Sustained Outrage

Road to nowhere?


While Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., is touting the $9.5 million for the Corridor H highway that he tucked into the recently passed omnibus budget bill, the folks over at The Rural Blog reminded us that Corridor H is well, a bit controversial…

Nearly 44 years ago, Congress created the Appalachian Regional Commission and laid out a network of highways to open it up to commerce, tourism and development. Most of the roads are built. One, across the Eastern Continental Divide, will probably never be completed, because Virginia doesn’t want it built. But that hasn’t stopped Congress from funding sections of it in West Virginia, most recently in the economic stimulus package and the omnibus spending bill that became law this week.

Corridor H has been called the “road to nowhere” because Virginia doesn’t want it, leaving the highway without the key link to the Washington, D.C., area it was aimed to provide. Other critics have called it among the worst road projects in the country.

And back in the 1990s, Corridor H generated a ton of environmental controversy, as critics argued that it was harm high-quality streams, destroy pristine forests and cause untold other environmental damage, as I wrote in April 1995. At the same time, federal environmental officials complained that highway planners had little data to support their estimates that Corridor H would create jobs and promote local economic growth.

At the time, staffers in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency strongly opposed the highway, and then-EPA Region III Administrator Peter Kostmayer refused to sign off on it. After complaints from Byrd, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and then-Gov. Gaston Caperton, EPA Administrator Carol Browner (now with the Obama administration) overruled Kostmayer, who was later fired.

Read more in the Elkins Inter-Mountain.


Wilderness Omnibusted


Republicans cast all but 3 of the 144 votes against the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which would have designated an additional 37,000 acres of the Monongahela National Forest as wilderness, including Roaring Plains, pictured above. But Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., was not one of them.

While 282 members of Congress, including Capito and Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., voted for the act on Wednesday, it failed to move forward due to the lack of a two-thirds majority vote. Backers of the act, which would add wilderness protection to certain roadless federal lands from Alaska to Virginia, remain hopeful of passage later this year. For a breakdown of Wednesday’s vote, see here.  To see which areas would receive wilderness designation in West Virginia, go here.

A friend of coal?

green_mike.jpgI blogged last week over at Coal Tattoo about new legislation introduced to give West Virginia coal companies more time — again — to comply with water quality limits for toxic selenium pollution. See Stalling on selenium — again.

I noted that Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, the chairman of the Senate’s Energy, Industry and Mining Committee (a panel that handles all legislation affecting the coal industry) listed himself as a “Friend of Coal” in his official biography.

Today, I did a quick check just to see how friendly Sen. Green is with the coal industry, and found a few campaign contributions from the major industry his committee is supposed to oversee.

Among them:

— $500 from Randy Hansford of Riverton Coal

— $500 each from political action committees associated with Norfolk-Southern and CSX.

— $500 from coal operator Andrew Jordan.

— $800 from West Virginians for Coal.

— $250 from Arch Coal’s PAC.

— $800 from AEP.

If I have time, it would be interesting to see how much campaign cash the coal industry has donated to all of this bill’s sponsors, or to all members of the EIM committee.

For any readers who are interested, the Secretary of State’s office posts these campaign cash reports online here.

Wake up and smell the sewage

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper stepped up the battle to force a merger between the Upper Kanawha Valley Public Service District, town of Pratt and Chelyan Public Service District on Wednesday when he filed complaints with both the state Department of Environmental Protection and Public Service Commission against officials running Pratt’s sewer system.

The system, which treats sewage from Paint Creek in the Upper Kanawha Valley Public Service district, has been plagued by maintenance problems and has repeatedly allowed raw sewage to escape into Paint Creek and the Kanawha River. Pratt is already in violation of a DEP order requiring the town to hire a qualified, fulltime sewer operator and fix the recurring problems.

County officials believe Pratt’s sewer problems are now so great there is no hope the town can fix them alone. The town’s sewer and water systems are on the verge of being placed in receivership.

Carper and other members of the county commission recently brokered a deal to give Pratt an immediate $100,000 loan if they will agree to let qualified staff from Chelyan manage Pratt’s sewer plant.

But despite a new spirit of cooperation between new Pratt Mayor Joe Douglas, other town officials Upper Kanawha Valley management, it doesn’t appear officials in Pratt fully realize the seriousness of their plight.

Despite the urging of Carper and other state and county officials that Pratt must agree to an operation and management agreement (O&M agreement) immediately to fix the town’s sewer problems, Pratt officials are apparently still not ready to come to the negotiating table.

When officials in the town of Dunbar announced in January they were going to initiate a $10 an hour “research fee” to look up public information, we sat up and took notice.

City officials said the fee was necessary because city clerks were being inundated with requests for information under the state Freedom of Information Act. Mayor Jack Yeager said Dunbar City Clerk Ron Rowley has been off the job with an illness for a year, leaving two clerks to deal with all the city’s business, including responding to Freedom Information Act requests.

Yeager said Rowley will not resign, and city officials cannot legally just appoint a replacement. He said the “research fee” was put in place to pay someone to look up documents people ask for under the Freedom of Information Act.

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The Benjamin-Blankenship transcript

blankenshipap.jpgbenjaminap.jpgThe transcript of today’s oral argument in the Brent Benjamin-Don Blankenship case before the U.S. Supreme Court has been posted online here.

And here’s some early analysis from SCOTUSblog:

Tugged between a sense that a constitutional ruling on judges’ duty to take themselves out of cases if bias is suspected should provide very clear guidance, and a sense that it might be written only to apply in the most extreme factual scenarios, the Supreme Court set itself a difficult task as it moves toward a ruling in Caperton, et al., v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., et al. (08-22), heard Tuesday during an intense hour of exchanges with two harried advocates.

While Justice Anthony M. Kennedy may wind up with the deciding vote in a Court plainly split over the issue, he himself seemed torn between a standard of recusal that would be precise in scope, and a standard that would be no more specific than “an appearance of bias.”  And the bloc of Justices whose votes would seem to be necessary to craft any constitutional decision on recusal focused on ways to make it at least fit this particular case, but perhaps no others.  One of those Justices, John Paul Stevens, remarked at one point: “We have never confronted a case as extreme as this before.”

It was obvious that Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Antonin Scalia were leaning heavily against writing a new constitutional rule on recusal, and it also appeared that Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., might wind up at that conclusion, too.

On the other side, Justice Stevens’ seeming perception that something had to be crafted to deal with situations like that involving an elected justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court might well be shared by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.

More on Benjamin and Blankenship


As tomorrow’s U.S. Supreme Court oral argument on the Brent Benjamin-Don Blankenship connection  approaches, more media stories are coming out about the high-profile case over whether Benjamin should have stepped down from considering a big-money appeal involving Blankenship’s Massey Energy Co.

frey.jpgolson.jpgThe Washington Post had a story today,  points out that the case will be argued by “two of the court’s most prolific and persuasive practitioners, former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson and Andrew L. Frey.”

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All about Benjamin — and Blankenship

benjamin08.jpgThere’s been plenty said and written about whether West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin has a conflict of interest because of the millions of dollars Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent helping him get elected in 2004.

The whole thing comes to a head this week, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Tuesday.

The Gazette’s own Paul J. Nyden has covered the controversy extensively, and the issue has been the subject of recent stories in The New York Times and USA Today.blankenshipx1.jpgMore than one commentator has noted the similarities with John Grisham’s thriller, The Appeal. The American Bar Association Journal published a lengthy piece on the matter, and it has been covered in The Economist.

The National Law Journal also has a new analysis of the case.

Dr. Nyden, by the way, will be in D.C. for the oral argument and be reporting on it in the Gazette. And in a preview in today’s Sunday Gazette-Mail, one legal expert described the case to Nyden this way:

This growing lack of confidence in the judicial branch has almost become a crisis in the American legal profession. Was there ever a case or time, when an individual’s contributions to a judge or a judicial candidate created such an appearance of potential bias? Was there ever a time when a failure of a judge to recuse himself or herself – because of the appearance of impropriety, not because someone was actually paid off – crossed the line? If this isn’t such a case, there is no such case.

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