The Economics of Coal Ash Disposal

A trucks hauls coal ash from a retention pond to a permanent pond at Domiion's Possum Point Power Station. Photo credit: AP
A truck hauls coal ash from a retention pond to a permanent pond at Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station. Photo credit: AP

To cap coal ash pits in existing locations or to haul it off to landfills is the multibillion dollar question facing the electric utility industry.

by James A. Bacon

The debate over coal ash hasn’t gone away — it’s just morphed. For much of the year, public attention focused on how to de-water millions of tons of coal-combustion residue that utilities and industrial companies accumulated over decades in large retaining ponds. Discussion centered on how to ensure that the water released into rivers and streams did no harm to aquatic life and human health. Now attention is turning to what to do with coal ash once it’s dry.

The October 17 deadline is fast approaching for industrial-scale coal burners to file written closure plans for their coal ash ponds. Each company must choose whether to go with the “closure-in-place” option or the removal option. Closure in place could spare ratepayers billions of dollars in added costs, but “removal” could reduce long-term health risks from potentially toxic metals that could leach from the coal ash pits into the groundwater and, from there, into rivers and streams.

Here in Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power has laid out plans to consolidate coal ash on-site at its power stations, and to cap the material with an impermeable plastic lining and vegetation to prevent rainwater from percolating through. Environmentalists say that won’t prevent groundwater from migrating through the ponds and picking up heavy metals in the process. As evidence, they point to water quality tests that show elevated levels of metals appearing in locations outside Dominion’s facilities. Clouding the matter, however, the state Department of Environmental Quality says that its tests show contradictory results.

In a recent conference call with media, Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, emphasized the high cost of transporting the ash to lined landfills, as environmental groups have called for. In an informal survey early in the regulatory process, he said, four out of five utilities said they expected to go with the closure-in-place option. That preference reflected the economics of coal ash disposal at their particular locations. A June Tennessee Valley Authority study concludes that it would cost about $280 million to close its six coal-ash sites using closure-in-place but $2.7 billion using the cheapest combination of truck and train — almost ten times as much.

Dominion has said that the tab for the removal option could run the clean-up cost to as much as $3 billion. Virginia environmental groups have pointed to decisions by Duke Energy, Santee Cooper, and SG&E in the Carolinas to transport the coal ash to landfills, arguing that Virginia citizens should have no less protection from exposure to toxic levels of chemicals than those of North and South Carolina.

Roewer argues that the economics of closure-in-place versus removal vary widely from site to site. While removal may be an economically viable option in some locations, it is far more expensive in others. Trucking coal ash long distances is economically impractical. While most coal-fired power plants are served by railroads, that doesn’t mean it’s simple to load the ash into trains for shipment to landfills. The rail lines were designed to dump coal at the station; loading facilities would have to be constructed at considerable cost to load the ash onto trains. Unless the landfill were located directly on the rail line, the other end of the line also would require another facility to unload the coal ash onto trucks for the short haul to the landfill.

Environmentalists suggest that recycling the gritty coal ash into cinderblocks or other products could reduce the need to dispose of so much ash. “Recycling of coal ash … costs far less than excavation and removal,” says Brad McLane, a Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) attorney who has represented the James River Association in coal ash litigation. “This is happening at the Winyah plant in South Carolina and is being performed by the Southeastern Fly Ash Association. Coal ash recycling may not be feasible everywhere, but where it is feasible, it is a win-win solution.”

Recycling coal ash tends to be most feasible in large metropolitan areas where a third party enjoys a big enough market to justify building a dedicated recycling facility. Dominion has ruled out that option for its rural Bremo Power Station. In urban areas, obtaining the needed permits to build a recycling plant could add years to the disposal process. And any solution that entails trucking large volumes of coal ash through residential areas, as would be the case with Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station, poses problems of its own.

But McLane also questions Roewer’s estimate that four out of five power stations will pursue closure-in-place. “That is not consistent with our experience in our region.  All sites in South Carolina are being excavated, and more than half of the sites in North Carolina are being excavated, with review still occurring regarding the long-term approach for the remaining sites in North Carolina.”

Moreover, Roewer is not considering some of the costs and risks associated with closure-in-place, McLane says. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Coal Combustion Residue (CCR) rule generally provides for only 30 years of post-closure care, but coal ash pits, some of which in Virginia are located near low-lying waterways, will incur “the risk of catastrophic failure over the millennia” to sea level rise and increased storm intensity as a result of climate change.

EPA’s risk assessment looks at the risk of coal ash leaching over a 5,000-year period. If heavy metals do leach into the groundwater and contaminate surface waters after 30 years, additional measures will be required to address the pollution, McLane says. “Utilities may end up needing to go back and excavate these sites years in the future to comply with the CCR rule after having wasted money on half measures that will not work. Why not do the right thing from the start?

Bacon’s Rebellion asked Dominion for input to this story but, preoccupied with hurricane preparations, the company was unable to respond.

Cybersecurity a National Nightmare… and Opportunity for Virginia

cyber_securityby James A. Bacon

Not long ago, an unknown hacker from outside the United States shut down the server of Professional Dermatology Care PC in Reston in what appeared to be a ransomware attack: Give us money or you’ll never see your 13,000 patient records again. The dermatology practice posted a statement on its website, stating that it had contacted the FBI, increased its cyber-security measures, and would be sending written notices patients. So starts this month’s cover story of Virginia Business magazine about cyber-security.

Let’s just say that I can feel the dermatologists’ pain. No one is holding Bacon’s Rebellion for ransom, but my blog has been shut down for more than a week now in a “distributed denial of service” attack on the shared server that hosts Bacon’s Rebellion and hundreds of other blogs and websites. Readers can no longer find old blog posts. I can’t access a draft of an article I was writing the day before the attack. Readers are thwarted in efforts to register and post comments. Other than moving to a new server to set up the jury-rigged blog that you are now reading, I am helpless.

In a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack, an outsider bombards the server with superfluous requests from hundreds, even thousands, of computers — typically slave computers infected with malware. The fusillade crowds out legitimate users trying to visit the site. The web host company — in my case — can identify and block the IP addresses of attacking computers, but the attackers simply shift to other computers.

“Basically, we have to wait out the attack,” a Hostmonster technician told me this morning. “It’s essentially out of our hands.”

These attacks are increasing in frequency because the bad guys — most of them residing in Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe — have figured out how to make money by holding companies ransom, stealing credit cards, and other means. Just as IT is a growth industry in the U.S., cyber-thuggery is a growth industry overseas. Every time the good guys introduce an innovation to make cyberspace safer, the bad guys match them with an innovation of their own. We live in a world in which the Chinese break into corporate computers and steal technology, parties unknown probe for vulnerabilities in the electric grid, and Russians compromise the computers of the Democratic National Committee (and, most likely, the private email server of a certain former Secretary of State). No one is immune…

Which, ironically enough, makes cyber-security a potential growth industry for Virginia. As Virginia Business observes, some 650 Virginia companies are engaged in one aspect of cyber-security or another. Many arose from the security obsessions of the U.S. military, intelligence and homeland security communities, but newcomers are developing niches to serve private industry. The greater the cyber-threat, the greater the business opportunity for Virginia-based enterprises.

Here’s the rub: Virginia faces a severe manpower shortage. Writes Virginia Business: “Virginia has an immediate need for about 17,000 cybersecurity professionals, with each job paying an average of $80,000 per year.”

If those positions could be filled, they would amount to nearly $1.4 billion in payroll! The McAuliffe administration sees a huge economic-development opportunity.

“Cybersecurity firms by and large are based on talent, and they are pretty much as good as the talent they are able to fund,” says Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson. “And so the states that have the best people and have the most talented workers are going to be the ones that garner the most amount of [cybersecurity companies] over the long term.

Many of the Virginia initiatives noted by Virginia Business focus on workforce development:

  • The Mach37 cybersecurity business accelerator in Herndon, an initiative of the Center for Innovative Technology, has helped launch 35 cybersecurity companies collectively employing more than 100 workers.
  • State government established a cybersecurity apprenticeship program to help students in community colleges and technical centers get on-the-job experience while earning degrees and certificates in cybersecurity fields.
  • Virginia Tech has received a $19.4 million National Science Foundation grant to use for cybersecurity workforce development.
  • The state’s New Economy Workforce Credential Program funds two-thirds of the cost of workforce credentials programs for students who complete vocational certification programs and earn industry-recognized credentials in high-demand professions such as cyber-security.
  • The state Department of Education sponsored a pilot program of 32 cybersecurity summer campus for high school students across Virginia.
  • Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law this summer a measure requiring computer science be integrated into State Standards of Learning by 2017.

“A lot of us have insomnia,” said Northern Virginia cybersecurity consultant William Lumpkin, known by his hacker handle InfoJanitor. “Because if you knew how vulnerable things are all the time, it would make you a little nervous too.”

Blog Update

The old server that served Bacon’s Rebellion at is still out of condition, the victim of a “denial of service” attack. The server hosted multiple websites, so there is no evidence that Bacon’s Rebellion was the target of the attack.

It has been nearly a week now but Hostmonster still has not resolved the issue. One technician told me that he has rarely seen it take so long to fix a problem like this. It should not be long, however. Once I can access all my files, I can work toward restoring the blog’s full content and functionality.

In the meantime, if you miss participating in Bacon’s Rebellion as much as loyal reader (and frequent comment contributor) Allen Barringer, follow his directions on how to gain full access:

Thanks to Jim Bacon’s problems with his blog hosting service, lots of us are having difficulty signing on to Bacon’s Rebellion. If you try to log in in the usual way with your BR user name and password (or if you have set up your computer to log you in to BR automatically) it will fail — you will get an error message that says you have an invalid password, and also that you have tried too many times to login.  Neither is true; this is an error from BR’s former blog hosting service. There is an alternative: look again at that log-in screen and you will see that it says: “Log in with /or/ Login with username and password.” The first alternative, “Log in with WordPress,” will work, as it bypasses the old blog host and goes directly to Jim’s new website; but you must first create a WordPress account. If you do not have a WorkPress account, here is how to create one:

What is This is a volunteer organization consisting of people who promote and support blogging, and write the ‘open source’ computer program that makes blogs like Bacon’s Rebellion possible. Most blogs use the free WordPress software, and many blog readers sign on through WordPress because that signs them on simultaneously to all the WordPress-based blogs they subscribe to, or “follow.” By creating a WordPress account you incur no obligation to WordPress;  however, you will be able to sign in to any WordPress-based blog (including BR) through your WordPress account, and also, if you have an interest in blogging, you will be able to read and participate in any WordPress discussion forums.

To create a WordPress account, click on this link: A login form will appear. At the bottom right, click on “Create an account” and the “Registration” screen will appear. Choose a Username and fill in your email address — you can skip all the other blanks — except, click on the blank next to “I am not a robot”; and then click on “Register.” Now, will send you an email with a temporary password.  Get the temporary password and sign in.   Your account at simultaneously exists at, with the same username and password.Continue reading

Muddled Thinking about School Absenteeism


by James A. Bacon

Slightly more than one in ten Virginia school students were “chronically absent” from school in the 2014-2015 school year, meaning that they missed 10%, or 18 out of 180 days, or more of the school year, according to a new study published by Luke C. Miller and Amanda Johnson for the University of Virginia EdPolicy Works.

Nor surprisingly, the authors found that chronic absenteeism was associated with lower standardized test scores and a higher propensity to drop out of school. Hardly shocking, they found that low-income and minority students were more likely to be absent. The study, “Chronic  Absenteeism in Virginia and the Challenged School Divisions,” focused on three troubled, inner-city school systems, Norfolk, Richmond, and Petersburg, where absenteeism is far more prevalent than for Virginia schools as a whole.

The primary contribution of the study is to delve into possible causes of school absenteeism, with the idea that a keener understanding of the phenomenon will help us craft better solutions. Here is the authors’ framework for addressing the issue:

Reasons for being absent can be clustered into three categories. … First, students may not be able to attend school because they cannot attend, for example, if they are sick, they are homeless or experiencing other forms of housing instability, or they have family obligations such as caring for younger siblings. Second, some students are absent because they have an aversion to going to school, for example, if they are having a tough time adjusting to a new school or if they do not feel safe at school. Third, students are absent from school because either the students or the parents would rather the student be somewhere else, for example, hanging out with friends at the beach or going on a family vacation. By targeting one or more of these reasons, interventions have proven successful at reducing chronic absenteeism.

Miller and Johnson tested their proposition that unsafe schools might be a factor by correlating absenteeism with school-level measures of discipline, crime, and violence data. The correlation is not a strong one. “The relationship between school safety and chronic absenteeism is not consistent across the three school divisions or Virginia,” they write. “In Petersburg, the safest schools have the highest rates of absenteeism.”

The authors also examine the idea that students attending new schools might have a more difficult time adjusting, thus making them more prone to absenteeism. There the data seems more consistent. “Transitioning students are roughly 60% more likely than non-transitioning students to be chronically absent in Norfolk and Richmond and 50% more likely in Petersburg.”

The authors call for more research to focus on schools and school divisions with high concentrations of high-poverty students that have done a better job of reducing absenteeism and identifying the practices they employ.

Bacon’s bottom line: Translating the study’s findings on “transitioning students” into plain English, it seems entirely plausible that new kids in school, especially middle and high school, have a tougher time fitting in. Social cliques are already established, and it takes greater effort to find acceptance. Some kids may get discouraged, and they may skip school more frequently as a result. This phenomenon may be more pronounced in schools dominated by lower-income kids less indoctrinated in the middle-class mores of “put yourself in their shoes,” and “be nice to everyone.” Sadly, schools are powerless to address the reasons why low-income households, which are vulnerable to housing evictions, move to new districts in the middle of the school year.

Ferris Bueller -- not your garden-variety chronically absent student.
Ferris Bueller — not your garden-variety chronically absent student.

On the other hand, some of the analysis seems ludicrous, such as the idea that students who chronically skip school might be “hanging out with friends at the beach” or “going on a family vacation.” Really? How many low-income households send their kids on spring beach week or take family vacations together? Ferris Bueller wannabes are not the problem.

The most muddled thinking involves the relationship between absenteeism and school safety. The only hypothesis considered in the study is that students might be more likely to skip school if they do not feel safe at school. That idea is plausible to the extent that some students who fear bullying might wish to avoid their tormentors. But it is just as likely that the students most inclined to inflict violence upon others tend to be the same students who are chronically absent. As the authors themselves acknowledge, the absentee numbers include time absent due to suspensions. Why do students get suspended — usually because they have gotten into fights or otherwise behaved violently.

Which gets us to a related matter. It’s not the absenteeism itself that causes students to do poorly in their studies, although missing class certainly doesn’t help matters. The kids who skip school are also the ones most likely to act up in class, disrupting the teaching of everyone. The authors themselves observe, “There is also evidence that having chronically absent classmates lowers the achievement of students who are not chronically absent themselves.” But somehow Miler and Johnson overlook the common-sense observation that the problem doesn’t arise from the troublesome students being absent, it arises from them being present — and disrupting class! Needless to say, these troubled students have other issues — disabilities, bad attitudes, whatever — that make them less motivated to succeed academically.

Finally, I find it astonishing that academic researchers could ignore the role of what some call the “lure of the street.” Some school kids just find school boring. They’d rather be where the action is, and in the inner-city school systems examined here, the action is associated with the street culture of sex, drugs and partying — basically, the same activities that many affluent kids engage in, with the difference that affluent kids are raised in households where they are expected to get grades good enough to gain them admission into college.

In the final analysis, the study was marginally useful in moving the debate over absenteeism in a useful direction… but only marginally.

(Hat tip: John Butcher.)

Upadate: Here is Butcher’s take on the absenteeism data.

Lottery Winnings and College Attendance

Woohoo! This gentleman may have other priorities than advancing his academic credentials.
Woohoo! This gentleman may have other priorities than advancing his academic credentials.

by James A. Bacon

My mother was acquainted some forty years ago with a woman who lived on welfare and then won a life-changing amount of money in the lottery. As the story has been passed down to me, the woman used the money enjoy the high life, buying expensive clothes and expensive liquor, giving money to family and friends, and doing who-knows-what else. Within several years the woman had spent her entire windfall and ended up back on the dole. Undoubtedly the story has strayed somewhat from the facts in the telling and retelling over the years, but the bottom line is the same: Welfare mother wins big lottery, squanders winnings, and ends up back on welfare.

Ever since hearing that story, I have been fascinated to see how lottery winners respond to their good fortune. Do they use their winnings in ways to improve their lives and the lives of their children over the long haul, or do they blow it all in an orgy of self indulgence? The defining variable, I always believed, was a psychological trait famously identified by the urbanist Edward Banfield: the willingness to defer gratification.

Now comes a paper by four economists, “Parental Resources and College Attendance: Evidence from Lottery Wins,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that examines in a systematic way the relationship between winning the lottery and sending kids to college.

Drawing upon federal tax records linked to federal financial aid records, the economists examined more than one million children whose parents won a state lottery to trace the effect of additional household resources on college outcomes. Their findings:

Wins less than $100,000 have little influence on college-going … while very large wins that exceed the cost of college imply a high upper bound (e.g., wins over $1,000,000 increase attendance by 10 percentage points). The effects are smaller among low-[socioeconomic status] households.

The economists made some other findings that did not bear upon their main line of inquiry but were interesting nonetheless: Lottery winners “decrease labor supply” (in other words, work less), increase consumption (like my mother’s welfare acquaintance), and/or put money into savings. People with mortgages often use winnings to pay off the mortgage; big winners use the windfall to move into wealthier neighborhoods.

Lower-income households use very little of the lottery winnings to send their kids to college. One can only speculate as to why. Perhaps students from poor households are less academically qualified to go to college; indeed, significant numbers may have dropped out of high school. Alternatively, perhaps poor households place a higher value on immediate gratification than the delayed rewards that come from earning a college degree.

Or perhaps, thanks to Pell Grants and college loans, financial resources just aren’t a barrier to college attendance by the poor. As the economists declare, “borrowing constraints are not explicitly hindering college attendance.”

New policies seeking to raise educational attainment should not be primarily justified on the basis of the existence of such constraints. Further, redistribution of income rewards to low-[socio-economic status] households would likely be ineffective at generating enrollment changes. … Policy makers seeking to increase educational investment, particularly among such households, might instead see benefits from interventions that reduce the cost of college or strive to increase the consumption value that households place on college.

Bacon’s bottom line: My take-away is that various plans touted by certain presidential candidates to make college tuition “free” (to low- and middle-income students, not to taxpayers) are unlikely to increase the number of students from low-income families attending college.

Think Elections Are Rigged? Here’s One Way to Make the System Fairer

by Brian Cannon

“Rigged” is the word of the election season. Donald Trump said this week that the debate was rigged. Bernie Sanders supporters used the term to describe the party’s control of the primary process. The meme is resonating with voters, too. Here at One Virginia 2021, we’ve taken notice as well: Our new documentary film produced by WCVE on gerrymandering is called GerryRIGGED.*

People have the sense that the fix is in. Politics feels like a broken system run by people who get rich inside their “public service” and enjoy an unbelievable re-election rate. What do we mean by this re-election rate? Consider, all 435 voting seats are up for re-election in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cook Political Report says that only 37 are competitive!  That’s embarrassing.

Last November, when all 140 seats in Virginia’s General Assembly were up, 122 of the members chose to run for re-election.  All 122 were re-elected.

In November of 2014, when Sen. Mark Warner and Ed Gillespie were running neck and neck in a U.S. Senate race in which the candidates were separated by less than 1% of the vote, all congressional seats in Virginia were also up for re-election.  In not one of those congressional races did a challenger come within 15%.

I hate to be so disheartening as to say the system is rigged, but it sure does appear that way for incumbent politicians.

So can we fix it?  In 2011, college students competed in map drawing exercise put on by the Wason Center for Public Policy with the same software the politicians use to gerrymander. Only the college students were using good government criteria such as:

– keeping localities together, not carving up neighborhoods;
– respecting communities of interest;
– drawing districts that pass compactness measurements and also the eye test; and importantly
– not drawing districts to benefit one party or politician.

It’s not rocket science, just good government.

The result?  The student maps were better. In each individual category and in even pairs of good government categories, the student maps were superior to the political maps. The average number of competitive districts in the Virginia Senate drawn by politicians was 6.89 seats out of 40. The average for the students was 9.67. For the House of Delegates, the politicians averaged 24 competitive seats and the students averaged 26.5 competitive seats, with one winning map having 31 competitive seats. Incidentally, “competitive” refers to races that could be as far apart as 55% to 45%. Competition is so hard to come by, the window has to be wide.

For more on the competition’s results and a wonderful read on the history of Virginia gerrymandering, please see Altman and McDonald’s article in the University of Richmond Law Review.

We can do this better, folks. States as politically and geographically diverse as Iowa, Ohio, Arizona, and Washington have all figured this out.  Good Virginians on both sides of the aisle are pushing for reform in both chambers of the General Assembly. Perhaps the the concern about “rigged” elections will embolden more people to step forward and call for electoral reform.

* Merriam-Webster does an excellent job of reporting on the opaque origins of the term “rig” as a verb meaning “to manipulate or control usually by deceptive or dishonest means.”

More Evidence that CON Increases Healthcare Spending and Hurts Outcomes

Image credit: iHealthComms

by James A. Bacon

As critics of Virginia’s Certificate of Need law gear up for another round in the General Assembly next year, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has been publishing a series of working papers showing that, from a national perspective, CON laws push health care costs incrementally higher and result in lower-quality hospital care for some measures of quality.

Aside from Medicaid expansion, which is a dead letter politically, the CON issue is probably the most contentious health-care issue facing Virginia today.  The law requires health care providers to make a case that there is a “public need” for 18 categories of healthcare services and facilities running the gamut from new hospitals to high-dollar diagnostic equipment such as MRIs and PET scanners. The original justification was that the law would control the escalation of health costs. Foes say it restricts competition and raises costs. Established hospitals, which enjoy a status as near-monopoly suppliers in some regions of the state, defend the law while insurers and physicians groups tend to oppose it.

Tracking the debates taking place in the academic research, as well as Virginia and 34 other states that retain their CON laws, the Mercatus center has published a series of papers and commentaries this year.

One study by James Bailey, a Creighton College business professor, compared the increase in health care spending in the 35 states that have maintained their CON laws, mostly enacted in the 1970s, with the 15 states that repealed their laws in the 1980s. He concludes:

I find some evidence that CON backfires and leads to increased spending. I estimate that CON leads to a statistically significant 3.1% increase in total spending and a 6.9% increase in Medicare spending. … I show that CON has no effect on hospital volumes, though it is associated with up to a 5% increase in the average length of inpatient hospital stay and a 0%-5% increase in hospital charges.

Another study by Thomas Stratmann and David Wille, both Mercatus scholars at GMU, examines the effect of CON laws on medical outcomes.

We find that mortality rates are statistically significantly higher at hospitals in CON states than in non-CON states. Our findings show that the estimated average 30-day mortality rate for patients discharged with pneumonia, heart failure, or heart attack from hospitals in CON states is between 2.5 and 5 percent higher than the average mortality rate for all hospitals in our subsample … that contains providers in both CON and non-CON states, depending on the illness.

Admittedly, those are not earth-shaking conclusions. It’s not as if repealing CON in Virginia will yield dramatic results. Any gains to patients would be incremental and hard to distinguish from other factors impacting cost and quality in the medical marketplace. Accordingly, it is important for foes of CON not to over-promise the benefits. Still, in the battle against relentlessly increasing health care expenditures, every little bit helps.

Furthermore, I have long argued that repealing CON is only one of many health care reforms that Virginia needs to enact. If the battle for reform starts and ends with repealing that one law, the benefits will be too small to notice against the backdrop of general health care increases. The larger significance of CON is that it acts as a barrier to innovation in the delivery of health care. The law protects Virginia’s huge, quasi-monopolistic health care cartels from competitors coming from outside the state or from arising from medical entrepreneurs. In the long run, the only two broad options for saving America’s health system from cannibalizing the economy are rationing and innovation. I’ll take innovation, thank you. Repealing CON is a necessary condition to creating an entrepreneurial, innovation-driven healthcare system, the first step in a long march.

Virginia’s Meth Epidemic Is No Joke

Imbibing crystal meth. Image credit:

by James A. Bacon

My son, now in college, has a running joke when his mom and I call to see what he’s been up to. Not much, he deadpans, except for cooking up some crystal meth. An amusing gag for an affluent suburban family where no one imbibes anything stronger than a cabernet sauvignon. But not so funny in Southwest Virginia, ground zero for Virginia’s methamphetamine epidemic.

I’ve just finished reading August Wallmeyer’s book, “The Extremes of Virginia,” which describes the social and economic challenges of Virginia’s poorest rural regions. Much of the material is familiar to regular readers of Bacon’s Rebellion, but I found his discourse on Virginia’s meth epidemic to be particularly helpful in understanding a region where I spent several years as a young journalist but have not often visited since then.

Fatal drug overdoses occur everywhere in Virginia but have spiked in the rapidly decaying coal-mining region of Southwest Virginia, the Eastern Shore and a slew of counties on Northern Virginia’s exurban fringe. In the far Southwest, meth production has risen much like illegal distilleries did during Prohibition, as a cottage industry. In 2009, writes Wallmeyer, “meth production went mainstream and big time, when the ‘shake and bake’ method was brought to Virginia, courtesy of a waitress who had moved from Indiana.”

Knowledge of how to cook meth passes from word to mouth. “A guy in Tennessee teaches someone in Bristol, who teaches someone in Abingdon, who teaches someone in Marion, and so forth,” he says. Because the drug can be concocted from legally obtained materials found in cold medications, batteries and household products, anyone can make it. The number of known meth labs in Virginia has increased from 28 in 2009 to more than 400 in 2014.

The drug produces a euphoric “high” but destroys dopamine receptors in the brain, diminishing all sensations of pleasure. Seeking to retain the high, meth addicts increase consumption, which is not hard to do because meth is a relatively inexpensive drug. Recovery and rehabilitation is extremely difficult because it takes as long as 18 months for the body to repair its dopamine receptors — far longer than an addict’s typical stint in jail or time spent in a 6- to 12-week rehab program. The meth culture is so deeply ingrained now that someone coming out of jail or rehab returns home only to find himself surrounded by other meth users and producers — mirroring the drug problem that has long plagued inner cities.

Widespread drug use creates social problems that magnify the social and economic problems of Southwest Virginia, where the coal economy has collapsed and there is no other industry (other than meth production) moving in to replace it. With increasing regularity, notes Wallmeyer, job seekers are failing drug tests. “There are reports of 50 percent failure rates for people taking job-related drug tests in Southwest Virginia.” That’s devastating to anyone trying to recruit industry to the area. When a region can’t sell the education and skills of its workforce, which are severely lagging in Southwest Virginia, all it has to sell is its work ethic. But if half the workers are drug addicts, economic developers can’t even sell that. In a vicious cycle, the lack of job opportunities creates a pessimism and despair that makes it easier to fall prey to drug abuse.

What can be done? Wallmeyer’s account doesn’t offer much grounds for optimism. But he does present one concrete idea from Jason Robinson, a 20-year state police veteran working in the Southwest Virginia drug task force, and that is to go after the smurfs. In meth parlance, smurfs are the buyers who round up the ingredients that go into meth, the most critical of which is pseudoephedrine, which appears in cold medicines such as Tylenol, Sudafed, Claritin and Allegra. Robinson advocates creating a meth offender registry of anyone convicted of meth-related crimes to prevent smurfs from purchasing meth ingredients.

“We have a prescription monitoring database, but physicians aren’t required to use it,” he tells Wallmeyer. “Lots do, but not all. We have all this technology, but don’t take advantage of it.”

The state also needs to address the mismatch between drug rehabilitation programs, geared for 6- to 12-week treatments, and the long-term nature of meth addiction. Writes Wallmeyer: “Virginia needs to decide either to provide longer-term drug rehabilitation facilities, or to accept the 93 percent recidivism rate, with its attendant consequences and public costs.”

Bacon’s bottom line: One aspect of the meth addiction that I wished Wallmeyer had explored was the impact of substance abuse on the family and child rearing. I would imagine that meth addicts do not make good spouses and good parents, and I would hypothesize that the meth epidemic is ravaging already-fragile households, creating abysmal environments for children who, in addition to coping with material poverty, must survive absentee parents, domestic violence, child neglect and a panoply of problems that lead to poor academic achievement, a propensity for dropping out of school and general failure as an adult. Drugs, joblessness and social dysfunction make a destructive combination.

Hundreds of Virginia Voters Were Registered Illegally, Public Interest Group Charges

registration_formby James A. Bacon

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) claims to have documented 1,046 non-citizens who were illegally registered to vote in eight Virginia jurisdictions. Nearly 200 ballots were cast before they could be removed from the rolls, declares the Foundation in a new study, “Alien Invasion in Virginia: The Discovery and Coverup of Noncitizen Registration and Voting.

“The problem is most certainly exponentially worse because we have no data regarding aliens on the registration rolls for the other 125 Virginia localities,” states the executive summary. “Because no formal programs exist in Virginia to identify noncitizen registrants, the discovery and removal of these non-citizens is either by accident or because the registrant later indicated to election officials that he or she was not a citizen.”

The findings were based upon data culled from the following jurisdictions: Prince William County, Loudoun, Stafford, Bedford, Hanover and Roanoke counties, and the cities of Alexandria and Fairfax.

Almost as disturbing as the raw numbers is the lack of cooperation extended to PILF and the Virginia Voters Alliance by local registrars and the state board of elections. States the report:

Virginia state election officials are obstructing access to public records that reveal the extent to which non-citizens are participating in our elections. These obstructionist tactics have led to PILF and VVA obtaining data from only a handful of Virginia counties so far. But the information from a few counties demonstrates a massive problem.

PILF describes itself as a “public interest law firm dedicated entirely to election integrity. The Foundation exists to assist states and others to aid the cause of election integrity and fight against lawlessness in American elections. Drawing on numerous experts in the field, the Foundation seeks to protect the right to vote and preserve the Constitutional framework of American elections.”

The so-called “Motor Voter” law enacted in 1993 requires each state to offer voter registration to anyone who applies for a driver’s license. Attempts by states to require registrants to provide documentary proof of citizenship have been thwarted by left-leaning voter groups and the Department of Justice. Virginia requires applicants to do no more than check a box, under penalty of perjury, affirming that they are citizens.

PILF contends that local registrars failed to provide the organization with documents and records required under the 1993 federal law to be made available to the public. Ultimately, that lack of cooperation was traced to the Virginia Department of Elections and its commissioner Edgardo Cortes, according to the report. “Over the course of August and September 2016, responses from election officials rolled in, each one explaining that state election officials had instructed them not to provide lists of non-citizens who had been removed from Virginia’s voter rolls.”

PILF could find no record that anyone who had registered and voted illegally had been prosecuted for fraud.

Bacon’s bottom line: The implications of this report are so earth-shaking — remember that Attorney General Mark Herring defeated Mark Obenshain by only 165 votes out of 2.2 million cast — that even a somnambulant mainstream media cannot ignore it.

Before getting all agitated, though, I would like to see the findings confirmed by credible third parties. I know nothing about PILF and its reputation for fairly presenting the facts. But the allegations cannot be dismissed lightly. The report reproduces 84 exhibits of registration forms that were canceled on the grounds that the individual was a non-citizen. And the findings follow on the heels of allegations that a James Madison University student submitted 20 voter applications under the names of deceased individuals.

If the charges are proven to be true, this is a scandal of massive proportions and heads should roll.

(Editor’s note: My apologies if I’m the last person in Virginia to blog about this story. I’ve been really distracted the past few days, this report just came to my attention, and I hadn’t seen it touted in any local blog or news source yet.)

Update: Former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor Peter Galuszka addresses the issue in the Washington PostAll Opinions Are Local” blog. His bottom line: “Even if all 1,046 cases the groups claim are valid, they do not make their point, given that more than 2 million Virginians tend to vote in elections. That’s hardly massive voting fraud.”

Update to the Update: PILF’s Christian Adams responds in PJMedia to Peter’s piece, charging that it is full of errors. He concludes, “The Virginia legislature is convening a hearing next week about recent reports of failures by state officials to take the threat seriously. And meanwhile the instruments of the old media line up to give cover to criminality in our elections.”

Making Progress

Got email restored to my PC — not my laptop or tablet, but I’ll worry about them later. Apparently, my Outlook 2010 is too old. I’ll have to upgrade to the new subscriber-based Outlook. Anyway, the email setup process is so complex that I never could have gotten as far as I have without extensive help from the Godaddy help desk. I would refer back to my essay on how overly complex our society is getting… but of course, I still can’t access my old blog!

Enough with my problems… Any email you sent me since Friday morning is either trapped in Hostmonster denial-of-service-attack hell or has bounced back to you. But if you email me now, I should receive it. Of course, I’ll have to go out of town shortly to take care of an elderly parent. When it rains it pours!