Sustained Outrage

Gas Line Explosion

This image provided by the West Virginia State Police shows a fireball erupting across Interstate 77 from a gas line explosion in Sissonville, W. Va.,Tuesday Dec. 11, 2012.   (AP Photo/West Virginia State Police)

We haven’t told you much lately about the commission put together by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to study the safety and health problems that have come with the boom in natural gas production in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale region.

Readers may recall that Gov. Tomblin called for a closer examination of the issue as part of his 2015 State of the State speech a year ago:

For generations, West Virginia has been one of our nation’s leading energy producing states. As we continue to explore opportunities to diversify our state’s energy portfolio, we must ensure the safety of hardworking West Virginians at drilling sites, production facilities and pipelines across the state. That’s why I am requesting a study to determine how we can best protect workers at natural gas operations. We must ensure our workers have the proper training and skills to do their jobs in the most effective way possible and return home safely. Workforce safety must be the expectation for businesses operating in West Virginia, not an afterthought.

We reported on the commission’s first meeting back in August, but haven’t checked back in with them since (largely because of the flurry of activity covering the Don Blankenship trial).

Under the governor’s executive order, the commission was to “prepare and issue a final report” by Nov. 16, 2015. We haven’t seen a final report yet. Maybe we’ll hear something tomorrow night from the governor, but at the least, I’m told that the final report should be ready later this week.

Until then, what we do have are the minutes of the commission’s last meeting on Nov. 12, which include a summary of the panel’s recommendations to the governor. The recommendations focus first on issues related to emergency response when incidents occur at oil and gas operations. For example, the commission recommended:

— The governor’s office should develop legislation to require that drilling and pipeline construction activities are subject to the state’s 15-minute notification law (W.Va. Code 15-5B-3a(b)(1)). Provisions may apply to fires, explosions, and similar emergency events (confirmed emergencies) at drilling and pipeline construction sites (with greater than 3-inch lines). Provisions also should consider situations when gaps in communications present a challenge to meet the notification time limit.

Under the direction of the governor’s office, the state should establish a database to track incidents and accidents at an associated with natural gas and hazardous liquid drilling and pipeline sites statewide. The state will monitor the database to look for trends that might require additional efforts to mitigate future issues. The W.Va. Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (WVDHSEM) also should map out, review, and affirm “natural gas and hazardous liquid incident” notification/communications protocols within state government.

The West Virginia Fire Marshal will conduct an evaluation to assess the need (current and future) for fire/emergency responder training and equipment. Presently, county fire/emergency responders benefit from several sources, including voluntary support from oil and natural gas companies. Consideration of any new fee related to “fire service” for emergency responders should be done prodently on a case-by-case basis at the local level.

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Will lawmakers get serious about gas industry safety?

Well Explosion

Fire crews from Marshall County battle a gas well fire in  Moundsville, WV, Monday June 7, 2010. The explosion and resulting fire sent seven people to area hospitals including three workers who were flown to a Pittbsurgh burn center. (AP Photo/The News-Register, Kef Howard)

A committee of West Virginia lawmakers spent some time over the last two days talking about a growing, but not very well publicized, issue facing the state as the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom continues. We’ve written about it before:

As West Virginia’s natural gas industry booms, more workers are paying the price as deaths on the job are increasing, according to new federal government data.

Thirteen workers in the state’s oil and gas industry died during the five-year period between 2008 and 2012, according to the data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than double the five workers who died in the industry during the previous five-year period, between 2004 and 2008, according to the bureau.

The increase in worker deaths came as natural gas production in West Virginia — fueled by the rush to tap into the Marcellus Shale reserves — also more than doubled, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

During an initial meeting on Tuesday, James Martin, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas, told the Joint Committee and Labor and Worker Safety Issues that, despite a mandate in the 2011 National Gas Horizontal Well Control Act for operators to submit safety plans to DEP, state officials leave worker safety mostly up to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Our focus is on the environmental side of it, so that’s what we look to. Obviously, there is overlap. The same issue could result in both safety and environmental concerns. But our focus is on the environment.

Charleston lawyer Tammy Bowles-Raines, testifying for the West Virginia Association for Justice, told the committee that injuries and deaths from being struck by moving equipment, explosions, and transportation accidents are on the rise in the state’s Marcellus boom:

Worker safety in the oil and gas industry is a growing concern.

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bayer

We’re still waiting for the likely signing by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin of SB 373, the legislation that grew out of last month’s Elk River chemical spill.

In the last few days of the session, we wrote about what was going on with a provision of the bill to require further state study of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s recommendation for a new West Virginia chemical accident prevention program. The program, as outlined by the CSB after two different fatal chemical plant accidents in the Kanawha Valley (see here and here), Kanawha-Charleston Health Department officials would run the program under existing legal authority of the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

As written, SB 373 mentions the CSB recommendation as among the things that a new Public Water Supply System Commission must consider, saying the commission must conduct:

A review and consideration of the recommendations of the U. S. Chemical Safety and Hazard and Investigation Board after its investigation of the Bayer CropScience incident of 2008.

I was thinking about this language — merely mandating that someone in West Virginia actually take a closer look at the CSB’s recommendation, not that they actually do anything to implement it — as I read a new court filing from the state DHHR. The filing came earlier this week, in response to a citizen legal action about the Elk River spill, seeking to have the state Supreme Court force DHHR and the state Department of Environmental Protection to do their jobs more effectively.

DHHR lawyers seem more than a little upset that the citizens who filed this legal action — citing the wording of a Gazette headline — alleged that the DHHR and other top state officials have basically “ignored” the CSB recommendation. Here’s what DHHR lawyers wrote:

Petitioners blame the DHHR respondents for ‘ignoring recommendations from the Chemical Safety Board in 2011 regarding the potential prevention of future chemical incidents following the tragic 2008 chemical explosion in South Charleston. Petitioners cite a January 2014 newspaper article for the proposition that “the secretary of the DHHR reported that neither it, nor DEP, would follow the CSB recommendation … That article reports that the then-DHHR Secretary, Michael Lewis, stated to the CSB that his agency did not ‘have the expertise in-house to draft the appropriate legislation that would be needed to develop the type of program suggested in your report.’

As the statement from former Secretary Lewis shows, the decision to implement the CSB recommendations was not solely within the DHHR Respondents’ discretion, as Petitioners  suggested, but would have instead required legislative action. In fact, following the CSB recommendations, DHHR continued efforts to implement the recommended chemical safety measures. For example, on April 12, 2013, an email from then-DHHR Secretary Rocco Fucillo recognized that DHHR and [DEP] had engaged in ‘considerable discussion about the logistics and feasibility of establishing such a program.’

Then-Secretary Fucillo explained that ‘since DHHR has neither the capacity, resources, nor expertise to undertake such a program, and because several other state, federal and local agencies are also recommended to take action (and in fact have some responsibility in this area), we believe the appropriate course of action would be a legislative study on the need for a program of this nature. Attached to the email was a draft resolution that DHHR intended to introduce during the 2014 legislative session.’

And here’s the kicker:

…It is thus a gross mischaracterization for Petitioners to suggest that the DHHR Respondents — professionals who diligently advocate for the health and well-being of West Virginians — would “ignore” any safety recommendation from federal regulators.

OK. First of all, the 2008 explosion that led to the CSB recommendation happened in Institute, not South Charleston.

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Secrecy in the W.Va. spill bill

Coal Water Pollution

Listening last night to the House of Delegates discuss the latest version of SB 373 — the legislative response to the Jan. 9 Elk River chemical spill — I was struck by House Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin’s mention of the importance of citizen involvement in protecting our state’s drinking water supplies:

That’s one of the things we felt was critical, was to get the citizenry involved in this.

Of course, Chairman Manchin is right. The problem is, the way the bill is currently written, lawmakers are making it far harder than necessary for members of the public to actually get the sort of information they need to be part of the discussion.

The latest version of the bill contains three different and new exemptions to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The stated purpose of those provisions, according to lawmakers, is to protect against hypothetical terrorist attacks aimed at tanks of dangerous chemicals located near our water supplies.

In one place, the current bill requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to provide each water system a compiled list of contaminants in each of the zone of critical concern near drinking water intakes. The bill explains that this “will enable those entities [the water companies] to possess a compiled list of the types, quantities, characteristics, and locations of all of the known potential contaminants within the zone of critical concern for each public water supply.” But, the language also says:

If any of the submitted information is requested to be kept confidential and good cause is found to grant the request, for reasons of security or other legitimate public interest concern, the protected information shall be redacted from public view and kept confidential, and it shall not be subject to public release in response to a Freedom of Information Act request under made under chapter twenty-nine-b of this code.

One problem there is that part about “good cause is found … for reasons of security or other legitimate public concern.”

That is a much weaker standard to meet to allow this secrecy than the one established under our state’s FOIA and many, many state Supreme Court rulings interpreting that Act.

The other problem is that line that says “any of the submitted information” can be found to deserve confidential protection. Lawmakers are making out as if they’re only trying to protect the exactly location of chemical storage tanks. This bill goes much further than that. And besides, exact locations of tanks can already be protected. We’ll get to how that works in a minute.

Another FOIA exemption created by the spill bill comes in a section that would required water utilities to consider that DEP list of contaminants when they are updating their source water protection plants. It reads like this:

The completed or updated plan for each affected plant, at a minimum, shall include the following … A list of the potential sources of significant contamination contained within the zone of critical concern as provided by the Department of Environmental Protection, the Bureau for Public Health and the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The exact location of the contaminants within the zone of critical concern is not subject to public disclosure in response to a Freedom of Information Act request under article one, chapter twenty-nine-b of this code. However, the location, characteristics and approximate quantities of potential sources of significant contamination within the zone of critical concern shall be made known to one or more designees of the public water utility, and shall be maintained in a confidential manner by the public water utility. In the event of a chemical spill, release or related emergency, information pertaining to any spill or release of contaminant shall be immediately disseminated to any emergency responders responding to the site of a spill or release, and the general public shall be promptly notified in the event of a chemical spill, release or related emergency.

And the third FOIA exemption is contained in a section that is, ironically, titled “Public access to information.”  It starts out just fine, with this language:

The public shall have access to all documents and information submitted to the agency, subject to the limitations contained in the state Freedom of Information Act, article one, chapter twenty-nine-b of this code.

But then it says:

A list of the potential sources of significant contamination contained within the zone of critical concern as provided by the Department of Environmental Protection, the Bureau for Public Health and the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management may be disclosed. The exact location of the contaminants within the zone of critical concern is not subject to public disclosure in response to a Freedom of Information Act request under article one, chapter twenty-nine-b of this code. However, the location, characteristics and approximate quantities of potential sources of significant contamination within the zone of critical concern shall be made known to one or more designees of the public water utility, and shall be maintained in a confidential manner by the public water utility. In the event of a chemical spill, release or related emergency, information pertaining to any spill or release of contaminant shall be immediately disseminated to any emergency responders responding to the site of a spill or release, and the general public shall be promptly notified in the event of a chemical spill, release or related emergency.

If you’re thinking this is a bit of overkill, and that these provisions are confusing and perhaps even contradictory, you’re right. That’s why it’s important to remember, first of all, that our current FOIA already has 8 exemptions that cover homeland security information. They were added to the FOIA after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

The other thing is this: Current federal and state law already allows companies to ensure confidential treatment of the exact locations of their chemical storage tanks. That provision is part of the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. Section 324 of that law clearly says that, when chemical inventories are being reported to regulators and emergency responders:

Upon request by an owner or operator of a facility subject to the requirements of section 312, the State emergency response commission and the appropriate local emergency planning committee shall withhold from disclosure under this section the location of any specific chemical required by section 312(d)(2) to be continued in an inventory form as tier II information.

So if the point here is to protect the exact location of chemical inventories, that’s already in federal law. The language in the bill adds needless secrecy provisions, weakens the standard for keeping information confidential, and broadens — beyond just specific tank location — the sorts of information that companies like Freedom Industry would be able to hide from the public. The bill passed the House last night, and now goes back to the Senate.

What happened to the Chemical Safety Board plan?

bayerblastt

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

UPDATED: Read to the end for important update, with amendment planned to put CSB language back in the bill.

In the early days of West Virginia’s ongoing water crisis, one of the stories we focused on at the Gazette was this:

Three years ago this month, a team of federal experts urged the state of West Virginia to help the Kanawha Valley create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended the step after its extensive investigation of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute.

Since then, the proposal has gone nowhere. The state Department of Health and Human Resources hasn’t stepped in to provide the legal authority the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department needs to start such a program. And Kanawha County officials never funded the plan, and seldom mention that the CSB recommendation was even made.

Now, with more than 300,000 residents across the Kanawha Valley without usable water following a chemical accident at Freedom Industries on the Elk River, some local officials say it’s time for action.

“We’d had their recommendation on the books for several years now,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the local health department. “This gives us another opportunity to look at what they recommended.”

As Dr. Gupta predicted, the Freedom Industries chemical spill — contaminating water supplies for 300,000 West Virginians — provided state and local leaders another chance to focus on the CSB’s recommendation. And there’s been some talk about it, including some discussion that Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, would introduce a bill to require implementation of the board’s proposal.

But it appears that things are really going nowhere with this issue. That’s despite the fact that during its marathon meeting Sunday night and into Monday morning, the House Judiciary Committee appeared to have approved an amendment that included language regarding the CSB’s recommendations. The Daily Mail’s Dave Boucher mentioned this action in a blog post describing the committee’s maneuvering on the bill:

The committee created the Public Water System Study Commission, an entity that will consider the reports that come our in connection the leak and whether additional changes to the law are needed. The commission is also supposed to consider recommendations from the Chemical Safety Board’s other trips to West Virginia.

When you look at the version of SB 373 that moved out of Judiciary, though, the section about the water system study commission — W.Va. Code 22-31-12 — the Chemical Safety Board isn’t mentioned. Of course, that means that the language wasn’t considered by the House Finance Committee, and isn’t in the version of the bill that is up for debate today on the House floor.

I’ve posted here a .pdf file containing all of the amendments considered by the Judiciary Committee on Sunday and Monday. If you scroll to page 24, you’ll see the amendment from Delegate Mark Hunt, D-Kanawha, proposing the water system study commission. You can see at the bottom of the page that this amendment was adopted, right? But there’s nothing listed there about the Chemical Safety Board, or about this new commission considering the CSB’s recommendations.

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Fixing West Virginia’s FOIA

It appears likely that efforts are  may be dead to fix the huge hole the state Supreme Court has punched into our state’s Freedom of Information Act in the name of disgraced former Justice Spike Maynard and his buddy, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Yesterday afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee pulled from its agenda HB3114, a bipartisan bill that aimed — at least in part — to rewrite the state’s definition of “public record” so that it wasn’t narrowed by the November 2009 ruling in the case of Associated Press v. Canterbury.  Committee Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, acted at least in part in response to concerns raised by the West Virginia Press Association about other parts of the bill.

It’s too bad, because there is consensus among leadership in both parties that the FOIA needs fixed. There’s a Democratic leadership bill, HB 2172, and a Republican leadership bill,  HB 2884, that contain similar language, to ensure that whether or not a document is a “public record” subject to release under FOIA considers “the content or context” of whether it relates to the public’s business.

Last year, similar legislation was killed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, after passing the House. But even in the House, there was some controversy. House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, dared to try to expand state government transparency by narrowing the exemption for internal government records and by requiring requiring public reports of the results of criminal investigations. Both of those amendments were successfully blocked by the House’s Democratic leadership.

In his bill this year, Armstead essentially moved to get rid of Exemption 8 altogether.  He told me yesterday:

I’d rather take out that exemption all the way. I just think that, truthfully, when you’re talking about taxpayers’ money being spent related to public questions and issues the public has a right to know.

By way of background, Exemption 8 covers “internal memoranda or letters received or prepared by any public body.”  For many years, state agencies tried to use this as a catch-all exemption to keep from releasing  variety of records — until the Gazette went to court and won a favorable Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the exemption. Here’s what the court said:

W.Va. Code, 29B-1-4(8) [1977], which exempts from disclosure “internal memoranda or letters received or prepared by any public body” specifically exempts from disclosure only those written internal government communications consisting of advice, opinions and recommendations which reflect a public body’s deliberative, decision-making process; written advice, opinions and recommendations from one public body to another; and written advice, opinions and recommendations to a public body from outside consultants or experts obtained during the public body’s deliberative, decision-making process. W. Va. Code, 29B-1-4(8) [1977] does not exempt from disclosure written communications between a public body and private persons or entities where such communications do not consist of advice, opinions or recommendations to the public body from outside consultants or experts obtained during the public body’s deliberative, decision-making process.

In the last few years, the Tomblin administration has tried to revive the use of this exemption. For example, the governor’s office refused to release correspondence with the oil and gas industry about pending rules and legislation, arguing that industry lobbyists had essentially acted as the state’s consultants in crafting such policies. More recently, the Tomblin administration cited this exemption in its efforts to keep secret an embarrassing report about the state’s broadband expansion efforts.

So there’s obviously a need to address problems with Exemption 8. The Republican House leader’s answer is to get rid of the exemption altogether — and open up more of our government’s activities to public scrutiny. But when a bipartisan bill was drawn up, in an effort to get the legislation moving somehow, this was the resulting language for Exemption 8 in HB 3114:

Internal or external communications received by any member or employee of the public body expressing opinions and mental impressions intended to facilitate deliberation of a matter pending before the public body’s deliberative decision-making process: Provided, That those communications received after a public body’s decision shall be disclosed.

That’s far broader than what is currently on the books, and certainly a much broader exemption than allowed under the Supreme Court’s Daily Gazette Co. v. Development Office ruling. Basically, any communications received by a government agency could be withheld.

So the Press Association understandably objected, and the legislation was pulled from the Judiciary Committee’s agenda. I’m told it’s likely dead for the session. Maybe that’s for the best. If lawmakers are intent on crafting FOIA legislation that makes government more secretive — rather than more transparent — then the public is probably better off with no FOIA bills coming out of the statehouse.

But it’s also true that lawmakers on both sides agree that the definition of “public record” needs to be fixed following the Maynard-Blankenship ruling. So there is consensus on that, and it’s not too late for lawmakers to do something with that consensus.

UPDATED: In floor speeches early this afternoon, lawmakers indicated that they continue to work on some sort of legislation … stay tuned …

W.Va. and guns: Is a statewide policy a good idea?

During yesterday’s House debate, Delegate Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, held up his Cabela’s credit card and said gun buyers would be inconvenienced by a three-day waiting period.

One of the refrains yesterday from supporters of a House bill that would override local handgun purchasing restrictions like the one in place in Charleston for more than 20 years was that it’s better for West Virginia to have a common, statewide policy on such matters.

Is that really true? Not necessarily, at least according to a study of gun availability and gun crime performed a few years ago by the state’s Division of Justice and Community Services.   The study, Gun Availability and Crime in West Virginia: An Examination of NIBRS Data (subscription required), was published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed journal Justice Research and Policy. Among other things, it concludes:

The results indicate that counties with high concentrations of both legal and illegal guns are associated with violent crime, gun crime, and knife crime. These findings partially substantiate results from previous studies.

In its coverage of yesterday’s House debate, the Daily Mail included some figures on gun deaths (similar numbers to what we published on this blog in a previous post):

In 2010, West Virginians were killed by guns at a higher rate than people living in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, New York and many other states with large urban centers.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14.1 West Virginians per 100,000 were killed by a gun in 2010. The rate is adjusted to take all ages into account and includes all gun-related deaths. The CDC recommends it for comparison purposes.

Michiganders died at a rate of 11 people per 100,000. Rates for deaths caused by guns in Ohio, Illinois, California and New York were all below 10.

West Virginia’s rate was 13th in the nation for 2010, the latest data available. States with higher rates included Alaska, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming.

The Daily Mail story also noted:

Neither supporters nor opponents mentioned any statistics or data to prove the Charleston law is or is not working. Only anecdotal evidence was provided.

If lawmakers had asked the authors of this state report for their conclusions, they might have been told this:

… The findings do appear to support the notion that guns are related to elevations in violent crime and that guns do not lead to lower crime rates. Both the legal and illegal gun measures were positively and significantly related to each of the three offenses examined in this study—violent crimes, gun crimes, and knife crimes. The significant relationships held even after controlling for various other community structural factors.

Lawmakers might also have learned:

In summary, these analyses have identified significant “hot spots” and “cold spots” of illegal gun availability across West Virginia through the use of spatial analysis tools. These graphs also depict co-occurring and notable pockets of both criminal incidents and presence of guns (both legal and illegal) rather than a more uniform distribution of crime and guns across the state.

And:

… The geographic analyses revealed that gun crimes are not uniformly distributed across the state. Rather, these crimes are significantly clustered in only a few counties. This suggests that any policies, programs, or practices designed to target such criminal incidents are likely to be best launched in and around these counties rather than applied statewide. Such analyses are likely to be of particular importance to states with small population centers such as West Virginia, where counties rather than cities are often the units targeted for crime reduction initiatives.

Of course, this is just one study — and if you read the whole thing, the authors outline a variety of caveats and weaknesses in available data. But it is also one more study than lawmakers relied on when the House passed its gun bill yesterday …

Why Charleston limits handgun purchases

In the aftermath of the May 17, 1993, gangland-style slayings of Tyrone and Jermaine Judd at a Summers Street bar, a white sheet covers one of the victims and yellow evidence markers cover shell casings. Gazette file photo.

As some West Virginia lawmakers move to try to block Charleston’s two decade-old law to limit handgun sales, the Gazette’s Jim Balow this morning provided readers with a glimpse back to why the city passed this restriction in the first place:

Tom Lane remembers the furor over his plan to limit handgun sales in Charleston 20 years ago like it was yesterday.

“I have a vivid recall of the anger,” said Lane, a veteran member of City Council and its current president.

“My mother wanted me to have a police escort at the time. I got phone calls. I was accosted at my home. The NRA came out in force. I don’t recall threats directed at me, but it was clear that, being the focal point for this bill, they directed a lot of attention to me.”

This was long before Sandy Hook, Gabrielle Giffords and the Aurora theater, before Fort Hood and Virginia Tech and Columbine.

City Council members in 1993, by a slim margin, passed laws to make it harder for people to buy multiple handguns in Charleston, and from carrying guns on city property.

Now a number of state lawmakers seem intent on overturning those measures. A House of Delegates committee approved a bill Wednesday that would eliminate the ability for cities and counties to enact gun laws within their borders. The full House will consider the bill Friday.

The problem in Charleston in the early 1990s was not mass murders, but a drugs-for-guns trade that led to violence in the streets. Rose City Cafeteria, a Lee Street landmark for 41 years, closed its doors in 1992 because dinner customers were scared off by the crack cocaine sales and gunfire on nearby Summers Street.

Dallas Staples, who was then Charleston’s police chief, explained:

Charleston was experiencing a lot of violence, violence related to drugs.

West Virginia has some of the most lax gun purchasing laws. We worked closely with federal agencies, especially Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, where we got information from other states that weapons used in crimes in major cities — Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Washington — were being bought in Charleston.

Straw purchases were going on, where people were buying six, seven handguns at a time. People with no criminal background were being paid to go in and buy handguns.

West Virginia was just known as a place to get guns. What do you buy five 9mm guns for, and you no longer have them? Those people who were purchasing couldn’t justify why they were doing it.

There’s also some media coverage (we ran the AP story in our print edition) out this week about a major new study published by the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The AP summarized it:

States with the most gun control laws have the fewest gun-related deaths, according to a study that suggests sheer quantity of measures might make a difference.

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Which way should W.Va. go on clean vehicles?

Alternative fuel vehicles have been getting an unusual amount of attention in West Virginia lately.  Last month, the Gazette and other media gave a lot of attention to this story:

The Interstate 79 corridor will be dotted with four compressed natural gas filling stations by 2014, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced during a news conference Thursday.

The announcement took place near the Spring Street Foodland, the site of the planned Charleston station.

IGS Energy-CNG Services will build the four stations. The other three sites are near Jane Lew, Bridgeport and just across the Pennsylvania state line at Mount Morris.

State Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, said that although IGS is an Ohio company, it chose to build the stations in West Virginia because state lawmakers were ready with legislation to make natural gas feasible.

T.J. Meadows, West Virginia business manager for IGS Energy-CNG Services, and a West Virginia native, said the stations in Charleston and Bridgeport should be open and operating by fall.

A few weeks later, West Virginia Public Broadcasting promoted natural gas vehicles with this story:

With technology for natural gas powered vehicles on the horizon, many consumers are sure to be excited about the possibility of lowered fueling costs and reduced emissions. However, there are a few bumps in the road in making these vehicles available for a mass market.

With fueling costs of natural gas vehicles roughly one-third of traditional unleaded gasoline fueled vehicles, motorists are sure to embrace the new technology. Chesapeake Energy spokesperson Phil Pfister explains how these vehicles have fared in other states.

“Right now in Oklahoma, motorists that are fueling up are fueling up for 99 cents a gallon equivalent, versus—we’re paying about $3.50 for gasoline here in West Virginia. In Louisiana motorists are fueling up for about $1.49 a gallon equivalent. So, there is a lot of cost benefit. Additionally, it produces a lot cleaner exhaust stream; less CO2, less carbon monoxide, less particulate matter.”

And today, the local media is giving pretty good play to this report from The Associated Press:

It’s not often that environmental organizations and the coal industry come down on the same side of a policy debate. But that’s happening in West Virginia, where both groups have concerns about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposal to eliminate a state tax incentive for plug-in electric cars and other alternative-fuel vehicles.

The tax credit covers 35 percent of the cost of an alternative-fuel vehicle, up to $7,500 for cars and $25,000 for large trucks. The credit would remain in place for vehicles that run on natural gas, propane and butane, but would be phased out in 2017, rather than 2021 as scheduled.

And since last July, members of a task force appointed by Gov. Tomblin (a task force made up mostly of natural gas industry officials or advocates) have been working on plans for how the state could convert more of its fleet of vehicles to natural gas. The media have treated this all as a no-brainer, writing things like this without any attribution:

The benefits of natural gas as a fuel are clear: It’s cleaner, abundant and costs about half as much as gasoline.

It’s no wonder that a variety of local officials are strongly backing natural gas vehicles. They’re all eager to do whatever they can to help West Virginia cash in on what they believe is a bonanza of economic development related to natural gas drilling in the state’s Marcellus Shale region. What’s been less in evidence, though, is much discussion about whether the state’s current direction on vehicle fuels is one that experts on energy policy and climate change is one that makes sense.

Not everyone who follows policies in this arena is as optimistic about natural gas vehicles as West Virginia political leaders seem to be. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists makes this recommendation:

Natural gas can play a role in reducing global warming pollution, but using it for transportation fuel does not represent one of the best climate solutions. For example, a natural gas-powered Honda Civic delivers about a 15 percent reduction in global warming pollution compared with a conventional gasoline-powered Civic, but a gasoline-electric Civic hybrid costs less and delivers a 30 percent reduction in emissions.

While it can make sense to use natural gas for vehicles fueled in a central location, such as taxis or delivery vehicles, expanding natural gas use in passenger vehicles would require major investments in new fueling infrastructure that would become obsolete as cleaner technologies come to market. A better use for natural gas in the transportation sector would be as a resource to generate cleaner electricity for plug-in vehicles or hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

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Tomblin recycles proposal to hike pipeline safety fines

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposal last night to increase West Virginia’s civil penalties for pipeline safety violations seems like a no-brainer, given that the state’s current fines are a maximum of just $1,000 per violation per day — far less than the federal government’s fines of up to $200,000 per day.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Tomblin portrayed this proposal as a response to last December’s huge natural gas explosion and fire on a NiSource transmission line out in Sissonville:

Just a few months ago, many of us watched in shock when flames ripped through a community near Sissonville leaving houses leveled and a part of our highway charred when a major pipeline exploded. It was a true blessing no one was injured or killed. We have learned from that explosion and the investigation that followed, that West Virginia’s pipeline safety statutes are outdated-with weak penalties and enforcement measures. In fact, West Virginia is currently out of compliance with federal guidelines.

Tonight, I am proposing legislation to bring our State into federal compliance. I propose a maximum penalty of up to $200,000 per violation, per day. It is my hope by increasing penalties, we will meet federal standards and ensure overall public safety.

But what’s strange here is that, as we reported in today’s Gazette, this problem isn’t new, and neither is the proposal for solving it. Just last year, Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan, proposed a bill aimed at increasing the state Public Service Commission’s penalties for pipeline safety violations. And that legislation made it clear:

The purpose of this bill is to raise the civil penalties that the Public Service Commission can impose for violations of Gas Pipeline Safety Act from the existing $1,000 for each violation to $100,000 for each day of violation to a maximum of $1 million for any related series of violations. This change would mirror the federal regulations.

Interestingly, though, Sen. Kirkendoll’s bill — as it was originally proposed on Jan. 25, 2012 — would not have mirrored federal regulations. The original bill proposed to increase West Virginia’s maximum per-day, per-violation fine to $100,000. But as of Jan. 3, 2012, when President Obama signed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty and Job Creation Act of 2011, the federal fines increased to a maximum of $200,000.

The bill was amended to mirror that new law. It passed the state Senate, but died in the House of Delegates.

In fact, though, efforts to increase West Virginia’s civil penalties for pipeline violations date back to at least 2005, when this bill was introduced.