Two Virginia media outlets are pushing gubernatorial candidates to lift a ban on uranium mining in Virginia while ignoring the state's particular vulnerability to environmental and health risks from mining.
In a March 21 editorial, The Richmond Times-Dispatch advocated for uranium mining, highlighting a study by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission which found that a radium and uranium refinery had no health or environmental effects on people in the surrounding area.
But the facility at the study's focus does not actually mine uranium at their site, it refines it. And in locations where they do mine, there are environmental differences between Canada and the United States. Cale Jaffe, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Canadian mines are located in areas with different climates and are more isolated from population centers. Indeed, a comprehensive report by the National Academy of Sciences found that storms and erosion from rainfall could pose a risk to uranium mines:
Virginia is subject to relatively frequent storms that produce intense rainfall. It is questionable whether currently-engineered tailings repositories could be expected to prevent erosion and surface and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years. Natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall, or drought could lead to the release of contaminants if facilities are not designed and constructed to withstand such events, or if they fail to perform as designed.
A study by the city of Virginia Beach found that a "catastrophic failure" -- due to a natural event for example -- of a uranium containment structure could lead to radioactive substances contaminating drinking water for an extended period of time.
Canadian mines have also faced significant environmental problems in the past, according to a Southern Environmental Law Center report. On three occasions Canadian mines have flooded or contaminated waste water has leaked from these projects.
Virginia Watchdog, the Virginia affiliate of the Franklin Center For Government and Public Integrity -- a right-wing group which provides free statehouse reporting to local newspapers but receives large amounts of money from anonymous conservative donors -- similarly ignored the risks posed by Virginia's climate, instead quoting a Washington Times editorial in favor of uranium mining and the company who wants to mine the area.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch failed to note that Virginia's education proposal to improve failing public schools is modeled after a Louisiana program which experts found does not lead to higher academic achievement.
A January 31 article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch discussed a new education initiative which hopes to take over failing Virginia public schools and allow a statewide school panel to run the schools until they reach higher achievement levels. As the article notes, these schools would be modeled after the Recovery School District (RSD) in Louisiana. From the Times-Dispatch:
In his most dramatic K-12 education initiative of this year, Gov. Bob McDonnell is proposing to create a statewide school division that would take over management of such schools.
The concept, roughly modeled after the Recovery School District in Louisiana, is a novel construct in Virginia and has the McDonnell administration at odds with education groups that have embraced other parts of the governor's public school agenda.
Supporters cast the so-called Opportunity Educational Institution as a way to remove obstacles that have led to chronically underperforming schools.
The article does note that there is opposition to the proposal on several fronts, including constitutional concerns about the law and whether local tax dollars would be diverted to an un-elected board rather than local school boards. However, the piece fails to note that the Recovery School District in Louisiana -- on which the Virginia program would be partially modeled -- has had mixed results, and any positive gains may have been the result of one time funding due to Hurricane Katrina.
The Louisiana Recovery School District was established in 2003 to provide parents with children in failing New Orleans public schools with other alternatives. After Hurricane Katrina, the RSD stepped in to take over most of New Orleans public schools, turning them into charter schools with the potential after 5 years of returning control to the public school board once they sufficiently improve. Despite teachers in some schools unanimously asking to return to the public school system, no school has been granted permission to do so.
The schools have also, so far, failed to meet the benchmarks of success established by the RSD. While supporters of the RSD program claim that the schools are making progress as charter schools, they have not performed much better than when they were public schools.
An article in the Times-Picayune from highlighted a report which found that the "district-run RSD schools are the worst performing in the city," in 2012. In addition, a Times-Picayune editorial noted that the RSD schools had the lowest percentage of students -- 11.3 percent -- score high enough on the college admissions test to earn a TOPS scholarship from Louisiana, compared to 38 percent of all students in New Orleans.
A fact sheet provided by the nonpartisan Council for a Better Louisiana shows that RSD schools are lagging well behind the rest of the state's schools. RSD schools still have a majority of students performing below Louisiana's basic grade level of skills and knowledge in reading and English and 59 percent of college freshman have had to take remedial courses after graduating from an RSD school. Meanwhile, RSD schools spend almost $12,519 per pupil compared to a state average of $10,622.
A scathing report by Research on Reforms, an organization dedicated to improving New Orleans Public Schools, found that the RSD relied spun data to make it seem that their schools were hitting their target goals. From Research on Reforms:
When the 2012 SPS/letter grades were released, the RSD-NO was quick to respond with the spin that 2012 results again supported the claim that that the LDOE's model for turning around failing schools had been extremely successful. They claimed that their schools had made incredible gains in New Orleans for 2012 in spite of the fact that the failing bar had been raised from 65 to 75. The RSD's District Performance Score (DPS) increased from an "F" (69.2) to slightly above the new "F" cutoff score of 75. Its new DPS was 76.7 which is equivalent to a "D". ROR's position is that a label of "D" hardly qualifies any school district to rejoice. While not indicating failure, it does indicate that a district is performing very poorly academically.
Did the RSD-NO's DPS gain represent significant progress in 2012? When viewed in the context of the most important annual growth indicator of the LDOE, (i.e., the SPS Growth Target), it is not. Sixty-seven percent of the 60 RSD-NO schools failed to achieve their growth target for 2012. When viewed in this context, one would hardly consider the 7.5 point DPS growth of the RSD significant considering the performance of the majority of its schools. Also note that the RSD's public relations spinners have rarely, or never, addressed the significance of this extremely crucial school indicator when assessing gains or growth.
A report by the National Education Policy Center, which was criticizing another report touting the school district's progress, highlighted what they called "historic and racially targeted neglect" which the supporters of the RSD never take into account when discussing circumstances behind failing New Orleans schools. In addition, another Research on Reforms report found that the RSD was neglecting non-charter schools under its control -- specifically Marshall Middle School -- regardless of the schools' success.
The Times-Dispatch has a duty to its readers to expose the flawed history of the RSD, given that Virginia's education plan, as the newspaper notes, is modeled after Louisiana's controversial program.
As Republican lawmakers in Virginia moved to further tighten the state's voter ID requirements, the state's two largest newspapers abandoned the larger factual context of the debate by failing to report the scarcity of voter fraud and the state's history of voter disenfranchisement.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch and Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot reported that both a Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee and the Senate Privileges and Election Committee approved separate bills that would further tighten Virginia's voter ID requirements. The newspapers each employed a he-said/she-said presentation of the debate and failed to inform readers of the fact that in-person voter fraud -- the kind of fraud ID laws are supposedly meant to mitigate -- is extremely rare.
From the Times-Dispatch, which characterized the arguments for and against the proposed photo identification election bill in shallow back-and-forth fashion:
Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1256, has said it would help ensure integrity in elections and deter voter fraud, while critics said it would further disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters.
Democrats, voting groups and civil rights organizations accuse Republicans of attempting to suppress the vote.
Meanwhile, the Virginian-Pilot balanced a pro-voter ID anecdote from a House panel witness who found "that someone else had voted under her name in 2008" against "a variety of other speakers -- representing groups from the League of Women Voters to the NAACP," who opposed the ID requirement "as costly and unnecessary, saying it would disenfranchise minority, elderly and low-income Virginians."
The Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot ignored objective realities about the kind of "voter fraud" Sen. Obenshain claimed to be fighting. According to NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, in-person voter fraud is "more rare than getting struck by lightning." Investigations by The New York Times, News21 and Demos have all found little or no evidence of in-person voter fraud, and there are no credible claims that voter fraud swayed the outcomes of any major election in 2012.
The editorial board of the Times-Dispatch acknowledged the scarcity of voter fraud in an editorial on January 17, describing voter impersonation as "virtually nonexistent" and noting that "the evidence of need for [tightened voter-ID requirements] is almost as scant as the evidence of Bigfoot." Yet this fact remained absent from the newspaper's January 30 news coverage of the voter ID debate.
Furthermore, both newspapers missed an opportunity to inform readers about Virginia's history of race-based voter disenfranchisement -- a history that remains procedurally relevant thanks to the Voting Rights Act, which (via Section 5 of the Act) requires states like Virginia to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court before they may finalize changes to their electoral system.
Virginia media followed in the footsteps of the Associated Press, which failed to note the importance of the VRA in a similar story about a Republican voter ID push in North Carolina earlier this month. While the Virginian-Pilot acknowledged the existence of the VRA in the lawmaking process, it failed to explain the state's history of voter disenfranchisement, which is why the VRA Section 5 applies to Virginia. The Times-Dispatch failed to mention the Act at all.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli proposed an agreement with power companies that would repeal state incentives for clean energy programs and save the companies money, but the Associated Press and the Richmond Times-Dispatch failed to note that Cuccinelli, who is running for governor in 2013, recently received major contributions from Dominion Power, Koch Industries, and other companies that could directly or indirectly profit from the proposed agreement.
From the Times-Dispatch:
Customers of Virginia's two big electric power companies likely will save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 12 years under an agreement worked out between the state Attorney General's Office and the utilities.
The proposal would repeal the state's bonuses for renewable energy programs and building fossil-fuel power plants. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in a report in November that the bonuses have not produced intended environmental gains or encouraged power plant construction.
The article noted that the proposal would "reduce Dominion Virginia Power's revenue requirements by $38.5 million," and provide the following benefits to the power companies:
• expanding the financial performance limits defining when the companies "overearn" or "underearn" compared with their state-authorized rate of return; and
• allowing utilities to recover the costs of catastrophic natural events and early power plant closings, because of new environmental rules or factors beyond the companies' control, during the biennial review period they occur for financial reporting purposes.
A Dominion Power statement called the proposal "another step forward for Dominion Virginia Power's customers."
Neither the Times-Dispatch nor the Associated Press mentioned that Cuccinelli has recently received $10,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion Power's political action committee and another $50,000 from the Koch brothers, who are deeply invested in the oil and gas industry. Other large contributions from the fossil fuel industry have been recorded, including Alpha Natural Resources, a coal company notorious for its dangerously poor safety record.
A two-part Media Matters examinantion of the largest newspapers in CO, NH, NV, OH, PA and VA from July 1-August 15 and from August 16-October 31, 2012 revealed a variety of shortcomings in the way clean energy and regulatory issues are covered by those publications.
Numerous media outlets seized on a dubious January London Sunday Times report which claimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 2007 statement on Amazon rain forests was "unsubstantiated" and without scientific basis in order to attack the IPCC's credibility and global warming science in general. However, The Sunday Times has now retracted that claim, noting, "In fact, the IPCC's Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence." Will these media outlets follow suit?
Articles in The Washington Times and the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported assertions by Doug Jones -- a former University of Virginia football teammate of Sen. George Allen (R-VA) -- that he never heard Allen "use any racially disparaging word." But neither article identified Jones as a member of Allen's re-election campaign.