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Approaching 90, Hawks Nest dam, tunnel get once-a-century checkup during drawdown

GAULEY BRIDGE — For the first time since 1936, no water flows through the 3.1-mile long Hawks Nest Tunnel, leaving the hydroelectric turbines at the power plant it serves idle.

On Sept. 8, the gates at Hawks Nest Dam were opened to let the full volume of the New River flow into the Dries, the 6-mile-long final reach of the New River, starting the process of draining the tunnel. Normally at this relatively arid time of year, most of the New River’s flow is diverted into the tunnel and onto the power plant, while just enough water to sustain fish and other river-dwelling animals passes through the dam and into the Dries.

“Until now, the tunnel has never been dewatered,” said Kevin Moriarty, area operations manager for Brookfield Renewable, the Canadian company that owns the Hawks Nest dam, tunnel and powerhouse.

The hydropower project, still West Virginia’s largest, “has had a good, productive life for more than 80 years,” Moriarty said. “We thought now, rather than later, was the time for a check-up and to make a few repairs to make sure it’s good to go for the next 80 or 100 years.”

To accommodate the work, Hawks Nest Reservoir has been lowered 25 feet and will remain at that level until Nov. 11, when the dam will resume holding back most of the flow now channeled into the Dries to bring the lake back to its normal level.

While no person has set foot in Hawks Nest Tunnel since it began carrying water 84 years ago, the current drawdown has allowed it to be inspected robotically, using both submersible and land-roving remotely operated vehicles. The tunnel will be examined again by the ROVs as it refills with water.

Cameras and other sensing gear on the ROVs showed the tunnel “looks like it did in the 1930s,” Moriarty said. When asked if the ROVs came across anything interesting while traversing the tunnel, he replied, “They found nothing at all.”

Work being done during the drawdown includes repairs and the installation of new seals to isolation valves below the power plant’s turbines, and repairing and replacing concrete panels that contain water at the project’s surge basin.

“The craftsmanship and design that went into this project is awesome,” said Moriarty. Gates at the dam and tunnel intake that had not moved in decades were raised and lowered smoothly and were in good working condition, he said.

“I’m amazed that crews started on the tunnels at three or four different places, and when they were done, all the tunnel sections matched up perfectly,” Moriarty said. According to a press account of the completion of the tunnel in December 1931, the centerlines of the final two segments came within an inch of joining at the point called for in blueprints.

The $9 million, 102-megawatt hydropower project, built to power a new Union Carbide electrometallurgical plant at Alloy, was considered an engineering marvel when construction got underway in 1930. At that time, it was the largest construction project in West Virginia history, and its 3-mile long tunnel was the longest ever built for a U.S. hydro project.

No time was wasted during its construction phase. Groundbreaking took place just 18 days after the Rinehart and Dennis Co. of Charlottesville, Virginia, was named the successful bidder. Nearly 5,000 men were hired as laborers, with about half of them spending at least part of their workdays in the tunnel, where they worked 10-hour shifts, six days a week.

The tunnel was completed in 18 months, well ahead of schedule. Once it was connected to a completed powerhouse and power was transmitted to the Alloy plant, it took only nine years for Carbide to recoup its $9 million investment, according to Dr. Martin Charniack’s 1989 book, “The Hawks Nest Incident.”

It was a different story for those who toiled in the tunnel, where exposure to silica dust from drilling into the sandstone of Gauley Mountain began to produce disability and death within months. According to a study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, those who employed the tunnelers did not provide adequate ventilation, issue respirators or use wet drilling practices to reduce dust.

By the time the project was complete and the dust had settled, hundreds — possibly a thousand or more — of the tunnel workers, most of them Black, had died, or were dying, from silicosis. Death estimates range from 476, reported in 1936, to 764, the result of a 1986 study by Charniak, an epidemiologist, to 1,000, the result of a 2002 NIOSH study.

By 1937, 46 states had passed laws offering protections to workers dealing with silica dust and silicosis.

Meanwhile, the Hawks Nest hydro project’s renown as an engineering success endures. It has functioned reliably, with few maintenance issues, for nearly nine decades. Although it has but one customer, now WVA Manufacturing LLC, it remains the largest hydropower operation in West Virginia.

Nearly 3 years since strike, health coverage has remained stable for WV's public workers. But cuts loom, with no long-term fix in sight.

Public Employees Insurance Agency health coverage was, in 2018, the focus of the first statewide public school workers strike in West Virginia history.

The teachers and bus drivers halted ongoing cuts to the coverage. But, instead of giving them the long-term funding solution many called for, Republican Gov. Jim Justice and the GOP-controlled Legislature gave them a temporary reprieve.

They committed more than $100 million more to PEIA, and the moratorium on cuts looks like it will last at least through mid-2022. That will mark four years without premium increases or benefit cuts.

“I don’t know how it gets any better than that,” Justice said Friday, “because I don’t know where in this country anybody that has insurance doesn’t have their health insurance go up over the past four years.”

“PEIA is sound,” he said.

Yet premium increases are projected after mid-2022. Justice’s PEIA Rainy Day Fund can help offset this, but expense increases for PEIA that could total tens of millions of dollars annually may break through that dam.

A PEIA premium increase hammer will likely fall sometime after the Nov. 3 election, unless that longer-term funding solution is found.

Justice’s PEIA Task Force was supposed to work on that. That was part of a promise that helped end the strike.

“We’re going to appoint a task force right off the get-go and we’re gonna dig into PEIA and try to look for solutions and a permanent fix to PEIA,” Justice said in early 2018.

But the group hasn’t met since January of 2019.

The West Virginia a few years from now could greatly resemble West Virginia before 2018: PEIA reserve funds exhausted, annual coverage cuts kicking in, employee anger rising, rumblings of a strike, lawmakers focused on more business tax breaks and history repeating itself.

Current Republican House of Delegates leaders’ last, and quickly scrapped, major proposal to address PEIA’s cost wasn’t additional state funding.

It was to charge workers more to have their spouses covered by PEIA if those spouses had insurance that they could pay for through their own employers.

In all, the future of the program that provided so much to families, like David Wills’, remains in doubt.

David said he started working for the state in 1995, allowing him to buy PEIA coverage for his wife, Angie, himself and their child. He’s extremely grateful for the coverage provided by PEIA.

He said that, two years later, PEIA paid for surgeons to remove the ectopic pregnancy the couple had hoped would be their second child.

He said PEIA paid for Angie’s pap smear, taken just before that surgery, that revealed cervical cancer.

He said PEIA paid for surgeons to remove Angie’s uterus, cervix, an ovary and fallopian tubes.

After recovering, Angie began working for the state herself.

David said that, a few years later, PEIA paid to stick a needle through Angie’s stomach, into her liver — finally revealing, where other tests failed, the source of her new pain. She now had cancer in her liver.

He said PEIA paid for surgeons to operate on her, finding a tumor too large to remove; it paid for chemo; paid for later liver surgery; paid as she returned to work again; paid for the PET scan showing the cancer had returned, but into multiple organs; paid for the hospital-administered-only, last-ditch drug she reacted badly to; and, finally, paid for hospice staff and oxygen tanks before she died Sept. 29, 2002, at age 35.

She left behind David and their only child.

“If we hadn’t had PEIA, we couldn’t have gotten the care she needed, the care that might have saved her, the care that prolonged her life,” David said. “And if we hadn’t had that, even if the medical professionals would’ve agreed to provide the services and everything on a payment plan, I would probably still owe hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

But David is one of about 230,000 people insured by PEIA who have no long-term guarantee that their current cost or coverage levels will persist.

Abandoned task force, successful tax cuts

More than 10% of West Virginians are covered by PEIA, including college professors, public school teachers, principals, school bus drivers, school cooks and school custodians. It also covers many police, firefighters and EMS workers.

It’s not as big as Medicaid, which covers about 540,000 West Virginians on any given day, or Medicare, which has more than 300,000 in its traditional program.

But PEIA still unifies more than 10% of the population with a common interest: the fate of a government program that can mean life or death.

Public school workers started the 2018 strike largely to stop the continued coverage cuts PEIA had begun making after it blew through its reserve funds.

Strikers mentioned other goals, like pay raises. But many stressed that PEIA, whose rising cost was cutting into their salaries, was the primary reason for the walkout.

The nine-school-day-long walkout, which shuttered every public school in the state and filled the state Capitol building with thousands of chanting strikers, ended after Justice promised several things.

One was to provide enough short-term funding to temporarily freeze PEIA coverage at its current level. That happened, and the freeze has lasted a few years now.

The other was to appoint the PEIA Task Force to work on long-term funding solutions amid rapid medical cost inflation nationwide.

Justice’s chief of staff, Mike Hall, chaired the group. It included school union leaders, the state Senate president, the speaker of the House, West Virginia University officials, private insurance company leaders, and others.

It hasn’t met since January of 2019.

And last year, while Republicans provided more than $100 million to help shore up PEIA, they also cut coal severance taxes.

That was projected to reduce annual revenue by roughly $60 million. A majority of Democrats in the House joined Republicans to pass these cuts.

Lawmakers also rejected strikers’ calls to increase natural gas severance taxes.

The legislative session earlier this year was a mostly quiet, pre-election affair featuring bipartisan education legislation and base-pleasing bills like one promoting Bible classes in public schools.

But more than halfway through the session came a twist.

Attempt to charge for covering spouses

House leaders, including Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, supported House Bill 4043.

Generally, it would have charged roughly $300 monthly premiums for spouses of state agency, college and public school employees to be covered by PEIA.

Currently, employees who pay the higher family coverage rate for PEIA can cover their spouses — even if those husbands and wives work for companies or organizations that offer other, perhaps inferior, insurance plans.

The rarely convened House Banking and Insurance Committee didn’t reveal that the bill would be on its Feb. 10 agenda until an hour before it met.

The bill regardless died that afternoon in an 11-11 vote.

Delegate Trenton Barnhart, R-Pleasants, joined all the Democrats in voting no, and Republican Delegates Eric Householder, Patrick Martin and Eric Porterfield missed the vote.

The next day, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, brought up what Republicans had tried to do on the floor of the full House.

Sponaugle commonly delivered speeches in a yell or close to it. This was no exception.

“Fix, and fully fund, P, E, I, A!” he began. “Now we’ve been down here now for five, six years talking about that, over and over and over, the history of that program. We didn’t fix it, we didn’t fund it. All we’ve done is frozen it.”

He recounted how the bill suddenly appeared on the committee’s agenda. He asked whether Republican leaders were trying to “suck up” the 10% average pay raise they recently gave state and public school employees — after pressure from the strike — and give all that money to PEIA.

“If there’s a motion to reconsider [the bill], if there’s a motion to discharge it, if you want to bring the fight out here on the floor, we’ll be more than happy to do that,” Sponaugle said. “Fixing PEIA does not mean kicking the costs down to our public employees.”

Later that day, Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association union and another fan of high-volume speechifying, read off the names of those who supported the bill in a Facebook Live broadcast.

“These folks tried to do you harm — there’s no other way you can spin this,” White told his members.

But, for the rest of the week, it was Porterfield — the Mercer County Republican who infamously made anti-LGBT comments last year — who attracted the most media attention.

He accused Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh and sponsor of the bill, of accosting him for missing the vote.

Discussion of the actual bill that sparked the argument faded as media reported on Porterfield asking other delegates to punish Steele and — after they declined — Porterfield slowing down the full House’s ability to continue considering bills. Porterfield later apologized.

PEIA had — for just a moment, and only in response to another proposed cutback — re-entered the legislative conversation. And, again, it had fallen by the wayside amid another distraction.

Porterfield lost his attempt for reelection in the Republican primary.

Steele, however, progressed to the coming general election.

But PEIA still doesn’t have a long-term funding solution.

Justice’s challengers pitch long-term solutions

At a January American Federation of Teachers gubernatorial forum, Democratic candidate Ben Salango told the union members in his opening statement that funding PEIA would be a priority.

He stood up from the desk the union had sat him and his challengers at, walked up to the edge of the stage and made his promises. The other two Democratic candidates — Justice wasn’t there — emulated this.

Sometime after the opening statements, the debate moderator asked the candidates about their PEIA funding plans.

“Let me make you this promise,” Salango said. “On Day One, I will call a special session to make sure that we fully fund and come up with a permanent revenue source for PEIA.”

He noted that Republicans were instead filling in holes for the lost revenue from the coal severance tax cuts, while planning more business tax cuts that would reduce annual revenue by another $100 million. Those additional business tax cuts were a Senate GOP priority at the time Salango spoke, but they ultimately failed to pass this year.

“There’s plenty of money out there if they just won’t give it away,” Salango said.

Stephen Smith, former head of an anti-poverty nonprofit, was back then challenging Salango for the Democratic nomination. Smith also offered several funding methods.

But Smith went further, saying “we’re not going to go after just one of these things, or just try to fund PEIA, because it’s not just about working around the edges. We have to fundamentally change who our economy and who our state government works for and is owned by.”

His ideas included fully legalizing marijuana, increasing taxes on those with over $2 million in wealth and resurrecting an idea the 2018 strikers had: increasing the natural gas severance tax.

Smith suggested doubling that tax.

He also suggested reversing Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s business tax cuts, which cut revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Manchin pushed and signed those cuts into law in the 2000s, when he was governor.

Further, Smith said that “it is not inevitable that health insurance costs have to go up every single year.”

“That is a political choice by the people in that building,” he said, indicating the state Capitol, “and the people in Washington, D.C., to choose pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies over patients.”

“We could actually end the practice of our money, our health care being sold to the highest bidder,” he said. “But only if we take on the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies, and we are ready to do that.”

Salango defeated Smith in the primary, 39% to 34%. Salango now faces Justice.

Angie Wills’ daughter is now 27 — past the age allowing her to be on David’s PEIA plan.

David is remarried. He’s got fewer than 15 days until he retires from state government.

But he still worries about PEIA’s future. PEIA also provides retiree health insurance.

He cautioned that he’s no expert, but suggested possibly increasing taxes on extractive industries, like natural gas and timber, and ceasing the push for more tax cuts.

“Discontinuing taxes that can bring revenue into the state and not having a way to replace those funds — wishful thinking doesn’t replace the money,” he said.

Women's March in D.C. to draw thousands in protest of Supreme Court nominee, Trump

WASHINGTON — Wearing costumes and carrying signs, thousands of people gathered for the Women’s March in downtown Washington and in cities across the country Saturday to protest the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett and to build momentum to vote President Donald Trump out of the White House.

Women wore white lace collars and black robes to honor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and red robes and white bonnets to mock the woman expected to take her seat — vivid reminders of the cultural battles playing out in the country and the intensity of emotions swirling in the weeks before the election. Some there for the march faced off in a tense confrontation with a group of counterprotesters at the Supreme Court who had come to support Barrett and oppose abortion, yelling, “Keep your laws off my body!”

Ginger Belmonte, 23, said she has come from her home in Frederick County, Maryland, to Washington every weekend since Ginsburg died.

“Every weekend, the signs are getting a little more hostile and darker,” she said.

The child-care provider said this year’s march feels even more urgent than the first one, after President Trump’s inauguration.

“We didn’t know the severity of how bad it was going to be,” she said. Now, especially with the new makeup of the Supreme Court, “it’s actually happening.”

Nearly four years after an election that galvanized millions of protesters to march in cities nationwide — many of them for the first time — Women’s March leaders hoped to bring a final show of force before Nov. 3 with a rally in the nation’s capital and in more than 429 marches across all 50 states.

In Houston, Chicago, New York, San Diego and other cities across the nation, people posted photos of events, most with people wearing masks and standing at a distance in an attempt to gather safely despite the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers had discouraged participants from traveling to D.C. from states that are on the self-quarantine list, encouraging them to attend local marches or to get involved with its text-a-thon efforts to get out the vote. Still, some drove from New Jersey, West Virginia, Florida, New York and other states to be at the epicenter of power.

The march took place days before the Senate holds its first vote to confirm Barrett to replace Ginsburg, a liberal leader and feminist icon. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on the nomination of Barrett, who would cement the conservative advantage on the court. The Republican majority is expected to approve the nomination.

Tensions over the nomination came to a head outside the Supreme Court on Saturday afternoon, as marchers confronted several dozen counterprotesters who were chanting Barrett’s “ACB” and holding antiabortion posters. They were quickly drowned out by the several thousand Women’s March attendees, who countered by yelling, “RBG” and “My body, my choice.”

“We have the votes!” Students for Life protesters chanted, holding up signs with pictures of fetuses with messages such as “She could be Audrey,” “She could be Oprah” and “She could be Alexandria.” A Women’s March volunteer stood between the two groups, keeping them separated, but many young women held heated one-on-one debates, sparring about abortion, birth control and health care.

A woman spray-painted two of the antiabortion protesters’ signs, while others nearby got into a shouting match.

“Pro-life is pro woman! Abortion betrays women” some yelled into others’ faces, and “You’re a traitor!” “My body, my choice” the marchers responded angrily.

Katelyn Fitzgerald, 20, was among the line of young people wearing blue shirts from Students For Life. “I wanted to show that I can be pro-woman and pro-life,” said Fitzgerald, who is a student at Liberty University. “It’s not an oxymoron.”

The Women’s March began Saturday morning at Freedom Plaza in Washington. Amid the protesters decked out in bright pink hats and bejeweled face masks, 7-year-old twins Harriet and Myles Gilliam of Boston sat stoically next to their mother. Harriet, who was dressed as Ginsburg, complete with lace collar, was taking part in her third Women’s March. Myles was dressed in a suit and held a sign that resembled the one held by the late congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., in his iconic 1961 mug shot taken after he was arrested for using a bathroom reserved for White people in Mississippi.

“You can use social media all you want, but there’s something to be said about showing up,” said Justina Gilliam, 40, who said she had attended every Women’s March in Washington.

This year’s event has an urgency akin to the first one, she said. “There’s a desperation to it.”

A group of a dozen women dressed as handmaidens, with red dresses and white bonnets, lined up in a row with signs hanging from their necks with the words “Trump Pence OUT NOW!”

The costumes were a reference to Barrett’s leadership role in the Christian group People of Praise, a position that had been called “handmaiden” until 2017 when “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, was adapted for TV and the term was associated with women subjugated by men.

A few feet away, Kelsey Weir, a 29-year-old artist from southern New Jersey, held a sign with the words “W.A.P.: Women Against the Patriarchy.”

Weir said she feels terrified about the years ahead, especially with Barrett on the Supreme Court. She said she felt it was her duty as a citizen to march. “Women are threatened in a world where a Christian theocracy is threatening to take over,” she said, pointing to the women in handmaiden costumes. “This is the crisis for our world. The next few weeks are going to decide so many things for women.”

The march comes amid an economic recession that has fallen especially hard on women of color and mothers, a Supreme Court nomination that many fear threatens the reproductive rights of women, and a presidential election that could be decided in large part by women. Former vice president Joe Biden holds a 23 percentage point advantage over Trump among female likely voters (59% to 36%), according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Meanwhile, Trump and Biden split men, with 48% each.

The gender gap is even bigger in the suburbs, where women favor Biden by 62% to 34%, according to the poll. Men in the suburbs lean toward Trump, with 54% supporting his reelection, while 43% back Biden.

“We’ve been fighting before four years and we’re still fighting,” Nee Nee Taylor, a core organizer for Black Lives Matter DC from Southeast Washington, told the crowd, which had swelled to thousands by the afternoon. “My community has been ready and we’re still coming. We’re coming to set our people free.”

The crowd was predominantly White, a marked difference from the racially diverse protests that filled the city this past summer following the death of George Floyd in police custody.

“There’s some degree of protest fatigue,” said Cherie Craft, founder of Smart from the Start, a community engagement organization that serves primarily Black families in Southeast Washington. “After the summer, people think you know, is this really making a difference?”

After the rally, participants marched southeast to the Supreme Court.

Twins Alexis and Alicia Johnson, 22, drove 12 hours overnight from Florida with their mother and grandmother to make it to the march.

“We couldn’t miss it,” Alexis Johnson said, adding that she and her sister would “walk through broken glass” to vote for Biden and Harris in the coming election.

“It matters more than ever before,” her sister said.

“How do we say? It’s...” Alexis started, looking back to her grandmother, Katheryn Carachi, 67.

“Dangerous. These are dangerous times,” the white-haired Carachi said.

Marching up the hill on Constitution Avenue toward the Supreme Court, she wielded a sign with a message that made clear why she’d decided to spend the night on the road: “NOW YOU’VE PISSED OFF GRANDMA!”

Several District of Columbia streets prohibited parking, while others closed Saturday for the events, which started at 11 a.m. and are expected to end about 5 p.m.

Each year since pink-hatted women first flooded the nation’s capital the day after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the Women’s March has organized marches in January nationwide, promoting a list of policy demands and helping motivate women to run for office in record numbers. But the marches in recent years have drawn much smaller crowds than the first historic showing. The national organization has at times struggled to remain relevant, as scores of its initial attendees have redirected their attention toward other causes.

At the most recent Women’s March in January, some attendees said they hoped they wouldn’t need to march again following the 2020 election.

But last month, “the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg reset the whole country,” said Rachel O’Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women’s March.

The group’s organizers quickly planned hundreds of marches, both virtual and in-person, focused primarily on voting rights and the Supreme Court confirmation process.

The first march was remarkable, but the real impact was what followed, said Carmona. She said the movement had helped motivate women to run for office in record numbers in the midterms.

“Now four years later, with 17 days to go, we’re going to finish what we started,” she said. “His presidency began with women marching and now it’s going to end with women voting.”