Sustained Outrage

freedom aerial

Commercial Photography Services of West Virginia

The pressure continues to build on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call a special session so West Virginia can walk back the landmark chemical tank safety and public drinking water law that miraculously made its way through the Legislature in the wake of January’s Freedom Industries spill and the Kanawha Valley water crisis that followed.

Yesterday, Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Tim Miley issued a joint statement urging Gov. Tomblin to call that special session so they can roll back the deadline for chemical tank owners to determine if their tanks are safe and report that information to the state Department of Environmental Protection.  Here’s what they had to say in that joint release:

miley_timothykessler_jeffreyWe urge Governor Tomblin to call a brief special session during the upcoming September interim meetings to modify the date of implementation for the inspection and certification of the Above Ground Storage Tank Act (SB373). Doing so during the interim meetings will not incur any additional cost to the taxpayers.

While we are extremely proud of the comprehensive regulatory legislation produced earlier this year to protect drinking water for our state citizens, it has become apparent that the Jan. 1, 2015 deadline for these inspections is unattainable. Extending that deadline will allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to put in place, with public input, agency rules to fairly and effectively govern the inspection and certification process.

Any continued delay in taking action on this matter only causes uncertainty within affected industries and the families that rely on them for employment.

Meanwhile, the DEP will move forward with creating an inventory and conducting a risk assessment of above ground storage tanks statewide.

The usual suspects among our state’s media outlets are right on top of this. Hoppy Kercheval is all over this, and the MetroNews coverage sticks pretty close to his talking points:

As of now, as many as 40,000 tanks in West Virginia must be registered with the state by Oct. 1 and certified inspections of those tanks have to be completed by Jan. 1.  The state Department of Environmental Protection has not yet finalized the inspection protocols and, DEP officials have said, it could be December before those guidelines are available.

After appearing at times to actually care about drinking water protections, the Daily Mail editorial page is back to its old self, and repeating the same misinformation West Virginians are getting from MetroNews:

But the biggest issue is the uncertainty facing storage tank operators as the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency charged with enforcing the law, has yet to define the inspection parameters for storage tanks. Once it does, operators of the estimated 40,000 storage tanks affected by the law are unlikely to have time to complete their inspections by the Jan. 1 deadline.

It’s simply false to say that DEP has not yet issued “inspection protocols” or defined “the inspection parameters.” Officials at DEP, working very hard under tough deadlines and constant pressure from industry, published guidance for tank owners spelling out what should be examined in these inspections. It’s right here on the agency’s website. There’s a checklist for what the inspections should include and there are forms (see here and here) to use in certifying to DEP that you’ve done these inspections and your tanks are safe.

And DEP was very, very clear about how this is going to work for the initial inspections due Jan. 1 and for future annual inspections:

For the certification due on or before January 1, 2015, compliance with a nationally recognized tank standard such API or STI following the attached checklist shall be deemed compliance with the requirements. Subsequent Annual Certifications will be required to comply fully with legislative rules promulgated by the Secretary.

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Guns in W.Va.: Permits, politics and the press

Gun Violence Grave Markers

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)

There’s an interesting story making the rounds in West Virginia about a reported increase in the issuance of concealed weapons permits across our state. Here’s how it starts:

The number of concealed weapons permits issued annually in West Virginia has more than quadrupled in the past five years.

In 2009, county sheriffs’ departments issued 11,160 permits allowing residents to carry concealed handguns in most public places. In 2013, that number had jumped to 44,981.

The largest increase was from 2012 to 2013, when the number of permits issued annually increased by more than 15,000, up from 29,712 in 2012.

Those numbers, compiled by the West Virginia State Police, are only the permits issued each year. A permit is valid for five years, so the total number of West Virginians licensed to carry concealed handguns is much higher.

Those numbers, compiled by the West Virginia State Police, represent all active permits. The number includes both new permits and renewal permits.

While some may have been revoked or surrendered, a total of 126,514 permits were issued in the five years from 2009-13.

CORRECTION: In Thursday’s West Virginia Press Association article on concealed weapons permits quadrupling over the last five years, it was the total number of active permits that quadrupled over five years, not just new permits, as was incorrectly stated in the article. Renewals are included in that total number of active permits that quadrupled. The numbers represent the total number of active permits.

The story is getting a fair amount of play, in large part because it was reported and written by Kris Wise Maramba for the West Virginia Press Association, meaning it’s likely to start appearing in newspapers around the state (see here, here and here for examples so far).  The story shows what is clearly an important and newsworthy trend:

gun permit graphic

Gazette graphic by Tye Ward

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Journalism groups call on Obama for transparency

Barack Obama

President Obama may believe that his is the most transparent administration ever, but it’s tough to find many journalists who agree. The latest call for this administration to live up to its rhetoric on transparency comes from a huge group of journalism and good-government organizations:

Thirty-eight journalism and open government groups today called on President Obama to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public.

The national organizations sent a letter to Obama today urging changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communicating with staff without going through public information offices, requiring government PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources.

“The practices have become more and more pervasive throughout America, preventing information from getting to the public in an accurate and timely matter,” said David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The president pledged to be the most transparent in history. He can start by ending these practices now.”

The letter, posted here, says:

Over the past two decades, public agencies have increasingly prohibited staff from communicating with journalists unless they go through public affairs offices or through political appointees. This trend has been especially pronounced in the federal government. We consider these restrictions a form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear.

The stifling of free expression is happening despite your pledge on your first day in office to bring “a new era of openness” to federal government – and the subsequent executive orders and directives which were supposed to bring such openness about.

It goes on:

Recent research has indicated the problem is getting worse throughout the nation, particularly at the federal level. Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely. When public affairs officers speak, even about routine public matters, they often do so confidentially in spite of having the title “spokesperson.” Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow. Public affairs officers might send their own written responses of slick non-answers. Agencies hold on-background press conferences with unnamed officials, on a not-for-attribution basis.

In many cases, this is clearly being done to control what information journalists – and the audience they serve – have access to. A survey found 40 percent of public affairs officers admitted they blocked certain reporters because they did not like what they wrote.

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A few weeks ago, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a press release making this announcement:

morriseyWest Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced today that West Virginia concealed handgun licenses will now qualify as an alternative to the background check requirements of the Brady Law. As a result, West Virginians with concealed handgun licenses (“CHL”) issued on or after June 4, 2014, will be exempted from undergoing additional background checks every time the license-holder seeks to purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer.

AG Morrisey commented:

We are proud to say West Virginia concealed handgun licensees now qualify for a benefit that has been secured by less than a majority of the 50 states. This is a significant development for law-abiding gun owners in West Virginia who frequently contact our Office regarding the state’s ongoing efforts to qualify for the Brady exemption.

Quite a few media outlets picked up on the release, pretty much publishing what it said without question — and without asking firearms safety advocates or experts for any comment on the development. I found stories here, here, here, and here. The Daily Mail even published an editorial praising the development.

But in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, reporter David Gutman provided some much-needed context to the issue, explaining:

The newest change to West Virginia’s gun laws will make buying a gun a few minutes quicker for some people, but will also make it easier for some people who have recently committed a crime to buy a gun.

The story went on:

The change, announced by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, was made possible after the Legislature passed a bill in March clarifying procedures for getting concealed weapons permits.

The only substantive changes made by the new law are two sentences that say that to get a permit, an applicant cannot be barred from owning a gun by another section of state code, or by federal law.

The bill passed both the House of Delegates and the state Senate unanimously, with little notice.

Because the Legislature added those sentences, making it consistent with federal law, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gave the state a so-called “Brady exemption,” which lets permit holders buy a gun without the background check. West Virginia is the 23rd state to get a Brady exemption.

Nowhere in the bill did it say the changes would result in fewer background checks.

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There’s a new report out today from the good folks at Downstream Strategies in which they try to inventory the greenhouse gas emissions of one West Virginia city: Morgantown.  Here’s the bottom line, from their press release:

Morgantown emitted 805,694 metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2012—most of which come from coal-fired power plants that supply electricity to the city’s homes and businesses and from burning gas and diesel fuel in residents’ cars and trucks.

The report, a year in the making, was funded by the Appalachian Stewardship Foundation and produced in partnership with the city of Morgantown and the Morgantown Municipal Green Team. It looked at five different emissions-generating activities, including use of electricity and on-road passenger and freight travel, as well as the use of fuel in residential and commercial stationary combustion equipment, use of energy in potable water and wastewater treatment and distribution, and generation of solid waste.

Jeff Simcoe, energy program project manager at Downstream Strategies, said:

As far as we know, this GHG inventory project represents the first of its kind within the state of West Virginia. A community-focused GHG inventory presents a broader picture of GHG operations than one focused just on government operations and provides a baseline against which the success of future programs and policies can be measured.

Not surprisingly, the report found:

… The magnitude of emissions generated from the Morgantown Energy Associates power plant, as compared to total activity-based emission results, is significant … Source-based emissions from the Morgantown Energy Associates power plant are approximately three-quarters of total activity-based emissions calculated in this report … 

.. For source-based emissions, the Morgantown Energy Associates power plant should be the focus of efforts to reduce GHG emissions within the city limits. Although the local community and government do not directly control operations at the power plant, options can be explored that could influence electricity production and emission levels. In June 2014, USEPA proposed its Clean Power Plan rule, which requires GHG emission reductions from existing coal-fired power plants. This rule identifies four options: (1) heat rate improvements at individual power plants; (2) substituting generation from less carbon-intensive power plants such as natural gas units; (3) substituting generation from low- or zero-carbon generation such as solar, wind, or nuclear; and (4) implementing demand-side energy efficiency

But the report goes on to say:

This inventory has identified the two most important opportunities for GHG reductions in the Morgantown community: electricity use in the built environment and transportation. Easy actions might include turning off lights when not needed, changing to light bulbs that use less electricity, or driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

This GHG inventory is important because it identifies GHG reduction opportunities and contains a large amount of information that can be leveraged by the Morgantown community to develop policies and programs to reduce GHG emissions. We recommend that the information contained within this report be referenced as the community and policy makers consider options. Besides energy conservation benefits that could be achieved by targeting sectors that consume large amounts of energy, non-energy benefits could also be realized through the same programs and policies. These additional, non-energy benefits include improved human health through reductions in air pollution as well as community economic benefits because Morgantown would be a more attractive place to live.

Chemical Safety Board in turmoil – again

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is under fire from all sides — again — and it appears that inner turmoil is making it even harder for this small government agency to do its terribly important job.

Yesterday, a House of Representatives committee released a report and heard testimony that detailed problems at the CSB. Headlines were using words like “disarray” to describe the situation.  The Hill described the basic situation this way:

 House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called Thursday for the chairman of the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) to resign, an opinion shared by a bipartisan group of members on the oversight panel.

Moure FinalThe call came during a hearing on allegations of dysfunctional management by Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso and accusations that he and his staff sought to silence whistleblowers and others who disagreed with him.

“You really need to ask whether or not in your last year, you can really undo the damage of your first five,” Issa said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he had “serious questions about your fitness to hold your job.”

“It is clear that there are serious management problems that need to be addressed,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Ga.), the panel’s top Democrat.

At the center of the hearing were allegations from CSB staff that an employee of the Office of Special Counsel had told top CSB officials the identifies of whistleblowers in 2012. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General, which also has authority over the CSB, investigated the issue, but agency staff did not provide requested materials.

The basic allegations are covered in this report, written by the staff of the Republican-controlled committee. There’s also additional testimony from Moure-Eraso here and from board member Mark Griffon here.  Former board member Beth Rosenberg, who resigned in late May over problems inside the agency, testified about what the “chilled atmosphere” at the CSB and about what she said was a “lack of accountability” and a “lack of transparency” at the board. Testimony described a toxic atmosphere among board members and top agency staff. Rosenberg put it this way:

There are no opportunities for staff and board members to discuss issues openly. Those whose opinions differed from senior leadership or the chair are marginalized and vilified. At the CSB, disagreement is seen as disloyalty. Criticism is not welcome and staff fear retaliation.

Testimony and the GOP staff report raise serious issues — things like the potential outing of agency whistle-blowers, major votes and decisions all being made in secret instead of in public meetings, and stonewalling an Inspector General’s investigation.  Issa, the Republican committee chairman, said:

Rather than addressing experienced investigators’ concerns about agency mismanagement, Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board leadership has stifled internal debate and retaliated against agency whistleblowers.  Mismanagement under the current CSB leadership has created a hostile work environment, distracting the Board from fulfilling its core mission to investigate industrial accidents and issue incident safety reports in a timely manner.  Real reform is needed at the CSB to restore collegiality, staff morale, and the integrity of the agency.

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Obama OSHA again delays combustible dust rule

Barack Obama

We’ve written many times (see here, here and here) about the dangers of combustible dust, and the need for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to move forward with an industry-wide rule to prevent needless deaths and injuries — like the one that claimed three lives at AL Solutions in New Cumberland, W.Va., back in December 2010.

But it probably should come as no surprise that the latest Obama administration regulatory agenda — issued late last week, just before a holiday weekend — shows absolutely no progress on this rulemaking.

The last we heard, in December 2013, OSHA still hasn’t convened a promised panel to consider the rule’s potential impacts on small businesses.  And OSHA doesn’t plan to do so until at least April 2014. But in its new regulatory agenda, the administration now says it won’t even convene that small business panel until December 2014.

As I wrote the last time the regulatory agenda came out six months ago …

… The combustible dust rule — a proposal the U.S. Chemical Safety Board listed as its first-ever “most wanted” safety reform by OSHA — continues to go nowhere.

drill

We’ve written many times before about the climate change problem facing the nation’s boom in natural gas drilling (see here, here, here and here). Today, there’s a new peer-reviewed study out that adds to the concerns.

Here’s the news, summarized in a press announcement from NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder:

During two days of intensive airborne measurements, oil and gas operations in Colorado’s Front Range leaked nearly three times as much methane, a greenhouse gas, as predicted based on inventory estimates, and seven times as much benzene, a regulated air toxic. Emissions of other chemicals that contribute to summertime ozone pollution were about twice as high as estimates, according to the new paper, accepted for publication in the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

“These discrepancies are substantial,” said lead author Gabrielle Petron, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Emission estimates or ‘inventories’ are the primary tool that policy makers and regulators use to evaluate air quality and climate impacts of various sources, including oil and gas sources. If they’re off, it’s important to know.”

The new paper provides independent confirmation of findings from research performed from 2008-2010, also by Petron and her colleagues, on the magnitude of air pollutant emissions from oil and gas activities in northeastern Colorado. In the earlier study, the team used a mobile laboratory—sophisticated chemical detection instruments packed into a car—and an instrumented NOAA tall tower near Erie, Colorado, to measure atmospheric concentrations of several chemicals downwind of various sources, including oil and gas equipment, landfills and animal feedlots.

AP: Traffic deaths up in drilling states

Drilling Traffic Deaths

In this photo made on Saturday, March 1, 2014, the graves of 7-year-old Nicholas Mazzei-Saum and his 8-year-old brother Alexander Mazzei-Saum, are decorated at the cemetery in Clarksburg, W. Va. In March of 2013, a truck carrying drilling water overturned onto a car their mother, Lucretia Mazzei, was driving, killing the two elementary school students. An analysis of traffic fatalities in the busiest new oil and gas-producing counties in the U.S. shows a sharp rise in deaths that experts say is related to the drilling boom. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

We’ve written before in this space about the traffic dangers parts of West Virginia have been experiencing as a result of the boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Now, reporters from The Associated Press have tried to quantify that issue. They report:

Booming production of oil and natural gas has exacted a little-known price on some of the nation’s roads, contributing to a spike in traffic fatalities in states where many streets and highways are choked with large trucks and heavy drilling equipment.

An Associated Press analysis of traffic deaths and U.S. census data in six drilling states shows that in some places, fatalities have more than quadrupled since 2004 — a period when most American roads have become much safer even as the population has grown.

“We are just so swamped,” said Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva of Karnes County, Texas, where authorities have been overwhelmed by the surge in serious accidents.

The industry acknowledges the problem, and traffic agencies and oil companies say they are taking steps to improve safety. But no one imagines that the risks will be eliminated quickly or easily.

“I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” Villanueva said.

Specifically, the AP explains:

In North Dakota drilling counties, the population has soared 43 percent over the last decade, while traffic fatalities increased 350 percent. Roads in those counties were nearly twice as deadly per mile driven than the rest of the state. In one Texas drilling district, drivers were 2.5 times more likely to die in a fatal crash per mile driven compared with the statewide average.

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Derailed trains

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)

This week’s huge train derailment, explosion and fire of a crude oil train headed through Lynchburg, Va., is bringing more calls for tougher rules to govern rail transportation related to the nation’s oil-drilling boom.

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.

And The Associated Press explained:

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):

CSX Crude Routes WV

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.

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