Category Archives: Environment

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.

No Negative Coal Poetry, Please

WV Governor's ArtsBy Peter Galuszka

Meanwhile, over in West Virginia, the long arm of King Coal reaches over to a high school poetry reading.

Grace Pitt, a Hurricane High School student, wanted to read a poem by Charleston poet Crystal Good about Richmond-based Massey Energy’s April 5, 2010, disaster at its Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 men. The reading was to be held at the West Virginia Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony this week.

The poem describes how the disaster, the deadliest in this country in 40 years, created 29 black diamonds “in what they call a ‘mine disaster’; others ‘industrial homicide.’ (The United Mine Workers of American titled their report on Upper Big Branch as “industrial homicide.”)

According to the Charleston Gazette, before the reading, Tabitha Walter, grants coordinator for the Division of Culture and History and a sponsor of the ceremony, emailed that “I really hate to do this, but because your poem deals with coal and many state representatives will be there, our director wants you to choose a different poem.”

The email went viral and the push back was so strong that the state department backed down.

The poem will be read Thursday.

It is not unusual in the coalfields for coal companies and other energy firms to bankroll cultural events and perhaps maintain some degree of control over them. Alpha Natural Resources, the Bristol-Va.-based coal firm that bought Massey, funds “Mountain Stage,” a roots and folk music program with a national audience that is produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The public broadcasting group also recently ran a soft documentary that noted how natural gas has been drilled for years in the Mountain State. The film was an apparent propaganda effort to smooth public acceptance of using controversial “fracking” to reach Marcellus Shale gas fields.

Reinventing the Formal Garden

lewis-ginter-conservatory

The Lewis Ginter conservatory for exotic plants

by James A. Bacon

When a group of Richmond botanists, horticulturalists and interested citizens founded the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden in 1981, their vision was to plant formal, European-style gardens to rival the finest in the country. They succeeded in that goal beyond their expectations. Lewis Ginter is consistently rated as one of the Top 10 gardens in the United States. Of its 350,000 visitors in 2013, an estimated 20% to 30% came from outside the metropolitan region, making it the No. 2 visitor’s destination, after the Richmond International Raceway, in Henrico County.

President Frank Robinson, who joined the staff in 1992 and is planning to retire next year, could be forgiven for resting easy with that accomplishment. But he’s not. Society has changed over the past three decades, he says, and the organization has evolved along with it. The thrust of Lewis Ginter’s current $9 million fund-raising effort is not to build more formal landscaping worthy of coffee-table books, rather it represents a return to nature — or, more accurately, a reconciliation of urban development with nature.

The Streams of Stewardship initiative challenges expectations of what landscape design should be. Conventional Virginia tastes are heavily influenced by a heritage of gardens designed for French kings and English aristocrats from a very different era. But the challenges of 21st century America call for something new. The introduction of foreign ornamental plants and the voracious consumption of land by 20th- and 21st-century suburbs stresses Virginia’s natural environment, sterilizing the habitat for wildlife and polluting streams and rivers with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. A new landscaping aesthetic can reverse some of the damage.

Lewis Ginter’s intention is to transform the 30 acres not dedicated to formal gardens on the 80-acre site with two goals in mind: to show how landscaping can clean creeks and streams polluted by urban run-off and to re-establish indigenous plants that support local wildlife. Plans call for replacing acres of formal grass lawn and large mulched beds with ornamental grasses and shrubs. A native plant garden will be established along a restored stream, and a woodland garden will provide natural filtration for excess nitrogen, phosphates and other algae-feeding nutrients flowing from a neighboring subdivision, a nearby golf course and Lewis-Ginter’s own property.

As Executive Director Shane Tippett puts it, Lewis Ginter wants to demonstrate that it is possible to meet a triple bottom line of creating beautiful places, restoring the environment, and doing so economically.

It’s not enough to show that such things can be done: The garden also wants to drive aesthetic and cultural change in the Richmond region, educating its 350,000 annual visitors, connecting with local landscapers and horticulturalists and reaching out to developers and home builders. In sum, the botanical gardens want to be a resource for the community.

Frank Robinson standing in the kind of tall grass that will replace acres of turf lawns.

Frank Robinson standing in the kind of tall grass that will replace acres of turf lawns.

The organization has largely fulfilled its core mission, says Robinson. “We knew we had to create very fine gardens to draw people here. And we had to generate earned income to support the enterprise.” And that it has done. The gardens are magnificent, and people are drawn year-round by a series of events: beautiful tulips in the springs, light displays at night, bonfires, jazz concerts, hot chocolate and the like. “Ultimately, it’s about the aesthetics. We had to do that to build the brand, the audience. We wouldn’t have been so successful if we’d started with a field of native grasses.”

The garden leadership began moving toward the new vision a decade ago, starting with a $1 million investment in a system that collected rainwater from building roofs and funneled it into two lakes on the property. Except for one year of severe drought, the property no longer needs county water. Avoiding the consumption of more than 7 million gallons a year saves Lewis Ginter hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in water bills and frees up county water capacity for someone else. The investment paid for itself in three or four years.

The 2007-2008 recession put the “Streams of Stewardship” fund-raising on hold but Richmond’s philanthropic community has revived to the point where Lewis Ginter is getting new commitments. Rather than waiting for the full $9 million to start, Robinson says, the garden is phasing in pieces of the plan as money comes available.

Meanwhile, the garden is taking an increasing leadership role in the community. It has invited to speak Lynden Miller, a nationally recognized garden designer, to Richmond, and Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home,” author of a treatise on how home gardeners can restore indigenous species. Its Beautiful RVA program brings together tree lovers, gardeners and landscapers to share ideas and build enthusiasm for creating quality public places.

“We never wanted to become a monastic community,” says Robinson. “It’s a big city out there. We can impact so many people beyond this property.”

This is the first of a planned series on the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden to be published as time permits.

Coal Giant Alpha Pays Biggest Water Fine Ever

MTRBy Peter Galuszka

Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, the coal giant that took over troubled Massey Energy of Richmond in 2011, has the dubious honor paying the highest fines ever of $27.5 million for water pollution violations at its coal mining operations in five Appalachian states, including Virginia.

Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where an explosion killed 29 miners in the worst such disaster in the U.S. in 40 years, held the previous water pollution fine record of $20 million issued in 2008.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that from 2006 to 2013, Alpha and its subsidiaries violated water pollution permits 6,000 times and allowed toxic materials such as heavy metals into streams and the watersheds of Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania besides Virginia. The firm will also pay $200 million to reduce such toxic discharges.

The settlement comes after a pair of unrelated water pollution situations involving coal in West Virginia and North Carolina. Some 300,000 residents of the Charleston area went without drinking water for several days when a toxic chemical used to treat coal leaked into a river. Duke Energy faces fines in North Carolina for improperly maintaining its coal ash storage facilities, leading to a substantial spill into the Dan River which provides drinking water for Danville and eventually, Virginia Beach.

Alpha has touted its “Running Right” safety and management program as it absorbed Massey Energy and its rich coal reserves in a $7 billion deal. Alpha said it was retraining Massey workers who had suffered from Massey’s abusive corporate culture that cut corners on mine safety and environmental control, regulators say.

Alpha had agreed to pay $200 million in a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Southern West Virginia to cover violations from the Upper Big Branch which it bought and closed after acquiring Massey. Alpha later settled a number of shareholder lawsuits for $265 million. Some of the payout funding had factored into funds set up by Massey before the acquisition by Alpha.

Like most Appalachian coal producers, Alpha has been taking hits with soft markets for steam and metallurgical coal. Its 2013 revenues were $5 billion compared with $7 billion the year before.

Environmentalists say that Alpha’s fine does not address the massive ecological destruction of mountaintop removal strip mining which they say should be stopped at the permit stage. Alpha operates a number of such mines.

The latest fines involve 79 active coal mines and 25 coal processing plants.

Federal investigators are still probing Massey for violations of safety laws related to the operation of Upper Big Branch where the explosion occurred April 5, 2010 and other mines. So far, three former employees have been convicted and Massey’s former CEO Don Blankenship is said to be a target of the probe. There is also a suggestion that Alpha is cooperating with federal investigators in the investigation.

Dominion Benefits As Renewables Struggle

North Anna PixBy Peter Galuszka

Dominion Virginia Power, as is its style, has achieved a quiet but far-reaching regulatory victory. The General Assembly has passed a complicated bill that would help Dominion write off costs for a new nuclear reactor while avoiding giving potential refunds or rate cuts to customers.

The bill, which easily sailed through the legislature, has drawn attention to whether the utility really will build a third nuclear unit at North Anna and why bills to help smaller players trying to create renewable sources of energy seem to get nowhere in Virginia.

Dominion will be allowed to deduct $400 million from its profits in a scheme that allows it to count as costs the nuclear research it does. This will likely help it avoid paying rebates to consumers the next time the State Corporation Commission considers its rates.

There are several curiosities with the scheme. For one, although Dominion filed early plans for a third reactor about a decade ago, the project hasn’t seemed to move very far. The disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011 forced a rethink of how the U.S. plans its new reactors. Another problem is that North Anna suffered a major setback later in 2011 when an earthquake forced a shutdown at that station and pushed reactors past their design limits.

The danger is hardly news but may be largely forgotten. In the 1970s, Virginia Electric & Power Co., Dominion’s predecessor, was fined by federal regulators for knowing and lying about some aspects of a geological fault line that runs under the North Anna area when it planned the nuclear power station in the 1960s.

I have visited North Anna in recent years and have asked Dominion about how they plan to pay for a third reactor. Some estimate it may cost about $10 billion. Many reactors on the drawing boards can’t be built without federal loan guarantees. Dominion has said it won’t need such guarantees.

Last month, the Department of Energy announced that the federal government will provide $6.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for two new reactors planned by the Southern Company in Vogtle, Ga. They are the first in such government backing.

A big question is how far along is the third unit at North Anna and why the General Assembly felt comfortable about making such beneficial moves if there’s any question about it.

Meanwhile, Bill Sizemore at The Virginian-Pilot has an intriguing story about how Dominion, which gave $1 million to Virginia politicians last year, has little trouble with its laws while smaller fry in the renewable energy sector struggle.

They have failed at getting the General Assembly to push tax credits to help install solar, wind and other, non-fossil and non-nuclear forms of power. Originally, the proposal called for $100 million in tax credits a year but that was pared down to $10 million and then was put off for consideration next year.

Virginia has voluntary Renewable Portfolio Standards calling for a percentage of new power generation to come from renewable sources. The approach favors large utilities such as Dominion and Appalachian Power. Neighboring states North Carolina and Maryland have mandatory standards and that may be one reason why Virginia has only 5 percent of North Carolina’s solar power capacity.

Dominion points out that it has renewable projects such as solar powered panels at a university and has plans for offshore wind, but these efforts are relatively modest.

One irony with the current situation involving renewables is that conservatives argue that their promoters must meet strict free market tests. If solar and wind and other sources can expand, they need to make it without government help based on their ability to innovate and market salable products. But the traditional, large utilities have no trouble getting billions in government help in federal loan guarantees or in rate write offs that Dominion will enjoy.

So, it seems the fix is in for traditional power in Virginia. That was certainly the case with former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell who wanted to make Virginia “the energy capital of the East Coast.” He strongly backed offshore drilling. Incoming Gov. Terry McAuliffe had been suspicious of offshore drilling in 2009 when he first ran for governor but has since changed his position to the consternation of environmentalists.

“We’re really disappointed but not surprised,” says Glen Besa, head of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

Protests Pick Up Against Bay LNG Exports

cove point By Peter Galuszka

Protests are picking up against plans to convert a liquefied natural gas shipping facility on Maryland’s western shore of the Chesapeake Bay at Cove Point so  it can both export as well as import the product. The proposed, $3.8 billion project is owned by Richmond-based Dominion Resources.

Four protestors were arrested today for blocking the entrance to the Allegany County Courthouse in Cumberland, Md.  according to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network which has officials in suburban Washington and Richmond.

They are trying to raise concerns that the Dominion project will increase the likelihood of using controversial hydraulic fracturing for gas exports at Cove Point and lead to more greenhouse gas emissions.

The Chesapeake network is just one of a number of activist groups that are drawing attention to fracking for natural gas. The method, which yields more product from hard-to-reach geological formations, involves the use of powerful chemicals. Other worries are that wells leak and are prone to fire. According to the network’s Kelly Trout, leakage throughout the LNG conversion cycles at Cove Point and at its shipping destinations could case as much or more greenhouse gas emissions as coal.

The Cove Point issue of interest to me because I have visited written about the facility and am familiar with coal mining and burning which fracked gas is displacing. Just a few years ago, green groups correctly protested what was going on in the Appalachian coalfields with highly destructive mountaintop removal and mine deaths. There is no question that coal is a major and negative factor for the lives of its workers and the environment in general. It is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in this country.

Coal, however, is slipping in importance precisely because of the rise of fracked gas. Although gas prices have been rising recently partly because of harsh winter weather, the surprising crash in gas prices four years ago caught the energy industry off guard. A decade ago, coal had supplied half of the electricity generated in this country and that number has slipped to 35 percent.

Cheap gas has presented the U.S. with another unexpected benefit – rising energy independence. This is why Dominion is so eager to convert an aging LNG import facility in Maryland built in the mid-1970s into an export facility. It has long-term contracts already for exported LNG with Japanese and Indian utilities. Dominion bought the Cove Point facility about 12 years ago after a checkered history in which it  had been through several owners. Cove Point is one of about 20 facilities that are being proposed for LNG exports.

Cheap gas is likewise a curse and brings new uncertainty. Its economic benefits have meant that it is no longer worthwhile to invest billions in carbon capture technologies that might have allowed safer and less-polluting use of coal. Gas is also pushing back the urgency for expanding non-fossil and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

I’m of two minds on gas and LNG. On the one hand, gas beats coal hands down. It doesn’t kill as many workers, doesn’t destroy mountains and produces half of the carbon dioxide as coal.

Yet as time goes on, there’s more reason to be suspicious about fracking. There’s no certainty that the toxic chemicals used in the process will not hurt ground water. Natural gas wells do tend to leak and fires, fatalities are not uncommon. Pipelines blow up. Fracking has also been used with great success to tap previously inaccessible oil and shale oil in places like North Dakota. But that raises yet another problem: the use of unsuitable and unsafe railroad tanks cars to haul great quantities of it.

Ms. Trout provided me with material compiled by her group raising questions about leakage and Cove Point. Their research says that with a relatively low leakage point of 1.4 percent, taken over the entire LNG shipment cycle, enough methane would be released into the atmosphere that makes it about 80 percent as bad a carbon dioxide from other sources such as coal.

Cove Point would receive natural gas via pipeline from fracked gaslands in Pennsylvania and possibly Maryland or from pipelines running from Louisiana. At the Bay facility, it would be processed, cooled to minus 265 degrees Celsius, but in huge Thermos-style tanks aboard ship which would travel halfway around the world. In Asia, the LNG would be warmed back into gas, processed and used for fuel. This, she says, presents plenty of opportunities for leaking.

It very well could be. I have no data supporting or refuting the points. Meanwhile, the protests grow stronger and the arguments become more complicated.

McAuliffe Peruses Tobacco Commission

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

What’s going on with the Tobacco Commission? Gov. Terry McAuliffe wants to know and is asking for a detailed accounting of its finances over the past five years.

The Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission, created in 1999 with a $1 billion endowment from lawsuit settlements with four major tobacco companies, has been under the gun for years.

The idea was that Virginia would take its settlement from a $206 billion nest egg 46 states won from Big Tobacco and put it to good use. Some states allocated their share solely for health concerns and to convince people, especially children, not to start smoking.

Virginia used part of its funds for this, but also created a slush fund supposedly for economic development in counties affected by changes in the tobacco economy from Southside to Southwest Virginia that grew bright leaf and burley tobacco.

The commission has always operated in a kind of “Andy of Mayberry” fashion without much oversight and that has caused some big problems. The worst was in 2010 when former state Finance Secretary John W. Forbes and later commission head was convicted of using $4 million in tobacco money for personal purposes, like fixing his house.

A 2011 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission gave the commission mixed reviews, noting that some projects it funded made sense but others did not.

JLARC praised the commission for its worker training programs and helping expand high speed broadband to rural areas. But it said that the commission needed a better and more sophisticated way of tracking the impacts of projects it funded. Two years earlier, a commission headed by former Gov. Gerald E. Baliles had come up with some similar findings but the commission adopted only eight of 22 of them. One of the Baliles’ recommendations was to have a JLARC study made of the commission but it was not pursed at the time.

One area of concern for the McAuliffe administration is the $20 million in grants provided to Liberty University’s Center for Medical and Health Services spent over the past two years when the commission was making less than $60 million on interest payments.

One could argue that having a medical center in Lynchburg would help residents in Southside but another issue is that Liberty, founded by fundamentalist Protestant preacher Jerry Falwell, is a religious institution. The late Falwell was a major political player. The school is starting an osteopathic medical school which is interesting since it chose not to found a traditional one, although osteopathic doctors receive much the same training as medical doctors.

Speaking of politics, the co-chairman of the tobacco commission is Terry Kilgore, a Republican politician. By coincidence, his twin brother, Jerry, is a former attorney general, gubernatorial candidate and a lawyer for Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the former head of Star Scientific and the man who paid or gave now-indicted former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen more than $160,000 in gifts.

At one point, Williams who has not been indicted in the GiftGate matter and is expected to be an important prosecution witness against the McDonnells, tried to push for tobacco commission help with his nicotine-based dietary supplements.

There could be a political motivation with McAuliffe’s query but the tobacco commission has always been a ripe target for good reason.

N.B. Maurice Jones, McAuliffe’s nominee for Commerce Secretary and the former publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, has been targeted by a probe by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for possible improper lobbying while he was a HUD deputy secretary. It appears there will be no criminal charges but the Jones matter will be part of a Capitol Hill hearing today. Republicans are certain make some political hay out of the matter. Full disclosure, I worked part time for Richmond’s Style Weekly (still do) when Jones was Pilot publisher and oversaw Style. I know him personally.

The Tragic Lessons of Kiev

A pro-European protester swings a metal chain during riots in KievBy Peter Galuszka

The news from Ukraine is frightening and familiar.

At least 100 people have been killed in rioting in Kiev. Some were shot by Interior Ministry snipers after demanding that President Viktor Yanukovych allow new elections. The latest is that he may do just that.

Like all former Soviet republics, Ukraine has been caught in the usual post-collapse of the U.S.S.R. Liberal Democrats can’t amass enough power to overturn leftovers from the Communist system who have prisons and police at their disposal.

The economy has not recovered from the shock of the Soviet split up. It happened too fast. You can’t go from a seriously ossified command structure that provided cradle-to-grave services, crash it and then pretend the “magic of the market” will work overnight, or even in 25 years.

These failures have set up the tragedy in Kiev that if not controlled soon, could get truly scary. All Europe needs right now is a civil war on its edge. So far, the Ukrainian military is not involved and luckily for the world, Ukraine apparently got rid of its 5,000 nuclear weapons after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991.

For me personally, the Kiev drama is reminiscent on several levels. I used to go to Kiev and Ukraine fairly often. Downtown Kiev is lovely. The main drag where the violence is taking place is on Khristyatyk Street, an impressive boulevard of monuments and buildings. I used to stay at a hotel around the corner near a leafy park on a bluff overlooking the Dnieper River.

Ukrainians are pleasant and friendly – somewhat like U.S. Midwesterners or Southerners. Ukraine used to be a farming dynamo until Stalin got involved. It also has some impressive industries, including advanced metallurgy and an aircraft plant that makes gigantic Antonov cargo planes. Tragically, it was also the scene of Chernobyl.

There’s been an underlying tension between western Ukrainians who felt much more in common with Western Europe and the east where Russians and their language prevailed. The friction, however, never got as intense as between Russians and, say, the Chechens or Central Asians. Ukrainians are very close in religion, language and color. There were rivalries and insults, such as Russians who dubbed Ukrainians “Hok-lee” which is a putdown of the Ukrainian language which is very close to Russian but has different inflections. Some Ukrainians hate being called “the” Ukraine because it means “on the edge” of Russia.

Vladimir Putin is a major player in today’s problems. Just as Ukraine was getting closer to the European Union in aid, trade and funding, Putin swept in with a $15 billion aid package. Putin is part of the old “Sil” or “forces” such as the KGB who have re-emerged in a new form, sort of like the robo-cop in the Terminator II movie. Continue reading

Dem Billionaire Runs With Big Dogs

SteyerBy Peter Galuszka

A major funder of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe plans on putting $100 million into this year’s mid-term election races to warn of the danger of climate change and beat back global warming deniers and their conservative financiers.

Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund founder, plans on targeting the Florida gubernatorial race where Rick Scott, who does not believe that climate change is manmade, is running for election.

Last year, Steyer (photo) helped McAuliffe outraise Republican Kenneth Cuccinelli in political contributions and defeat him. The former attorney general had made an issue of global warming and initiated a campaign to investigate Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist, who believes that human activity does contribute to global warming. Steyer gave the McAuliffe campaign $11 million.

Conservatives are well-funded by their own advocates, notably the Koch brothers of Kansas whom the Washington Post reports helped raise $400 million for the 2012 elections. The Koch brothers raise much of their funding through political action committees and non-profits such as Americans for Prosperity and the Heartland Institute.

Democrats who likewise have pumped money to raise concerns of global warming include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Coincidentally, the news of Steyer’s donation plans comes just after the release of a new book “The Sixth Extinction” by New Yorker magazine staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert.

The book notes that the earth has seen five significant extinctions of living organisms and now faces a sixth one that is caused by mankind and carbon emissions. The book has won favorable reviews in such media outlets as the “Wall Street Journal.”