Sustained Outrage

AG Morrisey joins challenges to EPA gas rules

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morriseyphotoWest Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced yesterday that his office had filed a challenge on the state’s behalf to the latest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The rule, finalized in June, would greatly curb emissions of methane from oil and gas operations to address a problem scientists are increasingly concerned may be reducing the climate change benefits of burning less coal (see here, here and here).

In a tweet announcing his action, here’s what AG Morrisey’s office said:

 

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When Mike Pence came to West Virginia

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence joins Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Westfield, Ind., Tuesday, July 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence joins Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Westfield, Ind., Tuesday, July 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

This is a guest post by the Gazette-Mail’s political writer, David Gutman:

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who Donald Trump chose as his vice presidential candidate on Friday, was in Charleston last month to fundraise for state Senate President Bill Cole, the Republican candidate for governor of West Virginia.

Pence’s Charleston visit was not highly publicized. Among media, only the Gazette-Mail and the Associated Press attended.

Pence spoke to about 70 supporters in a hotel ballroom, touting recent conservative changes in Indiana – right-to-work, regulatory reforms and charter schools.

West Virginia Republicans have put similar policies (save for charter schools) into place since taking control of the Legislature in 2014.

But neither Pence nor the Cole campaign were eager to talk about what Pence was best known for (before becoming a vice-presidential candidate) — passing a controversial “religious freedom” law, another policy that state Republicans would like to mimic.

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Public ranks water safety concerns high

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Coal Water Pollution

There’s a new survey out from the Kaiser Family Foundation that West Virginia readers may find interesting:

In the wake of the lead crisis affecting drinking water in Flint, Mich., the public now ranks contaminated drinking water among the most serious national health issues, trailing cancer, according to the April Kaiser Health Tracking Poll.

When asked about a series of health issues facing the country, more than a third (35%) identify contaminated drinking water as “extremely serious,” behind cancer (43%) and similar to heroin abuse (35%)  and ahead of major diseases such as heart disease ( 27%) and diabetes (31%).

Overall, women are less confident in the government’s ability to ensure the safety of public services than men are. Three-fourths of women (74%) are not very confident in their state’s ability to ensure the safety of their water, compared to two thirds (66%) of men. Similar gender differences exist on the questions about sewage and electrical services.

Most Americans (70%) say that this month they have been closely following news about unsafe lead levels in Flint’s water, up from March (63%).  More report closely following the terrorist attacks in Brussels and other conflicts involving ISIS (80%) and the 2016 presidential campaign (77%), while slightly fewer say they were closely following news about the Zika outbreak (61%).

Fielded amid news reports about government officials facing charges related to Flint’s contaminated water supply, the poll finds larger shares of the public rating their state government’s efforts to protect the water supply as either “excellent”  (17%) or “good” (37%) than “fair” (31%) or “poor” (14%).  The public rates the federal government less favorably, with more saying it’s doing a “fair” (36%) or “poor” (26%) job than saying it’s doing an “excellent” (7%) or “good” (29%) job.

Designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation, the poll was conducted from April 12-19 among a nationally representative random digit dial telephone sample of 1,201 adults. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline (420) and cell phone (781). The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.

After action: Learning from W.Va.’s water crisis

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Coal Water Pollution

In a lot of ways, the “After Action Review” made public last week by the Tomblin administration was an amazing document.  Click here to read the whole thing or here to download the main body summary of the findings.

Writing in our news story about the report, I called it the state’s “most frank assessment” to date of government’s performance in responding to the Freedom Industries chemical leak and the water crisis that followed. Among the admissions:

— The state “struggled at times” to effectively communicate information to the public through the news media. News conferences occurred with little notice, and messages were “lost amid confusing or ambiguous statements.” The report noted that “scientific information ought to be conveyed in an easily understandable manner.”

Earl Ray Tomblin— Government officials “should have visited individuals and businesses in the affected area to help restore calm and exhibit empathy.”

— Recalling an industry-only “stakeholders” meeting that was exposed by The Charleston Gazette, the report said that, “In preparing the initial draft of the Aboveground Storage Tank Act, state officials should have solicited feedback from all affected parties, including environmentalists, instead of only vetting proposals with business and industry representatives.”

Of course, some of these things are about communications and public relations, and others are about process.  In some other ways, the report was not quite as honest or at least it appeared to be still trying to put the best possible spin on this. For example, as I wrote in our news story:

… The report said that “with the abundance of chemical and manufacturing facilities in the Kanawha Valley,” many of them near “critical waterways,” a more efficient way of managing required disclosure forms about toxic chemical inventories at those operations should be implemented.

The report asserts that, while the state had established a “comprehensive statutory framework” in 1984 to regulate underground chemical storage tanks, aboveground tanks were not regulated “under an applicable federal or state permit” and tanks like the MCHM tanks at Freedom Industries “escaped government oversight.”

The report said that the new storage tank law “will help address these shortcomings, will increase public safety significantly, and will help protect the environment.”

The truth is, state and local officials were given information that showed Freedom was storing these chemicals just upstream from the region’s drinking water intake. But nobody — including members of the local media, like me — bothered to look at or use this information in any meaningful way (see here and here). So while it’s certainly true that officials need “a more efficient way of managing” chemical inventory disclosures, it’s also quite an understatement about the failure to use available tools to prevent or respond to a disaster.

And the truth is that the Freedom site wasn’t “not regulated”, but — as DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has explained previously — they were “underregulated.”  And in fact, federal authorities, in charging Freedom officials with Clean Water Act crimes, have said that the company’s failure to comply with a DEP-issued permit was a “proximate cause” of the MCHM spill. It was DEP’s job to enforce that permit, to make sure Freedom complied.

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Guns in W.Va.: Permits, politics and the press

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Gun Violence Grave Markers

The Washington Monument stands behind thousands of grave markers erected in a mock cemetery on the National Mall in Washington, Thursday, April 11, 2013, to honor the victims of gun violence . (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

There’s an interesting story making the rounds in West Virginia about a reported increase in the issuance of concealed weapons permits across our state. Here’s how it starts:

The number of concealed weapons permits issued annually in West Virginia has more than quadrupled in the past five years.

In 2009, county sheriffs’ departments issued 11,160 permits allowing residents to carry concealed handguns in most public places. In 2013, that number had jumped to 44,981.

The largest increase was from 2012 to 2013, when the number of permits issued annually increased by more than 15,000, up from 29,712 in 2012.

Those numbers, compiled by the West Virginia State Police, are only the permits issued each year. A permit is valid for five years, so the total number of West Virginians licensed to carry concealed handguns is much higher.

Those numbers, compiled by the West Virginia State Police, represent all active permits. The number includes both new permits and renewal permits.

While some may have been revoked or surrendered, a total of 126,514 permits were issued in the five years from 2009-13.

CORRECTION: In Thursday’s West Virginia Press Association article on concealed weapons permits quadrupling over the last five years, it was the total number of active permits that quadrupled over five years, not just new permits, as was incorrectly stated in the article. Renewals are included in that total number of active permits that quadrupled. The numbers represent the total number of active permits.

The story is getting a fair amount of play, in large part because it was reported and written by Kris Wise Maramba for the West Virginia Press Association, meaning it’s likely to start appearing in newspapers around the state (see here, here and here for examples so far).  The story shows what is clearly an important and newsworthy trend:

gun permit graphic

Gazette graphic by Tye Ward

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Sen. Joe Manchin

 

The folks who run West Virginia’s Democratic Party put out a blistering press release last night, declaring:

THIS JUST IN: Evan Jenkins accepted the maximum legal contribution from out-of-state billionaire David Koch on April 28th according to federal documents.

David Koch is one half of the duo Koch Brothers who have been pouring money into West Virginia elections for political gain and misleading West Virginia voters.

The release goes on:

This contribution came just days after Congressman Nick Rahall released his “New York City” campaign ad defending himself against the misleading ads targeting him paid for by Americans for Prosperity.  

 Americans for Prosperity is a conservative outside group founded by Charles and David Koch.

 The Koch Brothers were also responsible for slashing nearly 100 West Virginia jobs by closing the Georgia Pacific Plant in Mount Hope.

 State Senator Evan Jenkins is no stranger to dirty money. He has also taken money from Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, who is the architect of the Republican Budget that attacks West Virginia’s middle class families and Don Blankenship and Massey Coal, who were responsible for one of the worst mining disasters that claimed the lives of 29 miners at Upper Big Branch.

But wait  …. wasn’t one major West Virginia Democrat just telling us (see here, here and here) that the Koch brothers are just “job creators” who aren’t doing anything against the law?

That’s right. Here’s what Sen. Joe Manchin said in response to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s criticism of the Koch brothers and their political spending:

You don’t beat up people, I mean I don’t agree with their politics or their philosophy. But you know, they’re Americans. They’re doing their taxes … their not breaking the law. They’re providing jobs. Right wrong or indifferent, if you don’t like their politics … this type of rhetoric does not help us move this country and move the agenda forward.

See for yourself. Here’s the video:

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Sen. Joe Manchin
We’ve written before (see here. here and here) about legislation crafted in part by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to finally rewrite the nation’s toxic chemical safety law.

Well, it turns out that a number of states around the country aren’t too happy with this bill. They’re worried that Congress is attempting to override their own steps to enact tougher safety rules for chemicals and for other environmental threats like climate change. As we wrote in a story late last month:

A major rewrite of the way the nation regulates toxic chemicals is under fire from states that say the bill — co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — usurps their authority to set their own safety standards.

The debate over which level of government should take the lead on chemical safety comes after Manchin’s repeated complaints that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversteps its authority on mountaintop removal and other coal industry issues.

Covering a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Public Works, we explained:

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she is concerned that the bill could roll back her state’s landmark 1986 law to protect consumers from toxic materials. California officials also are worried that the bill could undermine the state’s water quality laws and its efforts to combat global warming.

Michael Troncoso, senior counsel to California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, testified about the matter during Wednesday’s hearing. So did Ken Zarker, pollution prevention and regulatory assistance section manager at the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Troncoso submitted a letter signed by attorneys general in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state to “urge Congress not to undermine the traditional role of the states in protecting their citizens from toxic chemicals.

“The federal government must regulate chemical safety so that there is a minimum level of protection across the nation,” Troncoso told lawmakers. “At the same time, we urge the committee to recognize and honor the long-standing authority of the states to act alongside the federal government to protect the health, safety and welfare of their citizens — to act as laboratories of innovation in the area of toxics regulation and to tackle the problem of dangerous chemicals as a partner with the federal government.”

morriseyAnother West Virginia public official who has made a lot of noise about ensuring that the federal government doesn’t usurp the rights of states to chart their own course on environmental regulations is Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (see here and here). Given his interest in protecting the rights of states, I thought it would be interesting to see what he thought of Sen. Manchin’s legislation. When West Virginia leaders fight federal efforts to crack down on the coal industry, is their effort about protecting the rights of states, or is it more about helping industries avoid tougher regulations?

So on Aug. 2, a couple of days after the Senate hearing, I asked Morrisey’s publicist, Beth Ryan:

Given his interest in ensuring no federal overreach onto the authority of states, I wondered if Attorney General Morrisey or his staff have looked at this legislation and have any thoughts on it, particularly regarding the concerns expressed by other states about pre-emption of their chemical safety rules.

Today, I heard back from Ms. Ryan. Here’s what she said:

The Office of the Attorney General has no comment on this issue.

 

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Last month, we reported about how West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was among the driving forces behind a compromise piece of legislation aimed at reworking the nation’s toxic chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act. We said at the time (see also this blog post about Manchin laying low about his role in the matter):

Lawmakers in Washington have reached agreement on a potential compromise to reform the way the nation regulates toxic chemicals, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is being credited with helping to forge the bipartisan deal.

The bill would, for the first time, require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the safety of all chemicals used in commerce. Currently, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act allows the vast majority of chemicals to remain on the market without any evidence of their safety.

The EPA has tested only about 200 of the 84,000 chemicals in the agency’s inventory.

The groundbreaking deal was reached between New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who, for years, has pushed a tough bill to modernize chemical protections, and Louisiana Republican David Vitter, who has been trying to build support for a more modest, industry-backed proposal.

“Our agreement shows that protecting our health and environment does not have to impede our economic growth,” Manchin said in a prepared statement.

Well, it turns out that maybe the legislation isn’t as great as Sen. Manchin made it sound — at least not according to a growing coalition of public health advocacy organizations.  Yesterday, dozens of those groups sent a letter to lawmakers about the Chemical Safety Improvement Act that Sen. Manchin is co-sponsoring. The letter — signed by groups including the Breast Cancer Fund, Greenpeace, Environmental Working Group, Healthy Child, Healthy World and the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, says:

We respect and appreciate the efforts to identify areas of bipartisan compromise and consensus on chemical safety legislation. However, we believe that the resulting Chemical Safety Improvement Act, S. 1009, has serious limitations and will fall far short of our shared goal of safeguarding human health from the risks posed by exposure to toxic chemicals. As a result, we will oppose this bill as it is currently written unless it is amended to address our key concerns.

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Sen. Manchin laying low on toxic chemical bill

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Can we all agree that West Virginia’s junior Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, isn’t an especially shy guy? Given that, isn’t it a little strange that his office hasn’t really sought out attention for the senator’s key role in working out what could turn into a landmark agreement to reform the nation’s regulation of toxic chemicals?

We reported on this deal on the front page of today’s Gazette:

Lawmakers in Washington have reached agreement on a potential compromise to reform the way the nation regulates toxic chemicals, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is being credited with helping to forge the bipartisan deal.

The bill would, for the first time, require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the safety of all chemicals used in commerce. Currently, the federal Toxic Substances Control Act allows the vast majority of chemicals to remain on the market without any evidence of their safety.

The story outlined compliments from various sides for Sen. Manchin’s role in getting this done:

Over the past few months, industry officials had been aggressively lobbying Manchin, and environmental groups believed Manchin was close to signing on to Vitter’s bill, a move that would give that version a key Democratic vote.

Instead, Manchin urged Lautenberg and Vitter to try to work toward a bill they could both live with, according to accounts from citizen and industry organizations that closely followed the talks.

Manchin’s involvement “helped create a dynamic” that brought Lautenberg and Vitter together, said Cal Dooley, CEO of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.

“[Manchin] brought them both in and said, ‘I prefer the more conservative approach, but I’d like you guys to work this out,'” said Andy Igrejas, director of the Safer Chemicals Healthy Families Coalition, which has pushed for a strong TSCA bill.

But unlike Sen. Manchin’s work trying to find a compromise on firearm safety, the local media here in West Virginia didn’t really pick up on this story. One reason might be that Sen. Manchin didn’t really seek out any attention or news coverage.

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We’re all going to be hearing a lot about pipeline safety today. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has scheduled an event out in Sissonville to ceremonially resign a pipeline safety bill that he already signed nearly a month ago.

Gov. Tomblin included this legislation among his big successes during this year’s legislative session, and his office described the bill this way in a press release:

H.B. 2505 relating to increasing civil penalties for pipeline safety Violations: This bill brings state statutes into federal compliance and increases the maximum penalty to $200,000 per violation, per day and a maximum penalty of $2 million for a series of related violations. By increasing penalties to meet federal standards, this bill ensures the Public Service Commission of West Virginia’s pipeline safety efforts will receive its full allotment of federal money.

But let’s keep in mind first of all that the bill affects only a small portion of the natural gas pipelines across West Virginia. Enforcement of safety regulations for the vast majority of pipeline mileage — for interstate transmission lines — is handled by the federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

During his State of the State address back in February, the governor described his administration’s efforts on this issue in this way:

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 the truth is that state officials knew long before the near-disaster in Sissonville that West Virginia’s safety fines for pipeline were not in compliance with federal requirements. As we’ve reported before, legislation failed during the 2012 session that would have fixed this problem, and similar failed bills date back to at least 2005. Federal officials have repeatedly warned the state about the problem in regular audits of the PSC’s pipeline safety program.

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