Let's Remember Mary C. Snow: An Open Letter to The Charleston Gazette

 Photo is from a screenshot of  WCHS television's video.


Thomas Carlyle is reputed to have written, "Histories are a kind of distilled newspapers."

As a lover of your newspaper, that's why I was disappointed today when I checked your archives and couldn't read more about Mary C. Snow, an educator in Kanawha County, West Virginia Schools for more than fifty years and the first African-American principal in the area. By contrast, WCHS television still has a January  video online. Perhaps that's because Wes Armstead, now Managing Editor at the station remembers Snow as one of his teachers.

Mary Snow passed away in January at the age of 97.  Now, as you report, many in the community have asked that West Side Elementary School be renamed in her honor as a remembrance of her dedication to the community's children. And yet, reading the virulent comments on the articles, I'm wondering how many folks know in any depth about the accomplishments of Ms. Snow and her importance in the history of Charleston and of West Virginia.

As the December 19 editorial in The Daily Mail noted of the School Board's 3-2 not to rename the school,
It's a crying shame, and a missed opportunity to teach history.

Snow, who died in January at age 97, was a shining example of the power of public education.

The school should have been named for her - not so much because it would properly have honored her, but because it would have extended her teaching career.

Nothing would have pleased her more.

Born in 1913, the oldest of seven children in a poor family, Snow lost her father to violence when she was 13. Her mother took in laundry to support her children.

But Mary C. Snow overcame poverty and racism to graduate from West Virginia State College and earn a master's degree from the University of Cincinnati.

She went on to serve as a teacher, principal and inspiration on the West Side for more than five decades.

Like West Side educator Isom Cabell before her, she changed history.Snow's story resonates as strongly today as it did when her generation was in elementary school.
As my friend filmmaker Jordan Freeman noted on facebook, "It's very representative of WV government's disrespect of its own citizens that the school board won't name the school after a well-respected community teacher, a small thing in the scheme of things, but a very clear example of unresponsive state government."

Community leaders including Reverend Watts are circulating a petition that already had 500 signatures as of December 15, according to your paper.

Jordan is planning a petition on Change.org (the same site that Molly Katchpole used to used to persuade Bank of America to cancel its $5 debit card fees. Jason explains, "They've been doing great on-the-ground organizing to get this name change, as the tip of the iceberg about basic community respect. An online petition will hopefully help further that effort." (I'll include a link when the petition is online.)

The Gazette has special reports which open its archives on scoundrels such as bank robber Roy Plummer and disgraced politician Jerry Mezzatesta. Also on some of the scourges that let outsides stereotype WV and Appalachia, in general, as benighted: drug overdoses, mining disasters, mountaintop removal. How about a special report on one of its outstanding assets, Mary C. Snow?  A good place to start might be the articles on the current controversy, as well as your obituary and the February 16, 1996 interview and the March 24, 1996 story on Ms. Snow's role in the origins of unity day.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is reputed to have said, "Sin writes histories, goodness is silent." Please don't prove him right.


SB 1751: If coal ash is so safe, the utility and coal company executives should eat it!

If you were to believe the above coal ash "facts" circulated by the American Coal Ash Association 's Educational Foundation, coal ash is safe.

Or, "Coal ash offers our society extraordinary environmental and economic benefits without harm to public health and safety when properly managed." One wonders who is going to make sure things are "properly managed?" Not the Environmental Protection, if that group and the coal companies have their way, right now they're pushing hard for passage of S. 1751 to stop the EPA's plans to regulate coal ash, especially the Democratic senators from the states of North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Montana and Alaska, all of whom are undecided on S. 1751. This despite the legitimate arguments that:

  •     S.1751 endangers the health and safety of thousands of communities: it will prevent the EPA from ever revisiting a federal coal ash rule even if it is found that coal ash dumps pose an even greater threat.
  •     S.1751 is a dangerous bill: it would allow the construction of coal ash dumps that don’t meet drinking water standards for arsenic, lead and other pollutants.
  •     S.1751 will cost American jobs: An October 2011 study by a Tufts University senior economist Frank Ackerman (email, bio)  found that strong coal ash regulations, such as the one proposed by the EPA in 2010, would generate 28,000 jobs annually.
  •     S.1751 will hurt recycling: once coal ash is dumped into water, which this bill would allow by permitting the construction of new coal ash ponds, it cannot be recycled.
  •     S.1751 fails to address the current threat: this bill will not phase out dangerous ash ponds or prevent another tragedy like the coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008.
  •     Coal ash is hazardous to our health: the cancer risk from drinking water contaminated by arsenic near some coal ash ponds is 1 in 50, which is 2,000 times greater than the EPA’s acceptable risk level
  •     Coal ash is a national problem: it is the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S.

Emily Enderly, also at Earth Justice, sent me a chart that compares the presence  or absence of regulatory requirements for coal ash under four different regulatory schemes:

(1) EPA’s proposed subtitle C (special waste) rule;
(2) EPA proposed subtitle D (nonhazardous waste) rule;
(3) the municipal solid waste (household trash) regulations found in 40 C.F.R Part 258.
(4) Coal Ash Bill (H.R. 2273 (passed 267 - 144 on October 14) which is identical to S. 1751

I've set up a link on google docs where you can view, print and/or download it:

Comparison of Coal Ash Regulation under Four RCRA Regulatory Schemes

If you don't want to register for google and would like a copy of the chart, email me.

Background information:

Please remember that if you live near an existing or proposed coal ash dump, you can sign on to the letter below being organized by Environmental Integrity  by sending your name and address-- including city, state and zip code-- in an email  to Sam Flenner <samf.environmentalintegrity@gmail.com > and cc LaToya Archibald < latoya.s.archibald@gmail.com> by noon, December 12 Eastern Time. If someone doesn't have email, you can send  their name, address, city state and zip code (Phone and email optional) along w. the copy below.  And if you're lucky enough not to have this problem pass this on to others who might.

No matter where you live, you can  email, fax or phone your Senator to tell them that coal ash is dangerous and SHOULD be regulated, vote AGAINST Senate bill 1751.

Okay, here's that form and  letter...



The following give their permission to (name local sponsor org) to include their names name and addresses on the letter entitled Don’t Forget Us addressed to members of the US Senate.  They and their family are My are directly impacted by lax state disposal safeguards of coal combustion waste.  They urge their federal Legislators to support the EPA’s rulemaking process under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and oppose any actions or legislation that would impede the EPA rulemaking process to set common-sense safeguards for the disposal of this waste.
Name: ____________________________________

Address: __________________________________ 

City: _____________ State: ___ Zip Code _______ 

Phone: ____________________ (optional)     
Email: ____________________ (optional)             


October 20, 2011
US Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator ____:

We understand that you may soon vote on a bill that would leave oversight of coal ash dumps to the states, and prevent EPA from taking action against polluters who threaten our air and groundwater. We are referring to S. 1751, which is identical to the industry-backed bill that cleared the House of Representatives on October 14. We know Congress has already heard from industry lobbyists, big contributors, and state bureaucrats. We live near these dumps, and put up with their pollution year after year. Please hear our voices.

We know what it is like to suffer through the daily onslaught of blowing ash, drink water from faucets contaminated with ash leachate, and see our wetlands and creeks poisoned with toxic metals like arsenic. We have complained again and again about the endless noise, dust and pollution from trucks dumping coal ash near us while we become more stressed out or sick and the value of our property plummets, with no real response from our states.

Some of us are also joining this letter because a new ash dump has been proposed nearby or because we are concerned about the growing threat of coal ash in our area and its impact on our health and the quality of life in our community. More than two years ago, we were promised that the US Environmental Protection Agency would finally set national standards to clean up these sites, and close the most dangerous ones.

Now we face legislation that would stop EPA in its tracks, and replace real standards with imaginary state “plans” that polluters could ignore without fear of enforcement by EPA. After what is already known about the danger from storing millions of tons of coal ash in unlined ponds, why would you tie the government’s hands from ever stopping this practice?

Do our lives matter to you?

Is protecting coal ash “recycling” from a “stigma” more important than our health or the quality of our water? Even those who believe “stigma” is real cannot seriously argue that shielding leaking dumps from EPA enforcement somehow makes recycling easier. And ash mixed with other wastes in leaking ponds – now a common practice – cannot be recycled at all.

What will you accomplish by requiring federal and state bureaucrats to review, and then approve, disapprove, and reapprove state plans that can never actually be enforced by EPA against polluters? If your own family’s drinking water was being contaminated, would you think haggling over “plans” the right response?
States have had decades to improve their management of these dumpsites, and have done nothing – or next to nothing – as contamination has spread, even after the Kingston dam collapse manifested the problem. We know good, hard-working people in our state agencies, but budget cuts, political pressure, the power of local polluters, and the lack of any serious oversight or enforcement from EPA make their job impossible.

Put yourself in our place. What if you lived near a power plant’s landfill or ash pond like we or our neighbors do, and found out that the water you and your children drink may be unsafe to drink? How long would you want to wait for your state agency to do something about the problem? Three years? Five years? Ten? We have waited that long, and are waiting still.

As the Americans who live next to our nation’s ash dumps, our opinions should matter. These dumps should have permits that we can comment on. We should be able to object to any permit or plan that threatens our lives and property, and the government should be given a deadline to respond to our concerns. Dumps that contaminate groundwater should be closed, and the groundwater cleaned up. And EPA should be able to crack down on polluters – without having to wade through endless “planning” —or the bill will mean nothing.

As you consider this legislation, please don’t forget about us. We are not against the coal industry. We simply want laws that protect people and that they be enforceable. We appreciate your time and consideration.


U.S. District Attorney Goodwin: Alpha "not a life, it's not a being, it can't go to jail."

Editor's note: This was my draft of an article commissioned by The Guardian which appeared later the same day as, Who will pay for the Upper Big Branch mine disaster?: "Massey Energy's owner makes a $209m settlement, but safety violations that killed 29 miners in West Virginia go unpunished"

Montcoal, WV.  3:27 PM on Monday, April 5, 2010.  It was the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.  Twenty months ago, just across the river from Coal River Mountain  on Cherry Pond Mountain near its mountaintop removal mine, Massey Energy's underground mine at Upper Big Branch exploded.

We learned right away that at least twenty-five men had been killed, two more injured, one gravely. Four days dragged on, while we hoped for a miracle, but four missing men were dead. Over the course of time we learned from an independent report and another by the United Mine Workers that Massey had failed to maintain its ventilation systems properly causing methane levels to increase to dangerous levels.

According to Ian Urbina and Michael Cooper, writing April 6 in the New York Times,
In the past two months, miners had been evacuated three times from the Upper Big Branch because of dangerously high methane levels, according to two miners who asked for anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.
Finding blame

Flash forward to 3:00 p.m. on December 6, 2011, thirty miles away in the state capital of Charleston. The U.S. Mining Safety and Health Administration released its investigation report concluding that the disaster was "entirely preventable," caused in part by a pattern of major safety problems and Massey's efforts to conceal hazards from government inspectors. A summary video is here.

Earlier, at 11 a.m., U.S. District Attorney. Booth Goodwin announced that his office, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Labor had entered into a non-prosecution agreement which will cost Alpha Energy Resources, Inc., which had acquired Massey, $209 million.

Massey’s reputation was probably beyond repair.  Writer Jeff Goodell had profiled its CEO, Don Blankenship, as the "Dark Lord of Coal Country, the industry's dirtiest CEO. In southern Appalachia we knew Blankenship only too well.As Goodell described him, accurately,
he grew up in the coal fields of West Virginia, received an accounting degree from a local college, and, through a combination of luck, hard work and coldblooded ruthlessness, transformed himself into the embodiment of everything that's wrong with the business and politics of energy in America today — a man who pursues naked self-interest and calls it patriotism, who buys judges like cheap hookers, treats workers like dogs, blasts mountains to get at a few inches of coal and uses his money and influence to ensure that America remains enslaved to the 19th-century idea that burning coal equals progress. And for this, he earns $18 million a year — making him the highest-paid CEO in the coal industry — and flies off to vacations on the French Riviera.
Blankenship left Massey in December 2010.  December 6, ABC News tells us Don Blankenship accepted a $12 million golden parachute. Other parting gifts included an additional $5,000-per-month to serve as a Massey consultant for two years, paid health insurance, a secretary, residential property rights and accrued pay from his employment, including performance bonuses. In return, Blankenship agreed not to compete with Massey for two years and to cooperate with the company to resolve any litigation that arose during his tenure.

And yet, Kentucky records, alluded to by ABC, show that on January 26, 2011, Blankenship signed as president in a corporate filing for McCoy Coal Group. The corporation had previously registered its incorporation on January 11, under a slightly different name.

When Alpha announced January 29, 2011 that the company would spend $7.1 billion to acquire Massey, Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said that "At the end of the day, we were actually able to get comfortable with the exposed risk" and Massey's estimated $150 million in losses related to the disaster was "appropriate." Massey had already taken a charge of $128.9 million during 2010 to cover costs from the explosion, including workers' compensation, restitution for the families of the miners and expected litigation costs.

But not prosecution

Under the December 6 agreement, Alpha will make payments and safety  investments totaling $209 million:
  • $46.5 million in restitution (at least $1.5 million for each worker)
  • $80 million for safety improvements
  • $48 million for safety research over the next two years
  • $10.8 million for fines for the accident and
  • $24.2 million to resolve pending civil penalties at all of its other former Massey operations
As Cecil Roberts, of the United Mine Workers pointed out in a newsrelease I received,
We have repeatedly heard from the current congressional leadership that they were not prepared to act until they knew what happened at UBB. Now they know.
He called for strengthened whistleblower protections for workers who want to report safety issues and official standing for the families of the victims in the investigative process.

With regard to the non-prosecution agreement, Alpha Natural Resources says that it acquired Massey
more than a year after the tragic explosion at their Upper Big Branch mine. Alpha believes the settlements announced today provide the best path forward for everyone. The bulk of the settlement will fund safety training, research and advanced technologies that the company believes ultimately will create a safer work environment for coal miners throughout the industry.
Ry Rivard, capitol reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail quoted District Attorney Goodwin as saying the non-prosecution agreement represented a "balance" and that Alpha was "not a life, it's not a being, it can't go to jail."

So who pays?

Twenty-nine men dead. Two more injured. Two hundred and nine million gets Alpha off the hook for prosecution? So much for the personhood of corporations. Stay tuned to see if any individuals get prosecuted other than Massey's security director. At least this time, the government didn't sign away its rights to do so.

Goodwin made his announcement at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse in Charleston, WV, named after that state's late beloved U.S. Senator, who has since been replaced by its former governor Joe Manchin. Although Byrd was generous in his support of the coal industry, towards the end of his life he was losing patience with Massey and its record of reckless disregard of its workers safety.
The old chestnut that “coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource” deserves revision. I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such.
As Vernon Haltom, of Coal River Mountain Watch told me in an email interview,
Spending on 'major safety initiatives' after 29 miners were killed is closing the barn door after the horse is out. The executives who routinely place profits above the lives of miners and community members must be held accountable for all their crimes. Until then, there will be no sense of justice where the coal industry leaves a legacy of death and destruction.
Goodwin assures us that the criminal investigation continues. He says that Alpha, and by extension, its predecessor Massey is not a person and can't go to jail. But what about Don Blankenship?


If there's a Heaven, Bob Thomas is playing bass there....

So sad to learn from Wes Chappell and Randy Marchany that Bob Thomas, the bass player for No Strings Attached (NSA) since 1984, died unexpectedly on Saturday, December 3 from  complications following a heart attack. That's a screenshot of  him on the right playing "Lady Be Good" with Randy. Wes, too, but he's off-frame. Bob took being a bassist seriously, playing not only acoustic bass, but bass clarinet, and bass saxophone, saying he had the goal of "owning a bass instrument from every instrument family."

Here's a photo of him playing that bass clarinet with NSA in 2000 taken by the late Don Shorock:

Bob was a sweet guy and a terrific musician (and showman) and his death leaves a gaping hole in our hearts and the New River Valley music community. There are many photos on this  NSA fb page.  UPDATE:  According to the December 11 Roanoke Times Bob was 66 and
The date of a planned memorial celebration will be announced at a later time. Those who wish to make a contribution in his memory could donate to the New Orleans Musician's Relief Fund, the Humane Society of Montgomery County, or the charity of your choice.
Bob was the son of the late Barkley and Margaret Ford Thomas. He graduated from Shelby (North Carolina) High School and attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Among Bob's survivors are his longtime companion, Patricia Polentz; his daughter, Maggie England and husband, Huiet; and grandsons, Mac and Jake England, of Cramerton, N.C.; sister, Susan Thomas, of Underhill, Vt.; niece, Johanna Hulick and family, of Seattle, Wash.; nephew, Jeremy Hulick, of Bethesda, Md.; aunt, Eleanor DeLashmutt, of Atlanta, Ga.; and several cousins.
John Jones II  posted a telling anecdote December 13 in the guestbook for Bob there.  Since I'm not sure it will remain up, I'll reprint it here:
I didn't know Bob personally, more like an aquaintance. I did borrow a contra-bass clarinet from him for a while. He had little information about me as we had never interacted but he loaned me the instrument with no questions asked and the simple request to take care of it.

 The New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund, Inc. is a grass roots certified 501c(3) founded by and for displaced musicians, which is still sending grants to displaced New Orleans musicians thanks to donations from around the world.You can also donate your time, your talent and/or your gear.  One way is to help publicize the organization.  More on that at the bottom of this post.  First, back to some pictures and music by Bob.


Rusty May, who himself play bass with NSA from 1980-4, described Bob in a note to the New River Old Time listserve, as 

the very talented and hardest working bassist in the New River Valley.... adept at bluegrass, bebop, old-time, swing and everything in between.  
 The picture is a screen shot from a video of the band playing with guests Guy George, Karen Mueller, and Butch Ross at the 2008 Winterfest in Irving, TX.

Here's Bob, Wes and Randy with Pete Hastings playing Carl Perkins (I think) All God's Children Want to Rock at the Dulcimer Festival Showcase concert in Shepherdstown, West Virginia on Sept. 13, 2008

In a more Celtic vein (although typically NSA eclectic) at the same concert:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuEkVXANkjc (the sound seems to start at about 0:33)

And as the soundtrack for a flick on the 2008 Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta:

There are plenty of audio clips at No String Attached's website.  Probably the funniest Bob got was on "I'm a Hog for you, Baby."  (H/T to Jeff W. for reminding me.  Wish there were a video, or a complete version to share with you...but I'm guessing this addition photo by Shorock may be capturing one of the performances of that number:

BTW, with Pete exiting NSA in 2009, Jim Crawford joined the band.

In  addition to NSA, Bob played with a number of other groups including serving as the  upright bassists and bass saxophonist  for Front Porch Swing with Scott Perry  (r. reso-phonic guitar, ukulele & vocals), backed and Tom Ohmsen (l. on mandolin.)
 That group describes itself as a
hillbilly act Homer and Jethero jamming with be-bopper Charles Mingus, while Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ukulele Ike take turns sitting in

Bob also was part of the smooth jazz group, Mood Swing, which also included  Harry Doss on guitar, Karl Sanzenbach on guitar and wind instruments and Kathy Stell on vocals.

He also played in the Triple B Trio with Bill Adams and Brian Mueller. (Thanks, Rusty, for pointing that out...)

Back in 1989, he played Dixieland jazz with Doss, as well as Ed Schwartz, , John Gregg, Carter Edmondson, Bill Bondurant, Sally Walker, Norman Olmstead, and Kathy Duncan in the the Riverboat Ramblers.  I think that's the bass saxophone, right?

 And his friend, Nancy Grover Mason, a bass player who lives in NC, tells me that when she was in Blacksburg (Bob taught her how to play) she was in a trio with Bob from about 1991-5 named 2 Hot Sodas:  Sandy on alto sax, Edwin Lacy on clawhammer banjo, Bob Thomas on tuba.

At the end we had a euphonium player Kevin Wilkes join us, and Bob took over either clarinet or rhythm section. He had a big "bag of tricks" he'd carry, with sticks and percussion instruments, toys, etc.
 Here's a picture from the original lineup from a gig at a Blacksburg church.  (She's not sure which one, but says that it hosted folk concerts during the 90s.)


New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund


Milbank the Bully

Dana Milbank, a Washington Post's opinion writer, filed a story on the announced retirement of Barney Frank,"Barney the bully: Congressman Frank’s other legacy."
The morning after his retirement announcement, Rep. Barney Frank scored an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, gaining the opportunity to act as an elder statesman in front of a TV audience of millions. Instead, the Massachusetts Democrat chose to quarrel with the interviewer.
My friend from NewsTrust, Barry Grossheim recommended the story, rating it "good" for informaiton, insight, style and credibility,  commenting,
The other side of Barney Frank. I like his politics but on a personal level, not so much!
Sorry, Barry, but I can't agree with your assessment.  Milbank seems to write this just to be contrarian from those praising Frank upon his retirement. The reporter he quotes seems to have been playing gotcha and Frank wasn't cooperating.

 Milbank has been one of my least favorite writers ever since he penned his gem, "President Obama Continues Hectic Victory Tour on July 30, 2008," with the "clever" lede,
Barack Obama has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee. For an analysis of that piece, see http://newstrust.net/stories/23965/
Jason Linkins (email), now a Huffington Post political reporter analyzed Milbank's piece that same day for HuffPo in "Washington Post Fuels Outrage After Misquoting Obama."  Not sure how much outrage there was, but Milbank, trying to be clever definitely took Obama out of context. Milbank quotes Obama as saying, 
 This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for...I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.
Linkins writes that according to a Democratic leadership aide in attendance, the full quote was:
It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.
BTW, thanks Bob Her