Sustained Outrage

The air our kids breathe

lisaonbrown.jpgObama administration EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today announced a new initiative to measure levels of toxic air pollution near many schools around the country.  EPA said federal officials and partners at state agencies  “will prioritize and monitor schools for more extensive air quality analysis looking closely at schools near large industries and in urban areas.”

The EPA announcement comes after a major investigation by USA Today, in which air monitoring “showed pollution at levels that could make people sick or significantly increase their risk of cancer if they were exposed to the chemicals for long periods.”

The newspaper’s investigation found dangerous levels of air pollution at 27 schools in West Virginia, including schools in Huntington, Parkersburg, Vienna, Williamstown, and Follansbee, according to a report by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The USA Today Web site allows readers to search for their local schools and compare air quality there to at other schools around the country.

Jackson said in a statement:

I’m a mother first, and like all parents, I want to be sure my children are breathing healthy air at school. Questions have been raised about air quality around some U.S. schools, and those questions merit investigation. EPA will work quickly to make assessments and take swift action where necessary. Our job is to protect the American public where they live, work and play – and that certainly includes protecting schoolchildren where they learn.

A couple of interesting stories out in the news today…

First, there’s a report from The Dominion Post of Morgantown (Subs Req’d), picked up by The Associated Press,  that details the flights and costs of a plane leased by West Virginia University. Using the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the newspaper obtained records that show WVU spents nearly $800,000 a year on the plane. Between Jan. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, more than 300 trips were taken. Charleston was the most frequent destination.

Next, the AP is reporting that former Wyoming County Council on Aging Director Bob Graham is appealing a ruling that blocks his attempt to be compensated for spending 13 months in a federal prison. Graham was convicted in 2006 on one count of cashing out $31,000 in sick leave without the approval of the council on aging. A federal appeals court later overturned Graham’s conviction. Recall that Graham first made news because of reports of his more than $450,000 annual salary running a non-profit in Southern West Virginia.

Citing a new study by the Pew Center on the States, the AP is also reporting that one out of every 68 people in West Virginia was either in jail or on probation in 2007.  “That’s a significant increase over the previous 25 years,” the AP reports. “The cost of the state’s corrections system also skyrocketed, from $62 million in 1998 to $181 million in 2008.”

Finally, if you’re a news reporter, be careful where you park when you visit the Kanawha County Judicial Annex.  As the Gazette’s Gary Harki reports:

Two days after a reporter from WSAZ-TV filed a complaint against Kanawha County Magistrate Tim Halloran for locking his courtroom during a hearing, a WSAZ vehicle was ticketed twice outside the Kanawha County Courthouse Annex at Halloran’s request.

Battling for Bayer?

bayer.jpgBayer CropScience hasn’t said yet if it will challenge $143,000 in fines issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 13 serious and 2 repeat violations related to the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two Institute plant workers.

But a vigorous court fight seems likely, given who Bayer has hired as its lawyer in the matter.

gombar.jpgRobert C. Gombar is well known for his efforts to help companies that butt heads with OSHA over allegations that they weren’t complying with workplace health and safety rules. Gombar is head of the OSHA, MSHA & Catastrophe Response Group at the Washington, D.C., offices of the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery. The firm’s Web site says Gombar has been “primary outside counsel to companies in over 30 industrial disaster situations.”

Gombar is listed on the “revolving door” section of the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets Web site, because he’s been back-an-forth between working for OSHA and representing companies that OSHA inspects.

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All about Benjamin — and Blankenship

benjamin08.jpgThere’s been plenty said and written about whether West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin has a conflict of interest because of the millions of dollars Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship spent helping him get elected in 2004.

The whole thing comes to a head this week, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Tuesday.

The Gazette’s own Paul J. Nyden has covered the controversy extensively, and the issue has been the subject of recent stories in The New York Times and USA Today.blankenshipx1.jpgMore than one commentator has noted the similarities with John Grisham’s thriller, The Appeal. The American Bar Association Journal published a lengthy piece on the matter, and it has been covered in The Economist.

The National Law Journal also has a new analysis of the case.

Dr. Nyden, by the way, will be in D.C. for the oral argument and be reporting on it in the Gazette. And in a preview in today’s Sunday Gazette-Mail, one legal expert described the case to Nyden this way:

This growing lack of confidence in the judicial branch has almost become a crisis in the American legal profession. Was there ever a case or time, when an individual’s contributions to a judge or a judicial candidate created such an appearance of potential bias? Was there ever a time when a failure of a judge to recuse himself or herself – because of the appearance of impropriety, not because someone was actually paid off – crossed the line? If this isn’t such a case, there is no such case.

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Deja vu all over again…

Kudos to Erica Peterson over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, for pointing out that two state lawmakers — Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, and new House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton — gave identical speeches on Wednesday promoting the oil and gas industry.

Ironically, Chesapeake Energy announced the next day that it was eliminating more than 200 Charleston-area jobs. And the day after that, NiSource said it was cutting 170 jobs in West Virginia, as Gazette business editor Eric Eyre reported.

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Secret meetings


The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments of government they have created.

That’s the preamble to the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act. Among other things, the law requires state and local government bodies — everything from a city council to the state Board of Public Works — to let citizens know when and where they are meeting, so anyone who wants to attend can do so.

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Wrongway McClendon?


Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon is blaming his company’s elimination of 215 Charleston jobs on the big oil and gas leasing rip-off verdict against his company.

Two years ago, when the Roane County, W.Va., jury came out with its verdict, McClendon was quick to attack the state’s legal system. He fumed about it in a Jan. 28, 2007, email to Gov. Joe Manchin, which the Gazette obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act.

But it looks like McClendon needed a geography lesson:

Governor Manchin: please read these attached press releases and let me know if you are able to visit with me tomorrow about this ridiculous outcome … 

It took a jury in Sloane County all of 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon to render what I am told is now West Virginia’s largest punitive verdict ever.

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A few weeks ago, a colleague sent me a piece from The New York Times headlined “When the Watchdogs Don’t Bark.”

It was bemoaning the fact that newspapers in New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere were cutting staffs at a time when government officials needed to be watched more closely than ever.

The Gazette has always been known (both praised and damned) for its coverage of government and its leaders.

Whether in long exposés or in routine coverage of council meetings, the officials know the Gazette is watching and holding them accountable. We believe that our efforts keep the corruption down, even if we can’t wipe it out altogether.

We think our watchdog role is as important now as it has ever been.

Our mission is to be the eyes and ears of readers everywhere who can’t attend those regular council meetings, or who don’t have the time to read important but hefty government reports, or who want us to look for the story behind the press release.

The staff at The Charleston Gazette wants to assure its readers that its watchdog coverage is as strong as ever. And we have some new tools at our disposal.

On a Web page coming soon, we’ll share the same kinds of stories with you that you have always expected from the Gazette, but also original documents and other resources that we could never fit in the paper. We’ll share them with you, so you can help us keep an eye on things.

We’ll share useful links, too, and more frequent updates through this new Sustained Outrage blog, an online journal of reporting in the best tradition of The Charleston Gazette.

So check back often. Pass on a tip to Or tell us what you think. We don’t want to miss anything. We don’t want you to miss anything either.