Sustained Outrage

Obama’s confirmation scorecard

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Earlier this month, Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution published an interesting comparison of judicial confirmations during the first two years of the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Interestingly, all three faced Democratic majorities in the Senate, although under President Bush the margin was a very slim 51-49.

Wheeler started with the general observation that under the five presidents preceding Obama, the percentage of circuit court nominees confirmed by the Senate has crept downward (Carter 92 percent, Reagan 88, Bush I 79, Clinton 73, Bush II 71) while district court nominees have remained fairly steady and high (Carter 91 percent, Reagan 94, Bush I 79, Clinton 87, Bush II 92).

When comparing Clinton, Bush II and Obama’s first two years, some interesting differences emerge. Clinton inherited 17 circuit court vacancies, nominated 22 candidates, had 19 confirmations, resulting in 16 vacancies when the Senate adjourned. Under Bush II, those numbers are 27 vacancies, 31 nominees, 16 confirmations and 25 remaining vacancies. For Obama, it’s 13 vacancies, 25 nominations, 16 confirmations and 16 remaining vacancies. Clinton and Bush II reduced their vacancies slightly, while Obama saw them increase.

For district court vacancies, there’s an even bigger discrepancy. Again, during the first two years, Clinton inherited 90 vacancies, nominated 118, confirmed 107, with 52 remaining vacancies. For Bush II: 54 vacancies, 98 nominations, 83 confirmations, and 35 remaining vacancies. Under Obama: 41 vacancies, 78 nominations, 44 confirmations, and 76 remaining vacancies. Clinton reduced the vacancies he inherited by 42 percent, Bush II by 35 percent. Obama saw the vacancies increase by 85 percent.

Wheeler noted:

That Obama got even the district confirmations he did, moreover, was due to the lame duck session. Confirmations don’t stop on July 1 of election years, even if they become more difficult. 47 of Clinton’s 107 district confirmations came in August through October 1994.

The 2002 107th lame duck Democratic Senate, with a switch in party control looming, confirmed 17 Bush district nominees. The 2010 111th lame duck Senate confirmed 14 Obama district nominees. But different things were going on. The lame duck 107th was mainly cleaning out relatively recent Bush nominations. The 17 Bush appointees it confirmed had waited on average 149 days for Senate action; only three had been nominated before June 2002. By contrast, Obama’s 14 lame duck district confirmations represented a deal to clean up mostly long-standing, non-controversial nominees. They waited on average 257 days for confirmation, and only one had been nominated after June 2010.

Continue reading…

Secret meetings, Jan. 28, 2011

Only one meeting in today’s issue of The State Register violated the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

The organization at fault? The West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

Once again, a look at stories that caught our interest this week:

With the world turning its attention to Super Bowl XLV, The New Yorker took an in-depth look at the substantial risk of devastating and debilitating injuries faced by football players, particularly through repeated head collisions. Thanks in large part to the pioneering work of New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other forms of brain damage are playing a bigger part of the N.F.L.’s discussions of its future. (In an aside, author Ben McGrath notes that a doctor told him that concussions among Iraq and Afghanistan could be “the next Agent Orange.”) “Throughout most of the Super Bowl era, football was understood to be an orthopedic, an arthroscopic, and, eventually, an arthritic risk,” McGrath wrote, but we’ve also learned that retired N.F.L. players are many times more likely to be diagnosed with a dementia-related health problems than the general population.

In 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered as he searched for connections to so-called “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in Pakistan. Earlier this month, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published The Truth Left Behind, which began as a journalism class project at Georgetown University. The Pearl Project concluded that 27 men were involved in the kidnapping and murder, and as many as 14 of them remain free. “The story we have written is the one I think Danny would have reported,” wrote co-author Asra Nomani, who grew up in Morgantown.

Secure Communities, a program developed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, includes a database of fingerprints of illegal immigrants, but when Virgina authorities ran the prints of Salvador Portillo-Saravia, a gang member from El Salvador who had been deported in 2003, they came up empty. Four weeks later, Portillo-Saravia allegedly raped an 8-year-old girl, and is the subject of a manhunt, the Washington Post reported. Secure Communities is supposed to flag people who may be in the country illegally for possible deportation, which in Portillo-Saravia’s case would have likely kept him in custody following his November arrest on public intoxication charges. Authorities later admitted that many people who were deported before 2005 are not in the fingerprint database.

Obama nominates Floyd for 4th Circuit

Today, President Obama nominated Henry F. Floyd, a federal judge from South Carolina, for the last open seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

If confirmed, Floyd would be the fifth judge Obama has placed on the 4th Circuit, which has 15 seats total. The previous four were Andre M. Davis of Maryland, Barbara Milano Keenan of Virginia, James A. Wynn and Albert Diaz, both of North Carolina.

Here’s the White House’s press release:

WASHINGTON – Today, President Obama nominated Judge Henry F. Floyd for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

“Throughout his career, Henry Floyd has demonstrated unwavering integrity and a firm commitment to public service,” said President Obama.  “I am proud to nominate him to serve on the United States Court of Appeals.”

Judge Henry F. Floyd: Nominee for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Judge Henry F. Floyd is a distinguished jurist without over 18 years of judicial experience.  For the past seven years, he has served as a U.S. District Judge for the District of South Carolina.

Judge Floyd was born in Brevard, North Carolina, and moved to Pickens, South Carolina as a young child.  He received his B.A. in History from Wofford College in 1970, and his J.D. from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1973.  While at Wofford, Judge Floyd joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army, later achieving the rank of First Lieutenant.

In 1972, Judge Floyd was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and served until 1978.  He began his private law practice in 1973 with the formation of the firm of Floyd and Welmaker, P.A.  Five years later, the firm became Acker, Acker, Floyd & Welmaker, P.A., after it merged with another law firm.  While in private practice, Judge Floyd served as a Commissioner on the South Carolina Forestry Commission from 1979 to 1991 and was counsel for Pickens County from 1986 to 1992.  In 1992, Judge Floyd was elected by the South Carolina General Assembly to serve as a Circuit Court Judge for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit and held that position until he joined the federal bench.

Are greenhouse benefits of natural gas overstated?

A drilling rig used to bore thousands of feet into the earth to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shales deep underground is seen on the hill above the pond on John Dunn’s farm in Houston, Pa., in October.Photo by Keith Srakocic/Associated Press.

This morning at the Capitol, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association will be promoting a report that details the economic impacts of drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation.

But a new report out this morning from Abrahm Lustgarten at ProPublica may have more important news regarding the natural gas industry in West Virginia and across the country:

The United States is poised to bet its energy future on natural gas as a clean, plentiful fuel that can supplant coal and oil. But new research by the Environmental Protection Agency—and a growing understanding of the pollution associated with the full “life cycle” of gas production—is casting doubt on the assumption that gas offers a quick and easy solution to climate change.

Advocates for natural gas routinely assert that it produces 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal and is a significant step toward a greener energy future. But those assumptions are based on emissions from the tailpipe or smokestack and don’t account for the methane and other pollution emitted when gas is extracted and piped to power plants and other customers.

The EPA’s new analysis doubles its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation’s emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported.

When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.

Even accounting for the new analysis, natural gas—which also emits less toxic and particulate pollution—offers a significant environmental advantage. But the narrower the margins get, the weaker the political arguments become and the more power utilities flinch at investing billions to switch to a fuel that may someday lose the government’s long-term support.

You can read the whole ProPublica story here, and they’ve posted two reports that support the story here and here.

Charleston’s brain gain?

Richard Florida published an interesting piece, “Where the Brains Are Going,” over at The Atlantic this week, which noted that several aging Rustbelt cities have apparently started gaining adults with college degrees after previously experiencing losses, or a so-called “brain drain.”

Florida explains:

Cities and regions across America and the world have made significant efforts to attract and retain young college graduates over the past decade or so. This has been driven by growing awareness that the ability to attract human capital, as well the ability to attract companies, plays a key role in economic competitiveness. And since young adults are the most mobile members of the population — people in their mid-20s are three to five times more likely to move than middle aged folks — the ability to attract them early in life can pay big, lasting dividends.

A new study by Brookings demographer William Frey examines trends in the migration decisions of young adults and college grads (as separate groups) over the years 2007-2009. His findings are especially interesting and relevant, since they cover the period since the onset of the economic crisis and reset.

The economic crisis has caused a significant decline in migration, with the mobility of Americans hitting record lows. Young adults and college graduates are no exception, Frey finds, with a growing number of them staying put or moving back with their parents. That said, the mobility of both college grads and young adults remains considerably higher than for Americans as a whole, according to Frey’s analysis.

Frey’s study, which provides a broader view, notes that overall migration has declined to its lowest rate since America began tracking it in 1948.

While there is some debate about how accurately the survey documents the timing of this decline, there is no doubt that the last three years have seen a plateau in migration for interstate moves and, in fact, total moves.

The stall has affected college graduates and young adults—groups usually among the most mobile and coveted—which tend to be the lifeblood of the labor force and responsive to shifts in national job networks. Between 2008 and 2010, the annual interstate migration of this group fell to 2.1 percent, well below the levels of 3 percent and above earlier this decade and in the 1990s. This is indicative of young adults encountering a brutal job market, as many double up or remain at home with their parents or other families. The annual migration rate for adults aged 25 to 29 fell to 3.2 percent in 2009–2010, also an historic low point for this usually highly mobile group.

Consequently, according to Frey, big cities like New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago have seen a reduction in their losses of college educated adults, while cities like Pittsburgh, Columbus and Baltimore have actually seen losses become gains.

This got me thinking: What about Charleston? The Charleston Area Alliance launched Generation Charleston in 2006, an initiative that, according to their website, “strives to attract and retain young professionals to the region, while focusing on fostering the next generation of leadership. Young talent is the future intellectual capital of any economy, and the Charleston Area Alliance is committed to creating both an economy and community that is and will be attractive to this group of professionals.”

I’m not quite sure how Frey calculated his migration figures, so I’m going to use a much clumsier metric. Using information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, specifically, the “educational attainment” data, I compared figures from the years 2005-2007 and 2007-2009, the same periods Frey used.

Continue reading…

I only see one meeting in today’s issue of The State Register that doesn’t comply with the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

The agency at fault? The Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., issued this statement about yesterday’s release of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s report on the deadly Bayer CropScience explosion:

This set of independent recommendations is an important moment for the Kanawha Valley. The CSB conducted a detailed investigation and is making recommendations for the chemical industry and all of the state and local government entities involved in chemical safety. The chemical industry has a long tradition as part of the economy of the Kanawha Valley, and we all have a vested interest in making sure that safety for employees and the surrounding communities is a top priority.

We owe it to our workers and our communities to implement as many of the new protections as possible quickly and efficiently. For those recommendations that require further review, we need to seek public input and hear from all stakeholders, but do so with the goal of timely action. I know that working together we can put in place a comprehensive plan that leads us to a safer workplace and a thriving community that supports these good-paying jobs.

Sen. Rockefeller’s press release included this bit of what his staff called “important background”:

Following the August 28, 2008 explosion at the plant, Rockefeller has backed strong federal efforts to investigate the events surrounding the disaster and improve the public’s access to key information during such incidents.

As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Rockefeller called on the Chemical Safety Board to conduct a full investigation and examine options for Bayer to reduce or eliminate the use or storage of MIC in Institute by switching to alternative chemicals or processes. Additionally, he introduced legislation – which was approved by the Senate and enacted into law– aimed at clarifying federal laws regarding the release of public safety information.

We’ve written before about Sen. Rockefeller’s long support for the Kanawha Valley chemical industry — and his harsh attacks on its critics — and how that history made his concern about the MIC inventory in the wake of the August 2008 explosion all the more important politically.

It will be interesting now to see if Sen. Rockefeller helps Kanawha County Commission in pushing forward the CSB’s recommendation for new state and local chemical plant audits here in West Virginia.

More on Bayer: CSB punts on key questions

U.S. Chemical Safety Board Chairman Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, left, and board member John Bresland await the start of a morning press conference today in Institute. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.

Today’s release of the final report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board on the August 2008 explosion and fire at Bayer CropScience in Institute, W.Va., provided the public with a wealth of information about that fatal — and nearly disastrous — incident.

But as the board and Kanawha Valley residents prepare for tonight’s public meeting on that report, it’s well worth reviewing a few major questions the the CSB investigation team decided to take a pass on.

First of all, there’s the question that many Institute residents and other plant neighbors probably want answered most of all: What nasty stuff were they exposed to during the explosion and the intense chemical fire that followed that night on Aug. 28, 2008?

Board investigators didn’t even really take a solid stab at finding out. Why not? They said there’s just no way to know.

Now, the board report did question Bayer’s repeated statements that night after afterward that no dangerous chemicals were released:

Although Bayer CropScience reported that ‘no toxic chemicals were released because they were consumed in the intense fires,’ the CSB later confirmed that the only air monitors suitably placed near the unit to detect toxic chemicals were, in fact, not operational at the time of the incident.

But, the board said:

No reliable data or analytical methods were available to determine what chemicals were released, or predict any exposure concentrations.

Continue reading…

This photo from a Chemical Safety Board animation depicts what investigators believe the explosion looked like at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va., on Aug. 28, 2008.

I’m just back from Institute, where I attended the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s press conference announcing the findings of the board’s final report on the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant.

We’ve got a first crack at a news story about the final report — and its recommendations for tougher state and local oversight of chemical plant safety — online here. The final report by board investigators, which will be voted on during a public meeting at 6:30 tonight at West Virginia State University, is online here.

Most of the board’s findings were already well known, made public in a major congressional hearing in April 2009 and during the board’s earlier public hearing here in the Kanawha Valley that same week.

Today, the board summarized its findings this way:

the CSB found multiple deficiencies during a lengthy startup process that resulted in a runaway chemical reaction inside a residue treater pressure vessel. The vessel ultimately over pressurized and exploded. The vessel careened into the methomyl pesticide manufacturing unit leaving a huge fireball in its wake.

The report found that had the trajectory of the exploding vessel taken it in a different direction, pieces of it could have impinged upon and possibly caused a release from piping at the top of a tank of highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC).

The accident occurred during the startup of the methomyl unit, following a lengthy period of maintenance. The CSB found the startup was begun prematurely, a result of pressures to resume production of the pesticides methomyl and Larvin, and took place before valve lineups, equipment checkouts, a pre-startup safety review, and computer calibration were complete. CSB investigators also found the company failed to perform a thorough Process Hazard Analysis, or PHA, as required by regulation.

This resulted in numerous critical omissions, including an overly complex Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that was not reviewed and approved, incomplete operator training on a new computer control system, and inadequate control of process safeguards. A principal cause of the accident, the report states, was the intentional overriding of an interlock system that was designed to prevent adding methomyl process residue into the residue treater vessel before filling the vessel with clean solvent and heating it to the minimum safe operating temperature.

Furthermore, the investigation found that critical operating equipment and instruments were not installed before the restart, and were discovered to be missing after the startup began. Bayer’s Methomyl-Larvin unit MIC gas monitoring system was not in service as the startup ensued, yet Bayer emergency personnel presumed it was functioning and claimed no MIC was released during the incident.

Continue reading…