Eb Tide for Bay Pollution

Ches_BayMeasures enacted since 2009 to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment have driven down the level of pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, according to computer simulations by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of federal and state agencies and not-for-profits dedicated to cleaning up the bay. The results between 2009 and 2015: nitrogen down 8%, phosphorus down 20%, and sediment down 7%.

Practices are currently in place to achieve 31 percent of the nitrogen reductions, 81 percent of the phosphorus reductions and 48 percent of the sediment reductions necessary to attain applicable water quality standards as compared to 2009, the year before the Environmental Protection Agency established the Bay Total Maximum Daily Loads, states a Chesapeake Bay Program annual report.

“There is good news here,” responded Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker , “but a lot of work remains before we can declare success. Pollution continues to flow from those city streets and farms that do not have controls in place. And while improved, discharges of sewage to public waters continue in some jurisdictions.”


More Complicated than It Looks…

transparencyTransparency in General Assembly Voting. Two weeks ago I blogged how two-thirds of the 1,221 of the 3,000 bills submitted in the 2016 General Assembly session died in committees without a vote. (See “Killing Bills Quietly.”) To my mind, the numbers implied a scandalous resistance to transparency and accountability.

Former Sen. Chris Saxman, now president of Virginia FREE, lent some perspective in a recent newsletter:

The General Assembly has 60 and 45 day sessions which move very quickly with a process designed to go slowly. Each session will yield about 2,000 votes per legislator. … What is fairly certain is that next year the General Assembly will be criticized, once again, for putting in too many bills, passing too many bills, and then killing too many bills. …

Many bills that do not advance have votes that are not recorded because the legislation itself is not quite ready for one. What happens in that situation is that the bill is explained to the subcommittee, then the chair asks those in the room to speak either for or against the bill – quickly – and then the patron is given a chance to respond. All the while amendments can be offered to improve the bill and its chances of passing. … Can you imagine a system in which every amendment has a recorded vote and corresponding procedures? Not much would get done. (See the U.S. Congress)

The chair then tells the subcommittee, “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, the bill is before you.” If no amendments had been offered, the chances are that no motion will be heard. The chair then says, “Hearing no motions…the bill does not report” which effectively, but not actually, kills the bill. Other motions can be heard and voted on and, as stated above, any of them can be recorded.

The process, however, moves so very fast that the patron knows that the chance of the bill being signed into law is simply not worth the time and work so he or she will ask for and/or be granted by the chair a more palatable motion to “lay the bill on the table.” This is a courtesy to the patron. Sometimes a member can be extra nice to the patron and say the bill be “gently” laid on the table; however, there is no actual motion called gently laying on the table. It’s a professional courtesy.

This does not mean that the bill is dead. It means the bill is held by the committee. Anyone on that committee can later make a motion to take the bill off the table through a motion of reconsideration.

There’s always more to the story than meets the eye.

memory_holeDumping Harry F. Byrd Down the Memory Hole. In an uncharacteristic fit of political correctness, I endorsed the movement of students and parents at Harry F. Byrd Middle School in Henrico County to take a new name. Recognizing the deceased segregationist governor seemed especially inappropriate for a school with a large percentage of African-American students.

But in a recent op-ed, J. Edward Grimsley reminded us that Byrd was a progressive fellow by the standards of Jim Crow-era segregationists. Most notably, Byrd fought for and won the nation’s first anti-lynching law, bringing lynchings in Virginia to a halt. The legislation, Grimsley wrote, “made one of the most significant contributions to black civil rights since President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.”

If we are to be consistent in removing honors for segregationists, then let’s not single out Byrd. Let’s rename any school honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, after all, famously interned the entire U.S. Japanese population and, as Grimsley noted, did virtually nothing to reverse African-American segregation. He continued:

Having the power to desegregate the nation’s armed forces without the Supreme Court’s permission [Roosevelt] refused to do more than make a few token gestures. … Roosevelt repeatedly rejected pleas to follow the Byrd example and propose a federal anti-lynching law. And Washington, over which the federal government has ultimate jurisdiction, remained one of the most segregated cities in America until the middle of the 20th century.

Concludes Grimsley: “It would be a supreme injustice to allow Harry Byrd’s name to be tossed into Henrico’s trash bin of history without remembering that when black Virginians urgently needed the  help of a powerful political friend, he was there to support their most important civil right of all: the right to live.”

Note to knee-jerks: I am not defending Harry Byrd’s support of segregation. I am recognizing that the man is more nuanced than commonly portrayed.

Once in Four Lifetimes

virginia_fishThe conservative assumptions behind Virginia water-discharge permits, says DEQ, reduce the odds of harming aquatic wildlife to fewer than three incidents in a thousand years.

by James A. Bacon

Earlier this year Dominion Virginia Power was granted permits to drain water from coal ash ponds at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations, treat the water to remove heavy metals, and discharge the effluent into the James River and Quantico Creek. Citizens have understandable concerns. What limits did DEQ place on the heavy metals in the wastewater? How were the limits determined? And what assurances do Virginians have that those limits will safeguard the public health and the health of aquatic species?

In a nod to transparency, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has posted the permits online. To get a flavor, you can view the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (VPDES) permit for the Bremo Power station here. Unfortunately, that document is indecipherable to the layman. DEQ permit writers live in a world all their own, replete with jargon, acronyms, arcane regulatory procedures and complex statistical formulations that only DEQ, power companies and the environmentalist groups that sue them seem to understand.

Wondering how DEQ set the heavy metals limits listed in its permits, from arsenic and mercury to lead and selenium, I sat down recently with Fred Cunningham, DEQ’s manager-office of water permits, and Allan Brockenbrough, manager-VPDES permits. The two career DEQ employees walked me through the process. Because the Possum Point permit is under appeal, they did not address the coal-ash permits specifically. But they said that the procedures for apply to all industrial sites, including power stations with coal ash ponds.

The primary message they wished to convey is this: DEQ permits create an ample safety buffer. Accounting for just two of the conservative assumptions built into the process, say Cunningham and Brockenbrough, the chances of a scenario occurring that endangers either the public health or aquatic life are in the realm of thrice every thousand years. The incorporation of other conservative assumptions reduces that incidence even further.

Brockenbrough put it this way: “When you make one conservative assumption, and a second, and a third, and a fourth, they all build on each other.”


Heavy metal discharge limits in Dominion’s Bremo permit

Virginia environmentalists active in the coal ash debate have not taken issue with the DEQ methodology, which they neither criticize nor endorse. Their main thrust has been to ensure that wastewater is monitored and tested with sufficient frequency and duration to make the public comfortable that Water Quality Standards are being met. Also, in the case of Possum Point permit, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network has appealed on the grounds that Dominion should employ Best Available Technology, even if the resulting water quality exceeds DEQ standards. If Virginia can reduce at reasonable cost the level of pollutants released into Virginia waters, even if they exist only in trace elements, why not do it?

By contrast, John Craynon, director-environmental programs at Virginia Tech’s Center for Coal and Energy Research, says, “Our standards are very conservative. … I think the DEQ has proposed a standard that is protective and does not put an undue burden on all of us.” Just because we are capable of detecting the presence of heavy metals in parts per trillion does not mean we should regulate them at that level. Trace amounts of these elements exist in the environment and organisms have evolved to co-exist with them. Compelling industry to reduce levels even further is an exercise in diminishing returns. “Is it worth it? Some would say yes. I do a running cost-benefit analysis in my head.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency sets the legal framework for administering the Clean Water Act, and DEQ operates within that framework. Based on the latest scientific knowledge, EPA continually updates federal water quality standards for some 130 different constituents including heavy metals, organic compounds and pesticides known to pose a threat to the health of humans and aquatic creatures. It is DEQ’s job to apply these standards to specific situations when writing permits.

DEQ determines a safe level for each constituent (measured either in micrograms per liter, or parts per billion) for three criteria: acute (short-term) impact on aquatic organisms, chronic (long-term) impact on aquatic organisms, and human health impact. In the first of many conservative safeguards, DEQ applies the most restrictive of the three numbers, even if that level provides more protection than is deemed essential for the other two.

Another conservative assumption DEQ builds into its permits is its “return interval” — the period of time over which a one-time, worst-case scenario is evaluated. The Water Quality Standards approved by EPA allow for instream standards to be exceeded once every three years. DEQ uses a ten-year interval when setting standards.

As translated into the permits for Bremo, DEQ’s discharge limits will protect the river water outside a mixing zone no larger than 16 feet wide and 2,000 feet long (about 1/3 of an acre) in the worst drought scenario predicted for a ten-year period. The vast majority of time, the area within the mixing zone where pollutants exceed Water Quality Standards will be much smaller — at times undetectable — although DEQ does not calculate how large it will be in any circumstance except the 10-year, worst-case scenario. Continue reading

An Explanation, Please, for $2 Million Subsidy to Relocate Jobs from Roanoke to Norfolk

Shuttered: Norfolk Southern's regional office in Roanoke

Shuttered: Norfolk Southern’s regional office in Roanoke

About that $2 million subsidy from the Governors Opportunity Fund (GOF) to support the relocation of Norfolk Southern jobs from Roanoke to Norfolk… The Roanoke Times is asking whether it violates state law.

On the one hand, the newspaper reports, a 2006 law bars the use of GOF grants intended to underwrite the move of jobs from one Virginia community to another, as Norfolk Southern is doing in in the transfer of roughly 165 jobs from the shuttered regional headquarters office in Roanoke to the headquarters facility in Norfolk. On the other, the law provides an exception in rare instances justified by letter from the state Secretary of Commerce and Trade.

Arguably, there is an extenuating circumstance in the Norfolk Southern deal. The railroad company did consider relocating employees to Atlanta. State and local subsidies tipped the deal in favor of Norfolk. But, as of Friday, neither Senate Finance nor House Appropriations committees had received such an explanation from Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones.

Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, co-chairman of the Finance Committee, said, “I need an explanation of what went on, since I don’t have clarity. … The intent of the law is, of course, you shouldn’t [subsidize the relocation of jobs from one Virginia locality to another] except in rare circumstances. Then, in that rare circumstance, you need to justify it through appropriate channels to let people know what you did. It does seem like on the surface there, that they haven’t complied with that in a timely manner, and it may not be appropriate.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s the key question for which the public has no answer: How seriously did Norfolk Southern contemplate moving the jobs to Atlanta? We can start by asking which business functions were being moved. Could those business functions have integrated into Norfolk Southern operations as efficiently in Atlanta as in Norfolk? How expensive was Atlanta office space compared to Norfolk office space? How did the workforce characteristics compare for purposes of recruiting? What other factors might have come into play? Virginia taxpayers need to know that the railroad company wasn’t, well, railroading the state into coughing up money unnecessarily.

I expect the McAuliffe administration to demonstrate that it has command of all the relevant facts and to be able to make a strong business case that the subsidies were necessary to keep the jobs. We have seen in the case of Lindenburg Industry LLC that the dispensation of GOF dollars has been loosey-goosey at times. The fact that the administration has provided no explanation for the Norfolk Southern deal does not inspire confidence.

Hooville the Best Small City in Virginia to Start a Business?

Source: WalletHub

From the data geeks at WalletHub comes a new list of the best small cities in the country to start a business based on 15 metrics encompassing business environment, access to resources, and business costs. Here are the Virginia cities listed:


The Virginia results are, shall we say politely, counter-intuitive. Northern Virginia’s “small cities” (in reality suburban communities) fare poorly while depressed cities such as Petersburg and Danville score near the top. The methodology gives brownie points to cities with low business costs, which could in theory should be helpful to any small business but in reality mostly reflects a lack of demand for real estate, labor and other business inputs.

Another issue I have is the need to distinguish between types of small business. A new Subway franchise and a cyber-security start-up are both small businesses. But the employment of the former will top out at about 15 or so low-wage employees, while the latter has the potential to grow to an enterprise with hundreds of highly compensated employees. Which one would you rather have in your community?

I see this list as being useful mainly for stimulating a discussion about the kinds of things we should measure to identify the important drivers of entrepreneurialism and economic growth.


Coal’s Messy End Game

coal_minersby James A. Bacon

The U.S. coal industry is in collapse. Market forces in the form of cheap, abundant natural gas have put coal at a huge competitive disadvantage while environmental initiatives have gutted demand by compelling the shutdown of coal-fired power plants not worth retrofitting with scrubbers. Earlier this week Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the country, announced that it would seek bankruptcy protection. Only one company in the Dow Jones Coal Index, Consol Energy, has avoided that fate.

Writing in Slate Magazine, Daniel Gross poses an interesting question:

When companies file for bankruptcy, the fact that they can’t meet their obligations to creditors like banks or bondholders isn’t that much of an issue. They can absorb the loss and wind up with ownership of the company. But bankrupt coal firms will have a hard time meeting their obligations to the environment, to employees, and to retirees. Which means they will either need a bailout or they will suffer further obloquy when they walk away from commitments.

Coal mining in Central Appalachia is an immensely destructive business, especially strip mining and mountaintop removal, which quite literally moves mountains, alters drainage flows, and releases potentially toxic elements into the water. Federal regulations require coal companies to stabilize the land in order to reduce environmental hazards. When coal was booming a few years ago, that wasn’t a problem. With major coal companies going bankrupt, there are growing questions whether coal companies can fulfill their obligations.

Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources has $640 million in self-guaranteed liabilities in reclamation costs, reports the Washington Post. Will a western Virginia bankruptcy court judge honor the debts of creditors and suppliers or obligations to the public?

Meanwhile, coal industry pension funds, which have always been shaky, now are in deep doo-doo. The United Mine Workers of America’s 1974 pension plan was said last year to be $2 billion under-funded.  The plan asked for participating unionized companies to increase their contribution by 10% to $6.05 per union employee per hour worked, along with benefit cuts for future employees. But it is questionable how long bankrupt coal companies can sustain such payments. Who, if anyone, will make good promises made to retired coal miners?

Bacon’s bottom line. Coal is a dirty, unsafe fuel, and most of us won’t miss it. But the transition to a clean-energy economy will be messy. For Virginia’s coalfield region, the demise of the coal industry doesn’t mean just the loss of jobs, as debilitating as that will be. It could well mean environmental clean-ups never completed and pensions never paid.

Virginia Obamacare Update

Anthem Healthkeepers, with 190,000 enrollees in Virginia, is filing for an average 15.8% hike in its 2017 Affordable Care Act premiums.

Innovation Health, with 61,000 enrollees, is seeking a 9.4% increase.

United Health, with 6,900 members, wants a 17.9% increase.

The overall weighted average increase request in Virginia, according to Investors Business Daily, is 17.9%.

I thought the cost curve for health care was supposed to bend downward, not upward.