Sustained Outrage

Gas drilling damage II

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Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo courtesy West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization.

We’ve had a couple of blog posts and a story in the Gazette about the problems caused by the U.S. Forest Service’s failure to properly police an oil and gas operation in the Monongahela National Forest (See here, here and here).

One of the blog posts, Gas drilling damage I,  took a closer look at what happened in the Mon Forest’s Fernow Experimental Forest, a research station near Parsons in Tucker County. Last week, through its Greenwire service, The New York Times had a piece about growing concerns about drilling on public lands, and what the Forest Service is — and isn’t — doing about it.

But there have been two growing types of concerns in West Virginia and around the region about the oil and gas business.

One surrounds the boom in drilling in the Marcellus Shale gas formation, and what happens to the huge amounts of toxic waste water produced by these wells.  This issue really came to the forefront last year, when some of this nasty stuff that was taken to small community sewage treatment plants made its way into the Monongehala River.

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Reporters wearing hard hats cluster around Union Carbide officials during a tour of the MIC unit at the company’s Institute plant. Note the skull and crossbones on the “Poison Gas MIC” sign. This Dec. 11, 1984, Gazette file photo was taken less than a week after the Bhopal disaster.

I guess I’ve been around the Gazette a long time now, because the issues just keep repeating themselves.

About 15 years ago, I spent a lot of time reporting on the stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, out at the Institute chemical plant. The plant was then owned by Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co., had previously been run by Union Carbide, and is now part of Bayer CropScience.

MIC issues at the plant had become a hot issue right after thousands of people died in a leak at the sister Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. They got even hotter after 135 people were injured in an Institute leak in August 1985, and it was that leak that probably led Congress to reform chemical safety and right-to-know laws in 1986.

Recently, a couple of readers pointed out a story of mine that the Gazette published on Nov. 13, 1994, about an independent study of whether the Institute plant could — and more importantly should — reduce its MIC stockpile in the name of worker and community safety. The story said:

Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co. could eliminate the bulk storage of deadly methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant, but has never thoroughly studied methods to do so, a citizens group said in a report released Saturday.

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Show us the money, part 2

ridpath.jpegMarshall University agreed to pay a cash settlement of $200,000 to David Ridpath, the university’s former NCAA compliance director.

Last week, I wrote a post about how the terms of the settlement between Marshall and Ridpath had not yet been shared with the public. Which was mildly surprising given that more than a month had passed since U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers gave both sides 30 days to submit an agreed dismissal order.

This afternoon, Marshall spokesman Bill Bissett e-mailed me the amount. In addition, the university agreed to write a letter to the NCAA stating that Ridpath was not responsible for major violations within the athletic department, as my colleague Doug Smock detailed in February.

Former football coach Bob Pruett and several other university officials were named in Ridpath’s suit, which sought $1 million in damages.

Just as a refresher, the 1986 case Daily Gazette Co. v. Withrow requires public bodies to share with taxpayers when their money is spent on court settlements:

“A public official has a common law duty to create and maintain, for public inspection and copying, a record of the terms of settlement of litigation brought against the public official or his or her employee(s) in their official capacity.”

morrisaep.jpg  When Appalachian Power comes before the West Virginia Public Service Commission later this year to plead for an 18.5 percent electric rate hike, you can expect company lawyers will highlight all the recent cost-cutting measures taken to curb costs and keep rates low.

But you probably won’t hear about how much the company’s top executive hauls in.

Michael Morris, CEO of  American Electric Power and subsidiary Applachian Power, received $9.7 million in total compensation last year.

Here’s an excerpt from a Feb. 27 Associated Press story:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Michael Morris, the top executive of power generator American Electric Power, received compensation in 2008 totaling $9.7 million, a nearly 6 percent increase, according to a regulatory filing by the power generator that managed to increase earnings last year even as the recession took hold.

Morris, chairman, president and chief executive of AEP, received a base salary of $1.3 million last year, up from $1.2 million in 2007, according to a proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Morris, 62, received $1.7 million in non-equity incentive compensation, down from $1.8 million in 2007.

All other compensation, including personal use of corporate aircraft, totaled $818,438 last year, compared with $643,718 in 2007.

While his total compensation increased last year, it is down 23 percent from 2006 when he received $12.6 million, including stock awards of $8.5 million.

  AEP wants to raise electric rates on residential customers in West Virginia 18.5 percent this year, 14.5 percent next year and 13 percent in 2011. That’s a 53 percent increase compounded over three years.

Gas drilling damage I

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Yesterday, I blogged about serious questions raised by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility about a gas drilling and pipeline operation in the Fernow Experimental Forest section of the Monongahela National Forest. We’ve also got a more detailed story in the paper today, and it’s online here.

The blog post includes links to some of the documents that PEER cited in alleging that managers at the U.S. Forest Service ignored their own staff scientists’ advice that the operation proposed by Berry Energy would damage caves that are critical habitat for endangered bats, create toxic runoff, and harm long-term forest ecology.

Posted above is a photo PEER sent me of this drilling operation, and I’m also posting  a shot they also provided of the vegetation damage apparently caused by toxic materials from the drill pit fluids.

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Highway robbery III

If you think engineers are ripping you off, think again, several engineers have said in recent days. We’ve reported that Gov. Joe Manchin wants the Legislature to pass a bill to change the way the state puts engineering contracts for highway and water projects out to bid. The governor wants to dump the Qualified Based Selection process used by the federal government and 47 other states and replace it with a lowest-bid procedure.

barrel.jpgYes, the governor’s changes would cut into their profits, engineers say. But the changes would also increase the cost of doing business unnecessarily. Some firms would close, downsize, move out of state or simply shift away from government work.

In addition, what little money the state may save in engineering fees is going to be lost in increased construction costs, ongoing maintenance costs and possibly even safety, engineers say.

A June 2008 report  prepared for the American Public Works Association and the American Council of Engineering Companies concluded that:

Public agencies that use Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS) to procure architectural and engineering (A/E) services are better able to control construction costs and achieve a consistently high degree of project satisfaction than those using other procurement methods. 

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Chemical board not bucking Bayer

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It doesn’t look like the federal Chemical Safety Board is ready to stand up for the public’s right to know — at least not yet.

That’s according to a new story by my fellow Society of Environmental Journalists member Jeff Johnson in Chemical & Engineering News.

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gun.jpgRecently I’ve been attending meetings of the state Supreme Court’s “New Technology/Technology Improvement Subcommittee — Grants to Encourage Arrest Policies & Enforcement of Protection Orders Grant Committee,” i.e. the group tasked with getting the domestic violence protective order electronic database up and running.

It’s a complicated process, to say the least, made only more so by the strict requirements for submitting local information in the National Crime Information Center. (A statewide registry, which the Legislature ordered the State Police to create way back in 2001, would represent a huge step forward, but also plugging West Virginia’s information into the nationwide network gives law enforcement throughout the country immediate, 24/7 access to a list of protection orders, and who might be violating them.)

As of the last meeting on Feb. 25, three counties are feeding electronic registry information to NCIC. (Look for a big press conference announcing the registry’s progress next week.) Court officials and other committee members won’t set a date for when all 55 counties will be up and running, but it looks to be months away at the earliest.

In the meantime, two bills have been introduced during the current Legislative session to help streamline the registry and empower law enforcement to seize any guns in possession of someone being arrested for violating a protective order.

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When Berry Energy proposed a gas drilling and pipeline project in the Fernow Experimental Forest, U.S. Forest Service scientists reviewed the project and found lots of problems. They worried it would harm endangered bats. They were concerned about toxic runoff and long-term damage to forest ecology.

What happened?

Agency bosses ignored them, allowing a drilling project that ended up causing toxic pollution that killed trees and other vegetation, according to a new report from the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

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martinbowling1.jpg  Cross Lanes computer exec Martin Bowling apparently never imagined he would go to jail for stealing people’s credit card numbers and using them to make purchases — artwork, Cuban cigars, a beer-brewing kit and a host of other merchandise — on the Internet.

The day before he was sent to prison for computer fraud last week, Bowling was sending Twitter.com messages — “tweets” — to friends and clients, setting up meetings and the like.mbowling2.JPG

The prosecutor recommended probation, but Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey smacked Bowling with three years in state prison — though he’s eligible for parole in less than a year. (Before you start feeling sorry for the 29-year-old computer whiz kid, Bailey could have sentenced him to up to 10 years.)

Bowling was chief technical officer at Cross Lanes-based COMAR Inc. and its subsidiary Vec3, and creator of a popular Web site called Zi.ma, which shortens Web address links.

Bowling’s purchases included a “robot” litter box for his four cats: Mr. Bones, Thumbalina, Mac and Cheese. We’ve been assured by Bowling’s friends — he has 1,300 followers on Twitter, by the way — that his girlfriend is taking excellent care of the cats while Bowling serves his time.

Just wondering. Can you “tweet” from jail? If it’s possible, we figure Bowling — who was known as the “resident evil genius” at COMAR – will find a way.