Category Archives: Social services

The Strange Story of Health Diagnostic Laboratory

HDL's Mallory before her fall.

HDL’s Mallory before her fall.

By Peter Galuszka

The biggest problem facing the health care industry in Virginia and the rest of the country isn’t Obamacare or the lack of new medical discoveries. It the lack of transparency that hides what is really going on with pricing tests, drugs and hospital and doctors’ fees. Big Insurance and Big and Small Pharma cut secret deals. We are all affected.

I’ve been wanting to blog about this – especially after Jim Bacon’s recent post on the supposed tech trend in health care – but I wanted to wait until a story I’ve been working on for a few weeks was posted at Style Weekly, where I am a contributing editor.

In it, I explore the strange story of Health Diagnostic Laboratory, a famed Richmond start-up that went from zero to $383 million in revenues and 800 employees in a few short years. The firm said it was developing advanced bio-marker tests that could predict heart disease and diabetes long before they took root. HDL’s officials thought it would transform the $1.6 trillion health care industry.

Richmond’s business elite applauded HDL founder Tonya Mallory, a woman who grew up just north of the city and had the strong personality and drive to create the HDL behemoth. Badly wanting a high tech champion in a not-so high tech town, the city’s boosters did much to publicize HDL and Mallory, believing they could draw in more startups.

The story was too good to be true. It start to deflate last summer when the federal government noted that HDL was one of several testing labs being probed for paying doctors $17 for using HDL tests for Medicare patients when Medicare authorized $3 per test. Mallory resigned Dept. 23. Several lawsuits by Mallory’s former employer, Cigna health insurance and another have accused HDL of fraud. HDL has responded in court.

One legal picture suggests that HDL wasn’t a true tech startup but a new firm that stole intellectual property and sales staff. HDL says no, but its new leader Joe McConnell has taken steps to reform sales and marketing and is said to be working with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a federal investigation.

The HDL affair raises issues about the inside marketing and apparent payoffs that are the biggest problem the health care industry faces. It doesn’t matter what kind of “market magic” combined with new technology comes up if something like this keeps happening.

This is all the more reason for a universal payer system. That may be “socialized” medicine but in my opinion it is the only logical way to go.

Campus Rapes Must be Reported to Police

hunting groundBy Peter Galuszka

You can’t have it both ways.

The Virginia General Assembly is taking steps to make it mandatory that officials at state universities report to police allegations of sexual assault, except for crisis counselors.

The move follows the incident at the University of Virginia which was turned upside down by a flawed report in Rolling Stone magazine that a female student had been gang raped in 2012.

Although there are strong doubts that the rape took place in that case, it broached the issue that if a student reports rape on campus, school administrators may not be inclined to do much about it. The assaults often occur at parties where alcohol is readily available.

After the Rolling Stone bombshell hit, U.Va. officials temporarily suspended activities at fraternities and sororities to sort matters out. The university now has rules that ban mixed drinks and require sober monitors at Greek parties.

That’s a good step, but I think the General Assembly is wise to take it a step further with its requirement that alleged rapes be referred to law enforcement. Why not? Rape is a serious felony nearly up there with murder. Would school officials not report that one student had apparently killed another? Crisis counselors would be exempt from the requirement, so students in pain and unsure of what to do would still have a protected outlet to find help.

The Washington Post editorialized today that the legislature should take slower steps when considering new laws to help prevent campus rape. The newspaper believes that pushing ahead with mandatory rules on reporting rape would make victims not want to report anything at all. It wants to wait until a state commission tasked with reviewing campus rape issues deliver its report.

The Post is wrong here. Rape is rape. Of course it is incredibly personal, but if it is a crime, it should be reported as one. Doing so not only would affirm the rights of the victim, it also might help exonerate supposed perpetrators who have been falsely accused.

Having rape regarded as a true crime would demystify it and allow all sides to deal with it properly. And it’s not as if rape is suddenly no longer a college problem after the Rolling Stone story evaporated. A new documentary released at the recent Sundance film festival called “The Hunting Ground” is said to uproot rape cultures at schools such as Harvard, Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

If the film is accurate, Virginia legislators are right to address the problem, regardless of how the University of Virginia situation played out.

Incidentally,  poll taken by the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University shows that 90 percent of voters survey think the police must be informed  of campus rape allegations rather than have them handle internally. The results were released today.

Interview: McAuliffe’s Economic Goals

 maurice jonesBy Peter Galuszka

For a glimpse of where the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe is heading, here’s an interview I did with Maurice Jones, the secretary of commerce and trade that was published in Richmond’s Style Weekly.

Jones, a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College and University of Virginia law, is a former Rhodes Scholar who had been a deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. Before that, he was publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, which owns Style.

According to Jones, McAuliffe is big on jobs creation, corporate recruitment and upgrading education, especially at the community college and jobs-training levels. Virginia is doing poorly in economic growth, coming in recently at No. 48, ahead of only Maryland and the District of Columbia which, like Virginia have been hit hard by federal spending cuts.

Jones says he’s been traveling overseas a lot in his first year in office. Doing so helped land the $2 billion paper with Shandong Tranlin in Chesterfield County. The project, which will create 2,000 jobs, is the largest single investment by the Chinese in the U.S. McAuliffe also backs the highly controversial $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline planned by Dominion because its natural gas should spawn badly-needed industrial growth in poor counties near the North Carolina border.

Read more, read here.

(Note: I have a new business blog going at Style Weekly called “The Deal.” Find it on Style’s webpage —   www.styleweekly.com)

Takeaways From Bob McDonnell’s Sentencing

Mcd sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

The outpouring of support for convicted former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell was overwhelming at his sentencing hearing yesterday at which he was told that he will serve two years in a federal penitentiary.

And this very support stands in marked contrast to McDonnell’s performance on the witness stand during his marathon trial last summer. There he alternated between saying that he “holds himself accountable” and then blaming his aides, vitamin salesman Jonnie R. Williams and, of course, his estranged wife Maureen who was set up to take the fall.

So which Bob is really Bob?

In U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer’s courtroom, the hours’ long reading of letters of support and 11 witness testimonials from the stand became tedious and repetitive. Bob kneels down to comfort a sick woman. Bob helps out Katrina hurricane victims on his week-long vacation, builds a basketball court and breaks his jaw. Bob restores voting rights to 8,128 convicted felons who had served their time. Bob’s only flaws are his gullibility and naïvite. Bob writes thank you notes.

The most impressive supporter by far was L. Douglas Wilder, the former Richmond mayor who became the first-ever African-American governor. Always unpredictable, the Democratic politician came down hard on Bob’s side, saying he’s known him for years and found him to “to be of his word.” Wilder touched off applause in the courtroom he blamed Williams as “the man who started this bribe” as “the one who got away clean.”

All of these people were trying to convince Judge Spencer that Bob should not get jail time but 6,000 hours of community service. One option would be to stick him in a service coordination job on the island nation of Haiti. The job normally would pay $100,000 including benefits but Bob wouldn’t get the money and would work and have to sleep in a hot and buggy room. Other possibilities including holding an unpaid $60,000 job coordinating a food bank in southwest Virginia.

To his credit, Judge Spencer didn’t bite. Prosecutor Michael Dry said that McDonnell is free to do all the community service he wants after he serves his time behind bars. McDonnell could have gotten more than 12 years in prison. Spencer gave him two.

The sentence is on the light side but is probably fair. McDonnell has been tremendously humiliated. He completely dishonored his public trust and will go down in history as the Virginia governor who was corrupt. At least he is getting some jail time.

And he might win on appeal. It’s not a slam dunk but there is respected legal opinion out there that “honest services fraud” can be viewed in a tight or loose focus. Spencer chose a tight focus but we will have to see if the appeal McDonnell has filed gets to the U.S. Fourth Circuit and then Supreme Court.

Next up is wife Maureen, who is a tragic figure and also was convicted of corruption. Her own daughters characterized her as a sick woman who badly needs help. Some columnists have pumped her up, saying she’s the unsung heroine stuck raising the kids while the ambitious politician is selfishly away building his career.

Something about that argument doesn’t ring true to me. Maureen McDonnell may well have despised the time Bob spent away from her but she also was right beside him, pushing her own agenda such as selling nutraceuticals and backing pet programs such as marketing Virginia wines and helped injured military veterans. As First Lady, she was no shrinking violet when it came to letting her wishes known to state employees.

She comes up for sentencing Feb. 20 and now that her husband’s fate is known, it seems likely she won’t get any jail time. If so, maybe she can get the help she seems to badly need and the McDonnell family can start to heal their terrible wounds.

One of the character witnesses Tuesday was William Howell, the Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates who provided the enormously valuable insight that “people would describe Bob as a Boy Scout.” Not only is Howell’s remark insipid, it hides how much he’s responsible for maintaining the total mess that policing ethics among Virginia public officials has become.

No matter how many Wednesday morning Bible studies Howell says he attended with McDonnell, he still did nothing to improve regulation of political donations and gifts. If anything, he’s the problem not the solution since he minimizes every decent initiative to rationalize Virginia’s loosey-goosey system. If there were clear rules, McDonnell may never have gotten caught in his quagmire. He might have known when to avoid crossing the line.

Howell told the court that the General Assembly is busy setting its house right and that McDonnell’s predicament “Most certainly . . . has had a deterrent effect.” That was likely the most ridiculous statement during the five hours of court testimony on a horrid sentencing day.

Virginia’s Top Stories in 2014

mcd convictedBy Peter Galuszka

The Year 2014 was quite eventful if unsettling. It represented some major turning points for the Old Dominion.

Here are my picks for the top stories:

  • Robert F. McDonnell becomes the highest-ranking former or serving state official to be convicted of corruption. The six-week-long trial from July to September of the Republican former governor and his wife, Maureen, was international news. In terms of trash, it offered everything – greed, tackiness, a dysfunctional marriage, a relationship “triangle,” and an inner glimpse of how things work at the state capital.  More importantly, it ends forever the conceit that there is a “Virginia Way” in which politicians are gentlemen above reproach, the status quo prevails and ordinary voters should be kept as far away from the political process as possible. It also shows the unfinished job of reforming ethics. The hidden heroes are honest state bureaucrats who resisted top-down pushes to vet dubious vitamin pills plus the State Police who did their investigative duty.
  • Eric Cantor loses. Cantor, another Republican, had been riding high as the 7th District Congressman and House Majority Leader. A wunderkind of the Richmond business elite, Cantor was positioned to be House Speaker and was considered invulnerable, at least until David Brat, an unknown college economics professor and populist libertarian, exploited fractures in the state GOP to win a stunning primary upset. Cantor immediately landed in a high-paying lobbying job for a financial house.
  • Terry McAuliffe takes over. The Democrat Washington insider and Clinton crony beat hard-right fanatic Kenneth Cuccinelli in a tight 2013 race. He bet almost everything on getting the GOP-run General Assembly to expand Medicaid benefits to 400,000 low income Virginians. He lost and will try again. He’s done a pretty good job at snaring new business, notably the $2 billion Shandong-Tralin paper mill from China for Chesterfield County. It will employ 2,000.
  • Roads projects blow up. Leftover highway messes such as the bypass of U.S. 29 in Charlottesville finally got spiked for now. Big questions remain about what happened to the $400 million or so that the McDonnell Administration spent on the unwanted U.S. 460 road to nowhere in southeastern Virginia.
  • Gay marriage becomes legal. A U.S. District Judge in Norfolk found Virginia’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court pushed opening gay marriage farther. The rulings helped turn the page on the state’s prejudicial past, such as the ban on interracial marriage that lasted until the late 1960s.
  • Fracking changes state energy picture. A flood of natural gas from West Virginia and Pennsylvania has utilities like Dominion Resources pushing gas projects. It’s been nixing coal plants and delaying new nukes and renewables. Dominion is also shaking things up by pitching a $5 billion, 550-mile-long pipeline through some of the state’s most picturesque areas – just one of several pipelines being pitched. The EPA has stirred things up with complex new rules in cutting carbon emissions and the state’s business community and their buddies at the State Corporation Commission have organized a massive opposition campaign. McAuliffe, meanwhile, has issued his “everything” energy plan that looks remarkably like former governor McDonnell’s.
  • State struggles with budget gaps. Sequestration of federal spending and defense cuts have sent officials scrambling to plug a $2.4 billion gap in the biennial budget. It is back to the same old smoke and mirrors to raise taxes while not seeming to. Obvious solutions – such as raising taxes on gasoline and tobacco – remain off limits.
  • College rape became a hot issue after Rolling Stone printed a flawed story about an alleged gang rape of a female student at the prestigious University of Virginia in 2012. Progressives pushed for raising awareness while conservatives took full advantage of the reporter’s reporting gaps to pretend that sex abuse is not really an issue.
  • Poverty is on the radar screen, especially in Richmond which has poverty rate of 27 percent (70 percent in some neighborhoods) and other spots such as Newport News. Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones got a lot of national press attention for his campaign to eradicate poverty but it is really hard to understand what he’s actually doing or whether it is successful. The real attention in Richmond is on such essentials as replacing the Diamond baseball stadium, justifying a training camp for the Washington Redskins and giving big subsidies for a rich San Diego brewer of craft beer.
  • Day care regulation. Virginia has a horrible reputation for allowing small, home day care centers to operate without regulation. Dozens have children have died over the past few years at them. This year there were deaths at centers in Midlothian and Lynchburg.
  • The continued madness of the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. This out-of-control slush fund in the tobacco belt continued its waywardness by talking with Democratic State Sen. Phil Pucket about a six-figure job just as Puckett was to resign and deny a swing vote in the senate in favor of expanding Medicaid. The commission also drew attention for inside plays by the politically powerful Kilgore family and giving $30 million in an unsolicited grant to utility Dominion.

Redistricting, Ethics Panel Pushes Ahead

seal_virginiaBy Peter Galuszka

Against strong chances that their efforts will be killed in the self-serving General Assembly, a panel is pushing ahead with badly needed reforms in government ethics and redistricting.

The bipartisan Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government wants to change the state constitution to create and independent redistricting commission tasked with remaking voting districts without regard to an election’s outcome.

Headed by Republican former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Democrat former U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, the group proposes that the redistricting commission be made up of five members. One each would be chosen by the House of Delegates speaker and minority leader and the same in the Senate. The four people would choose a fifth one and if they can’t decide, the state’s chief justice of the state Supreme Court would make the decision.

The idea is coming forward after two big events. One is the first-time ever conviction of a former or sitting governor in the state on corruption charges. The other was a federal court decision in October that the lines of the 3rd Congressional District were drawn in an unconstitutional way by packing in African-Americans. Doing so ensured victories by black politicians while diluted the black vote in neighboring ones.

The state constitution requires state and federal districts to be redrawn every 10 years to changes in settlement patterns. It has also been complicated by the Voting Rights Act, a 1960s-era vehicle that tried to correct the wrongs of white-dominated Southern states erecting districts so black votes were kept away.

At the moment very few of the races of other General Assembly are competitive. They are designed to keep incumbents in power which, in most rural districts, are Republicans. Thus, the real clash of ideas comes from a very tiny margin of voters and activists at Republican primaries that are often not representative of mainstream thinking.

Likewise, Virginia badly needs to address its “anything goes” policies regarding campaign donations and accepting gifts. This is a big reason why Robert F. McDonnell got into such big trouble with his corruption conviction that could put him in jail for a decade or more. Gov. Terry McAuliffe created the Bolling-Boucher commission just after McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in a federal court in Richmond.

These reforms are absolutely necessary. If the General Assembly stubbornly deep-sixes the redistricting plan, someone else will have to come in. A federal judge has given the state until April 15 to redraw the 3rd district or the feds will do it.

And, as the McDonnell case shows, if Virginia goes over the top with ethics violations, the feds will do it, too. Underlining that point, the U.S. Probation Office is recommending double the usual prison time for McDonnell. Analysts say it is to make the statement crystal clear.

But, this is Virginia, unfortunately. Instead of dealing head-on with serious ethics problems, the ruling elite is mounting a campaign to give McDonnell time in community service instead of behind bars. Its proponents include the usual players like House Speaker Bill Howell and Tom Farrell of the utility Dominion.

Their game is to keep the status quo for as long as they can. Too bad times are changing, but the longer they stall, the more they hurt the people of Virginia.

Is McAuliffe Crying Wolf on the Economy?

naval shipyard By Peter Galuszka

Just how bad is the Virginia economy, really?

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who released a rather modest state budget proposal just a few days ago, has said that the state’s economic picture is bleak because of government spending cuts, most of them at the U.S. Department of Defense, the state’s largest employer, and at other agencies.

“We’re looking down the barrel of a gun,” he told reporters, noting that automatic cuts in federal spending due to sequestration and the run-down of military spending after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are badly hurting the state.

There are two curious points. The Washington Post notes that McAuliffe had based some of his gloomy thinking after revenues dipped by $439 million earlier this year. This relates to the $2.4 billion shortfall in the biannual budget. Now, says Finance Secertary Ric Brown, revenues have picked up as the governor and lawmakers have worked to close the shortfall.

There is also a story in this morning’s The Virginian-Pilot that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (located in Portsmouth, actually) plans to hire some 1,500 workers by this coming September. This will be a net gain of 800 workers making about $21 an hour. The other 700 workers will be to replace retiring ones.

The shipyard, which can handle work on large nuclear ships like aircraft carriers, has a total workforce of 9,500 and the extra hires will take it past 10,000, the highest number since the early 1990s. Most of the new jobs are in skilled trades such as welding and ship fitting.

The Pilot reports that Hampton Roads will lose a total of 18,000 skilled workers by the end of the decade as older employees retire. Replacing them should help mitigate the cuts in federal spending and McAuliffe is doing the right thing by focusing on jobs training and credentialing that will boost high-paying blue collar jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.

The state’s 23 community colleges are working to come up with a plan required by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, passed this year, to streamline training and make sure that trained workers pass certain requirements.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recently issued a scathing report on just how disjointed job training is in the state. It said that there was no system to track how $341 million was spent in state workforce training programs and that only 16 percent of the companies in the state use it. The new federal law may help change that by requiring states to come up with four-year plans on coordinating training.

It could be that McAuliffe is crying wolf to shake up the General Assembly before it convenes Jan. 14. He’s doing just that by including funding Medicaid in his budget again and by calling for restrictions on gun sales (needed). But it may be important to keep in mind that things may not be all that bad, economically.

Suddenly, It’s Raining Gas Projects and Tax Breaks

Anti-Pipeline By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly it seems to be raining natural gas pipelines and snowing millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives for rich electric utilities.

Dominion Resources, the powerful and politically well-connected Richmond-based utility, apparently is getting $30 million in public money from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission without apparently asking for it to help build a new natural gas-fired generating plant in Brunswick County. The information was broken by the Associated Press.

Largesse for Dominion stretches to the other side of the Potomac River as well. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Calvert County Md., where Dominion has approval to convert a liquefied natural gas facility to handle natural gas exports, is going to give the utility about $560 million in tax credits.

And, back in Virginia, controversial is growing over the $5 billion natural pipeline that Virginia and three other southern utilities are planning to take natural gas drilled by hydraulic fracking methods from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has drawn criticism from environmentalists who fear that gas is not the cleaner panacea to coal that many think. Landowners complain that Dominion and its powerful Richmond law firm, McGuireWoods, are using strong arm methods to force their way on their land to survey possible routes.

mountain valley pipelineYet another pipeline – this one doesn’t involve Dominion – is drawing concern in southwestern Virginia. The $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline that would likewise begin in the fracked gaslands of northern West Virginia and head south west of Roanoke and then cut to the small town of Chatham.

The complaints are the same as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – green concerns about leaking methane and the threat of bulldozing bucolic private land by companies using eminent domain.

The Mountain Valley project is being spearheaded by EQT Corp. of Pittsburgh and NextEra Energy of Florida.

So what gives? Utilities like Dominion are using more gas, namely at its new Brunswick County natural gas plant and at an older coal-fired station that’s been converted at Bremo Bluffs on the James River. But how much gas does it actually need?

In the case of Cove Point, Dominion notes that the plant has been importing LNG from places like Northern Africa and Scandinavia for decades although imports have come to a spot given the glut of cheap, domestic gas.

Dominion, which bought the facility about a decade ago, can get gas from an older pipeline that for years has linked the Chesapeake Bay area with gasfields in Pennsylvania where some of the fracking for new product is occurring. Dominion can also tap gas from the venerable Transco Pipeline that for decades has transported gas the traditional way – from the Gulf State processing stations to the northeast.

Dominion says it already has contracts to export gas – from where it comes domestically – to utilities in Japan and India. But when one looks at the spaghetti-like twirl of all of the proposed new pipelines, one wonders what the game really is.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has a leg that bounds over to Hampton Roads from near the North Carolina border. Dominion says that this one will help supply one of its pipeline partners with gas because it serves South Hampton Roads. Ok, fine, but it might also serve another new LNG export facility in that area that has perfect deep water conditions for such a facility.

And, as some environmentalists and property owners wonder, why couldn’t the energy companies tap rights of way near existing pipelines? Why can’t existing pipelines be expanded? Go back to the utilities and they say they don’t know exactly where the pipelines will go.

That is very curious. While they don’t know where mega-billion project projects are going to go, they seem to be getting tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in public funds and tax breaks to help them proceed with the Brave New World of natural gas.

 

Virginia’s Very Own Keystone XL

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

The rise of natural gas keeps raising more questions about the proper future of Virginia’s and the nation’s energy policies. What just a little while ago seemed a benign source of energy has gushed into a mass of controversy and advantage.

One focus of the conflict – good and bad – is the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Dominion Transmission and three other southern utilities want to build from the booming natural gas fracklands of northern West Virginia, across sensitive Appalachian terrain and on through Virginia and North Carolina.

The pipeline is unusual since it doesn’t follow the usual post World War II path – Gulf States to the industrial northeast — but it shows just how the U.S. energy picture is being turned on its head.

People in West Virginia have faced the raw end of energy issues for a century and a half, but it is a new matter for the bucolic areas of Nelson County and some of Virginia’s most pristine and appealing mountain country.

Here is a story I wrote for Style Weekly on the promises and problems of Virginia’s very own Keystone XL.

My Drive Through Two West Virginias

A natural gas well fire in nothern West Virginia

A natural gas well fire in northern West Virginia

 By Peter Galuszka

It was a biting eight degrees when I hit the road in Beckley, W.Va. last Wednesday morning having held a book signing and given a talk in Charleston the night before.

I wanted to drive two hours up to Harrison County, where my family lived from 1962 to 1969, and see what had changed. I hadn’t been there in a few years.

Harrison and neighboring counties Doddridge and Lewis had long been coalfield areas along with natural gas. Coal had pretty much played out after the 1980s but there are still some big mines. Its real claim to fame is the underground rock formation ideal for glass-making. In the 1890s, it had attracted hundreds of craftsmen from Italy who made Clarksburg an important glass center and home to the locally-famous “Pepperoni Roll” – a small loaf of bread with a long stick of pepperoni inside.

As I drove up Interstate 79, I noticed the first signs of the area’s most recent transformation. There were plenty of oversized truck rigs with oddly-shaped machines. A number carried long steel pipes.

When I drove on familiar roads, I noticed that small lots that might have stored strip coal mine gear were all now filled with bright-orange wellheads. Davisson Run, a small creek where we used to hunt for frogs, is now near a large new building for Dominion Transmission — yes, that Dominion based in Richmond — which plans a $5 billion natural gas pipeline from the area through Virginia and North Carolina.

Welcome to Fracking Central. This part of northern West Virginia is booming thanks the Marcellus Shale formation rich with hard-to-get natural gas. In just a few years, hydraulic fracking, using high pressure water and powerful chemicals to fracture underground gas pockets and pump them out, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

My mission (which failed) was to find a woman living in a rural house in the rolling hills and dairy farms of western Harrison County. She had been on YouTube two years ago complaining how her neighbor had sold gas rights and turned pleasant pastureland into an obnoxious industrial site with all-night floodlights and diesel generators roaring 24/7. Huge trucks carrying water for high pressure injection clogged narrow county roads.

I drove through Salem, a tiny college town, and noticed signs reading “Antero Resources” that reminded truck drivers supplying rigs to drive slowly and not to “Jake Brake” – use brakes on some trucks that make a loud, machine gun sound as they tap engine exhaust to slow down.

Antero Resources was a big clue. They are an independent gas and oil firm based in Denver that has hit the fracking craze in a big way. They have rights to something like 384,000 acres of gasland in the surrounding area. Having gone public only recently, the company has revenues that have zoomed from $195 million in 2011 to $259 million in 2012 to $689 million last year.

Antero has had its problems. In July 2013, “flowback” material from a Doddridge Count well exploded, badly burning five workers and killing two. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a case operations order to Antero because of tank ruptures. The firm has also been accused of released methane into the private wells of 12 individuals.

I couldn’t find out if some are enjoying the economic benefits of fracking. One reads of people suddenly drawing $1 million a year in royalties. I did notice was that there was a lot more drilling support activity and more shopping malls.

My road trip was in marked contrast to one I had taken the day before in the southern part of West Virginia.

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

I was on my way to give a talk in Charleston about the paperback edition of my book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” I had the time so I chose to head up fateful Route 3 through the Coal River Valley where I have spent a lot of time in the past four years.

Route 3 in Raleigh County is a lot different from any road in Harrison County. The peaks are taller, steeper with more distinct hollers. Rock outcrops jam out at you, unlike the gently rolling hills of the north. The late fall sun is dramatically restricted.

This is the road that suddenly became flooded with ambulance and fire trucks on April 5, 2010. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine owned by then-Richmond-based Massey Energy killed 29 miners. Before then, it had been Ground Zero in the environmentalists’ vigorous war against Mountaintop Removal, which is strip mining on an obscenely large scale. Hundreds of feet of mountaintops are lopped off by gigantic drag lines. The leftover dirt and trees are dumped into creek beds destroying habitat.

I headed north along Big Coal River, which is anything but. Its valley provides just enough space for a road and a CSX rail line in some areas. I went past the new Marsh Fork Elementary School that Massey Energy was forced to build to replace one a few miles away that was threatened by its mine operations.

There was Jarrett’s store (new sign) where bystanders watched all the police cars and ambulances that fateful April day. Soon, the old Marsh Fork school appears. It had been a focus of yet another battle over coal but today it is abandoned and fenced in. Its playground is close to huge coal storage towers. Soaring above them is an earthen dam holding back a lake with about 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

There was very little activity – odd since the coal of the valley is the best in the world. Then it came – Upper Big Branch mine – lifeless. It was sealed after the disaster. Past roads with signs reading “Ambulance entrance” there was the portal where the UBB miners came and went. There is a lonely memorial of 29 black helmets at the base of a steel tower. Another memorial to them is a few miles north at Whitesville – a classic coal town filled with empty stores, although the florist shop is still busy.

No coal trucks, no pickups, for miles. The only activity was at the Elk Run deep mine at the very top of Route 3.

Why? One reason is that fracked natural gas from Harrison County and its region is stealing electric utility market share away from coal.

The other reason is Asia’s economic slowdown. Coal River and UBB provide metallurgical coal used for export to smelt steel in foreign mills. (They don’t anything to do with “Keeping Our Lights On” as the pro-coal propagandists say.) Met coal can be enormously lucrative but its prices are down two thirds from three years ago.

That’s bad news for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey for $7 billion after the disaster. Alpha is in such bad straits that hedge funds are lining its stock up for shorting trades, according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Well, that’s my road trip. Not to worry, though, I’ll be back soon. The criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship, former Massey CEO and otherwise known as “The Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” starts Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Beckley.