Monday, February 21, 2011
EKB Capsule News...West Virginia...2-22-'11
- Judges Alan Moats and Derek Swope have summoned lead attorneys to a two-day mediation Tuesday and Wednesday at the Charleston Town Center Marriott in an effort to settle a coal slurry lawsuit involving Massey Energy Co. More than 700 current and former residents of Rawl, Lick Creek, Sprigg and Merrimac claim their water supply was contaminated after Massey and subsidiary Rawl Sales and Processing pumped 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987. Residents believe the slurry then leaked into their wells and poisoned their water.
- Nearly 100 Public Workers Union employees gathered at the fifth annual rally at the state Capitol on Monday to show the Legislature they mean business about better wages and benefits and to show support for employees in Wisconsin, where the governor has plans to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. The House Finance Committee says it hasn't ruled out permanent pay raises for public employees, but members are considering back-to-back wage increases instead of proposed one-time payments. Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has requested at least $500 each for state employees, which would cost around $66.5 million.
- Mayor Kim Wolfe announced Monday afternoon that around 30 new jobs are coming to Huntington, a $3.5 million move. Wolfe says Level One Fasteners, which makes nuts and bolts for the U.S. Department of Defense, bought the Huntington Industrial Center for $3.5 million. The facility is located on West Tenth Avenue.
- Monday, the House Judiciary Committee eliminated a permanent ban on disposing of coal slurry by pumping it underground from legislation aimed at curbing the practice. The decision is a win for coal mine operators, who want to continue slurry injections, but it's a defeat to residents and environmental groups who say the practice pollutes groundwater and is linked to cancer, lead poisoning, kidney failure and other health problems. The state Department of Environmental Protection put a moratorium on new slurry injection permits two years ago, but 13 operations are allowed to continue the practice. DEP Secretary Randy Huffman says the moratorium will remain until he's convinced the agency can regulate the practice and keep the public safe.
- To help build the final 14.6-mile stretch of four-lane highway of U.S. 35 in Mason and Putnam counties, Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin is proposing a loan from the state Public Employee Retirement System. The original plan called for the state Parkways Authority to issue about $83.5 million in bonds, to be paid back over 30 years using revenues generated by tolls. The $187 million construction project has been on hold after Treasury Secretary Paul Mattox told lawmakers earlier this month the project would come up about $40 million short if the authority decided to move forward with a bond sale under current conditions. Tomblin's new plan lists options to pay back the money, including tolls.
- Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., Bill Nelson, D-Fla. and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. have sent a letter asking Florida Governor Rick Scott to abandon efforts to cut funding to the state's prescription drug monitoring program. Some experts believe southern Florida alone may be responsible for almost half of the illicit distribution of prescription painkillers in the United States. In 2006, clinics in the southern portion of Florida handed out 85 percent of all the Oxycodone distributed by doctors nationally.
- Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Chris Coons, D-Del., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. visited Afghanistan and Pakistan over the weekend, meeting with officials from both countries. Manchin said Monday, in a conference call from Kandahar, Afghanistan, that we have been in this war longer than any other land conflict, and we've got to make sure what we're doing there is right. Manchin said the budget calls for committing a tremendous amount of money to the country through 2014, while there are cuts to programs for West Virginia children back home. Manchin said the U.S. needs to get to a support role in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, but it's dealing with a country with no economy.
- Under a proposal submitted to the Legislature Monday by Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, West Virginia would elect a lieutenant governor. If approved, the measure would ask voters in the 2012 general election to amend the state constitution to create the new executive branch post. The resolution would borrow from the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which oversees succession upon death, resignation or removal of a president, to update the state constitution's succession process. Candidates for lieutenant governor and governor would run together both in primary and general elections. The elected lieutenant governor would serve as secretary of an existing cabinet department until needed to fill in, either temporarily or for the remainder of a term, as the state's governor.
- The state Senate voted 26-6 Monday to update West Virginia law to reflect several provisions of the federal health care overhaul. One of the federal provisions extends coverage to the adult children of policy holders, while another bars insurers from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. Other provisions prevent insurers from capping lifetime benefits, or charging extra for certain preventive care.
- A funding gap for public retiree health care is prompting West Virginia lawmakers to consider raising tobacco taxes and capping retiree subsidies. A Senate bill introduced Monday aims to ease concerns that prompted county school boards to sue unsuccessfully over retiree costs last year, while focusing on other post-employment benefits, or OPEB. West Virginia estimates it lacks nearly $7 billion of what it's promised in these benefits, mostly health coverage, leading the state to end coverage subsidies for employees hired after June 2010. The bill keeps that and caps existing subsidies at $150 million annually.
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