Sustained Outrage

A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas after an explosion Wednesday April 17, 2013. (APMichael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

It was early this morning when the email message came over from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board:

A large investigation team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is deploying to the scene of a massive fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant located in West, Texas, north of Waco.

Local emergency officials have told the CSB of a large number of injuries and destroyed buildings in the town.

The investigative team will be led CSB Western Regional Office Director Don Holmstrom and is scheduled to arrive in Texas Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately, West Virginians have come to know the CSB well. Agency officials produced detailed investigative reports on the 2007 propane explosion that killed four people at the Little General Store in Ghent, the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, and the series of leaks at the DuPont Belle plant that left one worker dead in January 2010.

But as we reported a few months ago, the CSB dropped its investigation of the December 2010 explosion and fire that killed three workers at the AL Solutions plant up in New Cumberland, W.Va.:

As 2012 draws to a close, CSB officials are in the midst of their own probe of the April 2010 explosion and fire on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Among other ongoing cases, the CSB has launched a full investigation of the April fire at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., an incident that sent hundreds of area residents to hospitals. And like other government agencies, the CSB is facing the potential of serious budget and staffing cuts in coming years.

“It was in our minds a very serious and very tragic incident,” the board’s Horowitz said. “That’s why we sent a team out there. What has happened in our case as time unfolded, is just a plethora of competing priorities … all of which have huge pressures associated with them, and unfortunately for us, not a lot of resources to divvy up.”

And now, we have this important report from the Center for Public Integrity:

… Three years after Tesoro and Deepwater Horizon, both inquiries remain open – exemplars of a chemical board under attack for what critics call its sluggish investigative pace and short attention span. A former board member calls the agency “grossly mismanaged.”

The number of board accident reports, case studies and safety bulletins has fallen precipitously since 2006, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found. Thirteen board investigations – one more than five years old – are incomplete.

As members of Congress raise questions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general is auditing the board’s investigative process.

“It is unacceptable that after three long years, the CSB has failed to complete its investigation of the tragic Tesoro refinery accident,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a written statement to the Center. “The families of the seven victims and the Anacortes community deserve better, and the CSB must be held accountable for this ridiculous delay.”

Continue reading…

Gun safety: A public health approach

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)

As this week ends, there’s a new and important commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine in which Harvard professors David Hemenway and Matthew Miller discuss a “Public Health Approach to the Prevention of Gun Violence.”

They describe the scope of the problem:

Guns kill an average of 85 Americans per day. Compared with all other First-World countries, we have average rates of assault, burglary, and robbery, but we have the most guns, the weakest gun laws, and by far the highest rates of gun homicide, gun suicide, and accidental gun death.

And, they explain that a wide variety of policies and actions could be taken to tackle the problem from different fronts:

— Manufacturers can reduce gun accidents if they stop making guns that can go off when dropped. Guns should be childproof (as are aspirin bottles).

Many firearms are currently obtained without a background check. Universal background checks are the rule in virtually every other developed nation and should be required in the United States.

— All developed countries require that drivers be licensed, like all other developed nations (and some U.S. states), we should require that gun owners be licensed. Other high-income countries (and some U.S. states) require that gun owners be trained and store their guns safely. We should follow their lead.

— A public health approach also involves changing social norms. As the norm about the propriety of social drinking and driving has changed over time, so should norms about guns. For example, the norm should be that all gun owners, not just some, store their guns safely. Hundreds of thousands of guns are stolen every year, and many are subsequently used in violent crimes.

 The paper concludes:

Since the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, more U.S. civilians have been killed with guns that all U.S. soldiers who have ever been killed in war — from the Revolution to the present day … Currently, far too many of us are dying. We believe the public health approach provides a blueprint for success.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., right, accompanied by Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., announce that they have reached a bipartisan deal on expanding background checks to more gun buyers, Wednesday, April 10, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has certainly come a long way … Not so long ago, he was running campaign ads that suggested picking up your gun was a good way to resolve political differences. In the last four months, Sen. Manchin has gone from being a gun-toting red state Democrat pushed by the massacre at Sandy Hook into a reversal on gun control, to an apparent reversal of that reversal, and now is the apparent architect of what could end up being a key compromise on important gun safety legislation.

And in announcing the proposal he worked out with Pennsylvania Republican Patrick Toomey, Sen. Manchin not surprisingly came up with a great soundbite:

Back where I come from we have common sense, we have nonsense and now we have gun sense.

The move brought something that seemed almost impossible — praise for Sen. Manchin from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence:

While we continue to review the draft bill, we believe a majority of the components are a good step forward to reducing gun violence. It continues the work that began more than 20 years ago when the Brady background check system was first created. Since that time, two million prohibited purchasers have been prevented from buying a gun, so we know that background checks work. This is not about gun control, it is about saving lives and more than nine out of ten Americans agree, criminals should not be allowed to easily purchase guns.

From Sen. Manchin’s friends at the National Rifle Association … well, not so much:

Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools. While the overwhelming rejection of President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg’s “universal” background check agenda is a positive development, we have a broken mental health system that is not going to be fixed with more background checks at gun shows. The sad truth is that no background check would have prevented the tragedy in Newtown, Aurora or Tucson. We need a serious and meaningful solution that addresses crime in cities like Chicago, addresses mental health deficiencies, while at the same time protecting the rights of those of us who are not a danger to anyone. President Obama should be as committed to dealing with the gang problem that is tormenting honest people in his hometown as he is to blaming law-abiding gun owners for the acts of psychopathic murderers.

And the West Virginia Republican Party? Here’s what they had to say:

It’s another sad day for West Virginians when our own Senator uses his position to attack the rights of law-abiding sportsmen and gun owners, to try to curry favor with liberal Democrats who seek to make this Constitution and nation weak.

Instead of taking on criminals who break laws, Senator Manchin tries to make laws to hinder freedom. Regardless the details, this attempt to in any way infringe on our Second Amendment rights just reinforces Manchin as someone with no absolute values.

No matter the topic, every issue is subject to negotiation or sale to the highest liberal bidders. Its just another example of how Manchin was willing to say one thing in order to fool West Virginia voters, but is just another Obama supporter when he crosses to Potomac.

And if that’s not enough, there was this, from the website of the National Review:

Conrad Lucas, chairman of the Republican party of West Virginia, who describes Manchin as a “pretty irrelevant United States senator,” suggests two possible explanations. “Either he is showing his true colors” by speaking out on gun control, or else he is “simply trying to suck up and gain favor with the powers that be in the Democratic party,” Lucas says. “And when you’re sucking up to Harry Reid and Barack Obama, you are spitting in the face of West Virginians.”

It’s not clear how trying to do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminal and the mentally ill (perhaps saving the life of someone like the late Mingo County Sheriff).

Even if West Virginia Republican leaders don’t care about the details of the Manchin proposal, perhaps more thoughtful people do … so here are five key things to keep in mind, based on the fact sheet distributed by Sen. Manchin’s office:

1.  We don’t know how many additional gun sales would be subject to background checks — The proposal aims to expand the current federal background check to also include purchases at gun shows and to intrastate internet purchases. But the frequently cited figure for how many gun sales nationwide aren’t covered by existing background checks — 40 percent — is pretty old, perhaps outdated and certainly controversial.  One study I read last night suggested the number of sales at gun shows is pretty small— perhaps between 4 and 9 percent. Many gun safety advocates say a more effective approach would be to subject all private-party gun sales to screenings that currently apply only to licensed dealers. Six states already do that, and nine others regulate all sales of handguns.

Yesterday, I asked Manchin communications director Jonathan Kott what estimates they have for how many additional gun sales would be subject to background checks under the Manchin-Toomey plan, and he said, “There is really no way to get an exact percentage.” Not for nothing, but one problem here might be that Sen. Manchin’s friends at the NRA have pretty much ended federal government research on gun safety issues. And certainly, Sen. Manchin makes clear that his proposal is not a requirement for “universal” background checks:

As under current law, transfers between family, friends and neighbors do not require background checks. You can give or sell a gun to your brother, your neighbor, your coworker without background check. You can post a gun for sale on the cork bulletin board at your church or your job without a background check.

2. The compromise would reduce significantly the amount of time the FBI has to complete background checks — As The New York Times pointed out in a story today, “when the FBI cannot immediately determine whether would-be buyers have criminal or psychological records that would bar them from owning guns, it is given 72 hours to clear it up.” If the FBI can’t meet that deadline, then the sale is allowed to go through. Last year alone, the FBI estimates that roughly 3,000 firearms wee sold to prohibited buyers through this loophole. But, as the Center to Stop Gun Violence explained regarding the Manchin-Toomey proposal:

… The bill would actually decrease the amount of time the FBI has to process background checks on firearm purchasers at gun shows, despite the fact that experience demonstrates not all background checks can be fully processed within 24-48 hours. We believe it is important to err on the side of public safety in instances where more time is needed to conduct a background check.

 3. States would still not be required to submit important records that the FBI needs to conduct complete background checks — The group Mayors Against Illegal Guns explained in a recent report that, “millions  of records identifying seriously mentally ill people and drug abusers as prohibited purchasers are missing from the federal background check database because of lax reporting by state agencies.”  The Manchin-Toomey bill “encourages states to provide all of their available records” to the system and would “reduce federal funds to states that do not comply,” but it does not mandate reporting by the states.

4. The compromise appears to weaken certain longstanding provisions enacted to curb illegal gun trafficking — Under the guise of fixing “problems in current law that unfair limit the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, the Manchin bill would allow “dealer-to-dealer sales at gun shows taking place in a state in which they are not a resident.” Here’s what the Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence said about that:

Under this bill, for the first time, Americans would be permitted to buy handguns from licensed dealers outside their home state. This would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enforce licensing and/or registration laws for handgun purchasers in states like New York, California, Maryland, New Jersey and Connecticut.

5.  Background checks would be waived for gun buyers who, within the last five years obtained state concealed carry permits — It’s not clear how this affects would-be buyers who have been convinced of a crime or judge mentally ill during the five years since they obtained their state concealed weapons license.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said:

Finally, it is becoming increasingly unclear why a “compromise” is even necessary on background checks. National polling shows that 91% of Americans support universal background checks without exemptions or loopholes. That support extends to even more politically conservative states … There is no need to water down this legislation and riddle it with loopholes and exemptions.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., left, meets in his office with families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., including Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of victim Ana Marquez-Greene and Mark Barden, father of victim Daniel Barden, on the day he announced that he reached a bipartisan deal on expanding background checks to more gun buyers, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, April 10, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller this morning issued a new statement about the ongoing congressional debate over gun safety, saying:

Four months ago, our country was shaken to its core when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, killing twenty small children and six people who worked there. We wept. We felt the gut-wrenching pain of those families and that community. And we rightly began talking about how we, as a nation, can keep such horror from ever happening again.

Parents, educators, police officers, hunters and sportsmen, and elected leaders have worked hard to find common ground and come up with new solutions to solve the very real problem of gun violence in this country. And they’ve stuck with it even in the face of some unfair and ugly criticisms by those who would instead turn this moment into a false rallying cry over gun rights that are not threatened in any way, shape or form. From the NRA to the halls of Congress and state capitols, we’ve seen some turn a blind eye to the tragedy of Newtown or, worse yet, use it as an excuse to create panic and undo longstanding public safety laws.

Sen. Rockefeller’s statement comes just as President Obama takes his push for stronger gun safety laws to Connecticut, for a speech just 50 miles north of the site where 20 children and six educators were murdered last year. And as the Senate returns from a two-week break today, lawmakers prepare to take up the gun safety issue. Many observers say that a renewed ban on assault weapons is dead, but that a deal on universal background checks might be possible. Sen. Rockefeller said:

In 1994, I supported the law that banned new purchases of a limited number of assault weapons and high capacity magazines. No one had to give up the guns they owned and thousands of rifles were exempt. That law made sense then and in my view should be reenacted now, but we also have the opportunity today to tackle other important aspects of gun violence – expanding mental health support services, studying violent media content, addressing gun trafficking, and closing the big loopholes that exist today in the background check process.

The background checks in particular are something we need to push ourselves to reach agreement on. We know beyond any doubt that right now in America there are too many ways for criminals and the mentally ill to buy guns, especially at gun shows – and we know how to fix it. This does not mean gun owners would be placed on a registry. What it does mean is that those who want to do people harm shouldn’t be allowed to avoid background checks by going to gun shows. Period. And we all have a shared responsibility to just put an end to that.

The grief from four months ago shouldn’t go away. It should be the rallying cry that drives us to make fair and meaningful progress toward gun safety. We can protect responsible gun owners while keeping firearms out of dangerous hands – and better protecting our children, law enforcement officers and all innocent Americans.

Guns deaths in West Virginia

A new report just published by the Center for American Progress touches on a topic we’ve covered here before: States with the weakest gun laws appear to also suffer the most gun deaths. As the center explains:

In the aftermath of mass shootings and other gun-related tragedies, there is often a surge of interest on the part of community leaders, social-science researchers, and elected officials to root out the causes of gun violence in an effort to prevent such tragedies from occurring again. Any study into the causes of gun violence is necessarily complicated, however, as there are innumerable factors that contribute to the nature and prevalence of gun-related violence in any community.

Despite this complex web of factors that influence the rate of gun violence, this report finds a clear link between high levels of gun violence and weak state gun laws. Across the key indicators of gun violence that we analyzed, the 10 states with the weakest gun laws collectively have an aggregate level of gun violence that is more than twice as high—104 percent higher, in fact—than the 10 states with the strongest gun laws.

West Virginia ranked 16th worst in the center’s aggregate ratings of 10 different measures of gun violence. Our state also had the 7th highest overall rate of gun deaths in 2010, a rate of 14.73 per 100,000 people (compared to the national rate of 10.26 per 100,000 people).

Over the last decade, West Virginia recorded the 12th highest gun death rate in the country — Our 2,584 gun deaths amounted to rate of 14.15 per 100,000 people.

Interestingly, West Virginia’s firearms homicide rate — 2.54 per 100,000 people in 2010 — was better than the national rate of 3.59 and ranked 30th among the states. But our state’s firearms suicide rate was 11.33 per 100,00 people, the 5th highest in the nation and nearly twice the national rate.

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.


… 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.

Continue reading…

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.

Sen. Rockefeller blasts OMB regulatory review

Yesterday’s U.S. Senate Committee hearing on pipeline safety got a ton of attention from Charleston-area media. Our story is here, reporting:

Despite legislation signed last year, lawmakers and regulators need to further step up their actions to improve the safety of the nation’s more than 2.5 million miles of natural gas and hazardous materials pipelines, a U.S. Senate committee was told Monday during a field hearing in Charleston.

Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., called the hearing for an update on pipeline safety issues in the wake of last month’s explosion and fire at a NiSource natural gas transmission line in Sissonville.

Rick Kessler, president of a citizen group called the Pipeline Safety Trust, told the committee that Monday’s hearing was just the latest in a long line of such events following previous pipeline accidents.

“With continuing major failures of pipelines, such as the one in Sissonville, West Virginia, that brings us here today, we question whether our message is being heard,” said Kessler, whose group was formed following a fatal pipeline 1999 explosion in Bellingham, Wash. “It is our sincere desire not to be back in front of this committee again in the future saying the same things after yet another tragedy.”

There was also coverage from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the State Journal, and, among others. Over at the Daily Mail, reporter Ry Rivard picked up an important piece of information that came out yesterday:

The natural gas pipeline that exploded last month near Sissonville was spared heightened safety scrutiny because of its size, the nation’s top pipeline regulator said Monday.

The 20-inch diameter transmission line that exploded was not in what federal regulators considered a “high consequence area,” even though two pipelines owned by the same company and within a stone’s throw of the exploded line were.

When the line exploded on Dec. 11, it destroyed three homes, damaged several others and scorched Interstate 77 — miraculously killing no one.

Because it was not “high consequence,” the exploded line did not have to be checked for corrosion using one important pipeline safety tool. The tool — known as a “smart pig” — travels through a pipeline to check the pipe for irregularities, including cracks and corrosion. The tool could perhaps have found that the exploded line had corroded in places to about a third of the thickness it ought to have been.

But one of the more telling moments yesterday came not during the formal committee hearing, but in a brief press conference held beforehand by Sen. Rockefeller and NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman. Sen. Rockefeller was talking about the importance of administrative agencies following up on safety mandates from lawmakers, and the key matter of members of Congress holding agencies’ to such mandates.  But, Sen. Rockefeller worried aloud, it appears that all too often the White House Office of Management and Budget is blocking agency efforts, holding up, delaying or trying to scuttle important rules

Rockefeller noted that many political leaders — especially in West Virginia — love to complain about the regulatory efforts of agencies like EPA.  What often gets lost, the senator said, is that regulations are important for protecting not only the environment, but worker health and public safety:

There’s a real worry on my part that the Office of Management and Budget, totally unknown to the American people. Totally unspeakable about by federal folks, because they can’t, is slowing all this process down, maybe anti-rules and regulations in some cases that could affect things like this from not happening again.

Of course, this isn’t a new idea … the folks at the Pump Handle blog frequently have written about OMB holding up vital worker protection regulations. And the Center for Progressive Reform has urged President Obama to reform the agency’s practices when he names a new regulatory director at OMB:

For the President, this could be a little-noticed appointment. But it may be one of the most important ones he makes, because the person he selects will hold enormous sway over the entire regulatory agenda of the President’s second term, cutting a wide swath across all the regulatory agencies of the federal government. Given the gridlock in Congress, the reality is that, in many areas, the best chance the President has to implement his vision of a government that protects Americans from environmental hazards, unsafe products and dangerous working conditions, is not to legislate, but to regulate aggressively in these areas. That means that the person he appoints to this job could have an enormous effect on the President’s legacy. He should choose carefully, therefore, thinking about the public interest, not the reaction of the business community over the short term.

Study: More concealed guns could increase crime

While the National Rifle Association — and its major political supporter, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — continue to fight any effort to crack down on assault weapons, a new public health study offers some interesting points about another gun control issue: Concealed weapons permits. Here’s the abstract of the paper, published this month in the American Journal of Public Health:

 Our results imply that expanding the settings in which concealed carry is permitted may increase the risk of specific types of crimes, some quite serious in those settings. These increased risks may be relatively small. Nonetheless, policymakers should consider these risks when contemplating reducing the scope of gun-free zones.

Over at The Pump Handle blog, Kim Krisberg has more on this study:

The study examined 2001–2009 data from the Texas Department of Public Safety on criminal convictions associated with holders and nonholders of concealed handgun licenses (CHL). It found that concealed handgun license holders were much less likely than those without a license to be convicted of a crime. Also, most non-license holder convictions involved a higher-prevalence crime, such as burglary or robbery, while convictions among license holders were more likely to involve a lower-prevalence crime, such as a sexual offense or an offense involving a death.

The study notes that concealed weapon advocates often cite data examining general crime rates — rates that find license holders are less likely to commit a crime — to argue that concealed handgun licenses are ending up in “safe hands.” This study, however, looks at the data differently: Instead of examining overall crime rates, the authors examine the differences in crime convictions between license holders and non-license holders.

In studying the Texas data, the authors found that the most common criminal convictions among non-license holders were simple assaults, robberies and burglaries, all of which accounted for 70 percent of convictions studied among non-license holders. (For example, robbery and burglary accounted for 22 percent of non-license holder convictions, but only 3 percent of convictions among license holders.) When compared with non-license holders, a higher proportion of license-holder convictions were for sexual offenses, weapons offenses, deadly conduct and offenses involving the intentional killing of a person. (For example, among non-license holders, 7.6 percent of convictions were for sexual offenses, while 17 percent of license-holder convictions were for sexual offenses.)

As policymakers consider expanding the types of places where people can bring concealed weapons, such as in schools or churches, the authors noted that their study results show such a policy change could increase gun-related offenses in previously gun-free zones.

“Holders of a CHL in Texas in 2001 to 2009 were almost universally a law-abiding population, like most individuals who shared their demographic characteristics,” the study authors wrote. “However, in those rare instances when they committed crimes…they were more likely to be convicted for serious weapons-related offenses.”