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Making a list

SoVaNow.com / February 19, 2014
Everyone nowadays is so into making lists, I feel like I should contribute to the genre.

My lists are just a bunch of questions, actually. Because sometimes, questions are all you’ve got:

List #1 (with set-up):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is sending department reps to South Boston on Thursday to give an update on the coal ash spill into the Dan River. (The meeting will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Washington-Coleman Community Center, at 1927 Jeffress Boulevard. With any luck, the converted elementary school’s spacious parking lot will prove to be useful.) A friend dropped by the office Monday to seek out ideas for good questions to pose to EPA officials. It’s been a helpful exercise. Here are some thoughts:

(1) We know the EPA and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources periodically inspected the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C., where the coal ash spill occurred. We know, too, from the ensuing inspection reports that EPA and North Carolina’s DENR flagged various minor deficiencies with the containment dam that kept toxic coal wastes out of the Dan. (For more on this, see the front page of last week’s Sun, or visit our website, http://www.sovanow.com and search for the article: “A disaster Duke, regulators didn’t see.”) So: Amid the careful concern over critters burrowing into the earthen dike, and tree saplings taking root, did anyone think to ask why there might be two pipes running underneath the coal ash pit and the dam to the river’s edge? Were these pipes ever inspected?

(2) We know Duke Energy initially told the public that the collapsed pipe that cleaned out (!) the waste lagoon was made of reinforced concrete. Only later did we learn a portion of pipe was corrugated metal — the segment, of course, that crumbled under the weight of the coal ash pit, allowing the slag to rush into the river below. Why didn’t Duke, and the government agencies, heed the risks of a 60-year-old metal pipe running underneath a toxic waste dump — a dump without so much as a plastic liner in the event of a breach?

(3) A DENR spokesperson told this newspaper last week that the fateful pipe was not part of the Dan River Steam Station’s stormwater plan and thus was not subject to the agency’s permitting requirements. (The pipe handled runoff from a nearby field that contained few if any pollutants.) Question: If an activity or object doesn’t need a permit, does it even exist? If a tree falls in a forest, or crashes on the rip rap by the river bank, and the nearest beaver hears no sound, does that mean that no one gets to shoot the beaver?

List #2 (Virginia General Assembly edition):

The House of Delegates and State Senate released competing two-year budget versions this weekend. The two proposals depart most dramatically over Medicaid expansion — the Republican leadership in the House is dead-set against it, the Democratic-controlled Senate and new Democratic governor want it to happen. (Expansion of Medicaid is one of the key ways in which the Affordable Care Act, née Obamacare, makes health insurance accessible for low-income citizens, many of whom are members of the working population. In Virginia, an estimated 285,000 people would gain Medicaid insurance coverage with the expansion. Yet because of a ruling by the Supreme Court, states can refuse to take part, which is utterly crazy because they’re paying for the Medicaid expansion whether they choose to accept it or not.)

In an interesting twist, the Medicaid proposal that emerged from the Senate was developed by Republican members of the party’s fast-fading reasonable wing. Their idea is to create “Marketplace Virginia,” a state-run insurance exchange that would supplant that lovely little roundelay commonly known as healthcare.gov. With the new Marketplace, Virginia would capture federal Medicaid funding that would then be used to purchase private insurance policies for low-income citizens. (Basically the same “premium support” model for Medicaid is in use in Arkansas. Obamacare also offers premium subsidies to help middle-income people purchase insurance at a reasonable cost, although this part of the law clearly could use some fixing.) Despite the usual declarations of fiscal conservatism reverberating throughout Richmond, the private insurance, premium support model for Medicaid is actually more expensive than plain-vanilla Medicaid (no industry mark-ups, for one thing), yet it also satisfies GOP demands for private sector preeminence. Whatever — if the Senate approach can pick up enough votes and work all at the same time, I’m for it.

Let’s leave the set-up at that and return to the task at hand: list-making. Republican dead-enders have made all kinds of specious, irrelevant, pointless and wholly contemptible arguments for why expanding Medicaid is such a terrible thing. We will keep our sights trained, however, on the Southside “dignitaries” on our list:

(1) Frank Ruff. He told the Richmond Times-Dispatch this week that “we don’t think the apple’s ripe yet” for Medicaid expansion. Whenever I think of Ruff these days, I think of a different fruit: grapes, from the wine country of France. In case you didn’t know, over the past three years Senator Ruff has made three state-funded trips to Europe, including a Paris junket last year, ostensibly to help recruit overseas industries to Virginia. (Henry County recently experienced some success on this front, landing a U.K. aerospace parts company and 155 new jobs.) Yet just to put the matter in perspective, the Medicaid expansion will create 30,000 new jobs in Virginia’s health care sector, according to best estimates. So here’s a question: If it’s so fantastic for Frank Ruff to be living it up in Gay Paree, on the public dime, in the high name of job creation, why would he now try to kill off 30,000 new jobs and deny health care peace of mind to thousands of his constituents by casting a “no” vote on Medicaid? Does wine bring out Ruff’s mean streak?

(2) Bill Stanley. The Republican senator from Franklin County (a portion of Halifax lies in his district) was quoted this week in The Washington Post saying the GOP-authored Senate proposal is like putting “all the lipstick you want on this pig and call it by another name, it’s still Medicaid expansion.” (Stanley wasn’t exactly scoring originality points there.) Does Bill Stanley, reputedly one of the Republican right’s sharper blades, not know that pigs are among the animal world’s more intelligent creatures? Why, I bet if you brought an ordinary pig to the negotiating table and gave it the choice of paying taxes and getting something valuable in return (health coverage for 285,000 uninsured Virginians), or paying taxes and getting nothing in return (the right-wing Republican solution), said pig would come up with the correct answer every time! So what the oink is Bill Stanley’s excuse?

(3) Tommy Wright. Because he’s a nice guy, I’ve saved this scenario for last: our delegate comes across a constituent who waits tables for a living, or works at Walmart or McDonald’s, or cleans out bedpans for old folks who can no longer get out of the bed by themselves. Each of these workers is just as productive as your typical member of the General Assembly, if not much more so, yet none earns enough money to afford health insurance, and their employers don’t offer it as a benefit. These are just the sort of folks who would benefit most with the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia. And Tommy Wright, with a vote in the House of Delegates, where the fate of the program rests, has it within his grasp to try to help these people. Yet he won’t do it. Even though he’s a nice guy.

Are nice people beyond the capacity to feel shame?

As we said at the top: Nothing but questions, questions.











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