Sustained Outrage

Time for our weekly look at stories that we read with interest this week:

Officials in Clark County, Nev., are considering asking for reimbursement from the retirement plan for firefighters who pre-planned their sick days so that their colleagues could maximize their overtime hours, the Las Vegas Sun reported. The county has e-mails and “sick rosters,” and has changed its sick-leave policy, but proving that firefighters were not actually sick on days they had pre-arranged could prove to be difficult, Assistant County Manager Ed Finger told county commissioners.

Inmates scammed $39 million in bogus refunds from the Internal Revenue Service in 2009, according to USA Today. Typically, cons use Social Security numbers and other identifying information of fellow inmates to file false returns, sometimes resulting in refunds worth thousands of dollars. One prisoner in Florida generated more than $58,000 in refunds by filing at least 14 returns, using family members’ addresses to collect the refunds. He was caught in part because a bank official spotted an upside-down stamp on a power-of-attorney document used by his daughter.

In a rare glimpse into the mysterious workings of the U.S. Secret Service, The Atlantic Monthly examined the behind-the-scenes efforts to protect visiting diplomats — including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — during the 2009 United Nations General Assembly in New York City. The piece also describes little-known assassination attempts against President Bill Clinton in Manila in 1996 with explosives under a bridge and President George W. Bush in Tbilisi in 2005 when someone threw a live grenade at him.

Is the Marcellus boom a good idea?

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West Virginia political leaders and their campaign spinmeisters are furiously promoting the boom in drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Folks seem to be eager to count the money that might be generated.

We’re hearing less from most of them about legislation that the state’s environmental protection secretary, Randy Huffman, has said is urgently needed to regulate this drilling.

With that backdrop, there was a fascinating report released last month by the respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University. The report examines the question of whether the U.K. should advance drilling into shale gas formations. In trying to find answers, U.K. scientists looked at what’s happened so far in the United States in the Marcellus Shale.

Citing concerns about water pollution, public health and — most of all, climate change — the report questions the whole idea that this natural gas boom is a good thing, saying:

…In an energy hungry world, any new fossil fuel resource will only lead to additional carbon emissions. In the case of shale gas there is also a significant risk its use will delay the introduction of renewable energy alternatives.

Professor Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre said:

Consequently, if we are serious in our commitment to avoid dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in the ground.

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Over on our Coal Tattoo blog yesterday evening, I wrote briefly about efforts by the new Republican leadership in Congress to clamp down on EPA’s efforts to better regulate the coal industry.

But it turns out that the GOP’s moves to attach “riders” to a crucial government funding bill go far beyond Obama’s “war on coal.”  Earthjustice has a rundown of the broad attack on EPA. Here are a few examples:

Attacks on Endangered Species: On Salmon and Salmon-Related Jobs, SEC. 1475, and Wolves, SEC. 1713

— The House bill mandates that water used to rebuild salmon runs be redirected to industrial agriculture ventures instead. Thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity related to the salmon industry are threatened by this proposal.

— For the first time in history, Congress is attempting to remove a species (wolves) from the Endangered Species Act based on political, rather than biological, judgments. The House spending plan calls for removal of federal protections from wolves in the Northern Rockies in contradiction to a court’s finding that protections are still warranted under the law.

Attack on America’s Public Lands, SEC. 1778

— The spending bill aims to strip the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of its ability to identify and protect special wild public lands that are undeveloped. BLM’s authority to protect these lands in their undeveloped state makes possible future Congressional wilderness designation, which confers permanent protection on these lands.

Death by Air Toxics Rider, Amendment #201 Filed by Rep. Labrador (R-ID)

— This amendment by Rep. Labrador (R-ID) seeks to block implementation of a federal rule reducing mercury and other toxic pollution from industrial boilers, which are on-site power plants at major industrial facilities. These protections could save the lives of up to 5,000 Americans every year and yield up to $41 billion dollars in health benefits annually—so in proposing this amendment, Rep. Labrador is jeopardizing thousands of lives. Boilers are the second-largest source of mercury pollution in the country.

Green Slime Rider: Aid to Major Water Polluters in Florida, Amendment #13 Offered by Rep. Rooney (R-FL)

— This amendment attempts to block new EPA water quality rules in Florida. Many of Florida’s blue waters have been polluted with fertilizer, sewage and manure causing toxic algae outbreaks and turning streams, lakes, canals and coastal waters into green slime that kills fish and threatens public health. In 2008 over 1,000 miles of Florida’s rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of lakes and 900 square miles of its estuaries were contaminated by sewage, fertilizer and manure pollution. In 2010 the EPA set the first-ever legal limits in Florida for nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen to prevent water poisoning. Now the House Republicans are leading efforts to turn the clock back for water polluters and let them to pollute as they used to.

Action continues in the legal case over Bayer CropScience’s plan to restart the MIC unit at its sprawling chemical plant out in Institute, W.Va.

Already, U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin has issued a 14-day temporary restraining order that blocks Bayer from resuming MIC production until the judge can have a full hearing on the lawsuit brought by 16 Kanawha Valley residents.

Now, the residents have also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which if granted would provide them with longer-term court relief from any restarting of the MIC unit.

A hearing on that motion is scheduled for Feb. 25.  Stay tuned …

Tomblin backs drilling, but still no word on regulation

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Acting W.Va. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s backing of the state’s natural gas drilling industry, without also pushing for needed regulation of that industry, continues …

The acting governor’s office issued this statement today in conjunction with a press conference at the Capitol:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin today, joined by leaders in the natural gas and chemical industries, announced the formation of a Marcellus to Manufacturing Task Force. This Task Force will research and develop potential economic development opportunities related to Marcellus Shale and natural gas byproducts such as ethane and ethylene.

And, according to this comment from Tomblin, he doesn’t appear to think there are any problems related to increased drilling across the state:

The environmentally responsible manner in which the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus Shale occurs will bring countless jobs to West Virginia. In addition, if we can feasibly develop thermal or steam crackers to make use of the ethane and ethylene associated with gas, we will have a great opportunity to reinvigorate our manufacturing sector. I have asked this Task Force to look at all of the possibilities and identify how we can take the expansion surge from the natural gas industry to positively impact our chemical and manufacturing industries.

Tomblin must have missed the news about Clean Water Act violations by Chesapeake energy and the reports of what happened at Buckeye Run in Doddridge County — let alone the recommendations from his own Department of Environmental Protection Secretary, Randy Huffman, for more inspectors and tougher permitting and enforcement rules on this growing industry.

One of the two major bills pending at the Legislature was introduced at the request of WVDEP, but the governor’s office specifically noted that it was not an administration bill. And Tomblin was not among the state leaders who turned out for a press conference last week urging “balance” as West Virginia pushes forward into the Marcellus boom.

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Secret meetings, Feb. 11, 2011

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Today’s issue of The State Register includes just one meeting that violated the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

The agency? The Wood County Development Authority.

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, we present stories that captured our interest this week.

One in five soldiers who served in the Iraq War indicate that they have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, and that jumps to to almost 30 percent for those who have served more than one tour of duty, New York Magazine reported in a poignant story about the toll that soldiers are paying. Pharmaceutical prescriptions to service members have skyrocketed, and drug and alcohol abuse and criminal activity by active-duty soldiers have increased. Three years ago, the rate of suicide in the Army overtook the rate in the general population, reversing the historical trend.

The Afghan government is drafting new rules that may require women to appear before an eight-member panel to justify their need for services at women’s shelters, according to The New York Times. Possible consequences of failing to qualify include jail or being sent home, where they could face beatings, and women may be forced to submit to virginity tests. “The new rules speak to the suspicions that women’s shelters still generate in this deeply conservative society, where the shelters have come to symbolize the competition between modern values and traditional Afghan ways,” the article notes.

In fascinating medical whodunnit, the Newark Star-Ledger looked at doctors’ and scientists’ race to find the proper antidote for thallium, a rare lethal drug. When the head of New Jersey Poison Control received a call from doctor asking for help treating a case of thallium, he replied, “It’s either attempted suicide or homicide.” The patient died before authorities could track down the antidote, “Prussian Blue,” and his wife has been charged with murder.

Hearing set for Thursday on MIC lawsuit

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Word just in that U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin has scheduled a hearing for  tomorrow (Thursday) to consider whether Bayer CropScience should be temporarily blocked from restarting the methyl isocyanate unit at its Institute plant.

The hearing is set for 2 p.m. in U.S. District Court here in Charleston.

If you missed it, we had a story on today’s Gazette about the case, and posted a copy of the lawsuit here. As we reported:

Among other things, the suit asks for a court order to block Bayer from resuming production of MIC until comprehensive plant inspections are conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Institute plant’s stockpile of MIC — for years the plant stored a quarter-million pounds of the chemical on site — has been a focus of concern for many valley residents since December 1984, when a leak of the chemical killed thousands of people near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.

Bayer is in the process of restarting the MIC unit after a significant modification project, but plans to operate it for only about 18 months before it stops making, using or storing the chemical at its Institute plant.

Photo by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail, via The Associated Press

Bayer lawyers have not yet filed any papers responding to the lawsuit, but plant spokesman Tom Dover issued this follow-up statement today:

Bayer CropScience has received a copy of the court filings, and they are under review. In the meantime, it is important that the community know about the extensive efforts we have implemented to ensure the safe start up and operation of the new production unit. First and foremost, we’ve invested more than $25 million in new production, safety and communications equipment. We have completed our planned reduction of methyl isocyanate storage by 80 percent and have eliminated all above-ground storage. The employees responsible for this operation have undergone extensive process and safety training associated with these operations. And we have established several new safety and communications processes, working closely with Metro 911, the KPEPC, and others. All of these efforts — as well as numerous process and safety reviews along the way, including one recently completed by third-party experts — have led to our assurance of a safe operation. We are fully dedicated to a safe startup of these operations and remain confident that we will meet our own high expectations, as well as those of our neighbors and community.

I asked Dover if I could interview someone from the plant who is overseeing the restart of the unit, or if the company would make public this “third party” safety review referred to in his statement. I haven’t heard back yet…

UPDATED:

I still haven’t heard back from Tom Dover on my request, but last evening Bayer lawyers filed this legal brief responding to the brief the residents’ lawyer filed in support of their motion for a Temporary Restraining Order.

Of course, the lawsuit accuses Bayer not only of  “chronically reckless operation” of the plant, but also of “admitted dishonesty in public communications” with residents of the Kanawha Valley.”

Readers may recall that Bayer CEO William Buckner testified before a congressional committee that his company tried to use homeland security regulations to avoid “negative publicity” about the August 2008 explosion that killed two plant workers:

There were, of course, some business reasons that also motivated our desire for confidentiality. These included a desire to limit negative publicity generally about the company or the Institute facility, to avoid public pressure to reduce the volume of MIC that is produced and stored at Institute by changing to alternative technologies, or even calls by some in our community to eliminate MIC production entirely.

Also, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has noted how Bayer stonewalled local emergency responders seeking information about the incident and misled local residents when company officials insisted that no dangerous chemicals were released, when in fact key monitors at the plant weren’t working the night of the incident.

CSB investigators, of course, found that the fatal explosion never had to happen, if Bayer had operated its plant properly. Here’s the agency’s video of what happened:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/lbIz3vWeqcU" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Some of you might have missed her testimony, because House Republicans rarely let EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson finish a sentence today before they interrupted to complain about how EPA regulations were hurting the nation’s economy.

But if they had listened to Jackson just a little bit, they might have heard some interesting statistics about the federal Clean Air Act, such as:

In 1990 alone, EPA’s implementation of the Act prevented an estimated 18 million child respiratory illnesses, 850,000 asthma attacks, 674,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 205,000 premature deaths.

Or:

The mere monetary value of saving Americans from those harms through implementing the Clean Air Act is projected to reach $2 trillion in 2020 alone. Over the period from 1990 through 2020, the monetary value to Americans of the Act’s protection is projected to exceed the cost of that protection by a factor of more than 30 to 1.

That’s just part of what Jackson was trying to tell members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce during a hearing that focused on efforts to rewrite the Clean Air Act to block EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. She summarized some of the law’s benefits in this letter to the committee’s ranking Democratic member, Rep. Henry Waxman.

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New report details drilling damage to Fernow forest

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Foliar injury of trees damaged by aerial release of drilling fluids on May 29, 2008, from the B800 well. Pit containing drilling fl uids is shown in the foreground. Photo taken June 11, 2008. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

We’ve written before about the problems at the Fernow Experimental Forest related to a drilling gas drilling operation conducted there by Berry Energy (See previous posts here, here and here).

Now, a new report by U.S. Forest scientists details the damage that was done.  ProPublica’s Nicholas Kusnetz first reported on the findings on Friday:

The report traces the construction and drilling of a single well and an accompanying pipeline on a sliver of the 4,700 acre forest that federal scientists have been studying for nearly 80 years. It found that the project felled or killed about 1,000 trees, damaged roads, eroded the land and—perhaps most important—permanently removed a small slice of the forest from future scientific research.

The report said the drilling didn’t appear to have a substantial effect on groundwater quality. The scientists did not monitor the forest’s most sensitive ecosystems, including extensive caves, and did not evaluate the operation’s impact on wildlife. The authors also did not test for any of the chemicals added to drilling and hydraulic fracturing fluids.

The report, and the well in question, hints at a larger story of the tensions that have emerged as drilling expands across federal lands in the eastern United States. The B800 well, as it’s called, drew controversy [2] within the Forest Service when it was planned and approved in 2007. In a letter [3] obtained by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, three Forest Service scientists criticized the decision to approve the well, saying it threatened endangered bats and the interconnected caves where they live. The scientists also said the well threatened the long-term research performed in the forest. The employees requested a legal opinion on the matter, but were reportedly rebuffed by their superiors.

The report, whose authors include the three scientists who criticized the decision, notes that some of the scientists’ worst fears, including that turbid water would fill the area’s caves, did not occur. Instead, the greatest impacts of drilling were unexpected. A planned release of wastewater killed scores of trees, and drilling trucks proved much more damaging to the roads than normal logging traffic.