The biggest issues facing Virginia—and 49 other states (CQ Roll Call)

It’s no secret that states produce a lot more legislation than Congress. Federal lawmakers passed 352 bills and resolutions in the last session. In the states, that count topped 45,000.

What are the issues that are driving all that productivity? That’s what CQ Roll Call’s 50 State Project was designed to find out.

Along with Dave Ress and Travis Fain of the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), I contributed to a list of the top issues facing Virginia. The full list, which includes not only Virginia but the other 49 states, is available for download at CQ/Roll Call. It’s free but CQ Roll Call asks for some information in return.

Here’s a sample including my take on Virginia’s energy issues:

ENERGY: What’s the Right Balance?
Virginia’s central location on the East Coast has presented it with a series of energy quandaries. President Obama has proposed opening the coast from Virginia to Georgia for offshore drilling. Virginia also sits along the path between the Marcellus and Utica shale formations—where there’s now a surplus of natural gas thanks to hydraulic fracturing technology—and a massive potential market in the Southeast. No fewer than three natural gas transmission pipelines have been proposed to connect the two. The proposals have been welcomed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and a bevy of state lawmakers, but they’ve also fired up landowners along the routes and created a political issue. Throw in questions over whether to remove a moratorium on uranium mining; the push to cut carbon emissions, which sparked argument over a tax credit for miners and regulatory changes to ease the closing of coal-fired plants; and last year’s derailment of an oil train that spilled into the James River, and policymakers face a dizzying array of energy questions.

For more, go to CQ Roll Call’s “50 State Project” page or use #statenews on Twitter.


Murder ballads & story songs with Anna & Elizabeth (Noisey)

A woman walks into the woods, gives birth to a couple of children and subsequently kills them. They appear as ghosts and condemn her to hell. This isn’t a black metal epic or Clive Barker movie, but “The Greenwood Sidey,” a nearly four-hundred-year-old song passed down through generations from the highlands of Scotland to the dark hollows of Appalachia. In this case, it’s illustrated with a hand-woven scroll moved slowly through a specially built cabinet, known as a “crankie,” that displays scenes from the song to its audience. This is the work of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle, a pair of 27-year-old women who perform these old songs and who released their self-titled second album on Tuesday.

Both sing and play an array of traditional instruments, but in recording and performance, LaPrelle, who grew up in Rural Retreat, Virginia, takes the lead in belting out the old songs, while Roberts-Gevalt, who grew up in Vermont and makes her home in Baltimore, shoulders the load when it comes to playing fiddle and other stringed instruments. The duo plays a variety of rollicking instrumentals and traditional tunes, but in live performances, it’s the storytelling ballads that are the show-stoppers, especially if it’s one of the eight songs with an accompanying crankie to illustrate the tale. The two also host the monthly Floyd Radio Show, now in its fourth season, which has featured the Black Twig Pickers and members of Old Crow Medicine Show among its guests, and they regularly schedule time to speak to elementary students between tour stops.

I interviewed Anna and Elizabeth for Noisey about the story behind “The Greenwood Sidey,” how crankies engage their audience, and exactly why these old, twisted songs have endured for so long.

Read the interview and stream “Greenwood Sidey” at Noisey.

Fugazi’s politics are still frighteningly relevant today (Noisey)

On the 1988 self-titled EP by Washington, D.C.’s Fugazi, Ian MacKaye sang, “You can’t be what you were”—a line directed, perhaps, at fans expecting a new iteration of Minor Threat, Rites of Spring or Embrace. But it could also have applied to the Fugazi of 2002, looking back at a fifteen-year run as it geared up for its final U.S. and European tours. The band evolved musically and lyrically over six albums, three EPs and more than 1,000 live shows played around the world. During that run, Fugazi built its own culture around low ticket prices, offbeat venues and expectations that its audience members would treat one another with respect.

The band’s albums are packed with political songs that still resonate today, from “Suggestion,” a song about rape from the first EP with implications that play directly into the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, to “Five Corporations” from 1998’s End Hits, which addresses the ever-growing influence of multinational companies. The band’s final album, 2001’s The Argument, was released a month after the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the performances that followed in 2002 occurred during those bizarre, awkward months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003.

MacKaye and Picciotto often devoted time between songs to discussing issues such as patriotism, gentrification and the increasing militarization of America’s police departments—topics that remain as crucial today as in 2002.

For more, read my story on Fugazi’s politics, then and now, at Noisey.

The legal jockeying for position ahead of a coal baron’s criminal trial (Grist)

A federal appeals court ruling has lifted the veil on months of legal jockeying in the upcoming criminal trial of West Virginia coal baron Donald Blankenship.

Blankenship, the former CEO of one-time coal giant Massey, allegedly conspired to systematically skirt safety regulations in the company’s mines, ultimately resulting in the April 5, 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., that killed 29 miners.

The explosion was caused when a sparks from a longwall shearer ignited a pocket of methane, generating a fireball that caused a second, more deadly explosion when it traveled down the mine and hit a bunch of coal dust. That blast tore through two and a half miles of mine, killing 29 of 31 men working in the area. State and federal investigators blamed Massey and a culture of skirting mining safety regulations.

A grand jury indicted Blankenship in November on four charges: conspiring to willfully commit routine violations of federal mine safety laws; conspiring to impede administration of the federal mine safety laws; making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the wake of the explosion; and securities fraud. If convicted, he faces 31 years in prison.

But documents made public for the first time Thursday suggest that Blankenship, who has famously avoided prosecution for past misdeeds, has no intention of serving that time. At the least, he’s going to put it off as long as possible.

Read more in my story for Grist.

Resurgent manufacturing sector drives SWVA rebound (Virginia Business)

Southwest Virginia continued to ride the nation’s economic upswing in 2014.

Numerous longstanding employers announced expansions from the Roanoke Valley down through the New River Valley and farther southwest, while two localities on the Blue Ridge Plateau — Carroll County and Grayson County — saw new businesses fill spots left vacant by previous occupants.

Now, however, the growth is starting to bump up against constraints, some natural and others due to a shrinking inventory of space and infrastructure.

Go to Virginia Business for my complete look at Southwest Virginia’s 2014 in economic development, along with a closer examination of a game-changing deal in Grayson County.

Natural gas transmission pipe dreams? (Roanoke Business)

Economic development advocates routinely cite Western Virginia’s central location and convenient access to the Eastern Seaboard as a key factor in attracting business and industry.

Those same factors are behind proposals to build three natural-gas transmission pipelines through the region. All three seek to connect West Virginia terminals flush with shale gas from the Marcellus and Utica formations with a huge customer base on the East Coast. The base includes major population centers, power plants moving away from coal and ports that could export liquified gas to foreign markets.

The three pipelines are:

* The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile, $3.2 billion transmission line connecting a terminal in Wetzel County, W.Va., with a compressor station in Pittsylvania County. The companies involved are majority partner EQT, an Appalachian natural-gas production and transmission company that operates in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, and NextEraEnergy, an energy company with generation assets in 26 states.

* The Appalachian Connector pipeline, formerly known as the Western Marcellus line, would be operated by Williams Partners LP, which owns the Pittsylvania compressor station, as part of the nearly 1,800-mile Transco natural-gas pipeline. It runs from South Texas through Virginia to New York City and delivers 10 percent of the nation’s natural gas. The Appalachian Connector pipeline would connect a Williams distribution facility in West Virginia with the Transco line. The company estimates it will stretch around 300 miles but hasn’t yet released a cost projection.

* The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed 550-mile, $5 billion line backed by four companies, including Richmond-based Dominion Resources Inc. and North Carolina-based Duke Energy, running from Harrison County, W.Va., through Virginia into North Carolina, with an additional spur running east to Hampton Roads.

The influx of proposals, each with different ownership and planned routes, already has triggered a flurry of opposition from residents in counties along proposed routes.

For more, read my cover leader in Roanoke Business this month.

How Volvo Trucks’ new track grew from a company and union working together (Roanoke Business)

Lots of little boys — and grown up men and women for that mattter — would jump at the chance to drive a monster truck.

At Volvo Truck’s sprawling manufacturing plant in Pulaski County, prospective customers can do just that, thanks to a customer experience track. The dogbone-shaped, 1.1-mile paved loop that wraps around stormwater ponds and a gnarly off-road path is the result of a collaboration between workers and management that’s given the company a new potent sales tool.

During a recent visit to the track by Roanoke Business, Volvo’s Inspiration Manager Marcus Thompson picked up a reporter in a custom-built, fully-loaded truck that was emblazoned with an American flag. He brought the cab to a stop just outside the track.

“Now, this is the point where I look to the executive sitting where you’re at and ask whether they’ve driven a big rig before. Some haven’t,” Thompson says.  “Have you driven a big rig before?”

“No,” I responded.

“Well, now’s your chance,” Thompson replies.

And with that, we switched places, and I spent the next hour driving the cab around the paved track. I also drove a fully loaded truck with trailer, then a dump truck weighed down with 30,000 pounds of gravel — all accompanied by Bruce Mochrie, an Australian-accented gentleman who trains Volvo Trucks’ North American sales team.

He walks people through each vehicle’s features, from the super-slow cruise control that allows truck drivers to creep in highway backups, to the dump truck’s ability to slowly glide down a 27 percent incline even though I’m not pressing the brake.

Afterward, Thompson walks me through the 1.6 million-square-foot factory, showcasing how the trucks are built, chatting up workers and backslapping along the way.

Everything, from the advanced robotics on the factory floor to the sheer fun of driving a big truck, feels geared to appeal to the visitor’s inner two-year-old. At the end of the tour, Thompson sometimes even gives out miniature tractor-trailer toys.

This is the experience potential buyers receive when they visit Volvo’s Dublin plant, the German’s company’s biggest manufacturing facility and its only one in North America. The day I visited, Thompson gave similar tours to customers from Texas, Oregon and New England.

The factory walk has been part of the spiel for years at the 296-acre plant. But the customer experience track, which allows buyers without commercial driver’s licenses to experience a truck’s features in a setting that approximates real-life conditions, was built over the last two years.

Read more about the track and how it was developed through a collaboration between Volvo Trucks and United Auto Workers Local 2069 at Roanoke Business.