Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Faculty “Cost per Enrolled Student” Varies Widely

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the "cost per enrolled student."

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the “cost per enrolled student.” Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities.”

More fascinating data from “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” co-authored by University of Virginia economics professor Sarah Turner….

Best paid fields. A key finding of her research is that average faculty salaries vary widely from department to department, depending upon supply and demand considerations specific to each field. Disciplines in which Ph.D.s are employed outside of academia tend to fare better than those with more restricted options. Also, departments that generate outside research dollars pay more as universities engage in bidding wars to recruit star faculty.

Consequently, at UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences fields, computer science and economics professors tend to earn a lot more than English, history and philosophy professors. As a history major, I’m disappointed, but there’s no surprise here. We’re seeing market forces at work.

Cost per enrolled student. Turner and  co-author Paul N. Courant then calculated the faculty cost per enrolled student for each of ten departments. They saw two main variables at work here: (1) how much faculty members are paid, and (2) how many students they teach. As noted in the previous blog post, the more highly a professor is paid, the fewer students he or she is likely to teach.

I must confess that I have long thought that the “hard” sciences were more expensive to teach — their faculty were more likely to engage in research and teach less. But that’s not the case at all. A critical variable I had overlooked is how writing-intensive a course is. Fields like English, history and philosophy require a lot of discussion and writing, and the tasks of teaching and grading students are extremely time-intensive. By necessity, their class sizes are smaller.

By contrast, other disciplines have courses that better lend themselves to lecture-hall teaching, and their answers have more clear right/wrong answers that are easily graded. Faculty can teach larger classes without a diminution in quality.

Thus, we find that teaching English (the most expensive discipline) entails more than three times the faculty cost per student than computer science (the least expensive).

Bacon’s bottom line: It is ironic that it takes two economics professors to generate these numbers. This is precisely the kind of analysis that universities should be undertaking themselves — for every academic department. If we think of English degrees, philosophy degrees, chemistry degrees, computer-science degrees and the like as different product lines, universities should know exactly how much (1) each degree costs to deliver, (2) how much each degree generates in revenue, and (3) how much each degree generates in surplus revenue (or operating profit).

Now, I’m not saying that we should start cutting the English department just because it is “losing” money. Perhaps English writing and reading comprehension is a foundational skill that justifies maintaining writing & critical thinking courses regardless of cost. (There may be less justification for poetry, Medieval literature and post-modern literary criticism.) But when it comes to reallocating resources within a university, administrators and department heads should know at a minimum whether different departments and programs within those departments are money sinks or money generators.

Do universities ask these kinds of questions? Highly dubious. Turner and Courant would not have felt compelled to do their research had UVa and University of Michigan administrations conducted the analysis themselves. The lack of such analytical rigor and the ignorance of underlying costs, I would suggest, is a huge contributor to the rising cost of tuition. How is intelligent cost control even possible? When it comes to university administrations, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance contributes to runaway tuition, student over-indebtedness and the degradation of living standards for an entire generation.

Faculty Productivity Paradox: Get Paid More, Teach Less

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid, the less they teach.

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid at UVa and the University of Michigan, the less they teach. Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities. (“Click for larger image.)

Newly published research by Sarah Turner at the University of Virginia and Paul N. Courant at the University of Michigan sheds light on a critical factor driving the cost of attendance at public universities: faculty productivity.

Turner’s and Courant’s findings buttress a point we have made repeatedly on this blog: that higher-paid faculty members spend more time on research and teach fewer students than lesser-paid faculty members. Depending upon the academic department, a $50,000 increase in salary results in 5% to 30% fewer students taught (as seen in the chart above).

The analysis is restricted to tenure-track faculty. It does not compare the teaching loads to non-tenure-track “instructors” who get paid less and take on even heavier teaching loads than the professors.

Sara E. Turner

In a paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” Turner and Courant ask if faculty  members are deployed efficiently at research universities. They base their findings on an in-depth analysis of the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, which are consistently ranked among the top public research universities in the country.

The authors conclude that UVa and Michigan are indeed “efficient” in the sense that they are economically rational in allocating faculty time and effort.

Tenure track faculty in research universities teach and they do research. Over the past several decades, the relative prices — in terms of wages paid to faculty — of those two activities have changed markedly. The price of research has gone up way more than the price of teaching. Salaries have risen more more in elite research institutions than in universities generally. …

Departments in research universities … must pay high salaries in order to employ research-productive faculty. These faculty, in turn, contribute most to the universities’ goals (which include teaching as well as research) by following their comparative advantage and teaching less, and also in teaching in ways that are complementary with research — notably graduate courses. The university pays these faculty well because they are especially good at research. It makes perfect sense that they would also have relatively low teaching loads (along with relatively higher research expectations) …

If we accept that the value placed on research in elite research universit[ies] is warranted, we conclude that the deployment of faculty is generally consistent with rational behavior on the part of those universities. Faculty salaries vary, for a variety of reasons, and the universities respond to that variation by economizing on the most expensive faculty….

Bacon’s bottom line. Note the caveat above: “If we accept that the value placed on research at elite research universities is warranted…” This goes to the heart of the debate over college affordability. UVa and other Virginia universities place an extremely high value on research. Why? Because the publication of research has an outsized effect on a university’s prestige, and the research dollars brought in enables departments to employ more faculty and graduate students, also markers of departmental prestige. By contrast, the cost of attendance is incidental to departmental interests.

Students and parents have a different perspective. While an institution’s prestige is clearly a factor in deciding where to attend college, the cost of attendance typically is a central concern as well.

In sum, universities can emphasize faculty productivity in research or in teaching. As the Turner/Courant data confirms, the system pays the most to the faculty members who teach the least. While the authors don’t go the extra step and say so, it seems clear to anyone outside of academe that undergraduate students are paying ever-higher tuition for the privilege of being taught increasingly by junior professors and instructors so tenured faculty can spend more time on writing and research.

Owens & Minor Goes for Millennials, Walkable City

Owens & Minor wants Millennials,and Millennials want 15-minute, livable communities. Graphic credit: Institute for the Future

Good economic news for the Richmond region: Medical supply giant Owens & Minor Inc. announced plans Thursday to open a client engagement center in downtown Richmond that will employ 500 people. Jobs will average about $53,700 in annual pay.

In making the announcement Governor Terry McAuliffe made much of the fact that Richmond competed against 60 other cities in a year-long search process. Less was made of the fact that Owens & Minor, which is located in the Mechanicsville suburb of Richmond, chose to locate in the central city rather than one of the region’s outlying counties.

The reason? “We want to attract the millennial generation,” CEO Cody Phipps told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We did our research. The millennial generation is going to be 50-plus percent of the workforce in the next few years, and they want to live in urban areas. They want to be downtown. They want to work in a state-of-the-art space. We like that we can draw from the universities around here.”

Owens & Minor will make Riverfront Plaza in downtown Richmond its newest home.

Owens & Minor will make Riverfront Plaza in downtown Richmond its newest home. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

I don’t know who conducted Phipps’ research, but I know of one outfit in town that does specialize in generational marketing — The Institute for Tomorrow, which is affiliated with the Southeastern Institute of Research (SIR). (I worked for SIR about ten years ago.) Two days before Owens & Minor’s announcement, Managing Partner Matt Thornhill tweeted presciently, “Winning communities of tomorrow are 15-minute livable communities.”

By way of elaboration, he blogged about recent research conducted for the Virginia Secretary of Transportation. In a survey of 600 people around the U.S. who had just moved or were considering moving more than 100 miles, four out of five agreed with the statement, “Having access to stores, restaurants, and services close to my home (within about 15 minutes) is very important to me.” Almost as important was living withing a 15 minute commute of work.

It is often said that Millennials want to live “downtown” where it’s hip and cool and there are coffee shops and microbreweries. According to a recent Urban Land Institute study, though, only 37% of Millennial consider themselves to be a “city person,” wrote Thornhill; 36% classified themselves as “suburbanites” and 26% as “small town/country” people.

While there is nothing inevitable about Millennials wanting to live and work downtown, they are “hard-wired to be in community with each other,” Thornhill observed. “Thanks in part to doing school projects in teams from their middle school years onward, Millennials like to collaborate and trust in decisions made by the wisdom of the crowd. … They want neighborhoods where they can walk, bike, and use transit to get around.”

This community mindset, opined Thornhill, will drive the growth of “activity centers” of 15-minute livable communities. Activity centers don’t have to be in traditional cities (although most are).  “Builders, developers, urban planners, and government officials are now catching up to the changing preferences of consumers and looking for ways to in-fill activity centers across their metropolitan landscape.”

Thornhill stops his analysis there. But as I think about the Owens & Minor decision, it’s not clear that urban planners and government officials actually have gotten the message. While most of the City of Richmond fits the definition of a 15-minute walkable community, there are only flyspecks of walkability in neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield counties. In Henrico County the one area that potentially has the critical mass to compete with downtown Richmond, the Innsbrook Office Park, was rezoned for urban mixed use back in 2010. But re-development has stalled for more than six years due to inflexible application of the zoning code.

Absent a dramatic change of thinking and practice in the suburban counties, it looks like the future of the Richmond metropolitan region belongs to the city. Everything old is new again: Richmond possesses the key elements of walkability — moderate density, mixed uses, grid streets and timeless architecture — inherited from a past era of urban grandeur. The counties are stuck with suburban sprawl. Expect to see more headlines like Owen & Minor’s in the region’s future.

Corey Stewart Defines Himself through the Fights He Picks

Corey Stewart (left) appeared last week with Jason Kessler, a conservative blogger-activist, after Kessler petitioned to remove the vice mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy, from office.

Corey Stewart (left) appeared last week with Jason Kessler, a conservative blogger-activist, after Kessler petitioned to remove the vice mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy, from office. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

I met Corey Stewart, Republican candidate for governor, for the first time last night and interviewed him outside a public hearing about coal ash disposal. The Prince William County board chairman came across as a genial guy. But he’s not one to run away from a fight. Indeed, he’s more likely to be the first one to charge into the fray.

With Ed Gillespie as the perceived front-runner in the Republican race, Stewart evidently has decided that the best way to get attention and define himself as a tribune of the people is to pick the right fights. That strategy certainly was on display last night when he lambasted Dominion Virginia Power to the cheers of many in the audience for its closure-in-place proposal for dealing with coal ash at its Possum Point Power Station.

“Dominion has been less than honest with Prince William County,” Stewart said. Then, referring to a series of local controversies over the impact of coal ash on surface and ground water, he said, “Dominion lies. You have to be very skeptical of what they tell you.”

I wasn’t paying attention to Virginia politics in 1973 when Democratic candidate Henry Howell took on Dominion’s predecessor company, vowing to “keep the big boys honest.” But I can’t imagine that he was any more blunt in his denunciation. The issue back then was electric rates, not the environment, but Howell nearly rode the slogan to victory.

Stewart is best known for his hard line approach to illegal immigration. His campaign website boasts that under his leadership, Prince William County turned over 7,500 criminal illegal aliens for deportation. He says he will work “side-by-side with the Trump administration” to oppose amnesty and sanctuary cities in Virginia.

Along similar lines, he has aligned himself with a far-right group in Charlottesville to protest, among other things, City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the public square. Mobbed last week by counter-protesters who drowned out his words, Stewart reportedly handled himself with aplomb. But his views seem pitched to the same kind of disaffected white working- and middle-class voters who voted for Donald Trump, for whom he acted as Virginia campaign chairman. Just wait until next week, he told me. He’ll be back in Charlottesville.

Stewart also joined conservative activist-blogger Jason Kessler in calling for the removal of Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy from office. Bellamy had posted misogynistic, homophobic and anti-white comments on Twitter before his election to Charlottesville City Council in 2015.

I asked Stewart to elaborate upon his view of Dominion. He said it’s wrong for a monopoly utility to insert itself so deeply into the political and regulatory process. “This is what happens when every member of the General Assembly is taking thousands of dollars from Dominion. DEQ (the Department of Environmental Quality) rubber-stamps every thing Dominion wants.”

If he becomes governor, Stewart said, “Heads are going to roll” — starting with the chief of DEQ, David Paylor. Then, alluding to Denver Riggleman, one of his three Republican rivals for the governorship who also has campaigned against Dominion, he quipped, “I’ll put Riggleman in there.”

Prince William Supervisors Demand Coal Ash Studies

Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart speaking at the coal ash public hearing.

Four members of the Prince William County board of supervisors appeared at a public hearing last night to express concerns about Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to pursue the “closure in place” option for disposing the coal ash at its Possum Point Power Station.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) held the hearing as part of its evaluation of Dominion’s request for a solid waste permit. More than a hundred citizens appeared at the hearing at Potomac High School, frequently erupting into jeers and cheers throughout the evening.

Describing the coal ash disposal as “the most important environmental issue facing our county in decades,” Woodbridge Supervisor Frank Principi called upon DEQ to engage in intensive information gathering before issuing a permit. His request, repeated by numerous citizens, echoes legislation backed by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, that would require owners of coal ash ponds to assess closure options and demonstrate their long-term safety before DEQ grants a permit.

Specifically, Principi asked the DEQ to release the data for testing water quality at Pond D, where the coal ash is being consolidated and capped with a synthetic liner, and release test results from a surface water sampling plan. Further, he demanded that DEQ conduct an alternatives analysis to see if recycling and landfilling coal ash would be safer.

Principi also said he wants to see documentation of measures to prevent a “catastrophic failure” of Dominion’s cap-in-place proposal. “Nobody here wants to repeat the mistakes of Buffalo Creek, Kingston or Dan River,” he said, citing three notorious examples of coal ash spills.

Board Chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican candidate for governor, appeared midway through the hearing and ramped up the rhetoric. It was unacceptable to leave four million tons of coal ash in place, he said, especially given Dominion’s track record of dealing with the County. “Dominion has been less than honest with Prince William County. Dominion lies. You have to be very skeptical of what they tell you.”

Dominion did not respond to the criticisms leveled against it. Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s senior environmental officer, delivered prepared remarks at the beginning of the hearing that repeated the company’s talking points.

Coal ash has been stored safely at Possum Point since 1948, Taylor said, but new EPA regulations require the company to close the ponds permanently. The company is de-watering the coal ponds now. The company has made proactive improvements to the dewatering process to “make the system better, more effective,” and it is posting water-quality testing results “so neighbors know that Quantico Creek is being protected.”

When the de-watering is complete, the next phase will be consolidating the coal ash from five ponds into the 64-acre Pond D. Under the requested solid waste permit, Dominion would cover the pond with “a high-density polyethelene cap to prevent rainwater or any moisture from coming into contact with the ash; a drainage layer designed to drain water away from the cap; then 24 inches of soil and vegetation.”

The company has already installed a monitoring network of 24 wells around the coal ash ponds, Taylor said. “If groundwater monitoring indicates that further action is needed, then both state and federal requirements mandates that additional measures will be put int place.” Pond D will be inspected on a regular basis to maintain integrity of the cover system, she added, and a professional dam-safety engineer will inspect the facility once a year.

While citizen comments were overwhelmingly opposed to Dominion’s plan, two women opposed the alternative of trucking coal ash to a landfill. Possum Point Road is a narrow, winding, two-lane road not constructed for truck traffic, said Eileen Thrall, who lives on the road. She is worried about congestion and the potential for traffic accidents.

Greg Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), warned that Pond D “will not have two basic features that all modern landfills are required to have in Virginia to protect groundwater: a synthetic liner under the ash and a leachate collection system.”

Recent monitoring shows that heavy metals emanating from coal ash at Pond D are getting into the groundwater, Buppert said. “Will Dominion’s closure plan stop this pollution? The answer is that we don’t know. Dominion is required to demonstrate that groundwater is not in contact with the ash at Possum Point. But the company won’t provide that information until October 2018, at which point the cap-in-place construction could be complete.”

“Is Dominion’s plan the best solution for dealing with the coal as at Possum Point? Again we don’t know,” he said. “DEQ and Dominion should not rush forward to cap ash at Pond D  at Possum Point before assessing the full range of alternatives for dealing with this legacy waste.”

Prince William County has well-established authority to regulate landfills within its borders, Buppert said. Given the sentiments expressed by county supervisors at the hearing, he said, county intervention is a real possibility.

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.

More Hidden Deficits: Bad Bridges and Bad Metro

Virginia has its share of bad bridges.

Bad bridges. Image source: USA Today

Update on America’s hidden deficits: Nearly 56,000 bridges across the country are structurally unsound, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), as reported by USA Today.

More than one in four of the bad bridges are at least 50 years old and have never had major reconstruction work, according to the ARTBA analysis. Thirteen thousand are along interstates that need replacement, widening or major reconstruction. Virginia falls in the middle tier of states where the percentage of bad bridges ranges between 5% and 8.9%.

Don’t county on the federal government for help — unless the Trump administration moves ahead on its fiscally unsustainable $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan. The U.S. highway trust fund spends $10 billion a year more than it takes in. The USA Today article did not say how much it would cost the country to remedy the structural deficiencies.

Bacon’s bottom line: Welcome to the American way of building infrastructure. Uncle Sam subsidizes the up-front costs and the fifty states eagerly jump on board. Forty or fifty years later, the bridges wear out. The states haven’t salted away any money to fix them, and the feds say,” So, sorry, we only fund construction, not maintenance and repairs.”

If you want to build roads, bridges, highways, airports, and mass transit, you need a plan for long-term financing. Otherwise, you’re just creating a huge problem for the next generation. Eventually, the bills come due. If we can’t afford to fix what we’ve already built, we have no business building new stuff we can’t afford.

But we build new stuff anyway. A case in point comes from Loudoun Now: New estimates suggest that Loudoun County’s payments to the Washington Metro could run as much as $27.9 million higher than expected — double what was expected. (The number may be somewhat overstated because it includes the cost of a bus service, which Loudoun is already providing.)

Loudoun doesn’t have a station on the Metro Silver Line yet, but it will in a couple of years when Phase 2 is complete, and it will have to start paying its share of operations and capital costs. Unfortunately for Loudoun — and this was entirely predictable because METRO’s fiscal ills have been well known for years — METRO needs much more money than in the past to compensate for decades of under-funding and scrimped maintenance.

METRO’s problem has been brewing for decades. Fiscal conservatives have been sounding the warning for years and years. Government officials been making financial projections that everyone knows, or should know, have no basis in reality. But everyone pretends everything is fine to keep the gravy train rolling.

If it’s any consolation, $28 million is no big deal in a county budget that runs $2.4 billion a year, says county finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau. who also represents the county on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. “We’re the jurisdiction that’s building $35 million in elementary schools ever year.”

Hmmm…. I wonder if the county is socking away any money for maintenance, repairs and replacement of all those elementary schools. I would be astonished if it is.

Landfill, Recycle or Close in Place?

Coal ash disposal underway at Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station. Photo credit: Dominion Virginia Power

  • As debate intensifies over how to dispose of coal ash, Dominion Virginia Power says it is following the same approach as many other utilities: closing the coal ash ponds in place.
  • Environmentalists want to hold Dominion to a higher standard set by other utilities in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, where many are recycling and landfilling the ash. 
  • Outside experts say the optimal plan for each power plant depends on its unique circumstances.

Executives at Dominion Virginia Power thought they were being good corporate citizens a year ago by acting quickly to implement Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing the disposal of coal ash. When the EPA published its new rules, the electric utility promptly announced plans to create a long-term storage solution for the containment ponds at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations.

The EPA had enacted the rules in response to the rupture of a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond in 2008 and a spill from a Duke Energy facility in 2014, both of which caused extensive contamination of nearby rivers. The incidents sparked national outrage and stoked demands for measures to prevent another disaster. The fixes that Dominion detailed in its requests for waste-water and solid-waste permits put the company on the fast track to eliminate any chance of a spill from either power plant.

But the power company is not feeling the love. Environmental groups have contested company plans on the grounds that they would not prevent traces of heavy metals from leaching into the groundwater and eventually into rivers and streams. Denouncing Dominion for ravaging the environment, protesters marched on the state capital. Every other day seems to bring another controversial headline.

Rob Richardson, a Dominion spokesman on the coal ash issue, expressed the bewilderment felt by many within the utility. Dominion has been forward-thinking on coal ash, he said. While other companies submitted plans in late November 2016, Dominion unveiled its plans late in 2015. Instead of winning praise and moving expeditiously through the permitting process, the company has been subjected to an endless litany of criticism. Said Richardson: “We’ve been taking a beating.”

Environmentalists have moved beyond the original goal of stabilizing the coal ash. Through lawsuits, press releases and news stories, critics have changed the terms of debate. Dominion may be solving one problem — the threat that breaking levies might send large volumes of slurried coal ash spilling into the James or Potomac rivers — but critics says its plans to consolidate the coal ash in existing, unlined containment pits won’t halt the leaching of heavy metals into the groundwater.

The company did act quickly, but only to take advantage of a loophole in the EPA rule that allowed utilities to close “inactive” ponds with fewer monitoring requirements, says Greg Buppert, a Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) attorney who has represented the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and local river-keeper organizations in lawsuits against Dominion. The EPA has since eliminated that loophole.

“Dominion is ignoring an emerging industry standard in how utilities are dealing with these ash ponds,” he says. “Throughout the region, utilities are excavating unlined ponds, putting the ash in landfills, and in many cases recycling the coal ash.”

Stung by charges that it isn’t living up to the standard set by other utilities, Dominion recently released data culled from EPA filings. In truth, the company says, its closure practices fall well within the norms of the electric-utility industry. Only a minority of coal ash ponds are being landfilled. Many are being closed in place, as seen in the chart below.

coal_ash_closures

Number of coal ash ponds, by company, that are being closed in place. (Click for more legible image.)

Atlantic Coastal Plain. Image source: Wikipedia

But the chart doesn’t come close to settling the debate. Buppert counters that industry-wide comparisons aren’t relevant. Dominion’s power plants are located in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, a low-lying area where groundwater lies close to the surface. Hydrological conditions are different there than in the Piedmont and mountain regions where many coal plants are located. Utilities in the Carolinas and Georgia have agreed to landfill and recycle their coal ash rather than bury it in pits. Dominion has proposed instead to consolidate its coal ash in unlined pits — one at Bremo and one at Possums Point — and cap them with polyethelene lining and a two-foot layer of dirt. Dominion’s proposal, he argues, does not prevent groundwater from migrating through the pits and picking up leached metals from the ash.

In turn, Dominion argues that comparing its power plants to those of Duke Energy, Santee Cooper, Georgia Power and SG&E (SCANA) on the basis of superficially similar hydrology is flawed thinking. Each power plant is unique. Each site has distinctive topographical and hydrological features. Measures that make sense for one site don’t necessarily make sense for another.

Dominion insists that its approach protects the environment without the huge expense of landfilling the coal ash, which could run up the cost to $3 billion. Furthermore, trucking the coal ash to a landfilled location would take many years to complete, leaving the public little safer from potential spills during the interim than they were before. Indeed, literally thousands of truck trips through residential areas would elevate the risk of traffic accidents while diesel fumes and dust pose a nuisance and health risks.

Who’s right? It gets complicated. Strap on your face mask and buckle your scuba tank for a deep dive into the arcane discipline of coal ash disposal.

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Tommy Norment: W&M’s Man in the State Senate

Sen. Tommy Norment appears with former William & Mary President Gene Nichol.

In this 2007 photo, Sen. Tommy Norment appears with former William & Mary President Gene Nichol. Nichol presented him with the Prentis Award for civic involvement benefiting the college and community. Said Nichol: “Our College—like our community and our Commonwealth—is beyond fortunate to have Tommy Norment in our corner. William and Mary couldn’t ask for a more devoted advocate in Richmond.”

Does Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, have a conflict of interest regarding legislation affecting William & Mary?

Like many Virginia lawmakers, the Senate Majority Leader attended two Virginia institutions of higher education – the Virginia Military Institute and the College of William & Mary school of law. Unlike his colleagues, he is employed by a Virginia university. He works as an adjunct professor at William & Mary, which pays him $60,000 a year. That’s on top of his $50,000-a-year state senator’s salary and earnings from his private law practice with Kaufman & Canoles.

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax County, objected when a half-dozen tuition-reform bills he and other senators sponsored were routed from the Senate higher education subcommittee to the Senate Finance Committee, where they have died. Norment is co-chair of the Finance Committee.

“That’s an obvious conflict of interest if you have someone who’s an employee of an institution who is going to sit in judgment on all these tuition bills,” Petersen said, reports Karin Kapsidelis with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Norment did not return Kapsidelis’ phone call asking for a response.

Concerns about Norment’s ties to W&M have dogged both the university and him for years. Eight years ago, W&M President Taylor Reveley justified having Norment on the payroll this way:

Before Senator Norment joined us, we had only one full-time Coordinator of Legal Affairs and one part-time Assistant to the Provost for Legal Affairs (focusing on disciplinary matters). We have badly needed more inside legal help.

The work Senator Norment does as a William & Mary employee is substantive and demanding. His employment here is not a Potemkin village. His work involves both teaching and legal advice. His teaching has been extensive and successful. From the beginning of his time at William & Mary, the Senator has provided me with legal counsel. He continues to do so while also now working closely with our Coordinator of Legal Affairs.

Tommy Norment’s compensation reflects his status as an experienced lawyer coming from private practice. It is less than would be expected for someone of his seniority and ability in private practice or the corporate world. It makes sense for a university, however, and is consistent with how we compensate our other lawyers.

No “quid pro quo” was involved in Senator Norment’s and my conversations about the possibility of his joining William & Mary. The Senator did not offer to do anything for William & Mary in return for employment. Nor did I premise the possibility of his employment here on his doing anything for the university in the future.

No quid pro quo was necessary. Norment was an advocate for W&M before he went on the payroll, and he no doubt will continue to be when he leaves. And, to be fair, Norment is not the only powerful senator opposing tuition reform. Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, the senate minority leader, supported diverting the reform bills to Senate Finance.

When Petersen asked why a higher-ed bill was assigned to the finance committee, Saslaw responded, “It’s going to Finance when you start messing around with out-of-state numbers.” Presumably he was referring to caps on the number of out-of-state students at UVa and W&M. The General Assembly did not need to “micro-manage” the universities, Saslaw added.

(For details on the bills, see “Virginia Higher Ed Faces Backlash.”)

Bacon’s bottom line: How deep do the ties between a legislator and university have to run before it becomes a objectionable conflict of interest? Let me set the stage by asking some hypothetical questions:

• What if an Altria employee served in the state senate and voted against a higher tobacco tax? Would there be any question at all? It would be universally regarded as a conflict of interest.

• What if a Dominion Virginia Power employee served in the state senate and approved a measure that would increase electric rates? Clearly a conflict of interest. Del. Peter Farrell, R-Henrico, has abstained from voting on Dominion-related legislation on the grounds that his father was CEO of Dominion.

• What if the provost of W&M served in the state senate and deep-sixed measures designed to curb tuition increases? Clearly a conflict of interest.

• What if a tenured faculty member of W&M served in the state senate and deep-sixed measures designed to curb tuition increases? Still a conflict of interest.

The whole thing smells fishy to me.

The Legislative Logic of Proton Therapy

Proton therapy delivers precise doses of radiation, resulting in fewer side effects and less damage to surrounding tissues.

Proton therapy delivers precise doses of radiation, resulting in fewer side effects and less damage to surrounding tissues.

I just love it when legislators tell insurance companies whose services they should insure. Lawmakers are obviously so much more qualified to judge the efficacy of different medical treatments — why shouldn’t we trust their judgment?

Pardon my snark. A bill has passed the House of Delegates and moved to the state Senate that would forbid insurance companies from holding proton therapy to a higher standard of clinical evidence than other radiation treatments.

Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, submitted the bill on behalf of Hampton University (HU), which just happens to have a Proton Therapy Institute. HU complains that the procedure is still treated as experimental despite decades of research, explains Travis Fain with the Daily Press.

To tug at legislators’ heart strings, the bill’s supporters brought in Carolyn Lambert, wife of Benjamin Lambert, who served in the Senate more than 20 years and died in 2014. The Lamberts’ son is fighting prostate cancer now. Speaking in a halting voice, she said, the insurers “have abandoned him.”

Insurance lobbyists counter that they use blind studies to make coverage decisions, and that proton therapy makes the cut in some cases, such as pediatric and skull cancers, but not in others. “The bottom line is we don’t evaluate them differently,” said Doug Gray, executive director of the Virginia Association of Health Plans.

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed the bill on what appeared to be a unanimous voice vote, reports Fain. Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, a motioned “as a cancer survivor” to send the bill to the floor.

Bacon’s bottom line: This illustrates the worst of everything about the way the General Assembly works. Anecdotal information and sentimentality demolish reason and empirical evidence. The legislature is well on its way to passing a law that could well nudge the cost of insurance policies higher. The prostate cancer of Sen. Lambert’s son is a tragedy. What we will never see is the tragedy of the “third man,” the invisible victim for whom the cost of medical insurance will be put just out of reach.