Category Archives: Water-waste water

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.

Tech Insurrection

AnthonyTownsendSmart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

Reinventing the Formal Garden


The Lewis Ginter conservatory for exotic plants

by James A. Bacon

When a group of Richmond botanists, horticulturalists and interested citizens founded the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden in 1981, their vision was to plant formal, European-style gardens to rival the finest in the country. They succeeded in that goal beyond their expectations. Lewis Ginter is consistently rated as one of the Top 10 gardens in the United States. Of its 350,000 visitors in 2013, an estimated 20% to 30% came from outside the metropolitan region, making it the No. 2 visitor’s destination, after the Richmond International Raceway, in Henrico County.

President Frank Robinson, who joined the staff in 1992 and is planning to retire next year, could be forgiven for resting easy with that accomplishment. But he’s not. Society has changed over the past three decades, he says, and the organization has evolved along with it. The thrust of Lewis Ginter’s current $9 million fund-raising effort is not to build more formal landscaping worthy of coffee-table books, rather it represents a return to nature — or, more accurately, a reconciliation of urban development with nature.

The Streams of Stewardship initiative challenges expectations of what landscape design should be. Conventional Virginia tastes are heavily influenced by a heritage of gardens designed for French kings and English aristocrats from a very different era. But the challenges of 21st century America call for something new. The introduction of foreign ornamental plants and the voracious consumption of land by 20th- and 21st-century suburbs stresses Virginia’s natural environment, sterilizing the habitat for wildlife and polluting streams and rivers with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. A new landscaping aesthetic can reverse some of the damage.

Lewis Ginter’s intention is to transform the 30 acres not dedicated to formal gardens on the 80-acre site with two goals in mind: to show how landscaping can clean creeks and streams polluted by urban run-off and to re-establish indigenous plants that support local wildlife. Plans call for replacing acres of formal grass lawn and large mulched beds with ornamental grasses and shrubs. A native plant garden will be established along a restored stream, and a woodland garden will provide natural filtration for excess nitrogen, phosphates and other algae-feeding nutrients flowing from a neighboring subdivision, a nearby golf course and Lewis-Ginter’s own property.

As Executive Director Shane Tippett puts it, Lewis Ginter wants to demonstrate that it is possible to meet a triple bottom line of creating beautiful places, restoring the environment, and doing so economically.

It’s not enough to show that such things can be done: The garden also wants to drive aesthetic and cultural change in the Richmond region, educating its 350,000 annual visitors, connecting with local landscapers and horticulturalists and reaching out to developers and home builders. In sum, the botanical gardens want to be a resource for the community.

Frank Robinson standing in the kind of tall grass that will replace acres of turf lawns.

Frank Robinson standing in the kind of tall grass that will replace acres of turf lawns.

The organization has largely fulfilled its core mission, says Robinson. “We knew we had to create very fine gardens to draw people here. And we had to generate earned income to support the enterprise.” And that it has done. The gardens are magnificent, and people are drawn year-round by a series of events: beautiful tulips in the springs, light displays at night, bonfires, jazz concerts, hot chocolate and the like. “Ultimately, it’s about the aesthetics. We had to do that to build the brand, the audience. We wouldn’t have been so successful if we’d started with a field of native grasses.”

The garden leadership began moving toward the new vision a decade ago, starting with a $1 million investment in a system that collected rainwater from building roofs and funneled it into two lakes on the property. Except for one year of severe drought, the property no longer needs county water. Avoiding the consumption of more than 7 million gallons a year saves Lewis Ginter hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in water bills and frees up county water capacity for someone else. The investment paid for itself in three or four years.

The 2007-2008 recession put the “Streams of Stewardship” fund-raising on hold but Richmond’s philanthropic community has revived to the point where Lewis Ginter is getting new commitments. Rather than waiting for the full $9 million to start, Robinson says, the garden is phasing in pieces of the plan as money comes available.

Meanwhile, the garden is taking an increasing leadership role in the community. It has invited to speak Lynden Miller, a nationally recognized garden designer, to Richmond, and Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home,” author of a treatise on how home gardeners can restore indigenous species. Its Beautiful RVA program brings together tree lovers, gardeners and landscapers to share ideas and build enthusiasm for creating quality public places.

“We never wanted to become a monastic community,” says Robinson. “It’s a big city out there. We can impact so many people beyond this property.”

This is the first of a planned series on the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Garden to be published as time permits.

Tar Heel Grief Just Down the Road

By Peter Galuszka

It’s sad to see mccrorytwo states to which I have personal ties – North Carolina and West Virginia — in such bad ways.

The latest raw news comes from the Tar Heel state where we are seeing the handiwork of hard-right- Gov. Pat McCrory who has been on a tear for a year now bashing civil rights here, pulling back from regulation there.

The big news is Duke Energy’s spill of coal ash and contaminated water near Eden into the Dan River, which supplies Danville and potentially Virginia Beach with drinking water. Reports are creeping out that the McCrory regime has been pressuring the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to pull back from regulation.

According to Rachel Maddow, DENR officials had stepped in with environmentalists as plaintiffs on two occasions in lawsuits to get Duke Energy to clean up coal ash. But when a third suit was filed, McCrory, a former Charlotte Mayor and career Duke Energy employee, influenced a third lawsuit settlement against Duke to be delayed.

Also, not long before the Eden spill, the City of Burlington released sewage into the Haw River which flows into Lake Jordan serving drinking water to Cary, Apex and Pittsboro. DENR allegedly did not release news of the spill to the public.

Late last year, Amy Adams, a senior DENR official, resigned to protest the massive cuts McCrory and Republican legislators were forcing at her department, notably in its water quality section.

McCrory’s been on a Ken Cuccinelli-style rip in other ways such as cutting back on unemployment benefits in a top manufacturing state badly hit by the recession and globalization. He’s shut down abortion clinics by suddenly raising the sanitation rules to hospital levels, much like former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell did in Virginia.

A reaction to McCrory is building, however. Recently, I chatted with Jason Thigpen who served in the Army and was wounded in Iraq in 2009. When Thigpen returned to his home in southeastern North Carolina, he was upset that the state was sticking it to vets by making them pay out-of-state college tuition in cases where some had been state residents before deploying. So, he started an activist group to protect them.

Next, Thigpen decided to run for Congress. His views fit more neatly with the Republican Party but he simply could not take what McCrory was doing in Raleigh so he became a Democrat and is a contender in a primary this spring.

Why the switch? “I just couldn’t see what the GOP was doing with my state in Raleigh,” He told me. “Also, I didn’t like what they were doing with women. I had served with women in war and they come back to North Carolina and they are treated like second class citizens,” he said.

West Virginia, meanwhile, is still struggling with its drinking water issues from a spill near Charleston. Although drinking water for 300,000 is said to be potable, children are reporting rashes.

Somehow, this conjures up another story involving a Republican governor – Arch Moore.

Back in 1972, Moore was governor when Pittston, a Virginia-based energy firm, had badly sited and built some damns to hold coal waste. After torrential rains, the dams burst and a sea of filthy water raced down the hollows, inundating small villages and killing 125 people. The state wanted a $100 million settlement from Pittston for the Buffalo Creek disaster, but Moore interceded and they settled for a measly $1 million.

Moore was later convicted of five felonies after he was caught extorting $573,000 from a coal company that wanted to reduce its payments to a state fund that compensated miners who got black lung disease.

Does anyone see a pattern yet?

Meanwhile, we in Virginia should breathe a sigh of relief considering just close it was dodging the bullet last election.

Journalism’s Death Is Greatly Exaggerated

rachel_maddowBy Peter Galuszka

“Investigative reporting, R.I.P. In-depth reporting is dead. If not dead, it’s comatose. Reeling from declining revenue and eroding profit margins, print media enterprises continue to lay off staff and shrink column inches.”

Err, maybe not. James A. Bacon Jr., meet Rachel Maddow.

The quote comes from advertised “sponsorships” in which an outside entity can help fund reporting and writing on this blog. It’s a morphed form of traditional journalism and there’s nothing wrong with it, provided the funding source is made clear.

But what might be jumping the gun is the sweeping characterization that in-depth reporting is dead. That is precisely the point of Maddow’s monthly column in The Washington Post.

She notes that it was local traffic reporters and others who broke the story about Chris Christie’s finagling with toll booths to punish a political opponent. She shows evidence of other aggressive reporting in Connecticut and in South Carolina, where an intrepid reporter got up early one morning, drive 200 miles to the Atlanta airport and caught then disappeared Gov. Mark Sanford disembarking from an overseas flight to see his Latin American mistress when he had claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Closer to home, it was the Post, which has seen more than 400 newsrooms layoffs over the past years, that broke GiftGate, the worst political scandal in Virginia in recent memory. The rest of the state press popped good stories, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch that has been somewhat reinvigorated despite nearly 10 years of corporate cheerleading and limp coverage under publisher Tom Silvestri. The departure of the disastrous former editor Glenn Proctor, Silvestri’s brainchild, helped a lot as did the sale of the paper by dysfunctional Media General to Warren Buffett.

To be sure, there are sad departures. The Hook, a Charlottesville alternative, did a great job reporting the forced and temporary ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, but it has folded.

Funding, indeed, remains a huge problem, even at Bacon’s Rebellion where we all write pretty much for free. One solution, Maddow notes, happened in a tiny Arkansas town that found it was located over a decaying ExxonMobil fuel pipeline. The community raised funds to help hire more reporters to break through the news.

She suggests: “Whatever your partisan affiliation, or lack thereof, subscribe to your local paper today. It’s an act of civic virtue.”

Hear! Hear!

Smart Cities around the World Are Saving Money Now. How about Your Home Town?


by James A. Bacon

Suggested reading for every elected official, senior administrator and department head in Virginia government: “Smart Cities Readiness Guide” published by the Smart Cities Council. This easy-to-read document walks government practitioners (and interested citizens) through the process of using sensor, communications and analytic technologies to collect, communicate and crunch data. Proven smart cities strategies can boost productivity, increase responsiveness and reduce impact on the environment.

The early 21st century is a perilous time for state and local governments, which are overwhelmed by unfunded pension obligations, decaying infrastructure and a slow economy. Yet it is also a time of boundless opportunity as well. The emergence of smart-city technologies present a historic opportunity for local governments to address infrastructure-related problems without debilitating tax cuts. Cities around the world are grasping these opportunities — Virginia cities cannot afford to be left behind.

Implementing smart-city technologies can generate major efficiencies. Hard-pressed local governments often complain they have limited resources to invest, so the Readiness Guide points to eight areas that can yield quick payback.

Smart transportation. The ability to monitor traffic real-time, predict congestion, synchronize traffic signals and suggest alternate routes can yield massive savings by obviating the necessity of investing expensive concrete and asphalt.

Energy efficiency. Building automation systems can generate fast paybacks on HVAC, lighting and general electricity consumption.

Smart grids. Smart grids, which tell power companies were problems are occurring on the electric grid, can reduce outages and improve reliability, especially in areas subject to hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes or floods.

Smart water networks. Worldwide, 30% of all municipal water never reaches its destination. Smart water systems can pinpoint leaks and theft;as a bonus, they can alert customers to unusual consumption patterns that might indicate a problem.

Smart street lights. Smart systems can turn street lights off when not needed and enable remote diagnostics that can reduce maintenance costs.

Digital government services. Municipalities can reduce administrative costs by making manual systems for processing licenses, permits, registrations and other routine interactions accessible online or on smart phones. AT&T has bundled eight popular city applications into a package called Community Central that is hosted on the cloud and can be rolled out in short order.

Smart payments. Cities can generate significant savings by digitizing disbursements and collections.

Public safety. By feeding crime statistics into analytic programs, police departments can predict where crimes are more likely to occur and allocate manpower and resources accordingly. Automated systems also allow police to reduce time spent on paperwork.

These low-risk strategies have generated millions of dollars in savings in cities around the world.  For the most part, Virginia municipalities are in solid financial shape; they can afford to make the investment. Elected officials should press their administrators to explore smart-city options aggressively. If elected officials are asleep at the switch, citizens need to smack them across the face until they wake up.

Why McAuliffe Is Saying No to Uranium Mining

mcauliffeBy Peter Galuszka

Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe has made one of his first pronouncements and it is an important one: he will veto any law the General Assembly passes to lift the decades-long ban on mining uranium in Virginia.

The bigger question is whether he was start disassembling the energy-industrial complex that outgoing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell had put together that tended to serve such large-scale energy firms and utilities beholden to fossil fuels and nuclear power.

One unsavory part of McDonnell’s plan to make Virginia “The Energy Capital of the East Coast” was that he packed his study commissions with lobbyists and Big Energy types (no environmentalists or independent citizens’ groups need apply) and then shielded them from the state Freedom of Information Act. When he held energy fairs, they typically were dominated by oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear power representatives with only a token showing from wind, solar or other renewables.

McAuliffe’s stance is not unexpected but he did seem to wobble a bit about nuclear power in the campaign. Curiously, when Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling started his personal revolution about a year ago, knowing he was being shown the door by the tea party hardliners within the state GOP, he dramatically came out against ending the uranium moratorium.

About that time, a McDonnell study commission headed by Cathie J. France was finishing its work just before the moratorium issue was to come up before the General Assembly. Plans were afoot to develop state mining and milling regulations.

What then happened? When it looked like the moratorium bill was dead, it was quickly withdrawn. Now McAuliffe says there’s no need for state uranium regs because they won’t be needed if the moratorium stays.  As for Ms. France, she’s off at Williams Mullen, the lobbying firm, of course, but says she won’t handle uranium.

A few weeks ago, state environmentalists were afraid that Attorney General and failed gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Cuccinelli was setting things up for Big Nukes by expressing in an opinion requested by Del. Donald Merrick of Chatham that localities could not have the power to set up laws banning uranium mining if it came to that because the the Dillon rule that has it that localities have only the power that the General Assembly lets them have.

I’m not a lawyer, but I have to say that Cuccinelli’s giving the straight stuff on the Dillon Rule, which should be dumped because it has screwed up so many things in Virginia that localities can do better than the state.

Cuccinelli’s opinion seems moot anyway if the mining ban stays. But there’s a much bigger reason why the issue is going nowhere. Global uranium prices are trading at roughly $35 a pound. When the Coles Hill Farm project was proposed back in 2007 or so, prices were at least four times as high.

The spike collapsed thanks to the global recession and the Fukushima disaster in 2011. While nuclear stations are being planned in Asia, they are getting nowhere in this country because they would need huge federal loan supports from Congress. Utilities are less likely to push for them if they can use cheaper and plentiful natural gas which results in large part from fracking.

I realize that fracking has its own dangers but one can’t deny how the energy mix works. If one reads the typically clueless Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page, they would assume that McAuliffe won’t give on uranium because of the oodles of campaign dough he got from the green movement and from people Tidewater cities fearful that mining uranium in Pittsylvania will contaminate their water supplies.

These are real concerns, but the kicker and killer is the global price of uranium ore.

Your Way, My Way and the “Virginia” Way

mcdonnell-1By Peter Galuszka

As usual, I am constantly amazed at “the Virginia Way” which means a kind of parallel universe of political reality that keeps the stay back in the 18th century, at least when it comes to political thinking.

This morning, the editorial section of the ever-other- worldly Richmond Times-Dispatch has a front-page piece by outgoing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. He, and the RTD editors, presume to tell us that we are all very gentlemanly in the Old Dominion, unlike those heathens across the Potomac in Washington and they should use US as a moral guiding light for how to get along.

It’s his version of “The Virginia Way.” He writes:

“The good news is that there’s an alternative means of governing. And it’s found right here in the commonwealth. It’s called ‘the Virginia Way.’ It’s a tradition of consistent advocacy of principle combined with civility in the pursuit of doing what’s best for the people. When campaigns are over, it’s time to govern effectively.”

Well, that’s his “Virginia Way.” I have my own version which was printed on the front page of The Washington Post’s Outlook section one week ago. Odd McDonnell (or the TD editors) chose their own ‘Virginia Way.’ My version has to do with the haughty sense of superiority that leads to Virginia having among the most lax ethics laws in the country and getting  flunking grades in government accountability.

Here I am:

“It’s known as the Virginia Way.

Richmond political culture clings to a quaint notion that its elected representatives are gentlemen and ladies who are above the petty venality that afflicts lesser states.”

“Too many Old Domninion politicians buy into Virginia’s moral exceptionalism. Or they realize that the lax rules and limited oversight that are justified by it make it easier to win and stay in office.”

I go on with my discussion about this parallel universe kind of thinking. I do remind readers exactly how the governor fits in on ethics:

“One loophole highlighted by the McDonnell story: The disclosure requirement doesn’t extend to officials’ immediate family members or companies the officials may own. So McDonnell didn’t report that the chief executive of Henrico County-based Star Scientific gave $70,000 in loans to MoBo Real Estate Partners, owned by the governor and his sister; or that the CEO paid for a $15,000 New York shopping trip for the first lady and later wrote her a check for $50,000; or that he picked up a $15,000 catering bill for the wedding of one McDonnell daughter and gave a $10,000 engagement gift to another.”

Remember all of this? And also that McDonnell is the only sitting Virginia governor to be investigated for corruption while in office? And that the federal probe is still on going? Or (new twist), Jonnie R. Williams is out at Star Scientific which is changing its name to the far less explosive name of “Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals.”

All of this is down the memory hole over at the RTD editorial offices on Richmond’s E. Franklin Street.

And while we’re talking about some real howlers, let’s skip over to the Post’s Local Opinions section this morning which offers several post-mortems on the Terry McAuliffe victory this past week.

corey-a-stewartCorey A. Stewart, chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Prince William County, writes that  “Rather, Republicans win the county by building relationships with minority voters ….”

Now that, dear readers, is whopper and a half. Just a few years ago, Stewart spearheaded the most stringent anti-minority, specifically, anti-Hispanic, county law in the country. It required police to check the citizenship of anyone they stopped (read brown-skinned and Spanish-speaking). His proposals drew national outcries and were linked to similar racist efforts in Arizona and Alabama. Hispanics fled Prince William in droves.

Critics can dice over what happened in last week’s election all they want, but the biggest problem is that there is a major issue, almost a psychotic one, with the psyche of the Old Dominion. There is no clear understanding of what the reality truly is here. Should a moment of clarity pop up, it is immediately placed in denial mode.

So, we end up with a disgraced governor giving us advice about how not to be like those unwashed hordes in Washington and Corey Stewart lecturing us on making sure we have a big tent that is open to minorities.

It’s almost laughable if it weren’t so sad and infuriating.

How to Cut Water Bills by Billions of Dollars

leaky_pipeLeaky pipes lose an estimated 2.6 trillions gallons of drinking water every year, or about 17% of all water pumped in the United States. One reason the situation is so bad is that water utilities use corrosion-prone materials. Corrosion represents a $50.7 billion annual drain on the economy. So says a new study by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

One way to save billions of dollars would be to open up the system to consideration of a wider variety of piping materials.

“Today’s modern piping technology is vastly superior in performance and life expectancy than what was being built in the ground throughout most of the 20th century,” states the report. A shift in pipe selection from iron materials to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) potentially could generate savings of $370 billion nationwide.

“While innovative and cost-effective products and technologies are readily available, these products are often excluded from consideration.” The report cites the “habituation factor,” or “the tendency of government officials to select the materials they are comfortable with and have used for years.”

ALEC calls for opening up the procurement process to consider a wider variety of piping materials that meet recognized standards set by the American Society of Testing Materials and the American Water Works Association.

While we’re at it, when we install new pipes, why don’t we embed them with sensors that tell us if they do begin to leak? The prospect of saving $51 billion a year will pay for a lot of retrofitting!


Stressed Out: Storm Water


Source: Senate Finance Committee

by James A. Bacon

Two years ago  Clyde Cristman made a presentation to the Senate Finance Committee estimating how much it would cost to meet Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay watershed clean-up goals. Some of the costs were reasonably solid but others, he recalls, “were little better than a wild guess.” The total tab for state government, local government, farmers and property owners: between $13.6 and $15.7 billion.

That document is still being cited as the most definitive report on the subject. “I was hoping that someone would come along and say, ‘Cristman doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” says the legislative analyst. But nobody has.

The biggest wild card is the cost of meeting storm water TDML standards, which Cristman guesstimates will cost between $9.4 billion and $11.7 billion. (TDML stands for maximum allowable Total Maximum Daily Load of nitrogen, phosphorous, sediment and other pollutants.) While the Virginia Department of Transportation will be liable for about $2.1 billion, the rest will fall upon local governments.

By 2014 all governments in Virginia are required to put storm water programs into effect, says Larry Land, director of policy development for the Virginia Association of Counties. There’s still a lot of uncertainty. Between the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, the Clean Water Act, the Virginia Storm Water Management Act, an Obama administration executive order and the shift in state oversight from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to the Department of Environment Quality, he says, “it gets so entangled, it creates a confusing milieu.”

One thing that seems likely is that localities will get slammed by new financial obligations , however large, at the worst possible time. The $14-15 billion clean water bill comes due just as local governments are being forced to shoulder in $15.2 billion in unfunded pension obligations.

The sums are so large that it is difficult to imagine paying for them out of general funds. “There are a lot of localities that don’t have a clue” how they will handle the situation,  says Cristman. Many may feel compelled to institute new taxes or user fees.

There are two obvious models in Virginia. The City of Richmond has imposed a tax on property owners that varies according to the size of the property and the amount of runoff-causing impervious surface. That tax funds a special storm water utility, which uses the money to fund everything from rain gardens and permeable alleys to the de-clogging of ditches that cause flooding. By contrast, Fairfax County lumps its charge into it property tax assessment. However, Christman says

Bacon’s bottom line: As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I strenuously oppose most taxes. But I’m open to the idea of a storm-water utility fee in my home jurisdiction of Henrico County, and I think it ought to be structured like Richmond’s. Responsibility for repairing our rivers and streams should fall upon the people causing the problem, not the general population. Homeowners would pay a modest fee while businesses — especially property owners with large parking lots — would pay the most. Fees should be structured so that property owners have incentives to reduce the amount of permeable surface or install Best Management Practices such as vegetative buffers. Additionally, developers should be rewarded for low-impact development — something the county could encourage by eliminating its minimum-parking mandates.

While charging a storm-water tax may be the best solution from an economic perspective, that won’t make it any easier for city councils and county boards that have to break the news to voters. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, especially in localities that choose to raise taxes to fund their pension liabilities.

It’s going to be a rough couple of years.

Update: The situation may not be as dire as portrayed here. The state has set up a fund, reader Ann Cunby tells me, that provides a 50/50 match to help localities meet the TDML guidelines. To find out more about the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, click here.