Thursday, August 30, 2012

Staggered Terms for Augusta?

Should Augusta County's elected boards - the Board of Supervisors and the School Board - change to staggered terms where part of each board would be elected every two years rather than the current system in which the entire boards stand for election every four years? The short answer is YES.

Current chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Tracy Pyles, put this question before the former Board of Supervisors two years ago and got a thumbs down. It appears there were too many hard feelings and personality clashes for Mr. Pyles to move this good idea forward. In early August, the current Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to put the question out for comment at a September 26 public hearing.

Staggered terms are greatly preferred over the current system of electing all supervisors and school board members at the same time. Under the current system, it might be unlikely, but possible, that all new members would be elected at the same time. Continuity and institutional knowledge would be destroyed and the board might struggle to find its footing. Staggered terms also give voters, at least in some magisterial districts, the opportunity to sound off on issues facing the county that can be a barometer of sentiment not only for the newly elected members but also for those in mid-term.

Staggered terms will temper the power of voting blocks and special interests whose demagoguery or money might unduly influence the electorate, especially in a low-turnout local election. Hot button issues would be less likely to influence the stability and continuity of governance. Staggered terms provide a bit of checks and balances - a fundamental principle in American government at both the federal and state levels. Many cities and counties use staggered terms to bring it to local government as well.

If the change is made, in 2015 voters in selected magisterial districts would elect members of the Board of Supervisors and School Board for two year terms while voters in the other magisterial districts would elect representative for four years. In 2017 those selected magisterial districts would elect representatives for four year terms.

If the Board of Supervisors decides to move to staggered terms, its next decision will be to select magisterial districts that will elect representative for a two year term in 2015. That process should be as nonpartisan as is humanly possible.

It was totally inappropriate for Supervisor David Karaffa to volunteer to run for a two year term. Mr. Karaffa currently represents the Beverley Manor District, but he does not own the seat - the people of the district do. Perhaps Karaffa was just being generous or showing his support for staggered terms, but it is entirely possible that he, or another supervisor, could be making a personal political calculation if they have a say in which districts are on which election cycle. Maybe Mr. Karaffa wants to run for the General Assembly but doesn't want to give up his spot on the Board of Supervisors to do so. I am not saying it is so, but in politics appearances count for everything.

I suggest a lottery system - perhaps drawing straws or using ping pong balls like the Virginia Lottery uses - done before the sharp eyes of the media and the public. Done in a way that dispels any notion that a current office holder is manipulating the process for personal advantage. Only then will Augusta County move to the superior system of staggered terms without any suspicion that the system is being rigged for political purposes.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Green Colleges

The Sierra Club ranked 96 participating colleges on their commitment to improving the environment - things like cutting down on emissions, serving sustainable cafeteria food, responsible use of energy and water, and curriculum. A perfect score is 894.5 points and the top scoring school in the nation, University of California, Davis scored 709.17. Here is how the four participating schools in the Commonwealth fared:
  • VCU came in 21st with a score of 569.59
  • George Mason University came in 34th with a score of 554.50
  • University of Richmond came in 69th with a score of 402.26
  • Roanoke College came in 94th with a score of 147.11
So, my questions are: What about the other Virginia schools? Why didn't they participate in the survey? What steps are they taking to save the planet and pass on a sense of environmental responsibility to students and the larger community?

Eastern Mennonite University and Washington & Lee have installed solar panels. JMU has research into both wind and solar. Yet none of them participated in the survey. Why were the flagship schools - the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech - AWOL? How about other public institutions like Old Dominion University and Longwood? One private school, Roanoke College, participated but the remainder of state's many fine private colleges like Bridgewater, Emory & Henry, and Randolph Macon sat on the environmental sidelines.

Students, alumni, communities, and the entire Commonwealth look to our institutions of higher learning to show leadership and to set high standards guiding us into the future. Hopefully the next time the Sierra Club seeks out America's Greenest Colleges more of Virginia's institutions will participate... and score high!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Port Isobel service/adventure

Last week I joined with about thirty others to visit, learn, and work at Port Isobel, an educational facility of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). The 250 acres of island and marshes is located just east of Tangier Island and is shown on nautical charts as East Point Marsh. The educational facility consists of a dorm for up to 30 people and a conference center with kitchen. Living up to its commitment to environmental stewardship, the CBF facility has solar power, composting toilets, and water saving innovations.

Port Isobel as seen from the beach to the east.
We arrived in Crisville, Maryland about noon and loaded our gear aboard the Loni Carol II, a 40-foot Chesapeake Bay workboat for the journey to our island home for the next four days. Since few of us knew each other prior to that day, introductions were made as the Loni Carol II plowed through the Bay during our 45 minute voyage to Port Isobel. Arriving at the dock, teamwork quickly took over as we unloaded our personal gear and food/supplies for the four day stay. After a brief orientation we signed-up for our meal preparation/cleanup shifts and set out to explore the area. Many of us hiked the trail through a stand of bamboo and across the marsh to a small strip of beach... learning quickly that the flies were both numerous and ferocious. After dinner there are get acquainted activities and discussions about challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay.

Sunrise at Port Isobel
After breakfast on our first full day at Port Isobel we signed up for various repair and maintenance jobs in desperate need of attention. There were trails (laced with poison ivy) to clear and widen; painting of decks, rails, and door/window frames; gardens to weed and mulch; fire pits to build; and much more. Breaking into teams, everyone quickly found the necessary tools and supplies and got straight to work. 

Repairing and painting a deck and railing.
Working closely with others, conversations became lively as we got to know our news friends better. "Where do you live?" "What do you do for a living?" "Why did you pay to come to this CBF work and learn adventure?" This activity was apparently a first for the CBF and was modeled after "volunteer vacations" of the Sierra Club. For two days our mornings and about an hour after lunch would be dedicated to making Port Isobel a more attractive and safer place for students and teachers who visit to learn more about the environment, history, and culture of this national treasure.

Cleaning and mulching gardens.
The afternoons were for learning and adventure. There was canoeing and hiking for some. Others simply enjoyed the scenery and read on the dock. Loading crab pots on the Loni Carol II, we set 15 pots as the captain explained the challenges facing the watermen of Tangier and the environmental issues threatening the blue crab. We learned about the life-cycle of crabs, some history of bay crabbing, and the politics of regulation and crabbing along the Virginia/Maryland line.

After another great dinner (chicken stir fry) we met and had a conversation with Tom Horton, who for over 30 years, covered the environment and Chesapeake Bay for the Baltimore Sun and has authored numerous articles and books about life and culture in the region. Homespun and a great story teller, Horton brought us closer to life and loss in Tangier and Smith Island.

Friday we continued with our assigned jobs... and some new ones... anticipating our afternoon trip to Tangier. Walking the narrow streets, sampling the ice cream, visiting the museum, and chatting with locals gave us just a taste of the very different life of the people of Tangier. Leaving Tangier, we set a course for the crab pots we'd set 24 hours earlier. Our catch yielded about 100 keepers and CBF staff bought another half bushel plus some soft shell crabs and the evening's feast featuring a crab pickin' was on!! One thing was clear about this trip... we ate well... and so did the bugs!
The haul from our crab pots.
Saturday morning. You might think we'd be anxious to get home and away from all the sweat and bugs, but I think everyone was settling into the routine and would have gladly spent another day or two at work, just to stay on Port Isobel and take it all in. After breakfast we again boarded the Loni Carol II and headed for the grass beds for scraping, the process of harvesting soft shell crabs for sale (video). We caught crabs (didn't keep any) and we brought back other fish, shrimp, etc to put in Port Isobel's aquarium.

Sunset at Port Isobel
After a couple hours of cleaning the buildings and grounds, and taking the obligatory group picture, we loaded our gear, recycling, and trash on the Loni Carol II and headed for the marina at Crisfield. The waves and chop were a bit higher than on our trip out so the ride was a bit rougher, wetter, and longer. 
Like everyone, I was moved by what I'd experienced and learned at Port Isobel and intrigued by new friends whose daily lives are so different than my own. Many of the participants were from NOVA or the Baltimore and Annapolis areas... a couple even wondered if where I live is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (yes, most of the Shenandoah Valley drains into the bay). It was too bad, but perhaps understandable, that not a single participant was from Pennsylvania - the largest contributor of water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Rivers from 6 states and D.C. drain into a
tidal basin that averages just 21' in depth.
Perhaps the greatest lesson is that, in restoring and saving the Chesapeake Bay, as in climate change and all our environmental time bombs, we are all in the same boat. We inhabit the same earth, drink the same water, and breath the same air. Individually we can make a difference by being responsible children of Mother Earth and never, ever taking her for granted in our daily lives. Collectively... by working together and putting aside selfish motivations... we can solve all of these challenges and many more to come.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

This is bugging me

One of the really nice things about living in the central Shenandoah Valley is the absence of many biting insects cause welts, itching, and irritation that can ruin early mornings in the garden or an evening on the porch. I can recall many years in which I counted mosquito bites for the entire summer on my fingers and toes. And, we don't have the green head flies and black flies that infest some eastern areas of the commonwealth. It does seem though, that blood sucking politicians are found in all regions of Virginia.

Growing up in Tidewater, I can remember how bad mosquitos were on a sultry summer night. The city had a truck that patrolled neighborhoods fogging the air with some unknown mist to kill the nasty little devils. As kids we were glad to see the relief from itching coming down the road, but in retrospect it was probably some toxic witches brew that, while killing mosquitoes, is responsible for my memory loss in older age. When I stayed in the Valley after college, I didn't miss the mosquitos or flies of my childhood. Visits home often brought painful and itchy reminders of what I'd left behind.

But the nasty little vampires seem to be finding a niche in the Shenandoah Valley, or at least in my backyard, over the past couple summers. Perhaps this summer we can attribute it to the heat along with the rainfall and humid conditions. Many mornings and evenings I'm hit with multiple mosquito bites in just a few minutes. With some hesitation, I break out the Deet bug spray (the only thing that consistently works for me) and keep them at bay while rubbing a little anti-itch ointment on the  growing red bumps.

Manmade climate change and global warming may be responsible for some of the recent population increase in these nasty bugs in the Valley. And there is a bigger picture - we may just be on the cusp of a future with more bugs and diseases that aren't familiar to most folks in the U.S.A. An interesting  Mother Jones article, 7 Climate Change Diseases to Ruin Your Monday, highlights the science behind climate changes that are creating favorable conditions for odious and dangerous diseases to find their way into your home town. Check out just a few of these disagreeable and gross diseases spread by mosquitos and ticks:
  • West Nile Virus is spread by mosquitos. No cure.
  • Lyme Disease is spread by ticks. No cure but antibiotics help many.
  • Chikungunya is spread by mosquitoes. Currently found in Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, but is finding its way into Europe. No cure.
  • Rift Valley Fever is spread by mosquitos. Only experimental cures.
  • Dengue Fever is spread by mosquitos and has been found in Florida and southern Texas. It may be the most likely disease to spread in the U.S because of climate change.
The link above will give you more information about each disease (and others spread by algae and fungus) including symptoms and the forecast about them potentially spreading to North America.

In the meantime, pass the Deet. Maximum strength!

According to the CDC, the West Nile outbreak is the largest ever with four times the cases for this time of the year. There have been 41 deaths and 1,118 cases in 38 states - about half in Texas with ground zero being the Dallas area. There are probably many more cases since people with mild symptoms often don't go to a doctor. Ways to avoid the West Nile virus (other than staying away from Texas) include:
  • Use an effective mosquito repellant;
  • Wear long pants and long sleeved shirts when outside, especially at dawn and dusk when mosquitos are most active;
  • Keep screens on doors and windows closed;
  • Remove standing water from mosquito breeding places like buckets, barrels, and flower pots and change pet and bird bath water every day or so. If your gutters hold standing water, consider flushing weekly.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cypress Creek coal-plant on hold... hopefully forever

Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) announced in a press release that it has suspended plans for a coal-fired plant known as Cypress Creek near Dendron in Surry County, Virginia. The announcement is a victory for cleaner air and water, especially in the Tidewater region of the commonwealth. ODEC cited more stringent EPA regulations and market conditions as driving the decision, but a broad coalition of groups, including Wise Energy for Virginia, had built a strong case that harm to air quality and water quality from the 1,5000 megawatt plant would outweigh any possible benefits. Less demand for coal also means less destruction from mountaintop removal coal mining.

ODEC supplies power to 11 electric cooperatives including Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative. This bird attended the SVEC annual meeting where ODEC's CEO, Jack Reasor, said the company would not be moving forward on Cypress Creek and looking at alternative sources. Coarse Cracked Corn had previously commented on the $6 billion threat to the environment here and here and is proud to have been a tiny "cluck, cluck" in the coalition of groups, local governments, and citizens in Hampton Roads that helped to put this toxic stew on the back burner.

Those of us who care about the environment need to keep minding the kitchen because the toxic stew isn't totally off the stove - ODEC spokesman, David Huggins, indicated work may resume in a couple years depending on the outcome of an appeal to the Supreme Court over the EPA's carbon emissions standards.

Glen Besa, director of the Virginia Chapter Sierra Club, called on ODEC to invest in "efficiency, wind and solar power now." For its part, ODEC says it is exploring "alternative sources of power supply" but that could mean more natural gas and hydrofracking. As citizens we need to keep the pressure on the General Assembly and utilities to put in place meaningful laws and policies to encourage efficiency and renewable energy. Virginia could look to forward-looking states where a variety of incentives make solar and wind energy affordable now.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Just say NO to uranium mining in Virginia
There is a widely held view across the commonwealth that uranium mining in Virginia is a bad idea. When Paul Locke, the chair of the National Academy of Sciences report, "Uranium Mining in Virginia said, " Internationally accepted best practices, which include timely and meaningful public participation, are available to mitigate some of the risks involved. However, there are still many unknowns."

Unknowns? Mitigate some risks?

Virginia's climate and geology does indeed present significant and scary unknowns to uranium mining and milling that have not been confronted in other places. As the report noted, Virginia is subject to extreme natural events, including hurricanes, tornados, and heavy rainfall. And, as we've recently witnessed, the commonwealth is not immune to earthquakes.

The risks to public health and safety are great, yet powerful economic interests led by Virginia Uranium, Inc. are pulling out all the stops to influence legislators and agencies who will make the final decisions about keeping or rescinding the 1982 statewide moratorium on uranium mining. Those decisions will affect the future of every Virginian and possibly people beyond the state's borders. Unable to get ban-lifting legislation through the General Assembly, the industry enlisted Governor Bob McDonnell to create a Working Group that is tilted towards industry views, lacks transparency, and has encouraged little public participation.

To date, many concerns and questions remain unanswered. For instance:
  • What happens to left over toxic wastes?
  • What is the impact on drinking water supplies for millions of Virginians?
  • What is the impact on air quality for the region?
  • How will hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation be affected?
  • What is the impact on key parts of the Virginia economy such as agriculture and tourism?
  • What plans are in place for extreme natural events?
  • What is the impact on property values near mines and mills and along transportation routes?
  • What is the impact..... (fill in your own concern or check these out)?
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is conducting public meetings on issues of water quality and water recreation to assess the impact of uranium mining and milling in the commonwealth. The meetings scheduled (more info about these and other meetings) are:
  • August 7 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at the Chatham Circuit Court Building in Chatham, VA;
  • August 15 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at The Barn, Lord Fairfax Community College in Warrenton, VA;
  • August 29 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at Meyera Oberndorff Library in Virginia Beach, VA.
If you can't make the meetings, you can submit comments directly to the Uranium Working Group online or by mail at 1100 Bank Street, 8th Floor, Richmond, VA 23219.

Another way to take action is to contact your legislators in the General Assembly. For those of us in the central Valley contacting Senator Emmett Hanger is vitally important. He has previously shown that he is willing to listen and he has been sensitive to environmental concerns on other issues. And, as a senior member of the Virginia Senate, he holds a position of power and influence. Not sure who your legislators are or want more ideas for your email to him/her - visit the Virginia Chapter Sierra Club.

Virginia faces many challenges in the commonwealth's diverse environment - cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, reducing the impact of burning dirty coal on air and water quality, mountaintop removal coal mining, and the uncertain dangers of hydrofracking in the huge watersheds of the George Washington National Forest. Each of these threats is very real and deserves the public's and policymakers' attentions. But, the unknowns and horrific perils of uranium mining and milling in Virginia are job #1 of all who care about a healthy future for the Old Dominion.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ex-skeptic... global warming real; caused by humans

Richard Mueller, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been a very prominent skeptic about the human causes of climate change.

Until Monday.

On July 30, 2012 Mueller, a member of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature team said the "evidence has changed my mind." He continued, "Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct... I'm now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause."

So what does this have to do with the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia - the focus points of this blog? Everything, ya dumb cluck.

If we are going to slow human caused global warming it will take political initiative, commitment, and concrete actions right here in the commonwealth as well as around the world. One small step is to tell Virginia senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb to show leadership by supporting renewal of the production tax credit for wind power. It will mean jobs for Virginians, cleaner air over the commonwealth, and fewer greenhouse gasses cranking up global temperatures.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Lies, damn lies and Bob Goodlatte

His nose is growing!
Rep. Bob Goodlatte joins a growing Republican liars' chorus in his recent comments about President Barack Obama being anti-small business. Joined by his crony, Chris Saxman, Bobblehead Bob criticized the president for saying that small businesses owe their success to government.

Thing is, that is not what President Obama said.

Bobblehead Bob and the former delegate deceptively cherry picked President Obama's July 13 speech in Roanoke to make it sound like small businesses can't claim credit for their successes. I guess we might give Bob and Chris a pass - after all their primary source of "news" is probably Fox "News"and it was this propaganda mill that first perpetuated the big lie.

Here is what President Obama actually said with what Fox reported in italics:
[L]ook, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires. 
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That's how we funded the GI Bill. That's how we created the middle class. That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for President -- because I still believe in that idea. You're not on your own, we're in this together.
Fox, the Romney campaign, and Bobblehead Bob have so little good to say about GOP candidates, that they are left with a pitiful strategy of lies and intentional distortion. I guess ginning up some controversy is a good way to distract voters from Romney's foot-in-mouth "diplomacy" where he did everything from insulting America's best friend, to offending Palestinians, and eventually going way off  the GOP message by praising Israel's government controlled health care system.

On July 25, in a segment called "Do We Look Stupid? Don't Answer That," Jon Stewart skewered Fox, the Romney campaign, and all the wing nut talking heads for their willful manipulation of facts:

If, like me, you are sick and tired of Bobblehead Bob either (1) avoiding issues (the last two times I contacted him I got a off-topic form letter response sending the strong message he doesn't give a whit about constituents' views), or (2) marching in lockstep with Republican lies, or (3) just being a crummy representative, you should know there is a better choice for Virginia's Sixth District. A choice who will listen and give you some straight talk for a change. A choice who really believes in "government of the people, by the people, for the people." That choice is Andy Schmookler.