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Opinion

Rock bottom

SoVaNow.com / July 03, 2018
In the course of putting together our Town of Clarksville bicentennial edition last week, I read through some of James Sheppard’s old columns and came across this from May 2011:

Much of Mecklenburg, Halifax and adjoining counties in Virginia and North Carolina have a solid rock foundation that comes very close to the surface in many places. The road builders of Highway 58 found much of this kind of rock when they started to rebuild it into a modern dual highway in the mid 1950s. The site of Buggs Island Dam was chosen because of the solid rock in the bottom of the river. This gave a solid foundation to the dam.

Not all of this rock was the same. A special type of rock starts near the Roanoke River, south of Boydton where Taylors Ferry used to cross the river. It continues south into North Carolina along the Vance-Granville line. This vein of rock is at least 4000 feet deep, one mile wide, and eight miles long. Some mining experts think that it may be 10,000 feet deep and even wider and longer. There is speculation that it may extend well into Mecklenburg County. However, few if any deep drill samples have been taken north of the Roanoke River.


The “special type of rock” is tungsten, once mined extensively in nearby Townsville, N.C. The above passage was characteristic of James Sheppard’s way of plumbing the lost memories of the area to tell present-day stories that were consistently fascinating and fresh. (James passed away in 2017.) Yet it wasn’t the part about tungsten production that caught my eye in this particular column. Rather, it was James’ passing reference to Mecklenburg’s near-to-the-surface rock bed and the foundation it provides for the dam and highway. Massive granite formations are ideal for some projects. They can break others.

I took a class in geology in college, enjoyed it immensely, and wouldn’t pretend to know much about the subject other than an amount sufficient to get myself in trouble. So take this in the spirit in which it is intended, of throwing out a piece of conjecture without a lot of supporting information behind it: I keep hearing that the rock bed under Mecklenburg’s proposed school complex is a freakish thing, a marvel of geology, and excavating the foundation will add many millions to the cost of the new facility. There have been some passing references to the problem in School Board meetings but no extensive assessments so far as I know. Can someone help me with this?

The deal to situate the school on U.S. 58 near Route 4 represents a delicate political arrangement, crafted to win a five-vote majority on the School Board and split the difference (as best as possible) between the east and west power centers of Mecklenburg County. But science doesn’t care about the political imperatives of humankind, and geology is an unforgiving field of science. There already are good reasons to think Mecklenburg might be well served by reopening the debate over where to put the school. Personally, I would rather not see that happen, although we’re getting to the point where something has to give: either the Board of Supervisors has to allocate roughly $10 million more for the project (on top of the stated $100 million budget), or essential elements of the plan such as the ag barn (and an adequate-sized auditorium) must go by the wayside, or the county needs to find a new site that doesn’t incur the expense of running new infrastructure miles east of Boydton or rebuilding roadway access for school bus traffic. If the underlying rock bed drives up the cost of construction even further, then we could have no choice but to shelve the current site and go back to the drawing board.

Like I said, I hope this doesn’t happen. Delay is an important cost consideration with school construction, and Mecklenburg already is operating on a 30-year time lag in replacing its secondary school facilities. But these things are all the more reason to seek clarity on the question of whether rock-breaking is a deal-breaker for the current school site. Inquiring minds want to know.

***

On last week’s editorial page, we had a minor outbreak of letter writing in response to my June 20 column on the Trump Administration’s inhumane and un-American policy of separating immigrant families at the border and detaining children in literal cages. Apparently the topic was upsetting enough to rouse some readers to pick up a pen and offer their own opinions. Good. Keep those Viewpoint letters coming.

I won’t go through all the particulars, but suffice it to say our two contributors — Joe Vitanza and G.E. Reyes — made a few points I agree with, many other points I don’t agree with, and both argued their perspectives well. (I will single out this comment by Mr. Vitanza, however: “what Mr. McLaughlin fails to point out in his hyper-partisan rhetoric is the fact that [family separation] is a problem caused mutually by the inability of our elected officials, both Democrat and Republican, to adequately secure our borders and to come up with a plan to control immigration into this country.” His letter was published the same day that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives rejected an immigration bill that was negotiated over a seven-week period between so-called moderate and hard-line Republicans with exactly zero input from Democrats. The vote was 301-112, with about half of Republicans and all Democrats opposing the measure. Please, spare us the fiction that forcible separation of families at the border is the product of some mythical bipartisan failure of governance. And by the way, citing fact and objective truths is not “hyper-partisan rhetoric,” despite what some people may want to believe.)

You want hyper-partisanship? This week, state Sen. Frank Ruff submitted one of his “constituent” columns where he ventured far beyond his customary realm of (mis)understanding — legislative happenings in Virginia’s General Assembly — to defend the cruelty of Donald Trump’s family separation policy. Ruff’s column summons a saying most often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” Honest Abe would have had a field day with our senator.

This passage by Ruff stands out in particular: “Headline after headline focused on the cruel Trump administration’s policy of taking and holding children at the border. Every story appeared to be the same. Leading with an interview with a mother who was crying because her child had been taken from her arms. I thought, maybe compassion was being overruled by policy. Then I dug a little deeper. The Democrat Senator from California had sponsored legislation requiring that illegals stopped at the border not of age had to be held separate from adults.” It’s unclear if Ruff understands the full implications of the phrase “dig a little deeper” — as in, he’s in a hole and digging deeper — but our senator proceeds to render a fractured and thoroughly dishonest telling of immigration policy that concludes with this whopper: “In summary, the Trump administration has been following the same plan as the Obama administration. Following the law that was passed by Congress to protect innocent children from being housed with adults.”

I hope no one buys this, because all of it’s flat untrue and Ruff ought to be ashamed to lend his name to such a pack of falsehoods. Let’s recap the story: around 2014, the Obama White House was scrambling to deal with a sharp influx of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) fleeing strife-torn Central American countries and showing up at the U.S.-Mexican border. Estimates put the number of parentless children at the border (mostly teenagers) at around 60,000. Just to state the obvious, there’s a huge difference between children who migrate to the U.S. outside of the company of their parents, and traumatized children who are ripped away from their mothers and fathers by border enforcement agents. You’d think folks would understand the distinction, but apparently that’s not always the case.

With such a large number of unaccompanied youths to take care of — a requirement of law, not simply a question of how neighborly the U.S. chose to be — President Obama established detention centers for children and families seeking asylum at the border. The proposed center at St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville (mentioned in Ruff’s column) was envisioned as just such a center before the plan was thwarted by local opposition, but many of these facilities were indeed built (some on military bases already under federal government control.) It’s hard to tell what Ruff is talking about when he refers to “the Democrat Senator from California” (presumably Dianne Feinstein), but Feinstein’s current bill in Congress would ban the Trump Administration policy of family separation for immigrants seeking asylum, which is not something that happened during the Obama Administration, save in cases where the adults were arrested on suspicion of committing felonies (human trafficking being one notable example.) These are all somewhat complicated facts, but none of them support Ruff’s claim that Donald Trump is doing exactly what Barack Obama did before him. And as usual for our senator, Ruff doesn’t even bother to try to support his assertions with actual facts, he just throws out a bunch of fragmented information and non sequiturs — lies, basically — in the hope that people will be impressed by his senatorial title and follow along. It shouldn’t even be necessary to point out that Ruff disgraces his office, but there you go.

The U.S. has long operated under something called the Flores Settlement, which prevents minors from being detained in adult immigrant detention settings. Basically, it’s a court-ordered set of rules that says you can’t keep children in jail settings even as their parents have been detained. Rather than adhere to a system that upholds humane treatment of children, Donald Trump created a national crisis, and an ongoing moral catastrophe, when he opted to jail entire families of asylum seekers at the Mexican border, rather than restrict incarceration to adult individuals accused of felony crimes. (Crossing the border without legal authorization is a misdemeanor offense.) As a result of this policy, children have been confined along with their parents — not in jails per se, but in chain-link, concrete-floor enclosures, forcibly separated from their mothers and fathers and abused in the name of the People of the United States. That’s not something I want on my hands, and those who chose to excuse or rationalize this monstrous policy should perhaps ask themselves if whitewashing is an acceptable response to state-sponsored cruelty.

As for Frank Ruff, he occasionally offers mild tsk-tsking in response to the President’s deplorable personal behavior, but when push comes to shove he reveals his colors as a true-blue Trump chump. It’s hard to know whether Ruff is being purposely ignorant about the family separation policy or if this sort of thing just comes naturally to our senator, but that’s not a question I’d want people asking of me if I were in Ruff’s place.

The low quality of leadership in the U.S. runs deep.





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