Category Archives: Science & Technology

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.

Renewable Energy: A Tale of Two Virginias

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

Apologies to Mr. Dickens

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias – at least when it comes to renewable energy.

One is the state’s traditional political and business elite, including Dominion Resources and large manufacturers, the State Corporation Commission and others.

They insist that the state must stick with big, base-loaded electricity generating plants like nuclear and natural gas – not so much solar and wind –to ensure that prices for business are kept low. Without this, recruiting firms may be difficult.

The other is a collection of huge, Web-based firms that state recruiters would give an eyetooth to snag. They include Amazon, Google, Facebook and others that tend to have roots on the West Coast where thinking about energy is a bit different.

Besides the Internet, what they have in common is that they all vow to use 100 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources. What’s more, to achieve this goal, all are investing millions in their own renewable power plants. They are bypassing traditional utilities like Dominion which have been sluggish in moving to wind and solar.

So, you have a strange dichotomy. Older business groups are saying that the proposed federal Clean Power Plan should be throttled because it would rely on expensive renewables that would drive away new business. Meanwhile, the most successful and younger Web-based firms obviously aren’t buying that argument.

I have a story about this in this week’s Style Weekly.

In Virginia, the trend is evidenced by Amazon Web Services, which sells time on its cloud-computing network to other firms. It is joining a Spanish company, Iberdola Renewables LLC, in building a 208-megawatt wind farm on 22,000 acres in northeastern North Carolina, just as few miles from the Virginia border. Three weeks earlier, on June 18, Amazon announced it plans a 170-megawatt solar farm in Accomack County on the Eastern Shore.

Dominion, which has renewable projects in California, Utah and Indiana and the beginnings of some small ones in Virginia, says it is not part of the projects. It could possibly get electricity indirectly from them. Amazon’s power will be sold on regional power grids to business and utilities.

When they complete such sales, the Net-focused firms will get renewable energy certificates that can be used to show that they have put as much renewable energy into the electricity grid as they have used, says Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

This will be especially important in Northern Virginia where there are masses of computer server farms used by Amazon and others. These centers used 500 megawatts of power in 2012 and demand is expected to double by 2017. Also, for years, the region has hosted such a large Internet infrastructure that at least half, perhaps 70 percent, of the Net’s traffic goes through there.

Part of the back story of this remarkable and utility-free push for renewables is that environmental groups are shaming modern, forward-looking firms like Amazon to do it.

Amazon Web Services was the target of criticism last year when Greenpeace surveyed how firms were embracing renewable energy. The report stated that the firm “provides the infrastructure for much of the Internet” but “remains among the dirtiest and least transparent companies” that is “far behind its major competitors.”

Dominion also got bashed in the report. Greenpeace says, “Unfortunately, Dominion’s generation mix is composed of almost entirely dirty energy sources.” Coal, nuclear and natural gas make up the vast majority of its power sources.

Its efforts to move to renewable sources have been modest at best. In regulatory filings, Dominion officials have complained that renewable energy, especially wind, is costly and unreliable although they include it in their long-term planning.

Dominion has plans for 20-megawatt solar farm near Remington in Fauquier County and is working on a wind farm on 2,600 acres the utility owns in southwestern Virginia. It has renewable projects out-of-state in California, Utah and Indiana. The output is a fraction of what Amazon plans in the region.

In a pilot offshore wind project, Dominion had planned on building two wind turbines capable of producing 12 megawatts of power in the waters of Virginia Beach. It later shut down the project, saying new studies revealed it would cost too much. It says it might continue with a scaled down project if it got extra funding, such as federal subsidies.

The utility says it must build more natural gas plants and perhaps build a third nuclear unit at its North Anna power plant to make sure that affordable electricity is always available for its customers.

As Amazon announced its new renewal projects, Greenpeace has changed its attitude about the company. Now it praises Amazon for its initiatives in Virginia and North Carolina. “I would like to think we have pushed Amazon in the right direction,” says David Pomerantz, a Greenpeace spokesman and analyst. He adds that Amazon has some work to do in making its energy policies “more transparent.”

One unresolved issue is that two neighboring states, North Carolina and Maryland, have “renewable portfolio standards” that require that set percentages of power produced there come from renewables. West Virginia had such a standard but has dropped it. In Virginia, the standard is voluntary, meaning that Dominion is under no legal obligation to move to solar or wind. It also gives the SCC, the power rate regulator, authority to nix new power proposals because they might cost consumers too much, providing Dominion with a handy excuse to move slowly on renewables.

Another matter, says Pomerantz, is whether Virginia’s legislators will enact “renewable energy friendly policies” or watch hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable project investments go to other states, such as North Carolina.

So, you have a separate reality. Traditionalists are saying that expensive renewables are driving away new business, while the most attractive new businesses are so unimpressed with traditionalist thinking that they are making big investments to promote renewable energy independently.

It isn’t the first like this has happened.

Big City Advantage in Innovation Not What It Used to Be

agglomeration

Image credit: “Cities and Ideas,” National Bureau of Economic Research.

by James A. Bacon

Maybe the Internet is allowing innovation and creativity to break free from the confines of geography after all. Economists conventionally argue that large metropolitan areas are better incubators of inventions and innovations than smaller cities and rural areas. However, a new study, “Cities and Ideas,” by Mikko Packalen and Jay Bhattacharya, finds that the relationship between city size and inventiveness is not as strong as it once was.

I partially jest when I refer to the impact of the Internet. In the 1990s, starry-eyed dreamers theorized that the Internet would enable people to plug into global commerce from a mountain cabin or small town coffee shop. As rural America continues to empty out and population migrates to the bigger cities, that promise now seems a cruel joke. But something is changing. As Packalen and Bhattacharya demonstrate, big cities are far less dominant than they were a century ago. Furthermore, the geographic de-concentration of invention long preceded the rise of the Internet. Other trends — the proliferation of telephones, the spread of roads and the automobile, the rise of land-grant universities in out-of-the-way places — may have played equally critical roles in diffusing the capacity for invention.

Scholars first theorized about the correlation between city size and innovation, which they called an “agglomeration effect” in the 1920s. There was a solid basis for the theory then — large cities were the dominant incubators of innovation; rural areas were backwaters. But even as agglomeration-effect theory became more deeply rooted among scholars studying urban geography, the reality upon which the theory was based was steadily eroding.

To measure invention, Packalen and Bhattacharya built a database of U.S. patents between 1836 and 2010, identifying the inputs for each patent from previous patents, how old those inputs were, and where the inventions took place. The study gives great weight to the age of the patents, distinguishing between patented inventions that draw upon new ideas and inventions that draw upon older ideas. The authors explain:

If we find that inventors in large cities build on fresh ideas more often than inventors in smaller  cities, the evidence would quantify a specific benefit to locating inventive ideas in large cities. On the other hand, if we find that inventors in large cities are no more likely to try out new ideas in their work than inventors in smaller cities, the evidence would suggest that location may be largely irrelevant for inventive performance.

The dominant theory in academia today is that size and density matter. The bigger and denser a metropolitan region, the greater the number of people who can interact on a face-to-face basis. Proximity to other people allows innovators to conceive, discuss and test new ideas, and commercialize them in the marketplace. As can be seen in the chart above, which compares idea inputs of patents between cities in the 95th and 50th percentiles (large versus midsized cities) that was certainly true a century ago. But the dominance of big cities has declined, despite a few ups and downs, since then. Today, adjusted for the margin of error, there is very little difference at all.

Bacon’s bottom line: I am not equipped to dissect the statistical methodology employed to reach these conclusions, although I do have a couple of questions. Why the focus on the newness of the ideas behind the patents? Are patents based on newer ideas necessarily more consequential than those based on older inputs? Why not measure the frequency of patents? Surely the number of patents, adjusted for population size, is also an important indicator — perhaps the most important indicator — of inventiveness.

Those questions aside, “Cities and Ideas” would seem to provide hope for America’s small towns and rural regions. In this blog, I have frequently written about the tremendous disadvantages facing smaller communities when competing with big cities for human capital and corporate investment. The odds seem hopelessly stacked against the little guys. But if it turns out that it’s just as easy to keep up with the latest technology in Small Town USA as it is in Big City USA, a lot of people — and that includes me — may have to adjust their thinking.

Is NoVa over the Job Hump?

Nova_jobs

Annual Job Change, Northern Virginia, 2002-2015. Image credit: Terry Clower.

There has been considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth over the abrupt halt in economic growth in Northern Virginia due to sequestration-mandated cutbacks in defense spending and other federal government programs. My fellow Bacon’s Rebellion bloggers and I have led the wailing chorus. Indeed, Don Rippert engaged in some ferocious teeth gnashing in a post this morning.

There’s no question that the Northern Virginia economy has under-performed the national economy over the past two years. But there is evidence to suggest that Virginia’s economic engine may be over the hump. That chart above comes from Terry L. Clower, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, who presented it during a business round table sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Institute two days ago.

After shedding thousands of jobs in 2012, 2013 and 2014, the federal government has stabilized employment, actually adding a few in 2015. After declining for three  years straight, federal procurement inched back up in 2014. Perhaps most important, Northern Virginia’s professional & business services occupational category grew by 5% between April 2014 and April 2015. That category is the economic driver of the Northern Virginia economy, and the fact that it is expanding faster than federal employment and federal procurement suggests that maybe, just maybe, Northern Virginia tech sector is diversifying beyond the federal government.

It’s hard to imagine that the federal government, with its severe long-term budget constraints, can resume the spending growth path that propelled the Washington metro economy for so many years. Still, there are signs that Northern Virginia businesses are adapting to the new normal. I’m hopeful that the promising statistics represent more than a dead cat bounce.

– JAB

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?
 

What Role for Nuclear Power in Virginia’s Energy Future?

virginia_nukesby James A. Bacon

Virginia can lead a national renaissance in nuclear energy, argue Robert Hartwell and Donald Hoffman in a new white paper published by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. They advance two main arguments: (1) nuclear is an economical source of green energy emitting near-zero levels of carbon dioxide, and (2) nuclear can support job creation and contribute to the tax base in Virginia.

As the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan compels Virginia to retire coal-fired power plants as the only practical way to meet strict CO2 emission goals, citizens face a critical decision whether or not to build a new nuclear power plant at Dominion Virginia Power’s North Anna nuclear facility. While Hartwell and Hoffman do not endorse the particulars of Dominion’s plans, they make the case that nuclear power is both safe and economical.

Neither Hoffmann nor Hartwell are disinterested parties. Hoffman chairs the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium Authority and Hartwell is president of Hartwell Capitol Consulting, which does work on energy and environmental issues. But as the debate over a third nuclear plant at North Anna heats up, they provide an advance look at how the pro-nuclear side will frame the debate.

Safety. Despite the impression created by highly publicized incidents like Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island, nuclear power is safe, they assert. “There has never been a nuclear power accident in the United States resulting in radiation being emitted into the atmosphere.” Likewise, there have been “no accidents of any kind involving nuclear” in Virginia, including Dominion’s nuclear plants, dozens of nuclear-powered vessel, and experimental reactors at Fort Belvoir near Alexandria.

As for the North Anna nuclear plants being located on a fault line, they write:

During the 5.8 earthquake centered in Louisa County in August 2011, the North Anna 1 and 2 plants automatically shut down and were carefully checked before restarting nearly 90 days later. No damage occurred although some of the nuclear storage casks were moved closer together and some slid more than 4.5 inches.

Cost. Studies have found that nuclear power generated in Virginia was the least expensive of any power generation source. The cost per kilowatt hour was estimated at 0.6 cents compared to 3.5 cents for coal and 4.5 cents for natural gas. (The authors do not cite their sources for this data.)

Economic development. Aside from California, Virginia is the largest electricity importer among the 50 states. Moreover, the state will need more than 4,000 megawatts of additional power to meet the increased demand for electricity by 2021. Building power plants in Virginia creates jobs locally and bolsters the tax base.

Experts have found that the average nuclear power plant generates $470 million in sales of goods and services annually. One plant provides approximately $40 million in labor income each year and 400 to 700 full-time permanent jobs which pay 36% more than other local jobs. Each plant also generates an average of $16 million in state and local tax revenue for schools, roads and hospitals.

Virginia is particularly well suited for nuclear power, the authors contend. “The sheer number of nuclear operations and nuclear-related facilities, engineering schools and federal facilities and critical infrastructure which could benefit from safe and secure nuclear power is breathtaking.” An idea of the number of players who could benefit from a renaissance of nuclear power can be seen in the list of nuclear-related companies with a presence in Virginia:

  • Areva
  • Babcock and Wilcox
  • Bechtel Power Corporation
  • Bridgeborn
  • Dominion Virginia Power
  • Excel Services Corporation
  • Fluor Daniel Services Corporation
  • GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy
  • Huntington Ingalls (Newport News Nuclear)
  • Siemens
  • The Atlantic Group
  • Thorium Power (Lightbridge)
  • Toshiba America Nuclear Energy

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Taxation and the Creative Class

science_stars

Urban geographer Richard Florida has famously argued that members of the “creative class” — scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and other professions who contribute disproportionately to economic growth — gravitate to metropolitan regions marked by the three “t’s” — technology, talent and tolerance. Now new research suggests that he may have to add a fourth “t” — taxes.

A National Bureau of Economic Research paper, “Taxation and the International Mobility of Inventors,” studies the effects of taxation on the international mobility of inventors, with an emphasis on the superstars who have the most, or most valuable patents. The results suggest that a 10 percentage-point cut in a nation’s top tax rates is associated with about a 1% increase in the number of domestic superstar inventors. The number is even higher for the number of foreign inventors — a 10 percentage-point increase drop is associated with a 38% increase for this group. Inventors who have worked for multinational firms appear to be most likely to respond to tax differentials.

Another study, “The Effect of State Taxes on the Geographical Location of Top Earners: Evidence from Star Scientists,” finds that tax sensitivity is even greater when accounting for cross-state location of top corporate scientists in the U.S.; there is little effect on academic or government researchers.  “Overall, we conclude that state taxes have a significant effect on the geographical location of star scientists and possibly other highly skilled workers. While there are many other factors that drive when innovative individual and innovative companies decide to locate, there are enough firms and workers on the margin that relative taxes matter.”

Sad to say, Virginia doesn’t even rank in the list of the ten states with the largest populations of star scientists. But if we’re serious about wanting to attract corporate research here, personal tax rates are a factor that must be considered.

— JAB

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.

Finally, Tobacco Commission Gets Reforms

Feinman

Feinman

By Peter Galuszka

Virginia’s infamous tobacco commission appears to be finally getting needed reforms 15 years after it went into existence.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced today that he was appointing a new executive director, Lynchburg native Evan Feinman, ordering a slimmed down board of directors and requiring a dollar-for-dollar match on grants the commission doles out to support community development in Virginia’s old tobacco belt.

In another break with the past, McAuliffe is renaming the old Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

That might sound cosmetic, but any change is welcome given the commission’s history.

Since its formation after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and four large cigarette makers, the commission has been spending millions of dollars won from the tobacco firms supposedly to help tobacco growers in a region roughly following the North Carolina border wean themselves off of the golden leaf toward economic projects that are far healthier.

Instead, the commission has been racked by scandal after scandal, including the conviction of a former director, John W. Forbes II, for embezzling $4 million in public money. He is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.

The commission also figured in the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell since it was suggested my McDonnell as a possible source of funding for businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. during McDonnell’s trial for corruption. Williams, who was the star prosecution witness against McDonnell, got help from McDonnell in promoting one of his vitamin supplement products. McDonnell was convicted of 11 felonies and is now appealing.

The old commission also has been criticized by a major state audit for funding dubious projects and not keeping track of whether the money it has doled out has done much good. It had been criticized for acting as a slush fund for projects favored by Southside and southwestern Virginia politicians.

McAuliffe’s reforms include reducing the commission’s board from 31 to 28 members and requiring that 13 of them have experience in business, finance or education.

Feinman has been deputy secretary of natural resources and worked with McAuliffe’s post-election team.

It’s too soon, of course, to know if these changes will bring results, but anything that moves the commission away from its past and the grasp of mossback Tobacco Road politicians is welcome.

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.