini said there are elements of Virgin Galactic’s flight design that experts consider hazardous. The decision to fly passengers and even crew without pressurized space suits, for example, could expose them to risk of decompression, he said.

“Space is, and will always be, a risky industry,” Gini said. “But it is not a new one. I believe that commercial operators should approach it with transparency and humility, or their business, and not just their vehicles, will be doomed to failure.””

That’s sobering. In the Wallops Island case, investigators are loo9king at where decades-old, modified, Russian-made rocket engines that the Russians deemed too dangerous to use were a cause.

There are questions that need answering.

The Wacky World of Private Space Firms

 Antares-Explosion-VideoBy Peter Galuszka

The spectacular explosion on the evening of Oct. 28 of an Orbital Sciences Corporation rocket at Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia raises safety questions about the rush to commercialize space launches.

The Antares rocket with a Cygnus cargo shipment had been bound for the International Space Station but the rocket burst into flames and exploded six seconds after liftoff. The blast from the sandy barrier island was powerful enough to shatter glass windows at nearby business, according to news reports.

Dulles-based Orbital Sciences is one of several private firms competing for business from the federal government as part of a plan to reduce costs for the Air Force and budget-strapped NASA. Orbital, Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance made up of space veterans Boeing and Lockheed Martin are all vying for contracts by aggressively touting lower prices.

It can get nasty. SpaceX’s iconoclastic leader Elon Musk famously sued the Air Force to break ULA’s monopoly on military satellite launches. He’s also sued to squelch concerns about his rockets’ safety. His firm, as are some others, is pushing manned flights to the space station, space tourism or perhaps missions to Mars or other outer space locations.

Orbital picked up a $1.9 billion contract from NASA in 2008 to deliver cargo to the space station from 2011 to 2015 using its Antares rockets made at a facility in Dulles. Using Wallops Island for its launch site, Orbital successfully launched two demonstration shots in 2013 and two cargo rockets early this year.

According to The Washington Post, the engines used on the Antares rocket were modified, decades-old, Soviet models that the Kremlin stopped using in the early 1970s because they were prone to explode. Orbital picked up some, apparently cheaply, because it was having trouble locating rocket engines from other sources powerful enough to lift its cargoes.

It isn’t known yet what exactly went wrong with the launch this week, but the Russian-made engines are certainly going to be studied. This raises questions about how much cost-cutting and cheap buying the private firms actually do to keep their costs down and maintain their competitiveness.

Musk of SpaceX has criticized using decades-old technology, but he has been accused of pushing cost cuts too hard. He’s been sued by employees who claimed he made them work 60-hour weeks. Obviously, tired workers are prone to make mistakes.

Up until now, politicians and economic development officials in Virginia and Maryland have proudly touted the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport as a sexy, futuristic display of how up with the times they are.

When SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket in May 2012 from Cape Canaveral, then Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton told Virginia Business magazine, “Obviously a lot of people focus on SpaceX. But Virginia now is pushing its own plan to grab a share of the commercial space market.” He unwittingly added: “Do you realize that in the fall (of 2012), it’s not going to be SpaceX you’ll be talking about. It’s going to be Orbital.” Missed it by two years. Ouch.

Other officials have tried to make Wallops Island a tourism destination. The Web site of the Norfolk-based Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority pitches the draw for visitors. “The people on the Eastern Shore are wonderful,” writes Zig Leszczynski, the authority’s deputy executive director. “Chincoteague is a great area, so when folks come out to see the launches, you can also enjoy a kayak trip and some good seafood.”

NASA has had its share of disasters, including the 1986 loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle and then the loss of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003, killing a total of 14 astronauts. But as private firms accelerate their space activities, there are concerns that they might not have the rigorous safety testing that government launches have had.

On Aug. 25, a three-engine Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX blew itself up seconds after leaving its Texas launch pad. Other problems have included “several anomalies” that occurred in the company’s civilian space flights” including having not enough fuel during a launch and a fire on an engine structure. The Air Force is investigating.

Private companies are still racking up deals. Blue Origin, a firm started by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon chief and owner of The Washington Post, got a deal last month to help supply rocket engines for ULA, which had been depending solely on Russian-built engines to launch its heavy rockets. Their continued use is in jeopardy because of current political tensions with Russia and Ukraine.

So what used to be an A-OK world of slim, professional astronauts and nerdy guys with pocket holders for their pens has turned into something of a free-for-all. It can be seen from the comfort of your kayak in an Eastern Shore salt marsh.

EPA Carbon Rules: Ask the SCC

The SCC: An Emerald Palace?

The Emerald Palace or the SCC?

By Peter Galuszka

Last week, State Corporation Commission drew attention when its staff wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at the EPA’s request, to respond to one of the biggest proposed steps the nation has seen in cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The report sparked considerable interest and confusion over what the SCC staff actually meant when it predicted that proposed EPA rules to cut carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The staff report, written by William H. Chambliss, SCC general counsel, said that EPA’s proposed limits would cost Virginia ratepayers from $5.5 billion to $6 billion extra. It claims that the state would have to shut down fossil-fuel, predominately coal-fired, plants producing 2,851 megawatts and replace it with only 351 megawatts of land-based wind power. This would badly impact the reliability of the state’s power supply, the staff said.

My immediate question was why so much and where, exactly? Precisely what power stations would have to be shut down? Where did the ratepayer increase numbers come from? Is there is a list of all the coal-fired plants affected? Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility, has long-standing plans to shut down two aging power stations at Yorktown and Chesapeake with about 920 megawatts of power? How does that factor in?

So, I contacted Ken Schrad, the spokesman for the SCC, by phone and email and asked some questions. He kindly provided the following answers (in italics):

Where are the affected plants precisely?

The numbers come directly from the EPA’s own spread sheets and the EPA does not identify the specific units.” 

How many plants are coal-fired?

Of the 2,851 MW, EPA predicts 2,803 MW of coal units and 48 MW of combustion turbines which could be natural gas or oil-fired CTs. Assuming Yorktown and Chesapeake are included in the EPA estimate, SCC staff knows that those planned retirements total approximately 920 MW.  The output of those units varies depending on when operating (summer or winter).”

Where does the 351 megawatt of land-based wind power, the only available replacement source for the lost fossil-fuel power, come from?

“The 351 MW figure is also direct from the EPA’s analysis which does not identify where EPA believes these undeveloped projects would ultimately materialize.  As staff noted in its comments, the SCC has approved the only request the Commission has received for a certificate for a wind project (Highland New Wind).  Approved in December 2007, the project envisioned up to 20 turbines with each turbine capable of producing up to 2MWs.  That project has not been built.   DEQ now has regulatory responsibility for permitting most solar and wind projects in Virginia. “

How do you answer criticism from environmental groups that Virginia has already attained 80 percent of the EPA’s carbon reduction already?

“Staff has no information regarding this assertion, the costs incurred to reach such a figure, how that attainment level was achieved, or the starting point from which such has materialized.”

The SCC staff recommends that the EPA adopt “an alternative carbon emission rate of 1,216 pounds of carbon dioxide per Megawatt hour of power. The EPA is proposing tighter limits of 843 of CO2/MWh for plants to attain by 2020 and levels of 810 pounds of CO2/MWh for plants to comply by 2030 because it would be more affordable. How much more affordable would the SCC’s suggested rate be? Continue reading

Could Surry Be an 80-Year Nuke?

Surry1By Peter Galuszka

Here’s a new twist on the carbon emission debate: Dominion Virginia Power is considering seeking federal approval run its 40-plus year-old Surry nuclear power station for another 40 or so years.

The arguments in favor are that keeping the two-units at Surry (1,600 megawatts) going would be a lot cheaper than building a brand new plant. Nukes do not contribute much at all to greenhouse gases and climate change compared to coal or natural gas plants.

The huge issue, however, is safety. Can you really expect a nuke whose design dates back to the 1960s to run until 2054? Surry’s plants near Jamestown were once the most heavily fined in the nation because of their repeated safety problems. Constant use can affect any number of crucial components such as making reactor metal brittle, pulverizing concrete and becoming more susceptible to earthquakes and storms.

According to the New York Times, Dominion hasn’t decided whether to apply to extend Surry’s life span. Other possible extended life reactors are Duke’s three Oconee units near Seneca, S.C. and Exelon’s Peach Bottom not that far from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Dominion is also pushing ahead with a third new unit at North Anna, but the price tag for that apparently would be many times what extending Surry would be. But there are no hard figures about the cost of the new nuke ($10 billion to $14 billion, maybe) or how much Surry would cost.

The news is curious coming just as the staff of the State Corporation Commission came out with a curious report slamming proposal EPA rules on cutting carbon emissions. Although the SCC’s opinions are murky and badly-documented, it raises fears that a bunch of coal-fired generation in Virginia will be shut down due to EPA regs. Hot flash: a bunch was going to be shut down anyway because it dates back to the 1940s and 1950s.

I don’t know enough about the current Surry operation to know what and how extending its life would proceed and whether it would be safe.

That said, I refer to my own reporting past – the 1979 when I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Another reporter and I spent weeks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s archives in Bethesda, Md. poring over safety documents. This was back when newspapers had the money to do that kind of reporting.

Our result was a big investigative piece that made banner headlines on the front page one Sunday with two full pages inside. I’d include the cite since it is too old to have one. We found a multitude of issues at Surry ranging from faulty radiation monitoring for workers to faulty snubbers which are rod-like shock absorbers to mitigate earthquake-like movements.

Dominion, then Vepco, hated the story and tried to tear it down. But Vepco was undergoing a corporate sea-change away from its institutional arrogance related to some extent by the former Navy submarine officers were not used to being questioned by outsiders. Vepco was getting hit by Wall Street because its sloppy nuclear program resulted in extended outages. They ended up hiring a ringer engineer who cleaned up their act and later the company transformed into something more modern.

Even so, a decade after we did our story, there were still plenty of concerns about safety at Surry.

The big question is how can you keep a car designed in the 1960s going strong nearly 100 years later? Maybe they have the answers in Havana.