Category Archives: Land use & development

Cycling Rolls through Chesterfield, but Will it Reach the Finish Line?


By John Szczesny

It’s official, maybe: 360 new miles of bike paths and trails in Chesterfield County. Whether the plan endorsed this week by the Board of Supervisors in a 3-2 vote ever gets funded (and built) remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt cycling advocates scored a big victory.

Given county staff’s initial price tag — pegging the per-mile cost of bike paths between $250k and $1 million — early odds had favored denial in the low-tax, conservative Republican stronghold that sent Dave Brat to congress.

There remains strong opposition from residents who argued against the scope and astonishing cost of the plan. The growing county has multiple competing budget demands, and it’s fair to ask where bike paths should rank compared to education, public safety, infrastructure, and other concerns. But with over 1,000 petition signatures and a vocal lobbying effort in favor of the plan, county residents clearly want safe bicycling facilities in auto-dominated Chesterfield.

It remains to be seen whether county officials can acquire all the necessary right of way to construct the pathways, as any missing link could doom an entire trail. As innocuous as bike paths may seem, this complex project likely will require the services of outside engineering consultants for overall project management and full-scale paving, grading, and drainage plans. In addition, recently enacted and more stringent EPA storm water requirements must be reckoned with.

Cycling proponents can savor victory for now, but there’s still a bumpy road ahead in Chesterfield. So far they’ve proven willing and able to hang on for the ride.

NOT Every Muslim Is a Terrorist


by James A. Bacon

Conservatives routinely call upon Muslim leaders in the United States to denounce Islamic-inspired terrorism — and overwhelming numbers of them have done so. Now it is time for conservatives to denounce bigotry against peaceful, law-abiding Muslims. I am ashamed that many have failed the test.

Yesterday I posted a piece belittling the whining of Muslim students at Virginia Commonwealth University about perceived slights and insults in classrooms. The answer to such indignities is not to enforce a regime of politically correct thought on campus. At the same time, all people of good will — and that includes me — should condemn bigotry when we see it.

I was appalled to view a living, breathing example of anti-Muslim xenophobia in the video clip, shown above, taken during a meeting yesterday to inform the community about plans by the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg to build an 8,000-square-foot mosque in Spotsylvania County. Many of the attendees at the meeting were concerned about the impact of the traffic generated by the facility on adjacent neighborhoods, not the religious identity of the petitioners for a special-use permit. But some were opposed to a mosque being built under any circumstances.

The bearded man in the video was especially inflammatory. “Nobody wants your evil cult in this county,” he said. I will do everything within my power to make sure that doesn’t happen. … because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists, I don’t care what you say. … You can say what you want, but every Muslim is a terrorist. Period. Shut your mouth. I don’t want to hear your mouth.”

While some people in the audience moaned at his remarks, he received scattered applause from others.

Perhaps the bearded man was an outlier, but similar sentiments run deep in the American electorate. We have been hearing some extraordinary comments from Republican politicians in recent days. In calling for expanded surveillance of American Muslims, presidential candidate Donald Trump declined to rule out tracking them in a national database or identifying their religion on ID cards. Another candidate, Ben Carson, has said that a Muslim candidate would have to reject the tenets of Islam in order to run for president.

News flash, people, the United States is not a “Christian nation.” The very idea is a profound contradiction of the principles of individual liberty that this country was founded upon and that people like Trump and Carson profess to hold dear. Yes, the population of the United States is predominantly Christian, and the founding fathers were overwhelmingly Christian (with the occasional theist, agnostic or atheist thrown in), but a core founding principle of this country is freedom of religion, and that freedom was never meant for Christians only. Even in colonial times, there was a population of Jews. Today the population of the United States includes not only Christians of infinite variety, and Jews, but Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, spiritualists, animists, Unitarians, Scientologists, Zoroastrians, a growing number of atheists and unaffiliated agnostics, and, yes, Muslims. They all enjoy the same rights under the law as Christians.

Given the reality of the war on terror and the prospect that ISIS is infiltrating terrorists into western nations with the flood of mostly Muslim refugees, we may need to take special precautions before letting these refugees into the country. That is a debate that reasonable people can have. But the Muslims in the Fredericksburg area are already here — many, no doubt, are American citizens. We should encourage them to integrate into American society and assimilate mainstream American values. Treating them as pariahs will do the opposite and feed the radical jihadist narrative.

Oh, and one more point. If Americans are concerned about random acts of terror being committed on U.S. soil, let’s keep things in perspective. The Mass Shooting Tracker has recorded more than 300 mass shooting incidents this year, killing more than 400 Americans and wounding nearly 1,200. Some are school shootings, some are suicide-by-cops, and some are tied to drug violence. I think I’m accurate in stating that only one incident — killing five and wounding two — could be construed as an example of domestic, Islamic-inspired terrorism. I don’t see anyone making sweeping denunciations of mentally unstable white adolescents who predominate among the school shooters, or the unemployed, middle-aged white males who predominate among the suicide-by-cop cases. There is no justification for singling out law-abiding Muslims for special scorn.

Neither is there any defending the bigotry on display in Spotsylvania. All Virginians — especially conservatives — should condemn it.

Increased Density, Increased Costs

Does Virginia really want roads like New Jersey's? Pictured: Hudson County, New Jersey's most populated area.

Does Virginia really want roads like New Jersey’s? Pictured: Hudson County, New Jersey’s most populated area.

By Carol J. Bova

Jim Bacon’s post on November 12th, “Too Little Density, Too Much Road Surface,” concludes that if local zoning policies encouraged higher density population areas, there’d be fewer roads, resulting in lower road maintenance costs. This is urban-centered thinking that assumes only nearby residents use the roads and that none are privately maintained. The idea also overlooks the need to transport locally grown agricultural products, timber and seafood over rural roads to more densely occupied areas. But in addition, we need to examine the study that led to that conclusion.

The Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future road study of New Jersey cited in the Bacon post suggests great savings in road maintenance if there were a minimum of 10 people on each acre. At first glance, that doesn’t seem very dense, but population density is usually referred to in square miles. With 640 acres per square mile, we’re talking about 6,400 people, more than any locality in Virginia except Alexandria.

This must not have seemed extreme for a place like New Jersey, where a 2006 study noted every New Jersey “county in the state is classified by the Census Bureau as ‘metropolitan.’” (Robert E. Wood, Farmland Preservation and Agritourism in South Jersey: An Exploratory Study. ) The Census Bureau uses metropolitan to describe “a core urban area of 50,000 or more population … as well as any adjacent counties that have a high degree of social and economic integration (as measured by commuting to work) with the urban core.”

So how did Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future come up with their numbers? They used different approaches, but in both cases, added the population of a given area to its employment numbers. Smart Growth America eliminated protected land like state parks or wetlands, and computed the amount of road surface per person. New Jersey Future took the population plus employment number and divided by developed square miles to get activity density– after eliminating undeveloped land and excluding roads maintained by the state.

Even without the exclusions, Hudson County, N.J., has a population of 13,731 per square mile. No surprise that Hudson County has the highest activity density in the Smart Growth America report and the lowest per capita road maintenance cost. But per capita cost doesn’t tell the whole story. There is an underlying assumption the New Jersey road maintenance level is adequate. Not true.

Endnote 8 in the Smart Growth America report states that the Reason Foundation said, “…the State of New Jersey spent $42,317 per lane mile on maintenance in 2012.” But the Reason Foundation also said:

• New Jersey ranks 48th in the nation in highway performance and cost-effectiveness, down from 46th in 2009.
• New Jersey ranks 50th in maintenance disbursements per mile and 50th in capital bridge disbursements per mile. in ”New Jersey Transportation by the Numbers” said, “Driving on deficient roads costs New Jersey motorists a total of $11.8 billion annually in the form of additional vehicle operating costs, congestion-related delays and traffic crashes.”

How did lower density Virginia do in Reason Foundation’s 21st Annual Highway Report?

• Virginia ranks 25th in the nation in highway performance and cost-effectiveness, down from 15th in 2009.
• Virginia ranks 32nd in maintenance disbursements per mile and 1st in capital-bridge disbursements per mile. Continue reading

No Easy Route on the Jeff Davis Highway

jeff_davis_highwayby John Szczesny

Kudos to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for putting a human face on Chesterfield County’s plan to revitalize the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor. The RTD’s Pathway to Poverty feature is a sobering look at how poverty and homelessness have made life a daily struggle for so many in the area. It also begs the question of how Chesterfield’s plan will impact the lives of these individuals and families.

The visible signs of blight along the roadway make it easy to overlook how the surrounding area buzzes along as a hive of industrial activity. Not far from the trailer parks and run-down motels exists the most vital cluster of manufacturing employment in the Richmond metro: Dupont, Philip Morris, Kaiser Aluminum and other companies will soon be joined by Chinese-owned Tranlin Paper, which state officials expect to create 2,000 jobs at an average salary of $45,663. There is also the massive Defense Supply Center Richmond (DSCR) complex, scheduled for further expansion by the feds. And just a few miles to the south is the Amazon fulfillment center in Chester which opened in 2012.

County officials deserve their share of credit for these economic development successes. Through incentives and other means they have created an environment conducive to business and job creation.

Yet the industrialization on the edges of Jefferson Davis Highway has not done much to improve conditions for the 11,000 residents in the County’s study area, where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. Chesterfield officials have gone a long way to offer assistance and resources for corporations in the Bermuda district. It is only fair that they offer a similar helping hand to area residents by connecting them with the employment opportunities in their own neighborhood. Workforce training programs would be a win-win for employers and job-seekers, and would help bridge the skills gaps needed for these positions.

Perhaps the thorniest issue for County planners is what to do about land use. It will be tempting to call for zoning revisions to invigorate the Jeff Davis area with new housing and retail projects. Redeveloping underutilized properties along the corridor would make economic sense, create jobs, and boost county tax coffers. But allowing these changes would probably also lead to the demolition of the motels and trailer parks where some of the poorest residents live, often just one missed rent payment away from homelessness. A redevelopment plan that throws these people out on the street without a suitable housing option is immoral and unacceptable.

Chesterfield has taken a noble first step in developing a plan to reverse the decline of the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor. It is now imperative for county officials to make future decisions with an eye towards improving the lives of area residents as opposed to just the built environment.

John Szczesny is a Chesterfield resident, urban planner, and telecommunications consultant.

Too Little Density, Too Much Road Surface

Millions of square feet of underutilized pavement cost millions of dollars per year to maintain.

Millions of square feet of underutilized pavement cost millions of dollars per year to maintain.

by James A. Bacon

It goes without saying that New Jersey is dissimilar from Virginia in many ways, so it’s hazardous extrapolating conclusions from one state to the other. But a new study about New Jersey roads co-authored by Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future implies that the Old Dominion could have saved hundreds of millions of dollars yearly in road maintenance expenses had higher-density development been allowed to occur instead of the scattered, low-density sprawl that characterized so much of the state’s growth after World War II.

Using a novel technique for estimating the surface area of road pavement per capita, researchers found that the most densely developed areas of New Jersey maintain about one-third the pavement surface per capita — about 130 square feet of road surface compared to 423 square feet — as the least densely developed parts of the state.

The conclusion is counter-intuitive. Cities seem to be chock-a-block with streets in a way that rural and suburban areas are not. The key is to look at the space devoted to roads on a per capita basis.

States the study, “The Fiscal Implications of Development Patterns: Roads in New Jersey“:

If for the same population and employment levels, New Jersey had directed development into a smaller land area with at minimum 10 people or jobs per acre (still not very dense — single-family homes on quarter-acres lots would meet the criteria), we estimate that the total area of road New Jersey and its municipalities need to maintain would have been reduced by 36 percent, or approximately 1.9 billion square feet. And assuming an average cost of $0.25 per square foot to maintain the roads, the result would have been a $470 million savings statewide every year.

The analysis draws two broad conclusions: (1) local road maintenance costs per capita decrease as activity density increases, and (2) low-density communities have the most to gain by permitting more density.

Bacon’s bottom line: To get a rough (very rough) idea of what a similar analysis would yield for Virginia, consider that the Old Dominion has about twice as many total lane miles as New Jersey (162,000 compared to 86,000) and that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is budgeted to spend $2 billion a year in 2015 (including city and county street payments) on maintenance.

Of course, it’s impossible to go back and tear up the development of low-density areas of Virginia, so the study is academic to some degree. On the other hand, this kind of analysis should guide future investment. Just as Virginians today are paying for poor policy decisions made over the past five decades, future Virginians will pay for our decisions.

I do quibble with the way the authors state their case: It says these savings could have been achieved had New Jersey “directed” development into denser development patterns. I don’t like the idea of government directing how and where people should live. But that doesn’t change the larger point that denser communities cost less per capita on road maintenance than low-density communities. The way to frame the issue in Virginia is this: Had local zoning policies not directed growth into low density areas, average population densities would be higher, less road would have been required, and maintenance costs would be lower.

Student Debt and the Decline of New Business Formation

by James A. Bacon

Many are the ways in which burgeoning student debt — $1.2 trillion and rising — cripple the economy. On this blog we’ve discussed how debt delays family formation, housing purchases and consumer spending. Recent research from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Board also suggests that student debt dampens new business formation, an insight that ties into another line of inquiry on this blog: understanding the slow rate of job creation in the current economic cycle.

The engine of job creation in the U.S. economy is new business formation. The spawning of new businesses has experienced a long-term decline since 1978, but that decline has been particularly pronounced since 2005. In recent years more firms have exited the marketplace than have entered it, as seen in this Brookings Institution graph below, taken from “Declining Business Dynamism in the United States: A Look at States and Metros,” published in 2014. The numbers may have improved in the past two  years, but probably not enough to change the long-term picture.


I have argued on this blog that the massive wave of regulation enacted in the past six years has dampened the economic recovery by imposing large new costs on businesses. As the regulatory burden has increased, economies of scale have shifted in favor of larger firms which have the resources to deal with the regulations. Numerous industry sectors are consolidating: banking, hospitals and health insurance most visibly. Industry consolidation may be a factor in explaining the decline in overall net business formation but it only goes so far.

The Brookings data shows that the problem isn’t an accelerating death rate of businesses — the exit rate of firms from the economy has remained fairly stable since 1978 — it’s the dearth of business births. I would suggest that regulation has dampened new business formation by creating barriers to entry in many industries.

While I still hew to that view, I think there’s more to the story. There also is strong evidence that the surge in student debt — $1.2 trillion and rising — has depressed new business creation among young people.

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadephia

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadephia. (Click for larger image.)

The authors of the recently published Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia paper, “The Impact of Student Loan Debt on Small Business Formation,” has found a “significant and economically meaningful” negative correlation between geographic variation in student loan debt and net business formation for small firms of one to four employees. “Based on our model, an increase of one standard deviation in student debt reduced the number of businesses with one to four employees by 14% on average between 2000 and 2010.” (Please don’t ask me to define “standard deviation.” Here’s an an explanation.)

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. (Click for larger image.)

Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. (Click for larger image.)

To launch a business, especially a small business, individuals need access to capital, the authors argue. Small businesses receive approximately 75% of this capital from banks in the form of loans, credit cards and lines of credit, which are contingent upon the borrower’s credit-worthiness. “Given the importance of an entrepreneur’s personal debt capacity in financing a startup business, personal debt that is incurred early in life and that restricts a person’s ability to take on future debt can have profound implications for growth in small businesses,” the study says.

The growth in student debt over the past decade has damaged the credit-worthiness of an entire demographic cohort: 17% of student loans are delinquent, and another 44% are not being repaid due to borrowers either still being in school or having received a repayment deferral or forbearance. Even students who are paying their debt on schedule find their credit worthiness downgraded.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial today, the Kauffman Foundation has found that new entrepreneurs ages 20 to 34 fell to 23% of self-starters in 2013, down from 35% in 1996.

The U.S. system of higher education may be creating the best educated generation in American history, but it may be the least entrepreneurial in decades.

As Virginians seek ways to reignite a state economy hobbled by the decline in federal spending and an eroding business climate, we need to give more attention to what it takes to stimulate new business formation. And that should entail taking a closer look at the link between higher ed and student debt, and the link between student debt and new business formation. All the state and federal “programs” designed to promote new business formation, I suspect, don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the rise in student indebtedness. Tackling student indebtedness gets us into a thicket of very complex issues that aren’t easily solved but that’s no excuse for failing to focus on what really matters.

More Sequestration Pain for Virginia


Pentagon burning

by James A. Bacon

The pain of federal budget sequestration cuts in Virginia is not yet over. Look what The Washington Post reports today:

According to the Defense Department research, things are likely to worsen over the next four years. From 2010 to 2012, Virginia experienced $9.8 billion in defense cuts, with the vast majority of losses in Northern Virginia. Direct defense spending in the state is projected to drop from $64 billion this year to under $62 billion in 2019.

That’s only $2 billion in cuts compared to $9.8 billion previously. That sounds bad but not that bad. Actually, it is, says Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia: “If we have the return of sequestration, it’s going to be even worse than it was a couple of years ago, because every agency, particularly the Defense Department, has cleared out most of their coffers.”

I’m not sure exactly what “cleared out their coffers” means, but I’m guessing it means that defense agencies have burned through their budget gimmicks and are planning real cuts.

Adding to the woes, the impact of federal budget cuts will percolate through the rest of the economy. As government contractors consolidate, they’ll need less office space. That puts pressure on lease rates region-wide, there will be less construction work, and the necessary process of restructuring from inefficient and expensive land-use patterns to more cost-effective patterns will drag out. Meanwhile, transportation planning assumptions, predicated on wildly out-of-date assumptions about growth and development, will veer farther and farther from reality.

The rule is so simple: Things that can’t go on forever… won’t. The defense spending boom of the post 9/11 era could not continue forever… and it didn’t. The downturn and all the ugly consequences stemming from it were utterly foreseeable — I’ve been ranting about them for years.

I don’t lose a lot of sleep over real estate developers losing a fortune. They’re big boys and they know how to hedge their bets. (If they don’t, they shouldn’t be in the business.) I’m a lot more worried about the state and local government sinking billions of dollars on infrastructure designed for the go-go 2000s. It is astonishing to me that serious consideration is still being given to the Bi-County Parkway near Manassas, and I have serious questions about the assumptions underpinning the billions of dollars of improvements planned for Interstate 66 and the second leg of the Rail-to-Dulles project. Any project whose revenues are predicated on assumptions of increased traffic, which are based on the 2000s-era economic growth rates extended in a straight-line projection forever, will create nothing but headaches for taxpayers.

The Democratization of Data

Map showing green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Map showing density of green coverage in Tysons. Image credit: UVa Today.

Andrew Mondschein, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, is studying how the redevelopment of Tysons affects the pedestrian experience. The first step is collecting data. Accordingly, he is dispatching students equipped with sensors, wearable cameras and smartphone apps to monitor temperature, light levels, green cover, noise pollution and carbon monoxide emissions in ever nook and cranny of the what he calls the “archetypal American edge city.”

The goal of Fairfax County planners is to transform the autocentric mix of offices, shopping malls and plate-of-spaghetti road network from the epitome of suburban sprawl into a smart-growth poster of mixed-use development and pedestrian-friendly streets.


Map showing intensity of illumination.

“Tysons Corner is on the forefront of transforming suburban places into more urban places and all that entails,” says Mondscheinin an article published in UVa Today. “For city and urban planners, it is exciting, because if we densify suburbs we could reduce driving and emissions, provide more housing and make transit, walking and biking easier and more pleasant – hopefully improving public and environmental health. The Tysons Corner project embodies all of these wonderful goals.”

The data collected by students will provide on-the-ground measures of the pedestrian experience as Tysons evolves.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Map showing temperature variations in Tysons.

Mondschein says other communities can do the same thing. “With devices like these, communities could self-organize and self-initiate studies that can show what they need in an objective manner, with hard data. That can be arguably more persuasive when speaking to policymakers, fundraisers and politicians.”

(Hat tip: John Blair)


Zoning for Solar

transmission_scale_solarby William Marsh

Want to see more solar energy in Virginia? There many ways to tackle the challenge. One that typically gets overlooked is for local governments to amend their zoning ordinances to be friendlier to larger scale (transmission scale) solar generation of electricity.

Solar power can be generated either for private use on a property, through a net metering arrangement that allows for sale of small quantities of power to be sold to the electric grid, or through a large-scale array that dispatches electricity to transmission lines. The third use, transmission scale, is best suited for locations near existing transmission lines and substations where voltage exceeds 138 kilovolts. Typically, projects require an adjacent substation that raises electrical voltage to match the transmission line’s voltage. (Transmission lines are the wires suspended from tall towers that convey power from power plants, often across state boundaries, as opposed to the shorter, more ubiquitous power lines.)

The right kind of zoning ordinance can simplify the adoption of large-scale solar projects connected to the transmission grid. When Amazon Web Services recently announced plans to build a solar farm in Accomack County, the local zoning ordinance explicitly recognized solar power generation and provided a predictable permit approval process. Accomack is one of three counties, along with Northampton and Clarke County, that has amended its zoning ordinance in the past five years to accommodate transmission-scale solar.

Whether other local jurisdictions are prepared to permit similar transmission- scale solar is less clear. For example, in Loudoun County where I reside, a transmission-scale solar project is permitted only on land that is zoned general industry or heavy industrial use, where any transmission-scale energy project like coal, natural gas, or nuclear is allowed, even though solar generation produces power with less noise, pollution and other side effects than conventional power generation. When added to non-forested open land with gentle slopes, solar power has little if any effect on neighboring parcels, because neither noise nor pollution is generated.

When transmission-scale solar power is bundled with other transmission-scale resources in zoning ordinances, less land within a jurisdiction is deemed eligible for transmission-scale solar development. Potential solar developers endure less predictable, more cumbersome political level approvals from boards of supervisors. Solar developers also must also seek permits from the State Corporation Commission and PJM regional transmission organization, so local permits are not their only hurdle. But the hurdle in Virginia often is higher than it needs to be.

North Carolina has also recognized this hurdle. In December 2013, a diverse working group sponsored by the NC Sustainable Energy Association and North Carolina Solar Center published the “Template Solar Energy Development Ordinance for North Carolina.” The model ordinance provides text to fit smaller scale, residential scale solar approvals; community/commercial solar scale; and the larger, transmission-scale projects described here. Among other details, it addresses maximum suggested height of a ground-mounted module and minimum setbacks, or distances, from neighboring properties. The ordinance template is available to all interested North Carolina jurisdictions and was published after North Carolina had already surpassed Virginia and other neighboring states in solar installations.

Virginia should develop a similar model ordinance that can draw from solar-ready ordinances already adopted in Accomack, Northampton, and Clarke Counties. I believe this would be a worthwhile effort of the newly approved Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority.

William Marsh is a civil engineer who has worked for local government in northern Virginia the last 13 years, currently at Fairfax County.  He also owns a rooftop solar array at his home.

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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