Category Archives: Regulation

April Is The Cruelest Month

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

April is the cruelest month, especially for brutal energy disasters.

This Sunday is the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling blowout that killed 11 and caused one of the country’s worst environmental disasters. April 5 was the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29.

What lessons have been learned from both? Not a hell of a lot. In both cases, badly needed, tougher regulations to prevent such messes from happening again go languishing while politicians – including Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe – say move on fast for more exploitation of energy resources including in Virginia’s sensitive offshore waters.

Take Deepwater Horizon. The rig linked to British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico was tapping reserves 5,000 feet down. When the rig hit a rough patch, the blowback exploded upwards, racking the surface part with explosion and fires. Down below, a blowout protector was supposed to swing into action, chop into the pipe and shut down any flow. That didn’t happen and oil flowed freely at the bottom until July 15 generating one of the biggest oil spills ever.

Four years later, what has been done? According to experts S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, and Jacqueline Savitz, not enough. In December 2011, the National Academy of Engineering reported that Deepwater’s blowout preventer had never been designed or tested for the conditions that occurred and that other rigs may have the same problem.

Sixteen months later, nothing has been done in terms of new regulations – not even proposed one. It sounds as if that socialist-minded, regulation maniac Barack Obama is actually off the job. Meanwhile, McAuliffe changed his mind about the risks of offshore drilling and has jumped on board the Republican bandwagon led by former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to expose Virginians to similar dangers.

McAuliffe’s turnaround came last year during the gubernatorial campaign. According to the Washington Post: “Terry has learned more about offshore drilling from experts in Virginia,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. “He thinks that because of technological progress we can now do it in a responsible fashion.”

Say what? Maybe he should take a trip to Brazil and Norway that have more advanced blow-out preventers and policies. By the way, Democrat Mark Warner, running for re-election for U.S. Senate, is for offshore drilling as well.

If you really want to see evidence of the lack of regulation, check out Upper Big Branch owned by the former, Richmond-based Massey Energy.

The firm was notorious for its anti-regulation, anti-labor union policies led by its in-your-face chief executive Don Blankenship. Four reports say that Massey’s lax safety standards allowed the disaster to happen, including letting badly maintained equipment be used and not taking measures to keep highly explosive coal dust from building up. A flame caused by a ball of flaming methane touched off the dust leading to an underground blast that covered seven miles underground. In the process, 29 miners were either blown apart of asphyxiated in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years.

Every mine event has led to some kind of regulatory reform such as the one at Farmington, W.Va. that killed 78 in 1968 and the Buffalo Creek W.Va. coal sludge pond breach and flood that killed 125 in 1972.

Post-Upper Big Branch reforms have been proposed, notably the Robert C. Byrd bill that would protect whistleblowers, hold boards of directors responsible for knowing and doing nothing about safety threats and giving the feds subpoena power which, incredibly, they do not now have in the case of mine safety. The Department of Agriculture can subpoena records in the case of possible milk or meat price-fixing, but the Mine Safety and Health Administration cannot in the case of human miners.

The Byrd bill is all but dead mostly because of the Republican controlled House of Representatives where the majority leader is none-other than business toady Eric Cantor of Henrico County.

And if you want to understand just how little miners’ lives are regarded, compare the media coverage of Deepwater Horizon versus Upper Big Branch. I guess you could say that in the media’s eyes, the life of an offshore rig worker is worth 2.6 times that of a coal miner.  Six months after Deepwater, there were at least six books about the disaster. Four years after Upper Big Branch there is one book about it and it happens to be mine.

So, this Sunday, I propose a toast to the dead oil rig workers and coal miners. Let’s not allow their souls to stay on our consciences. Let’s have anti-regulation reign in the name of free market economic policies and profits! It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Salute!

Fracking the Mother of Presidents

fracking rigBy Peter Galuszka

Controversial hydraulic fracking appears to becoming a distinct possibility in areas south and east of Fredericksburg on land that is famed for its bucolic and watery splendors along with being the birthplaces of such historical figures as George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee.

After several years of exploring and buying up 84,000 acres worth of leases from Carolina to Westmoreland Counties, a Dallas-based company that uses a post office box as its headquarters address participated in the first-ever public discussion of what its plans may be.

According to the Free-Lance Star, the meeting was put together by King George County Supervisor Rudy Brabo to air concerns and hear plans of Shore Exploration and Production Co., which is based in Dallas and has offices in Bowling Green. Its headquarters address is registered with the State Corporation Commission as P.O. Box 38101 in Dallas.

About 100 people attended the meeting April 14, but judging from the newspaper’s account, not many questions were answered. Participants repeatedly asked Shore CEO Ed DeJarnette what his plans were regarding fracking and who would be responsible for damages if something went wrong.

DeJarnette responded that his firm is merely buying up leases and is looking to sell them to other gas drillers and operators. The state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy issues permits one at a time and is responsible for enforcing them, he said.

Hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling have touched off a revolution in the American energy industry in recent years, particularly in the Marcellus Shale gas formations that stretch in the Appalachians from New York State to southwest Virginia. The methods have also been used to reach rich shale oil deposits in North Dakota and other western states.

Fracking has been used as a drilling process for years according to media accounts and authors such as Gregory Zuckerman whose recent book “The Frackers” covers the process’s increasingly widespread use in the past several years.

Among concerns are that the toxic chemicals mixed with water and then pumped hundreds of feet underground could eventually ruin groundwater serving streams and wells. Other concerns are that the inevitable “flowback” in drilling will require surface ponds to handle toxic waste. In places such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia where fracking is permitted, quiet country areas are badly disturbed by the roar of diesel generators at drilling sites and from trucks that are constantly delivering drilling supplies. Methane can leak from drilling rigs, further complicating global warming issues, and flash fires can be problems. Fracking can also consume great amounts of water which often has to be trucked in.

On the plus side, holders of mineral leases can receive great sums in royalties and various taxes and other payments can boost local tax coffers. Natural gas is cleaner and less deadly source of energy than coal, plays a big role in electricity power generation in the Mid-Atlantic.

At the King George meeting, DeJarnette told the audience that he preferred using nitrogen as an element in fracking rather than water, but there were few details in the newspaper story.

While providing scarce details on who would actually handle the drilling, how it would be done and who would be responsible for damages, DeJarnette repeatedly emphasized the monetary benefits and jobs fracking would bring.

If it proceeds, fracking in the Taylorsville Basin would likely be confined to Virginia, which is more business-friendly than Maryland where the basin also extends. The field stretches across the Potomac River into Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties but Maryland has a moratorium on fracking until it can be studied further.

DeJarnette says he wants drilling to start by late this year or in 2015. Major oil firms explored the Northern Neck area and found some evidence of oil and gas deposits there in the 1980s.

An Ex-Coal Baron’s Strange Movie

Blankenship

Blankenship

By Peter Galuszka

Almost four years after 29 miners employed by then Richmond-based Massey Energy were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion, its former chief executive under federal investigation for widespread safety violations has come forward with an apparently self-funded “documentary” proclaiming his innocence.

Donald Blankenship released the film “Upper Big Branch, Never Again” this week which reiterates his claims that he and the firm were innocent of wrongdoing and that an unexpected flood of natural gas and meddling by federal regulators caused the blast.

Three investigations have cited Blankenship and Massey for a culture of cost-cutting  and ignoring safety problems. So far, four former Massey employees have been imprisoned for related convictions.

The strange, 51-minute film brought immediate demands for its retraction by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who claims he did not know of Blankenship’s involvement when was interviewed for the film  being played on YouTube. Manchin is shown making what seem to be supportive statements of coal in general and, presumably, Blankenship.

The film also features interviews with E. Morgan Massey, a retired Massey executive who lives in Richmond. Another is University of Utah mining professor named Tom Hethmon who has told National Public Radio that he was also misled about the film and wants nothing to do with it.

The movie was made by a Chesapeake –based firm called Adroit Films whose officials have refused to tell reporters who funded the production.

In the film, Blankenship, Massey and Stanley Suboleski, a former Massey director who lives in Chesterfield County, repeat earlier claims that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. on April 5, 2010 was caused by an unexpected flood of natural gas. The explosion was affected by what Blankenship claims were wrong-headed demands by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to change the ventilation system which stretches for more than seven miles underground.

An MSHA probe along with one ordered by Manchin when he was state governor claim that the blast was caused when badly-maintained mining equipment hit a pocket of gas that touched off a huge coal dust explosion. The company was required but failed to keep highly combustible coal dust at bay by spraying mine shafts with powdered limestone, investigators say.

After he was forced out as Massey’s CEO in 2010 and the company was sold in 2011 for $7 billion to Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Blankenship kept a low profile.  He stirred to life about a year ago when he launched a website offering his views that coal is overregulated and that global warming is a hoax.He is also well-known for his staunchly anti-labor views and his support for mountaintop removal mining methods that are highly destructive of watersheds, wildlife and landscapes.

The film also shows footage of President Barack Obama as if to suggest a connection between him and the mine blast. At the time, Obama had been in office for a little more than a year. In other words, if he mangled the coal industry, he did so in a remarkably short period of time. The film also revives “War on Coal” footage shot during the 2012 presidential campaign. It tends to suggest that the coal mined at Upper Big Branch was used to generate electricity for America’s benefit when, in fact, all of it was of a metallurgical variety bound for export to foreign steel mills.

Another odd aspect of the film is why Manchin would agree to an interview with filmmakers he did not know. When I was researching my 2012 book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press), I could only talk to Manchin and other elected officials at public events, although Massey, Suboleski and other former company officials spoke with me at length. Blankenship declined to be interviewed.

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia say that their ongoing probe may extend to top officers and directors of the defunct firm. It is unclear why Blankenship made the movie now.

Full Disclosure: I have been interviewed and have acted as an unpaid consultant for an upcoming documentary  titled “Blood on the Mountain” produced by Evening Star Productions.

How the Buy-America Mandate Hurts U.S. Transit

Seoul bus... energy efficient...

Seoul bus… energy efficient…

by James A. Bacon

Why do bus lines so consistently lose money? One reason is that transit companies, out of concern for the poor, keep fares too low. Another is that politics dictate that money-losing bus routes stay open. A third reason is that federal regulations effectively require transit companies to purchase American-manufactured buses that cost more while providing lower gas mileage.

The stock response of the state and local political systems across the United States — and no exception here in Virginia — is to increase subsidies for a failed business model. There is little constituency, it appears, for reforming mass transit to operate more efficiently.

A new paper, “Public Transit Bus Procurement: the Role of Energy Prices, Regulation and Federal Subsidies,” highlights a little-appreciated problem afflicting the municipal bus industry — how a federal “Buy America” mandate drives up the cost of purchasing new buses and how insensitive transit companies are to rising gas prices when managing their bus fleets.

“U.S. public transit agencies pay more for buses than they would have if there had been free international trade in buses,” the authors write. “The domestic bus makers supply a small number of differentiated bus models. The lack of competition could retard incentives to develop more fuel-efficient buses.”

With $55 billion in annual revenue in 2011, public transit agencies spent about $2.5 billion on new buses and $3.5 billion to maintain the existing stock. Nationally, more than 60,000 transit buses were in operation across the country.

Private vehicle owners factor in gas prices in their decisions when to keep an existing vehicle or upgrade to a new one, and they enjoy a wider range of choices when they do upgrade. Likewise, overseas transit companies enjoy the benefit of a highly competitive bus-manufacturing industry across Europe and Asia. But the U.S. public bus fleet is produced mainly by small domestic sellers that don’t enjoy the economies of scale that some international bus makers do.

Thanks to the Buy America mandate, U.S. bus manufacturing industry faces no meaningful foreign competition. Foreign makes account for 1.5% of all U.S. public-transport buses.

For a variety of complex reasons, the authors write, U.S. transit operations also are “non-responsive” to fuel prices and fuel efficiency. The result: the U.S. bus fleet averages lower gas mileage — 3.54 miles per gallon in the U.S. compared to 4.74 mpg in Tokyo and 5.05 mpg for diesel buses in Seoul. As a result, capital and operating costs are higher.

Conclude the authors: “The subsidy on domestic buses and the lack of international competition imply that U.S. taxpayers face a higher price for urban bus services and U.S. owners of the domestic firms that produce the buses gain some monopoly rents.”

Mark Warner: Let’s Out-Gas Putin

 mark warnerBy Peter Galuszka

One way to clip the wings of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive land grabs, says U.S. Sen. Mark Warner who is running for reelection, is to expedite permitting of the 20 or so proposals to export liquefied natural gas, including one by Richmond-based Dominion Resources.

“Most of Europe and Ukraine are heavily dependent on Russian gas in particular for their energy use,” Warner told reporters. Europe depends on Russia for 30 percent of its gas.

It is true that hydraulic fracking has turned the oil and gas business in the U.S. upside down by creating such a flood of products that the U.S. may not only become energy independent but in a position to export. Environmentalists point out that fracking has its dangers but the remarkable change in energy dynamics plays to the producers’ hands.

The big problems with Warner’s proposal are that exporting LNG to Europe will be more time-consuming and costly than he might imagine. It also does nothing to address the climate change issues that gas contributes to, albeit not as much as coal.

One reason why Warner may be so interested in the issue — House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, is making exactly the same proposal — is because of Dominion. The utility plans a $3.8 billion expansion of its Cove Point, Md. LNG import facility on Chesapeake Bay so that it can export LNG as well. Some of that gas could very well come from fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia along with the Gulf Coast.

Dominion is in the permitting process – perhaps No. 3 or 4 in line – for Cove Point. It has the gear to take super cold gas pf about minus 265 degrees and warm it up to a gaseous state so it can be sent through pipelines. Now it wants equipment to reverse the process – take gas and chill it into shippable LNG. Dominion has everything else it needs – a water terminal, tanks, and so on.

Warner, of course, gets lots of campaign money from Dominion and has just brought on as his campaign manager Eva Teig Hardy, who retired as one of Dominion’s top lobbyists and public affairs executives. I have known Eva since the 1970s and can attest that she is supremely competent.

There’s nothing wrong with Warner’s ties to Dominion although they should be known. What is troublesome is that his plan may not work.

Take Dominion. If Dominion gets its permits, it won’t be able to export LNG for maybe three years. By that time Putin will either have calmed down or gone beyond Crimea to conquer Europe as far as the Czech Republic or maybe France.

Dominion already has customers lined up for its LNG and they aren’t in Europe. They are utilities in India and Japan – which are the markets of choice for many of the American export hopefuls.

And as Steve Mufson of The Washington Post points out, while Russia exports gas via pipelines to Europe, it still isn’t as big a supplier as Norway. In fact, Cove Point used to see the odd tanker full of Norwegian LNG pull up at its bay terminal. Why can’t Norway increase its sales on the Continent?

Europe would have to build more LNG import facilities and that may take a few years. Meanwhile, the global money seems to be on sending LNG to Asia. Continue reading

Lean Urbanism, Better Blocks

duanyby James A. Bacon

Andres Duany, a prime force behind the New Urbanism movement, dresses impeccably, exudes Old World sophistication and speaks eloquently in a restrained and understated manner. Jason Roberts, founder of The Better Block organization, wears dorky clothes, laughs like the goofy but affable guy next door and gesticulates excitedly when he speaks. Their styles couldn’t be more different but their substance is very similar: They have lost patience with the bramble patch of local government regulation that hampers neighborhood and community revitalization. And they get things done.

Duany’s new crusade is “lean urbanism.” By lean, he envisions an alternative to the red tape that that strangles the bottom-up, entrepreneurial revitalization of American communities. “Common sense has been almost completely lost in my profession. There are too many protocols in the way,” Duany told Anthony Flint with Atlantic Cities.

The lean urbanism concept, he says, is like a software patch, or a workaround – ultimately a guide or a tip sheet to navigate the complicated, and often very expensive, maze of working in the built environment in the U.S. “It’s about knowing that with certain building types, under a certain threshold, you don’t need an elevator. Or a sprinkler system. A lot of developers know that, and we want to daylight that. We want to present that thematically.”

Roberts is a master of what is often referred to as Tactical Urbanism — grassroots, impromptu takeovers of public space — to drive change at the block level. In the Ted talk below, he describes how his “just do it” approach — civil disobedience against arbitrary zoning rules that, say, prohibit awnings or ban congregations of people on sidewalks. His sidewalk sit-ins have have sparked revitalization along a former Dallas street car line…. which he also hopes to revive. Redevelopment, he says, is “hamstrung by a series of rules that were put into place years ago that we don’t even know why we’re doing it, we just keep doing it.”

Philosophically, conservatives should sympathize with this impulse within the Smart Growth movement. It’s a core conviction of conservatives that federal government regulation, while sometimes necessary, tends to grow to excess and choke off private initiative. Periodically, that regulation needs to be revisited, pruned back and adapted to contemporary conditions. Conservatives should apply that same insight to state and local regulation, especially the welter of rules regulating land use and development.

A Better Block movement is emerging in the City of Richmond: Better Block RVA. Maybe we can start a similar Better Subdivision movement here in the ‘burbs of Henrico County. Either way, the key is to stop slavishly accepting the rules just because they’re the rules. If the rules don’t work, get them changed.

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading

How to Cut Auto Usage without Social Engineering

prying_cars

Most Americans resist social engineering to pry them out of their cars.

Emily Badger, a perceptive writer for the Atlantic Cities blog, makes a number of excellent points in a commentary published today but manages to confirm conservatives’ worst fears that liberals and progressives are engaged in a war against cars. The libs may say they are “pro-transit,” “pro-bicycle” and “pro-transportation choice,” but when you scratch the surface, their real goal is to get people out of cars. It may be politically inexpedient to say so out loud — too many people like their cars — but that’s where liberals’ social-engineering instincts take them.

In the piece, Badger discusses the many trade-offs that Americans make when deciding which transportation mode to use on any given day. The implicit goal is to shift commuters out of single-occupancy vehicles and into other modes of transportation such as biking, car pooling, walking or transit. “We can incentivize transit by making all of those other options more attractive,” she writes. “Or we can disincentivize driving by making it less so. What’s become increasingly apparent in the United States is that we’ll only get so far playing to the first strategy without incorporating the second.” Then she writes:

The question is really how far we can get down the path of least resistance, pursuing only the politically easy tactics. If the goal at the end of the day is changing behavior, how much can you really achieve by showing people a nice new bike lane?

Ka-boom! With one phrase — “if the goal is changing behavior” — Badger triggers conservatives’ reptilian fight-or-flight instinct. You don’t change anyone’s behavior through the political process except by mobilizing the coercive power of government. In other words, Badger wants to force me to change my behavior to advance her vision of society.

Ironically, Badger dances along the edge of true insight. She alludes to important ways in which federal, state and local governments subsidize automobility — particularly through so-called “free” parking and gas taxes that fail to cover the full cost of building and maintaining roads. Then, for a brief, flickering moment, she really gets it:

“Behavior change” sounds vaguely manipulative. … But in this context, the disincentives are really about removing subsidies and distortions from the market.

Bingo! If Badger and her allies would re-frame the debate along those lines, they would make much bigger inroads with moderates, conservatives and others who resist social engineering at the hand of liberals. A couple of pointers for making Smart Growth palatable to conservatives:

Adopt mode agnosticism. Don’t make “getting people out of their cars” the foundational goal of transportation policy. People like their cars, and for good reason — they offer flexibility, convenience and privacy. Instead, make transportation policy mode-agnostic. Create a level playing field between cars, transit, bikes and walking by eliminating governmental carrots and sticks altogether. The message: You’re welcome to drive your car if that’s what you prefer — just don’t expect us to subsidize your preference.

End free parking. The way to curtail excessive car usage shouldn’t be to create artificial scarcities of parking, it should be to cease creating artificial surpluses of parking. Municipal policy subsidizes parking in many ways: mandating that property owners provide parking spaces, using tax-free municipal bonds to erect new parking garages and providing on-street parking for free, to name a few. Eliminating parking mandates and subsidies will increase the cost of car ownership, achieving liberal-progressive ends, but will do so in a way that deprives conservatives any philosophical basis for objecting. Continue reading

Coal Giant Alpha Pays Biggest Water Fine Ever

MTRBy Peter Galuszka

Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, the coal giant that took over troubled Massey Energy of Richmond in 2011, has the dubious honor paying the highest fines ever of $27.5 million for water pollution violations at its coal mining operations in five Appalachian states, including Virginia.

Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where an explosion killed 29 miners in the worst such disaster in the U.S. in 40 years, held the previous water pollution fine record of $20 million issued in 2008.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that from 2006 to 2013, Alpha and its subsidiaries violated water pollution permits 6,000 times and allowed toxic materials such as heavy metals into streams and the watersheds of Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania besides Virginia. The firm will also pay $200 million to reduce such toxic discharges.

The settlement comes after a pair of unrelated water pollution situations involving coal in West Virginia and North Carolina. Some 300,000 residents of the Charleston area went without drinking water for several days when a toxic chemical used to treat coal leaked into a river. Duke Energy faces fines in North Carolina for improperly maintaining its coal ash storage facilities, leading to a substantial spill into the Dan River which provides drinking water for Danville and eventually, Virginia Beach.

Alpha has touted its “Running Right” safety and management program as it absorbed Massey Energy and its rich coal reserves in a $7 billion deal. Alpha said it was retraining Massey workers who had suffered from Massey’s abusive corporate culture that cut corners on mine safety and environmental control, regulators say.

Alpha had agreed to pay $200 million in a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Southern West Virginia to cover violations from the Upper Big Branch which it bought and closed after acquiring Massey. Alpha later settled a number of shareholder lawsuits for $265 million. Some of the payout funding had factored into funds set up by Massey before the acquisition by Alpha.

Like most Appalachian coal producers, Alpha has been taking hits with soft markets for steam and metallurgical coal. Its 2013 revenues were $5 billion compared with $7 billion the year before.

Environmentalists say that Alpha’s fine does not address the massive ecological destruction of mountaintop removal strip mining which they say should be stopped at the permit stage. Alpha operates a number of such mines.

The latest fines involve 79 active coal mines and 25 coal processing plants.

Federal investigators are still probing Massey for violations of safety laws related to the operation of Upper Big Branch where the explosion occurred April 5, 2010 and other mines. So far, three former employees have been convicted and Massey’s former CEO Don Blankenship is said to be a target of the probe. There is also a suggestion that Alpha is cooperating with federal investigators in the investigation.

A Distracting Doctrine

agenda21Instead of fixating on the United Nation’s Agenda 21 as a threat to American liberties, conservatives should articulate fiscally responsible, market-driven policies to address the very real challenges facing local governments in the United States.

by James A. Bacon

The anti-Agenda 21 movement, which views the United Nations as the prime mover behind local sustainability initiatives, is a growing force in many states and local governments across the United States. While anti-Agenda 21 theorists share some of the same language and principles as mainstream conservatives, they have little meaningful to contribute to the debate over environmental, transportation, land-use and property-rights issues. Their ill-documented conspiracy talk distracts from the kind of discussions that conservatives should be having. To govern effectively, conservative elected officials need to re-frame the debate over growth and development in a way that is forward-looking, grounded in hard facts and in line with conservative values.

The Anti-Agenda 21 Movement

Over the past few years, the anti-Agenda 21 cause has emerged from obscurity into a force capable of pushing resolutions through state legislatures. The movement is populist and decentralized — many adherents are ordinary citizens whose passions have been inflamed in local land-use disputes — although it does have the backing of the John Birch Society and talk show personality Glen Beck. In some states, Anti-Agenda 21 partisans have leveraged their influence by co-opting local Tea Parties and other groups sympathetic to property rights and limited government. Sometimes they find a sympathetic ear among conservative elected officials. But they also use aggressive means – packing public meetings, singling out politicians for vocal criticism – to intimidate local officials with more moderate views into going along.

Activists disseminate their views by means of speeches, books, websites, fliers, YouTube videos and social media. There is no definitive source for the anti-Agenda 21 movement. Most writing is impressionistic and scattershot. However, several themes do appear repeatedly in the literature.

(1) The Agenda 21 agreement adopted at the 1992 United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro is the fountainhead of the global sustainability movement. The document provides a comprehensive plan for achieving “environmental sustainability” and “social justice” at the expense of property rights and individual liberties.

(2) Agenda 21 provides a blueprint for a radical restructuring of the American way of life. Social-engineering goals include returning much of North America back to a wild and natural state, herding Americans into dense urban centers, replacing single family dwellings with multifamily housing and phasing out the automobile in favor of bicycles and mass transit.

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