Sustained Outrage

Remembering the Bhopal Disaster

India Bhopal Gas
Children born with congenital diseases caused by the exposure of their parents to the gas leakage in the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, participate in a candlelight vigil to pay homage to the people killed in the tragedy, in Bhopal, India, Monday Dec. 2, 2013. The Bhopal industrial disaster killed about 4,000 people on the night of Dec. 3, 1984. The death toll over the next few years rose to 15,000, according to government estimates. A quarter century later, many of those who were exposed to the gas have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children. Placard in foreground reads: “Tribute”. (AP Photo/Rajeev Gupta)

Twenty-nine years ago today, thousands of people were killed by a toxic leak at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. As Kanawha Valley residents know, the Bhopal plant was a sister facility to the Institute, W.Va., Carbide plant that is now owned by Bayer CropScience.

For many years, local residents lived in fear of a Bhopal-type disaster here. They pointed to the Institute plant’s huge stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the deadly chemical that leaked at Bhopal.  Luckily, nothing of that size or scale has happened. Smaller leaks, fires and explosions over the years have claimed workers’ lives. Pressure for Bayer to get rid of the MIC stockpile increased dramatically following an explosion and fire that killed two workers in August 2008. The Institute plant  came under new scrutiny after that, with a U.S. Chemical Safety Board report that provided the most telling look to date about the dangers the facility presented.

Then in March 2011, Bayer announced its landmark decision to never restart its MIC unit in Institute.

Today, on the other side of the world, survivors and others are remembering what happened back in 1984. The Times of India has several stories marking the anniversary. One piece, headlined No grooms for Bhopal gas victim girls, reports:

Fatima Bi, resident of Barkheda was just six years old when the Union Carbide gas tragedy struck on the intervening midnight of December 2-3, 1984. Today she is 35 years-old and hates family members for even uttering the word “marriage” in her presence. Her mother and two brothers tried to find her a suitable match but every prospective groom refused to marry her because she is a gas tragedy victim.

“They think marrying a gas girl victim would mean spending the boy’s entire life’s earnings on her medical treatment,” explained Fatima’s mother, Feroza Bi. “They are also afraid that a gas victim girl would give birth to deformed and disabled children. When we failed to get a match for her from Bhopal, we tried the other districts Raisen, Sagar, Burhanpur and Jabalpur. My daughter is overweight and the grooms’ relatives thought that too was because she inhaled the poisonous gas as a child.”

According to Fatima argued the grooms’ relatives would invariably ask her if she had any health problems. “I told them that I had the usual stomach and back pains sometimes when I worked on the household chores. But it all came down to my being a gas victim. In the end, the groom would refuse marriage because he was not prepared to take the responsibility of a gas affected victim.” Unemployed and living with her mother, Fatima said she does not regret her single status. “Other gas victim girls in the neighbourhood who got married have been deserted by their husbands. At least I didn’t have to suffer that humiliation.”

Kausar Jehan (33) of Jehangirabad is another gas victim woman who could not be married. She stitches clothes and works night and day sowing embroidery work on sarees to make her ends meet. In Karond, Laxmi Bai (40) daughter of Tulsiram says she has never dared dream of a fairy-tale handsome prince after she was blinded in the gas tragedy at the age of 11. Lying in her cot, she said that no one marries a blind gas victim girl. The government gives her a pension of Rs 150 for being a handicapped victim.

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A ‘burst of activity’ on protecting workers?

tom-perez-obama

The website Daily Kos has an interesting piece out that’s headlined, Obama administration breaks through years of delay on new worker protections.  It starts out:

In the three months since Labor Secretary Thomas Perez was confirmed—but not only because of him—the Obama administration has moved forward on a series of new rules to protect workers’ safety and wages and promote hiring of veterans and disabled workers.

Here’s what they describe as a “bust of activity” to protect American workers:

The rules that have been instituted include guidelines for government contractors that seven percent of new hires should be disabled people and eight percent should be veterans and the inclusion of home care workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, entitling them to minimum wage and overtime protections starting in January 2015; a proposal to update silica dust regulations is in a public comment period.

Seriously? I was immediately reminded of the piece published in April 2010 about how then-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was a “new sheriff” in town to protect workers across our country. Ultimately, though, the first Obama term was certainly a disappointment to worker safety advocates, as we’ve discussed before here, here, and here.

Even a cursory look at the White House Office of Management and Budget website reveals the list of worker safety reforms that remain stalled by this administration:  Protections for electrical transmission line workers, improved injury and illness reporting requirements, and a long list of coal-mine safety rules including reducing dust exposures that cause black lung disease, proximity detection equipment mandates to end pinning and crushing deaths, and toughened civil penalty regulations.

And then there are the rules that agencies themselves haven’t sent to the White House yet … Just look at OSHA’s regulatory agenda:  Regulations to control combustible dust,  limits on exposure to beryllium and a mandate for new injury and illness prevention programs, just to name a couple. Just read Dr. Celeste Monforton’s previous posts on the Pump Handle blog (here and here, for example) to understand how backed up crucial workplace protection rules are in the Obama administration.

Doesn’t seem a bit early to be declaring that there’s been a “breakthrough” on worker safety under President Obama’s latest new sheriff?

Natural Gas, fracking

There’s a story running on West Virginia MetroNews this morning that’s headlined, DEP catches up with Marcellus Shale industry that recounts the state Department of Environmental Protection’s progress in adding new oil and gas staffers following passage of the 2011 horizontal drilling law:

Two years have made a difference for the state Department of Environmental Protection in its oversight of the Marcellus Shale drilling industry in West Virginia …

According to DEP spokesman Tom Aluise the nearly two-year-old law is beginning to reap dividends. Aluise told MetroNews the DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas has nearly doubled its staff in two years going from just 25 workers to 46. Thirty workers are now in the inspection and enforcement department with 27 of those out in the field.

“That helps us be more responsive to the public. Be more responsive to citizens’ complaints and be responsive to the industry as well as our efficiency at reviewing applications is improving,” Aluise said.

But up at the statehouse, there was another important shale-drilling story being repeated — and the question now is whether lawmakers are going to listen to the recommendations they’re getting about problems with part of that 2011 law. It happened during a legislative interim committee hearing where WVU researcher Michael McCawley was recounting the findings of work he did for WVDEP (under a legislative mandate) to study potential air quality and public health impacts of drilling in the Marcellus region.

Now, the results of these studies (see here and here) have been generally downplayed in some of the previous media reports, with stories like this one that focused on the conclusion — pulled from this DEP letter to lawmakers — that there is no “public health emergency” revealed by the data.

During his presentation this morning, Dr. McCawley didn’t exactly dispute the WVDEP conclusion, noting that the data showed areas around drilling sites complied with federal EPA air quality standards. He added, “I want to make sure that nobody takes away the wrong message, that there are things out there that are an imminent danger.” But there’s more to it than that. McCawley did find locations where another set of health-based standards from the CDC are exceeded, particularly for benzene levels.

And overall, McCawley says the findings to date indicate a strong need for lawmakers to reconsider the new law’s 625-foot “setback” provision, which prohibits gas-drilling operations within that distance of an occupied dwelling. As Pam Kasey previously reported for The State Journal, WVDEP officials had already recommended changes in the setback language:

While the statutorily-specified location restriction is defined to be from the center of the well pad, there are a wide variety of pad sizes and configurations that may allow an occupied dwelling to be close to a well pad. Because of the potential for different well pad geometries, DEP recommends that the Legislature reconsider the reference point (i.e., from the center of the well paid) for the location restriction to occupied dwellings to reduce potential exposures.

One option to consider would be to establish location restriction from the Limit of Disturbance (LOD) of the well pad to provide for a more consistent and protective safeguard for residents in affected areas. The outermost sediment control barrier establishes the LOD around the well pad.

But as McCawley explained in person to lawmakers during today’s briefing, his report to WVDEP pointed out some problems with the whole method of using a specific “setback” distance to try to protect public health:

There does not appear to be a simple solution to specifying a single point from which to specify the set‐back distance to assure exposure control. There is no single geometry to which all drill site activities conform. The activities follow the terrain of the site and the needs of the process. There is no good reason to believe that using the center of the Pad as the reference point from which the setback is taken will assure that activity associated with some possible sources of the studied contaminants will not occur closer than 625 feet from the actual source. Studies have also shown that the meteorology (and topography) may be a more important factor than a distance measured on a map for determining air contaminant concentration.

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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.

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Water quality, the Kanawha River and ORSANCO

FishShock3  ..  8x5.09  Tues.  ellis photo

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Today’s Gazette featured a front-page story that highlighted a visit to Charleston by the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission — known as ORSCANO — and the group’s portable aquarium, which was stocked with some fish capture during a shocking exercise on the Kanawha River. As the story explained:

A diverse assortment of fish from the vicinity of the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha rivers in downtown Charleston was captured by electro-fishing biologists Monday to fill a mobile aquarium now on display at Haddad Riverfront Park.

Personnel from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) stunned the fish with a carefully moderated electric current sent into the water from cables dangling from a pair of bow-mounted booms. The stunned fish were then netted, placed in an onboard tank, and transported to the aquarium.

The story also included some interesting comments from John Wirts, a biologist with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection:

A lot of people have the assumption that the Kanawha River is polluted and doesn’t support many fish.  With the passage of the Clean Water Act and the end of untreated sewage being dumped in the river, that’s no longer the case. We want people in this area to know how much cleaner and full of life the river is, compared to how it used to be … Back then, oxygen levels were near zero during parts of the summer, and every summer fish died.

It’s certainly true that the passage of national environmental legislation like the Clean Water Act has cleaned up our country’s waterways, and local rivers and streams like the Kanawha and the Elk have benefited from reduced pollution loads. But the popular storyline from regulatory agencies often can overlook the remaining challenges for public health and the environment.

For example, if you review the latest statewide water quality report from the WVDEP (start, for example, on page 28 of the narrative) you’ll find that serious problems remain for the Kanawha River.  As Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told me today:

Of course it’s encouraging to see the rebound of life, though the fish still are too toxic to eat. All of WV’s waters have fish consumption advisories; people are advised not to eat fish at all from the Lower Kanawha downstream of Dunbar.  The Lower Kanawha, including the section at the confluence of the Elk, is also listed as impaired by fecal coliform so sewage is still an issue and the safety of water contact recreation is also a concern. So, we still have a ways to go to restore our right to a swimmable, fishable river.

It’s also worth pointing out that ORSANCO, a multi-state commission that sets water quality standards for the Ohio River, is in Charleston for meetings that include at least one pretty significant agenda item:  A proposal to delay for two years the date after which pollution “mixing zones” are not allowed for bioaccumulative chemicals of concern, or BCCs. Generally speaking,  such zones allow pollution limits to be met some distance downstream from industrial outfalls, after pollution discharges has been diluted with river water. Also generally speaking, eliminating the mixing zones could force companies to have to cut back on their pollution discharges in the first place.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve written here before about ORSANCO’s decision a year ago to grant PPG Industries a variance from the commission’s move to outlaw mixing zones — in PPG’s case for toxic mercury discharges.

Groups like the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance are opposed to the delay in eliminating these mixing zones. In one recent comment letter, for example, the Rivers Coalition explained:

ORSANCO, states and dischargers have had ten years to prepare for this deadline and few dischargers have taken action to reduce their discharge of mercury or determined if they need to take advantage of the variance procedure which ORSANCO adopted approximately one year ago. A deadline extension rewards dischargers for their procrastination and negligence, negates accountability and undermines ORSANCO’s authority in setting firm deadlines.

West Virginians want better gun safety laws

Navy Yard Shooting Funerals

The casket for Navy Yard shooting victim John R. Johnson arrives at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg, Md., Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, for Johnson’s funeral service.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In the wake of the slaughter last week at the Washington Navy Yard, President Obama has called for a “transformation” in the nation’s gun laws.  But the issue still seems to be one that political leaders don’t want to move on. Even West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has indicated he’s got new plans to resume his push to try to mildly improve the background check system for firearms purchases.

But there is more evidence out this week that Manchin’s constituents would like to see him pursue his legislation.  In a survey of West Virginians released yesterday, Public Policy Polling reports:

67% support requiring background checks for all gun sales, including 79% of women. A third of respondents say they were more likely to vote for Manchin because he supported background checks, while 29% said this made them less likely to support him.

Natural Gas, fracking

We’ve written many times before here about the questions surrounding the climate change implications of the boom in natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale and other shale-gas formations around the country (see here, here, here, here and here).

Last week in the Gazette, we reported on the results of one of the most significant studies to date concerning methane emissions from natural gas drilling and production. The study is available online here, and here’s a bit of the way its results were described in the University of Texas press release:

A new study from The University of Texas at Austin reports on extensive measurements of methane emissions — including the first measurements for methane emissions taken directly at the well pad — during completion operations for hydraulically fractured wells. A team of researchers from UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering and environmental testing firms URS and Aerodyne Research completed measurements at 190 natural gas production sites across the United States.

The study, a unique partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund, participating companies, an independent Scientific Advisory Panel and the study team:

— Is based on measurements made directly at 190 production sites throughout the United States, with access provided by nine participating energy companies.

— Found that the majority of hydraulically fractured well completions, which were sampled during the study, had equipment in place that reduces methane emissions by 99 percent. Because of this equipment, methane emissions from well completions are 97 percent lower than calendar year 2011 national emission estimates, released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April 2013.

–Found that emissions from certain types of pneumatic devices are 30 percent to several times higher than current EPA estimates for this equipment; combined, emissions from pneumatics and equipment leaks account for about 40 percent of estimated national emissions of methane from natural gas production.

— Found that the total methane emissions from natural gas production, from all sources measured in the study, were comparable to the most recent EPA estimates.

In summarizing the study, The Associated Press put it this way:

Drilling and fracking for natural gas don’t seem to spew immense amounts of the greenhouse gas methane into the air, as has been feared, a new study says.

The findings bolster a big selling point for natural gas, that it’s not as bad for global warming as coal. And they undercut a major environmental argument against fracking, a process that breaks apart deep rock to recover more gas. The study, mostly funded by energy interests, doesn’t address other fracking concerns about potential air and water pollution.

And the L.A. Times put it this way:

Emissions of methane from natural gas well sites across the United States have fallen in a key part of the drilling process, despite the boom in natural gas development, according to a study published Monday.

The rise in natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has stoked concerns about leakage and venting into the atmosphere of methane, a chief component. Far more carbon dioxide is emitted than methane, but methane is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Researchers from the University of Texas found, however, that new equipment reduced emissions last year at 190 natural gas sites by 99% in one key step in the well-drilling process.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which helped organize the study, said this in its own press release:

The UT study, which only deals with the extraction phase of the natural gas supply chain, is the opening chapter in this broader scientific effort designed to advance the current understanding of the climate implications of methane emissions resulting from the U.S. natural gas boom. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas — 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. The nation’s largest single source of methane emissions is the vast network of infrastructure, including wells, pipelines and storage facilities, that supplies U.S. natural gas. Experts agree that methane leaked or vented from natural gas operations is a real concern, yet estimated emission rates vary greatly — from 1 to 8 percent of total production.

“We know that immediate methane reductions are critical to slow climate change,” said Fred Krupp, president of EDF. “But we don’t yet have a handle on how much is being emitted. We need better data, and that’s what this series of studies will deliver. As we understand the scope of what’s happening across the natural gas system, we will be able to address it. We already know enough to get started reducing emissions, and thanks to the first study, we know that new EPA regulations to reduce wellhead emissions are effective. EPA got it right.”

And here’s what the folks at the industry group Energy In Depth had to say:

For years, critics of hydraulic fracturing have alleged that “methane leaks” from development are not only astronomically high, but also make natural gas from shale a climate “disaster” and “gang-plank.” But a new, highly anticipated report from the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund might put that theory to rest – at last, and for good.

In my Gazette piece, I tried to take a pretty cautious approach with this study. Here’s how that story began:

A major study out this week has provided valuable new data about the global warming pollution from natural gas production, but still leaves unanswered questions about the climate change impacts of an industry that’s booming in West Virginia.

University of Texas researchers found slightly lower overall emissions rates for the powerful greenhouse gas methane than previously estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other scientific studies.

Working with industry and the Environmental Defense Fund, the researchers measured actual emissions from parts of the natural-gas production process at 190 sites around the country.

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Contractor cited in FirstEnergy plant death

harrisonpower

Federal authorities have completed their investigation of the March death of a contract worker at FirstEnergy’s Harrison Power Station and has issued this set of citations.  Readers may recall (see the AP coverage picked up from the original State Journal reporting):

A contractor who died in an accident at FirstEnergy’s Harrison power station near Clarksburg has been identified as a 57-year-old employee of a Pittsburgh company. The State Journal said David Bergman, 57, was removing insulation Wednesday at the power station when he fell into ductwork. He was employed by Burnham Industrial Contractors.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged two violations of federal safety rules by Burnham Industrial:

— Insulators and sheetmetal workers were walking on approximate eight-inch-wide steel structural beams, referred to as stiffeners, and on metal planks that exposed them to accidentally falling onto and thru the top surface of the operational 2A Precipitator Inlet Duct. Employees wee exposed to hazards including severe metal lacerations, thermal burns, and an oxygen deficient atmosphere inside the duct as determined on March 21, 2013.

— A guardrail system or appropriate guarding was not used to protect Insulators and Sheetmetal workers from accidentally falling onto and through the top surface of the operational 2A Precipitator Inlet Duct. Employees were exposed to hazards including severe metal lacerations, thermal burns, and an oxygen deficient atmosphere inside the duct as determined on March 21, 2013.

OSHA proposed a fine of $7,000 for each of the citations, for a total of $14,000. A woman who answered the phone at Burnham’s office said the company had no comment.

 

Report: Budget cuts threaten worker safety

California Jobs

There’s a new report out today — in advance of Labor Day — that explains how the looming budget battles in Congress threaten the agencies that are supposed to protect the health and safety of American workers. The report notes, among other things, that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is significantly underfunded and does not have the resources  it needs to fulfill its mission. More budget cuts would set OSHA back even more.

Today’s press release from the Center for Effective Government explains:

While OSHA has not suffered the same level of severe funding cuts that have plagued other programs, even before the sequester hit, its resources had not kept pace with the growth of the economy. Between 1981 and 2011, the number of workers increased from 73.4 million to 129.4 million, and the number of workplaces doubled from 4.5 million to 9 million. But the current number of OSHA inspectors is lower than it was in 1981. Each inspector is now responsible for overseeing the health and safety of 62,000 workers and 4,300 workplaces.

Among other things, the group says that another round of budget cuts would:

— Further curtail the training of new inspectors and reduce their ability to keep up with emerging hazards. This would come at a time when OSHA is projected to lose a significant percentage of its existing workforce as safety and health inspectors and whistleblower investigators reach retire¬ment age. Already in FY 2013, training and outreach were hit by cuts.

— Constrain resources for investigations into retaliation against workers who report health and safety violations to OSHA. Federal OSHA and its state counterparts have too few resources to regularly inspect all worksites and rely on worker complaints to identify the most dangerous establishments. Charges of re¬taliation are increasing, and OSHA no longer completes its investigations within the statutory deadline of 90 days. In 2012, each OSHA investigator was handling about 26 cases, and each took up to 286 days to close. This problem would likely get worse with additional funding cuts.

— Further cut resources to state enforcement and compliance programs, which federal OSHA has traditionally funded at about 50 percent of total costs. As this funding shrinks and state governments also cut their own health and safety funds, it’s likely that the country will see reduced enforcement and smaller reductions in injuries, illnesses, and fatalities on the job.

Nick Schwellenbach, Senior Fiscal Policy Analyst at the Center for Effective Government and the author of the report, said:

OSHA exists to ensure that we’re all safe on the job. While OSHA is trying to mitigate the immediate impacts of budget cuts, Washington’s continuing obsession with deficits will cause OSHA to be less effective in protecting workers. OSHA performs a valuable service in safeguarding Americans at work. However, the agency is stretched too thin. If we’re going to prevent debilitating accidents and tragic deaths on the job, Congress and the president need to commit to giving OSHA the resources to protect our health and safety.

The report is available online here.

Jim Justice

It wasn’t so long ago that West Virginia lawmakers were hearing a report from state regulators about the potentially dangerous conditions at various dams around our state.  The Daily Mail’s Zack Harold covered the legislative hearing and reported:

West Virginia’s watershed dams are old, getting older and need to be repaired, but no one knows how much that will cost, or even what kinds of repairs are needed.

Brian Farkas, executive director of the West Virginia Conservation Agency, said about 100 of the state’s 170 watershed dams do not meet current design standards, but the agency needs to have engineers review the structures to prioritize what should be repaired first and how much those repairs likely would cost.  But no matter how much the repairs cost, the agency likely would not be able to afford them.

While that story focused on publicly owned flood-control dams around West Virginia, the state also has quite an inventory of privately owned water-retaining structures that aren’t up to legally mandated standards and don’t have a “certificate of approval” — the dam control law’s term for permits — from the state Department of Environmental Protection. This is a problem that’s been around for a while, and that can keep DEP officials up at night when we get a big rain. Here’s the current list of the state’s most deficient dams, as published by the DEP dam safety office in the State Register about a year ago. You can see it’s not like WVDEP has been overly aggressive or in any big hurry to really pound on dam owners who have never complied with the law.

But every so often, dam safety officials seem to discover another dam out there that they didn’t really know about — one that was built without state approval, or built before the state passed its dam safety law following the deaths of 125 people when a coal-slurry dam on Buffalo Creek in Logan County collapsed in February 1972. That’s what happened a few years ago when WVDEP began investigating coal-ash dams after one such structure failed down in Tennessee. And in recent years, there was at least one other incident I’m aware of where WVDEP had trouble keeping track of the condition of a dam.

And that’s apparently what happened back in 2008, when the management at Glade Springs Resort obtained state approval for a new dam at Chatham Lake. A WVDEP dam safety inspector was visiting the site, to perform a required inspection during construction, and apparently noticed this other dam, the Mallard Lake Dam that didn’t have a certificate of approval and appeared to pose some danger to vehicles coming and going from the property, located as it was right along the main access road to Glade Springs.

What followed was a WVDEP order that required the resort owners to obtain a certificate of approval and also file required emergency response and maintenance plans for the Mallard Lake structure, and a series of letters back and forth. I’ve posted the order here, and the correspondence here, here, here and here. You can read it for yourself.

Things got more interesting — at least publicly — yesterday, when the Beckley paper ran two stories about the matter, based apparently almost entirely on a letter Glade Springs owner Jim Justice wrote to the owners of homes on the resort property.  One story was headlined Possible Glade dam order could cost $9.2 million and it started out like this:

According to a letter sent from Jim Justice to property owners at The Resort at Glade Springs, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) will order that the roadway around Mallard Lake and its dam be raised approximately 40 feet, which Justice said would cause the entrance road to be closed for 24 months and cost the Property Owners Association $9.2 million.

The other story was headlined Justice takes stand for West Virginia and can most fairly be described as a rant against WVDEP by Jim Justice. For example:

As The Resort at Glade Springs owner takes his issues with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to the people who live in the gated community, he says he wants to be clear on one thing.

“I have no issue whatsoever with money or whatever is going to have to take place to correct this situation,” Justice said.

“That’s not my issue at all. My issue is wrapped up in the fact that this type of behavior, whether it’s done to Jim Justice or whether it’s done to John Doe, this type of stuff is what continues to kill us. It just destroys our state. The common everyday guy is the victim.”

Justice said his fear is not about the road closure at Glade Springs, but the impact it may have on business owners living there.

“Who knows that there isn’t 10 prominent people living in Glade Springs that have businesses in West Virginia that say, ‘That’s it. I can’t take any more.’ Because they’re getting bombarded with the same kind of stuff.”

He said he fears they will move their businesses to surrounding states, like North Carolina, Virginia or Kentucky.

“Who’s the next person that’s going to leave? It’s really difficult.”

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