Category Archives: Environment

April Is The Cruelest Month

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

April is the cruelest month, especially for brutal energy disasters.

This Sunday is the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling blowout that killed 11 and caused one of the country’s worst environmental disasters. April 5 was the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29.

What lessons have been learned from both? Not a hell of a lot. In both cases, badly needed, tougher regulations to prevent such messes from happening again go languishing while politicians – including Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe – say move on fast for more exploitation of energy resources including in Virginia’s sensitive offshore waters.

Take Deepwater Horizon. The rig linked to British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico was tapping reserves 5,000 feet down. When the rig hit a rough patch, the blowback exploded upwards, racking the surface part with explosion and fires. Down below, a blowout protector was supposed to swing into action, chop into the pipe and shut down any flow. That didn’t happen and oil flowed freely at the bottom until July 15 generating one of the biggest oil spills ever.

Four years later, what has been done? According to experts S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, and Jacqueline Savitz, not enough. In December 2011, the National Academy of Engineering reported that Deepwater’s blowout preventer had never been designed or tested for the conditions that occurred and that other rigs may have the same problem.

Sixteen months later, nothing has been done in terms of new regulations – not even proposed one. It sounds as if that socialist-minded, regulation maniac Barack Obama is actually off the job. Meanwhile, McAuliffe changed his mind about the risks of offshore drilling and has jumped on board the Republican bandwagon led by former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to expose Virginians to similar dangers.

McAuliffe’s turnaround came last year during the gubernatorial campaign. According to the Washington Post: “Terry has learned more about offshore drilling from experts in Virginia,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. “He thinks that because of technological progress we can now do it in a responsible fashion.”

Say what? Maybe he should take a trip to Brazil and Norway that have more advanced blow-out preventers and policies. By the way, Democrat Mark Warner, running for re-election for U.S. Senate, is for offshore drilling as well.

If you really want to see evidence of the lack of regulation, check out Upper Big Branch owned by the former, Richmond-based Massey Energy.

The firm was notorious for its anti-regulation, anti-labor union policies led by its in-your-face chief executive Don Blankenship. Four reports say that Massey’s lax safety standards allowed the disaster to happen, including letting badly maintained equipment be used and not taking measures to keep highly explosive coal dust from building up. A flame caused by a ball of flaming methane touched off the dust leading to an underground blast that covered seven miles underground. In the process, 29 miners were either blown apart of asphyxiated in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years.

Every mine event has led to some kind of regulatory reform such as the one at Farmington, W.Va. that killed 78 in 1968 and the Buffalo Creek W.Va. coal sludge pond breach and flood that killed 125 in 1972.

Post-Upper Big Branch reforms have been proposed, notably the Robert C. Byrd bill that would protect whistleblowers, hold boards of directors responsible for knowing and doing nothing about safety threats and giving the feds subpoena power which, incredibly, they do not now have in the case of mine safety. The Department of Agriculture can subpoena records in the case of possible milk or meat price-fixing, but the Mine Safety and Health Administration cannot in the case of human miners.

The Byrd bill is all but dead mostly because of the Republican controlled House of Representatives where the majority leader is none-other than business toady Eric Cantor of Henrico County.

And if you want to understand just how little miners’ lives are regarded, compare the media coverage of Deepwater Horizon versus Upper Big Branch. I guess you could say that in the media’s eyes, the life of an offshore rig worker is worth 2.6 times that of a coal miner.  Six months after Deepwater, there were at least six books about the disaster. Four years after Upper Big Branch there is one book about it and it happens to be mine.

So, this Sunday, I propose a toast to the dead oil rig workers and coal miners. Let’s not allow their souls to stay on our consciences. Let’s have anti-regulation reign in the name of free market economic policies and profits! It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Salute!

Fracking the Mother of Presidents

fracking rigBy Peter Galuszka

Controversial hydraulic fracking appears to becoming a distinct possibility in areas south and east of Fredericksburg on land that is famed for its bucolic and watery splendors along with being the birthplaces of such historical figures as George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee.

After several years of exploring and buying up 84,000 acres worth of leases from Carolina to Westmoreland Counties, a Dallas-based company that uses a post office box as its headquarters address participated in the first-ever public discussion of what its plans may be.

According to the Free-Lance Star, the meeting was put together by King George County Supervisor Rudy Brabo to air concerns and hear plans of Shore Exploration and Production Co., which is based in Dallas and has offices in Bowling Green. Its headquarters address is registered with the State Corporation Commission as P.O. Box 38101 in Dallas.

About 100 people attended the meeting April 14, but judging from the newspaper’s account, not many questions were answered. Participants repeatedly asked Shore CEO Ed DeJarnette what his plans were regarding fracking and who would be responsible for damages if something went wrong.

DeJarnette responded that his firm is merely buying up leases and is looking to sell them to other gas drillers and operators. The state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy issues permits one at a time and is responsible for enforcing them, he said.

Hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling have touched off a revolution in the American energy industry in recent years, particularly in the Marcellus Shale gas formations that stretch in the Appalachians from New York State to southwest Virginia. The methods have also been used to reach rich shale oil deposits in North Dakota and other western states.

Fracking has been used as a drilling process for years according to media accounts and authors such as Gregory Zuckerman whose recent book “The Frackers” covers the process’s increasingly widespread use in the past several years.

Among concerns are that the toxic chemicals mixed with water and then pumped hundreds of feet underground could eventually ruin groundwater serving streams and wells. Other concerns are that the inevitable “flowback” in drilling will require surface ponds to handle toxic waste. In places such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia where fracking is permitted, quiet country areas are badly disturbed by the roar of diesel generators at drilling sites and from trucks that are constantly delivering drilling supplies. Methane can leak from drilling rigs, further complicating global warming issues, and flash fires can be problems. Fracking can also consume great amounts of water which often has to be trucked in.

On the plus side, holders of mineral leases can receive great sums in royalties and various taxes and other payments can boost local tax coffers. Natural gas is cleaner and less deadly source of energy than coal, plays a big role in electricity power generation in the Mid-Atlantic.

At the King George meeting, DeJarnette told the audience that he preferred using nitrogen as an element in fracking rather than water, but there were few details in the newspaper story.

While providing scarce details on who would actually handle the drilling, how it would be done and who would be responsible for damages, DeJarnette repeatedly emphasized the monetary benefits and jobs fracking would bring.

If it proceeds, fracking in the Taylorsville Basin would likely be confined to Virginia, which is more business-friendly than Maryland where the basin also extends. The field stretches across the Potomac River into Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties but Maryland has a moratorium on fracking until it can be studied further.

DeJarnette says he wants drilling to start by late this year or in 2015. Major oil firms explored the Northern Neck area and found some evidence of oil and gas deposits there in the 1980s.

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

The New West: Leaving Richmond Behind

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

By Peter Galuszka

This story may seem a contrarian piece when it comes to smart growth and exurban sprawl but so be it.

Back in 1969, road planners in Richmond came up with an idea for a superhighway, Route 288,  that would span the iconic James River and connect the far western suburban areas of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, then primarily pine forests or dairy farms. The idea seemed to be to ring Richmond with a Washington-style Beltway and push growth farther away from the center city.

The scheme ran against some curious local snobbery – that of whether one lived on the north or south side of the James. The smug north side, of course, encompassed Richmond and its white ruling elite although many of them had moved to the West End or beyond to escape integration of schools.

Those living on the south side of the river were considered inferior, trailer park folk  whose uncouth views were more in synch with the Southside area of Virginia near the North Carolina border. Dixie would not mix easily with the assumed gentility of the Richmond folk, although southsiders had to drive to Richmond to see a doctor or do serious shopping.

Flash forward 45 years. Route 288 was finished about 10 years ago and despite the 2008 economic crash, it is quietly establishing its own upset of economic and cultural change and growth. It is linking Short Pump and its office parks and restaurants with upscale subdivisions in Chesterfield that boast of the highest income zip codes in the Richmond area. Capital One employees live at Foxfire. I explore this phenomenon in cover stories I wrote this month for the Chesterfield Monthly and the Henrico Monthly.

As George Hoffer, a transportation expert at the University of Richmond told me: “The West End and southwestern Chesterfield were going to grow independently. Then the highway did what public transportation can’t do. It provided links and created markets that didn’t exist before.”

And, as corporate relocations draw in more high-income workers from other areas, the old cultural biases are eroding. The newbies want convenience and could care less about Richmond’s ancient vanity about which side of the James one resides. Schools on either side of the river are comparable in quality, tests scores show. The north has more jobs and the south more houses, but that will shift over time.

Therein lies the rub. You have created a thriving exurban corridor that really doesn’t relate to the various and worthy land use ideals such as minimizing car traffic and creating bike trails. The most significant thing is that this outer corridor completely bypasses inner Richmond, its perpetual squabbling over over issues like a baseball stadium and its onerous 26 percent poverty levels. It doesn’t mean that the city is doomed to decay. Signs show more young people and retirees moving there. Unfortunately, however, low income ghettoes are stuck in a cycle of no jobs and inadequate transportation and the efforts of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones haven’t produced many solutions.

The 288 phenomenon also is evidence that the cul-de sac ideals are not quite dead yet. Locating somewhere has long ceased being about white flight. The newcomers to the “New West”  include many people of color for whom Richmond’s racial animosities are more of an historical footnote. They may drive in to enjoy the city’s eateries and museums but choose not to live there and are hardly obsessed by what happened years ago.

So, Smart Growthers, you had better take notice. In some cases, the center city concepts you espouse are irrelevant.

How North Carolina Halted a Bridge Boondoggle

mid-currituck_bridge

Map credit: Lochner MMM

by James A. Bacon

Many Virginians know the agony of driving to vacation in the Outer Banks at the peak of the summer season. Heading south between Chesapeake and Kitty Hawk, you follow four-lane roads jammed with as many as 50,000 cars on Saturdays. Then, if you’re staying in Duck, Whalehead or Corolla, you have to head back north through more congestion. It sure would be nice to have a bridge across the Currituck Sound directly to Corolla.

As it happens, the state of North Carolina was planning to build a seven-mile span from Coinjock to Corolla. The Mid-Currituck Bridge, expected to cost $411 million in its most recent incarnation, could save an hour’s driving time. The project worked its way through the traditional North Carolina project-approval system and, at one point, construction was expected to begin in 2012 and to be open to traffic in 2013.

I’m sure there are a lot of vested interests in the Outer Banks that would love to see new transportation capacity that would make it easier for even more visitors to come rent cottages, rent kayaks and go surfing. But North Carolina has instituted a system that we’re still working on here in Virginia: a methodology for ranking proposed highway projects according to cost, saved travel time, congestion relief, safety and economic benefits. According to the Virginian-Pilot, the Tarheels have scored some 1,284 projects and plans to release results for another 500 in May.

The result for the proposed Currituck Bridge: a score of 23.4 points out of a possible 100, giving it a rank of 178th in importance to North Carolina. It doesn’t look like the bridge will get state funding any time soon.

I have a problem with over-development of the ecologically fragile spit of land that originates in Virginia and extends almost unbroken all the way to Hatteras. The Outer Banks are a national treasure. Federal flood insurance subsidies are already encouraging excessive building on sand that could literally wash away with the next hurricane. The state of North Carolina doesn’t need to be subsidizing over-building as well.

That concern aside, I have a suggestion for the county officials of Currituck County who have been lobbying for the bridge. Don’t ask the citizens of North Carolina to pay for your bridge. Figure out how to pay for it yourself.

Issuing 30-year, tax-free bonds to cover the cost of $411 million bridge would require roughly $30 million a year in revenue. Could the bridge generate enough value for the tourism industry in the Northern Outer Banks to pay $30 million in financing costs and have local businesses come out ahead? If so, enact the needed legislation and get the deal done. If not, then the bridge, which is needed to accommodate peak traffic that occurs 13 or 14 Saturdays out of the year, would destroy economic value, not create it, and should never be built.

There are at least three potential financing mechanisms: tolls, value capture and excise taxes.

Tolls: A harried dad with antsy kids in the back seat would gladly fork over $10 or more to shave an hour off his drive to Corolla or points south. A toll could generate millions of dollars in revenue each summer to pay off the bonds issued to build the bridge. Indeed, before the project was put on hold, the Mid-Currituck Bridge project would have charged tolls. However, the North Carolina legislature envisioned the need to spend $28 million a year in gap funding, according to the News & Observer.

Value capture. Major beneficiaries of a bridge would be the owners of hotels and rental property. A bridge that cut driving time and made Currituck destinations the closest to Northern markets would allow owners to raise rents and generate more revenue. Set up a special district to impose a property tax surcharge to capture some of that added value and use it to pay off the bonds.

Resort meals tax. Other beneficiaries include owners of restaurants, shops and other beach amenities. Create a special resort tax district that collects an extra penny per dollar on retail sales. Apply that to pay off the bonds. Continue reading

An Ex-Coal Baron’s Strange Movie

Blankenship

Blankenship

By Peter Galuszka

Almost four years after 29 miners employed by then Richmond-based Massey Energy were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion, its former chief executive under federal investigation for widespread safety violations has come forward with an apparently self-funded “documentary” proclaiming his innocence.

Donald Blankenship released the film “Upper Big Branch, Never Again” this week which reiterates his claims that he and the firm were innocent of wrongdoing and that an unexpected flood of natural gas and meddling by federal regulators caused the blast.

Three investigations have cited Blankenship and Massey for a culture of cost-cutting  and ignoring safety problems. So far, four former Massey employees have been imprisoned for related convictions.

The strange, 51-minute film brought immediate demands for its retraction by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who claims he did not know of Blankenship’s involvement when was interviewed for the film  being played on YouTube. Manchin is shown making what seem to be supportive statements of coal in general and, presumably, Blankenship.

The film also features interviews with E. Morgan Massey, a retired Massey executive who lives in Richmond. Another is University of Utah mining professor named Tom Hethmon who has told National Public Radio that he was also misled about the film and wants nothing to do with it.

The movie was made by a Chesapeake –based firm called Adroit Films whose officials have refused to tell reporters who funded the production.

In the film, Blankenship, Massey and Stanley Suboleski, a former Massey director who lives in Chesterfield County, repeat earlier claims that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. on April 5, 2010 was caused by an unexpected flood of natural gas. The explosion was affected by what Blankenship claims were wrong-headed demands by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to change the ventilation system which stretches for more than seven miles underground.

An MSHA probe along with one ordered by Manchin when he was state governor claim that the blast was caused when badly-maintained mining equipment hit a pocket of gas that touched off a huge coal dust explosion. The company was required but failed to keep highly combustible coal dust at bay by spraying mine shafts with powdered limestone, investigators say.

After he was forced out as Massey’s CEO in 2010 and the company was sold in 2011 for $7 billion to Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Blankenship kept a low profile.  He stirred to life about a year ago when he launched a website offering his views that coal is overregulated and that global warming is a hoax.He is also well-known for his staunchly anti-labor views and his support for mountaintop removal mining methods that are highly destructive of watersheds, wildlife and landscapes.

The film also shows footage of President Barack Obama as if to suggest a connection between him and the mine blast. At the time, Obama had been in office for a little more than a year. In other words, if he mangled the coal industry, he did so in a remarkably short period of time. The film also revives “War on Coal” footage shot during the 2012 presidential campaign. It tends to suggest that the coal mined at Upper Big Branch was used to generate electricity for America’s benefit when, in fact, all of it was of a metallurgical variety bound for export to foreign steel mills.

Another odd aspect of the film is why Manchin would agree to an interview with filmmakers he did not know. When I was researching my 2012 book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press), I could only talk to Manchin and other elected officials at public events, although Massey, Suboleski and other former company officials spoke with me at length. Blankenship declined to be interviewed.

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia say that their ongoing probe may extend to top officers and directors of the defunct firm. It is unclear why Blankenship made the movie now.

Full Disclosure: I have been interviewed and have acted as an unpaid consultant for an upcoming documentary  titled “Blood on the Mountain” produced by Evening Star Productions.

Mark Warner: Let’s Out-Gas Putin

 mark warnerBy Peter Galuszka

One way to clip the wings of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive land grabs, says U.S. Sen. Mark Warner who is running for reelection, is to expedite permitting of the 20 or so proposals to export liquefied natural gas, including one by Richmond-based Dominion Resources.

“Most of Europe and Ukraine are heavily dependent on Russian gas in particular for their energy use,” Warner told reporters. Europe depends on Russia for 30 percent of its gas.

It is true that hydraulic fracking has turned the oil and gas business in the U.S. upside down by creating such a flood of products that the U.S. may not only become energy independent but in a position to export. Environmentalists point out that fracking has its dangers but the remarkable change in energy dynamics plays to the producers’ hands.

The big problems with Warner’s proposal are that exporting LNG to Europe will be more time-consuming and costly than he might imagine. It also does nothing to address the climate change issues that gas contributes to, albeit not as much as coal.

One reason why Warner may be so interested in the issue — House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, is making exactly the same proposal — is because of Dominion. The utility plans a $3.8 billion expansion of its Cove Point, Md. LNG import facility on Chesapeake Bay so that it can export LNG as well. Some of that gas could very well come from fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia along with the Gulf Coast.

Dominion is in the permitting process – perhaps No. 3 or 4 in line – for Cove Point. It has the gear to take super cold gas pf about minus 265 degrees and warm it up to a gaseous state so it can be sent through pipelines. Now it wants equipment to reverse the process – take gas and chill it into shippable LNG. Dominion has everything else it needs – a water terminal, tanks, and so on.

Warner, of course, gets lots of campaign money from Dominion and has just brought on as his campaign manager Eva Teig Hardy, who retired as one of Dominion’s top lobbyists and public affairs executives. I have known Eva since the 1970s and can attest that she is supremely competent.

There’s nothing wrong with Warner’s ties to Dominion although they should be known. What is troublesome is that his plan may not work.

Take Dominion. If Dominion gets its permits, it won’t be able to export LNG for maybe three years. By that time Putin will either have calmed down or gone beyond Crimea to conquer Europe as far as the Czech Republic or maybe France.

Dominion already has customers lined up for its LNG and they aren’t in Europe. They are utilities in India and Japan – which are the markets of choice for many of the American export hopefuls.

And as Steve Mufson of The Washington Post points out, while Russia exports gas via pipelines to Europe, it still isn’t as big a supplier as Norway. In fact, Cove Point used to see the odd tanker full of Norwegian LNG pull up at its bay terminal. Why can’t Norway increase its sales on the Continent?

Europe would have to build more LNG import facilities and that may take a few years. Meanwhile, the global money seems to be on sending LNG to Asia. Continue reading

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading

McDonnell’s U.S. 460 Debacle

va_route_460_improvementsBy Peter Galuszka

Towards the end of his term, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his transportation chief, Sean Connaughton, bulldozed through a dubious project that would build a superhighway from Suffolk to Petersburg along the path of old U.S. 460 in southeastern Virginia.

Few understood the urgency of such a project, which involved a public private partnership that Virginia so loves. Mayors in Tidewater cities questioned it. Some scratched their heads as to why it was rolling forward without environmental permits.

Well, now it has come to a screeching halt. Some $300 million has been spent on the 55-mile-long road that will cost a total of $1.4 billion. Not on shovel of earth has been turned. The new administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe has pulled the plug on it for now.

US 460 Mobility, the PPP3 type firm pushed by McDonnell to proceed with the fast-track plan, did not return phone calls to the Richmond Times-Dispatch after Transportation Secretary Aubrey L. Layne Jr. announced the temporary halt.

At issue are permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other issues. Normally, such matters are dealt with before the state commits to a road. This apparently fell by the wayside because of the public-private partnership deal, Layne said.

How odd is that? Why did the McDonnell administration zoom forward with such a deal?

He certainly laid the public relations groundwork for it. I wrote a story about a year ago in Style Weekly noting that Chmura Economics & Analytics, a Richmond forecasting firm hired by the state, “predicted a massive boost in jobs and investment: $7.3 billion in economic impact through 2020. Besides 4,295 temporary construction jobs, the project would support 14,120 other new jobs. These include 4,730 jobs in Hampton Roads linked to greater port activity and 689 jobs at the 40 service business — at least four for each of the highway’s nine interchanges — that would accompany the new thoroughfare.

“The bulk of the remaining jobs — 8,415, more than half of the predicted number — could come from advanced manufacturing or automotive factories that might locate at industrial “megasites” in Isle of Wight and Sussex counties.”

But when I looked at where and how these jobs might be created, the numbers started to slide. It was all very murky and much in the future.

Connaughton tried to sell the project by saying the new superhighway was needed to handle extra truck traffic hauling ocean-going containers that would swamp the Port of Hampton Roads as the Panama Canal was expanded. He also said that Tidewater needed a second evacuation route if a monster hurricane loomed.

Del. S. Chris Jones, a Suffolk Republican, says he’s very concerned about how this all happened. He says he wants to “figure out how this could happen, who was responsible for the contract and what we do going forward.” The next forum comes April 23 when Layne and VDOT Chief Charles Kilpatrick brief the House Appropriations Committee which is headed by Jones.

The big takeaway here is how the state and its business elites rush forward with Public Private Partnership road projects as a way to fast track and sidestep financial and impact problems. There’s been a tremendous amount of cheerleading about PPP on this blog. It is time to settle down, take a deep breath and reconsider.

In other words, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Modern Day Sharecroppers

 tyson_chickBy Peter Galuszka

One book on my to-read list is Christopher Leonard’s “The Meat Racket” which looks at how food production in this country is being absorbed by large, vertically integrated companies that combine indirect federal government support with anti-free market policies to control much of the chicken, pork and beef we eat.

The book, published by Simon & Schuster, has gotten favorable reviews in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Leonard, who covered the food industry for a decade as an Associated Press reporter, writes that the 95 percent of Americans who eat chicken are supporting a top-down corporate structure and culture that keep “farmers in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.”

This might have been an over-the-top statement from the conservative and pro-business Journal, but the reviewer actually says that Leonard has carefully built his case.

His evidence is Tyson Foods, a firm that grew out of the poultry belt of Arkansas into a global agribusiness giant. Early on, Tyson’s executives decided that it was too risky for them to grow their own chickens, so they farmed it all out (“out sourced” in that term we all love).

The problem is that Tyson’s rules its contract system like a ruthless plantation owner exploiting old-time sharecroppers. Pay is based on fatter chickens. If a grower goes bust, the federal government, not the banks, picks up the tab. Tyson is not at risk, the taxpayer is. It neatly dodges problems to boost its bottom line.

Growers are dependent upon Tyson for just about everything from tiny chicks to money. The author tells the stories of farmers who ran into disease issues and ended up bust. Calls for help to Tyson went unanswered until the bankruptcy papers went through. Then company men in blue anti-contamination suits would show up to gather the carcasses and birds that they still owned.

The company, of course, owns the process, from the hatchery, feed mill and the slaughter house that it often bought from locals. Leonard says the rest of Big Farming is being “chickenized.” It happened a while back with pork producers controlled by Smithfield Foods and now by its new owners, Shuanghui International which bought the venerable Virginia firm last year for $ 7 billion. Beef is next.

Virginia is a big poultry producer ranking No. 10  nationally.  More than 13,000 people are employed directly in the industry dominated by a half a dozen or so huge players like Tyson’s or Perdue or Pilgrim’s Pride. Drive in the Shenandoah Valley or in Southside and you will see lots of lengthy chicken coops with Tyson or other corporate logo written on them.

Ditto hog farms, which are operated on a massive scale. Smithfield got in trouble some years back for waste pollution and in the mid-1990s, the Raleigh News & Observer won a Pulitzer for exposing pork megafarms that produced more waste than entire cities yet were handling it in a rudimentary fashion.

Things are not likely to get much better with the new Chinese owners. Apparently Shuanghui has had issues with cutting corners, putting banned chemicals in feed and have a loose oversight structure.

This isn’t exactly the glory of the free market we hear so much about. I gather re-creating that will be up to green or organic farmers. For instance, the Virginia Association for Biological Farming promotes small farms of 10 acres or less that can network sales to local groceries.

I was in New York last weekend and was surprised at the number of green farmers selling their wares at Union Square. Prices seemed pretty steep but it looked good. The food came from a growing grid of organic farms in New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The issues raised by Leonard’s book are worthy of exploration especially since they show the very factors you see raised so much on this blog – the evils of government subsidies and the lack of free markets.

N.B. I’d link to the Journal story but I can’t get past their pay firewall. More capitalism. Sorry.