Category Archives: Public safety & health

Charlottesville’s Path to Polarization, Part 2

by Reed Fawell III

This is the second of five posts on the events surrounding the white nationalist protests against efforts to remove the Lee and Jackson statues that occurred in the spring and summer of 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.  The facts asserted are based on the narrative found in the Independent Review of the 2017 Protest Event in Charlottesville.”

An altogether different cast of white nationalists, a Ku Klux Klan group based in Pelham, N.C., decided to protest Charlottesville’s decision to remove the Lee statue soon after the news of the May 13 rallies reached them. On May 24, 2017, a Klan member (the Klan Rep.) filed an application for a “public demonstration” on July 8, from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. to “stop cultural genocide” in Charlottesville.

Based on her experience at such rallies held in Berkeley, Ca.; Danville, Va.; Columbia, SC; Raleigh, NC; and Stuart, Va., the Klan Rep. requested that Charlottesville:

  1.  provide bus transport for the Klan from a secret offsite location to and from the protest site in Charlottesville, given that “jurisdictions that use this strategy keep the Klan separated from protesters,” and that,
  2. the city delay announcing the Klan event to the public “until the last minute.’ Again, in her experience, a delay in announcing Klan events until the last minute would result in a smaller and less hostile crowd of counter-protesters at the event.

The city declined both requests.  It publicized the rally on May 24, the day the Klan filed its application.  It later also denied bus transport, believing buses unnecessary.  The Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) did agree with the Klan as follows.

The rally event would be shifted from the Charlottesville City Circuit Courthouse steps, as originally requested by the Klan, to the site of the Jackson statue in Justice Park that had just been renamed from Jackson Park, its original name since 1921.

Regarding transport, the CPD would meet the Klan at “a secret location on City property just outside the downtown area.”  From that rendezvous point, two CPD squad cars would escort the Klan’s caravan of cars (not to exceed 25) to a surface parking lot in the city next to the Albemarle County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court (JDR).  This lot was within a short walking distance across Park Street to the Klan’s designated rally area (KKK Zone) within Justice Park.  Once parked on the surface lot, the police would escort the Klan on foot to their KKK Zone.

To facilitate this plan, the Klan would assemble overnight in Waynesboro, Va, then drive over the mountain to Charlottesville the next afternoon.  In so doing, the Klan would alert CPD to its arrival when 10 minutes away from the rendezvous site to assure their timely arrival at Justice Park by 3:00 p.m.

The CPD later described the Klan Rep as “overall, very cooperative” in working out their plan.  CPD also said that the Klan ‘adhered to the plan’ created by the police.

The Klan’s Rep., however, expressed grave concerns soon after she learned that the City had announced their rally to the public on June 24.  She told CPD that the “counter-protesters had begun organizing on social media to attend the Klan event while armed, and she urged a weapons check at Justice Park to avoid a ‘blood bath.’”

These, and subsequent events, would highlight Charlottesville’s failure to seek advice from others on how they had dealt with threats of violence in similar situations.  And how the City and Virginia state officials had otherwise failed to train, prepare, and cooperate with one another, to effectively thwart threats posed by such events.  Thus, violence ensued in Charlottesville on July 8.  Those actions ignited a cascade of consequences that fractured the City, severely impairing its ability to deal with the larger and more dangerous protests on August 11/12.  And those adverse impacts plague the City still.

This, I believe, is the central finding of the Independent Report.  But why and how did this happen in Charlottesville?  This needs further exploration.

Inexplicably, this failure occurred despite ample intelligence on the threat posed. CPD’s own intelligence gathering clearly predicted “that the July 8 event would likely be a large, confrontational, and potentially violent event … The sharing of all intelligence made (this) clear to all CPD personnel.”  Some 600 to 800 counter- protesters, and up to 100 Klan, were projected to attend.  Many would be armed.  And the counter-protesters were known to be planning to shut down the event.

“For example, the Greensboro, North Carolina police shared with the CPD a flyer from social media advertising for (out of town) counter-protesters to (travel to and) attend the Klan rally in Charlottesville ‘to shut them down.’”  The North Carolina police also suggested that squabbling within the Klan might significantly reduce the 100 Klan members earlier estimated to travel to Charlottesville for the rally.  Both predictions proved highly prescient on July 8.

Continue reading

Charlottesville’s Path to Polarization, Part 1

The Lee Statue in Charlottesville

by Reed Fawell III

This is the first of five posts on the events surrounding the white nationalist protests against efforts to remove the Lee and Jackson statues that occurred in the spring and summer of 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.

America’s national and local media constantly make references to the August 11/12, 2017, white nationalist protest rally in Charlottesville. Typically, these allusions render an over-simplified judgment without facts, nuance, context or perspective. Consequently, the rhetoric inflames public opinion, exacerbates the harm done by the rally, forecloses the possibility of reconciliation, and makes it more difficult to prevent a recurrence in the future.

The media’s short-hand references to “Charlottesville” display a woeful ignorance of the demonstrations and political events in the city during 2016 and 2017 that preceded and influenced the events of August 11/12. Absent that string of events, the outcome of the August 11/12 Unite the Right rally surely would have been very different. Indeed, the event and the violence it engendered might never have taken place.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to our national amnesia — the Final Report, Independent Review of the 2017 Protest Event in Charlottesville written by Timothy J. Heaphy with the Hunton & Williams law firm. Drawing on meticulous research of that report, I hope to shed light on those earlier incidents, discern their underlying causes, and explain how they shaped the events of August 11/12.

Here we will start with a chronology of events leading up to the July 8 and Aug 11/12 protests, taken almost exclusively from the Independent Review. To avoid personalizing the narrative, I have deleted the names of participants.

From March 2016 to June June 2017:
Events Leading up to July 8 and August 12 Disturbances in Charlottesville

In March of 2016, Charlottesville’s Vice Mayor and a University of Virginia professor and chairman of the local NAACP called an “unscheduled rally in Charlottesville.” There the Vice Mayor “expressed distaste for the Lee Statue” and the UVA professor argued that the statute evoked “all the horror and legacy for black people. It romanticizes for people who do not know. They look at that statute, they think it was a gallant person who saved us, but he was a terrorist.” The vice mayor then urged Charlottesville to remove the city’s two statues of Lee and Jackson.

This rally in downtown Charlottesville ignited at virulent controversy. The debate over the future of the statues became “a significant factor in the radicalization” of a local leader who would become a key figure in the later Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville,” a man who “described himself as an advocate for ‘white civil rights’,” one who “believed that whites were unfairly asked to “apologize for history” and to ‘deny their cultural heritage’.” He was also reportedly angered by the Vice Mayor’s urging the boycott of a UVa lecturer’s restaurant for criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement on his Facebook page. Later, too, based on research turned up by that white nationalist leader, the vice mayor resigned his job at Albemarle high school for having posted “racially offensive and inflammatory statements” on Twitter before he’d moved to Charlottesville in 2011.

Thus, in March of 2016, there began a long series of escalating rhetoric and actions by opposing factions within the Charlottesville community that, over the ensuing 18 months, would cascade into the tragic events of August 11/12, 2017.

For example, on May 28, 2016, the Charlottesville City Council, responding to local pressures, created a Blue Ribbon panel whose designated objective was to provide the Council with options on how to tell “the full story of Charlottesville’s history of race and changing the city’s narrative through its public spaces.” That fall, on Nov. 10, the panel delivered its draft report. It recommended that the Lee and Jackson statues remain in place while adding context to the monuments, telling a fuller story about what they represented. The “draft” report changed in December, however, when the same panel offered one of two options for the Council to consider: that context be added if the statues be left in place, or that they could be removed. On Feb 6, 2017, the City Council by 3-2 vote ordered the removal of the Lee statue.

The council’s vote sparked a lawsuit in March 2017 claiming that removing the statue would be illegal, and that the city was required by law “to protect and preserve” the statues. The Court affirmed the plaintiffs’ request to stay the City Council’s order. That litigation on the merits of the case continues unresolved today, although the court did affirm the city’s right to change the names of Lee and Jackson Park.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 31, 2016, Charlottesville’s mayor called “an unscheduled” rally to protest the inauguration of President Trump. “Hundreds gathered in Charlottesville’s downtown mall” where the mayor proclaimed the city “The Capital of Resistance to Trump’s agenda.” A Charlottesville police officer later noted that in his view: “The mayor’s event was tantamount to war. The mayor’s rhetoric was ‘the recipe for undermining the legitimacy of the institutions of government’.” Continue reading

The Hidden Expense of Police Body Cameras

When police departments began equipping their officers with body cameras, I thought it was a great idea. Capturing a video record of police encounters could settle a lot of controversies. It never occurred to me that reviewing the video would be so exorbitantly time consuming that local prosecutors would have to hire additional employees — or that local governments would balk at the expense.

Earlier this year Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, proposed requiring any locality buying body cameras for patrol officers to hire one additional entry-level assistant commonwealth’s attorney for every 50 body cameras deployed, the Richmond Times-Dispatch informs us.

Other lawmakers nixed the idea but, in the grand tradition of the General Assembly, decided to study the matter. Now a special panel is investigating, in the words of the budget language, “how body worn cameras have or may continue to impact the workloads experienced by Commonwealth’s Attorneys offices.”

In Chesterfield County, body cameras have become quite the burden, reports the T-D. Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport has said that the hours of footage exceeds the capacity of his staff to watch it. The workload, he said, caused him to recently curtail the number of misdemeanors his office prosecutes. Meanwhile, the county’s new police chief is re-examining when officers turn on their cameras during an incident and which officers should carry them. Norment’s idea would have cost Chesterfield County between $800,000 to $900,000 for eight additional lawyers. 

Bacon’s bottom line: I find myself baffled. How can this be a problem? The overwhelming majority of police encounters are uncontroversial. Sure, police departments should save and catalog the video in case it’s needed later. But how many cases warrant an examination of the video feed? And how many hours does it take to review a single tape?

I’m also bewildered why Chesterfield would need to hire eight new lawyers at an average compensation of $100,000 a year. Why does it take someone with a law degree to review police video and isolate the five or ten minutes of footage relevant to the case? Can’t you hire a couple of college kids for $15 an hour to do the grunt work and hand off the relevant footage to the prosecutor in charge of the case?

Really, how difficult can it be to download police video for storage in the cloud, tag it with the officer’s name, date, and time of the encounter, have a intern in the C.A.’s office fetch the file in the relatively rare instances in which it might be germane, snip footage of the encounter, and pass along a clip to the prosecutor?

From my vantage point, the controversy makes so little sense that there must be more to it than meets the eye. But perhaps state and local government just isn’t very good at handling certain tasks. Perhaps there’s a business opportunity for an enterprise to do the job for them at half the cost.

Which is a Greater Public Safety Issue: Fires or Pedestrian Fatalities?

Municipal governance, like life, is full of trade-offs. One would think that a Class 1 fire suppression rating from the Insurance Services Office would be an unalloyed blessing. After all, a Class 1 rating ranks a fire department in the top 1% in the nation, which translates directly into lower homeowners insurance rates for residents of that jurisdiction.

So, if you’re a resident of the City of Richmond, which has earned a Class 1 rating after years of effort, or of Henrico County, the first county government in North America to earn the top rating, it should be a source of pride as well as insurance savings to see the validation of your fire department’s professionalism.

“It’s a big win for the city,” spoke Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the city’s honor. “More than anything, this rating demonstrates reliability.”

But there is a downside. Fire chiefs in top-rated jurisdictions also tend to exercise inordinate political clout, an influence that extends to land use decisions. And fire chiefs have been enemies of the kind of compact, high-density development preferred by New Urbanists and other allies of the Smart Growth movement.

Fire chiefs like big, wide streets and rounded street corners that make it quick and easy for their firetrucks to navigate. That’s entirely understandable if your No.1 concern is fighting fires. But wide streets and rounded corners are antithetical to the principle of walkability — cars tend to drive faster, and people take longer crossing the streets, all of which subjects pedestrians to a higher risk of getting hit. This phenomenon is as true in Henrico County as it is anywhere. I well remember attending a design charette for the Tree Hill real estate development and hearing the frustration of the planners at the unwillingness of the Henrico fire chief to compromise on street widths.

That’s no abstract concern. National pedestrian deaths increased 27% from 2007 to 2017 — to 5,984, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration. By comparison, Americans who died in fires in 2015 numbered 2,560, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In other words, pedestrian deaths outnumbered fire fatalities by more than 2 to 1.

Ironically, thanks to building codes influenced by fire chiefs, newly constructed houses are far more fire resistant than old houses. They use better materials, they have smoke alarms, and many come with sprinklers. If fires do ignite, they are slower to spread and do less damage. Fire departments don’t need the huge, street-hogging monster rigs to put out the flames. Pedestrian safety may well be a more pressing threat to public safety. Fire chiefs should not be given veto power over community design.

Weighing the Coal Ash Options

Coal ash pit at the Chesapeake Energy Center

Meeting EPA deadlines constrains Dominion’s options for disposing of coal ash at four of its power stations.

Under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules published in 2014, Dominion Virginia Energy must find a way to safely dispose of nearly 30 million tons of coal ash within 15 years. After intense controversy over how best to proceed, the General Assembly ordered Dominion to conduct a detailed study of the alternatives. That Dominion-commissioned study, written by engineering firm AECOM, was published in November.

Not surprisingly, given that Dominion has been locked in a running battle with environmentalists and community activists over coal ash disposal for about two years now, the study has settled nothing. On the one hand, AECOM affirmed that Dominion’s original plan — burying and capping the coal ash on-site — makes the most sense. On the other, the utility’s foes have attacked the study as inadequate on multiple grounds. The General Assembly will take up the issue in the 2018 session with few definitive answers.

Despite the seeming inability of the opposing sides to agree on anything, the AECOM study does illuminate the controversy. While Dominion foes criticize parts of the report, they are silent on others. Silence can be interpreted as tacit acceptance of some conclusions, or at least an unwillingness to contest them. For example, foes had long argued that the utility should transport the coal ash by truck or rail to lined landfills. AECOM contends that such a remedy would add billions of dollars to the cost of ash disposal. Since publication of the study, critics have dropped that line of attack and focused instead on the need to recycle the ash into concrete, bricks, and pavers — an approach that in theory could reduce the volume to be disposed of by half.

For decades, Dominion and other electric utilities had stored combustion residue from their coal-fired power plants in large pits on-site. Massive spills of coal ash into public waters, first in Tennessee and then in North Carolina, prompted the EPA to enact stricter standards for the storage of the material. A primary goal was to prevent another calamitous spill.

EPA regulations give electric companies five years plus two five-year extensions — a maximum of 15 years — to comply. Reacting quickly to the coal ash rules, Dominion proposed de-watering the ponds, consolidating the ash from separate ponds into one pit at each power station, and then capping the pits with a thick synthetic liner to prevent rain water from percolating through and picking up contaminants along the way. Arguing that Dominion’s plan would not prevent groundwater from migrating through the pits, environmental and activist groups insisted that Dominion dispose of the ash in landfills sealed from the groundwater and/or recycle the material into cement and other products.

Under orders from the General Assembly, Dominion hired AECOM to study the alternatives. AECOM contends that the on-site impoundments will limit the long-term risk of contaminating groundwater and will withstand everything from flooding and storm surges to hurricanes and earthquakes. The engineering firm found that the so-called closure-in-place option cost far less than transporting the material to landfills. And in a site-by site analysis of four Dominion power stations — Chesapeake, Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield — it concluded that recycling coal ash into concrete, bricks and pavers would lengthen the process of cleaning up the ash by many years.

Environmental groups have been highly critical of the study on two broad grounds. They say the AECOM report failed to address the disposal of more than two million tons of coal ash at the Chesapeake facility. And they contend that the engineering study gave short shrift to the option of reducing the volume of coal ash at Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield.

The Chesapeake Power Station

According to the AECOM report, the cost of removing 60,000 tons of material from a pit at the Chesapeake facility designated the “Bottom Ash Pond” is paltry compared to that of the other power stations. Alternatives range in cost from $10.6 million to $13.3 million, although as much as $161 million might be needed to pay for corrective measures where contaminants have leaked into surrounding waters. Dominion, says the report, has committed to recycling and removing the material from the Bottom Ash Pond.

However, the AECOM report does not address disposal of coal ash contained in the far larger pit known as the “Historic Pond.” In a statement posted on its website December 15, the Southern Environmental Law Center made the following retort to the AECOM study:

In a glaring omission, Dominion Energy’s recent coal ash assessment fails to include any information about the large, unlined coal ash ponds leaking arsenic at its Chesapeake Energy Center, contrary to the requirements of the new Virginia law passed earlier this year. Senate Bill 1398 requires Dominion to assess and evaluate its coal ash facilities to provide information to the public, legislators, and regulators about how best to close the sites. But Dominion ignored the 2.1 million tons of coal ash in the unlined surface impoundment at Chesapeake Energy Center known as the “Historic Pond,” which contains roughly two-thirds of the ash at the site.

“This is clearly an attempt by Dominion to ignore the problem with its unlined coal ash ponds,” said Senior Attorney Deborah Murray in a letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “We can’t pretend this ash does not exist. There is no legitimate reason for Dominion to have excluded this pond from its assessment, and the Department of Environmental Quality should require Dominion to remedy this omission immediately.”

Portions of the coal ash in the historic pond lie six feet below sea level, where it is saturated by groundwater and prone to releasing potentially toxic chemical compounds. “Dominion may not pick and choose the laws with which it will comply,” added SELC attorney Nate Benforado.

The SELC statement refers to a July ruling in which U.S. District Court Judge John Gibney found that contaminants from coal ash at Chesapeake were leaking into the Elizabeth River. According to Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson, Gibney ordered Dominion to conduct water, sediment and biological monitoring around the Chesapeake Energy Center, and also to submit by March 2018 a revised solid waste permit for the removal of an additional three million tons of coal ash at the Historic Ash Pond. 

Dominion is not ignoring the wishes of the General Assembly by refusing to address those three million tons in the AECOM study, says Richardson. The Historic Ash Pond was closed nearly three decades ago, which means it is not subject to regulation under the EPA’s coal ash rules. Although Gibney found in March that traces of potentially toxic compounds had leaked into the river, the volume was so minute that there was no evidence of harm to human health.

Rather than compel Dominion to remove the coal ash, Gibney ordered the utility to propose corrective measures in an application for a solid waste permit. His ruling commanded Dominion and the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter to submit a “detailed remedial plan” that states, among other things, the timing of Dominion’s application for a permit. The Sierra Club and Dominion submitted that plan in July outlining extensive monitoring of the waters and wildlife around the Chesapeake facility, and Dominion has begun collecting the data.

The ultimate remedy at Chesapeake will be determined by Judge Gibney, not the Department of Environmental Quality, says Richardson. Therefore, the coal ash in the Historic Ash Pond needs to be considered separately from the coal ash subject to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Bremo, Chesterfield and Possum Point

While Gibney wrestles with how to dispose of coal ash at Chesapeake, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is charged with determining what to do with the much larger volumes of coal ash at Bremo, Possum Point and Chesterfield. Those power stations are storing 6.2 million tons, 4.0 million tons, and 14.9 million tons respectively. The AECOM study examines several approaches.

Closure in place. The low cost solution at each site is “closure in place” — consolidating the coal ash from multiple ponds into a pit, capping the pit with an 18-inch synthetic cover, adding a six-inch layer of soil, monitoring the groundwater, and taking “corrective measures” if groundwater toxins surpass allowable levels. The combined cost would run between $480 million and $1.7 billion for the three power stations, AECOM estimates. The main variable is how much money the company will have to spend on mitigation. AECOM’s low-cost plan would take three to five years to execute, well within the time frame mandated by EPA regulations.

While capping the coal pits would prevent rainwater from percolating through to the water table and picking up contaminants along the way, Dominion critics contend that closure-in-place would allow groundwater to migrate through lower levels of the ash pits. They want Dominion to remove the material to landfills with lined pits, sealing off the coal ash from any chance of groundwater contamination, as electric utilities in North Carolina and South Carolina are doing at some of their power stations in low-elevation areas.

Truck and rail. Trucking coal ash in 18- to 22-ton-capacity dump trucks to landfills miles distant from the power stations would require literally hundreds of thousands of trips on narrow roads, subjecting residential neighborhoods to traffic disruption, dust, truck emissions, and potential spills. In the case of the Possum Point station, AECOM assumes that 150 truckloads could be loaded daily, equating to a loaded truck leaving the site every three minutes, eight hours a day, five days per week. That process would take years longer than the closure-in-place alternative: nine years for Possum Point, 13 years for Bremo, and 29 years for Chesterfield. Dominion would be unable to meet the 15-year EPA deadline (which includes two five-year extensions) at Chesterfield. And the cost would approach $4.5 billion, making it billions of dollars more expensive than closure in place.

AECOM also examined the scenario of removing the coal ash by rail. That alternative was even more problematic, requiring added expense and time to build rail-loading facilities at the power stations. AECOM estimated a total cost of $7.3 billion, and the length of time to remove the coal ash as nine years for Possum Point, 13 years for Bremo, and 24 years for Chesterfield. The firm also looked at removing the coal ash by barge, but found that approach only remotely practical at Possum Point, and even there, it would cost $1.7 billion, far more than the truck and rail options for that facility.

Regional landfill. AECOM explored a fourth alternative: building a regional landfill from scratch. By reducing the distances that trucks have to travel, the regional approach would cost somewhat less than hauling the coal ash to private landfills: about $4.15 billion. But buying the land, getting the permitting and preparing the landfill would add six years to the disposal process, 21 years in all, during which the ash ponds would remain open.

From Ponds to Concrete

Coal ash is widely used in the United States as a supplement adding strength and durability to concrete and in making bricks and pavers. Recycling is regarded as environmentally benign because it encapsulates the material in a matrix that will not dissolve or release the potentially toxic heavy-metal compounds commonly found in ash.

Utilities in North Carolina and South Carolina have recycled coal combustion residue for years, and now they are ramping up their commitment in order to work down their own coal ash stockpiles. Environmentalists have suggested that Dominion consider recycling coal ash for the same reason: to cut disposal costs by reducing the volume of material to bury.

Coal ash comes in different varieties, and it often must be treated, a process referred to as beneficiation, to alter its chemical properties before it can be mixed with cement or used in other applications. At present Virginia has no beneficiation facilities. But several companies that conduct beneficiation in other states are eager to do business with Dominion.

University of New Hampshire professors Kevin Gardner and Scott Greenwood, engaged by SELC to study the coal ash issue, estimated that sufficient demand exists in Virginia for Dominion to recycle 16 million tons, more than half of its coal ash. In their report, “Beneficial Reuse of Coal Ash from Dominion Energy Coal Ash Sites,” They write:

Nationwide, coal ash is used in 75% of all concrete used for transportation projects, significantly reducing project costs. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that fly ash is used in 60% to 70% of all concrete used in transportation projects in the state, all of which, to the best of our knowledge, is currently fully sourced outside of the state due to the lack of beneficiation facilities operating in Virginia.

As an example of what beneficiation can accomplish, Gardner and Greenwood pointed to a beneficiation facility at the R. Paul Smith Power Plant in Maryland, which has removed 1.5 million tons from the power plant’s coal-ash landfill. The ash is expected to be mined out by 2020, allowing the area to be regraded, vegetated and closed, thus eliminating any remaining environmental risks. “As mining nears an end,” notes the report, “cement manufacturers are actively seeking similar stockpiles for continued reuse in the future.”

The economics of recycling can vary according to the properties of the coal ash and specific conditions at each power station, such as the volume to be recycled, local demand for the recycled material, and the cost of transporting the refined product to customers. None of these are insuperable barriers, says the Gardner-Greenwood report.

Representatives from the concrete industry have stated the need for high quality ash sources in the Virginia region and have indicated a willingness to set up long-term contracts for ash suppliers. Success in the mining and beneficiation of legacy ash in South Carolina has spurred the planning and planned groundbreaking for multiple new beneficiation plants in North Carolina in 2018, demonstrating economic viability. This combination of available technology, vendors with experience, a strong market and economic feasibility together make it clear the beneficial use of legacy ash from the Dominion Energy sites is possible, feasible, and given the environmental benefits, an overall preferred approach.

Not so Fast…

AECOM studied the feasibility of building coal-ash processing facilities at Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield, as well as building a regional processing facility at Chesterfield. According to its calculations, costs would range as follows:

Bremo — $96 to $217 per ton
Chesterfield — $1oo to $285 per ton
Possum Point — $118 to $225

By contrast, contends AECOM, fly ash is selling on average for $30 to $60 per, on top of which Dominion would have to pay $7 to $33 per ton for transportation. In sum, the cost of beneficiation ranges from 1.5 times to nearly 5 times the market price for the ash, making it a major money loser in Virgina. Moreover, says AECOM, there is wide variability in the market, so demand for beneficiation cannot be accurately estimated. And the volume of coal ash entering the Virginia-Maryland-D.C.-North Carolina market is projected to exceed supply by 2019 as North Carolina utilities begin pushing more recycled material onto the market. Added volume from Dominion would create an even greater imbalance and depress prices.

If the decision were made to proceed with beneficiation, AECOM says, Dominion would need to conduct detailed cost and marketability discussions with beneficiation vendors to nail down firm commitments on processing rates and costs.

Coal Ash into Bricks

In a letter written to Dominion, Belden-Eco Products (BEP), developer of a process for converting fly ash (coal ash emanating from a smokestack) into bricks and pavers, corrects what President Robert W. Ittman terms “critical errors or misconceptions” in the AECOM study.

BEP’s patented process creates a superior ceramic brick that could be sold profitably into the $3.5 billion-a-year brick and paver market. The company asserts that its solution — building its facility close to Dominion’s ash ponds and shipping its products to market by rail or barge — would cost less than either landfilling or cap-in-place. The company says that it can generate far more than the $30 to $60 estimated by AECOM from a ton of fly ash — more like $119 to $214 per ton.

“BEP’s bricks would generate a positive income for Dominion of $1 to $55 per ton of fly ash over the course of the project,” states the letter. Partnering with BEP would generate $10 million in Net Present Value for Dominion over the life of the plant, a 7% internal rate of return.

However, the BEP letter does not address a critical issue raised in the AECOM study. AECOM estimated that installing a brick plant with a throughput of 300,000 to 550,000 tons per year — similar to the 500,000 figure cited in the BEP letter — it would take 30 to 53 years to excavate the coal ash ponds at Chesterfield. Dominion is required to devise a solution that removes the ash within 15 years.

Conclusions

A key factor driving Dominion’s decision to bury the coal ash in place is the necessity of finishing the clean-up within 15 years. Solutions that require making big capital investments with long permitting and construction lead-times won’t accomplish that aim. As a legal matter, Dominion must comply with the rules established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and administered by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. The point of the regulations, after all, is to prevent another coal ash spill that could result in environmental damage on a scale far more calamitous than the slow leaking of contamination through groundwater migrating through the coal ash ponds.

While recycling may not be a viable option at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant, it might work elsewhere. The AECOM study indicates that it would take only 11 to 17 years to excavate the ash pond at Possum Point using the Belden technology, and even fewer years using other technologies. Perhaps different solutions for each of Dominion’s four power stations could be cobbled together that recycles some of the coal ash, caps some in place, and trucks some to landfills off-site. Such a variegated solution would not be entirely satisfying to either Dominion or its foes, but it could reduce the potential environmental hazards without running up the tab by billions of dollars.

The Economic Cost of Virginia’s Opioid Epidemic

Source: “2017 State of the Commonwealth” report

The rate of drug overdose-related deaths is lower than Virginia than it is in the United States as a whole — 16.5 deaths per 100,000 compared to 19.8 nationally — but that is about the only morsel of consolation that can be derived from a special focus on the opioid crisis in the 2017 State of the Commonwealth Report.

The number of opioid deaths in Virginia was relatively stable between 2007 and 2010, after which it began climbing sharply as the epidemic spread, reaching 1,138 in 2016. Aside from the personal tragedies of overdose victims and their families, the economic cost has snowballed as state and local governments has spent more on emergency response and substance abuse treatment, and as drug addicts have dropped out of the workforce.

“The consensus is that opioid addiction causes individuals to drop out of the labor force by making them less ambitious, more lackadaisical and even unresponsive to ordinary labor market incentives,” states the report, written by Robert M. McNabb and James V. Koch with the Center for Economic Analysis and Policy at Old Dominion University.

Labor force participation in the U.S. has been on decline for many years, reaching a 40-year low in May 2015. As of Sept. 2016, 11.4 million men between the ages of 25 and 54 were not working or seeking work. Forty-four percent of men not in the labor force were taking painkillers daily; by contrast only 20% of working men and 19% of unemployment men took painkillers. A Federal Reserve Bank of Boston-sponsored study estimated that 20% of the decline in labor force participation could be attributed to opioid use and abuse.

What is the cost of such behavior to the Virginia economy? This is not easy to measure. If, however, labor force participation rate data in Virginia have declined 3 percent due to opioid addiction, then the Commonwealth has experienced between $4.5 billion and $7.6 billion in lost productivity. To put it another way, the lost productivity is at least equal to 1 percent of the Commonwealth’s gross domestic product for 2017 and may be as high as 1.6 percent.

In addition, in 2008, untreated substance abuse resulted in $613 million in public safety expenditures (police, jail, prison) and health car services by local and regional governmental units, according to a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) study. In 2010, the average hospital stay for drug abuse patients was 3.8 days, and the treatment cost was almost $30,000. “No doubt these numbers are higher today,” the authors write.

What is to be done? While the opioid epidemic has become a top-of-mind, national issue, some physicians are insufficiently trained in how to prescribe opioids while managing chronic patient pain. “Both physician and pharmacy education are in order.” McNabb and Koch also recommend researching nonaddictive painkillers, creating a national prescription registry to catch abusers who obtain multiple prescriptions from multiple physicians, and funding the use of methadone to wean users from their addiction and naxalone to reverse the effects of overdoses.

But there are no magic solutions. “Opiate misuse and abuse ultimately reflect our society — the values attitudes, laws, geography and range of economic opportunities that together make us who we are. Hence, one cannot press a single button and eliminate the scourge of opiate addiction because this wave of abuse represents the conjunction of a set of complex phenomena deep within us.”

Show Me the Data

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, EPA Toxic Release Inventory. Red dot = Virginia.

I’ve been pondering Vivian E. Thomson’s book, “Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.” Thomson, a University of Virginia professor who served on the State Air Pollution Control Board during the Warner and Kaine administrations, stresses the high cost of air pollution in human health and mortality. Her treatise quotes various studies predicting that tighter air quality standards would yield major reductions in premature deaths.

I wondered, has anyone gone back to see if the expected reductions actually materialized? If society is going to spend billions of dollars to make gains in air quality, it would be nice to know that there actually is a payoff in the form of better health. My sense is that no one ever checks. If anyone does, the public never hears about it.

Out of curiosity, I ran a correlation analysis between two types of data: the pounds of toxic emissions reported to the Environmental Protection Agency and the 2016 incidence of cancer reported by the Centers for Disease Control, broken down by state. All other things being equal, one would predict that larger toxic emissions would be associated with a higher incidence of cancer.

As can be seen in the chart above, there is almost zero correlation — the R² is .0028 — between toxic emissions and the incidence of cancer in a state. (The chart omits Alaska and Nevada, huge outliers in terms of volume, which would have made the trend line to an even more negligible .0008.)

I readily concede that this is a superficial analysis. Among other factors one might consider would be the size of the state in square miles, on the theory that the same volume of toxic chemicals spread over more acreage would dilute human exposure and result in lower cancer rates. Also, any sophisticated comparison would account for differing toxic release profiles of the 50 states. The Toxic Release Inventory tracks some 143 chemicals, from acetaldehyde to zinc, some of which are more toxic and/or carcinogenic than others.

I publish the graph above not to dispute the idea that there is a connection between toxic chemicals and human health — of course there is — but to push back against the idea that spending billions of dollars tightening regulations on toxic chemicals ineluctably leads to better health outcomes. Perhaps the health benefits are everything Vivian Thomson purports them to be. But perhaps pollution abatement is subject to the laws of diminishing returns which means smaller benefits for larger expenditures. Conceivably, Virginians would see greater benefits to their health if they spent the money in other ways.

When Thomson criticizes Virginia’s “climate of capitulation” — the idea that industry exercises a controlling influence over the political and regulatory system — one might expect her to demonstrate that Virginia’s health is worse off as a result. We would expect to see (a) that states with “traditionalistic” political cultures like Virginia impose laxer pollution restrictions than “individualistic” and “moralistic” political cultures, and (b) that those laxer restrictions are reflected by worse health statistics. But in her book, she makes no effort to demonstrate such connections.

Indeed, Thomson misses what would seem to be an easy opportunity to do so. She quotes a Harvard study as stating that installing “Best Available Control Technology” at the Mirant coal-burning plant in Alexandria would avoid 40 deaths, 43 hospital admissions, 560 emergency room visits and 3,000 asthma attacks per year. Well, from her point of view, things worked out even better than adopting best-in-class technology — the Mirant plant shut down altogether, emitting zero pollution. Did asthma rates in Alexandria decline as advertised? According to a 2015 health profile, 21.4% of Alexandria 10th graders in 2014 had been diagnosed with asthma. I can’t find older data on the Web, but surely it exists. Was the asthma incidence lower than 10 years previously? If not, what does that tell us?

Thomson has total faith in the validity of the studies she cites, which, of course, align with her ideological proclivities. But if she wants people to accept her argument that Virginia’s regulatory policy is bad for Virginians, some of us would like to see the evidence.

Probing the “Insurance Coverage” Numbers

Insurance coverage broken down by state.

Insurance coverage broken down by state. Chart source: StatChat

With Governor Terry McAuliffe making another bid to expand Medicaid via a budget amendment, the publication by the StatChat blog ten days ago of data on the extent of insurance coverage in Virginia couldn’t be more timely.

The blog post is content to present the data with little commentary or explanation of what’s happening, however, so I’ll try to fill in the gaps.

The good news is that in Virginia, more than 90% of the population has some form of insurance (including Medicare and Medicaid). The bad news is that 9.1% of the population still has no insurance coverage. And, despite a lower unemployment rate and a higher median household income than the national average, the percentage of the insured population hovers just at the national average.

By eyeballing the chart above, we can see that Virginia’s uninsured population bounced around the 12% mark for several years, then jumped ahead one or two percentage points after the implementation of the Obamacare health exchanges. One also can surmise that some states leaped ahead of Virginia in the rankings by extending Medicaid to the working poor while the General Assembly rejected the option.

These data would seem to back the McAuliffe narrative on the desirability of expanding the Medicaid program, 90% of the cost of which would be paid for by the federal government. If Virginia added just 5% of the population to the Medicaid rolls, the state would have a higher rate of insurance coverage than all but five states.

But dig a little deeper, and the picture gets more complicated. The chart above breaks down those with and without health insurance by age. Roughly two-thirds of the uninsured population is below 45 years old. This younger demographic segment tends to be considerably healthier than the older age cohorts, and its medical needs correspondingly less. Indeed, thousands likely opted out of the Obamacare exchanges because they did not need or want the coverage at the price it was available. Although we can’t tell from this data how many opted out, it is worth noting that some portion of Virginia’s 10% uninsured population is voluntarily uninsured.


Finally, it’s worth studying the map above, which shows the variation in the uninsured population around the state. (I would refer you to the interactive map at StatChat for details.) The uninsured rate in the working-age 18-to-64-year-old age cohort varies from 32.3% in the city of Manassas Park to 4.6% in the nearby city of Falls Church. Clearly there is a link between income, unemployment and insurance coverage. One could argue that the best antidote to uninsurance is a strong economy and high employment; if we want more people covered by insurance, perhaps we should be investing state funds in making people more employable.

But other factors are at play, although I’m not sure what they are. Why, for example, do the Interstate 81 corridor localities of Roanoke, Botetourt and Montgomery counties — not exactly known for a booming economy — have such low percentages of working-age uninsured? Are there unique institutional forces at work? It’s worth looking into.

Bacon’s bottom line: The debate over health care has gotten hung up on the number of uninsured. But that number is almost meaningless without considering the quality of the insurance programs.

For example, thousands of Virginians are “insured” through Medicaid. But what quality of care people do people receive when low reimbursement rates discourage 22% of Virginia physicians from participating, according to a 2016 Physicians Foundation survey? What percentage of Medicaid patients, unable to find a personal physician, routinely get their health care in hospital emergency rooms? And how does the quality of care compare to that provided uninsured people who go to emergency rooms and have their expenses written off as “charity” care or “uncompensated care”?

Another example: Thousands of Virginians have coverage through Obamacare health care exchanges. But what kind of access do they enjoy? Are they restricted to certain hospitals and physicians? How high are their deductibles and co-pays? To what degree, as a practical matter, has the quality of their health care improved? Likewise, how many Virginians forced into Obamacare lost their old insurance policies, how many lost access to their physicians, and how many perceive that they have worse insurance coverage than they had before? Nobody is generating that data.

One more point: How extensive is the safety net for the uninsured in Virginia compared to that in other states? Virginia has a fairly robust system of clinics that provide primary care to the uninsured and under-insured. How many people are getting at least some of their medical needs met through these clinics? How many are  slipping between the cracks? And what happens to clinic patients when they require treatment unavailable at the clinics?

Counting the percentage of the “insured” population provides a rough measure of access to the health care system. But there’s a lot it doesn’t tell us. Before undertaking a massive expansion of Medicaid at considerable fiscal risk to the commonwealth, we need a keener understanding of how Virginia’s health care system functions. We should not blindly accept the proposition that an expanded Medicaid program will improve real-world access to the uninsured. While the StatChat data is valuable for starting a discussion, it does not purport to tell us all we need to know.

Dams in Virginia: How Many Are Deficient?

Location of Virginia's 2,919 known dams.

Location of Virginia’s 2,919 known dams. Map source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Inventory of Dams

Speaking of deficient bridges (see previous post), how about deficient dams? The potentially disastrous erosion around the Oroville dam in California, which prompted the evacuation of 188,000 people living down river earlier this week, prompted two correspondents to raise the issue with Bacon’s Rebellion.

John Butcher passed along an article noting that the Oroville dam is symptomatic of rampant neglect and deferred maintenance across the country. Writes the Peak Prosperity website:

The points of failure in Oroville’s infrastructure were identified many years ago, and the cost of making the needed repairs was quite small — around $6 million. But for short-sighted reasons, the repairs were not funded; and now the bill to fix the resultant damage will likely be on the order of magnitude of over $200 million. Which does not factor in the environmental carnage being caused by flooding downstream ecosystems with high-sediment water or the costs involved with evacuating the 200,000 residents living nearby the dam. …

Oroville is one of the best-managed and maintained dams in the country. If it still suffered from too much deferred maintenance, imagine how vulnerable the country’s thousands and thousands of smaller dams are. Trillions of dollars are needed to bring our national dams up to satisfactory status. How much else is needed for the country’s roads, rail systems, waterworks, power grids, etc?

The Smith Mountain Lake dam, owned and operated by Appalachian Power Co., rises 235 feet from its floor.

So, what do we know about the dams in Virginia? Steve Nash sent me a link to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers National Inventory of Dams. That database identifies 2,919 structures in Virginia, mostly small (less than 50 feet high), mostly earthen, and mostly privately owned. Eighty-four dams date back to the 19th century, but a large majority were completed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Here’s the worrisome part: the Corps classified 468 dams as having “high” hazard potential and another 551 as having “significant” hazard potential, with another 612 undetermined. The classification of “high” hazard potential does not mean that there is a high likelihood of failure; rather, it means that failure , if it occurred, would probably cause “loss of life or serious economic damage.”

However, 2,035 of Virginia’s dams, like California’s Oroville, are made of earth, which is especially vulnerable to erosion.

According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which regulates dam safety in Virginia, dams must be inspected periodically by licensed professionals. If a dam has a deficiency but does not pose imminent danger, the state may issue a Conditional Operation and Maintenance Certificate, during which time the owner is to correct the deficiency. It’s not clear what happens if the owner fails to correct the deficiency. Small loans and grants are available to help cover the cost.

Presumably, within the bowels of the Virginia bureaucracy, there is documentation that would allow the public to determine which high-hazard dams, if any, are in deficient condition. Where are they are located and who owns them? If I lived downstream from one, I sure would like to know.

If any Bacon’s Rebellion reader would be willing to root around the state archives to unearth this information, please contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.

A Different Kind of Police-Kill-Unarmed-Black-Youth Story

Brown and Cobb

Paterson Brown Jr. and David L. Cobb. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Chesterfield County has its own cop-shooting-and-killing-an-unarmed-black-youth story, but it has generated little controversy — presumably because the police officer was himself black, thus side-stepping the racist-white-cop narrative. It is instructive to read the account of court testimony in the policeman’s trial to get a sense of the ambiguous situations in which police find themselves forced to make life-and-death decisions.

Here are the basic facts based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s coverage of the trial: David L. Cobb, an off-duty, 47-year-old Chesterfield police officer, was getting his girlfriend’s car washed at the Better Vision Detail & Car Spa on Midlothian Turnpike when 18-year-old Paterson Brown Jr. inexplicably hopped into the vehicle. Cobb confronted Brown, struggling to open the door as Brown tried to close it. Observing that the teenager was acting strangely and incoherently, apparently from drug use, Cobb announced that he was a police officer and warned him four times to stay still. At one point, Brown leaned back and said, “I don’t f— with cops” but he did not comply. When Brown moved his left hand across his waist, Cobb believed that he was reaching for a gun. He shot the youth in the pelvis, severing a vital artery and killing him. As it turned out the youth was unarmed.

The prosecutor argued that Brown’s act of reaching across the waist “does not give you the right to use deadly force.”

But David Baugh, a black attorney who has represented five other Richmond-area officers in use-of-force killings, countered that every officer (1) is responsible for stopping a crime when he or she sees it, and (2) fears for his or her life when approaching a vehicle.

“He doesn’t have a right to walk away,” Baugh said. “He took an oath. It’s his moral duty to stick his nose in it.” To convict Cobb, he told the jury, prosecutors “have to convince you there’s no reason to be scared.” Brown set the tone with his bizzare behavior, glaring at Cobb after the officer spotted him inside the car. “Is he reasonable to be fearful? Yes. [Officers] all know.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Police officers have every reason to fear that young men acting strangely and actively resisting direct commands might pull out a gun and shoot. Forty-five law enforcement personnel, two of them in Virginia, have been killed in the line of duty so far this year. Cobb had to make a split-second decision. He made the wrong decision. Indeed, Cobb was so remorseful that he broke down sobbing while testifying in court and the judge had to suspend proceedings for ten minutes while he composed himself. But Cobb did not create the situation. Brown did. And, while his death was tragic and out of proportion to anything he did wrong, he brought it upon himself.

After a two-decade decline, violent crime is on the upswing. Ironically, most of it is black-on-black crime — a perverse result of the “Ferguson effect” in which police dial back their interventions and the Black Lives Matter movement which has encouraged black youths to distrust police and resist arrest. To revive a phrase from the 1960s, I’m on the side of “law and order.” If I were on Cobb’s jury, I would not vote to convict. And, if the T-D‘s account is fair summary of the facts presented, I’ll bet his jury won’t either.