Sustained Outrage

Here’s what the CDC had to say

Here’s the water data we have so far

Many readers have contacted me expressing interest in the water sampling data we’ve received so far from the Tomblin administration. So here it is:

Water sample results dated Jan. 12, 2014

Water sample results dated Jan. 14, 2014

 Water sample results dated Jan. 15, 2014

As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety is posting the results on their Homeland Security Division’s website here.

Chemical safety work frozen by federal shutdown

Plant Explosion Texas

This Thursday April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. Wednesday night killed at least 14 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

We’ve been writing in the Gazette and on my Coal Tattoo blog about the potential impacts of the federal government shutdown on coal-mine safety and health. Meanwhile, others have made clear the impacts on other types of industrial and public safety matters.  Take for example this story from the Dallas Morning News:

Federal efforts to improve chemical safety and investigate what went wrong in the deadly West fertilizer blast are stalled because of the partial government shutdown, Sen. Barbara Boxer said Tuesday.

Boxer, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate’s environment and public works committee, said that means deadlines set by President Barack Obama for Cabinet members and agency heads to review and overhaul regulations, safety practices, data-sharing and emergency response won’t be met.

The first deadline, for agencies to submit proposals for improvements, is Nov. 1.

The shutdown also is delaying the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s final report on the blast.

“That explosion is a prime example of the situation we’re in now, where the agencies that are supposed to come up with ways to make sure this never happens again just can’t meet,” she said at a news conference.

Momentum on improving chemical safety and security in wake of the West disaster is also at risk in the shutdown, Boxer said.

Obama issued his executive order on Aug. 1. The order imposed a series of deadlines, the first of which is a few weeks away. Multiple federal agencies had to submit preliminary proposals for improvements.

But those will “definitely be delayed,” Boxer said.

Another story in the Dallas paper examined the important issue of strengthening regulations on ammonium nitrate:

Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is not allowed in Afghanistan. The country banned it three years ago because of its use in bombs against NATO soldiers.

The fertilizer’s explosive nature has led to similar prohibitions elsewhere, including China, Colombia, Germany, Ireland and the Philippines.

But in the United States, you can purchase it pure by the ton. Then you can store it in a wooden warehouse with no sprinkler system, a few hundred feet from a middle school.

That’s what happened in the Central Texas farming town of West, where an explosion destroyed nearby schools, houses and a nursing home. The blast killed 15 people, including 12 first responders. Several hundred more suffered injuries, some as severe as broken bones, ruptured organs and blindness.

For more than a decade, U.S. efforts to tighten controls over ammonium nitrate fertilizer have repeatedly failed, bogged down by bureaucratic gridlock and industry resistance. Regulations approved years ago remain unenforced and unfinished. Mere talk of safer substitutes has been blocked by those with profits at stake.

In fact, just 13 days before the West disaster, the only two remaining U.S. manufacturers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer pleaded for Washington’s help to preserve their $300 million annual market. Company executives bemoaned the “terrible toll” of regulation and the “pressure” of increased competition from nonexplosive substitutes.

Continue reading…

Boy Scout Jamboree: What nobody’s talking about

Thousands of Scouts attend the opening ceremony for the 2013 National Jamboree Tuesday. Gazette photo by Chris Dorst.

As their 2013 National Jamboree got underway this week over in Fayette County, W.Va., the adults who run the Boy Scouts were certainly in no mood to talk about the reversal of their long-standing policy that banned gay kids from being scouts (the policy actually remains in place until January 2014) — and they seemed equally hopeful nobody would ask about their continued refusal to allow gay parents to be scout leaders.

And for the most part, it appears members of the West Virginia media were more than happy to oblige. Initially, it looked like the only reporter who would dare to bring up the matter was John Raby from The Associated Press, who produced this story on the subject:

Two months after a vote that accepted openly gay boys as Scouts, officials for the Boy Scouts of America say they’ve put the issue aside and are focused on their 10-day national Jamboree.

Some 30,000 Scouts and their leaders arrived Monday at the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in southern West Virginia. Thousands more staff and volunteers have been at the 1,000-acre site since last week.

Months of divisive debate led to May’s vote by the BSA’s National Council to allow gay Scouts to participate while keeping a ban on gay adults. The policy change is effective next January.

“We don’t see any changes in the way we do things at the jamboree at all,” Wayne Brock, the BSA’s chief executive, told The Associated Press. “We don’t see where it would have any kind of impact.”

With much negative attention directed toward the Boy Scouts in recent months, Brock said the hope is that the Jamboree proves to be a big, positive event.

“People are going to see kids getting together, having a great time and learning,” Brock said. “That’s what the public will see is what Scouting is really all about.”

There was a quote in Wednesday’s Gazette from National Jamboree President Larry Pritchard that is particularly interesting, given that the decision by the Boy Scouts to seek a private site for the event came on the heels of litigation over whether the U.S. military’s support for the Jamboree violated the the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from establishing a religion. Here’s Pritchard’s quote about the importance of the scouts having their first Jamboree on their own property:

That’s a big deal because now we can decide what we do and how we do it and where we do it. And I think you’ll agree that this facility is pretty special.

And then today, we saw how difficult it was for the Gazette’s David Gutman to get the scout leadership to answer a simple question about whether gay kids are welcome at this year’s event

Also getting little — if any — attention this week are questions about the finances of the Jamboree site, raised in a special report from Reuters headlined, A $439 million camp adds to Boy Scouts money crunch:

In the misty, oak-filled woods of West Virginia, the Boy Scouts of America are building their answer to Disney World.

Known as The Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve, the 10,600-acre park opens Monday, when 30,000 scouts are expected to visit for the quadrennial National Jamboree. The Summit will have more than five miles of zip lines, a whitewater-rafting circuit, a 120-foot tree house and a stadium for 85,000 people.

The Summit is more than the ultimate Scout camp. It was envisioned as a way to shore up the finances of an organization burdened by a long-term drop in membership, costly sexual-abuse lawsuits and a bruising battle over whether to admit gay members. The park would bring in even more in donations than it would cost to build, Scout leaders concluded.

“The Summit gives us the opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to America and raise $1 billion for the best youth development in the world,” says a slide from a June 2010 presentation on the project.

But, Reuters reported:

It isn’t panning out that way. Costs are rising. Initially budgeted at $176 million through 2013, the Summit’s cost is now estimated to reach at least $350 million by the end of this year and $439 million by the end of 2015, according to Scouts documents reviewed by Reuters. To keep up, the Scouts issued new bonds last year – more than doubling their previous borrowing for the project.

The Scouts’ efforts to pay for the Summit are off target, too. Internal financial updates show that the Scouts’ national organization, based in Irving, Texas, was $108 million behind its capital-raising goal for the Summit as of the end of March. That was 32 percent shy of its projection of $342.6 million.

Continue reading…

OSHA issues $69,000 in fines at 2 W.Va. sites

Here’s the latest announcement from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Perrysburg-based Trans Tech Logistics Inc. for 17 serious safety violations at two tank truck maintenance facilities in Natrium and Institute, W.Va. Proposed penalties total $69,000 following a March inspection that was initiated after OSHA received a complaint alleging hazards.

At the Natrium facility, OSHA has cited 15 violations that involve failing to establish “lockout/tagout” procedures to prevent machinery from accidentally starting up; comply with the agency’s Hazard Communication Standard; ensure the use of safety goggles and foot protection; provide facilities for flushing of the eyes and body when employees are exposed to corrosive materials; provide first-aid training and supplies; separate oxygen cylinders from acetylene cylinders in storage; label electrical disconnects; guard machines; and provide charts, manuals and safe operating procedures for servicing rim wheels. Penalties fo the citations total $60,000.

 Two violations were cited at the Institute facility for failing to provide sufficient washing facilities for workers exposed to corrosive materials and remove powered industrial trucks from service when they are not in a safe operating condition. Penalties for the citations total $9,000.

Prentice Cline, director of OSHA’s Charleston Area Office in West Virginia, said:

The hazards found at both facilities pose serious risks to Trans Tech Logistics employees and must be immediately addressed. OSHA will continue to hold employers legally accountable when they jeopardize the safety of their workers.

I’ve posted the OSHA citations for the Institute plant here and for the Natrium plant here.

Why did Shell pick Pa. for its cracker plant?

Today’s announcement by Shell Chemical that it has picked a site in western Pennsylvania for further “evaluation” for its proposed natural gas “cracker” plant is already drawing criticism for West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Recall that Gov. Tomblin had made luring this facility to West Virginia a top priority in his State of the State address earlier this year:

Of course, one of the biggest potential benefits of the Marcellus Shale development is the opportunity to re-energize manufacturing in our state. One ethane cracker, by itself, would mean a multi-billion dollar, multi-year investment in West Virginia with thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of good paying permanent jobs … And let me be clear about my intentions. 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.

Of course, the governor has inflated the potential impacts of this project, while pushing lawmakers to rush through legislation to give Shell a huge tax break if it picked West Virginia for its cracker.

Here’s what Shell had to say about how it made its decision to pick the Pennsylvania site over locations in West Virginia and Ohio:

Shell looked at various factors to select the preferred site, including good access to liquids rich natural gas resources, water, road and rail transportation infrastructure, power grids, economics, and sufficient acreage to accommodate facilities for a world scale petrochemical complex and potential future expansions.

Nothing in there about lawsuit abuse, greedy plaintiff lawyers, stringent environmental regulations or overly demanding union workers, huh?

Ted Boettner and the other good folks at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy follow state economic development efforts and tax policy pretty closely. I asked Ted what he made of Shell’s decision and here’s what he said:

West Virginia offered an almost tax free climate to Shell, but the state fell short. This tells us that the state’s business tax climate had very little to do with Shell’s decision to locate in Pennsylvania. Businesses locate where they can make money. Aside from this, there location decisions are driven primarily by proximity to markets and raw materials, a productive and skilled workforce, and a good quality of life. Taxes are usually a very small part in the decision process because they represent only a tiny part of the cost of doing business. This is especially true of capital intensive industries, which tend to have disproportionately low tax rates because of tax deductions.

Ted added:

Our biggest policy failure is not making West Virginia a more attractive place to live, work, and raise a family. This requires investing in our people, universities, parks, infrastructure, and other public structures. Without a well trained and educated workforce, it is hard to compete in a global economy. We have the smallest share of workers with a post secondary degree in the country. This should be our focus, not engaging in a race to the bottom on who can have the low taxes, bad regulations, and a poorer quality of life.

Is gas drilling making West Virginians sick?

The fine folks at ProPublica had another interesting oil and gas drilling story a couple of weeks ago, reporting:

Hydraulic fracturing, along with other processes used to drill wells, generates emissions and millions of gallons of hazardous waste that are dumped into open-air pits. The pits have been shown to leak into groundwater and also give off chemical emissions as the fluids evaporate. Residents’ most common complaints are respiratory infections, headaches, neurological impairment, nausea and skin rashes. More rarely, they have reported more serious effects, from miscarriages and tumors to benzene poisoning and cancer.

ProPublica examined government environmental reports and private lawsuits and interviewed scores of residents, physicians and toxicologists in four states—Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania—that are drilling hot spots. Our review showed that cases like Wallace-Babb’s go back a decade in parts of Colorado and Wyoming, where drilling has taken place for years. They are just beginning to emerge in Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale drilling boom began in earnest in 2008.

Concern about such health complaints is longstanding—Congress held hearings on them in 2007 at which Wallace-Babb testified. But the extent and cause of the problems remains unknown. Neither states nor the federal government have systematically tracked reports from people like Wallace-Babb, or comprehensively investigated how drilling affects human health.

I was reminded of this piece the other day when I saw the Wheeling paper’s headline, Doctor Wants Study of Drilling’s Impact, in which they reported:

The impact of hydraulic fracturing on the public’s health still needs to be studied, said Dr. Alan Ducatman.

Ducatman, West Virginia University School of Public Health dean, made the point during a program held Tuesday at Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling. The program, “Marcellus Shale Drilling: A Health Perspective,” was hosted by the Ohio County Medical Society, OVMC and the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce.

Ducatman said things that could be impacted are people’s water, air and their environment in general, such as their roads and homes. For example, some patients, including some Marcellus Shale gas drilling workers, have come into his clinic with a variety of complaints. Workers have had acid burns or other skin irritations. But such complaints or issues are common in industry in general, he added.

Others patients complain about noise from well pad sites and related trucking, and still others about air pollution and bright lights from sites keeping them awake at night.

“The industry should get out in front of these issues,” Ducatman said, referring to initiating health studies.

Regular readers know that Dr. Ducatman’s department at WVU has been doing a lot of important work on both the health impacts of mountaintop removal and on the effects of the toxic chemical C8 … it would be fascinating to see the WVU team get involved in looking more closely at gas drilling’s impacts.

West Virginia’s prescription drug abuse problem was spotlighted in January when the Gazette published a series by reporter Alison Knezevich on the issue.  She will be speaking about it on NPR’s On Point this morning at 10 a.m.

The show doesn’t air locally in Charleston, but the audio should be available about 11 a.m.

Alison is one of three guests being interviewed for an hour on On Point. Reporters Laura Ungar from the Courier-Journal in Louisville and Janet Zink from the Tallahassee bureau for the Saint Petersburg Times and Miami Herald will also share their perspectives on the issue.

In January she reported, West Virginia has the nation’s highest rate of drug deaths. Between 2001 and 2008, more than nine out of 10 of those deaths involved prescription drugs.

Alison has continued to follow the issue. In April the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy unveiled a plan, praised by West Virginia leaders, that’s designed to reduce prescription drug misuse by 15 percent over the next five years.

More video of the fight outside Impulse

Here’s another video of the fight outside Impulse night club early in the morning of April 24.

There’s audio, but it’s hard to make out what anyone is saying. At one point a guy looks at the camera and says, “MMA, how you gettin’ whooped?”

Woody Woods from 98.7 The Beat told me about it a little while ago, when he asked me to come on his show this evening to talk about the story.

Also, in case you missed it, Danny Jones said the city could close Impulse, if things got out of hand.

West Virginia State Police Sgt. Michael Baylous just sent out a press release titled “Continued Assaults on Officers” which says violence against officers is up and complaints against them are down.

It included the following quote:

Research conducted indicates that a majority of external allegations filed against employees of the West Virginia State Police in 2009 were determined to be either not sustained or unfounded. Furthermore, external complaints have continued to decrease in recent years.”

I called Sgt. Baylous and asked him what the research was and where I could get a copy of it. He said that it was “qualitative” research and not “quantitative” – he said he interviewed Maj. Gordon Ingold, head of the Professional Standards section, which is how he came up with the statement.

He also pointed to the department’s Professional Standards Section report, which is released every year. The Gazette has repeatedly asked for more information than the report gives. It’s why we filed a lawsuit in November.

The press release (which is printed in its entirety at the bottom of this post) appears to tie the number of police officer deaths and assaults thus far this year to media accounts.

Here’s part of the quote by Col. Timothy Pack (pictured above):

From time to time, allegations of police brutality on behalf of the West Virginia State Police have been over-sensationalized by a select few in the media. The deaths of fourteen officers and the recent shootings in both Huntington and St. Albans remind us that enforcing the law is a dangerous task.

I asked Sgt. Baylous for an interview with Pack, who has denied all requests in the past. This is the answer Pack had relayed back to me through Baylous:

“When you apologize about the lies you have written about the State Police, then you will immediately have your interview.”

Continue reading…