JLARC Report on Licensing: Useful, But a Missed Opportunity

As the old saying goes, you find what you look for. And in its examination of occupational licensing in Virginia the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) largely found what it was looking for — inefficiencies and overcharges. Conducting the review was worthwhile, but the exercise was small ball — it missed the opportunity to examine much bigger issues.

In 2017, JLARC instructed its staff to study the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) staffing and organization, its processing of occupational licenses, and its enforcement of occupational rules. Staff also assessed the affordability of fees and the processes for adjusting fees.

Here’s what JLARC did not study: To what extent does licensing create barriers to entry into the regulated occupations and professions? To what extent do regulated professions use regulations to protect their occupational turf and boost their earnings? To what extent does the public suffer from these legalized labor monopolies?

To its credit, given the limited scope of its inquiry, JLARC did come up with some interesting findings in “Operations and Performance of the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation“:

  • No legal justification for regulating 11 occupations. Eleven occupations regulated by DPOR appear not to meet the criteria for regulation established in the state code. These include community managers, opticians, residential energy analysts, soil scientists, landscape architects, waste management facility operators and others. Regulation of these occupations does nothing to advance the public health, safety and welfare of the public.
  • Excess fees. DPOR is funded by the fees it charges to applicants. DPOR’s method for calculating fees has over-projected agency expenses leading to unnecessarily high fees in the past. Fees have been reduced since, but the balance still has grown $27.2 million — up from $15 million ten years ago, and far more than needed.
  • Many complaints go unexamined. Staff closed 71% of the disciplinary cases it opened in FY17. Staff do not investigate all potential violations.
  • Poor use of IT. DPOR does review and approve licensing requests in a timely manner, but it would make the process more user friendly by making it more accessible online and by automating key processes.

These are all useful findings, and the report makes some 36 recommendations on how to improve the system. While the goal of improving administrative productivity is laudatory, however, making a flawed system work more efficiently doesn’t do much to build a more prosperous, equitable Commonwealth.

Conservatives have long targeted occupational licensing for creating barriers to upward mobility. Do the state’s 73,000 barbers and cosmetologists really need regulating? Do they really need formal education and credentialing? Is the public health and safety truly harmed if someone gets a bad haircut or cracked fingernail? The crafts of hair cutting, cosmetology and hair-braiding, which provide an avenue of occupational mobility for lower-income Virginians, could be taught perfectly adequately in informal apprenticeships. Why burden people with educational costs and licensing fees?

Of greater concern is the regulation of the medical professions. In theory, the system is designed to protect the public from frauds, charlatans and malpractice. The system does do that, so some form of licensing is necessary. But the system also carves out occupational turf, protecting doctors from competition from nurse practitioners, and nurse practitioners from registered nurses, and registered nurses from licensed practical nurses, and so on down the line. That may not be a big problem in major metro areas, but it is a huge problem in large swathes of rural Virginia that have trouble recruiting medical professionals.

Indeed, it is fair to say that the crisis of access and affordability in rural health care is largely the result of rigid occupational licensing rules that prevent nurses from performing a high percentage of the routine procedures, and dental hygienists from cleaning teeth and filling simple cavities. No health care, it appears, is better than health care not delivered by doctors and dentists.

I would love to think that the General Assembly might get serious about tackling these issues. But I don’t see it ever happening. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page observes today, only one in twenty jobs required government certification a half century ago. Today, one in four does. It should come as no surprise that highly compensated professions, intent upon maintaining their occupational monopolies, have become major campaign contributors. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, physicians have donated $347,000 to political campaigns so far in 2018-19, dentists $223,000, optometrists $114,000. Nurses? Only $33,000. Don’t expect rural healthcare reform unless it involves paying doctors and dentists more money.

Oops, Where Did that $3-4 Million Deficit Come From?

The idea behind the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) is fantastic: Create a facility where Virginia manufacturers and universities can collaborate on advanced-manufacturing research projects that all participants can share. Research staff for the Prince George County-based facility are expert in everything from “vertical diffusion furnaces” and “robot arm-based automation cells” to “thermal spray coating” and “corrosion crack healing,” and they conduct about $7 million a year in research.

Just one problem: The program is operating at an annual deficit of between $3 million and $4 million a year. Debts include $2 million in unpaid rent to the University of Virginia Foundation and a tapped-out bank credit line, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Said Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne: “They’ve got to put together a business plan that makes some sense.”

The Center has procured state and federal funding commitments to build a $12.6 million Advanced Manufacturing Apprentice Academy next door. But state officials, reports the T-D, say they won’t release $9 million in bond money planned for construction of the academy without an answer to the center’s financial questions. Said Layne: “That is not going to happen until this issue is solved.”

Bacon’s bottom line: As I have ranted and raved and inveighed and fulminated, Virginians have no idea how many fiscal land mines are out there. Yes, the Commonwealth has a AAA bond rating (although we have skirted on the edge of a downgrade), but no one has tallied up the long-term commitments, unfunded long-term liabilities, maintenance backlogs, and fiscal tricks of all the local governments and independent authorities set up to serve the interests of the Commonwealth.

After the Petersburg fiscal meltdown, the General Assembly began monitoring the health of local governments, looking for early warning sides of impending financial apocalypse — a big step forward. But no one is tracking dozens of non-governmental entities. Only a couple of months ago, for instance, was the public made aware of a $3.5 billion unfunded pension liability at the Washington Metro mass transit system serving Northern Virginia. Now we learn that CCAM is running a big budget deficit and racking up long-term debt.

The federal government has accumulated a $21 trillion national debt, and soon will be adding to it at a rate of $1 trillion a year — during an economic boom. The Medicare trust fund is projected to run out in 2026. The Social Security trust fund is expected to run out in 2034. Uncle Sam will never collect a big chunk of the $1.3 trillion in student loan debt outstanding, and taxpayers will have to pick up the tab. Meanwhile, states like Illinois and New Jersey are one sharp recession away from fiscal collapse.

As Boomergeddon looms, Virginia traipses merrily along, most recently creating a new Medicaid-expansion entitlement, with no clear idea of its overall fiscal condition. Our lawmakers look no more than two years ahead — the time horizon dictated by the biennial state budget. Although they are attuned to the necessity of maintaining a AAA state bond rating, the credit-worthiness of state bonds is just one piece of the whole. The credit-worthiness of Virginia’s counties, cities and towns is another piece. The credit-worthiness of our state universities is yet another. The credit-worthiness of a plethora of independent authorities is still another. No one, to my knowledge, has analyzed all the pieces as a whole and stress-tested the system. Until we do, we’re flying blind. It is foolhardy to pretend otherwise.

The Real Reason Why Amazon Is the Future

I’ve finally figured out what people can do when robots and AI wipe out half the occupations in the economy — they can get jobs fixing all the #$*& that doesn’t work!

The last couple of months have been a succession of extraordinarily frustrating experiences in the Bacon family — from trying to find tradesmen to complete a gutter job at my mother’s house that the original contractor left unfinished for three months… to badgering our home-warranty company to get our broken microwave repaired, and, after waiting two months for useless parts from China to arrive, to get it replaced… to calling back Comcast technicians three times to get our Internet-cable-telephone service to function properly… to complaining about a two-week-old Microsoft Surface Go tablet whose network adapter stopped working. It’s just astonishing.

If other people are having the same kinds of experiences, our consumer economy is going straight down the toilet no matter what the GDP figures say. I’ll wager that the lost productivity of 340 million Americans navigating phone trees and waiting on hold is a bigger drag on the economy than climate change, hurricanes, cyber sabotage, and telephone marketers rolled into one!

I’ll spare you the gory details but I’m spending more time than ever before dealing with problems created by other peoples’ screw-ups and crappy products. I’m normally a fairly even-tempered guy but I’ve found myself hurling profanities at the wall on one more than one occasion. Other members of my family have been reduced to literal tears.

Some people believe that the progress of AI and robotics is rushing upon us so rapidly that it will obliterate half the jobs in the economy in the next 20 years. I’ll believe it when I see it. Sure, AI might be getting smarter, but everything is getting more complex — IT systems interacting with other systems, nested within yet other systems. Lines of code are multiplying exponentially, far faster than the ability of AI to keep up. Conflicts and failures crop up with increasing frequency. Who’s winning the race — AI or complexity? Right now, I’d say complexity is sprinting ahead of the pack like Usain Bolt.

While the systems are getting more complex, people aren’t getting any smarter. Indeed, given the quality of our educational system, I suspect people are getting stupider. Either that or more people are on drugs. And in a full-employment economy, even stupid, addle-minded people can get jobs. They are wreaking havoc on our lives!

Some people say that Amazon is taking over the world. I, for one, welcome my new corporate overlord. When I bought an inexpensive glare-free Kindle e-reader, the darn thing crashed about one week after the year-long warranty expired. I left a nasty comment on Amazon’s website. A week later, someone from Amazon contacted me and wound up sending me a free replacement.

I now see Amazon as the new model for the U.S. economy. Sure, its products fall apart just like everybody else’s, but its customer follow-up is amazing. Amazon hires people whose job is to clean up other peoples’ messes. The way things are heading, we’ll all be working for Amazon in twenty years.

VPAP Baffled by Media’s Blurry Lines

The Virginia Public Access Project continues to struggle to define what constitutes news reporting worth of inclusion in its popular VaNews news digest — a daily e-letter with thousands of readers who actively follow state and local news. In the most recent iteration of VPAP policy, Bacon’s Rebellion ended up the big loser.

In a world of rapidly morphing publications with different mixes and formats of news and opinion, VPAP doesn’t have an easy job. It started out compiling headlines for Virginia newspapers only. But VaNews compilers have had to contend with the emergence of online publications that do real reporting: Bacon’s Rebellion, The Virginia Mercury, and the more popular partisan blogs. Founder David Poole knows that traditional print newspapers are in decline while online publications are in the ascendancy, and that for the long-run health of VaNews, which is a successful money-raiser for his organization, he needs to embrace online media.

The start-up of the Virginia Mercury precipitated a round of soul searching. Poole’s concern was that the online Richmond-based news outlet had an explicit politically progressive bias, and that it was funded by untraceable foundation money. By contrast, Bacon’s Rebellion has always been 100% up-front about where the money is coming from. Poole was bothered, however, by perception of bias on energy and environmental issues due to our sponsorship by Dominion Energy. So, when our Dominion sponsorship expired, Bacon’s Rebellion chose not to renew it, and we created a channel populated only by news articles for VaNews to draw from. Poole began incorporating pieces from Bacon’s Rebellion.

Then, as debate continued to buffet his board of directors, Poole decided that due to a continued taint by association he wouldn’t accept news reporting on issues associated with now-defunct sponsors, even though news articles written by Steve Haner and me — both knowledgeable, experienced journalists — met all the traditional criteria of a news story.

Now the wheel has turned again. This time dark-money Virginia Mercury makes the cut but transparent Bacon’s Rebellion — which has no source of outside funding whatsoever, other than some modest reader contributions — does not.

“Our goal, as it has been from the start, is to give readers a comprehensive look of reporting about Virginia government and politics,” said Nicole Riley, chair of the VPAP Board of Directors, in a press release Friday. “As providers come and go, we want to keep the focus on original news reporting.”

The latest changes to the VaNews criteria add specificity to the definition of “original news reporting” to include a requirement that an article present both sides of a debate and writers should be a commentator or a reporter – but not both.

“It’s confusing when someone expresses their opinion about an issue and the next day shows up to cover the same issue as a reporter,” Riley said.

VPAP also dropped its prohibition against “advocacy” publications, a term that had been added in 2016 and proved difficult to define.

“The Board debated this and determined that ‘advocacy’ is often in the eye of the beholder,” Riley said. “Take the Washington Post. There are people who believe the Post is part of a liberal media conspiracy while others think the Post is the savior of democracy.”

So…. Virginia Mercury may be an advocacy publication, but because its editor and staff writers stick to “news” and do not engage in overt commentary, they make the cut. Because Haner and I write commentary in separate posts, we don’t. Nothing against Virginia Mercury — the editorial team is good at what it does and I read the publication every day — but this new criteria seems totally arbitrary.

I get it — VaNews has to draw a line somewhere. I’m just skeptical that it’s possible to draw bright lines and stick to them. For example, Jeff Schapiro, the dean of the Capitol press corps, is known mainly for writing commentary but he also reports news from time to time. Are readers “confused”? Will VaNews exclude him from its clippings? That would be absurd.

Well, the world isn’t fair. The onus is on us at Bacon’s Rebellion to create such compelling content that VaNews has no choice but to treat us as an equal — or maybe grow to a point where we don’t care what it does. Let me take this occasion to thank our loyal readers who contribute to the quality dialogue on this blog. Thankfully, you don’t seem confused by what we do.

Teaching the English Learners

Last week I posted a map showing the wide variability between school districts in the rate at which economically disadvantaged students passed the Standards of Learning (SOL) for English reading. By comparing students from comparable socio-economic backgrounds, I suggested that that some schools do a better job of teaching disadvantaged students than others. But any conclusions were preliminary because any analysis, it can be argued, needs to be adjusted for such factors as, say, spending per pupil, concentrations of poverty, or the prevalence of English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students in the school districts.

As follow-up, I present the map above showing the wide variability in the rate at which ESL students pass the English reading SOLs. School districts with the highest pass rates out-perform the schools with the lowest pass rates by a two-to-one margin.

Again, this data, drawn from the Virginia Department of Education, is consistent with the notion that some school systems do a better job than others. But it’s important not to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions. I can think of a number of reasons that might explain the variability. School districts that teach English learners from multiple ethnic backgrounds may be more difficult to teach than ESLs who all speak the same language, such as Spanish. Some schools might have higher concentrations of ESLs than others. Schools might vary in the percentage of ESL students who come from disadvantaged households.

Bacon’s bottom line: Think of this data as a starting point for asking more probing questions.

Cry for help! I’m using Datawrapper software, but I can’t get the map to display the name of the locality or the numerical value when the cursor moves over the locality. Online tutorials don’t help. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong. If someone out there knows how to use Datawrapper, please help!

Bacon Bits: Rails, Roads, Hurricanes and Rainbows

Still off the tracks. Despite promising efforts by top-level management, the Washington Metro corporate culture is still dysfunctional. An audit of $1.9 million in blanket purchase agreements found missing and incomplete documents, reports the Washington Times.

“Auditors found that Metro employees failed to record $845,000 as BPAs in their accounting software, a problem the inspector general attributed to poor controls and lack of staff training,” the newspaper reports. “As a result, $1.8 million of the $1.9 million sampled contained internal control issues.”

Long and winding road. Southwest Virginia’s twisty, windy roads have been long considered a barrier to economic development because they are so inhospitable to commercial trucking. But local promoters in Tazewell County have turned Route 16 into a tourist magnet. The road, dubbed “Back of the Dragon,” provides gut-wrenching turns and spectacular vistas. Last year an estimated 60,000 motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts passed through the nearby 4,240-person town of Tazewell.

Chris Cannon, executive director of Friends of Southwest Virginia, told the New York Times: “We focus on natural and cultural assets” rather than coal, tobacco and lumber. The region has a bluegrass heritage trail, a crafts collective, and outdoor activities like ATV, riding, hiking, mountain biking, and river running. “We as a region are trying to diversify.”

Resiliency reminder. Former Hurricane Michael was only a tropical storm by the time it barreled through Virginia, but it still caused havoc. Some 585,000 customers in Dominion Energy’s Virginia and North Carolina service territory lost their electric power. As of 7 a.m. Friday, nearly 450,000 still had lights out. reported Dominion in a press release this morning:

Early reports of damage include broken poles, cross arms and downed wire in many locations, as well as transmission lines impacted due to tree damage. There were multiple reports of tornadoes within our service territory. In Northern Neck, a tornado touched down and damaged a Dominion Energy substation.

I hope Dominion is keeping good numbers. Legislators and the public will want an after-action report, with a particular focus on the efficacy of the utility’s undergrounding program. How many underground lines experienced disruption compared to the number that would have been predicted before the lines were buried? How much time did Dominion’s repair teams save as a consequence, and how many customer-hours of electric outages were avoided?

Who’s got the brightest rainbow? The city of Richmond scored higher on the Municipal Equality Index, a scorecard measuring municipal policies regarding the LGBTQ community, than the People’s Republic of Arlington and the People’s Republic of Charlottesville — and Mayor Levar Stoney is darn proud of it. “I am delighted that Richmond is able to progress at this level,” said Stoney in a recent press release drawing attention to the ranking.

“Diversity and inclusion are … cornerstones for attracting and retaining residents, top talent, and industry,” wrote Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” in a letter published in the MEI study. “Cities that do not guarantee equal rights to LGBTQ send a strong unwelcoming message to potential visitors, residents, and investors, stymying their potential for economic advancement. In short, many businesses and top talent consider LGBTQ discrimination a deal breaker. … It pays to prioritize inclusion.”

Virginia Tech Gets This One Right

As the 150th anniversary of Virginia Tech’s founding approaches, university officials are thinking about how to tell the story of the institution’s past. At the University of Virginia and Washington & Lee University, reflections upon the institutions’ histories have been the occasion for self-flagellation over the sins of ancestors who participated in slavery and segregation. While it is proper to acknowledge ugly aspects of the past, nothing useful comes from wallowing in self-abasement.

Judging from recommendations submitted by a 24-person history council described in today’s Roanoke Times, Tech will likely strike the right balance between candor about the past and wallowing in it.

In a nod to contemporary PC sensitivities, the council proposed erecting a work of outdoor art to honor the Native Americans who lived in the area before white settlers arrived. It also proposed an expansion of VT Stories, an existing oral history project, which collects stories from a broad cross-section of the Virginia Tech community.

Last year President Timothy Sands initiated an inquiry into the legacy of Confederates at Virginia Tech. The university has several buildings — McBryde, Vawter and Lane halls — named for men who fought for the South. John McLaren McBryde, sometimes called the “father of VPI,” enlisted in 1861 before the attack on Fort Sumter. Charles Erastus Vawter Sr. fought in the Stonewall Brigade. James Henry Lane was a brigadier general who commanded the 28th North Carolina infantry.

The council decided not to recommend renaming any buildings. Said historian Peter Wallenstein: “Worrying about what someone did as a 20-something member of the Confederate military really was not on the forefront of our minds.”

Council Chairman Bob Leonard, a performing arts professor, hit a pitch-perfect note: “The council strongly believes that previously silent stories must be voiced, such as those of under-represented and historically marginalized groups, and that complicated histories not be hidden, but instead, be related in full context.”

Add to the history. Contextualize the history. Don’t obliterate the history.

Forecasting Medicaid Costs and Risks

Beginning Jan. 1 of next year, able-bodied adults earning up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Limit (FPL) will be eligible to enroll in Virginia’s expanded Medicaid program. The financial impact on Virginia taxpayers will depend in large measure upon the percentage of eligible recipients that decide to enroll. A lot of people have taken a lot of guesses, but no one will know the financial impact until the expansion goes into effect and people either enroll or don’t.

A new Old Dominion University study, “The State of the Region; Hampton Roads 2018,” has taken a close look at the numbers. “Every estimate is fraught with uncertainty,” write the authors. “The best course of action is to present a range of outcomes.”

The percentage of the eligible population that enrolls is referred to as the “take- up” rate. In 2016, the Urban Institute estimated a take-up rate of 56.8% for a potential Medicaid expansion in Virginia. In 2017, the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services estimated that of 370,000 qualifying Virginia adults, 239,000 would enroll in Medicaid and 60,000 would transfer from other health insurance plans — effectively a take-up rate of 64.5%.

The ODU economics professors writing the study took their own crack at estimating the take-up rate for Hampton Roads. Drawing upon the experience of two neighboring states that expanded Medicaid in 2016, Maryland and West Virginia, they estimated a take-up rate of 44% for people under the poverty line and 55% above. Recognizing the uncertainties of any forecast, they estimated 20,000 newly eligible adults on the low side and 27,000 on the high side. Based on those forecasts, they estimated that costs to the Commonwealth for new enrollees in Hampton Roads will run between $16 million and $22 million by 2021.

The authors consider the expansion a net economic gain for Virginia and the region: improving health incomes for lower-income Virginians, reducing the level of bad debts and uncompensated care, and improving the financial health of hospitals.

But, just as continued increases in military spending in Hampton Roads is contingent upon the condition of the federal budget, the authors caution that the modest state share of the expanded Medicaid program — only 10% for new enrollees — is likewise contingent upon the condition of the federal fisc.

Interest expenditures on the national debt are projected to climb from $316 billion in FY 2018 to $992 billion in FY 2028, crowding out other categories of funding. “An economic downturn that places significant pressure on the federal budget could result in a retrenchment of Medicaid eligibility and an increase in the uninsured rate,” the authors warn. “While history may be a guide, it’s not a promise.”

If the federal government reduced its reimbursement rate for new enrollees from 90% to 50%, the financial liability to Virginia would increase five times.

Medicaid expansion is a done deal. There’s no point in re-litigating that case. But Virginia has to live with the fiscal consequences. And one of the things that happened when the General Assembly passed the expansion bill is that the Commonwealth assumed a risk that the federal government will not renege on its 90% promise. We have no way of knowing what will happen over the next decade — we don’t even know for sure how much Medicaid will cost us next year. But we can identify risks and prepare for them. The question is, will we? Or will we stumble forward blindly on the assumption that all will be well?

Update: Response to this post from the Department of Medical Assistance Services can be viewed here.

Coal Ash Lessons from Hurricane Florence

Flood waters from Hurricane Florence spilled over an earthen dike at Sutton Lake at the L.V. Sutton Power Station.

Last month pounding rains from Hurricane Florence eroded a Duke Energy landfill, releasing some 2,000 cubic yards of soil and coal ash. Although Duke declared that the majority of displaced ash was collected in a ditch and haul road surrounding the landfill, North Carolina news media reported the “possible release” of material into the L.V. Sutton Power Plant cooling lake. Later, floodwaters from the Cape Fear River inundated the power station with a foot of water in places.

Environmentalists emphasized the danger of Duke’s practice of disposing of coal ash near waterways throughout North and South Carolina. “After this storm, we hope that Duke Energy will commit itself to removing its ash from all its unlined waterfront pits and, if it refuses, that the state of North Carolina will require it to remove the ash from these unlined pits,” said a Southern Environmental Law Center spokesman.

As I predicted here, the incident was sure to impact the debate over coal ash disposal in Virginia. And it has. The headline to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article today tells the tale: “Hurricane’s lessons add pressure for solution to Dominion coal-ash storage.”

Hurricane Florence “punished North Carolina and swamped at least one utility coal ash storage pond in its path next to the Cape Fear River,” stated the article. Then followed a quote from SELC attorney Nathan Benforado during a hearing of a General Assembly Labor and Commerce subcommittee: “Hurricane Florence is a wake-up call.”

A wake-up call? Benforado does have a point. Regulators need to consider the dangers of rare but recurring extreme weather events for coal ash disposal just as they do for electric grid planning. But a lot of relevant material didn’t make it into the Times-Dispatch article. Virginians need to know… the rest of the story.

First the background: The General Assembly subcommittee is studying how Dominion Energy Virginia should dispose of 27 million cubic yards of coal ash buried in ponds and pits at four of its coal-fired power plants: Possum Point, Bremo, Chesterfield, and Chesapeake. Under old Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, Dominion had dumped the coal combustion residue into large pits and mixed the material with water to keep down fugitive dust. After two major spills at other locations, including one at a Duke facility, the EPA wrote new regulations designed to prevent more spills. Dominion proposed de-watering its coal ash, consolidating the material into a single pit at each facility, and capping the pits with a synthetic liner to keep off rainwater.

SELC has raised at least two sets of concerns about the Dominion proposal. First, says the environmental group, there is nothing to prevent underground water from migrating through the ash pits, collecting heavy metals leached from the ash, and reaching public waters. Second, the proposed pits are located close to public waterways, hence they are vulnerable to erosion or inundation during extreme weather events like Hurricane Florence. SELC wants Dominion to remove the coal ash by truck or rail and bury it in lined landfills on higher ground. Dominion has said that the SELC proposal could cost billions of dollars. SELC has responded that recycling the ash into cement and cinderblocks could cut the cost dramatically. Dominion is now evaluating that alternative.

So, what exactly happened at Duke’s Sutton plant? Did the spillage and inundation create a human or environmental hazard? And knowing that conditions at each power plant are unique, is Sutton comparable to any of Dominion’s power plants? What lessons can we extract?

Duke spokesman Bill Norton told me that the hurricane caused incidents at two power plants — Sutton and, less publicized, H.F. Lee.

At Sutton the company had extracted four million tons of coal ash for placement in a landfill — precisely the solution the SELC and other environmental groups had called for. About three million tons remained when the hurricane hit. Norton described the scene as an “active construction site” and, thus, more vulnerable than the cap-in-place arrangement it has proposed for some of its other facilities. Pounding hurricane rain eroded the containment berm, releasing coal ash equivalent in volume to two-thirds that of an Olympic swimming pool. Flood waters from a swollen Cape Fear River also inundated the cooling lake  and overtopped a steel wall erected as a temporary structure. Other than the landfill erosion, however, the coal ash remained stable and the waters receded.

Water samples taken from the Cape Fear River showed that the floodwaters had washed away some “cenospheres,” lightweight, hollow beads comprised of alumina and silica that are environmentally benign, but not the heavier combustion residue which contains potentially toxic heavy metals. None of Duke’s tests found heavy metals in the water that exceeded state safety standards. Independent tests conducted by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality came to the same conclusion.

At the H.F. Lee power plant site, the coal ash basins had been inactive so long that they had grown over with forest. These basins also were inundated by floodwaters but Duke and NCDEQ tests have shown no heavy metal levels exceeding state safety standards. Continue reading

Encroaching Mob Rule

Corey Stewart needs a bigger loudspeaker. Photo credit: Washington Post

I’ve never had much use for Corey Stewart’s populist, in-your-face brand of politics. But some of the people opposing him aren’t any better.

Stewart, who is running for U.S. Senate against Tim Kaine, held a rally yesterday outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Fairfax County to express his outrage, as the Washington Point news article puts it, “over an unlikely effort to abolish the federal agency.”

Less than 50 feet from Stewart and his nearly 40 supporters, counterprotesters banged pots and pans while playing Latin American music over a loudspeaker in hopes of drowning them out.

Groups like La ColectiVA social justice collaborative and the Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America, which took part in the counter-protest, feel increasing license to interfere with the right of their political opponents to peacefully assemble, speak… or even just dine quietly in a restaurant. Belligerence and rudeness can be found across the political spectrum, but the Left is the side trying to chase the Right from the public sphere, not the other way around.

Stewart handled the situation with good grace. “I want to thank the people in the back for providing tonight’s entertainment,” he said. “Those goofballs in the back don’t want to talk about” the crimes committed by illegal immigrants, he added.

Stewart could have won some sympathy from the incident. But then he falsely (according to the Washington Post) accused Kaine of wanting to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. Note to Stewart: You don’t win votes by hurling falsehoods against your opponent.

A lot of people are getting fed up with the Left’s flirtation with mob rule. Instead of making charges that can be easily swatted down, perhaps Stewart should ask Kaine if he condones the tactics of La ColectiVA and the Democratic Socialists of America. The Senator has no easy answer. Either he criticizes his supporters on the far Left, he goes squishy on mob rule, or he refuses to respond, which makes it looks like he has something to hide. For Stewart, that’s a no-lose proposition.