Category Archives: Public safety & health

Blankenship’s Incriminating Tapes

don-blankenship By Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McDonnells May Have Shot at Appeal

mcd convictedBy Peter Galuszka

Robert F. McDonnell, the only Virginia governor ever to be found guilty of corruption, may actually have a good shot at having his convictions reversed on appeal, according to some legal experts.

I have the story in this week’s Style Weekly.

The issue, which has been tossed around many times, involves how broadly or narrowly “honest services fraud” can be interpreted. The key points are whether or not McDonnell and his co-convict and wife Maureen did deny the public the “intangible right” of honest services by taking something of value in exchange for an action.

A further complication is that if they did, in fact, take an action in exchange for something, was it an “official” action? It tends to worry lawyers from such law schools as Harvard, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary.

Among some of their worries are that if McDonnell took money from star prosecution witness Jonnie R. Williams but took no specific action for the vitamin salesman, how is that different from a president granting a donor an ambassadorship.

Another concern that “honest services” statutes can be so “vaguely worded” that they could allow prosecutors to carve out a new crime that the defendants might not know they are committing.

I covered most of the six-week-long trial for Bloomberg News last summer and there is no question in my mind that the McDonnells’ behavior was shameful. U.S. District Judge James Spencer tended to go with a broad interpretation of the law.

We’ll see when arguments for McDonnell’s appeal start May 12 at the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. I’ll keep my own legal opinions to myself for the moment.

Private Immigrant Jail May Face Woes

Farmville jail protest

Farmville jail protest

By Peter Galuszka

Privatization in Virginia has been a buzzword for years among both parties. In this tax-averse state, contracting off public functions is seen as a wise and worthy approach.

But then you get debacles such as the U.S. 460 highway project. And now, you might have one brewing down in Farmville.

The small college town is in Prince Edward County, which gained international notoriety from 1959 to 1964 when it decided to shut down its entire school system rather than integrate. Many white kids ended up in all-white private schools and many African-American children were cheated out of an education entirely.

About six years ago, another creepy project started there – a private, for-profit prison designed exclusively to imprison undocumented aliens. It’s a cozy little deal, as I outline in a piece in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Farmville gets a $1 per head, per day (sounds like slavery) from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Immigration Centers of America, the private firm run by Richmond executives Ken Newsome and Russell Harper, gets profits. Then, in turn, also pay taxes to Farmville and the county.

The ICA facility, whose logo includes an American flag, pays taxes as well and provides about 250 jobs locally. The project even got a $400,000 grant from the scandal-ridden Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission for water and sewer works.

What might sound like a no-lose operation, except for the mostly Hispanic inmates who might have entered the country illegally, overstayed their visas, or had other bureaucratic problems, may face problems.

The census now at the jail is about 75 percent of what it could be. President Obama has issued an executive order that could free some five million undocumented aliens. It is being challenged by 26 states but Virginia Atty. Gen Mark Herring has filed an amicus brief in favor of Obama.

So what happens to Farmville if Obama wins? It could affect 96,000 aliens in Virginia. Could there someday be no prisoners? Wouldn’t that be too bad for Farmville?

Recent history is instructive. Back in the 1990s, Gov. George Allen, a conservative darling, was pushing private prisons in Virginia as he successfully got rid of parole in part of his crime crackdown. Slave labor was part of the deal.

Executive Intelligence Weekly wrote in 1994:

“Slave labor in American prisons is increasingly being carried out in what are called “private prisons.” In his campaign to “reform” Virginia’s penal laws, Gov. George Allen pointed to prison privatization as the wave of the future, a moneymaking enterprise for the investor, and a source of good, cheap labor for Virginia’s municipalities. Indeed, after taxes, pay-back to the prison, and victim restitution are removed, the inmate earns an average of $1 per hour in these facilities.”

Well guess what happened. Allen pushed for more public and private prisons. They were overbuilt. Demographics changed. Crime rates dropped. Prisons had to be shut down.

So, if immigration reform ever comes about what happens in Farmville? Don’t forget, the private jail came at a time when a construction boom, especially in Northern Virginia had drawn in many immigrants especially from Latin America. Their papers may not have been in order.

Neo-racists like Corey Stewart, chairman of the board of supervisors of Prince William County, ordered a crackdown on brown-skinned people who spoke Spanish. But when the real estate market crashed, fewer Latinos arrived. And, if they did, they avoided Stewart’s home county.

Wither Farmville?

Obessions of Inequality

Graphic credit: "Geographies of Opportunity"

Graphic credit: “Geographies of Opportunity”

by James A. Bacon

Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristen Lewis, authors of “Geographies of Opportunity,” provide a state-by-state and congressional district-by-congressional district measurement of “well being” across the United States. Overall, Virginia fares reasonably well in the report, scoring 11th overall. Well being is determined by a set of measures for life expectancy, education and median income. But state averages can mask a lot. Indeed, Virginia stands out for the inequality of income and well being inside its borders.

The premise of the report is that there other ways to measure progress than by the usual metrics of economic growth. The study draws upon the United Nation’s Human Development Index to measure three “fundamental human dimensions” — a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. “There is a broad consensus that these three capabilities are essential building blocks for a life of value, freedom and dignity.”

The Index score for the United States as a whole is 5.06. Connecticut is the best off, with an index of 6.17, and Virginia comes in at 11th at 5.47. Mississippi (no surprise) comes in last at 3.81. (Play with the data here.)

Burd-Sharps and Lewis also break down the numbers by congressional district. Virginia has three of the top 20 districts in the nation ranked by well being — the 8th (Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax), the 10th (Manassas to Winchester), and the 11th (Reston to Quantico). And it has one of the poorest — the 9th, in the far Southwest.

OK, what does all this tell us? I’m really not sure. Other than obsessing about what we all know to be true — there are huge wealth gaps in the United States — the study doesn’t tell us much. Gee, there’s a link between education level and health? Who would have figured? And there’s a link between income and health, too? Gosh, tell me more.

In a sidebar, the study notes how the ethnically pluralistic residents of the 8th district in the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., live eight years longer than the predominantly white residents living in the isolated mountains of Southwest Virginia. Longevity in affluent U.S. congressional districts exceeds that of Japan. Longevity in the poorest districts, like the 9th, compares to Gaza and the West Bank.

So, what do we do about it? Improving human development outcomes in Appalachia, the authors opine, “requires greater investment in peoples’ capabilities to thrive in the new economy” — specifically, a high-quality pre-school experience.

But elsewhere we read that the higher the proportion of foreign-born residents in a congressional district, the longer the district’s life expectancy. In sunny California, there is a “surprising” 3.2-year life expectancy gap in favor of foreign-born Latinos as compared to their U.S.-born counterparts. Surprising — really? It’s only surprising if you think that the only meaningful determinants of public health are education and income levels, and that culture has nothing to do with it. As it turns out, the longer poor Latinos live in the U.S. and adopt fast food-heavy diets, the greater their risk of obesity-related illnesses.

Now that would have been an interesting angle to pursue. When affluent populations have better health outcomes than poor populations, the assumption is that the difference can be attributed to superior access to health care. Surely some of it is. But how much is due to different diets and lifestyles? Are there strategies that attack health problems more directly than, say, by increasing spending on pre-K?

Another thing that irritated me was the failure to adjust incomes for cost of living. If the purpose is to compare well being, the cost of living is a major consideration. The authors contrast Connecticut and Wyoming, states with similar GDPs per capita, in the $65,000 to $68,000 range. “Does this mean that the people living in these two states enjoy similar levels of health, education and living standards?” the authors ask. “It does not. Connecticut residents, on average, can expect to outlive their western compatriots by nearly two and a half years, are 40 percent more likely to have bachelor’s degrees, and typically earn $6,000 more per year.”

Here’s what the study doesn’t bother to tell you. According to CNN Money’s cost of living calculator, earning $50,ooo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, is the equivalent of earning $64,900 in Hartford or $76,600 in New Haven. Incomes are lower? Yes, but the dollar stretches 30% to 50% further. The question I would ask is this: How is it that the residents of Wyoming, who aren’t nearly as well educated as the residents of Connecticut, manage to earn higher incomes on a cost-of-living-adjusted basis?

As an aside, let’s talk about income disparities within congressional districts. Which state do you think has greater disparities of vast wealth and poverty in close proximity — Wyoming, a state of cowboys and coal miners, of Connecticut, a state of inner-city poor and hedge-fund billionaires?

For a document entitled, “Geographies of Opportunity,” this study has almost nothing to say about the economics of opportunity. It has nothing to say about strategies that poor people can pursue to lift themselves out of poverty or lead healthier lives. All recommendations call for an activist and interventionist government. Promote health by cracking down on smoking. Regulate food advertising. Invest public dollars in recreational facilities and (a remedy I actually agree with) in more walkable neighborhoods. Expand pre-school programs. Keep teens in high school until they graduate. Raise the minimum wage. The list goes on with a host of suggestions that have absolutely nothing to do with the data presented. As for the one sure-fire way to wage raises for the poor — create conditions conducive to economic growth so that companies hire more workers, drive down unemployment and bid up wages — it doesn’t warrant a mention.

The numbers in this study are potentially useful. The analysis and recommendations are not.

Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

Beware Stalling Growth in Northern Virginia

northern virginia mapBy Peter Galuszka

For at least a half a century, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington County have been a growth engine that that has reshaped how things are in the Greater Washington area as well as the Old Dominion.

But now, apparently for the first time ever, these Northern Virginia localities have stopped growing, according to an intriguing article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, the county saw 4,673 arrivals but in 2014 saw 7,518 departures. For the same time period, Alexandria saw 493 arrivals and then 887 departures. Arlington County showed 2,004 arrivals in 2013 followed by 1,520 departures last year.

The chief reason appears to be sequestration and the reduction of federal spending. According to a George Mason University study, federal spending in the area was $11 billion less  last year than in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the area lost 10,800 federal jobs and more private sectors ones that worked on government contracts. Many of the cuts are in defense which is being squeezed after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most dramatic cuts appear to be in Fairfax which saw a huge burst of growth in 1970 when it had 450,000 people but has been slowing for the most part ever since. It still grew to 1.14 million people, but the negative growth last year is a vitally important trend.

Another reason for the drop offs is that residents are tired of the high cost and transit frustrations that living in Northern Virginia brings.

To be sure, Loudoun County still grew from 2013 to 2014, but the growth slowed last year from 8,904 newcomers in 2013 to 8,021 last year.

My takeaways are these:

  • The slowing growth in NOVA will likely put the brakes on Virginia’s move from being a “red” to a “blue” state. In 2010, Fairfax had become more diverse and older, with the county’s racial and ethnic minority population growing by 43 percent. This has been part of the reason why Virginia went for Barack Obama in the last two elections and has Democrats in the U.S. Senate and as governor. Will this trend change?
  • Economically, this is bad news for the rest of Virginia since NOVA is the economic engine for the state and pumps in plenty of tax revenues that end up being used in other regions. Usually, when people talk about Virginia out-migration, they mean people moving from the declining furniture and tobacco areas of Southside or the southwestern coalfields.
  • A shift in land use patterns and development is inevitable. The continued strong growth of an outer county like Loudoun suggests that suburban and exurban land use patterns, many of them wasteful, will continue there. The danger is that inner localities such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will be stuck with more lower-income residents and deteriorating neighborhoods. The result will be that localities won’t have as much tax money to pay for better roads, schools and other services.
  • Virginia Republicans pay lip service to the evils of government spending and have championed sequestration. Well, look what a fine mess they have gotten us into.

The rest of the Washington area is seeing slowing growth, but appears to be better off. The District’s in-migration was cut in half from 2013 to 2014 but it is still on the plus side. Ditto Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

NOVA has benefited enormously from both federal spending and the rise of telecommunications and Web-based businesses. It is uncertain where federal spending might go and maybe increased private sector investment could mitigate the decline. Another bad sign came in 2012 when ExxonMobil announced it was moving its headquarters from Fairfax to Houston.

In any event, this is very bad news for NOVA.

Non-Coal Jobs Thriving in Energy Sector

Coal MinersBy Peter Galuszka

Is there a real “War on Coal” or is it part of a natural transition to more non-polluting and less destructive forms of energy? One way to find out is to track job creation.

A new study at Duke University shows that since 2008, more than 49,000 jobs in the coal industry have been lost. But, about 196,000 jobs – or four times as many – have been created in other energy sectors such as natural gas, solar and wind.

The study suggests that all the gnashing of teeth that President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are out to ruin the energy sector by killing off coal may be off base.

This has been the cry of Virginia’s utilities, and its few coal firms, along with some members of the business establishment that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan to encourage cuts in carbon dioxide by 2030 are unworkable and too threatening to employment in the coal industry since some coal-fired power plants are likely to be shut down. (Of course, some of them have been in operation for 60 years, but never mind).

Overlooked is that as coal jobs die, more energy jobs have been created in natural gas thanks to hydraulic fracking and in renewables like solar and wind which are getting increasingly cheaper.

“Our study shows it has not been a one-for-one replacement,” says Lincoln Pratson, a Duke professor of earth and ocean sciences who is one of the report’s authors.

Hardest hit are the coalfields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Small wonder. The coal is of excellent quality but easy-to-reach seams have been mined out and abundant shale gas has undercut its price power. Coal has also taken hits in Utah, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, and Colorado. The biggest job increases are in the Northeast, Southwest, Midwest and West.

Where does Virginia fit in with renewables? Hardly anywhere just yet. Its neighboring states are much farther along. One reason is they have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force shifts to wind and solar. Even coal-heavy West Virginia had mandatory standards although the legislature just dumped them.

Virginia is just gearing up with solar. As for wind, Dominion has plans for two turbines off Virginia Beach.

Remarkably, this vision of non-coal energy jobs growing four times the amount of coal jobs cut is left out of the debate as Dominion gets the General Assembly to freeze electricity rates and forego State Corporation Commission audits for several years on the theory that it doesn’t know what the EPA will do about carbon dioxide reduction.

And, to show you how bizarre the coal people are, and appeals court in the District of Columbia is ready to shoot down a coal-led attack on the EPA’s carbon rules. Among the plaintiffs is Robert Murray, the iconoclastic CEO of Murray Energy which has been picking up West Virginia coal properties from long-time operator Consol, which obviously is happy to unload them

During the 2012 presidential race, Murray ordered his workers to attend a rally for Mitt Romney under threat of firing. He insists that Obama is trying to put him out of business.

One problem the appeals judges have with his lawsuit is that the rules are only proposed rules. They are not official. EPA is asking for comment by this summer show it can make adjustments. So why is Murray suing?

It would be as if I were to sue Jim Bacon for an idea he might be envisioning. I know it’s a tempting idea, but it would be silly.

The Duke report was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Energy Policy.

Jonnie R. Williams’ Mansion on Market for $4.9m

Williams

Williams

 By Peter Galuszka

It might be right out of the “Lifestyles of Richmond’s Rich and Famous.”

A trust controlled by Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the glad-handing vitamin salesman who was the chief witness against former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen, has put his 14,700 square foot mansion along with 61 acres of land up for sale for $4.9 million.

I have the story here in Style Weekly.
“1 Starwood Lane” has six bedroom suits, a paneled “executive” study, a pool, a gazebo, a billiards and media room and (what the truly wealthy really need) a state-of-the-art security vault. There must be trouble in paradise however, because the realtor says it was originally listed as a $5.5 million purchase with just the mansion and 28 acres of property. Later, they threw in 35 acres more and dropped the price.

Williams, who got immunity from prosecution for his testimony for the McDonnell trial and another, unrelated one involving securities fraud, has apparently left the Richmond area where his former company Star Scientific moved from Henrico County after renaming itself Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals. He gave the McDonnells $177,000 in cash, loans, gifts and stock in exchange for influence in peddling his products, according to testimony at the six-week trial last year.

The McDonnells were convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud and other felonies. McDonnell got two years and his wife was sentenced to a year and a day. They are appealing.

The McDonnell’s who have separated sold their home in a Short Pump subdivision. It was listed at $944,000 and sold in a week. Williams’ mansion is in the middle of the high cotton Hermitage Golf Course in Goochland County.

For more details, click on Style.

The Fifth Anniversary of Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

A memorial to the Massey Energy miners at Upper Big Branch

By Peter Galuszka

Five years ago this morning, miners near Montcoal, W.Va. clambered into low, truck-like vehicles called “mantrips” for a nearly-hour-long ride to their positions at Upper Big Branch, a coal mine owned by a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey Energy.

Some of the miners were queasy because the mine, known as UBB, was especially gassy, had substantial air ventilation problems and lots of coal dust. Even worse, the chief executive of Massey Energy, Donald L. Blankenship, was known as a hard-charging bean counter who liked to cut corners and maximize profits, investigators say.

As the shift neared its end, a “long wall” machine that rips into coal seams hit a clump of slate. Sparks flew from the badly-maintained long wall device. A jet of methane flame about the size of a basketball flared out. Safety measures, such as streams of waters designed to extinguish such flames, didn’t work. As miners scrambled for their lives, an enormous blast, fed by high levels of coal dust, roared through seven miles of shafts, blowing apart or suffocating 29 miners.

It was the worst disaster in this country in 40 years. Several investigations gave scathing reports of Massey’s lax attitude about mine safety. One report was titled “Industrial Homicide.”

So what’s been done to improve mine safety lives? Not very much.

Federal legislation such as the Robert C. Byrd bill that would give federal regulators subpoena power when probing safety violations has gotten nowhere in Congress.

Worried about slumps in coal production caused by as flood of natural gas from fracking drilling methods, the West Virginia legislature has come up with the “Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act.” You read that right. The bill puts “jobs” first and “safety” second.

As W.Va. Del. Barbara Fleischauer of Monongalia County puts it: “There’s not anything in this bill that improves safety, nothing. And I can’t believe, after all the fires and explosions we’ve had in this state, recently, we would, and you know what they are; Upper Big Branch, Aracoma, Sego, that we would ever consider rolling back safety protections.”

The Associated Press reports that while mine deaths are down, thanks because of the competition against coal by natural gas. Mine inspections spiked after UBB and accidents, while they still occur, are down.

But, the AP says, the coal dust problem hasn’t been resolved. Massey had been fined continuously for not keeping levels of coal dust low. There was so much coal dust in the mine that autopsies of dead miners (at least the ones that had enough long tissue that could be recovered after the massive blast) all showed evidence of black lung disease, which was supposed to have been rooted out years before by regulatory upgrades.

Coal dust problems are still evident. In January, federal officials found excess methane and coal dust at Mill Branch Coal Corp’s Osaka mine in Wise County, Va. Another mine, Camp Creek in Wayne County, W.Va., had been cited 64 times in the last two years for failing to follow ventilation plans. And, a miner was recently killed at a showcase Virginia mine.

What do these mines have in common? They are owned by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought failing Massey Energy in 2011 for $7 billion. Alpha tried to absorb Massey miners and retrain them in its “Running Right” safety program, but it obviously has lingering problems.

Alpha has been lying off many miners because of the production downturns and lack of demand for both steam and metallurgical coal. After enduring millions of dollars in losses, its stock has trading at a dollar and a penny. Cash short Alpha has had to sell its new headquarters building just off of Interstate 81 in the Bristol area.

Blankenship, meanwhile, is slated to go on trial for criminal charges related to UBB in Beckley W.Va. on April 20. It is the first time a coal chief executive has been so indicted. Blankenship’s lawyers are trying to get a change of venue, claiming that he is so well-known and disliked in southern West Virginia that he can’t get a fair trial. For a time, he won a gag order preventing anyone, including families of the deceased UBB miners, from discussing the trial but it was overturned by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

His trial may be delayed, but it won’t be much of a victory. Alpha Natural Resources, meanwhile, is refusing to pay his legal bills.

Note: Peter A. Galuszka is author of “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” It was first published by St. Martin’s Press in September 2012 and is now available in paperback from West Virginia University Press.

 

NRDC Says Clean Power Plan Benefits Virginia

coal plant burnsBy Peter Galuszka

In a sweeping contradiction of the positions of Dominion Virginia Power and assorted politicians and regulators, the Natural  Resources Defense Council has issued a report saying that Virginia will benefit by following a proposed federal plan to cut carbon dioxide.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Administration has put forth a proposed plan for comment that would cut carbon dioxide pollution intensity — measured in pounds per megawatt hour of electricity– in the state by 38 percent by 2030.

The draft plan brought on protests from Dominion, the State Corporation Commission, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and many legislators who say compliance with the plan would cost ratepayers an extra $5 billion to $6 billion in rate hikes and force the closure of some coal-fired plants.

The situation was considered so dire that Dominion convinced the General Assembly to pass a bill letting it freeze its rate base and avoid audits by the SCC for five years.

Reading the NRDC document is like reading an instruction manual from another planet. The key point:

“The Commonwealth is already 80 percent on the way toward achieving the EPA Clean Power Plan’s carbon reduction for the state,” it says. The remaining 20 percent goal could be reached by pressing on with renewable energy and energy efficiency while developing a robust new work force that would total about 5,600 “and the state’s households and businesses would save $1 billion on their electric bills by 2020.”

One reason for the progress in achieving the goal is that Dominion has converted coal plants to natural gas or had announced plans to shut down some aging coal plants .

The NDRC notes that the Clean Power Plan does not specifically target coal-fired plants or other fossil fuel units and leaves it to the utilities to choose how they want to achieve the goals. Among ways to do this are to make coal plants more efficient, use natural gas plants more effectively by switching them on before coal plants and increasing renewables and efficiency.

Deutsche Bank reports that by 2016, solar power (which only just beginning to be tapped) will be cheaper than the average retail power, the report says.

The NRDC report brings up another topic that rarely is discussed in Virginia. Switching to cleaner power can “usher in climate and health benefits worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion by 2030. This could prevent from 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths — a topic rarely broached in Richmond.

As for concerns of base loaded reliability, the report says that PJM, the regional grid to which Virginia belongs, can kick in during a major and unexpected plant outage with 3,350 megawatts of backup electricity.

Another interesting fact: NDRC reports that coal’s share of Virginia’s generation is now only about 20 percent. Dominion had reported it as being up to 49 percent of its mix a few years back. It is hard to understand given that Dominion has been shutting down coal-plants that are 50 or 60 years old. Opponents of the EPA’s new rules claim the plants are being shut down because of EPA’s “War on Coal” but simple age is the more logical reason.

In any event, it is amazing that hardly any of the points raised by NRDC were part of the harried discussion against the proposed Clean Power Plan and Dominion’s almost hysterical need for rate freezes and freedom from audits so it could have time assessing just how damaging the proposed Clean Power Plan would be.

What’s needed is an honest and transparent discussion and review of what the plan really is, how much it will really cost and how its goals can be achieved. That debate cannot be held captive by bankrolled legislators and regulators bullied by utilities.