The Charleston Gazette has a long and proud tradition as a crusading newspaper. Our late publisher, W.E. "Ned" Chilton III coined the phrase "sustained outrage" and insisted the Gazette live up to that motto with long-term coverage of important issues facing West Virginia and the nation.
The mission of the "Gazette Watchdog" is simple: To carry on that tradition. We make a commitment to our readers to serve as a public watchdog over government, business, and other powerful entities in West Virginia society, to ensure that the public interest is protected.
We published another story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail about the ongoing controversy over the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed water quality standards, this one focused on the renewed fight by the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation over one of those changes:
A coalition of construction unions is again taking up the fight against what it says is an effort to weaken West Virginia’s water quality standards.
The Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation — which defeated what it called the “Cancer Creek” bill more than two decades ago — is urging the state Department of Environmental Protection to abandon its proposal to change the way agency officials calculate water pollution limits for cancer-causing chemicals.
“We opposed it then, and we’re opposing it now,” said Steve White, director of the ACT Foundation, the research, advertising and public relations arm of the West Virginia State Building and Construction Trades Council.
This morning, I was reading through the public comments submitted to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in response to its proposal to do away with publishing public notices of certain air pollution permit actions in local newspapers in communities across West Virginia.
Going through the public comments, it was hard to find anyone who favored what WVDEP had proposed — to eliminate public notices in community newspapers in favor of posting permit documents on the agency website.
Interestingly, though, I did find one letter that seems to back the proposal … it came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
I asked WVDEP about this, and spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said:
DEP is still reviewing the Rule 13 comments … While EPA supports the revisions, the large majority of other commenters appear to oppose the revisions on various grounds.
(Don’t worry about that part where EPA suggests WVDEP is doing away with public notice for operating permits — that change isn’t really part of WVDEP’s proposal and those notices are still required under a separate state rule).
Take note, though, that EPA also wants to move toward electronic notices:
A new study out today links natural gas drilling with increased risk of asthma. Here’s the press release from the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine journal:
Residential unconventional natural gas development activity, a process that involves fracking and creates a source of energy used both domestically and internationally, was associated with increased risk of asthma exacerbations in a study of patients with asthma in Pennsylvania.
Asthma is a common chronic disease with nearly 26 million people in the United States with asthma. Outdoor air pollution is recognized as a cause of asthma exacerbations. Unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) has been associated with air quality and community social impacts, such as air pollution from truck traffic and sleep disruption.
Pennsylvania has moved rapidly with UNGD and more than 6,200 wells were drilled between the mid-2000s and 2012.
The release explains:
Brian S. Schwartz, M.D., M.S., of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, and coauthors looked at associations between UNGD and asthma exacerbations.
The authors compared patients with asthma with and without exacerbations from 2005 and 2012 who were treated at Pennsylvania’s Geisinger Clinic. The study included 35,508 patients identified in electronic health records.
The authors estimated activity metrics for the four phases of UNGD (pad preparation, drilling, stimulation and production) using the distance from patients’ homes to the wells, well characteristics and the duration of phases.
Between 2005 and 2013, 6,253 unconventional natural gas wells were spudded (the start of drilling) on 2,710 pads; 4,728 wells were stimulated and 3,706 were in production.
The authors identified 20,749 mild (new oral corticosteroid medication order), 1,870 moderate (emergency department visit) and 4,782 severe (hospitalization) asthma exacerbations and matched those to control index dates for comparison.
Patients with asthma in areas with the highest residential UNGD activity had higher risk of the three types of exacerbations compared with those patients in the lowest group of residential activity, according to the study results.
There’s some new news out today about C8, in the form of a letter from the Environmental Working Group that demands urgent action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The group says:
The Environmental Protection Agency was first alerted 15 years ago to contamination of drinking water by PFOA, a chemical used to make Teflon that has since been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, heart disease and other serious health problems. Since then, PFOA pollution has grown from a regional problem to a national crisis. Yet EPA still has not set a legal limit for the compound in drinking water, even in the face of repeated appeals from state officials and representatives of the public interest community.
You can read the full letter here. Among other things, the letter says:
… We remain deeply troubled by the agency’s glacial pace and uneven approach to protecting the public from this highly persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemical. In particular, it escapes all logic as to why EPA would issue conflicting health advisory levels for PFOA, which are leading to confusion and varied responses to the problem.
I also asked for communications from Greear to Bowman, but received a vague answer that “the documents we have discovered through our search that are arguably responsive concern private, non-public matters are therefore not subject to production.”
But on Oct. 24, in response to a Gazette-Mail story about Morrisey’s ties to Cardinal Health, he released a statement from Bowman that said the following:
“Beginning in April of 2013, I spoke with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Dan Greear about the relevant facts in the Cardinal matter. They provided me with a description of the relevant background, including Attorney General Morrisey’s prior work in private practice, and his wife’s work at her government relations firm. Based upon my review, it has been and remains my belief that Attorney General Morrisey would be ethically permitted to participate in the Cardinal Health case, if he elected to do so. I initially conveyed that position to the Attorney General and his office in the spring and summer of 2013. Based upon the information provided to me, I do not believe that a legal conflict exists under West Virginia rules. Any decision to step aside was purely voluntary and went further than the rules require.”
To this day, Morrisey has declined to release any documents that would show what information he provided to Bowman.
I talked to Professor Bowman today. He said his political contribution to Morrisey did not “slant” the legal advice he gave to the attorney general in any way.
“That had nothing to do with my advice,” said Bowman, who contributes to numerous GOP candidates.
Bowman also recalled that he gave his ethics advice to Morrisey in writing.
If that’s the case, why is Morrisey refusing to release it?
Now, Morrisey has taken to Facebook saying the story is “untrue.” Specifically, he says a consumer investigator position wasn’t eliminated to make way for Henderson’s newly created position of deputy chief of staff.
Henderson’s personnel action form shows that Morrisey’s office eliminated the investigator position. If you click here, you’ll see the personnel action form, which shows the elimination of position # 57 (held by former consumer fraud investigator Joe Crawford; a position titled “investigator”) and the renaming of the position to “deputy chief of staff.”
The new position is being funded from two accounts — 50% or $49,749.96 from Fund 1509 (Consumer Protection Recovery Fund) and 50% from Fund 0150 (Attorney General Salary Fund.” It would have been impossible to pay Mr. Henderson his full $99,500 salary without eliminating the investigator position.
As it stands now, the AG’s office has eliminated the investigator position, but, of course, could restore that position at any time in the future by taking a vacant position and renaming it “investigator.”
Also, Morrisey demanded that all questions regarding Lance Henderson be submitted in writing. I did so. And one of the questions submitted was this: “Why was an investigative consumer position eliminated to make way for a deputy chief of staff position?”
Morrisey’s answer: “We have been, and continue to, actively recruit additional investigators for our office.”
I quoted that response in my initial story. He only took to his Facebook page and disputed that after we published our investigation of Lance Henderson’s hiring. And he has never contacted us to request a correction.
The Obama administration is proposing new standards that are part of a broader strategy to require the nation’s booming oil and gas industry to reduce its emissions of heat-trapping methane by 40 percent to 45 percent.
The Obama administration is expected to propose as soon as Tuesday the first-ever federal regulation to cut emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, by the nation’s oil and natural-gas industry, officials familiar with the plan said on Monday.
The proposed rule would call for the reduction of methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent over the next decade from 2012 levels, the officials said. The proposal was widely expected, after the Environmental Protection Agencysaid in January that it was working on such a plan.
The move is part of a broader regulatory agenda Mr. Obama is pursuing as he seeks to make addressing climate change a legacy of his time in the White House. Earlier this month, the EPA issued final rules cutting carbon emissions from power plants 32% by 2030 based on emissions levels from 2005.
Tuesday’s announcement reflects the Obama administration’s middle-ground approach toward the oil and gas industry. The Interior Department said Monday it has issued a permit to Royal Dutch Shell PLC to drill for oil and natural gas in the Arctic Ocean, providing the company a long-sought victory and angering environmentalists who say the move runs counter to Mr. Obama’s efforts to address climate change.
Meanwhile, with the onset of the fracking boom, concerns over methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have grown within the administration. Methane has a warming effect on the planet more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.
A little-noted portion of the chain of pipelines and equipment that brings natural gas from the field into power plants and homes is responsible for a surprising amount of methane emissions, according to a new study.
Natural-gas gathering facilities, which collect from multiple wells, lose about 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year, about eight times as much as estimates used by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to the study, which appeared on Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
The newly discovered leaks, if counted in the E.P.A. inventory, would increase its entire systemwide estimate by about 25 percent, said the Environmental Defense Fund, which sponsored the research as part of methane emissions studies it organized.
EPA is planning to announce its new rules at noon …
West Virginia media outlets had barely finished copying and pasting the Corridor H Authority’s press release when the state Department of Environmental Protection posted for public comment a new agreement with the state Department of Transportation over the latest water pollution violations associated with construction of the highway. DEP has posted the settlement here, and is accepting public comments through June 12 (I’ve also posted a copy of the agreement here, because DEP often removes these from its website once the comment period is over).
This settlement — which includes a monetary penalty of more than $74,000 — comes after a previous settlement in January 2014 and a long list of new violations DEP discovered after that settlement.
You have to wonder if supporters of Corridor H ought to spend a little less time promoting the idea of speeding up construction, and a little more time urging DOT to ensure that construction complies with environmental laws. And not for nothing, but we’re still waiting on word on an expected re-evaluation of environmental studies of the portion of the road from Parsons to Davis …
Here’s the latest news from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board:
Today the U.S. Chemical Safety Board formally announced that to “Modernize U.S. Process Safety Management Regulations” is the Board’s newest Most Wanted Safety Improvement, concluding that implementation of key federal and state CSB safety recommendations will result in significant improvement of Process Safety Management (PSM) regulations in the United States.
Over the last two decades, the CSB has made a number of recommendations related to OSHA’s PSM program and EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP), many of which have not been fully implemented. By adding the modernizing of U.S. process safety management regulations to the CSB’s Most Wanted Safety Improvement list, the agency is identifying this issue as one of the board’s most important recommendations-related goals.
Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:
As Chairperson of the CSB I see this as an important opportunity to advance national process safety management reform by advocating for this issue as part of the board’s Most Wanted Chemical Safety Improvements Program. My hope is that reform will help to prevent future catastrophic accidents.
… That despite some positive improvements in PSM regulations in the U.S., regulations have undergone little reform since their inception in the 1990s. Of particular interest are the board’s recent investigations of major refinery incidents that found that PSM and RMP, although written as performance-based regulations, appear to function primarily as reactive and activity-based regulatory frameworks that require extensive rulemaking to modify. This potentially results in stagnating risk levels, even as industry-recommended best practices and technology continue to advance in the U.S. and overseas.
Specifically, the CSB’s investigations of recent major refinery accidents found that there was no requirement to reduce risks to As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP); there was no mechanism to ensure continuous safety improvement; no requirement to implement inherent safety or the hierarchy of controls; that there should be an increased role for workers and worker representatives in process safety management; and that there needs to be a more proactive, technically qualified regulator.
In this image made available by the City of Lynchburg, shows several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil in flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)
The New York Times reported that hours after the incident:
… The Transportation Department said that a long-awaited package of rules aimed at improving the safety of oil transport by rail had been sent Wednesday night to the White House for review. The proposed regulations were not made public, but they follow Canada’s announcement of stiffer regulations last week and are expected to include measures requiring transport companies to replace old tank cars with more robust models that are resistant to puncture.
Across the state on the same rail line where a train loaded with highly combustible crude oil derailed, a fire chief sees the potential for a nightmare scenario: A blaze his crews don’t have the means to put out, threatening a colonial-era tourist attraction and one of the nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning …
No one was hurt or killed when a train derailed in Lynchburg, but emergency officials say it underscores the fact that many departments don’t have the resources to deal with such an accident along a busy route for hauling oil from the booming Bakken oil fields in the northern U.S. tier and Canada.
“It definitely raises concerns,” said Williamsburg Fire Chief William Dent. “We have some minimal resources here.”
For West Virginians, it’s important to take a look at this CSX map, which highlights the routes the railroad uses to haul crude oil (I know, it’s not that great a map. But look for the outline of West Virginia, and you’ll see a green dot to the west that is the Marathon refinery in Ashland, Ky., and the CSX route through West Virginia is outlined in yellow as it heads east and southeast):
As CSX notes, hauling crude oil by rail is a growing business:
The United States is expected to become the world’s largest oil producer in the next few years, and CSX Transportation (CSX) is in the best position to serve the major East Coast refineries and terminals.
CSX has the premier route between the Midwest and Northeast. Our Water Level Route between Chicago and Albany has minimal grade and is all double track, allowing CSX to transport your crude oil trains from Chicago to the Hudson River, New York Harbor or Philadelphia market in less than 48 hours.
I asked CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost how often crude-oil trains come through our part of the world, and this is the response I received via e-mail on Thursday:
Across its network, CSX carries about two trains of crude oil per day. That’s up from about one train per day last year. The train involved in yesterday’s derailment had two locomotives and 105 rail cars. One was a buffer of sand, and the rest were crude oil.