Sustained Outrage

GOP tries to make it harder to protect workers

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

That’s a photo of the AL Solutions plant in New Cumberland, W.Va., in December 2010, when three workers died in what the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has said was likely an ignition of combustible dust ( here, here, here and here).  It was one of hundreds of such incidents that have killed and injured hundreds of American workers, as Chris Hamby and the Center for Public Integrity have explained.

Those three AL Solutions workers — Jeffrey and James Fish and Steven Swain — were constituents of Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. And over the last few days, Rep. McKinley has helped to ensure that federal workplace safety regulators are going to find it more difficult to protect workers from the dangers of combustible dust. As The Hill explained:

The House approved legislation Thursday afternoon that would prevent the Obama administration from imposing major new federal regulations for two years or until unemployment falls to 6 percent.

The bill would also prevent major new rules from being issued under President Obama between the November election and Inauguration Day — so-called “midnight regulations” — should Obama lose the election.

Members passed the Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act, H.R. 4078, in a 245-172 vote in which only 13 Democrats voted with Republicans.

And what exactly was Rep. McKinley’s involvement? See this part of the story:

Under the bill as presented on the floor, rules that are found to cost the economy $100 million or more would be prevented until unemployment falls.

But Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) proposed language lowering that threshold to $50 million, a change the House agreed to in a 240-178 vote.

Here’s Rep. McKinley explaining himself:

We have more than 23 million Americans underemployed or unemployed. This political maneuvering in rulemaking has to stop. The American people sent us here to improve the economy and help them get back to work, but not to allow the promulgation of more questionable, job-hindering regulations.

Rep. McKinley also voted against an amendment proposed by Rep. Miller to clear the way for rules to protect workers from combustible dust — if the Obama administration OSHA ever actually gets around to even proposing those rules. Miller’s amendment failed, even after the congressman argued for it this way:

The workers in this country have a right to rely on the law to protect them, not on some notion of this committee or of this Congress’ sense of compassion and of whether it will be invoked on that given day or not against the lobbying efforts by these industries.

It’s about the law that protects workers and their families–workers who get up and go to work every day, whose families hope they get to come home at night, but it doesn’t happen for a lot of workers. In these industries with combustible dust, it happens over and over and over again. They get killed on the job. I’ve been here a long time working on combustible dust. Let me tell you, the industry doesn’t say, Ah, gee, we’ve killed enough people. Let’s all just kind of hold hands and see if we can come up with something.

There’s an interesting lineup of bills scheduled for markup tomorrow before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (where our friend Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., is the ranking minority member). They bills have names like the Preservering Rural Resources Act of 2012  and the Mille Lacs Lake Freedom to Fish Act of 2012. UPDATED: The committee has postponed action on this bill.

But the one that jumped out at me was Farmer’s Privacy Act of 2012, sponsored by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Now, when we last left Rep. Capito, she was spreading untruths about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its alleged efforts to regulate milks spills from dairy farms, in an act that got her big laughs from her friends from the West Virginia Coal Association.

Rep. Capito’s latest bill would:

… Stop the EPA from conducting aerial surveillance of farms across the country.

There’s been a lot of drummed-up outrage about EPA using planes and/or helicopters to fly over farming areas of West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands, fueled in part by press reports that have wrongly said the agency was using “drone” aircraft for this inspection work. The issue has become one of those things — like Rep. Capito’s “spilled milk” nonsense — that is repeated over and over until everyone assumes it’s true. It’s even spawned an AP story in Kentucky that wrongly gives the impression that the mining industry was surprised to learn that regulators use flyovers as part of the process of inspection mountaintop removal operations.

Now, EPA has explained why it was using flyovers for farming inspections:

Aerial over-flights are only one of many tools that are used as part of the compliance assurance process to identify discharging sources that may impact water quality. The EPA may also review geographic and mapping information that are readily available to the public on the internet. Over-flights and other sources may provide information regarding the general condition of a farm such as size, storm water management features, manure management systems and proximity to waterways. Information on the internet may be historical and therefore may need additional verification in order to assess whether the information is current and correct. Verification may be done through drive-bys, aerial over-flights, on-site inspections, or other means.

The EPA uses aircraft in a variety of ways to identify potential air, water and land pollution and to verify compliance with environmental laws. For example, aircraft may be used to locate regulated facilities, identify discharges, learn about water connections and pathways, and gather evidence, such as photographs and exact locations. The EPA has used aircraft in enforcement investigations throughout the country to monitor compliance within the agriculture, mining, and construction industries, among others. The EPA and other agencies also use aircraft for other purposes, including emergency response, to assess the pathway of oil and extent of damage resulting from an oil spill.

But what we haven’t seen is one coherent and fact-based explanation from Rep. Capito of why these sorts of inspections are such a bad thing — any sort of reasoned argument for why they should be banned by Congress.  The best we got was this quote from Rep. Capito’s press release (headlined, “Somebody’s Watching You”):

Unemployment has been at or above 8% for 30 consecutive months.  Is conducting flyovers of family farms across the country really the best use of taxpayer money?  It’s getting to the point that I’ll have to file for a Clean Water Act permit if I want to turn the hose on in my backyard.  The EPA will take any opportunity to make it harder for farmers, energy operators, or any business that deals with the EPA, to operate.

Of course, as even the State Journal noted, the EPA hasn’t proposed requiring a Clean Water Act permit to run a hose in the backyard. But when it comes to attacking environmental protection, some West Virginia political leaders aren’t concerned about facts.

Maloney whiffs with latest anti-lawsuit comments

Some politicians love to criticize lawsuits, and apparently GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney is one of them. But often, if you dig a little bit — even just a tiny bit — into their specific attacks, you find out things aren’t exactly the way they make it sound.

Maloney’s comments earlier this week on Hoppy Kercheval’s Talkline show are a good example. Here’s what Maloney said:

… I was going into Cedar Lakes the other night in Jackson County. I passed a manufacturing facility that had been there a couple years ago. They’re not there anymore. You know why? Because there was a huge multimillion-dollar verdict for wrongful termination or something like that, and the company moved to Ohio. That happens all the time.

Maloney has trotted this out before. He’s talking about Stella-Jones Corp. closing a Ripley facility in 2010. Indeed, a Jackson County jury did award a $2.1 million verdict against the facility’s owners, ruling in favor of Jerold John Rice Jr., a 24-year veteran of the company. Rice sued for age discrimination when, after never receiving a poor evaluation or being reprimanded, he was discharged and replaced by a substantially younger employee. A local jury decided Rice was wrongly terminated and awarded him $143,000 in back pay and nearly $2 million in future pay, as well as $138,000 in legal fees and costs.

So did that verdict have anything to do with the company closing its plant … well, here’s what the story published at the time by the pro-business State Journal had to say:

Jackson County’s headquarters of Stella-Jones Inc. will be relocated in Pittsburgh this fall.

Twenty-six employees at the company’s Fairplain office will have an option to bid on positions at the new corporate location, according to Doug Fox, senior vice president.

The Canadian-owned treated wood company constructed a new office building in Fairplain after acquiring the Burke Parsons Bowlby Corp. Fox said the decision to move the headquarters to Pennsylvania came after Stella-Jones purchased Pittsburgh-based Tangent Rail Corp. for $165 million in April.

“Tangent had corporate offices in Pittsburgh, and we had the office in Ripley from Burke Parsons Bowlby,” Fox said. “We can’t afford to have two head offices, so we will be moving to a new location in Pittsburgh.”

And as lawyer Paul Ferrell, then the president of the state’s trial lawyer lobby, wrote in a commentary for the Chamber of Commerce-backed West Virginia Record:

Stella-Jones cannot be too surprised about the verdict because it has been sued for the exact same age-discrimination claim in the state of Washington (where it still operates a facility). Stella-Jones cannot be too sore at West Virginia because it is still operating another facility, in Spencer …

To be clear, Stella-Jones never said it relocated the Ripley plant to Pittsburgh because it was sore about a lawsuit. That rhetoric came by way of a cheap shot by a politician stumping for votes. A scare tactic, if you will. A little bit of truth stuffed with a lot of baloney.


During his State of the Union address last night, President Obama made a huge point of promoting natural gas, while also trying to appear concerned about any potential impacts from drilling. Here’s what he said:

We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years.  And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.  Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.  And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.   Because America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.

The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.   And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock –- reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.

The president didn’t mention the recent downsizing of government estimates of the Marcellus Shale gas play, which we covered the other day here.  But perhaps more importantly, President Obama didn’t mention at all the very vigorous scientific debate over whether natural gas really improved greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal. We’ve covered that issue before here, here, here and here. And it’s worth noting that there’s been another paper published criticizing Cornell scientist Robert Howarth’s work on this issue and a reply by Howarth that vigorously defends his original conclusion:

We believe the preponderance of evidence indicates shale gas has a larger GHG footprint than conventional gas, considered over any time scale. The GHG footprint of shale gas also exceeds that of oil or coal when considered at decadal time scales, no matter how the gas is used. Considered over the century scale, and when used to generate electricity, many studies conclude that shale gas has a smaller GHG footprint than coal, although some of these studies biased their result by using a low estimate for GWP and/or low estimates for methane emission. However, the GHG footprint of shale gas is similar to that of oil or coal at the century time scale, when used for other than electricity generation. We stand by the conclusion: “The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming.”

Continue reading…

How many jobs would a ‘cracker’ plant create?

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin waves to the crowd Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012 prior to delivering his state of the state address at the Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin focused attention during last night’s State of the State address on his administration’s efforts to land a “cracker” plant that would create spin-off jobs based on the boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale fields across West Virginia. The governor promised:

I will do everything in my power to make sure that West Virginia is positioned to take full advantage of this opportunity. I will not limit our efforts to just one project or even two. We will compete for every project — every dollar of investment and every new job that relies on the natural resources with which we have been so blessed.

Among other things, Gov. Tomblin said he plans to introduce legislation “to further refine our incentives in a fashion I believe will strengthen our competitiveness,” a proposal that the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy have already explained is based on pretty questionable math.

But the governor also made this statement in his speech:

The American Chemistry Council estimates that we could create an additional 12,000 manufacturing jobs in West Virginia with the construction of an ethane cracker.

Now, when you think of manufacturing jobs, you think of pretty darned good jobs, right? Overall, the manufacturing sector in West Virginia pays about a third more in weekly wages than the private sector as a whole.

But Gov. Tomblin got this one wrong … Take a look at this two-page summary put together to describe the calculations the American Chemistry Council did of the economic impact of locating a cracker plant in West Virginia (for that matter, take a look at this fancier one-pager put together by the council’s communications department).

Table 1 outlines the estimated ongoing (permanent) jobs that might be created if a company invests $3.2 billion in a major cracker facility here: About 12,300 total jobs. That figure includes 2,500 direct jobs, 6,300 indirect jobs and 3,500 induced jobs. As Kevin Swift, the council’s chief economist, just explained to me, that total number of jobs — the 12,000 figure the governor cited in his speech on statewide television and radio, before a joint session of the Legislature — includes all manner of jobs. It is not only direct manufacturing jobs, but positions with suppliers and support industries — everything from a waitress at a new cafe across the road from the plant to a doctor who starts a practice to serve residents in a growing community.

But they’re not all manufacturing jobs, and the ACC study doesn’t provide more detail that would give a clearer picture of how many jobs in various sectors with various levels of pay and benefits might be includes. You can get perhaps a bit more information by looking at the average wages for each category — $112,000 annually for direct jobs and $34,000 for indirect. But that’s a basic average, and may not tell the whole story.

For those who want to understand the methodology of the industry study, you might check out this more detailed analysis that looks more broadly at impacts from expansions of the chemical industry associated with the natural gas boom and any accompanying cracker plants. It’s also worth remembering that these industry-produced studies are not necessarily the most helpful source for these sorts of projections, as we’ve reported before here.

Industry letter outlines opposition to Marcellus bill

When I was talking with Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, earlier this week about the Marcellus Shale drilling bill (see here and here), he said one of the biggest problems for lawmakers and staff has been that industry lobbyists kept declining for months to put their concerns about specific language — or proposals for improvement — in writing.

But Delegate Manchin did mention that the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association had recently sent lawmakers a short letter outlining some specific objections to language added to the legislation by a special interim committee. So I thought we’d post that letter here so everyone can give it a read. Among the industry’s objections:

— A buffer zone of 1,000 feet (as originally proposed, but reduced by the committee to 625 feet) between homes and wells “will cause very significant portions of the state to become off-limits to drilling thereby sterilizing many resources.”

— The “casing and cementing requirements” should be left to the state Department of Environmental Protection to write during rulemaking, rather that specifically set by lawmakers. The industry letter says:

It appears that the drafters of the amendment essentially borrowed the language from Pennsylvania regulations that were finalized after considering around 2,000 comments. West Virginians deserve the same opportunity to participate in a rulemaking process rather than having the Legislature serve in the rulemaking capacity.

— Requiring public notices of new permit applications to be published in the newspaper “will result in obstructing the well permit application process.”

— Proposed permit fee increases to fund additional inspectors send “a clear message to the industry that “West Virginia is an uncompetitive business environment.”

The letter concludes:

It is WVONGA’s view that the adopted and pending amendments do not advance the cause of promoting the development of our natural resources while at the same time ensuring long-term protection of the environment.

Lawmakers have postponed a scheduled Sunday committee meeting on the bill, instead setting a meeting for 8 a.m. Monday. Stay tuned …

Here’s the latest from a new report today from Common Cause:

Natural gas interests have spent more than $747 million during a 10-year campaign – stunningly successful so far – to avoid government regulation of hydraulic “fracking,” a fast-growing and environmentally risky method of tapping underground gas reserves.

A faction of the natural gas industry has directed more than $20 million to the campaigns of current members of Congress and put $726 million into lobbying aimed at shielding itself from oversight, according to the report, the third in a series of “Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets” reports produced by the non-profit government watchdog group.

“Players in this industry have pumped cash into Congress in the same way they pump toxic chemicals into underground rock formations to free trapped gas,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “And as fracking for gas releases toxic chemicals into groundwater and streams, the industry’s political fracking for support is toxic to efforts for a cleaner environment and relief from our dependence on fossil fuels.”

The report explains:

… The industry’s political giving also heavily favors lawmakers who voted  in favor of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Current members who voted for the bill received an average of $73,433, while those who voted against the bill received an average of $10,894.

If you’re wondering, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., led our state’s delegation with $144,603 in campaign donations from the industry. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., received $93,150. Both voted in favor of exempting fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to Common Cause. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., received $56,850, but voted against the loophole. Sen. Manchin and Rep. McKinley were not in office at the time.

West Virginia Sen. President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, just finished a press conference called to announce his administration’s plan for emergency regulations governing Marcellus Shale gas drilling. Tomblin said:

This executive order is the first step in my long-term plan to ensure responsible development of Marcellus Shale. The good-paying jobs predicted with this development must include the protection of our public’s health and safety as well as that of our environment. I want to thank our citizens who have voiced their concerns about Marcellus Shale drilling and want to assure them that I recognize this emerging segment of the natural gas industry warrants my immediate attention to ensure responsible development.

The first thing worth knowing about the event is that Mr. Tomblin spent quite a bit of his introductory remarks — at an event he called to announce his plan for protecting the environment — criticizing efforts to protect the environment.  Perhaps when he’s acting as governor, Mr. Tomblin just can’t possibly pass up any opportunity to attack the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to limit the damaging impacts of mountaintop removal mining. He took time out from talking about Marcellus drilling to say:

… They have allowed the EPA to spent out of control. Because of their over-reaching rulemaking, the EPA is killing jobs, which is hurting the economy of America. Washington … needs to take control of the EPA before it does further damage.

Also fascinating is that the acting governor’s executive order directing WVDEP to promulgate emergency rules was made available on the website of a gas industry group’s website well before it was posted on any of the state government’s sites.

You have to wonder if citizens and environmentalists who are concerned about the industry and its political influence will find this very comforting as they review what Tomblin and the WVDEP are proposing.

Among the items that are to be included in the WVDEP’s emergency rules:

— Erosion and sediment control plans for certain drilling permits would have to be certified by a registered professional engineer. Larger sites would have to be  constructed under an engineer’s supervision;

— All well permits applications must specify the amount of water to be used in drilling and fracturing, and larger operations must submit formal “water management plans”;

— Any permit applications for drilling within a municipality or within a one-mile radius of any municipality must publish a public notice of their permit application.

Continue reading…

Tomblin reschedules Marcellus task force meeting

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

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.