Category Archives: Public safety & health

Why There’s No Swimming Pool at Gilpin Court

gilpin courtBy Peter Galuszka

Heat and humidity seem to have been especially intense this summer. But it can be much worse at an inner city public housing project where there are few trees and other vegetation and lots of bricks and concrete that and retain heat.

So, wouldn’t a swimming pool seem nice, especially when your housing project already has one?

That’s what I thought when I visited Gilpin Court, one of Richmond’s 11 public housing projects. Housing 2,200 residents, many of them children, Gilpin is one of the worst ones run by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. It was built in the 1940s. Here’s my story in Style Weekly.

There is a swimming pool. But, the indoor basin has been shut down for three years and the RRHA says it can’t be fixed. “The pool is closed for maintenance and repairs and diminishing funds we have available,” a spokeswoman says.

In the meantime, the RRHA has been spending money on other things, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A list:

  • The RRHA spent $1,515 in 2012 to take 55 residents of Creighton Court, another project, for a bus charter to a West Virginia gambling casino.
  • The former RRHA police chief spent $900 on a television and more for cable services for an emergency operations center” that didn’t exist.He and his wife also got to go to a conference in San Diego with a side trip to Las Vegas.
  • Former authority chief executive Adrienne Goolsby, who resigned under a cloud in January, was being paid $183, 800 a year plus a $10,000 bonus. This is well above U.S. Department and Urban Development guidelines of $155,500 a year. The state governor makes less: $175,000.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote to Goolsby last year asking for answers for these matters. His staff says he never got an answer.

Meanwhile, RRHA is being run by a temporary chief. No one seems to know when a permanent one will be appointed.

Gilpin children say they can swim at other city-owned pools or at Pocahontas State Park, which is 27 miles away.

One other takeaway: one hears a lot on this blog from writers about how the problems of poverty are a lack of personal responsibility. I guess if you grow up in a furnace like Gilpin, you just have to work harder.

Don’t Stop a Welcome Purge

confederate flag dayBy Peter Galuszka

The Confederate Battle flag is quickly unraveling throughout the Old Dominion. With it are going many icons of an era racked with controversy and hatred, along with mythology, which regretfully will still continue in some form.

Following the example of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley who asked that state’s legislature to take the Confederate flag off State Capitol grounds, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to stop issuing specialty license plates showing the flag along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans logo.

National retailers such as Walmart and Amazon likewise nixed the flag and removed items displaying it from their shelves and warehouses.

Two events helped push this national movement with remarkable speed.

One was a U.S. Supreme Court decision – split evenly between liberal and conservative judges – that Texas had the right not to allow the Confederate flag on its license plates. The other was the shooting death of nine African-Americans by a self-styled white supremacist as they prayed at a Charleston church.

It’s about time some movement was made on this matter. But in Virginia, as in other parts of the South, there’s a lot more to do. Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue has the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. Why aren’t they dismantled?

Richmond area schools have “Rebels “or “Confederates” as their mascots, namely Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville and Douglas S. Freeman in Henrico County.

Throughout the state are street names celebrating the Southern war machine. There are Jefferson Davis Highways in Alexandria and South Richmond. Only recently were flags removed from the Confederate Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and at private Washington & Lee University.

Of course, the flag is an insult to those oppressed by it, notably African-Americans. But mythology – about an honorable South tragically plundered and lost – has provided cover and let it fly 150 years after the Civil War.

Having grown up mostly in the South or Border States in the 1950s and 1960s and then having worked there for years, I have dealt with the Confederate flag for years. I don’t find it absolutely shocking as some do, but I have always wondered why it keeps flying on public property.

It wasn’t until I was in college in the Boston area when I started really asking myself questions. For one course, I read “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” historian C. Vann Woodward’s 1955 masterpiece. He demolished the idea that legal segregation was a long-time Southern tradition. Instead, it started up in the 1890s, he pointed out.

That’s not a very long time, especially for white Southerners who purport to be so sensitive to history. Instead, they have invented a mythology. Virginia is becoming more diverse and includes people who have no family tie to state during the mid-19th century. One reason Gov. Haley had the fortitude to do what she did was that she is an Indian-American, born in South Carolina. In other words, she is neither white nor black according to the old rules and didn’t need to be guided by them.

My immediate concern is that this long-needed purge won’t go far enough. And as long as the generals preside over Richmond’s Monument Avenue, the fairy tales will endure.

Coal Business

For those looking for something to do on a hot Sunday, have a look at the business section of today’s New York Times. On the first business page there is a very “interesting” article concerning Richmond based Massey Energy and Don Blankenship . The story told is not a pretty one and led to the Upper Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 men in 2010.

— Les Schreiber

“Spankdown” at Woodlake

S&MBy Peter Galuszka

Homeowners Associations are double-edged swords. They can preserve home values by enforcing covenants but sometimes  morph into Neo-Nazi privatized governments that make life miserable by meddling.

One HOA in suburban Richmond is in something of a unique situation.

Woodlake, a 2,800 home, 1980s-styled PUD in Chesterfield County, has been having problems. The realty firm that owned its extensive swim and recreational facilities sold them to the HOA in 2010 which ended up $700,000 in debt.

It has caused lots of gnashing of teeth because no one wants a special assessment. I don’t live there but I play tennis there and hear a lot about it from my friends.

The board is new, the old community manager left and they hired a new manager who has an extensive professional background in the field.

The manager, Bethany Halle, also has another life. She’s the author of about 70 erotic fantasies specializing sado-masochism, bondage and other delights, including ones involving the paranormal. She enjoys exploring “murder and mayhem” at HOAs in her literary life.

Here’s my story about it in the Chesterfield Observer.

Halle’s books have been published by such houses as “Naughty Nights.” She blogs and has radio shows about erotic literature. The HOA board supports their decision to hire her , saying they knew about her other life but she was the best qualified to run the HOA.

Halle writes under her own name or “Cassandre Dayne” and “Dakotah Black”

One of her titles is “Spankdown.” Maybe that’s just what Woodlake needs.

Dubious Oil Lobby Bankrolls Dubious Poll

CEABy Peter Galuszka

In a recent post, Bacons Rebellion extolled the findings of Hickman Analytics Inc., a suburban Washington consulting firm hired by the Consumer Energy Alliance, which found that according to a survey of 500 registered voters, the vast majority of Virginians support Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The $5 billion project would take natural gas released by hydraulic fracturing from West Virginia southeastward through Virginia into North Carolina. Dominion has taken some strong-arm tactics to force the project through, such as suing property owners who declined to let surveyors onto their property.

Having reported on the controversy in such places as Nelson County, I was surprised to note the Hickman results showing such a strong support for the pipeline.

Maybe, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Let’s start with the so-called “Consumer Energy Alliance.” For starters, it is a Texas based lobbying group funded by such fossil fuel giants as ExxonMobil and Devon Energy, perhaps the largest independent oil rim in the country plus as host of utilities.

It has been traversing the United States drumming up support, often through dubious polls, against initiatives to cut back on carbon emissions. It supports the Keystone XL and other petroleum pipelines.

Says SourceWatch, quoting Salon.com, “The CEA is part of a sophisticated public affairs strategy designed to manipulate the U.S. political system by deluging the media with messaging favorable to the tar-sands industry; to persuade key state and federal legislators to act in the extractive industries’ favor; and to defeat any attempt to regulate the carbon emissions emanating from gasoline and diesel used by U.S. vehicles.”

The group was created in the late 2000s by Michael Whatley a Republican energy lobbyist with links to the Canadian and American oil sector.

The alliance’s modus operandi is to use “polls” presumably of average voters on key energy issues.

In Wisconsin, the CEA got involved in a battle over an attempt by electric utilities to hike rates if individual homeowners used solar panels to generate power. The state is dominated by coal-fired power and hasn’t done much with renewables. The utilities claim that they paid for the electricity grid and therefore home-power generators must pay extra for its use and the cost should be shared by all through rate hikes.

Many ratepayers opposed this blatant attempt to push back at solar power. Then, all the way from Texas and Washington, the Consumer Energy Alliance jumped in with the names of 2,500 local ratepayers who backed the rate hikes. It wanted to give their names to Wisconsin regulators.

The Grist asked: “What dog does CEA, a trade group from Texas, have in Wisconsin’s fight, anyway? Well, CEA represents the interests of mostly fossil fuel companies, so it is engaged in a nationwide campaign to slow the spread of home-produced renewable energy. It has a regional Midwest chapter, which pushes for fracking and for President Obama to approve the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline.”

I was likewise puzzled by the Virginia pipeline survey that CEA paid for by Hickman Analytics, a Chevy Chase, Md. firm that does a lot of political polling. The firm is powerful and its principals were heavily involved with disgraced Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

There was a poll by Hickman for CEA showing that New Hampshire vote just love Arctic offshore drilling. That’s off because the Granite State isn’t anywhere close to the Arctic despite its cold winters.

There was another Hickman/CEA poll showing how much Coloradans love the Keystone XL pipeline – another curiosity because the last time I checked that pipeline doesn’t run through Colorado.

And, fresh with a “five figure” sponsorship from Dominion, Bacon’s Rebellion publisher James A. Bacon Jr. starts writing about this dubious poll from a dubious source showing that Virginians are tickled pink with the ACL pipeline. When questioned, he says it’s nothing different from a poll funded by the Sierra Club.

Maybe, on another matter, it is curious that Bacon’s Rebellion’s sponsorship deal with Dominion which Jim posted online is signed by Daniel A. Weekley, vice president for Dominion corporate affairs.

The very same Mr. Weekley signed an informational packet sent out to Virginia homeowners impacted by the proposed pipeline route telling them what a great thing the pipeline is.

Am I connecting the dots correctly?
 

Is SEAL Team 6 Out of Control?

Seal_Team_Six_old_insigniaBy Peter Galuszka

Dam Neck Annex is a forgettable piece of beachfront landscape amidst the strip malls of Virginia Beach. F-18s Hornet jets roar past from nearby Oceana Naval Air Station and the traffic is typical for the area: vans with soccer moms, bikers’ choppers and sedans with families headed for the sand.

Surrounded by thousands of yards of barbed wire and other protections, the annex which consists of shooting ranges and blocky buildings is home to SEAL Team 6, one of the most celebrated covert warrior groups in the world. Despite their fame and penchant for grabbing publicity, there’s evidence that SEAL Team 6 is out of control – in more ways than one.

On Sunday, The New York Times printed an extensive investigation showing that TEAM 6 has been serving as a covert hit-job unit in Afghanistan and other parts of South Asia and the Middle East. The highly-trained unit has been involved with many high risk missions but one stands out, according to the Times. It is “Operation Omega,” started by former Army commander Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal who was concerned in 2006 that the U.S. did not have sufficient troops in Afghanistan to beat back an increasingly aggressive insurgency by the Taliban.

The Times says that Operation Omega was modeled after the infamous Phoenix Program in South Vietnam that was designed to identify and eliminate, often by assassination, members and supporters of the Viet Cong. From 1965 until 1972, up to 41,000 people were killed in the process.

It isn’t know what Seal Team 6’s death count was, but the Times reports that from 2006 to 2008, there were weeks at a time “when their unit logged 10 to 15 kills on many nights, and sometimes up to 25.”

These, apparently, are not traditional night raids or return-fire situations when an American patrol is ambushed. These were surgical, precision strikes including kidnappings and at times, apparently, assassinations.

One issue is that because of their intense secrecy and worries about security there is not much oversight into the Team’s activities. The Times says that Team 6 by passes usual military judicial processes and is overseen by the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

The Virginia-based SEAL time had been tasked with special, high-risk missions such as the highly-acclaimed rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, a commercial sea captain, who had been kidnapped by pirates off of East Africa when his ship had been taken by pirates in 2009. One concern in the Times is that such special missions were subverted as TEAM 6 was pushed into using its special snatch and grab or kill expertise in a more routine basis in Afghanistan and other countries.

Another strange issue is that for what is purported to be a highly covert unit, Team 6 gets a ton of publicity, some of it sleazy, and some of its members tend to get into trouble when they get back home.

For example, when Tom Hanks made a movie in which he portray the rescued cargo ship captain, the Navy willingly laid on a small fleet of ships and helicopters to help.

Book publishers have been inundated by supposedly non-fiction tomes about Team 6’s heroics. A couple involved who actually nailed Osama bin Laden. Robert O’Neill penned one claiming it fired the last fatal shot. Matt Bissonette, writing ‘No Easy Day,” under the nom de ’guerre Mark Own, said he did. Both SEALS drew criticism for violating security and going after big bucks.

The hands-down worst case involves “American Sniper” about the famed shooter Chris Kyle who was the subject a best-selling (two million copes) book and a box-office smash movie directed by Clint Eastwood. The book made $6 million and the movie hit the $400 million mark. But strangely, Kyle’s family didn’t see much of it after Kyle was murdered at a Texas shooting range two years ago.

The Virginian-Pilot reported recently that the family has seen none of the funds raised to help Kyle’s family by some so-called military help funds.

So, it seems you have two serious questions. Has Seal Team 6– and other SEAL units –morphed into an assassination team that has little accountability. If this is so, why are so many trying to cash in on it, especially, it seems, the United States Navy.

I’ve not been in the military service but I have known a few people who have been, including covert operators. Many tend to operate within strict rules and they don’t say anything about what happened.

Hottest Primary May Be 10th Senate District

 By Peter Galuszka

Emily Francis

Emily Francis

Primaries in Virginia used to be a bore, but no longer.

Last year, Dave Brat’s Tea Party-backed insurgency against the seemingly impregnable Eric Cantor garnered national headlines in the 7th Congressional District.

This year, you have several General Assembly races come June 9 that will seek to replace several prominent politicians who are retiring, including Republicans John Watkins of the 10th Senate District; Walter Stosch of the 12th Senate District; and Democrat Charles Colgan of the 29th.

I picked the 10th District race for a piece in Style Weekly. There, historic tax credit developer Dan Gecker, a long time Chesterfield County planning commissioner and supervisor, is up against progressive non-profit consultant Emily Francis and former delegate and lawyer Alex McMurtrie for the Democrat candidacy. Whoever wins faces Republican nominee Glen Sturtevant and Libertarian Carl Loser.

Dan Gecker

Dan Gecker

The race could well determine whether the state senate remains in Republican hands. Should the Democrat win, the mix in the senate could bounce back to 20-20; it is 21-19 now in favor of the GOP. Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington,  told me this is the race to watch.

What’s also curious is that the 10th District is a true anomaly. One might assume that such as district would be comfortably GOP. It isn’t since it stretches from the blue areas of Richmond like the Museum District and the Northside. It covers parts of the more conservative mega-neighborhoods of Brandermill and Woodlake in Chesterfield and then all of Powhatan County.

Instead of having the likes of Brat saying that his opponent isn’t conservative enough, Francis says she’s the only true progressive in the race.

Another quirk is that Gecker, a moderate who says he’s a progressive, figured in the Bill Clinton impeachment.

Back in the 1990s, he was lawyer to Kathleen Willey, a Powhatan resident who claimed that Clinton groped her in the White House. Gecker represented her in a book deal. Some Democrats have said that Gecker is a Clinton-basher – an interesting claim now that part of the Democratic establishment is gearing Hillary Clinton for another presidential run.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton confidante, has tried to smooth things over by endorsing Gecker.

Two Stories on Change in Richmond’s Suburbs

 

New wegmans site

New wegmans site

By Peter Galuszka

Well, well,

Jim Bacon has this month’s cover story in the Henrico Monthly about the changing nature of office parks in one county that has plenty of them.

Not to be outdone, I have my own cover story in the Chesterfield Monthly, a sister magazine published by the same people.

My piece is about how Midlothian Turnpike, the main artery of suburban sprawl in Chesterfield County, is being led into its next iteration y two new types of grocery stores.

One is the high-end Wegmans. The other is New Grand Market, a large-scale international food store that reflects Richmond’s fast-growing diversity and foreign flare.

I think both of our pieces, in different ways, reflect big shifts in two of the largest counties in the state. (I wonder if I got paid more than he did).

New Film Documents Horrors of Coal Mining

blood on the moutain posterBy Peter Galuszka

Several years in the making, “Blood on the Mountain” has finally premiered in New York City. The documentary examines the cycle of exploitation of people and environment by West Virginia’s coal industry highlighting Massey Energy, a coal firm that was based in Richmond.

The final cut of the film was released publicly May 26 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the “Workers Unite! Film Festival” funded in part by the Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the New York State Council of the Arts.

Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, the film shows that how for more than a century, coal companies and politicians kept coal workers laboring in unsafe conditions that killed thousands while ravaging the state’s mountain environment.

As Bruce Stanley, a lawyer from Mingo County, W.Va. who is interviewed in the film and has fought Donald L. Blankenship, the notorious former head of Massey Energy, says, there isn’t a “War on Coal,” it is a “war waged by coal on West Virginia.”

When hundreds of striking workers protested onerous and deadly working conditions in the early 1920s, they were met with machine guns and combat aircraft in a war that West Virginia officials kept out of history books. They didn’t teach it when I was in grade school there in the 1960s. I learned about the war in the 1990s.

The cycle of coal mine deaths,environmental disaster and regional poverty continues to this day. In 2010, safety cutbacks at a Massey Energy mine led to the deaths of 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Mountains in Central Appalachia, including southwest Virginia, continue to be ravaged by extreme strip mining.

As Jeff Biggers said in a review of the movie in the Huffington Post:

“Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields — and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the “extraction state” — and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners’ uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today’s fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.”

The movie (here is the trailer) is a personal mission for me. In 2013, after my book “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” was published by St. Martin’s Press, Mari-Lynn Evans called me and said she liked the book and wanted me to work with her on the movie project. She is from a small town in West Virginia a little south of where I spent several years as a child and thought some of my observations in the book rang true.

I drove out to Beckley, W.Va. for several hours of on-camera interviews. Over the next two years, I watched early versions, gave my criticisms and ideas and acted as a kind of consultant. Mari-Lynn’s production company is in Akron and I visited other production facilities in New York near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Interesting work if you can get it. My only forays into film making before had been with my high school film club where he videographed a coffin being lowered into a grave (in West Virginia no less). I was greatly impressed when I saw the movie at its New York premiere.

Mari-Lynn and Jordan have been filming in the region for years. They collaborated on “The Appalachians,” an award-winning three-part documentary that was aired on PBS a few years ago and on “Coal Country” which dealt with mountaintop removal strip mining.

They and writer Phyllis Geller spent months detailing how coal companies bought up land on the cheap from unwitting residents, hired miners and other workers while intimidating them and abusing them, divided communities and plundered some very beautiful mountains.

Upper Big Branch is just a continuation of the mine disasters that have killed thousands. The worst was Monongah in 1907 with a death toll of at least 362; Eccles in 1914 with 183 dead; and Farmington in 1968 with 78 dead (just a county over from where I used to live).

By 2008 while Blankenship was CEO of Massey, some 52 miners were killed. Then came Upper Big Branch with 29 dead in 2010.

At least 700 were killed by silicosis in the 1930s after Union Carbine dug a tunnel at Hawks Nest. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

While state regulation has been lame, scores West Virginia politicians have been found guilty of taking bribes, including ex-Gov. Arch Moore.

The movie is strong stuff. I’ll let you know where it will be available. A new and expanded paperback version of my book is available from West Virginia University Press.

Blankenship is scheduled to go on trial on federal charges related to Upper Big Branch on July 13.

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.