Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Toxic Chemicals and Relative Risk — an Alien Concept to Virginians

The chemical structure of 1,2,4 trimethylbenzene, of which 132,000 pounds were released into Virginia’s air and waterways in 2017. Are we safe? Should you be worried? Should government spend billions to “do” something?

The West Point paper mill, one of Virginia’s 10 largest emitters of toxic materials in 2017, emitted 7.6% fewer toxic materials in 2017 compared to the year before, reports the Daily Press today. All told, the paper mill released 852,914 pounds — mostly menthol, ammonia, and hydrochloric acid — into the air and water. That news got me to thinking…

There are a couple of obvious story lines that could be extracted from the data, which comes from the release of 2017 numbers from the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). One, which the Daily Press adopts, is that West Point, like other major manufacturers, has done an excellent job over the years in grinding out steady reductions in the volume of toxic chemicals it releases into the environment.

The other story line is the degree to which Virginians are absolutely insensate to the massive volume of chemicals pumped into the air and water. The TRI lists 138 toxic chemicals from 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene to zinc compounds — totaling 34.5 million pounds in all. These chemicals vary widely in their emission volumes, their toxicity, and the speed with which they break down or are otherwise rendered harmless.

But one thing these compounds have in common is that no one is losing sleep over them. Continue reading

Extreme Weather Event, Extreme Weather Event, Go Away…

Now, we’re told, we have a new reason to fear climate change: Record rainfalls are straining the capacity of combined-sewer overflow (CSO) systems in Richmond, Lynchburg and Alexandria. In heavy rains, the antiquated systems, which combine stormwater runoff and wastewater, release untreated wastewater into the river.

“We’re on the frontlines dealing with climate change,” Grace LeRose, program manager for the Richmond public utilities, told The Virginia Mercury. “We’re seeing bigger and more frequent storms that are going to tax our system even more.”

In  May and June the city experienced 23 inches of rain, the highest ever recorded. That year, contends the Virginia Mercury, was indicative of a longer-term trend. There was a 33% increase in the number of heavy rainstorms in Virginia, and an 11% increase from the largest storms between 1948 and 2011.

Of course, you can make statistics say anything you want them to, so I thought I’d do some checking. Continue reading

A Street Sign by Any Other Name Is Still Just a Street Sign

The Arlington County board is expected to ask the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to rename the section of the Jefferson Davis Highway, Rt. 1, that runs through the county.

What took it so long?

I defend the preservation of Civil War statues, especially those along Richmond’s Monument Ave. The statues are magnificent works of public art that are integrated into the urban design of the community. No one erects statues of this quality any more — just compare the craftsmanship of the Lee, Jackson and Stuart effigies compared to the modest and forgettable memorials that pop up today. Remove the statues, and you create gaping holes in the streetscape. But a street name is just a street name. Continue reading

Virginia’s Decline in Crime

Source: Demographics Research Group, StatChat blog

One of the advantages of living in Virginia is that citizens are less likely than other Americans on average to become crime victims. The rate of violent crimes (seen above ) is about half the national average, according to data published today on the StatChat blog based on 2017 FBI crime data. The rate for property crimes is only three-quarters of the national average. That’s pretty impressive considering that Virginia’s demographics come pretty close to matching the national profile. The Old Dominion is doing something right.

Not that you’d know it by reading Charlottesville’s Daily Progress today. Continue reading

Another Fig Leaf Solution for Affordable Housing

Virginia lawmakers are adding $4 million this year to the Commonwealth’s affordable housing trust fund. While acknowledging that the sum is a “drop in the bucket” when it comes to affordable housing costs — the money would bring the revolving low-interest loan fund up to $9.5 million — the Washington Post cites housing officials as saying that the money “is a sign that the state is paying attention to a growing need.”

I would characterize the $4 million expenditure differently. The political function is to allow the Northam administration and lawmakers generally look like they’re doing something while. in actuality, they are studiously ignoring the underlying problem. The erosion of affordable housing is mostly a supply-side problem, not a financing problem. Continue reading

17th-Century Renderings of Native Virginians

Wenceslaus Hollar, a prolific maker of etchings in the 1600s, has an exhibit dedicated to his works now on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Born in Bohemia, he spent most of his adult life in Germany, Netherlands and England, where he cranked out a prodigious number of works, sometimes of his own contrivance, sometimes copying the paintings of others as etchings. Two renderings, I thought, were worthy of note for Bacon’s Rebellion, for they depicted the indigenous inhabitants of “Virginia” — a term used somewhat more loosely than it is today — before they were displaced by the Europeans. One etching is of the muscular gent above. And the other… Continue reading

A Visual Refresh for the Rebellion

My wife is my toughest critic (other than Blue Virginia, maybe), and she suggested that I need to freshen up the Bacon’s Rebellion header. A lithograph of Nathaniel Bacon and his fellow rebels burning down Jamestown in 1676, she contended, doesn’t jive with the tagline, “Reinventing Virginia for the 21st Century.” After hemming and hawing for a few months, I finally decided she was right.

So… I have replaced the old Nathaniel Bacon header with rotating images from around Virginia. They include Back Bay, the Blue Ridge mountains, the Richmond skyline, the Tysons skyline, the Norfolk Naval Base, Monticello, and the Virginia capitol building.

I am totally open to adding to or deleting these images. Indeed, I invite readers to submit photographs for consideration. The key criteria are simple: Do they say something about Virginia today? Can they be cropped in a long horizontal image? Will they reproduce well without digital fuzzing? And do they reside in the public domain? (I don’t want to steal anyone’s copyright.)

If you have better versions of the images I’ve got in the rotation list (a couple of them could be sharper), by all means, let’s see them!

ConserveVirginia Makes Preservation Data More Easily Accessible

Virginia scenic rivers. Source: ConserveVirginia. Click for larger image.

The Northam administration has launched ConserveVirginia, a “smart map” that identifies 6.3 million acres of high priority conservation areas. The map draws upon 19 data sets in six broad categories: agriculture & forestry; natural habit and ecosystem diversity; floodplains and flooding resilience; cultural & historic preservation; scenic preservation; and landscape resilience.

“It is time to take a more scientific, data-driven, and accountable approach to land conservation in our Commonwealth — ConserveVirginia is about using the best information we have available to identify our true conservation needs and focus on protecting our limited resources,” said Northam in a press release earlier this week. “When Virginians invest their tax dollars in conservation projects, we have an obligation to ensure those efforts yield the greatest benefits in the most cost-effective manner for the Commonwealth.” Continue reading

Mass Transit and Unfunded Pension Liabilities

It has long been known that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates the Washington region’s commuter rail and bus systems, has unfunded retirement-benefit costs approaching $3 billion (on top of its multibillion-dollar unfunded maintenance backlog). While the Commonwealth of Virginia is not legally obligated to made good Virginia’s share WMATA’s shortfalls, as a practical matter it may have to eventually or risk — again — Metro collapsing into fiscal insolvency.

What I have not reported in past posts is the magnitude of that liability in relation to the size of the enterprise. A new Moody’s Investors Service report has the answer: Adjusted net pension liabilities plus adjusted net “other” retirement benefits (primarily health care) amount to 305% of WMATA revenues. For the uninitiated, that’s a lot. It’s the highest ratio of the nation’s ten largest mass transit agencies.

Another cause for concern. According to Moody’s, “WMATA has greater than a 10% one-year probability of experiencing pension investment losses that amount to 25% or more of its revenues, a threshold known as our “pension asset shock indicator.” Continue reading

Danville’s Bad $912,000 Loan — Isolated Case or Tip of the Iceberg?

Danville City Council will decide next week whether to forgive $912,000 owed the city by its land purchasing arm, the Industrial Development Authority. The money represents the unpaid portion of a $1.6 million loan issued in 2015 to entice Telvista, a call center operator which closed its facility in 2018 and ceased making lease payments.

The city needs to clear the books on the Airside Industrial Park property to make way for a new investment by Norfolk-based PRA Group, which has promised to invest $15 million and bring 500 jobs. “The property can’t close until this is done,” said City Manager Ken Larking, as reported by the Danville Register & Bee.

City Council is likely to forgive the loan. The PRA operation — ironically, a debt collection center — will employ more people and pay better at $38,400 per year on average than the old Telvista operation. Continue reading

VDOE Spikes Public School Collaboration with Dream Academy

Joann Henry, program director of the Dream Academy

The Dream Academy, a Richmond nonprofit, is an adult education center that has worked in a collaborative relationship with the Richmond Public Schools. The academy provides the instruction and pays the school system to review student transcripts and authorize the diplomas. The program has helped more than 250 grown-ups, mostly African-Americans, earn their diplomas.

That relationship now is on the rocks. Virginia Department of Education officials have nixed the agreement on the grounds that the Dream Academy is a private organization. Now the nonprofit has no choice but to pursue private accreditation.

The incident raises issues regarding the legality of of public/private collaboration for adult education anywhere in Virginia.  Continue reading

Professors Teaching Less, Students Studying Less

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder is the nation’s foremost authority on college costs and productivity. His op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today is a devastating indictment of U.S. higher education. Compared to a half century ago, college professors are teaching less, students are studying less, and the ratio of administrators to faculty has soared.

He makes several points, some of which we’ve highlighted on Bacon’s Rebellion and bear repeating, and some of which we have overlooked:

Students studying less. College students today don’t study as hard as in generations past. According to surveys of student work habits, the average time spent in class and studying is about 27 hours a week. That compares to 40 hours weekly in the mid-20th century. Continue reading

Distracted Driving the New Drunk Driving

It is intuitively obvious to anyone who drives that other people using cell phones (not us, of course) are a menace to the public. We’ve seen them yakking away with the phone to their ear or, worse, actually texting with eyes on the phone. Indeed, a new study by Zendrive, a driving behavior analytics company, found that so-called “distracted” drivers are more dangerous than drunk drivers.

In Zendrive’s two previous studies, Virginia ranked in the middle of the pack among the 50 states for the prevalence of distracted driving: 24th place in 2017, and 26th place in 2018. Zendrive’s press release didn’t provide state rankings this year, but in a communication to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, CEO Jonathan Matus said Virginia ranks the worst. Drivers in all states became more distracted, but Virginia drivers apparently outpaced the rest, spending more than 9% of the time actively ignoring the road. Continue reading

Addiction as a Workforce Development Issue

How ubiquitous is drug abuse in Virginia’s workforce? In western Virginia, it’s mind-numbingly pervasive.

“In many environments, as many as 50 percent of employee applicants who are eligible on the basis of their training, skills, and background fail to be employable because they fail to pass a drug screen,” Dr. Bob Trestman, chairman of psychiatry for Carilion Clinic, told Roanoke-area employers in a panel talk yesterday, reports the Roanoke Times.

Most employers have Employee Assistance Programs but Trestman said employees are reluctant to use them because addicts are stigmatized. “We need to think of them as people with an illness. Then we can reframe how we approach care and treatment and engage and support them in the workplace safely.” Continue reading

New Rules Make Year-to-Year SOL Comparisons Impossible

James F. Lane, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction

Fewer Virginia students will take end-of-course Standards of Learning (SOL) tests this spring due to revised regulations approved by the state Board of Education last year, making it impossible to compare school pass rates this year with the pass rates of previous years.

“This is a dramatic change in testing patterns,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane in a press release announcing the changes this morning. Pass rates for end-of course SOL tests in mathematics, science and history for 2018-2019 will mark the beginning of new trend lines, he added. “Comparing 2018-2019 pass rates with performance in 2017-2018 would be an apples-to-oranges exercise.”

The change comes after two years of falling SOL scores and revisions to Virginia Department of Education criteria for school accreditation. A third year of declining scores, especially in predominantly African-American schools, would have proved embarrassing for an educational establishment that has promised to narrow the white-black academic performance gap. It also would have called into question the efficacy of policies that de-emphasize traditional disciplinary policies in favor of a counseling-intensive, social justice approach. Continue reading