Sustained Outrage

Secret meetings, April 29, 2011

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Today’s issue of The State Register contains no meetings that violated the public notice provisions of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

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.

This image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon Wednesday April 21, 2010. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard)

Yesterday was Workers Memorial Day, a day set aside by worker safety and health advocates to remember men and women who are killed on the job across this country.

Worker deaths, injuries and illnesses are a major problem here in West Virginia and not just in the coal industry. As the AP reported, based on the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report:

The national report says 4,340 workers — an average of 12 per day– died of traumatic injuries on the job in 2009, down nearly 900 from the 5,214 deaths reported in 2008. Tens of thousands more died of occupational diseases.

The overall rate of fatal injuries was 3.3 per 100,000 workers, the report said, down from 3.7 per 100,000 workers in 2008.

Montana had the highest death rate with 10.8 per 100,000, followed by Louisiana and North Dakota (both 7.2), Wyoming (6.8) and Nebraska (6.1).

West Virginia finished in the bottom 10 at 42nd, with a death rate of 5.4 per 100,000 workers.

And the Obama administration’s worker safety regulators and agencies are making a big deal about this day of commemoration, and tying it to the 40th anniversary of the creation of OSHA.

OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels said yesterday:

Today we mourn the workers who died in the last year because their employers failed to provide personal protective equipment, training or supervision, or because their employers failed to follow basic safety procedures such as lock-out/tag out.

So, today we dedicate our memorial to these workers and to all the workers over the years whose lives were cut short by preventable workplace hazards.

And Dr. Michaels’ boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, reminded us in her departmental blog:

On my first day as Labor Secretary, I said, “There is a new sheriff in town.” The comment made a few waves. I said it because I wanted employers to know that labor laws would be enforced under my watch. But any good sheriff knows that punishing the bad guys is the last resort. A good sheriff knows her first responsibility is to protect and serve.

That’s why under my watch, the Labor Department is focused on being proactive, not reactive. OSHA is about helping employers do right by their workers before tragedies happen.

But as I read the speeches, and studied the AFL-CIO report, something just jumping out at me … it was the list of terrible workplace disasters that our nation has suffered over the last two years. From the labor union report, for example:

But too many workers remain at serious risk of injury, illness or death, as demonstrated by the series of major workplace tragedies that occurred this past year: a horrific explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners—the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years; an explosion at the Kleen Energy Plant in Middletown, Conn., that killed six workers and another at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington State that killed seven workers; and the BP/Transocean Gulf Coast oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused a massive environmental and economic disaster.

But in the next breath, the AFL-CIO report proclaims:

The Obama administration has returned OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to their mission to protect workers’ safety and health.

Wait a second … that list of disasters? Those things didn’t happen when George W. Bush was president. They happened on President Obama’s watch. And they happened after Hilda Solis was confirmed as Labor Secretary.

But the labor group report does little to hold the White House or its agencies accountable for the death toll. Over on our Coal Tattoo blog, I wrote about the AFL-CIO not mentioning any of the problems that continue under Joe Main at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

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EPA proposes to expand water protections

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Big clean water news out today from the Obama administration. As announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Recognizing the importance of clean water and healthy watersheds to our economy, environment and communities, the Obama administration released a national clean water framework today that showcases its comprehensive commitment to protecting the health of America’s waters. The framework emphasizes the importance of partnerships and coordination with states, local communities, stakeholders and the public to protect public health and water quality, and promote the nation’s energy and economic security.

The move was also announced by the White House, and a key part of all of this is major new Clean Water Act guidance by the EPA:

Americans depend on clean and abundant water. However, over the past decade, interpretations of Supreme Court rulings removed some critical waters from Federal protection, and caused confusion about which waters and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act. As a result, important waters now lack clear protection under the law, and businesses and regulators face uncertainty and delay. The Obama Administration is committed to protecting waters on which the health of people, the economy and ecosystems depend.

U.S. EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have developed draft guidance for determining whether a waterway, water body, or wetland is protected by the Clean Water Act. This guidance would replace previous guidance to reaffirm protection for critical waters. It also will provide clearer, more predictable guidelines for determining which water bodies are protected by the Clean Water Act. The draft guidance will be open for 60 days of public comment to allow all stakeholders to provide input and feedback before it is finalized.

The draft guidance will reaffirm protections for small streams that feed into larger streams, rivers, bays and coastal waters. It will also reaffirm protection for wetlands that filter pollution and help protect communities from flooding. Discharging pollution into protected waters (e.g., dumping sewage, contaminants, or industrial pollution) or filling protected waters and wetlands (e.g., building a housing development or a parking lot) require permits. This guidance will keep safe the streams and wetlands that affect the quality of the water used for drinking, swimming, fishing, farming, manufacturing, tourism and other activities essential to the American economy and quality of life. It also will provide regulatory clarity, predictability, consistency and transparency.

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Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, has rescheduled the first meeting of his “Marcellus to Manufacturing Task Force” for next week. From the online meeting list at the Secretary of State’s office:

Date of Meeting: May 4, 2011

Time of Meeting: 10:30 AM

Location:

West Virginia Technology Park

2001 Union Carbide Drive Building 2000

Room 1220

South Charleston, West Virginia

The notice also said:

Discuss organizational matters; Review Executive Order No. 1-11 and duties of Task Force; Consideration of matters related to ethane and natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia; Discussion of ethane, ethane conversion facilities and ethylene generally; Discussion of available resources in West Virginia that could be utilized to promote investment in ethane to ethylene conversion facilities; Discussion of potential economic impact of ethane conversion facility locating in West Virginia; Formation of Task Force Subcommittees and related matters; Consideration and adoption of meeting procedures; Discussion related to formation of a comprehensive Marcellus to Manufacturing Action Plan generally; Consideration of other matters related generally to the foregoing. An agenda will be available three days prior to the meeting in Room M-146, Office of General Counsel, Office of the Governor, 1900 Kanawha Boulevard, East, Charleston, West Virginia.

UPDATED: Tomblin cancels Marcellus meeting

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UPDATED: Just heard from Kurt Dettinger, general counsel for the governor’s office, and he informed me that they’ve called off tomorrow’s task force meeting, citing the inadequate public notice.

“It was determined that we needed to give more notice,” Dettinger said. The meeting will be rescheduled for early May, Dettinger said.

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It’s been more than two months since Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, created a “task force”  to encourage further development of the Marcellus Shale and to try to lure spin-off industries into West Virginia.

That group appears to be actually starting to get down to work, with a meeting scheduled for tomorrow at the Capitol … Interestingly, the meeting is being billed — and was filed with the Secretary of State’s office — as an “emergency meeting.”

That designation allowed the governor’s office to avoid the five-day-in-advance public notice requirement when the meeting hit the State Register on Friday.

But is this really an emergency meeting?

Under state law, such meetings may be held only when there is some facts or circumstances “requiring immediate official action,” and those “facts and circumstances” must be spelled out in the meeting notice.

In this instance, the task force says it is having an emergency meeting “to discuss organizational matters.”  There is no mention of a need for immediate government action …

The meetings is set for 2 p.m. in the Governor’s Cabinet and Conference Room.

The Associated Press had a story over the weekend about the differing views of various candidates for governor of West Virginia about Marcellus Shale drilling … and the Sunday Gazette-Mail included the following questions and answers from the candidates on the issue:

Do you believe West Virginia needs new regulations for oil and gas drilling? If so, what specific requirements should be in the legislation?

— Clark S. Barnes:

We must address: Surface owners’ rights, protection of the aquifer which residents depend upon for their personal needs and for livestock use, the amount and location of water removal needed for the drilling and “fracking” process and, the disposal of chemically treated fluids used in the drilling process.

— Mitch B. Carmichael:

I believe that existing regulations for oil and gas drilling are working well. I do support additional DEP inspectors to ensure that regulations are enforced, water supplies are pure, and surface owners are protected.

— Ralph William “Bill” Clark:

We need lower corporate taxes and a competitive severance tax for energy companies, to guarantee profitability, but higher permit fees to pay for more inspectors. We must protect water quality and quantity and surface owners’ rights — now and for the future — and require disclosure of chemicals used in the fracturing process.

— Larry Faircloth:

While capitalizing on natural resources, the environment and property rights must be respected. As governor I will introduce legislation to protect landowners, water systems, rivers and streams as we explore for and extract oil and gas reserves.

— Betty S. Ireland:

— Predictable regulatory process

— Responsive, consistent, balanced permitting process

— Process for local governments/municipalities to provide feedback

— Citizens assured that drilling provides a direct and significant economic benefit

— Consistent and predictable process for individual landowners to insure fair and equitable treatment

— Assurance of outstanding water resources with exemplary water quality

— Bill Maloney:

We already have regulation on oil and gas, including the Marcellus Shale. When I’m governor, West Virginia will drill. We need to streamline the permitting process to ensure we take advantage of this huge potential, while protecting property rights and addressing environment concerns.

— Mark A. Sorsaia:

Yes we do need new regulations that will insure the quality of ground water, and public safety. Our regulations must place us in a competitive position that will promote the development of our gas resources.

Secret meetings, April 22, 2011

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This week’s edition of The State Register contains no meetings that violated the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

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.

Fireman battle a fire at AL Solutions after an explosion rocked the plant Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 in New Cumberland, West Virginia. Three workers were killed and one person was injured. (AP Photo/The Review, Michael D. McElwain)

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Keri Brown had an interesting piece today about continued concerns of the New Cumberland community about a chemical plant there where three workers died in December. She reports:

Federal and state investigators are still looking into the cause of a violent explosion at the AL Solutions chemical plant that killed three people in December. Some members of the New Cumberland community are conducting their own investigation to help get the plant closed.

… This is the third fatal blast at this site in 15 years. Some community members say they’ve had enough. They’ve formed the To Honor To Remember Community Action Committee to get the plant closed, or at least have it moved out of the city.

See previous coverage here, here and here, and don’t forget this post about continued inaction by federal regulators on the dangers of combustible dust.

The outside of a natural gas drill site owned by Chesapeake Energy in Leroy Township, Pa., is shown on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. A blowout at a natural gas well in rural northern Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water Wednesday, contaminating a stream and forcing the evacuation of seven families who live nearby as crews struggled to stop the gusher. (AP Photo/The Daily Review, C.J. Marshall)

UPDATED:

Rory Sweeney, a spokesman for Chesapeake, just clarified that Chesapeake has halted  “fracking” operations at all of its eastern operations, including in West Virginia, while it investigates the Pennsylvania incident.

This just in from The Associated Press:

CANTON, Pa. (AP) — A natural gas company has suspended “fracking” at all of its wells throughout Pennsylvania until it figures out the cause of a spill in the northern part of the state.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. said Thursday that crews have significantly reduced the flow of chemical-laced water from its out-of-control well near Canton in Bradford County.

Spokesman Brian Grove says that the exact cause of Tuesday night’s breach is unknown, but that it’s located in a wellhead connection.

Thousands of gallons of drilling fluids were spilled. They escaped containment, crossed over farm fields and went into a stream.

Grove says initial testing of area waterways has shown “minimal impact, if any.”

The gas drilling technique is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It involves blasting chemical-laced water into the ground. Critics say it could poison water supplies; the gas drilling industry says it’s safe.

I was curious why Chesapeake was only halting its fracking operations in Pennsylvania and not other states, like West Virginia. So far, I haven’t been able to get any of the company’s public relations people on the phone to explain the decision … I’ll update this post if I hear back from them.

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Drilling fluid gushes from northern Pa. gas well

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The outside of a natural gas drill site owned by Chesapeake Energy in Leroy Township, Pa., is shown on Wednesday, April 20, 2011.   A blowout at a natural gas well in rural northern Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water Wednesday, contaminating a stream and forcing the evacuation of seven families who live nearby as crews struggled to stop the gusher.   Chesapeake Energy Corp. lost control of the well site near Canton, in Bradford County, around 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, officials said. Tainted water continued to flow from the site Wednesday afternoon, though workers finally managed to prevent any more of it from reaching the stream.   No injuries were reported, and there was no explosion or fire.  (AP Photo/The Daily Review, C.J. Marshall)

From The Associated Press:

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A blowout at a natural gas well in rural northern Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water Wednesday, contaminating a stream and leading officials to ask seven families who live nearby to evacuate as crews struggled to stop the gusher.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. lost control of the well site near Canton, in Bradford County, around 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, officials said. Tainted water flowed from the site all day Wednesday, though by the mid-afternoon, workers had managed to divert the extremely salty water away from the stream.

No injuries were reported, and there was no explosion or fire.

“As a precautionary measure, seven families who live near the location have been temporarily relocated until all agencies involved are confident the situation has been contained. There have been no injuries or natural gas emissions to the atmosphere,” Chesapeake spokesman Brian Grove said in a statement.

Chesapeake said a piece of equipment failed late Tuesday while the well was being hydraulically fractured, or fracked. In the fracking process, millions of gallons of water, along with chemical additives and sand, are injected at high pressure down the well bore to break up the shale and release the gas.

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