Category Archives: Public safety & health

Weighing the Coal Ash Options

Coal ash pit at the Chesapeake Energy Center

Meeting EPA deadlines constrains Dominion’s options for disposing of coal ash at four of its power stations.

Under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules published in 2014, Dominion Virginia Energy must find a way to safely dispose of nearly 30 million tons of coal ash within 15 years. After intense controversy over how best to proceed, the General Assembly ordered Dominion to conduct a detailed study of the alternatives. That Dominion-commissioned study, written by engineering firm AECOM, was published in November.

Not surprisingly, given that Dominion has been locked in a running battle with environmentalists and community activists over coal ash disposal for about two years now, the study has settled nothing. On the one hand, AECOM affirmed that Dominion’s original plan — burying and capping the coal ash on-site — makes the most sense. On the other, the utility’s foes have attacked the study as inadequate on multiple grounds. The General Assembly will take up the issue in the 2018 session with few definitive answers.

Despite the seeming inability of the opposing sides to agree on anything, the AECOM study does illuminate the controversy. While Dominion foes criticize parts of the report, they are silent on others. Silence can be interpreted as tacit acceptance of some conclusions, or at least an unwillingness to contest them. For example, foes had long argued that the utility should transport the coal ash by truck or rail to lined landfills. AECOM contends that such a remedy would add billions of dollars to the cost of ash disposal. Since publication of the study, critics have dropped that line of attack and focused instead on the need to recycle the ash into concrete, bricks, and pavers — an approach that in theory could reduce the volume to be disposed of by half.

For decades, Dominion and other electric utilities had stored combustion residue from their coal-fired power plants in large pits on-site. Massive spills of coal ash into public waters, first in Tennessee and then in North Carolina, prompted the EPA to enact stricter standards for the storage of the material. A primary goal was to prevent another calamitous spill.

EPA regulations give electric companies five years plus two five-year extensions — a maximum of 15 years — to comply. Reacting quickly to the coal ash rules, Dominion proposed de-watering the ponds, consolidating the ash from separate ponds into one pit at each power station, and then capping the pits with a thick synthetic liner to prevent rain water from percolating through and picking up contaminants along the way. Arguing that Dominion’s plan would not prevent groundwater from migrating through the pits, environmental and activist groups insisted that Dominion dispose of the ash in landfills sealed from the groundwater and/or recycle the material into cement and other products.

Under orders from the General Assembly, Dominion hired AECOM to study the alternatives. AECOM contends that the on-site impoundments will limit the long-term risk of contaminating groundwater and will withstand everything from flooding and storm surges to hurricanes and earthquakes. The engineering firm found that the so-called closure-in-place option cost far less than transporting the material to landfills. And in a site-by site analysis of four Dominion power stations — Chesapeake, Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield — it concluded that recycling coal ash into concrete, bricks and pavers would lengthen the process of cleaning up the ash by many years.

Environmental groups have been highly critical of the study on two broad grounds. They say the AECOM report failed to address the disposal of more than two million tons of coal ash at the Chesapeake facility. And they contend that the engineering study gave short shrift to the option of reducing the volume of coal ash at Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield.

The Chesapeake Power Station

According to the AECOM report, the cost of removing 60,000 tons of material from a pit at the Chesapeake facility designated the “Bottom Ash Pond” is paltry compared to that of the other power stations. Alternatives range in cost from $10.6 million to $13.3 million, although as much as $161 million might be needed to pay for corrective measures where contaminants have leaked into surrounding waters. Dominion, says the report, has committed to recycling and removing the material from the Bottom Ash Pond.

However, the AECOM report does not address disposal of coal ash contained in the far larger pit known as the “Historic Pond.” In a statement posted on its website December 15, the Southern Environmental Law Center made the following retort to the AECOM study:

In a glaring omission, Dominion Energy’s recent coal ash assessment fails to include any information about the large, unlined coal ash ponds leaking arsenic at its Chesapeake Energy Center, contrary to the requirements of the new Virginia law passed earlier this year. Senate Bill 1398 requires Dominion to assess and evaluate its coal ash facilities to provide information to the public, legislators, and regulators about how best to close the sites. But Dominion ignored the 2.1 million tons of coal ash in the unlined surface impoundment at Chesapeake Energy Center known as the “Historic Pond,” which contains roughly two-thirds of the ash at the site.

“This is clearly an attempt by Dominion to ignore the problem with its unlined coal ash ponds,” said Senior Attorney Deborah Murray in a letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “We can’t pretend this ash does not exist. There is no legitimate reason for Dominion to have excluded this pond from its assessment, and the Department of Environmental Quality should require Dominion to remedy this omission immediately.”

Portions of the coal ash in the historic pond lie six feet below sea level, where it is saturated by groundwater and prone to releasing potentially toxic chemical compounds. “Dominion may not pick and choose the laws with which it will comply,” added SELC attorney Nate Benforado.

The SELC statement refers to a July ruling in which U.S. District Court Judge John Gibney found that contaminants from coal ash at Chesapeake were leaking into the Elizabeth River. According to Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson, Gibney ordered Dominion to conduct water, sediment and biological monitoring around the Chesapeake Energy Center, and also to submit by March 2018 a revised solid waste permit for the removal of an additional three million tons of coal ash at the Historic Ash Pond. 

Dominion is not ignoring the wishes of the General Assembly by refusing to address those three million tons in the AECOM study, says Richardson. The Historic Ash Pond was closed nearly three decades ago, which means it is not subject to regulation under the EPA’s coal ash rules. Although Gibney found in March that traces of potentially toxic compounds had leaked into the river, the volume was so minute that there was no evidence of harm to human health.

Rather than compel Dominion to remove the coal ash, Gibney ordered the utility to propose corrective measures in an application for a solid waste permit. His ruling commanded Dominion and the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter to submit a “detailed remedial plan” that states, among other things, the timing of Dominion’s application for a permit. The Sierra Club and Dominion submitted that plan in July outlining extensive monitoring of the waters and wildlife around the Chesapeake facility, and Dominion has begun collecting the data.

The ultimate remedy at Chesapeake will be determined by Judge Gibney, not the Department of Environmental Quality, says Richardson. Therefore, the coal ash in the Historic Ash Pond needs to be considered separately from the coal ash subject to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Bremo, Chesterfield and Possum Point

While Gibney wrestles with how to dispose of coal ash at Chesapeake, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is charged with determining what to do with the much larger volumes of coal ash at Bremo, Possum Point and Chesterfield. Those power stations are storing 6.2 million tons, 4.0 million tons, and 14.9 million tons respectively. The AECOM study examines several approaches.

Closure in place. The low cost solution at each site is “closure in place” — consolidating the coal ash from multiple ponds into a pit, capping the pit with an 18-inch synthetic cover, adding a six-inch layer of soil, monitoring the groundwater, and taking “corrective measures” if groundwater toxins surpass allowable levels. The combined cost would run between $480 million and $1.7 billion for the three power stations, AECOM estimates. The main variable is how much money the company will have to spend on mitigation. AECOM’s low-cost plan would take three to five years to execute, well within the time frame mandated by EPA regulations.

While capping the coal pits would prevent rainwater from percolating through to the water table and picking up contaminants along the way, Dominion critics contend that closure-in-place would allow groundwater to migrate through lower levels of the ash pits. They want Dominion to remove the material to landfills with lined pits, sealing off the coal ash from any chance of groundwater contamination, as electric utilities in North Carolina and South Carolina are doing at some of their power stations in low-elevation areas.

Truck and rail. Trucking coal ash in 18- to 22-ton-capacity dump trucks to landfills miles distant from the power stations would require literally hundreds of thousands of trips on narrow roads, subjecting residential neighborhoods to traffic disruption, dust, truck emissions, and potential spills. In the case of the Possum Point station, AECOM assumes that 150 truckloads could be loaded daily, equating to a loaded truck leaving the site every three minutes, eight hours a day, five days per week. That process would take years longer than the closure-in-place alternative: nine years for Possum Point, 13 years for Bremo, and 29 years for Chesterfield. Dominion would be unable to meet the 15-year EPA deadline (which includes two five-year extensions) at Chesterfield. And the cost would approach $4.5 billion, making it billions of dollars more expensive than closure in place.

AECOM also examined the scenario of removing the coal ash by rail. That alternative was even more problematic, requiring added expense and time to build rail-loading facilities at the power stations. AECOM estimated a total cost of $7.3 billion, and the length of time to remove the coal ash as nine years for Possum Point, 13 years for Bremo, and 24 years for Chesterfield. The firm also looked at removing the coal ash by barge, but found that approach only remotely practical at Possum Point, and even there, it would cost $1.7 billion, far more than the truck and rail options for that facility.

Regional landfill. AECOM explored a fourth alternative: building a regional landfill from scratch. By reducing the distances that trucks have to travel, the regional approach would cost somewhat less than hauling the coal ash to private landfills: about $4.15 billion. But buying the land, getting the permitting and preparing the landfill would add six years to the disposal process, 21 years in all, during which the ash ponds would remain open.

From Ponds to Concrete

Coal ash is widely used in the United States as a supplement adding strength and durability to concrete and in making bricks and pavers. Recycling is regarded as environmentally benign because it encapsulates the material in a matrix that will not dissolve or release the potentially toxic heavy-metal compounds commonly found in ash.

Utilities in North Carolina and South Carolina have recycled coal combustion residue for years, and now they are ramping up their commitment in order to work down their own coal ash stockpiles. Environmentalists have suggested that Dominion consider recycling coal ash for the same reason: to cut disposal costs by reducing the volume of material to bury.

Coal ash comes in different varieties, and it often must be treated, a process referred to as beneficiation, to alter its chemical properties before it can be mixed with cement or used in other applications. At present Virginia has no beneficiation facilities. But several companies that conduct beneficiation in other states are eager to do business with Dominion.

University of New Hampshire professors Kevin Gardner and Scott Greenwood, engaged by SELC to study the coal ash issue, estimated that sufficient demand exists in Virginia for Dominion to recycle 16 million tons, more than half of its coal ash. In their report, “Beneficial Reuse of Coal Ash from Dominion Energy Coal Ash Sites,” They write:

Nationwide, coal ash is used in 75% of all concrete used for transportation projects, significantly reducing project costs. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that fly ash is used in 60% to 70% of all concrete used in transportation projects in the state, all of which, to the best of our knowledge, is currently fully sourced outside of the state due to the lack of beneficiation facilities operating in Virginia.

As an example of what beneficiation can accomplish, Gardner and Greenwood pointed to a beneficiation facility at the R. Paul Smith Power Plant in Maryland, which has removed 1.5 million tons from the power plant’s coal-ash landfill. The ash is expected to be mined out by 2020, allowing the area to be regraded, vegetated and closed, thus eliminating any remaining environmental risks. “As mining nears an end,” notes the report, “cement manufacturers are actively seeking similar stockpiles for continued reuse in the future.”

The economics of recycling can vary according to the properties of the coal ash and specific conditions at each power station, such as the volume to be recycled, local demand for the recycled material, and the cost of transporting the refined product to customers. None of these are insuperable barriers, says the Gardner-Greenwood report.

Representatives from the concrete industry have stated the need for high quality ash sources in the Virginia region and have indicated a willingness to set up long-term contracts for ash suppliers. Success in the mining and beneficiation of legacy ash in South Carolina has spurred the planning and planned groundbreaking for multiple new beneficiation plants in North Carolina in 2018, demonstrating economic viability. This combination of available technology, vendors with experience, a strong market and economic feasibility together make it clear the beneficial use of legacy ash from the Dominion Energy sites is possible, feasible, and given the environmental benefits, an overall preferred approach.

Not so Fast…

AECOM studied the feasibility of building coal-ash processing facilities at Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield, as well as building a regional processing facility at Chesterfield. According to its calculations, costs would range as follows:

Bremo — $96 to $217 per ton
Chesterfield — $1oo to $285 per ton
Possum Point — $118 to $225

By contrast, contends AECOM, fly ash is selling on average for $30 to $60 per, on top of which Dominion would have to pay $7 to $33 per ton for transportation. In sum, the cost of beneficiation ranges from 1.5 times to nearly 5 times the market price for the ash, making it a major money loser in Virgina. Moreover, says AECOM, there is wide variability in the market, so demand for beneficiation cannot be accurately estimated. And the volume of coal ash entering the Virginia-Maryland-D.C.-North Carolina market is projected to exceed supply by 2019 as North Carolina utilities begin pushing more recycled material onto the market. Added volume from Dominion would create an even greater imbalance and depress prices.

If the decision were made to proceed with beneficiation, AECOM says, Dominion would need to conduct detailed cost and marketability discussions with beneficiation vendors to nail down firm commitments on processing rates and costs.

Coal Ash into Bricks

In a letter written to Dominion, Belden-Eco Products (BEP), developer of a process for converting fly ash (coal ash emanating from a smokestack) into bricks and pavers, corrects what President Robert W. Ittman terms “critical errors or misconceptions” in the AECOM study.

BEP’s patented process creates a superior ceramic brick that could be sold profitably into the $3.5 billion-a-year brick and paver market. The company asserts that its solution — building its facility close to Dominion’s ash ponds and shipping its products to market by rail or barge — would cost less than either landfilling or cap-in-place. The company says that it can generate far more than the $30 to $60 estimated by AECOM from a ton of fly ash — more like $119 to $214 per ton.

“BEP’s bricks would generate a positive income for Dominion of $1 to $55 per ton of fly ash over the course of the project,” states the letter. Partnering with BEP would generate $10 million in Net Present Value for Dominion over the life of the plant, a 7% internal rate of return.

However, the BEP letter does not address a critical issue raised in the AECOM study. AECOM estimated that installing a brick plant with a throughput of 300,000 to 550,000 tons per year — similar to the 500,000 figure cited in the BEP letter — it would take 30 to 53 years to excavate the coal ash ponds at Chesterfield. Dominion is required to devise a solution that removes the ash within 15 years.

Conclusions

A key factor driving Dominion’s decision to bury the coal ash in place is the necessity of finishing the clean-up within 15 years. Solutions that require making big capital investments with long permitting and construction lead-times won’t accomplish that aim. As a legal matter, Dominion must comply with the rules established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and administered by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. The point of the regulations, after all, is to prevent another coal ash spill that could result in environmental damage on a scale far more calamitous than the slow leaking of contamination through groundwater migrating through the coal ash ponds.

While recycling may not be a viable option at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant, it might work elsewhere. The AECOM study indicates that it would take only 11 to 17 years to excavate the ash pond at Possum Point using the Belden technology, and even fewer years using other technologies. Perhaps different solutions for each of Dominion’s four power stations could be cobbled together that recycles some of the coal ash, caps some in place, and trucks some to landfills off-site. Such a variegated solution would not be entirely satisfying to either Dominion or its foes, but it could reduce the potential environmental hazards without running up the tab by billions of dollars.

The Economic Cost of Virginia’s Opioid Epidemic

Source: “2017 State of the Commonwealth” report

The rate of drug overdose-related deaths is lower than Virginia than it is in the United States as a whole — 16.5 deaths per 100,000 compared to 19.8 nationally — but that is about the only morsel of consolation that can be derived from a special focus on the opioid crisis in the 2017 State of the Commonwealth Report.

The number of opioid deaths in Virginia was relatively stable between 2007 and 2010, after which it began climbing sharply as the epidemic spread, reaching 1,138 in 2016. Aside from the personal tragedies of overdose victims and their families, the economic cost has snowballed as state and local governments has spent more on emergency response and substance abuse treatment, and as drug addicts have dropped out of the workforce.

“The consensus is that opioid addiction causes individuals to drop out of the labor force by making them less ambitious, more lackadaisical and even unresponsive to ordinary labor market incentives,” states the report, written by Robert M. McNabb and James V. Koch with the Center for Economic Analysis and Policy at Old Dominion University.

Labor force participation in the U.S. has been on decline for many years, reaching a 40-year low in May 2015. As of Sept. 2016, 11.4 million men between the ages of 25 and 54 were not working or seeking work. Forty-four percent of men not in the labor force were taking painkillers daily; by contrast only 20% of working men and 19% of unemployment men took painkillers. A Federal Reserve Bank of Boston-sponsored study estimated that 20% of the decline in labor force participation could be attributed to opioid use and abuse.

What is the cost of such behavior to the Virginia economy? This is not easy to measure. If, however, labor force participation rate data in Virginia have declined 3 percent due to opioid addiction, then the Commonwealth has experienced between $4.5 billion and $7.6 billion in lost productivity. To put it another way, the lost productivity is at least equal to 1 percent of the Commonwealth’s gross domestic product for 2017 and may be as high as 1.6 percent.

In addition, in 2008, untreated substance abuse resulted in $613 million in public safety expenditures (police, jail, prison) and health car services by local and regional governmental units, according to a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) study. In 2010, the average hospital stay for drug abuse patients was 3.8 days, and the treatment cost was almost $30,000. “No doubt these numbers are higher today,” the authors write.

What is to be done? While the opioid epidemic has become a top-of-mind, national issue, some physicians are insufficiently trained in how to prescribe opioids while managing chronic patient pain. “Both physician and pharmacy education are in order.” McNabb and Koch also recommend researching nonaddictive painkillers, creating a national prescription registry to catch abusers who obtain multiple prescriptions from multiple physicians, and funding the use of methadone to wean users from their addiction and naxalone to reverse the effects of overdoses.

But there are no magic solutions. “Opiate misuse and abuse ultimately reflect our society — the values attitudes, laws, geography and range of economic opportunities that together make us who we are. Hence, one cannot press a single button and eliminate the scourge of opiate addiction because this wave of abuse represents the conjunction of a set of complex phenomena deep within us.”

Show Me the Data

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, EPA Toxic Release Inventory. Red dot = Virginia.

I’ve been pondering Vivian E. Thomson’s book, “Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.” Thomson, a University of Virginia professor who served on the State Air Pollution Control Board during the Warner and Kaine administrations, stresses the high cost of air pollution in human health and mortality. Her treatise quotes various studies predicting that tighter air quality standards would yield major reductions in premature deaths.

I wondered, has anyone gone back to see if the expected reductions actually materialized? If society is going to spend billions of dollars to make gains in air quality, it would be nice to know that there actually is a payoff in the form of better health. My sense is that no one ever checks. If anyone does, the public never hears about it.

Out of curiosity, I ran a correlation analysis between two types of data: the pounds of toxic emissions reported to the Environmental Protection Agency and the 2016 incidence of cancer reported by the Centers for Disease Control, broken down by state. All other things being equal, one would predict that larger toxic emissions would be associated with a higher incidence of cancer.

As can be seen in the chart above, there is almost zero correlation — the R² is .0028 — between toxic emissions and the incidence of cancer in a state. (The chart omits Alaska and Nevada, huge outliers in terms of volume, which would have made the trend line to an even more negligible .0008.)

I readily concede that this is a superficial analysis. Among other factors one might consider would be the size of the state in square miles, on the theory that the same volume of toxic chemicals spread over more acreage would dilute human exposure and result in lower cancer rates. Also, any sophisticated comparison would account for differing toxic release profiles of the 50 states. The Toxic Release Inventory tracks some 143 chemicals, from acetaldehyde to zinc, some of which are more toxic and/or carcinogenic than others.

I publish the graph above not to dispute the idea that there is a connection between toxic chemicals and human health — of course there is — but to push back against the idea that spending billions of dollars tightening regulations on toxic chemicals ineluctably leads to better health outcomes. Perhaps the health benefits are everything Vivian Thomson purports them to be. But perhaps pollution abatement is subject to the laws of diminishing returns which means smaller benefits for larger expenditures. Conceivably, Virginians would see greater benefits to their health if they spent the money in other ways.

When Thomson criticizes Virginia’s “climate of capitulation” — the idea that industry exercises a controlling influence over the political and regulatory system — one might expect her to demonstrate that Virginia’s health is worse off as a result. We would expect to see (a) that states with “traditionalistic” political cultures like Virginia impose laxer pollution restrictions than “individualistic” and “moralistic” political cultures, and (b) that those laxer restrictions are reflected by worse health statistics. But in her book, she makes no effort to demonstrate such connections.

Indeed, Thomson misses what would seem to be an easy opportunity to do so. She quotes a Harvard study as stating that installing “Best Available Control Technology” at the Mirant coal-burning plant in Alexandria would avoid 40 deaths, 43 hospital admissions, 560 emergency room visits and 3,000 asthma attacks per year. Well, from her point of view, things worked out even better than adopting best-in-class technology — the Mirant plant shut down altogether, emitting zero pollution. Did asthma rates in Alexandria decline as advertised? According to a 2015 health profile, 21.4% of Alexandria 10th graders in 2014 had been diagnosed with asthma. I can’t find older data on the Web, but surely it exists. Was the asthma incidence lower than 10 years previously? If not, what does that tell us?

Thomson has total faith in the validity of the studies she cites, which, of course, align with her ideological proclivities. But if she wants people to accept her argument that Virginia’s regulatory policy is bad for Virginians, some of us would like to see the evidence.

Probing the “Insurance Coverage” Numbers

Insurance coverage broken down by state.

Insurance coverage broken down by state. Chart source: StatChat

With Governor Terry McAuliffe making another bid to expand Medicaid via a budget amendment, the publication by the StatChat blog ten days ago of data on the extent of insurance coverage in Virginia couldn’t be more timely.

The blog post is content to present the data with little commentary or explanation of what’s happening, however, so I’ll try to fill in the gaps.

The good news is that in Virginia, more than 90% of the population has some form of insurance (including Medicare and Medicaid). The bad news is that 9.1% of the population still has no insurance coverage. And, despite a lower unemployment rate and a higher median household income than the national average, the percentage of the insured population hovers just at the national average.

By eyeballing the chart above, we can see that Virginia’s uninsured population bounced around the 12% mark for several years, then jumped ahead one or two percentage points after the implementation of the Obamacare health exchanges. One also can surmise that some states leaped ahead of Virginia in the rankings by extending Medicaid to the working poor while the General Assembly rejected the option.

These data would seem to back the McAuliffe narrative on the desirability of expanding the Medicaid program, 90% of the cost of which would be paid for by the federal government. If Virginia added just 5% of the population to the Medicaid rolls, the state would have a higher rate of insurance coverage than all but five states.

But dig a little deeper, and the picture gets more complicated. The chart above breaks down those with and without health insurance by age. Roughly two-thirds of the uninsured population is below 45 years old. This younger demographic segment tends to be considerably healthier than the older age cohorts, and its medical needs correspondingly less. Indeed, thousands likely opted out of the Obamacare exchanges because they did not need or want the coverage at the price it was available. Although we can’t tell from this data how many opted out, it is worth noting that some portion of Virginia’s 10% uninsured population is voluntarily uninsured.


Finally, it’s worth studying the map above, which shows the variation in the uninsured population around the state. (I would refer you to the interactive map at StatChat for details.) The uninsured rate in the working-age 18-to-64-year-old age cohort varies from 32.3% in the city of Manassas Park to 4.6% in the nearby city of Falls Church. Clearly there is a link between income, unemployment and insurance coverage. One could argue that the best antidote to uninsurance is a strong economy and high employment; if we want more people covered by insurance, perhaps we should be investing state funds in making people more employable.

But other factors are at play, although I’m not sure what they are. Why, for example, do the Interstate 81 corridor localities of Roanoke, Botetourt and Montgomery counties — not exactly known for a booming economy — have such low percentages of working-age uninsured? Are there unique institutional forces at work? It’s worth looking into.

Bacon’s bottom line: The debate over health care has gotten hung up on the number of uninsured. But that number is almost meaningless without considering the quality of the insurance programs.

For example, thousands of Virginians are “insured” through Medicaid. But what quality of care people do people receive when low reimbursement rates discourage 22% of Virginia physicians from participating, according to a 2016 Physicians Foundation survey? What percentage of Medicaid patients, unable to find a personal physician, routinely get their health care in hospital emergency rooms? And how does the quality of care compare to that provided uninsured people who go to emergency rooms and have their expenses written off as “charity” care or “uncompensated care”?

Another example: Thousands of Virginians have coverage through Obamacare health care exchanges. But what kind of access do they enjoy? Are they restricted to certain hospitals and physicians? How high are their deductibles and co-pays? To what degree, as a practical matter, has the quality of their health care improved? Likewise, how many Virginians forced into Obamacare lost their old insurance policies, how many lost access to their physicians, and how many perceive that they have worse insurance coverage than they had before? Nobody is generating that data.

One more point: How extensive is the safety net for the uninsured in Virginia compared to that in other states? Virginia has a fairly robust system of clinics that provide primary care to the uninsured and under-insured. How many people are getting at least some of their medical needs met through these clinics? How many are  slipping between the cracks? And what happens to clinic patients when they require treatment unavailable at the clinics?

Counting the percentage of the “insured” population provides a rough measure of access to the health care system. But there’s a lot it doesn’t tell us. Before undertaking a massive expansion of Medicaid at considerable fiscal risk to the commonwealth, we need a keener understanding of how Virginia’s health care system functions. We should not blindly accept the proposition that an expanded Medicaid program will improve real-world access to the uninsured. While the StatChat data is valuable for starting a discussion, it does not purport to tell us all we need to know.

Dams in Virginia: How Many Are Deficient?

Location of Virginia's 2,919 known dams.

Location of Virginia’s 2,919 known dams. Map source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Inventory of Dams

Speaking of deficient bridges (see previous post), how about deficient dams? The potentially disastrous erosion around the Oroville dam in California, which prompted the evacuation of 188,000 people living down river earlier this week, prompted two correspondents to raise the issue with Bacon’s Rebellion.

John Butcher passed along an article noting that the Oroville dam is symptomatic of rampant neglect and deferred maintenance across the country. Writes the Peak Prosperity website:

The points of failure in Oroville’s infrastructure were identified many years ago, and the cost of making the needed repairs was quite small — around $6 million. But for short-sighted reasons, the repairs were not funded; and now the bill to fix the resultant damage will likely be on the order of magnitude of over $200 million. Which does not factor in the environmental carnage being caused by flooding downstream ecosystems with high-sediment water or the costs involved with evacuating the 200,000 residents living nearby the dam. …

Oroville is one of the best-managed and maintained dams in the country. If it still suffered from too much deferred maintenance, imagine how vulnerable the country’s thousands and thousands of smaller dams are. Trillions of dollars are needed to bring our national dams up to satisfactory status. How much else is needed for the country’s roads, rail systems, waterworks, power grids, etc?

The Smith Mountain Lake dam, owned and operated by Appalachian Power Co., rises 235 feet from its floor.

So, what do we know about the dams in Virginia? Steve Nash sent me a link to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers National Inventory of Dams. That database identifies 2,919 structures in Virginia, mostly small (less than 50 feet high), mostly earthen, and mostly privately owned. Eighty-four dams date back to the 19th century, but a large majority were completed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Here’s the worrisome part: the Corps classified 468 dams as having “high” hazard potential and another 551 as having “significant” hazard potential, with another 612 undetermined. The classification of “high” hazard potential does not mean that there is a high likelihood of failure; rather, it means that failure , if it occurred, would probably cause “loss of life or serious economic damage.”

However, 2,035 of Virginia’s dams, like California’s Oroville, are made of earth, which is especially vulnerable to erosion.

According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which regulates dam safety in Virginia, dams must be inspected periodically by licensed professionals. If a dam has a deficiency but does not pose imminent danger, the state may issue a Conditional Operation and Maintenance Certificate, during which time the owner is to correct the deficiency. It’s not clear what happens if the owner fails to correct the deficiency. Small loans and grants are available to help cover the cost.

Presumably, within the bowels of the Virginia bureaucracy, there is documentation that would allow the public to determine which high-hazard dams, if any, are in deficient condition. Where are they are located and who owns them? If I lived downstream from one, I sure would like to know.

If any Bacon’s Rebellion reader would be willing to root around the state archives to unearth this information, please contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.

A Different Kind of Police-Kill-Unarmed-Black-Youth Story

Brown and Cobb

Paterson Brown Jr. and David L. Cobb. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Chesterfield County has its own cop-shooting-and-killing-an-unarmed-black-youth story, but it has generated little controversy — presumably because the police officer was himself black, thus side-stepping the racist-white-cop narrative. It is instructive to read the account of court testimony in the policeman’s trial to get a sense of the ambiguous situations in which police find themselves forced to make life-and-death decisions.

Here are the basic facts based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s coverage of the trial: David L. Cobb, an off-duty, 47-year-old Chesterfield police officer, was getting his girlfriend’s car washed at the Better Vision Detail & Car Spa on Midlothian Turnpike when 18-year-old Paterson Brown Jr. inexplicably hopped into the vehicle. Cobb confronted Brown, struggling to open the door as Brown tried to close it. Observing that the teenager was acting strangely and incoherently, apparently from drug use, Cobb announced that he was a police officer and warned him four times to stay still. At one point, Brown leaned back and said, “I don’t f— with cops” but he did not comply. When Brown moved his left hand across his waist, Cobb believed that he was reaching for a gun. He shot the youth in the pelvis, severing a vital artery and killing him. As it turned out the youth was unarmed.

The prosecutor argued that Brown’s act of reaching across the waist “does not give you the right to use deadly force.”

But David Baugh, a black attorney who has represented five other Richmond-area officers in use-of-force killings, countered that every officer (1) is responsible for stopping a crime when he or she sees it, and (2) fears for his or her life when approaching a vehicle.

“He doesn’t have a right to walk away,” Baugh said. “He took an oath. It’s his moral duty to stick his nose in it.” To convict Cobb, he told the jury, prosecutors “have to convince you there’s no reason to be scared.” Brown set the tone with his bizzare behavior, glaring at Cobb after the officer spotted him inside the car. “Is he reasonable to be fearful? Yes. [Officers] all know.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Police officers have every reason to fear that young men acting strangely and actively resisting direct commands might pull out a gun and shoot. Forty-five law enforcement personnel, two of them in Virginia, have been killed in the line of duty so far this year. Cobb had to make a split-second decision. He made the wrong decision. Indeed, Cobb was so remorseful that he broke down sobbing while testifying in court and the judge had to suspend proceedings for ten minutes while he composed himself. But Cobb did not create the situation. Brown did. And, while his death was tragic and out of proportion to anything he did wrong, he brought it upon himself.

After a two-decade decline, violent crime is on the upswing. Ironically, most of it is black-on-black crime — a perverse result of the “Ferguson effect” in which police dial back their interventions and the Black Lives Matter movement which has encouraged black youths to distrust police and resist arrest. To revive a phrase from the 1960s, I’m on the side of “law and order.” If I were on Cobb’s jury, I would not vote to convict. And, if the T-D‘s account is fair summary of the facts presented, I’ll bet his jury won’t either.

Coal Ash, Parts Per Billion, and Risk

PP_coal_ash

Coal ash ponds at Possum Point before Dominion Virginia Power started draining the ponds and consolidating the coal ash.

Kudos to Robert Zullo with the Richmond Times-Dispatch for digging beneath the dueling press releases to shed light on the contamination risks that coal ash ponds pose to drinking water. Focusing on the carcinogenic chemical hexavalent chromium, which has been detected in well water near Dominion Virginia Power’s Possum Point Power Station, he broaches key questions: How much of the chemical is too much? What level should the state permit?

Other questions he touched upon in passing: If hexavalent chromium exists in well water, how did it get there? Did it come from the coal ash ponds, or does it occur naturally in minute quantities?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a drinking-water standard of 100 parts per billion for chromium, which Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has adopted as its own standard. However, hexavalent chromium is widely regarded as a more dangerous version of the metal. California has set a separate limit of 10 parts per billion for drinking water for that compound, Zullo reports, reflecting a balance between health risks and the cost to water utilities of meeting the level.

Dealing with its own coal ash problem, the state of North Carolina conducted tests last year of well water within 1,500 feet of coal ash basins, using a standard of 0.07 parts per billion, which it determined was associated with a “potential one-in-a-million cancer risk for an average person drinking this water over an average lifetime.” Tarheel regulators issued several hundred “do not drink” letters to private well owners last year. Critics contended that the 0.07 parts-per-billion level was so strict that even municipal water systems could not meet it, and the state reversed course, telling residents that their well water was “just as safe as the majority of public water supplies in the country.”

The issue surfaced in Virginia when DEQ tested seven private wells near Possum Point and found hexavalent chromium in one — 5 parts per billion, right at the state’s reporting limit. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) commissioned other tests and found another house where the chemical was found at a 1.2 parts-per-billion level.

SELC argues that DEQ should use testing methods that identify the chemical at levels lower than its 5 parts-per-billion standard. Said Greg Buppert, an SELC attorney: “This is a human carcinogen and we should be looking at it at lower concentrations, because we know it’s a concern.”

Bacon’s bottom line: What we’re talking about here is measuring minutes quantities of hexavalent chromium and parsing minute risks. From my (admittedly primitive) understanding, there is no known level above which a given chemical in the drinking water is dangerous and below which it is “safe.” We’re dealing with a continuum in which the statistical risk diminishes with smaller concentrations of the chemical. North Carolina’s level of 0.07 poses a risk of one-in-a-million people getting cancer after a lifetime of drinking the water. That’s crazily low. Even if hundreds of households drank the well water for years, the odds are remote that a single person would get cancer from the chemical.

One must balance that against the cost of eliminating that risk, which in Dominion’s service territory could approach $3 billion. If Virginia rate payers kept that money, what would they do with the money? Presumably, they would spend it on other things. Sure, they might buy a bigger house or purchase more movie tickets. But they also might purchase safer cars, have more frequent medical check-ups, eat healthier food, or join a health club. When we take money from people, whether through taxes or regulation, we fail to take into account the fact that we deprive them of the means to mitigate every-day risks to their health and safety.

Life is full of risks but we as a society say we can live with them. The Virginian-Pilot reports today on a fluke accident in which a beach umbrella on Virginia Beach was blown loose from its moorings in the sand and struck a woman, killing her. Should we ban beach umbrellas to offset the risk of umbrella impalements?

On the other hand, Virginia’s legal limit for hexavalent chromium is more than 100 times North Carolina’s one-in-a-million level. Assuming a straight-line correlation between the hexavalent chromium level and the risk it poses, that implies a one-in-ten-thousand risk or greater for Virginians drinking contaminated well water. That sounds like enough risk to justify having a conversation. Continue reading

Justifiable Jitters or Unwarranted Worry?

Leslie Hartz, the Dominion executive in charge of pipeline construction shows the width of steel to be used in smaller-diameter sections of pipe.

Leslie Hartz, the Dominion executive in charge of pipeline construction, shows the width of steel to be used in smaller-diameter sections of pipe.

Virginians living in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline fret about the threat of explosions. Dominion Transmission says their fears are overblown.

by James A. Bacon

Irene Leech, a consumer studies professor at Virginia Tech, grew up on a farm in Buckingham County where her family has raised beef for more than a hundred years. The family has preserved many of the original structures, including the old ice house, granary and smokehouse. Her husband, she says, devotes half his time to help keep the farm going. “Our plan is to retire to the farmhouse. Our goal is to pass on a sustainable business to the next generation.”

But Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, has thrown her for a loop. The company wants to route a high-pressure transmission pipeline through the farm. While Leech acknowledges that the odds of gas leaking and igniting anywhere near her are remote, if the gas does explode, the farmhouse and outbuildings are within the danger zone.

“From my perspective, they put my life at risk, all our property, all our heritage,” says Leech. “I know the odds of something happening are very, very small. But I had a brother killed in a farm accident. My grandmother died in an accident. My husband was working for the Pentagon on 9/11. I was at Virginia Tech during the mass shooting. Things happen. We’ll have to live with the risk for the rest of time.”

Leech is just one of thousands of residents along the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) who worry about the safety risks. Like many others, she remains unpersuaded by Dominion assurances that the ACP will incorporate the latest, greatest technology, best practices, and specifications that exceed federal safety standards. Running pipe on the steep slopes and through sinkhole-ridden karst geology of the mountainous Nelson and Augusta counties poses issues that pipelines don’t encounter in less rugged terrain.

“The possibility of an explosion is the really frightening thing,” she says. “You can come up with statistics that make it seem very remote. The problem is, if it occurs, it’s really deadly.”

Dominion responds that it is pushing the envelope of industry best practices to ensure the safe operation of the pipeline, which, if approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), would run from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina. “We’re a safety first company,” says Dominion Transmission spokesman Aaron Ruby. That’s not a P.R. slogan, he insists. An emphasis on safety permeates the organizational culture and informs everything the company does.

Dominion makes every reasonable effort to accommodate landowners like Leech, says Ruby. The company has offered to re-route the pipeline from an 800-foot distance from her farmhouse to 1,900 feet, he says, “but she has refused to let us survey her property to see if the alternative is suitable.”

In the meantime, the company is designing safety into pipeline construction and operations at every step, says Leslie Hartz, vice president of pipeline construction. The quality-control process entails a rigorous inspection protocol for fabricating the pipe in the mill, and then X-ray and hydrostatic testing of pipes and welding in the field. When up and running, ACP will use robots to inspect the pipe interior and will deploy aerial patrols and sensors to monitor the exterior. If conditions deviate from narrowly defined parameters, operators will not hesitate to shut down the pipeline.

Pipelines co-exist with people all around the country, and hardly anyone thinks about it, says Ruby. As an example in Virginia, he cites Lake Monticello, a bedroom community in the Charlottesville metropolitan region with a 2010 population of almost 10,000. “Lake Monticello …. developed over many decades alongside four large-diameter natural gas pipelines!”

The Big Picture

Interstate gas pipelines are the safest mode of energy transportation, says Catherine Landry, a spokesperson for the Interstate Natural Gas Alliance of America (INGAA). “Last year 99.999997% of gas moved without incident.” That compares very favorably to moving propane or petroleum by truck or rail. Continue reading

McAuliffe’s Dangerous Game

by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, when he helped run L. Douglas Wilder’s history-making gubernatorial campaign, Paul Goldman was regarded as a progressive voice in Virginia politics. If he writes many more op-eds like the one published Sunday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he could well become anathema to progressives. Not because he has changed his principles, mind you, but because progressives have come to toss around accusations of racism with such reckless abandon.

Goldman’s topic was Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring full civil and voting rights to 206,000 felons convicted of both violent and non-violent crimes. The Richmond attorney and political activist makes two critical points that dovetail with my critique of contemporary progressivism.

One is that McAuliffe’s defenders make unsupported accusations of racism and discrimination that only “make it harder for those fighting for honest change.” Specifically, Goldman tackles the notion that Article II, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution — “no person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority” — was intentionally written to disenfranchise African-Americans.

To the contrary, notes Goldman, disenfranchisement of felons dates back to colonial times when only white men were allowed to vote. Moreover, Virginia civil rights legend Oliver Hill reviewed and approved the provision for inclusion in the 1971 Virginia constitution.

A second point is that the people who get so agitated about the injustice done to felons are remarkably quiet about the injustices the felons inflicted upon their victims. While felons in Virginia are disproportionately African-American, so are crime victims.

As Goldman writes, “For the government to suggest a victim or loved one is anti-black because she opposes automatic restoration [of civil rights] without any showing of contrition is unjustified. It demeans the victim.”

A strong case can be made that the process of restoring rights to non-violent felons should be made easier — no individual petition necessary. But blanket restoration for violent felons without giving the victim an opportunity for input or any requirement for the predator to show contrition should be prohibited, Goldman writes. “The petitioning process must not itself be punitive. Yet it can’t be pro forma.”

Lastly, Goldman didn’t make this point but I will: Finding the proper balance for restoring felon rights is not the sole prerogative of the governor. McAuliffe needs to engage in give and take with the legislature. Sadly, the rule of law is regarded among political elites as increasingly optional — something to be enjoined when they can harness it to advance their aims and sidestepped when it cannot. A couple of years back, I said that progressives should be cautious with the precedents they set — just imagine how worried they would be if Sarah Palin were elected president with the power to re-write laws through executive decree. Now they face an even more terrifying prospect — an imperial presidency run by Donald Trump, the man for whom everything is negotiable and “so sue me” is a business best practice. Granting presidents and governors power to re-write laws at will cuts both ways.

Update: General Assembly Republicans are filing suit to halt enforcement of McAuliffe’s executive order.

About Those Eyes in the Sky…

Photograph of FBI surveillance plane over Manassas. Source: Associated Press

Photograph of FBI surveillance plane over Manassas. Source: Associated Press

by Bill Tracy

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveillance planes reportedly have been buzzing over United States communities — for about two months now, in the case of Burke, Va. — flying in tight circular patterns for many hours of the day, every day, into the wee hours of the morning.

The Associated Press first broke the national story in June. It is interesting to note that the AP story cover photo was taken in Manassas:

WASHINGTON — Scores of low-flying planes circling American cities are part of a civilian air force operated by the FBI and obscured behind fictitious companies, The Associated Press has learned.

The AP traced at least 50 aircraft back to the FBI, and identified more than 100 flights in 11 states over a 30-day period since late April, orbiting both major cities and rural areas. At least 115 planes, including 90 Cessna aircraft, were mentioned in a federal budget document from 2009.

For decades, the planes have provided support to FBI surveillance operations on the ground. But now the aircraft are equipped with high-tech cameras, and in rare circumstances, technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones, raising questions about how these surveillance flights affect Americans’ privacy.

Although shorter duration surveillance flights are occurring nation-wide, localities like Burke here in Northern Virginia have been targeted for “persistent” monitoring. Dearborn, Mich., location of the largest Muslim community in the nation, also is the site of these mysterious plane flights. Muslim community leaders in Dearborn are not happy about the surveillance. Burke residents here in Northern Virginia don’t seem to mind much.

I took the liberty of calling the office of U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Fairfax. Staff takes your name, commiserates, and tells you that the FBI will neither confirm or deny these flights (wink, wink). I was encouraged to put together a neighborhood petition, with multiple signatures, if I wanted to make a complaint that might be listened to.

Source: Bill Tracy

Surveillance plan flight pattern over Burke. Source: Bill Tracy

The aircraft are typically single-engine Cesnas flying one mile high, in counter-clockwise patterns that only Dunkin Donuts could fully appreciate. The planes are easy to see and hear, especially at night (plenty of flashing lights).

I’ve noticed some people breaking the law while the planes were in flight. During my daily jogs, for instance,  I have observed kids illegally crossing the CSX/VRE train tracks. If I could, I’d tell them their every move is being recorded: where they came from, and where they are going. The FBI no doubt is employing the same advanced military technology used in Iraq to find IED (Improvised Explosive Device) perpetrators.

Apparently, federal laws governing airplane surveillance are weak, giving the FBI wide legal latitude. Reportedly, the FBI is targeting specific crimes and is not violating any privacy rules currently on the books — although that may change if enough folks complain to elected officials.

If the FBI is wondering about my personal activities when out and about, I am looking for Monarch butterflies (saw one!) and at night, I’ve tried to capture a photograph of a Cesna crossing in front of the full moon. I am thinking the FBI is reading the draft of this blog before I even sent it off to Jim Bacon, for Pete’s sake.