Category Archives: Environment

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.

This NRDC Report… Cough! Cough! … Has a Few Problems

sneezing_wheezingby James A. Bacon

Richmond has been awarded the dubious distinction of being the “sneeziest and wheeziest” city in the United States in a report issued yesterday by the Natural Resources Defense Council. And thanks to global warming, says the NRDC, conditions are likely to get worse.

Scientific studies have also shown that our changing climate could favor the formation of more ozone smog in some areas and increase the production of allergenic pollen such as that released by the ragweed plant, the principal source of pollen associated with allergic rhinitis. This is bad news for allergy sufferers and asthmatics because both ragweed pollen and high levels of ozone smog can trigger asthma attacks and worsen allergic symptoms in adults and children.

Richmond, as it happens, suffers from both high ozone and high ragweed counts. As the report notes, Richmond was  was named the 2014 top U.S. Asthma Capital by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA. “Contributing to Richmond’s status as the number one Asthma Capital are high pollen levels, death rates from asthma, and numbers of asthma-related emergency room visits.”

As temperatures slowly ratchet higher, one would conclude from the parade of horribles revealed by study after study like this one that a warmer climate heaps nothing but harm harm and misery upon mankind. No doubt that explains why Americans have been migrating en mass from southern states to northern in search of cooler temperatures. … Oh, what’s that? It’s the reverse? Americans are migrating to states with warmer temperatures? Does not compute.

Permit me to play devil’s advocate. The NRDC may be absolutely correct in its appraisal but, at the risk of being denounced once more as a “climate denier,” it can’t hurt to subject its claims to some critical analysis.

The NRDC makes this interesting statement:

Richmond, Virginia, is—for the second time in a row—number one on this list. Although Richmond does not have an ozone monitoring station and is not ragweed-positive, we include it on the map because of its status as the number one Asthma Capital, as published by  the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Henrico County air quality monitoring station

Henrico County air quality monitoring station

Although the city of Richmond does not have an ozone monitoring station, neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield counties do. And what do those stations reveal? Despite higher temperatures, ozone levels got better, not worse, over the decade of 1999 to 2009.  The chart below, based on EPA data, show how the region’s average ozone levels declined markedly over that decade — dipping below the Virginia mean and the national mean.

ozone_index

A quick Internet search did not reveal comparable data for more recent years. But an American Lung Association ranking listed the average high-ozone days between 2010 and 2012 for several localities with monitoring stations. Chesterfield County had weighted average of 3.3 and Henrico of 6.2. Ozone in Northern Virginia was much worse: Alexandria had a weighted average of 8.5 high-ozone days, Arlington 11.2, and Fairfax 12.8. Yet the incidence of asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) cases as a percentage of the population was virtually identical.

ozone-asthma

Obviously, there are many factors other than ozone associated with asthma. What might those be? WebMD lists these risk factors:

  • Endotoxins in house dust.
  • Animal proteins (particularly cat and dog allergens), dust mites, cockroaches, fungi, and mold. Changes that have made houses more “energy-efficient” over the years are thought to increase exposure.
  • Indoor air pollution such as cigarette smoke, mold, and noxious fumes from household cleaners and paints.
  • Environmental factors such as pollution, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, cold temperatures, and high humidity.

Whoah? What was that? Cold temperatures?

Yes, ozone is on the list. But it’s only one factor among many.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, race is a major risk factor, too.  In recent years, the greatest rise in asthma was among African American children: One in six African-American children have asthma. For African Americans, the rate of emergency department visits is 330% higher and the rate of hospitalizations is 220% higher compared to whites. “Ethnic differences in asthma prevalence, morbidity and mortality are highly correlated with poverty, urban air quality, indoor allergens, and lack of patient education and inadequate medical care.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If we want to attack the  high incidence of asthma in the Richmond region, we’re probably better off focusing on the socio-economic conditions of African-Americans than worrying about the impact of climate change on ozone and ragweed. Those are only two factors among many affecting asthma, and arguably far from the most important. In any case, thanks to coal-plant emissions controls and cleaner automobile engines, ozone levels probably will continue to decrease.

Blankenship’s Incriminating Tapes

don-blankenship By Peter Galuszka

It may sound like something out of the Nixon White House, but embattled coal baron Donald L. Blankenship regularly taped conversations in his office, giving federal prosecutors powerful new ammunition as he approaches criminal trial in July.

According to Bloomberg News, the former head of Massey Energy taped up to 1,900 conversations that often go to the heart of the case against him. Blankenship was indicted last Nov. 13 on several felony charges that he violated safety standards and securities laws in the run up to the April 5, 2010 blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.

The revelation of the tapes came about in a circuitous way. The tapes were given to federal prosecutors in 2011 by officials of Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Richmond-based Massey Energy in 2011 for $7.1 billion.

After reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors, Alpha hired a powerful New York law firm to investigate Massey for any possible violations.

Alpha, based in Bristol, was required as part of a non-prosecution order it signed to surrender all evidence, including the tapes.

Earlier this year, Alpha declined to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills since he was under criminal indictment. Blankenship, claiming Alpha was required to indemnify, him, sued Alpha in a Delaware court. The existence of the tapes was revealed in that venue.

According to court documents filed in Delaware, Blankenship seemed to know that his disregard and hardball management practices could hurt him.

The tapes show Blankenship’s disdain for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which regulates mines but also reveal Blankenship knew Massey’s practices were risky.

According to testimony, a tape has Blankenship stating, “Sometimes, I’m torn up with what I see about the craziness we do. Maybe if it weren’t for MSHA, we’d blow ourselves up. I don’t know.”

“I know MSHA is bad, but I tell you what, we do some dumb things. I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have them,” Blankenship said on tape in the Delaware case.

So far, little has been revealed about what evidence the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston, W.Va. has against Blankenship. Irene Berger, a U.S. District Judge in Beckley, W.Va., issued a massive gag order forbidding lawyers and even family members of the 29 mine victims from discussing the case, now scheduled for July 13 in Beckely.

The gag rules were order modified after the Charleston Gazette and the Wall Street Journal among other news outlets challenged them before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

In some cases, apparently, the tapes cut both ways. In Delaware, Blankenship’s lawyers played a tape from 2009 which has Blankenship urging executives to tighten up on safety. “I don’t want to go to 100 funerals,” he is quoted as saying. He allegedly told Baxter Phillips Jr., then Massey’s president, that if there were a fatal disaster, “You may be the one who goes to jail.”

According to Bloomberg, Alpha initiated the internal probe after reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors. It hired Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton of New York to handle it.

Since Alpha refused to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills, Blankenship reportedly has paid his lawyers $1 million himself.

The writer is the author of “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” 2012, St. Martin’s Press. Paperback , West Virginia University Press, 2014.

Grid Pro Quo

Exhaust fumes blown into a sky.The EPA wants to restructure Virginia’s electric grid. Skeptics argue that slashing CO2 emissions will drive electric bills higher. Environmentalists disagree. Who’s right?

by James A. Bacon

President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan gives Virginia fifteen years to cut CO2 emissions by 38% from 2012 levels. Not only will the plan usher in a better world of cleaner air, bountiful “green” jobs and diminished global warming, supporters contend, Virginians will use less electricity and enjoy an 8% reduction in electric bills by 2030.

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) has nothing to say about global warming or green jobs, but the staff has commented upon the Clean Power Plan’s impact on electric bills:  Rates under the plan could be 20% to 22% higher for a typical Dominion Virginia Power customer than under a business-as-usual approach. That’s on top of the 14% that electric rates have increased since 2007, including rate adjustments for lower fuel prices that took effect this month, and it doesn’t include the impact on Appalachian Power or smaller utilities.

Who’s right? Will electric bills go up or down?

What we have here is a battle of dueling experts – Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its allies in the environmentalist community on the one side, and the state regulatory commission and the electric power industry on the other. Whom do we believe?

It’s hard for citizens to know. The issues are anaesthetizingly complex, and few people have the patience to wade through both sides of the issues. For each assertion that one party makes, someone provides a counter. Peel away one layer of the debate, and there always seems to be another.

That’s why God created Bacon’s Rebellion. My goal in this article is to clearly delineate the main points of contention. You may not change your mind – who ever does? — but at least you will leave with a clearer idea of what the issues are.
Because this piece is so long, I have broken it into digestible chunks. Use these links to navigate the article.

The Clean Power Plan and how it works
McAuliffe administration asks EPA to modify Virginia targets
The SCC response
SELC sides with EPA
Nukes vs. Renewables
Wholesale electricity to the rescue
Energy efficiency to the rescue
How reliable is renewable power?

The Clean Power Plan and how it works

The purpose of the Clean Power Plan is straightforward: It is designed to radically curtail the CO2 emissions blamed for global warming by setting CO2 targets for each state. Nationally, the plan aims to cut CO2 emissions by 30%, but state targets vary widely. Under proposed regulations, Virginia would have to slash 2012-level emissions by 38% by 2030, with a majority of the cuts occurring by 2025.

While the EPA sets targets for each state, it theoretically allows states flexibility as to how they achieve those targets. The agency provides four broad strategies, which, it contends, should achieve the goals at a reasonable cost. States can mix and match as best fits their circumstances. The strategies include:

  • Make coal-fired power plants more efficient. By capturing more heat from coal combustion, coal-fired plants can generate the same amount of energy with fewer CO2 emissions. EPA says that an average “heat rate improvement” of 6% should be achievable.
  • Use more natural gas. Although it is a fossil fuel, natural gas releases less CO2 per unit of energy generated than coal. The EPA expects the biggest reductions to come from switching to this fuel.
  • Use more renewables and nuclear. Solar power, wind power and nuclear power release zero CO2. In the EPA’s estimation, this strategy is second only to natural gas in its potential to cut CO2 emissions.
  • Conserve energy. Investing in energy efficiency reduces the demand for electricity, which means less generating capacity is needed. The EPA says it should be possible to increase demand-side energy efficiency by 1.5% annually.

Continue reading

Adapting to Climate Change: 11 Proposals

UR_proposals

Working under the direction of University of Richmond professors Peter D. Smallwood and Stephen P. Nash, eleven UR environmental studies majors wrote papers on topics relating to the environment and climate change in Virginia. Each paper defines a problem and lays out a practical solution. All eleven papers are compiled in a document entitled, “Nature Virginia’s Economy, and the Climate Threat.” The papers are of such interest that I re-publish the abstracts below. – JAB

Seed Banks: An Insurance Policy Against Extinction from Climate Change
by Casey Schmidt

Climate change is causing the ranges of native species to shift northward at a pace that outstrips the ability of many plant species to migrate and adapt. … Although assisted migration, the process of relocating individuals or spread of seeds through human intervention, has been used successfully in some cases to preserve species, it comes saddled with potential ecological damage, and legal complications arise when these ranges cross state lines.

These complications threaten Virginia’s biological diversity, especially among rare plants and those plants from habitats affected most by climate change. In order to preserve the genetic diversity of native species before populations become isolated and inbred, this paper proposes that Virginia create a seed bank. Seed banks have been used for a variety of reasons worldwide to preserve the genes of plant species, including the preservation of crop species and for research purposes. … For this proposed seed bank, Virginia would use information collected by the state Natural Heritage Program to identify eligible species that face the greatest threat from climate change in order to preserve biodiversity, establish a genetically diverse sample for research, and potentially reestablish these endangered species in the future.

Branching Out: How Virginia Can Use Trees Strategically to Combat Biodiversity Loss
by Taylor Pfeiffer

Biodiversity loss is a consequence of climate change. As greenhouse gas emissions increase global temperatures, decreases in the abundance and diversity of species has reduced ecosystem resiliency during these changes. … Weakened ecosystems decrease the environment’s capacity to provide humans with services like safe drinking water, fuel, and protection from natural disasters. …

The agricultural industry plays a unique role in this environmental conversation, as farmland both contributes to climate change and is jeopardized by the negative effects created by the issue in a complex reciprocal cycle. This relationship, along with the presence of 8.3 million acres of farmland in Virginia, suggests that agriculture should be incorporated into the state’s climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. …

Agroforestry, the strategic integration of trees in agriculture to create a sustainable land-use system, has been utilized for environmental benefits in the past. … This paper proposes the creation of a statewide program that requires the use of agroforestry on large farms in order to preserve biodiversity in the wake of climate change. An alternative solution is a certification program for farmers who use agroforestry practices to enhance wildlife habitat. Economic incentives and implementation assistance will encourage participation, while funding for the establishment of this program, creation of publications, and organization of events will be sourced from governmental and private grants.

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Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

Almost a year ago, Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph- Macon College, made national headlines when he defeated Eric Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader, in the 7th District Brat Republican primary.

Brat’s victory was regarded as a sensation since it showed how the GOP was splintered between Main Street traditionalists such as Cantor and radically conservative, Tea Party favorites such as Brat. His ascendance has fueled the polarization that has seized national politics and prevented much from being accomplished in Congress.

So, nearly a year later, what has Brat actually done? From reading headlines, not much, except for making a number of bizarre and often false statements.
A few examples:

  • When the House Education and Workforce Committee was working on reauthorizing a law that spends about $14 billion to teach low-income students, Brat said such funding may not be necessary because: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and the Plato trained Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  • Brat says that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a step towards making the country be more like North Korea. He compares North and South Korea this way:  “. . . it’s the same culture, it’s the same people, look at a map at night, half the, one of the countries is not lit, there’s no lights, and the bottom free-market country, all Koreans is lit up. See you make your bet on which country you want to be, right? You want to go to the free market.” One problem with his argument:  Free market South Korea has had a single payer, government-subsidized health care system for 40 years. The conservative blog, BearingDrift, called him out on that one.
  • Politifact, the journalism group that tests the veracity of politicians’ statements, has been very busy with Brat. They have rated as “false” or “mostly false” such statements that repealing Obamacare would save the nation more than $3 trillion and that President Obama has issued 468,500 pages of regulations in the Federal Register. In the former case, Brat’s team used an old government report that estimated mandatory federal spending provisions for the ACA. In the latter case, Politifact found that there were actually more pages issued than Brat said, but they were not all regulations. They included notices about agency meetings and public comment periods. What’s more, during a comparable period under former President George W. Bush, the Federal Register had 465,948 pages, Politifact found. There were some cases, however, where Politifact verified what Brat said.
  • Last fall, after Obama issued an executive order that would protect up to five million undocumented aliens from arrest and deportation, Brat vowed that “not one thin dime” of public money should go to support Obama’s plan. He vowed to defund U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services but then was told he couldn’t do so because the agency was self-funded by fees from immigration applications. He then said he would examine how it spent its money.

The odd thing about Brat is that he has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor. Why is he making such bizarre, misleading and downright false statements?

How to Reform Virginia’s Conservation Tax Credit

This map, taken from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website, shows the fragmented distribution of conservation easements on Virginia's upper peninsula.

This map, taken from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website, shows the fragmented distribution of conservation easements on Virginia’s upper peninsula.

by James A. Bacon

The state of Virginia spends $100 million a year in the form of tax expenditures to place conservation easements on land parcels around the state. Could the state get more for its investment? Amy Murphy, an environmental studies major at the University of Richmond, thinks so. In a paper presented to the  Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission Tuesday, she recommended three changes t0 make the law more effective, including a restructuring of the tax credit to favor easements that offered greater environmental benefits.

Murphy’s paper on conservation easement reform was one of 11 prepared under the tutelage of biology professor Peter D. Smallwood and journalism professor Stephen D. Nash that were packaged for consideration by the climate change commission. Each paper focused on a practical, small-bore proposal for helping Virginia ecosystems adapt to warming temperatures. While climate change was the unifying theme, it struck me that many of the proposals make sense whether you believe in catastrophic global warming or not.

Murphy’s paper, in particular, addressed concerns that I have long harbored about Virginia’s conservation easement program. On the plus side, the program provides a way to protect Virginia lands from development that is far cheaper than purchasing the land outright. Landowners receive a tax credit worth 40% of the fair market of the value of the land, with deductions up to $100,000 for the year of donation and 10 subsequent years. In effect, taxpayers pay 40 cents on the dollar to protect land from development beyond its current use, typically agriculture or forestry. Not a bad deal.

The problem is that not all land is equally worth conserving. Some lands harbor endangered species and biological diversity; others don’t. Some easements abut other easements, creating larger bodies of protected habitat; others are tiny islands, creating fragments of little ecological value. The state caps the easement credits at $100 million per year but has no system for prioritizing one easement over another.

Murphy proposes creating a statewide plan, to be administered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to rank and prioritize land based on conservation value. Factors to be considered would include biodiversity, land resilience, land cover, proximity to existing lands and threat of development. Parcels would be scored. Parcels with high scores (of greater conservation value) would receive higher tax credits, while lower-scoring parcels would receive lower credits.

“Ideally, implementing these changes will result in obtaining easements on more land of high ecological importance without altering the total amount of tax credits given annually,” she writes.

A second tweak to the program would address problems created by freezing an easement in judicial stone. Static easements that prescribe specific responsibilities and expectations of future land owners can become outdated over the decades, limiting adaptation to changes in scientific knowledge and climate conditions. Murphy recommends that Virginia require the inclusion of “adaptive management plans” in easement terms. “These plans should require that the landowner manages the land in a manner consistent with preserving the conservation purpose of the easement rather than require specific management techniques.”

Finally, Murphy recommends setting up a system for monitoring easements to ensure that the terms are being adhered to. In Maine, which requires monitoring, 90% of the easements were in compliance — which implies that 10% were not. There is a cost to monitoring, she acknowledges, but the burden “may have a positive influence as [it] may force landowners to limit their holdings so they can provide proper stewardship to them. This may cause a selective pressure away from low value easements.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia’s conservation easement program is a valuable tool for protecting the natural environment. It’s also a great tax break for landowners, some of whom may be motivated to participate for less-than-altruistic motives. Murphy’s recommendations would ensure that this significant state investment yields maximum benefits.

The Tangible Economic Value of Biodiversity

healy_hamilton

Healy Hamilton

by James A. Bacon

From the oceans to the rain forests, from the wetlands to the Virginia Piedmont, wildlife habitats around the world are under tremendous pressure from human activity. One reason that environmentalists get alarmed about global warming is that a rapidly changing environment adds one more source of stress to many species. In a pre-human environment, species would respond to a warming climate in Virginia by migrating north. But human activity — cities, farming, subdivisions, roads, railroads and power lines — fragments wildlife habitat and creates barriers to migration.

Human pressure is causing one of the greatest mass extinctions of species the planet has ever seen. But not everyone gets weepy at the prospect of demise of the Littlewing Purleymussel or Rock Gnome Lichen, endangered species here in Virginia. Some people say, “So what? What’s it to me?”

There is tremendous unrecognized value to biodiversity, Healy Hamilton, chief scientist with NatureServe, argued in a session yesterday at the University of Richmond that preceded the meeting of the Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission. Just to mention those species that are directly useful to humans, she said 30,00 plant species have edible parts; 7,000 are used as foods. Forty percent of all medicinal drugs come from plants, animals or micro-organisms. Timber, firewood, fibers, rubber and biofuels, all derived from plants, are multibillion-dollar industries.

And that’s just for starters. Increasingly, scientists are turning to nature for solutions to engineering problems, a phenomenon called biomimicry. Nature and evolution have worked over billions of years to accomplish such tasks as enhancing flow without causing friction, or creating light, flexible materials. The greater the number of species in existence, the greater the number of potential solutions.

While there is value to preserving individual species, there also is value to preserving ecosystems. Hamilton referred to “ecosystem services,” or tangible economic benefits that ecosystems provide humans. Pollinators like bats and bees contribute roughly $30 billion a year in services nationally to agriculture and landscaping. Coastal wetlands provide billions of dollars annually in storm-surge protection. Nature provides billions of more of value in recreation and tourism. The inspiration upon arts and philosophy cannot be expressed in dollars.

Hamilton described biological diversity as “a magic carpet ride of life we don’t even know we’re on.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Of all environmental issues, the loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity is one that bothers me most. When species go extinct, they are gone forever (unless someone figures out how to reconstruct a wooly mammoth from DNA, but re-creating one mammoth isn’t enough to resurrect the species). The greater the biodiversity of an ecosystem, the greater its stability. The loss of species makes the system more prone to debilitating perturbations, which, even if you care nothing about gray bats or dustytail darters, can impact those species (pine trees, corn, azaleas, whatever) that humans do care about.

The loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity is real, it’s here, and it’s now. To me, it’s a lot more real than catastrophic climate change, an outgrowth of computer model forecasts that failed to see the current 17-year temperature plateau. (Yeah, yeah, I know I’m a heretic. Burn me at the stake!)

What I’m groping for here is the idea that biodiversity may be a patch of common ground where wild-eye climate alarmists and sober-minded skeptics (ha! ha! I’m just trying to goad LarryG and PeterG) can actually agree on something. While the two camps will likely disagree over the desirability of re-engineering the state’s energy economy, perhaps we can come together in promoting environmental resilience by buffering the impact of human activity on threatened species.

In the near future, I will explore some ideas generated by some bright University of Richmond students on practical ways Virginia can protect biodiversity from human threats of all kinds, whether climate change or humanity’s heavy footprint the landscape.

Pulitzer-Winning Series Exposed Richmond Firm

HDL LogoBy Peter Galuszka

There’s been plenty of discussion about the evils of rising health care costs, but unfortunately, one only hears of government wrong-doing.

Private industry actually spearheads a lot of the price gouging — sometimes with government complicity.

And it just so turned out that a high-flying Richmond firm — Health Diagnostic Laboratory  — was at the heart of a scandal that involved ripping off the Medicare program.

The Wall Street Journal on Monday was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for exposing Medicare fraud. As a result of a front-page story published last Sept. 8, Tonya Mallory, the chief executive and co-founder of HDL, resigned. A few weeks ago, HDL was fined $47 million (while admitting no wrongdoing) after  their Sept. 8 story last year, for paying doctors kickbacks to use their blood tests.

The Journal broke the story after a court battle. It fought to lift a 33-year-old injunction that kept private data regarding Medicare patients. Once the data floodgates were opened, reporters pieced together all kinds of juicy information about health care firms, including HDL.

I have the story here on my “The Deal” blog in Style Weekly.

The upshot? Unlike what you often read on this blog, the problems of rising health care costs may not exactly be government sloth and inefficiency. It can be the private sector gaming the system to their benefit.