Category Archives: Politics

More Mob Rule in Charlottesville

Charlottesville City Council loses control.

Charlottesville City Council loses control.

On Monday the Charlottesville City Council broke down in disorder. Sean Tubbs, reporter for Charlottesville Tomorrow live blogged the anarchy but the incident got little media attention otherwise. Louis Schultz, who attended the meeting to address the council, emailed me this account of the event. Although he did not write with the intention of having it published, I reproduce it here with his permission. — JAB

A large group of people fresh from a march on D.C. went to the meeting to talk about police contact with minorities, racial profiling etc. Their message was one that I wholeheartedly agree with. My viewpoint is general left/center with a few radical deviations in both directions.

Council allows for 12 people to sign up for matters by the public. Each is alloted 3 minutes to speak.

Wes Bellamy, an African-American high school teach and former City Council candidate spoke first. His time ended and he was allowed to go on for several minutes over time.

Second (pretty sure, but my memory may not be perfect) was a girl who said she was 12 years old. She spoke on a similar topic from her perspective as a kid. She also went several minutes over time with nothing but smiles from Councilors.

no_justice_no_peaceBoth Bellamy and the girl were loudly cheered on by the crowd including me, which, by the way, is not really allowed by Council rules.

John Heyden, a Council meeting regular, spoke third, maybe fourth. He at times asks interesting questions, but frequently couches them in racial terms that I think interferes with his message, which is never a popular one. I generally disagree with his position, even if I think the questions should be addressed. At the very least, I believe he ought to be free to ask them if he pleases.

As Mr. Heyden walked to the microphone, audience members who recognized him began to yell at him. Mayor Satyendra Huja very weakly tried to quiet that, but it quickly escalated as he spoke. He was completely shut down by yelling but he tried to speak over it and said he intended to finish. The crowd started to yell that his time was up even while time remained for him to speak. I did not participate in any of that, I thought it was way out of line.

heydenAs the three-minute mark arrived, Councilor Kristin Szakos (self described community organizing advocate and wife of Joe Szakos of the VA Organizing Project) started saying that his time was up. Mayor Huja also said that. Mr. Heyden tried to continue until he was finished and at that point, Mayor Huja called the police officer who is supposed to keep order at meetings to the front to take Mr. Heyden away.

Comments continued with many more people going over time, myself included. No one else was called out for going over time and no one else was taken away by the police. After the regular comment period ended, the mob essentially took over the meeting, with no effort by the Mayor other Councilors or the police to restore order. The mob took over for somewhere around 30 minutes.

I heard a snippet of a radio interview with Councilor Kristin Szakos on Monday. She said that she didn’t think the mob takeover was a problem since they said things Council needed to hear. No mention that I heard of what she did to Mr. Heyden.

December 15 2014 Charlottesville City Council meeting archive on video here.

This episode reveals a little-remarked schism in the progressive-liberal coalition. Charlottesville has one of the most liberal governing bodies in Virginia, yet African-Americans are dissatisfied with the way the city treats them. They’re unhappy with the police and with the social services department. I have no idea whether their grievances are justified, although, I have to say, their disruptive behavior and disrespect for the rights of others does make me question their objectivity.

The top concern of many white Charlottesville residents is the cluster of issues surrounding global warming and the environment. That’s far from a top priority of African-Americans. As one speaker said, “I don’t want to hear any more about making the city green until we get this [race] problem solved.”

– JAB

Is McAuliffe Crying Wolf on the Economy?

naval shipyard By Peter Galuszka

Just how bad is the Virginia economy, really?

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who released a rather modest state budget proposal just a few days ago, has said that the state’s economic picture is bleak because of government spending cuts, most of them at the U.S. Department of Defense, the state’s largest employer, and at other agencies.

“We’re looking down the barrel of a gun,” he told reporters, noting that automatic cuts in federal spending due to sequestration and the run-down of military spending after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are badly hurting the state.

There are two curious points. The Washington Post notes that McAuliffe had based some of his gloomy thinking after revenues dipped by $439 million earlier this year. This relates to the $2.4 billion shortfall in the biannual budget. Now, says Finance Secertary Ric Brown, revenues have picked up as the governor and lawmakers have worked to close the shortfall.

There is also a story in this morning’s The Virginian-Pilot that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (located in Portsmouth, actually) plans to hire some 1,500 workers by this coming September. This will be a net gain of 800 workers making about $21 an hour. The other 700 workers will be to replace retiring ones.

The shipyard, which can handle work on large nuclear ships like aircraft carriers, has a total workforce of 9,500 and the extra hires will take it past 10,000, the highest number since the early 1990s. Most of the new jobs are in skilled trades such as welding and ship fitting.

The Pilot reports that Hampton Roads will lose a total of 18,000 skilled workers by the end of the decade as older employees retire. Replacing them should help mitigate the cuts in federal spending and McAuliffe is doing the right thing by focusing on jobs training and credentialing that will boost high-paying blue collar jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.

The state’s 23 community colleges are working to come up with a plan required by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, passed this year, to streamline training and make sure that trained workers pass certain requirements.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recently issued a scathing report on just how disjointed job training is in the state. It said that there was no system to track how $341 million was spent in state workforce training programs and that only 16 percent of the companies in the state use it. The new federal law may help change that by requiring states to come up with four-year plans on coordinating training.

It could be that McAuliffe is crying wolf to shake up the General Assembly before it convenes Jan. 14. He’s doing just that by including funding Medicaid in his budget again and by calling for restrictions on gun sales (needed). But it may be important to keep in mind that things may not be all that bad, economically.

Keeping Them Fed

Sloppin' them hogs!

Sloppin’ them hogs!

By Peter Galuszka

Here’s a little touch of cartoon humor courtesy of our friends over at the Blue Virginia blog. An artist was apparently was inspired by one of my postings from a couple weeks ago.

Enjoy!

Feds Back Lengthy Prison Term for McDonnell

Image: Verdict Reached In Corruption Trial Of Former Virginia Governor McDonnell And His WifeBy Peter Galuszka

Spotlighting once again just what a parallel universe Virginians live in, federal probation officers have recommended an unusually lengthy sentence for Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican who was the first present or former governor  ever to be convicted of public corruption in the Old Dominion.

The recommended sentence is a minimum of 10 years and one month with the maximum being 12 years and seven months. If U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer follows the recommendations, which statistics show is likely during sentencing Jan. 6, McDonnell could technically be in jail until he is past 70 years old.

The irony, according to The Washington Post, is that McDonnell could have gotten a maximum sentence of three years and a minimum of probation had he accepted a plea deal a year ago. He could have pleaded guilty to lying on a bank application. His co-defendant, wife Maureen who was also convicted of corruption, would never have been charged had the deal gone through.

The federal process for recommending sentences is regarded as a thorough and rigorous process. It shows just how serious the convictions against McDonnell are.

This reality is in marked contrast to the series of opinions and wishful thinking one reads in the blogosphere (and here as well) that McDonnell is an innocent who was framed. Among the ideas are that the conviction is tainted because in one instance star prosecution witness Jonnie R. Williams gave conflicting information during his four days of testimony.

A more bizarre idea is that Spencer, a Reagan appointee, is conflicted because McDonnell and other Republican legislators voted down his wife’s nomination for a state supreme court judgeship back in the 1990s.

I gather they can all float away in their sea of delusions. We had to endure their insistence that there was no case against the McDonnells because everybody does it and this is Virginia. Well, the jury didn’t buy it and didn’t take all that long to come back with ringing guilty verdicts. Now federal probation officers are reminding us once again about what we’re really dealing with.

Spotlight in McDonnell Trial Shifts to Judge Spencer

Judge James Spencer

Judge James Spencer

Hmmm…. It turns out that Judge James Spencer, the judge who presided over the trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell, is married to Judge Margaret P. Spencer — whom McDonnell voted against in 1997 when she was nominated in an unsuccessful bid for appointment to the Virginia Supreme Court. Republican/ conservative bloggers are wondering if Mr. Spencer’s overwhelmingly consistent rulings against McDonnell on points of law and his framing of jury instructions reflect personal animus on his part. At the very least, they are asking, did the judge have a conflict of interest?

I don’t know enough to say one way or another. I’d like to know more about that 1997 vote. If McDonnell had been prominently involved in defeating Ms. Spencer’s Supreme Court judgeship, the conflict-of-interest idea might have merit. If he was but one of fifty or so members of the House of Delegates who voted against her in a party-line vote, it’s more difficult to imagine that Mr. Spencer bore a grudge.

What’s also interesting is that in the wall-to-wall coverage of the trial — including the judge’s rejection of the McDonnell defense team’s numerous legal gambits — none of the media took note of this potential conflict. The issue came to light only when raised yesterday by Will Houp at WAVY TV. (His story here contains some details of the 1997 nominating controversy.)

It’s also worth asking why the story surfaced now, just a month before McDonnell’s sentencing. Did Houp just pick up scuttlebutt in the legal community? Or did McDonnell’s defense team leak this information to apply pressure on Spencer to stop leaning so hard against McDonnell?

– JAB

Big Energy’s Conspiracy with Attorneys General

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller --toady for Big Energy

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller –toady for Big Energy

By Peter Galuszka

What seems to be strong opposition to a host of initiatives by President Barack Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curtail carbon and other forms of pollution is no mere coincidence.

According to a deeply reported story in Sunday’s New York Times, some state attorneys general, most of them Republicans, are part of what seems to be a covert conspiracy to oppose carbon containment rules in letters ghost-written by energy firms.

And, there’s a big Virginia connection in former Democratic Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller and George Mason University which have been bankrolled by conservative and Big Energy money for years.

The cabal has drawn its modus operandi from the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the ultra-right, oil-rich Koch Brothers of Kansas. In that case, ALEC prepares “templates” of nearly identical legislation that fits the laissez-faire market and anti-government and regulation principles held dear by the energy and other big industries. Many marquee-name corporations such as Pepsi, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble have dropped their ALEC membership  after public outcries.

In the case of the attorneys general, big petroleum firms like Devon Energy Corporation of Oklahoma draft letters opposing proposals that might hurt their profits such as ones to regulate methane, which can be a dangerous and polluting result of hydraulic fracking for natural gas. The Times notes that Oklahoma Atty. Gen. E. Scott Pruitt then took Devon’s letter and, almost-word-for-word, submitted it in his “comments” opposing EPA’s proposed rules on regulating fracking and methane.

The secretive group involves a great deal of interplay involving the Republican Governor’s Association which, of course, helps channel big bucks campaign contribution to acceptable, pro-business attorneys general. In 2006 and 2010, Greg Abbott of Texas got more than $2.4 million from the group. Former Virginia Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli got $174,5638 during his 2009 campaign.

One not-so-strange bedfellow is former Virginia Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller who was in office from 1970 to 1977 and is now 82 years-old. He’s been very business promoting energy firms. As the Times writes:

Andrew P. Miller, a former attorney general of Virginia, has in the years since he left office built a practice representing major energy companies before state attorneys general, including Southern Company and TransCanada, the entity behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The New York Times collected emails Mr. Miller sent to attorneys general in several states.

“Mr. Miller approached Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma in April 2012, with the goal of helping to encourage Mr. Pruitt, who then had been in office about 18 months, to take an even greater role in serving as a national leader of the effort to block Obama administration environmental regulations.

“Mr. Miller worked closely with Mr. Pruitt, and representatives from an industry-funded program at George Mason, to organize a summit meeting in Oklahoma City that would assemble energy industry lobbyists, lawyers and executives to have closed-door discussions with attorneys general. The companies that were invited, such as Devon Energy, were in most cases also major campaign donors to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

“Mr. Miller asked [West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey] to help push legislation opposing an Obama administration plan to regulate carbon emissions from existing coal-burning power plants. Legislation nearly identical to what Mr. Miller proposed was introduced in the West Virginia Legislature and then passed. Mr. Morrisey disputed any suggestion that he played a role.”

Not only that, but George Mason has an energy study center that is bankrolled by Big Energy and tends to produce policy studies of what the energy firms want. It also has the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank bankrolled by the Koch Brothers.

So, when you see what seems to be a tremendous outcry against badly needed regulations to curb carbon emissions and make sure that fracking is safe, it may not be an accident. And, it comes from attorneys general who should be protecting the interests of average residents in their states instead of being toadies for Big Energy.

Suddenly, It’s Raining Gas Projects and Tax Breaks

Anti-Pipeline By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly it seems to be raining natural gas pipelines and snowing millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives for rich electric utilities.

Dominion Resources, the powerful and politically well-connected Richmond-based utility, apparently is getting $30 million in public money from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission without apparently asking for it to help build a new natural gas-fired generating plant in Brunswick County. The information was broken by the Associated Press.

Largesse for Dominion stretches to the other side of the Potomac River as well. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Calvert County Md., where Dominion has approval to convert a liquefied natural gas facility to handle natural gas exports, is going to give the utility about $560 million in tax credits.

And, back in Virginia, controversial is growing over the $5 billion natural pipeline that Virginia and three other southern utilities are planning to take natural gas drilled by hydraulic fracking methods from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has drawn criticism from environmentalists who fear that gas is not the cleaner panacea to coal that many think. Landowners complain that Dominion and its powerful Richmond law firm, McGuireWoods, are using strong arm methods to force their way on their land to survey possible routes.

mountain valley pipelineYet another pipeline – this one doesn’t involve Dominion – is drawing concern in southwestern Virginia. The $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline that would likewise begin in the fracked gaslands of northern West Virginia and head south west of Roanoke and then cut to the small town of Chatham.

The complaints are the same as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – green concerns about leaking methane and the threat of bulldozing bucolic private land by companies using eminent domain.

The Mountain Valley project is being spearheaded by EQT Corp. of Pittsburgh and NextEra Energy of Florida.

So what gives? Utilities like Dominion are using more gas, namely at its new Brunswick County natural gas plant and at an older coal-fired station that’s been converted at Bremo Bluffs on the James River. But how much gas does it actually need?

In the case of Cove Point, Dominion notes that the plant has been importing LNG from places like Northern Africa and Scandinavia for decades although imports have come to a spot given the glut of cheap, domestic gas.

Dominion, which bought the facility about a decade ago, can get gas from an older pipeline that for years has linked the Chesapeake Bay area with gasfields in Pennsylvania where some of the fracking for new product is occurring. Dominion can also tap gas from the venerable Transco Pipeline that for decades has transported gas the traditional way – from the Gulf State processing stations to the northeast.

Dominion says it already has contracts to export gas – from where it comes domestically – to utilities in Japan and India. But when one looks at the spaghetti-like twirl of all of the proposed new pipelines, one wonders what the game really is.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has a leg that bounds over to Hampton Roads from near the North Carolina border. Dominion says that this one will help supply one of its pipeline partners with gas because it serves South Hampton Roads. Ok, fine, but it might also serve another new LNG export facility in that area that has perfect deep water conditions for such a facility.

And, as some environmentalists and property owners wonder, why couldn’t the energy companies tap rights of way near existing pipelines? Why can’t existing pipelines be expanded? Go back to the utilities and they say they don’t know exactly where the pipelines will go.

That is very curious. While they don’t know where mega-billion project projects are going to go, they seem to be getting tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in public funds and tax breaks to help them proceed with the Brave New World of natural gas.

 

Virginia’s Very Own Keystone XL

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

The rise of natural gas keeps raising more questions about the proper future of Virginia’s and the nation’s energy policies. What just a little while ago seemed a benign source of energy has gushed into a mass of controversy and advantage.

One focus of the conflict – good and bad – is the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Dominion Transmission and three other southern utilities want to build from the booming natural gas fracklands of northern West Virginia, across sensitive Appalachian terrain and on through Virginia and North Carolina.

The pipeline is unusual since it doesn’t follow the usual post World War II path – Gulf States to the industrial northeast — but it shows just how the U.S. energy picture is being turned on its head.

People in West Virginia have faced the raw end of energy issues for a century and a half, but it is a new matter for the bucolic areas of Nelson County and some of Virginia’s most pristine and appealing mountain country.

Here is a story I wrote for Style Weekly on the promises and problems of Virginia’s very own Keystone XL.

More Evidence of Parallel Universe!

By Peter Galuszka

Front Page, today’s Richmond Times Dispatch:

“Judge tosses one conviction against Maureen McDonnell

He finds evidence does not warrant obstruction verdict”

Page B-1, The Washington Post:

“McDonnells’ request for retrial denied

VA. EX-GOVERNOR, WIFE FACING PRISON TIME

Judge  throws out one count against former first lady”

And in which universe do you live?

My Drive Through Two West Virginias

A natural gas well fire in nothern West Virginia

A natural gas well fire in northern West Virginia

 By Peter Galuszka

It was a biting eight degrees when I hit the road in Beckley, W.Va. last Wednesday morning having held a book signing and given a talk in Charleston the night before.

I wanted to drive two hours up to Harrison County, where my family lived from 1962 to 1969, and see what had changed. I hadn’t been there in a few years.

Harrison and neighboring counties Doddridge and Lewis had long been coalfield areas along with natural gas. Coal had pretty much played out after the 1980s but there are still some big mines. Its real claim to fame is the underground rock formation ideal for glass-making. In the 1890s, it had attracted hundreds of craftsmen from Italy who made Clarksburg an important glass center and home to the locally-famous “Pepperoni Roll” – a small loaf of bread with a long stick of pepperoni inside.

As I drove up Interstate 79, I noticed the first signs of the area’s most recent transformation. There were plenty of oversized truck rigs with oddly-shaped machines. A number carried long steel pipes.

When I drove on familiar roads, I noticed that small lots that might have stored strip coal mine gear were all now filled with bright-orange wellheads. Davisson Run, a small creek where we used to hunt for frogs, is now near a large new building for Dominion Transmission — yes, that Dominion based in Richmond — which plans a $5 billion natural gas pipeline from the area through Virginia and North Carolina.

Welcome to Fracking Central. This part of northern West Virginia is booming thanks the Marcellus Shale formation rich with hard-to-get natural gas. In just a few years, hydraulic fracking, using high pressure water and powerful chemicals to fracture underground gas pockets and pump them out, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

My mission (which failed) was to find a woman living in a rural house in the rolling hills and dairy farms of western Harrison County. She had been on YouTube two years ago complaining how her neighbor had sold gas rights and turned pleasant pastureland into an obnoxious industrial site with all-night floodlights and diesel generators roaring 24/7. Huge trucks carrying water for high pressure injection clogged narrow county roads.

I drove through Salem, a tiny college town, and noticed signs reading “Antero Resources” that reminded truck drivers supplying rigs to drive slowly and not to “Jake Brake” – use brakes on some trucks that make a loud, machine gun sound as they tap engine exhaust to slow down.

Antero Resources was a big clue. They are an independent gas and oil firm based in Denver that has hit the fracking craze in a big way. They have rights to something like 384,000 acres of gasland in the surrounding area. Having gone public only recently, the company has revenues that have zoomed from $195 million in 2011 to $259 million in 2012 to $689 million last year.

Antero has had its problems. In July 2013, “flowback” material from a Doddridge Count well exploded, badly burning five workers and killing two. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a case operations order to Antero because of tank ruptures. The firm has also been accused of released methane into the private wells of 12 individuals.

I couldn’t find out if some are enjoying the economic benefits of fracking. One reads of people suddenly drawing $1 million a year in royalties. I did notice was that there was a lot more drilling support activity and more shopping malls.

My road trip was in marked contrast to one I had taken the day before in the southern part of West Virginia.

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

I was on my way to give a talk in Charleston about the paperback edition of my book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” I had the time so I chose to head up fateful Route 3 through the Coal River Valley where I have spent a lot of time in the past four years.

Route 3 in Raleigh County is a lot different from any road in Harrison County. The peaks are taller, steeper with more distinct hollers. Rock outcrops jam out at you, unlike the gently rolling hills of the north. The late fall sun is dramatically restricted.

This is the road that suddenly became flooded with ambulance and fire trucks on April 5, 2010. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine owned by then-Richmond-based Massey Energy killed 29 miners. Before then, it had been Ground Zero in the environmentalists’ vigorous war against Mountaintop Removal, which is strip mining on an obscenely large scale. Hundreds of feet of mountaintops are lopped off by gigantic drag lines. The leftover dirt and trees are dumped into creek beds destroying habitat.

I headed north along Big Coal River, which is anything but. Its valley provides just enough space for a road and a CSX rail line in some areas. I went past the new Marsh Fork Elementary School that Massey Energy was forced to build to replace one a few miles away that was threatened by its mine operations.

There was Jarrett’s store (new sign) where bystanders watched all the police cars and ambulances that fateful April day. Soon, the old Marsh Fork school appears. It had been a focus of yet another battle over coal but today it is abandoned and fenced in. Its playground is close to huge coal storage towers. Soaring above them is an earthen dam holding back a lake with about 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

There was very little activity – odd since the coal of the valley is the best in the world. Then it came – Upper Big Branch mine – lifeless. It was sealed after the disaster. Past roads with signs reading “Ambulance entrance” there was the portal where the UBB miners came and went. There is a lonely memorial of 29 black helmets at the base of a steel tower. Another memorial to them is a few miles north at Whitesville – a classic coal town filled with empty stores, although the florist shop is still busy.

No coal trucks, no pickups, for miles. The only activity was at the Elk Run deep mine at the very top of Route 3.

Why? One reason is that fracked natural gas from Harrison County and its region is stealing electric utility market share away from coal.

The other reason is Asia’s economic slowdown. Coal River and UBB provide metallurgical coal used for export to smelt steel in foreign mills. (They don’t anything to do with “Keeping Our Lights On” as the pro-coal propagandists say.) Met coal can be enormously lucrative but its prices are down two thirds from three years ago.

That’s bad news for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey for $7 billion after the disaster. Alpha is in such bad straits that hedge funds are lining its stock up for shorting trades, according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Well, that’s my road trip. Not to worry, though, I’ll be back soon. The criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship, former Massey CEO and otherwise known as “The Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” starts Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Beckley.