Category Archives: Public safety & health

A Different Kind of Police-Kill-Unarmed-Black-Youth Story

Brown and Cobb

Paterson Brown Jr. and David L. Cobb. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Chesterfield County has its own cop-shooting-and-killing-an-unarmed-black-youth story, but it has generated little controversy — presumably because the police officer was himself black, thus side-stepping the racist-white-cop narrative. It is instructive to read the account of court testimony in the policeman’s trial to get a sense of the ambiguous situations in which police find themselves forced to make life-and-death decisions.

Here are the basic facts based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s coverage of the trial: David L. Cobb, an off-duty, 47-year-old Chesterfield police officer, was getting his girlfriend’s car washed at the Better Vision Detail & Car Spa on Midlothian Turnpike when 18-year-old Paterson Brown Jr. inexplicably hopped into the vehicle. Cobb confronted Brown, struggling to open the door as Brown tried to close it. Observing that the teenager was acting strangely and incoherently, apparently from drug use, Cobb announced that he was a police officer and warned him four times to stay still. At one point, Brown leaned back and said, “I don’t f— with cops” but he did not comply. When Brown moved his left hand across his waist, Cobb believed that he was reaching for a gun. He shot the youth in the pelvis, severing a vital artery and killing him. As it turned out the youth was unarmed.

The prosecutor argued that Brown’s act of reaching across the waist “does not give you the right to use deadly force.”

But David Baugh, a black attorney who has represented five other Richmond-area officers in use-of-force killings, countered that every officer (1) is responsible for stopping a crime when he or she sees it, and (2) fears for his or her life when approaching a vehicle.

“He doesn’t have a right to walk away,” Baugh said. “He took an oath. It’s his moral duty to stick his nose in it.” To convict Cobb, he told the jury, prosecutors “have to convince you there’s no reason to be scared.” Brown set the tone with his bizzare behavior, glaring at Cobb after the officer spotted him inside the car. “Is he reasonable to be fearful? Yes. [Officers] all know.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Police officers have every reason to fear that young men acting strangely and actively resisting direct commands might pull out a gun and shoot. Forty-five law enforcement personnel, two of them in Virginia, have been killed in the line of duty so far this year. Cobb had to make a split-second decision. He made the wrong decision. Indeed, Cobb was so remorseful that he broke down sobbing while testifying in court and the judge had to suspend proceedings for ten minutes while he composed himself. But Cobb did not create the situation. Brown did. And, while his death was tragic and out of proportion to anything he did wrong, he brought it upon himself.

After a two-decade decline, violent crime is on the upswing. Ironically, most of it is black-on-black crime — a perverse result of the “Ferguson effect” in which police dial back their interventions and the Black Lives Matter movement which has encouraged black youths to distrust police and resist arrest. To revive a phrase from the 1960s, I’m on the side of “law and order.” If I were on Cobb’s jury, I would not vote to convict. And, if the T-D‘s account is fair summary of the facts presented, I’ll bet his jury won’t either.

Coal Ash, Parts Per Billion, and Risk

PP_coal_ash

Coal ash ponds at Possum Point before Dominion Virginia Power started draining the ponds and consolidating the coal ash.

Kudos to Robert Zullo with the Richmond Times-Dispatch for digging beneath the dueling press releases to shed light on the contamination risks that coal ash ponds pose to drinking water. Focusing on the carcinogenic chemical hexavalent chromium, which has been detected in well water near Dominion Virginia Power’s Possum Point Power Station, he broaches key questions: How much of the chemical is too much? What level should the state permit?

Other questions he touched upon in passing: If hexavalent chromium exists in well water, how did it get there? Did it come from the coal ash ponds, or does it occur naturally in minute quantities?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a drinking-water standard of 100 parts per billion for chromium, which Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has adopted as its own standard. However, hexavalent chromium is widely regarded as a more dangerous version of the metal. California has set a separate limit of 10 parts per billion for drinking water for that compound, Zullo reports, reflecting a balance between health risks and the cost to water utilities of meeting the level.

Dealing with its own coal ash problem, the state of North Carolina conducted tests last year of well water within 1,500 feet of coal ash basins, using a standard of 0.07 parts per billion, which it determined was associated with a “potential one-in-a-million cancer risk for an average person drinking this water over an average lifetime.” Tarheel regulators issued several hundred “do not drink” letters to private well owners last year. Critics contended that the 0.07 parts-per-billion level was so strict that even municipal water systems could not meet it, and the state reversed course, telling residents that their well water was “just as safe as the majority of public water supplies in the country.”

The issue surfaced in Virginia when DEQ tested seven private wells near Possum Point and found hexavalent chromium in one — 5 parts per billion, right at the state’s reporting limit. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) commissioned other tests and found another house where the chemical was found at a 1.2 parts-per-billion level.

SELC argues that DEQ should use testing methods that identify the chemical at levels lower than its 5 parts-per-billion standard. Said Greg Buppert, an SELC attorney: “This is a human carcinogen and we should be looking at it at lower concentrations, because we know it’s a concern.”

Bacon’s bottom line: What we’re talking about here is measuring minutes quantities of hexavalent chromium and parsing minute risks. From my (admittedly primitive) understanding, there is no known level above which a given chemical in the drinking water is dangerous and below which it is “safe.” We’re dealing with a continuum in which the statistical risk diminishes with smaller concentrations of the chemical. North Carolina’s level of 0.07 poses a risk of one-in-a-million people getting cancer after a lifetime of drinking the water. That’s crazily low. Even if hundreds of households drank the well water for years, the odds are remote that a single person would get cancer from the chemical.

One must balance that against the cost of eliminating that risk, which in Dominion’s service territory could approach $3 billion. If Virginia rate payers kept that money, what would they do with the money? Presumably, they would spend it on other things. Sure, they might buy a bigger house or purchase more movie tickets. But they also might purchase safer cars, have more frequent medical check-ups, eat healthier food, or join a health club. When we take money from people, whether through taxes or regulation, we fail to take into account the fact that we deprive them of the means to mitigate every-day risks to their health and safety.

Life is full of risks but we as a society say we can live with them. The Virginian-Pilot reports today on a fluke accident in which a beach umbrella on Virginia Beach was blown loose from its moorings in the sand and struck a woman, killing her. Should we ban beach umbrellas to offset the risk of umbrella impalements?

On the other hand, Virginia’s legal limit for hexavalent chromium is more than 100 times North Carolina’s one-in-a-million level. Assuming a straight-line correlation between the hexavalent chromium level and the risk it poses, that implies a one-in-ten-thousand risk or greater for Virginians drinking contaminated well water. That sounds like enough risk to justify having a conversation. Continue reading

Justifiable Jitters or Unwarranted Worry?

Leslie Hartz, the Dominion executive in charge of pipeline construction shows the width of steel to be used in smaller-diameter sections of pipe.

Leslie Hartz, the Dominion executive in charge of pipeline construction, shows the width of steel to be used in smaller-diameter sections of pipe.

Virginians living in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline fret about the threat of explosions. Dominion Transmission says their fears are overblown.

by James A. Bacon

Irene Leech, a consumer studies professor at Virginia Tech, grew up on a farm in Buckingham County where her family has raised beef for more than a hundred years. The family has preserved many of the original structures, including the old ice house, granary and smokehouse. Her husband, she says, devotes half his time to help keep the farm going. “Our plan is to retire to the farmhouse. Our goal is to pass on a sustainable business to the next generation.”

But Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, has thrown her for a loop. The company wants to route a high-pressure transmission pipeline through the farm. While Leech acknowledges that the odds of gas leaking and igniting anywhere near her are remote, if the gas does explode, the farmhouse and outbuildings are within the danger zone.

“From my perspective, they put my life at risk, all our property, all our heritage,” says Leech. “I know the odds of something happening are very, very small. But I had a brother killed in a farm accident. My grandmother died in an accident. My husband was working for the Pentagon on 9/11. I was at Virginia Tech during the mass shooting. Things happen. We’ll have to live with the risk for the rest of time.”

Leech is just one of thousands of residents along the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) who worry about the safety risks. Like many others, she remains unpersuaded by Dominion assurances that the ACP will incorporate the latest, greatest technology, best practices, and specifications that exceed federal safety standards. Running pipe on the steep slopes and through sinkhole-ridden karst geology of the mountainous Nelson and Augusta counties poses issues that pipelines don’t encounter in less rugged terrain.

“The possibility of an explosion is the really frightening thing,” she says. “You can come up with statistics that make it seem very remote. The problem is, if it occurs, it’s really deadly.”

Dominion responds that it is pushing the envelope of industry best practices to ensure the safe operation of the pipeline, which, if approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), would run from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina. “We’re a safety first company,” says Dominion Transmission spokesman Aaron Ruby. That’s not a P.R. slogan, he insists. An emphasis on safety permeates the organizational culture and informs everything the company does.

Dominion makes every reasonable effort to accommodate landowners like Leech, says Ruby. The company has offered to re-route the pipeline from an 800-foot distance from her farmhouse to 1,900 feet, he says, “but she has refused to let us survey her property to see if the alternative is suitable.”

In the meantime, the company is designing safety into pipeline construction and operations at every step, says Leslie Hartz, vice president of pipeline construction. The quality-control process entails a rigorous inspection protocol for fabricating the pipe in the mill, and then X-ray and hydrostatic testing of pipes and welding in the field. When up and running, ACP will use robots to inspect the pipe interior and will deploy aerial patrols and sensors to monitor the exterior. If conditions deviate from narrowly defined parameters, operators will not hesitate to shut down the pipeline.

Pipelines co-exist with people all around the country, and hardly anyone thinks about it, says Ruby. As an example in Virginia, he cites Lake Monticello, a bedroom community in the Charlottesville metropolitan region with a 2010 population of almost 10,000. “Lake Monticello …. developed over many decades alongside four large-diameter natural gas pipelines!”

The Big Picture

Interstate gas pipelines are the safest mode of energy transportation, says Catherine Landry, a spokesperson for the Interstate Natural Gas Alliance of America (INGAA). “Last year 99.999997% of gas moved without incident.” That compares very favorably to moving propane or petroleum by truck or rail. Continue reading

McAuliffe’s Dangerous Game

by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, when he helped run L. Douglas Wilder’s history-making gubernatorial campaign, Paul Goldman was regarded as a progressive voice in Virginia politics. If he writes many more op-eds like the one published Sunday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he could well become anathema to progressives. Not because he has changed his principles, mind you, but because progressives have come to toss around accusations of racism with such reckless abandon.

Goldman’s topic was Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring full civil and voting rights to 206,000 felons convicted of both violent and non-violent crimes. The Richmond attorney and political activist makes two critical points that dovetail with my critique of contemporary progressivism.

One is that McAuliffe’s defenders make unsupported accusations of racism and discrimination that only “make it harder for those fighting for honest change.” Specifically, Goldman tackles the notion that Article II, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution — “no person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority” — was intentionally written to disenfranchise African-Americans.

To the contrary, notes Goldman, disenfranchisement of felons dates back to colonial times when only white men were allowed to vote. Moreover, Virginia civil rights legend Oliver Hill reviewed and approved the provision for inclusion in the 1971 Virginia constitution.

A second point is that the people who get so agitated about the injustice done to felons are remarkably quiet about the injustices the felons inflicted upon their victims. While felons in Virginia are disproportionately African-American, so are crime victims.

As Goldman writes, “For the government to suggest a victim or loved one is anti-black because she opposes automatic restoration [of civil rights] without any showing of contrition is unjustified. It demeans the victim.”

A strong case can be made that the process of restoring rights to non-violent felons should be made easier — no individual petition necessary. But blanket restoration for violent felons without giving the victim an opportunity for input or any requirement for the predator to show contrition should be prohibited, Goldman writes. “The petitioning process must not itself be punitive. Yet it can’t be pro forma.”

Lastly, Goldman didn’t make this point but I will: Finding the proper balance for restoring felon rights is not the sole prerogative of the governor. McAuliffe needs to engage in give and take with the legislature. Sadly, the rule of law is regarded among political elites as increasingly optional — something to be enjoined when they can harness it to advance their aims and sidestepped when it cannot. A couple of years back, I said that progressives should be cautious with the precedents they set — just imagine how worried they would be if Sarah Palin were elected president with the power to re-write laws through executive decree. Now they face an even more terrifying prospect — an imperial presidency run by Donald Trump, the man for whom everything is negotiable and “so sue me” is a business best practice. Granting presidents and governors power to re-write laws at will cuts both ways.

Update: General Assembly Republicans are filing suit to halt enforcement of McAuliffe’s executive order.

About Those Eyes in the Sky…

Photograph of FBI surveillance plane over Manassas. Source: Associated Press

Photograph of FBI surveillance plane over Manassas. Source: Associated Press

by Bill Tracy

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveillance planes reportedly have been buzzing over United States communities — for about two months now, in the case of Burke, Va. — flying in tight circular patterns for many hours of the day, every day, into the wee hours of the morning.

The Associated Press first broke the national story in June. It is interesting to note that the AP story cover photo was taken in Manassas:

WASHINGTON — Scores of low-flying planes circling American cities are part of a civilian air force operated by the FBI and obscured behind fictitious companies, The Associated Press has learned.

The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights in 11 states over a 30-day period since late April, orbiting both major cities and rural areas. At least 115 planes, including 90 Cessna aircraft, were mentioned in a federal budget document from 2009.

For decades, the planes have provided support to FBI surveillance operations on the ground. But now the aircraft are equipped with high-tech cameras, and in rare circumstances, technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones, raising questions about how these surveillance flights affect Americans’ privacy.

Although shorter duration surveillance flights are occurring nation-wide, localities like Burke here in Northern Virginia have been targeted for “persistent” monitoring. Dearborn, Mich., location of the largest Muslim community in the nation, also is the site of these mysterious plane flights. Muslim community leaders in Dearborn are not happy about the surveillance. Burke residents here in Northern Virginia don’t seem to mind much.

I took the liberty of calling the office of U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Fairfax. Staff takes your name, commiserates, and tells you that the FBI will neither confirm or deny these flights (wink, wink). I was encouraged to put together a neighborhood petition, with multiple signatures, if I wanted to make a complaint that might be listened to.

Source: Bill Tracy

Surveillance plan flight pattern over Burke. Source: Bill Tracy

The aircraft are typically single-engine Cesnas flying one mile high, in counter-clockwise patterns that only Dunkin Donuts could fully appreciate. The planes are easy to see and hear, especially at night (plenty of flashing lights).

I’ve noticed some people breaking the law while the planes were in flight. During my daily jogs, for instance,  I have observed kids illegally crossing the CSX/VRE train tracks. If I could, I’d tell them their every move is being recorded: where they came from, and where they are going. The FBI no doubt is employing the same advanced military technology used in Iraq to find IED (Improvised Explosive Device) perpetrators.

Apparently, federal laws governing airplane surveillance are weak, giving the FBI wide legal latitude. Reportedly, the FBI is targeting specific crimes and is not violating any privacy rules currently on the books — although that may change if enough folks complain to elected officials.

If the FBI is wondering about my personal activities when out and about, I am looking for Monarch butterflies (saw one!) and at night, I’ve tried to capture a photograph of a Cesna crossing in front of the full moon. I am thinking the FBI is reading the draft of this blog before I even sent it off to Jim Bacon, for Pete’s sake.

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.

Capitalism Triumphs Again!

RAM clinic, Pikesville Ky., June 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

RAM clinic, Pikesville Ky., June 2011.
Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

If there were any questions about just how capitalism has failed, one need look no farther than Wise County, where, this week, hundreds, if not thousands, of people will line up for free medical care.

The event is ably noted in The Washington Post this Sunday by a young opinion writer named Matt Skeens who lives in Coeburn in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia.

This week, the Remote Area Medical clinic will come to the Wise County fairgrounds to offer free medical and dental care to anyone who needs it.

You might ask yourself a question: why do so many people in one of the parts of the United States that is fantastically wealthy with natural resources need free medical care? Where is the magic of capitalism so often lauded on this blog?

A few insights from Mr. Skeens:

“Local representatives of Southwest Virginia will travel to the fairgrounds to stand on a coal bucket and assure us they’re fighting against President Obama and the ‘war on coal.’ These politicians won’t mention that with their votes to block Medicaid expansion, they ensured that the lines at RAM won’t be getting any shorter. But hating Obama in these parts is good politickin.”

Skeens runs through a list of mountain folk who can’t afford health care. One is a breast cancer survivor who hasn’t had a screenings in years. His grandfather, a retired electrician and coal miner, had also camped out at RAM clinics to get help.

Odd that this is the way I found neighboring West Virginia when I moved there with my family from suburban Washington, D.C. in 1962. Just as it was then, the riches that should have helped pay for local medical care went out of state. Much of the coal left by railcar or barge. Now, natural gas released by hydraulic fracking will find its way to fast-growing Southeastern cities or perhaps overseas thanks to new proposed pipelines such as a $5 billion project pitched in part by Dominion Resources.

While I have never been to the Wise County RAM clinic, I did happen to drop by one in Pikesville, Ky., a coalfield area that is one is Kentucky’s poorest county. It is not far from Wise. I was busy researching a book on Richmond-based Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm, in June 2011.

Photographer Scott Elmquist and I were on our way from Kentucky to an anti-strip mining rally in West Virginia when we noticed the RAM signs. More than 1,000 people had started lining up at the doors around 1:30 a.m. at the local high school.

It was packed inside. A Louisville dental school had sent more than 50 dental chairs that lined the basketball court. Some of the patients said they were caught in a bind: they had jobs but didn’t have enough health coverage and couldn’t pay for what they needed.

Since then, there’s been some good news. Unlike Virginia, whose legislature has stubbornly refused to expand Medicaid to 400,000 residents who need it (supposedly in a move to tighten federal spending), Kentucky expanded Medicaid last year. Now, 375,000 more people have health insurance.

Not so in Virginia. People continue to suffer while those with comfortable lives laud the miraculous benefits of capitalism.