Category Archives: Business

Brookline businesses and business people

Wind energy: broken promises

“Falmouth selectmen decided…not to appeal a judge’s determination that [two wind turbines] must be shut down.” As noted by the Boston Globe in 2017, they were “simply built too close to homes.” Not mentioned in the Globe: potential harms to residents’ health had been clear years before when the turbines were proposed, yet the project had been promoted by a prominent state official during the Patrick administration.

Small-scale collapse: The Falmouth wind-power crisis was entirely foreseeable, It sprang from ignorance of the Patrick administration’s first energy secretary. He was a Falmouth native who had no strong qualifications for that job–even reported as having trouble with high-school chemistry. Rather than invest in scientific knowledge, he spent much of a career as a “policy analyst.”

Former Gov. Patrick’s first-term energy agenda was also bollixed by a wholly avoidable fracas over burning wood for energy–a gross source of ordinary, fine-particle air pollution. At the start of a second term, Patrick insisted that all “cabinet officers” resign. He then reappointed each one except for the former energy secretary, and he soon restructured policy, moving away from wind energy and toward solar energy.

Large-scale collapse: The Nantucket Sound wind-power collapse was not entirely forseeable. That is a rare region of Massachusetts with fairly strong and reliable winds. Aside from local politics, an obstacle dating from the 1990s had been vague costs to mount wind turbines offshore. European equipment suppliers were able to hide information by getting governments to sponsor infrastructure work. As late as 2007, a review by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory warned about “high and uncertain costs.”

Political struggles over Cape Wind were often waged by proxy. During 2003, for instance, Michael Egan of Osterville and other opponents funded a review by a nominally nonprofit organization, claiming the project would cost the region more than $60 million a year in lost revenue because of fewer tourists and lower real estate values. During those years, Cape Wind’s chief developer Jim Gordon was constantly on the defensive and would not say much about financial issues.

In November, 2010, the Patrick administration set a price, approving a power-purchase agreement between Cape Wind and National Grid–the largest utility in southeastern Massachusetts–starting at $0.187 per kWh. For the year 2010, ISO New England reported an average wholesale price for electricity distributed in New England of $0.0593 per kWh. Cape Wind came to market at more than three times New England’s average price.

The high price shifted opinions away from Cape Wind. Many felt Cape Wind had lied to the public about the feasibility of its plans. Under 2010 contracts with utilities, Cape Wind got until the end of 2014 to start construction. Opponents tried to hinder Cape Wind with lawsuits. They prevailed; Cape Wind never installed a wind turbine. At the end of 2014, utilities terminated contracts with Cape Wind for lack of performance. That marked the end of a regional era in wind energy, coming at the end of the Patrick administration.

Progress and prospects: So far there has been no dramatic surge of wind power in New England. Instead, some states have been turning away. Although New Hampshire and Vermont have promising wind potentials, after about 2010 their politics swang against wind turbines. Preservationists there call them “industrial wind.”

The development of wind energy in New England is strongly skewed toward the northern states. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have about 90 percent of the rated generating capacity, with 68 percent just in Maine. Sources of data report amounts that differ, mostly because of dates when wind farms are considered active.

Rated MW, end of year 2016

    5 Connecticut
901 Maine
115 Massachusetts
185 New Hampshire
    9 Rhode Island
119 Vermont

Source: American Wind Energy Association

Since taking office in 2011, Maine’s aggressive and racist Gov. LePage has missed few chances to oppose wind and solar energy development. His chief advisor has been an appliance installer with no scientific training. However, wind-energy business in Maine is also aggressive. After being stymied in 2013 and 2014, developers came back strongly the next two years, opening six wind farms and doubling Maine’s capacity. Because of term limits, LePage leaves office in January, 2019.

Since 2012, the remainder of New England has seen little wind-energy activity, adding less than 20 MW of rated capacity on land. While it was clear that former Gov. Patrick in Massachusetts and former Gov. Shumlin in Vermont stepped aside in the face of political forces, the situation in New Hampshire remains murky. Geographies of Connecticut and Rhode Island offer little land-based wind potential, although there is substantial potential over Long Island Sound and nearby ocean.

Wind turbines seen from Barlows Point, Block Island, simulated view

BlockIslandSimulatedViewBarlowsPoint

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2013

In the spring of 2017, the Deepwater Wind company reached full power with a 5-turbine offshore wind farm, rated at 30 MW, located just south of Block Island–part of Rhode Island southwest of Narragansett Bay. The starting wholesale price of energy is very high: $0.244 per kWh. However, Block Island was never connected to the New England grid before and was paying even higher prices to a company operating a small plant using diesel engines.

There are no similar offshore opportunities of comparable size elsewhere in New England. However, Martha’s Vineyard and–ironically–Nantucket both suffer from frequent problems. They receive electricity from the New England grid, but demands often exceed supply. When that happens, voltages sag and can drift out of phase with currents.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 2, 2018


Katharine Q. Seelye, After 16 years, hopes for offshore wind farm in Massachusetts blow away, New York Times, December 19, 2017

Wilson Ring, Associated Press, Vermont wind-turbine noise rules displease everyone, Portland (ME) Press Herald, November 13, 2017

Doug Harlow, Anti-wind group opposes plans for 200 turbines in Somerset County, Kennebec (ME) Journal, August 15, 2017

Fred Sever, Should northern New England host transmission lines?, Maine Public Radio, August 7, 2017

Jon Chesto, Two Cape windmills have stopped spinning, but someone still has to pay, Boston Globe, July 12, 2017

Cassius Shuman, Island operating on wind farm power, Block Island (RI) Times, May 1, 2017

Tux Turkel, Refrigeration technician is LePage’s energy policy adviser, Portland (ME) Press Herald, February 19, 2017

Unattributed, Maine Governor Paul LePage criticized for racist remarks, BBC (UK), August 27, 2016

Bruce Mohl, Utilities terminate Cape Wind power contracts, Commonwealth, January 6, 2015

Wholesale load cost report for December, 2010, ISO New England, January 18, 2011

Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, Gov. Patrick taps DCR chief as energy secretary, Boston Globe, December 1, 2010

Rodrique Ngowi and Jay Lindsay, Massachusetts regulators approve offshore wind power deal, Boston Globe, November 22, 2010

Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, Wood power worse polluter than coal, Boston Globe, June 10, 2010

Ryan Wiser and Mark Bolinger, Annual Report on U.S. Wind Power Installation, Cost and Performance Trends, Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory, 2008

Scott Allen, Study funded by foe says wind turbines to hurt Cape tourism, Boston Globe, October 28, 2003

Craig Bolon, Renewables: inherit the wind, Brookline Beacon, June 3, 2017

Craig Bolon, Surfing a vortex: energy and climate, Brookline Beacon, February 12, 2017

Craig Bolon, Renewable energy: New England experience, Brookline Beacon, August 15, 2015

Craig Bolon, Rhode Island: offshore wind-power, winning and losing, Brookline Beacon, July 26, 2015

Anti-missiles: blind and misguided

U.S. missile interceptors take off with great roars, bright flames and plumes of smoke. There’s just one big problem. They don’t reliably intercept missiles. In Arabia, five of the latest PAC-3 interceptors, from the Raytheon Patriot family, failed to stop one SCUD-variant ballistic missile launched from about 600 miles away in Yemen.

Missed missiles: A missile exploded at the Riyadh airport on November 4, 2017, a few hundred yards from the main passenger terminal. At least one of the PAC-3 interceptors launched by Arabian forces against it may have struck the rocket motor of the incoming missile. If so, the missile’s warhead had detached, continuing toward its target. Only poor incoming guidance probably prevented a disaster.

SCUD missiles, originally developed in the former Soviet Union, have never been more than terror weapons. Their liquid fuels make them clumsy to transport and unlikely to provide rapid response. Their poor guidance means they usually miss by spans big enough that their explosives fail to disable strategic targets.

Modern anti-missile systems might be able to counter the original SCUD missiles, but recent variants have a new feature: detachable warheads. If an explosive warhead detaches before an incoming missile has been struck, interception is likely to fail. Current anti-missile systems have not been able to strike a detached warhead. In Arabia, U.S. missile interceptors look to have failed at least twice during the year 2017.

Technology sales: Arabia currently relies on U.S. anti-missile technologies but may be starting to regret that. AP and other mainstream news media pay little attention to the issues, but reports from specialty news sites mention contacts with Russian organizations. Turkey, which previously relied on U.S. technology, has already jumped ship.

Early U.S. Patriot anti-missile systems were highly touted, but independent U.S. experts documented failure rates of more than 90 percent. The latest generation of Patriot missile interceptors is getting its first hostile exposures in Arabia. As usual, U.S. defense contractors and the host country’s military claim they achieved success, but so far independent U.S. experts find failure.

Turkey recently agreed to buy two S-400 anti-missile systems from Russia, the first to be installed in 2020. However, it’s not clear whether Russian technology actually has advantages. The critical tests are hostile engagements, and few have yet been reported that involve the S-400. One system installed by Russia in Latakia, Syria, failed to intercept strikes by U.S. cruise missiles in April, 2017.

Distant misses: Long-range U.S. GMD interceptors–all but a few stationed in Alaska–have an even more dismal record. Despite more than $40 billion spent on them over more than 20 years, there has never been a realistic test of interception. Only one test was directed toward a long-range missile. It was a set-up stunt, aiming the attacking missile almost directly at the defending one.

A follow-up test in the Pacific, involving Japan, failed to intercept another missile. It had been intended to demonstrate U.S. “defense in depth”–ability to intercept missiles from North Korea at shorter ranges. Following that failed test, Raytheon received a federal production contract for the SM-3, Block IIA interceptor that was tested–despite evidence the system does not work reliably.

To many with long memories, the Trump administration, as well as the Putin regime in Russia, look to be building “Maginot Line” defenses, recalling bunkers built in France during the 1930s that failed to stop Nazi invasions near the start of World War II. The grossly inflated U.S. military budget pays for more and more systems known to be unreliable. Just as the Nazis did, enemies would seek paths they cannot defend.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, December 29, 2017


Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay, Turkey and Russia sign deal on S-400 missile interceptors, Reuters (UK), December 29, 2017

Katie Paul and Rania El Gamal, Saudi Arabia says it intercepts Houthi missile fired toward Riyadh, Reuters (UK), December 19, 2017

Aziz El Yaakoubi, Houthis say missile targeted meeting of Saudi leaders, Reuters (UK), December 19, 2017

Max Fisher, Eric Schmitt, Audrey Carlsen and Malachy Browne, U.S. interceptor missile appeared to fail in Arabia, New York Times, December 4, 2017

Sylvia Westall, Rania el Gamal, Tom Perry and Stephanie Nebehay, Saudi crown prince calls Iran supply of rockets military aggression, Reuters (UK), November 7, 2017

Shuaib Almosawa and Anne Barnard, Saudis intercept missile fired from Yemen that came close to Riyadh, New York Times, November 4, 2017

Stephen Carlson, Raytheon receives $614.5 million for SM-3 Block IIA ballistic missile interceptors, UPI, August 29, 2017

Stefan Becket, U.S. missile defense test fails to intercept target over Pacific, CBS News, June 22, 2017

Laura Grego, What you should know about the upcoming GMD missile defense test, Union of Concerned Scientists (Cambridge, MA), May 29, 2017 (part 1)

Robert Burns, Associated Press, U.S. plans first test of ICBM intercept, with North Korea in mind, WTOP (Washington, DC), May 26, 2017

John R. Haines, Putin’s Maginot Line exposed by North Korea’s missile launch, Foreign Policy Research Institute (Philadelphia, PA), May 17, 2017

Tom Balmforth, After U.S. strikes Syrian airbase, Russians ask: where were our vaunted air-defense systems?, Radio Free Europe, April 7, 2017

Laura Grego, George N. Lewis and David Wright, Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous U.S. Approach to Strategic Missile Defense (60 pages), Union of Concerned Scientists (Cambridge, MA), July, 2016

Barton Gellman, Study cuts Patriot anti-missile success to nine percent, Washington Post, September 20, 1992

Craig Bolon, Star Wars revisited: shooting fish in a barrel, Brookline Beacon, September 4, 2017

Craig Bolon, Undeclared wars: the rain of U.S. cruise missiles, Brookline Beacon, April 9, 2017

Concrete cancer: silent threat

Portland concrete is the most common building material–generally strong, inexpensive and readily applied. World production now runs around 60 quadrillion pounds of finished concrete a year. While much of it will remain sturdy for decades, some degrades far sooner–from both internal and external causes. Major internal defects are sometimes called “concrete cancer.”

Internal problems of Portland concrete–a mixture of Portland cement, stone and water–are often caused by incompatible stone aggregate, comprising around three-quarters of finished concrete by weight. Problem aggregates may contain clay, shale, dolomite rock, gypsum, sulfide minerals or chemically active silica that can can cause concrete to swell and crack over time. Some such damage may appear soon after concrete mixing and setting, but other damage can emerge years later.

Costs of transporting heavy, bulky materials mostly limit concrete suppliers to local and regional sources. Using practical sources, they try to prepare mixtures that provide good strength and long-term reliability. In the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain regions of the United States, many sources of stone are igneous rocks that come from mountains dominating the geology of those regions. They have characteristic hazards.

Latent problems: Portland concrete’s problems can appear as spalling breakage–notably around joints and edges–as pop-out fragments that dislodge from surfaces, as shallow cracks that are often nearly parallel and as deep cracks at different angles that intersect. The first three problems may develop in days to months from ineffective composition, mixing or installation. They can sometimes be repaired.

A pattern of deep, intersecting cracks–sometimes called “map cracks”–that emerges years after concrete has set can indicate defects in materials, potentially leading to structural failure. Attempts to repair this type of defect often fail, as more of the deep, intersecting cracks continue to appear. These problems are caused by materials that slowly swell, overstressing and fracturing a solid concrete matrix.

Deep map cracks in Portland concrete

ConcreteDeepMapCracks
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

Problem types and tests: Some latent problems are related to stresses occurring in use. Those are provoked by variable loads on concrete structures–as experienced by pavements and bridges for example–or by changing temperatures, especially cycles of freezing and thawing. Many reviews address them under the heading D-cracking or “distress cracking.” In contrast, latent problems related to materials will appear when bearing loads and temperatures are nearly constant–for example, in a house foundation.

Tests of compressive strength, typically performed about a month after preparing concrete, rarely reveal latent problems with materials. Despite decades of research and attempts at specification, So far there has been no single test method for qualifying concrete materials that fully insures against latent problems. The most effective guard against them is long-term experience with specific sources.

Alkali reactions: Latent problems have been recognized since the 1930s that are caused by reactions of alkalis, produced by mixing Portland cement and water, with components of stone aggregates. They were first documented by the late Thomas E. Stanton, an engineer working at the California Division of Highways. The most common problem comes from reactive silica imbedded in stone aggregates.

Stone of both igneous and sedimentary origin may contain reactive silica. Among igneous (and metamorphic) sources, it is fairly common in granite, gneiss and hornfels. It is not usually found in andesite, basalt, gabbro or tuff. Particle size is a critical factor, with fine sand sizes to small pebble sizes typically the most troublesome.

Adding pozzolans, such as natural pumice or furnace fly-ash, can suppress effects of reactive silica. They combine with calcium hydroxide from Portland cement, reducing its alkalinity and strengthening it. Mixtures of calcined lime and pumice made highly durable Roman mortars and cements. However, the amounts of various pozzolans needed with different Portland cements and stone aggregates and the optimum concrete curing cycles remain in some dispute.

A less common alkali-related problem can occur when dolomite–mostly magnesium-calcium carbonate–is a component in stone aggregate of sedimentary origin. Harmful swelling of afflicted concrete tends to be more rapid than swelling caused by reactive silica. Unfortunately, tests that help control reactive silica may not give reliable results with dolomite, and adding pozzolans does not help.

Sulfides: Sulfides occur occasionally in igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. When a stone aggregate containing sulfides is used to make Portland concrete, it can cause latent problems by primary swelling and through oxidation to sulfates. Problems have been reported in Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They were first documented in the 1960s by the late Richard C. Mielenz, a geologist and civil engineer who later served as president of the American Concrete Institute.

Contamination of Portland concrete with sulfides is less common than with reactive silica and dolomite. It has received less attention. However, major problems developed in Canada, near Montreal, and in eastern Connecticut, near the town of Willington–affecting thousands of home and other building foundations. There is currently no known way to suppress problems with sulfides. Correcting damages often involves costly work to excavate and replace failed concrete.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, November 15, 2017


Mineral Commodity Surveys, U.S. Geological Survey, 2017 (world cement, p. 45)

Kay Wille and Rui Zhong, Investigating the deterioration of basement walls made of concrete in Connecticut, University of Connecticut, 2016

I. Oliveira, S.H.P. Cavalaro and A. Aguado, Evolution of pyrrhotite oxidation in aggregates for concrete, Construction Materials 64(316):e038 (Materiales de Construcción, Madrid, Spain, in English), 2014

M.D.A. Thomas, B. Fournier and K.J. Folliard, Alkali-aggregate reactivity, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2013

Thomas Schmidt, Andreas Leemann, Emanuel Gallucci and Karen Scrivener, Physical and microstructural aspects of iron sulfide degradation in concrete, Cement and Concrete Research 41(3):263-269. 2011

Michelle L. Wilson and Steven H. Kosmatka, eds., Aggregates for concrete, Chapter 5 in Design and Control of Concrete Mixtures, 16th Edition, Portland Cement Association, 2011

James A. Farny and Beatrix Kerkhoff, Diagnosis and control of alkali-aggregate reactions in concrete, Portland Cement Association, 2007

Handbook for identification of alkali-silica reactivity in airfield pavements, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2004

M.Y. Shahin and S.D. Kohn, Paver’s concrete distress manual, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2nd Edition, 1997

E.A. Whitehurst, D-cracking and aggregate size, Concrete Contruction, August 1, 1980

Richard C. Mielenz, Reactions of aggregates involving solubility, oxidation, sulfates or sulfides, Highway Research Record 43:8-18, National Research Council (Washington, DC), 1963

Nuclear renaissance: a vanishing era

In early 2008, the late Sen. George Voinovich (R, OH), then the ranking minority member and formerly chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, predicted rapid progress for a new generation of nuclear energy. Writing in the professional journal Nuclear News, he hailed “a license application to build a new nuclear power plant…for the first time in over 30 years.”

Voinovich wrote that federal regulators expected “18 more applications within the next two years for a total of more than 30 new reactors.” Now, over nine years later, there have been just two applications for new U.S. nuclear power-plants–one in Georgia and one in South Carolina, each with two reactors. One of the new projects has recently been shuttered. It is not clear whether it will ever be revived. The other project is effectively on death watch.

Promises: The key promises for a “nuclear renaissance” were to combine so-called “passive safety” with standard designs and single-step permitting–the major features of “third generation” nuclear reactors claimed to yield improved reliability and much lower costs. By the late 1990s, enthusiasts were enjoying great sport, projecting ever lower costs based on speculation about economies of scale.

In order to exhibit the lowest possible amounts, promoters touted so-called “overnight” costs–omitting interest, infrastructure, land and site preparation. “Overnight” estimates ranged as low as about $1 a watt, although some plants from the 1980s had cost around $4 a watt even before factoring inflation. Starting in the mid-1990s, many early promoters were academics. None had much practical work experience designing, building, operating or maintaining a nuclear power-plant.

Glory days of a “nuclear renaissance” prevailed around 1997 through 2007, when promises attracted growing attention and realities had yet to emerge. Afterward both everyday and episodic factors intervened. The rubber was to meet the road when equipment builders proposed prices and potential utility customers had to decide whether or not they could afford the tabs.

While the Clinton and the Walker Bush administrations rarely encouraged nuclear power, the Obama administration, guided by former Secretaries of Energy Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, adopted advances in nuclear power as a major feature of climate action programs. The Obama administration authorized subsidies through federal loan guarantees–promising safe operation, almost unlimited energy and hardly any greenhouse-gas emissions.

V.C. Summer Nuclear, Unit 2, Proposed

SummerNuclearUnit2
Source: South Carolina General Assembly

Progress and warnings: Westinghouse, now a division of Toshiba in Japan, became prime contractor for both new U.S. nuclear power-plants, using a proprietary design called AP-1000. It offers the advantages claimed by promoters of the “nuclear renaissance.” In addition, Westinghouse divided power-plants into “modules” that could be built off-site and assembled as needed. By building factories to produce the modules, Westinghouse maintained it would improve economies of scale.

Westinghouse bid on the new power-plants mostly at fixed prices rather than on a “cost plus” basis, as had been common during the nuclear heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. That approach tended to place the company at risk from an unproven new design. News services began to report warnings several years ago. In early 2012, Ray Henry wrote for Associated Press, “On top of construction costs running much higher than expected, the price of natural gas has plummeted, making it tough for nuclear plants to compete.”

Collapse: “One doesn’t hear much about the nuclear renaissance these days,” wrote Paul Barrett for Bloomberg News in the fall of 2015. About a decade after its days in the sun, the enterprise now looks headed toward burial. Utilities have backed away from even considering new facilities they see as likely to remain unsound. Would-be visions of a grand future proved long on fervor but short on results. The once eager promoters have gone silent.

The first shoe dropped when Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in early 2017. No other company was prepared to pick up the pieces from a proprietary design. Four months later, utilities that had contracted for the South Carolina plant issued a stop-work order, soon putting about 6,000 workers into layoffs. The South Carolina politicians who had allowed utilities to start charging customers before the plant was operating went into shock, pointing fingers and trying to evade blame.

Problems with the new power plants were known inside companies building the plants. An audit of the South Carolina plant had been completed by Bechtel, one of the world’s largest construction companies, a year and a half before South Carolina utilities pulled the plug. Supposedly cost-saving modular designs had actually been major problems. Many interfaces between modules did not work as designed, leading to costly, on-site rework. A nuclear industry largely idle for over 20 years had lost a large, former corps of skilled workers. Training new workers took far more time and effort than planned.

The new plant being built in Georgia has not yet been cancelled. Unlike the South Carolina plant, its owners accepted federal loan guarantees and have a financial cushion. However, efforts in Georgia are likely to be plagued by the same problems as those in South Carolina. They are probably also less than 25 percent complete, despite already costing more than the entire original construction budget.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, October 18, 2017


South Carolina governor releases report on VC Summer flaws, World Nuclear News (London), September 6, 2017

Sammy Fretwell and Avery G. Wilks, Long-secret report details significant problems at failed nuclear-reactor project, Columbia (SC) State, September 4, 2017

Andrew Brown, Secretive report on South Carolina nuclear reactor construction never given to state utility regulators, Charleston (SC) Post and Courier, August 31, 2017

Seanna Adcox, Associated Press, Billions lost in nuclear power projects, with more bills due, WTOP (Washington, DC), August 5, 2017

Steven Mufson, South Carolina utilities halt work on new nuclear reactors, Washington Post, July 31, 2017

Diane Cardwell and Jonathan Noble, Westinghouse files for bankruptcy, in blow to nuclear power, New York Times, March 29, 2017

Dick Miller, et al., Project assessment report on V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station Units 2 and 3, Bechtel Corp., February 5, 2016 (as supplied by the South Carolina governor’s office and posted by Charleston Post and Courier, 16 MB)

Paul Barrett, What killed America’s climate-saving nuclear renaissance?, Bloomberg News, October 27, 2015

Ray Henry, Associated Press, Some leaders souring on nuclear power costs, WTOP (Washington, DC), March 4, 2012

Matthew L. Wald, Approval of reactor design clears path for new plants, New York Times, December 23, 2011

David Biello, Designs for newest U.S. nuclear plants aim to balance safety and costs, Scientific American, March 23, 2011

Paul L. Joskow and John E. Parsons, The economic future of nuclear power, Daedalus (Cambridge, MA), 2009

Paul Brown, Voodoo economics and the doomed nuclear renaissance, Friends of the Earth (UK), 2008

George V. Voinovich, Making the nuclear renaissance a reality, Nuclear News 51(3):13-16, 2008

John Deutsch, Ernest J. Moniz, et al., The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary Study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003 (30 MB)

Craig Bolon, China’s influence on nuclear power, Brookline Beacon, September 9, 2016

Craig Bolon, Third-generation nuclear power: uncertain progress, Brookline Beacon, September 6, 2016

Craig Bolon, Will New England revive nuclear power?, Brookline Beacon, August 10, 2016

London high-rise fire: tragedy of the commoners

A catastrophic fire June 14, 2017, at Grenfell Tower, a London high-rise public housing building–killing at least 80 occupants–has developed into a tragedy of the commoners. It is not being visited on British elites. In its aftermath, officials of the current, Tory government spared no effort–to offload blame. Suspicions pointed at building materials that quickly spread flames up the outside of the building.

Philip Hammond, the famously arrogant Chancellor of the Exchequer, tried to claim that materials used in a recent renovation of Grenfell Tower had been banned under the British building code. He was promptly refuted by reporter David D. Kirkpatrick, writing in the New York Times.

The officials patched together a national emergency action, ordering managers of public housing that had used similar building materials to submit samples for so-called “fire safety” testing–but not managers of private housing. Without waiting for results or advice, the Camden council, in north London, ordered evacuations of five high-rise public housing buildings that had been renovated using such materials.

A testing mystery: Building contractors and materials manufacturers had stated that their practices met standards of the British building code, which include standards for fire resistance. A few days after the catastrophe, however, Tory officials said some samples of materials they received had failed “fire safety” testing–tending to offload blame. At ten days after the catastrophe, the officials disclosed that all 60 samples from public housing tested to date had failed. How could that be?

Nothing from mainstream British news sites explored the obvious conflict. One story in the Guardian said recent tests “lack transparency,” but it stopped there. Absent gross fraud, the “fire safety” tests hastily arranged by officials of the Tory government somehow had to differ from tests claimed to have been performed by manufacturers and builders under the British building code.

The current building code allows two approaches. Individual materials can be tested for “fire spread,” using British Standard BS 476 procedures and regulations. Otherwise, a large sample of an assembled “cladding system” can be tested using British Standard BS 8414 procedures and classified under British Research Establishment BRE 135 regulations.

Manufacturers usually test for “fire spread” using BS 476, or a European equivalent, and builders usually seek materials so tested. The alternative via BS 8414 and BRE 135, or European equivalents, is much more costly to test. Moreover, that approach would limit application to a specific “cladding system” design and to its choices for multiple materials and fastenings.

Potentially flammable materials used on the exterior of Grenfell Tower were Celotex RS5000 insulation, 6 inches thick, and Reynobond PE rainshield, 1/8 inch thick–both manufactured in Europe. Both those materials burned in the catastrophe, but most news reports ignored the rigid polyisocyanurate foam insulation and focused only on the rainshield. It consists of a solid polyethylene core and two thin aluminum outer layers.

If Reynobond PE rainshield gets hot–only around 300 F–highly flammable polyethylene in the core will melt. Liquid might leak from an edge and ignite, or an entire metal layer might release, exposing polyethylene to fire. However, BS 476 test procedures do not create such conditions. They subject a patch in the middle of a rainshield panel to a small flame for a minute. The outer metal layer does not burn, and the brief heating does not melt the whole core and release the metal, so such a panel of rainshield material passes that test.

Mystery resolved: At some time on Monday, July 3, according to automatic logging by other sites, British Research Establishment (BRE) staff, who had been performing emergency “fire safety” testing for Tory government officials, added notes to one of their Web pages describing what they were doing. BRE staff admitted they had used rogue “screening tests” to measure “gross heat of combustion” of materials, not a standard test–such as International Standards Organization ISO 1716–and not a test for “fire spread” or for “combustibility.”

According to the BRE statement, “procedures set out in the [ISO] standard [for heat of combustion] have not been followed.” BRE staff did not test for “combustibility” either, as Tory officials have repeatedly claimed–that is, whether a material will catch fire, under some specified condition. Instead, BRE staff have been scraping out core fragments from samples of rainshield material and then measuring how much heat will be produced when the fragments are forced to burn in an artificial environment of pure oxygen.

Now it is clear why tests according to the British building code might pass but tests recently reported by Tory officials might fail. They are different tests. Rogue tests being carried out by the BRE staff do not measure whether materials will catch fire under controlled conditions. Instead they measure how much heat is produced when core fragments scraped from the materials are forced to burn.

The rogue tests, of course, have not been systematically validated against actual risks of building fires. Such a process would involve extended experiments, analysis, documentation and review. If compared, for example, against longstanding, carefully developed BS 8414 procedures and BRE 135 regulations, rogue tests might either overestimate or underestimate fire hazards from practical situations.

Other options: Little noticed by the public, some building materials apparently similar to those used at Grenfell Tower have passed the rogue test ordered by Tory government officials and conducted by BRE staff. The headline for an article on the BBC News site did not help, saying, “Three hospitals fail fire safety.” The text, however, claimed that “cladding at 11 sites passed the checks, while the other 19 sites which flagged up potential fire safety issues have been told they do not need to take further action.”

The Tory government still has not ordered testing of private housing or commercial buildings, but Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt started a national emergency action to test hospital buildings. When reported by BBC News, 30 had passed the rogue test or been exempted, and only three had failed. Apparently British hospital renovations were more cautious in some ways than those performed by public housing authorities.

Three main grades of metal-clad rainshield materials have been marketed in Europe for about 25 years. They are often designated “PE” (polyethylene core), “FR” (fire-retardant core) and “A2″ (limited combustibility core)–the last one a classification from the European Normative EN 13501 fire-resistance standard.

The Alucobond company of Switzerland introduced an “A2″ product in the early 1990s. Like most other such products, its core is nonflammable mineral wool plus a few percent by weight of polymer binder. At very high temperatures the polymer will char, but flames will not spread far. This type of product is more expensive and more difficult to install than other composite rainshield products. The distribution of results obtained by BRE staff suggest that “A2″ products may pass their rogue test, while “PE” and “FR” products may fail.

Lessons learned and unlearned: Some building renovation managers apparently took more cautious approaches than others. However, the Tory government’s attempt to shift blame for the Grenfell Tower catastrophe onto project designers and managers and onto materials manufacturers amounts to a scam.

The core of the problem has been grossly inadequate building code regulations–allowing an irresponsible alternative to carefully developed fire resistance standards. That is compounded by lack of fire suppression measures, particularly requiring fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings.

The British government had ample, local warning about the potential for a catastrophe. In 2009, the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell, similar in many respects, killed three women and three children. Nothing of much significance was ever done to prevent another such disaster.

The current, Tory government nominated Sir Ken Knight, who compiled a report on the Lakanal fire, to head a panel that is to examine “safety actions” in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower catastrophe. Sir Ken Knight had advised against regulations requiring fire sprinklers in high-rise buildings.

Former Tory housing minister Gavin Barwell told the House of Commons in October, 2016, that the British Building Regulations for fire safety would be reviewed in response to the Lakanal House disaster, but he did nothing. His punishment, after being defeated for re-election, has been to serve as chief of staff to the prime minister, Theresa May.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, July 6, 2017


Three hospitals fail fire safety checks, BBC News (UK), July 4, 2017

Grenfell Tower fire: ACM cladding testing, British Research Establishment (BRE), July 3, 2017

Richard Hartley-Parkinson, Man overseeing Grenfell disaster previously advised against fitting sprinklers, London Metro, June 28, 2017

Robert Booth, Tower cladding tests after Grenfell fire lack transparency, say experts, Manchester Guardian (UK), June 26, 2017

Sylvia Hui, Associated Press, All samples from high-rise towers in UK fail fire safety tests, Chicago Tribune, June 25, 2017

Caroline Mortimer, Grenfell response: number of tower blocks failing fire tests rises to 60, London Independent, June 25, 2017

Shehab Khan, ‘Hundreds’ died in Grenfell Tower fire, says shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, London Independent, June 24, 2017

David D. Kirkpatrick, Danny Hakim and James Glanz, Why Grenfell Tower burned: regulators put cost before safety, New York Times, June 24, 2017

Danica Kirka, Associated Press, London council evacuates residents amid fire safety concerns, WTOP (Washington, DC), June 23, 2017

Lucy Pasha-Robinson, Tens of thousands of people could be living in lethal tower blocks, tests reveal, London Independent, June 22, 2017

Jack Simpson, Fire experts slam ‘outdated’ Building Regulations following Grenfell, Construction News (UK), June 21, 2017

David D. Kirkpatrick, UK officials said cladding on tower burned in London was banned, but it wasn’t, New York Times, June 19, 2017

Tom Peck, Grenfell Tower cladding is banned in UK, Philip Hammond says, London Independent, June 17, 2017

Dan Bilefsky, London fire death toll rises to 17, New York Times, June 15, 2017

Robert Booth, Ian Sample, David Pegg and Holly Watt, Experts warned government against cladding material used on Grenfell, Manchester Guardian (UK), June 15, 2017

Gregory Katz and Danica Kirka, Associated Press, Death toll rises to 12 in London apartment building inferno, WTOP (Washington, DC), June 14, 2017

ISO 1716:2010, Determination of the gross heat of combustion, International Standards Organization (Geneva, Switzerland), 2017

Resistance to fire: EN 13501, the European standard, Odenwald Faserplattenwerk (Amorbach, Germany), 2017

EN 13501-1: Fire test to building material, Ecosafene Safety and Testing World (Xiamen, China), 2017

BS 476-7: Fire test to building material, Ecosafene Safety and Testing World (Xiamen, China), 2017

Prashant Thakkar, 1992 market introduction of Alucobond A2, Glazing Shopee (Vadodara, India), 2017

Sara Colwell, Illustrated guide to British fire safety testing and standards, British Research Establishment (BRE), 2014

Fire safety: Approved Document B, The Building Regulations 2010, [British] National Archives (effective April, 2007, as amended through 2013)

Craig Bolon, High-rise fire in London: needless catastrophe, Brookline Beacon, June 21, 2017

Renewables: inherit the wind

Some are furious at the cockroach President for blowing off the Paris climate treaty, but many expected that, since it had been one of the few stable goals of his lurching campaign. There is little the cockroach can actually do. Under the treaty’s terms, it remains in effect until at least the fall of 2020, and thus it is sure to become a strong factor in the next campaign. If the cockroach tries to run again, he looks likely to lose.

Some political corruption from pandering by the cockroach President will be thwarted by economics. In many places, coal power is no longer cost-competitive, and in some places wind power does not need new subsidies to thrive. The five leading wind-power states–Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma and North Dakota–all voted for the cockroach, but they are not aligned with his hostile views on renewable energy. Many people in those states now earn their livings from it, while few there are sustained by the coal-power industry.

Growth of renewables: The growth of renewables in the U.S. energy supply is a trend decades long. It began with hydroelectric power heavily funded by the federal government during the 1930s. The next surge was wood-fired power from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Despite later being labeled “carbon neutral,” that has fallen out of favor. Toxic emissions are difficult and costly to control. Outputs have been gradually dropping over the past 30 years.

Renewables in the U.S. energy supply

UsRenewableEnergy
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

There are now four major U.S. renewable energy sources: hydro, biofuel, wood and wind–in declining current amounts. As of 2016, each one contributed about 2.0 to 2.5 quadrillion Btu per year. Sources still gaining are biofuel–taking off around 2002–and wind–climbing around 2007. Led by ethanol, biofuel is mostly used for transportation. The other renewable sources are mostly or entirely used to generate electricity.

Two other substantial renewable sources are solar power and waste burning, both around 0.5 quadrillion Btu per year. Solar began to climb around 2013 and is still in early stages of growth. Waste burning has seen little growth since the 1980s. It spreads toxic pollutants–worse than wood. Renewable sources now provide over a tenth of U.S. total energy use: for 2016 about 10.2 out of 97.4 quadrillion Btu.

Although prevailing customs do not count nuclear power among the renewables, it emits hardly any greenhouse gases. For 2016, the U.S. reported 8.4 quadrillion Btu. It is in decline, with older plants closing and new plants rarely opening. When combined with renewable sources, the United States is now getting about 19 percent of total energy consumption from sources that emit little or no greenhouse gases.

Sustainable progress: The dominant influences on renewable energy are now state regulations and local initiatives, not federal programs. They will provide sustainable progress despite the cockroach President, although federal programs could improve outcomes. The most important among the state regulations are renewable energy portfolios for electricity, now enforced in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

Renewable energy portfolios by states

RenewablePortfolioStates
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Laggard states are in the Deep South and the Mountain West, plus the coal-mining states Kentucky and West Virginia. Standards vary widely. Those in Hawaii and Connecticut are among the most demanding, requiring 30 and 27 percent renewable energy in 2020. Stronger states limit qualifying sources to new wind, solar and geothermal plants. Other states accept hydropower, nuclear power and waste burning. Pennsylvania accepts burning so-called “waste coal.” Ohio accepts burning so-called “clean coal.”

Governors of several states recently announced they had formed a new organization called U.S. Climate Alliance, intended to promote and organize renewable energy standards. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative–organized in 2003 by New England states, New York, New Jersey and Delaware, and more recently joined by Maryland and Virginia–has provided a durable model for effective state coordination.

Worldwide energy use trends

WorldEnergySources
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Despite struggles, the United States continues to maintain a strong record in energy sourcing. As compared with 19 percent of U.S. total energy from sources that emit little or no greenhouse gases, for 1990 through 2012–the latest comprehensive data–worldwide performance remained stuck at 15 to 16 percent. Progress with renewables has been swamped by growth in coal burning by countries of southeast Asia, led by China.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, June 3, 2017


Matt Viser, Kerry says Trump’s decision was ‘a day of craven ignorance’, Boston Globe, June 2, 2017

Jeremy Bloom, Trump will pull U.S. out of Paris Agreement–in 4 years, Clean Technica (Honolulu, HI), June 2, 2017

David Abel, Massachusetts joins other states to fulfill U.S. pledges on carbon, Boston Globe, June 2, 2017

John Flesher, Associated Press, States and cities pledge action on climate without Trump, WTOP (Washington, DC), June 1, 2017

Valerie Volcovici and Jeff Mason, Trump says U.S. to withdraw from Paris climate accord, Reuters (UK), June 1, 2017

Associated Press (Berlin), As Europe talks tough on climate, data show emissions rose, WTOP (Washington, DC), June 1, 2017

Emma Gilchrist, Trump won’t stop the renewable energy revolution, Clean Technica (Honolulu, HI), March 31, 2017

Monthly Energy Review, U.S. Energy Information Administration, May, 2017 (20 MB)

State renewable portfolio standards and goals, National Conference of State Legislatures, 2017

Program Design, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, 2017

David Abel, Suit faults Massachusetts record in cutting emissions, Boston Globe, January 3, 2016

International energy outlook, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2016

Renewable portfolio standards, U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2015

Matthew L. Wald, Power plants try burning wood with coal to cut carbon emissions, November 3, 2013

Craig Bolon, Surfing a vortex: energy and climate, Brookline Beacon, February 12, 2017

Craig Bolon, Third-generation nuclear power: uncertain progress, Brookline Beacon, September 6, 2016

Craig Bolon, New gas pipelines spurned: no subsidies from electricity rates, Brookline Beacon, August 17, 2016

Craig Bolon, Greenhouse gases: passing the buck, Brookline Beacon, January 11, 2016

Craig Bolon, Losing steam: U.S. nuclear power-plants, Brookline Beacon, September 19, 2015

Craig Bolon, Renewable energy: New England experience, Brookline Beacon, August 15, 2015

Craig Bolon, U.S. energy for 2014: a year of gradual progress, Brookline Beacon, March 10, 2015

Craig Bolon, New England energy: wobbly progress, Brookline Beacon, January 12, 2015

Craig Bolon, Some “green energy” reminds us of leprechauns, Brookline Beacon, April 8, 2014

Power-plant toxics: no longer a political trinket

By appointing Scott Pruitt, former Oklahoma attorney general, as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the cockroach President signaled another warp in the long struggle against emissions from U.S. power-plants. During his former service, Pruitt garnered large political contributions from managers in poultry industries, who wanted to scuttle rules for waste disposal at chicken farms. Pandering to their causes against public interests, Pruitt became Chief Chicken Shit of the Southwest.

If the cockroach were to fall to a heart attack tomorrow, the environment could become even more threatened. Vice President Pence was a promoter of Pruitt. Writing in the Huffington Post, John Halstead described Pence as an environmental racist. While Indiana governor, Pence responded quickly to lead found in the water supply for Greentown, a community that is 97 percent white. He ignored problems in East Chicago, where a majority-black neighborhood suffers from the worst soil concentration of lead ever reported in the U.S.

Industrial waste: At an auto-industry event on March 15, 2017, the cockroach promised, “My administration will work tirelessly to eliminate…industry-killing regulations.” The context was fuel efficiency. The cockroach promoted lower efficiency: that is, more fuel waste, more emissions and a retreat from U.S. energy independence. Some applause came from locals but not from the Detroit Free Press, whose business reporter said the push would undermine “innovation we need to see more of in the Michigan economy.”

On March 28, the cockroach President staged a fantasy act with coal miners in the Oval Office, signing Executive Order 19, an unhinged and antisocial maneuver. It directs that federal “agencies immediately review…regulations that potentially burden…use of domestically produced energy…[where] ‘burden’ means significant costs [for]…utilization…of energy resources.” Climate issues got nearly all the media attention then, but regulations on toxic power-plant emissions also loomed as likely targets.

Pruitt was Oklahoma’s supervising counsel for White Stallion Energy v. EPA, the DC Appeals Court case on toxic power-plant emissions that led to Michigan v. EPA, decided in 2015 by the Supreme Court. That proved to be the last attack on the public interest from clever, antisocial former Justice Scalia, who had managed to bend the ear of Justice Kennedy. Against precedent, Scalia’s opinion said the EPA had to consider costs when regulating toxic power-plant emissions.

According to Coral Davenport, writing in the New York Times, “Pruitt, [then] attorney general of Oklahoma…sued the EPA at least 14 times [in only six years], often in concert with the nation’s largest fossil-fuel companies, to block major environmental regulations.” Fortunately for the environment, he was rarely as successful as he was in Michigan v. EPA, and fortunately that case will have little direct impact.

Contrasts: Residents of the Boston area for more than 50 years will likely remember days when smoke darkened the sky. Before the 1960s there were few air quality rules. Power-plants, factories, offices and homes belched smoke from coal, oil and wastes. “Efficient” cars meant ones getting more than about 12 miles to the gallon. Cities, towns, institutions and businesses burned trash in open incinerators.

Smoke-blackened Washington Street, Boston, 1915

SmokeBlackenedWashingtonStreet1915
Source: Boston Public Library Archives

In November, 2013, a survey of large U.S. cities found that “Boston tops the list as the city with the cleanest air and boasts the lowest Air Quality Index score possible. Boston’s accessible public transportation system…the Air Pollution Control Commission…[and] annual precipitation…are good indicators that Bostonians are breathing easy.” Quite a change from the grimy Boston environment between about 50 and 150 years earlier.

Progress and mischief: Before 1970, most efforts to reduce air pollution were state initiatives. The federal 1970 Clean Air Act amendments [Public Law 88-206] became a watershed, aiming at uniform requirements that states would refine and enforce rather than initiate. The 1970 law authorized national “air quality” standards and regional “performance” standards for pollution emitters.

Coal has long been the most harmful fuel. In recent years, activists became concerned that it produces the most carbon dioxide. However, there are longstanding concerns over emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury, arsenic and particles of toxic metals from burning coal. The U.S. EPA moved extremely slowly to regulate sulfur dioxide, finally spurred by 1990 Clear Air Act amendments [Public Law 91-604] requiring actions to combat acid rain. Until the Obama era, the agency failed to restrict other toxic components of coal smoke.

The Walker Bush administration tried to gut regulation of power-plant emissions through its proposed Clean Air Mercury Rule and Delisting Rule. The music stopped when the DC Appeals Court denounced those two shabby attempts in its decision for New Jersey v. EPA. [517 F.3d 574, 2008] A dramatic sequence of seven federal court rulings overturned much of the environmental mischief oozing from the Walker Bush administration.

*** New York v. Environmental Protection Agency (2005) vacated the New Source Review Rule.
*** New York v. Environmental Protection Agency (2006) vacated the Equipment Replacement Provision Rule.
*** Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (2007) vacated the refusal to regulate carbon dioxide.
*** Environmental Defense, v. Duke Energy (2007) affirmed the Prevention of Significant Deterioration Rule.
*** New Jersey v. Environmental Protection Agency (2008) vacated the Clean Air Mercury Rule.
*** North Carolina v. Environmental Protection Agency (2008) vacated the Clean Air Interstate Rule.
*** Sierra Club v. Environmental Protection Agency (2008) vacated 2006 Clean Air Act emission limits.

Obama-era progress: The Obama administrations issued two major air-quality regulations: the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) in 2011 and the Clean Power Plan in 2015. When reporting about lawsuits attacking them, news media sometimes failed to distinguish the two regulations clearly. MATS is directed toward the toxic pollutants that have been longstanding concerns of the U.S. EPA. The Clean Power Plan is a climate initiative, intended to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions.

The cockroach President was able to suspend the Clean Power Plan, but the great majority of fossil-fueled power is now produced by plants that comply with MATS. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that as of April, 2016, nearly all coal-fired plants had installed equipment. According to Paul Ciampoli, writing in Power Plant Daily, plants representing about 2 GW out of about 276 GW total–less than a percent of industry capacity–were still operating on MATS waivers. The cockroach mashed by feet on the ground.

Good news for the U.S. is that economics blocked obscene politics. When power-plant emissions are filtered enough to bring down ordinary chemical pollution, costs of coal-fired power rise too high for new plants and are shuttering many old ones. Brayton Point in Somerset, MA–once among the filthiest in New England–was outfitted with pollution controls. Recently it has operated less than a quarter of the time, and it is scheduled to close permanently in May, 2017–no longer competitive.

Power from natural gas-fired plants, not government policy, has been the main agent evicting coal-fired power. In plains areas of the Middle West and in giant river valleys of the Pacific Northwest, wind turbines also provide advantages along with very low emissions. There, where winds tend to be stronger and steadier than in other places and where installation costs tend to be lower, one major form of renewable energy no longer needs new subsidies to prosper. Again, the cockroach mashed by feet on the ground.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, May 16, 2017


Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, Court freezes Clean Power Plan lawsuit, signaling likely end to Obama’s signature climate policy, Washington Post, April 28, 2017

Sonal Patel, Trump’s EPA signals changes for power-plant mercury rule, Power Magazine, April 20, 2017

Jonathan Mattise, Associated Press, Federal utility CEO: coal plants not reopening under Trump, WTOP (Washington, DC), April 18, 2017

Michael Biesecker and Sam Hananel, Associated Press, EPA seeks to derail cleanup of coal power-plant pollution, WTOP (Washington, DC), April 18, 2017

Eric Lipton, Ben Protess and Andrew W. Lehren, With Trump appointees, a raft of potential conflicts and no transparency, New York Times, April 15, 2017

Coral Davenport, Coal is on the way out at electric utilities, no matter what Trump says, New York Times, April 5, 2017

Emily Hammond, President Trump’s executive order on “energy independence,” Vox Media (Washington, DC), March 29, 2017

On promoting energy independence and economic growth, Executive order 19, White House, March 28, 2017

Matthew Daly and Jill Colvin, Associated Press, Trump takes aim at Obama’s efforts to curb global warming, Boston Globe, March 27, 2017

Jill Colvin, Associated Press, Trump announces challenge to Obama-era fuel standards, Boston Globe, March 15, 2017

John Gallagher, Why Trump’s rollback of tailpipe emissions rules is a bad idea, Detroit Free Press, March 15, 2017

John Flesher, Matthew Daly and Catherine Lucey, Associated Press, Climate and other programs get deep cuts in EPA budget proposal, WTOP (Washington, DC), March 3, 2017

Coral Davenport, EPA workers try to block Pruitt in show of defiance, New York Times, February 16, 2017

Valerie Volcovici and Timothy Gardner, Scott Pruitt, EPA designee, expresses doubts on climate, defends oil industry funding, Reuters (UK), January 18, 2017

Alex Formuzis, EPA pick Pruitt stymied cleanup of scenic river fouled by factory chicken-farm waste, Environmental Working Group (Washington, DC), January 14, 2017

John Halstead, Mike Pence’s environmental racism, Huffington Post (Washington, DC), January 14, 2017

Eric Lipton and Coral Davenport, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s EPA pick, backed industry donors over regulators, New York Times, January 14, 2017

Inside the Clean Air Act, US Legal (Jackson, MS), 2017

Edward Wong, Trump calls climate change a Chinese hoax, New York Times, November 19, 2016

Ryan H. Wiser and Mark Bolinger, Wind technologies market report, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, August, 2016

EIA electricity generator data show power industry response to EPA mercury limits, U.S. Energy Information Administration, July 7, 2016

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Consideration of cost in the “appropriate and necessary” finding for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants, 81 FR 24420-24452, April 25, 2016

Keith Goldberg, High court won’t halt EPA mercury rule, Law360 (New York, NY), March 3, 2016

Laura Barron-Lopez, Supreme Court stays Obama’s carbon emissions plan, Huffington Post, February 9, 2016

Elena Craft, Graham McCahan and Mandy Warner, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, Environmental Defense Fund (New York, NY), 2016

Rachel Cleetus, Steve Clemmer, Jeff Deyette, Brenda Ekwurzel, Julie McNamara, Jeremy Richardson and John Rogers, The Clean Power Plan: a climate game-changer, Union of Concerned Scientists, 2016

Michael B. Gerrard, Supreme Court ruling on mercury shows little deference to EPA, New York Law Journal 254(49), September 10, 2015

Michigan v. EPA, case no. 2014-46, U.S. Supreme Court, 576 U.S. (2015) June 29, 2015

Samuel Worth, Why EPA should have prohibited cost considerations in White Stallion, Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 42(2):593-606, April 10, 2015

White Stallion Energy v. Environmental Protection Agency, case no. 2012-1100, U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, 748 F.3d 1222, April 15, 2014

Erin Ailworth, Owner reaffirms 2017 closing of Brayton Point plant, Boston Globe, January 27, 2014

Tracey Jones, Ten cities with the best air quality, CreditDonkey (Pasadena, CA), 2013

Nicholas Morales, New Jersey v. Environmental Protection Agency, Harvard Environmental Law Review 33(1):263-282, 2009

New Jersey v. Environmental Protection Agency, case no. 2005-1097, U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, 517 F.3d 574, February 8, 2008

George A. Gonzales, The Politics of Air Pollution, State University of New York Press, 2005

James J. MacKenzie. Boston’s sufferance of sulfur dioxide, Science 172(3985):792-793, 1971

Craig Bolon, New England energy: wobbly progress, Brookline Beacon, January 12, 2015

Craig Bolon, Fall town meeting: pipe dreams, Brookline Beacon, December 4, 2014

Craig Bolon, Coal-fired and oil-fired electricity in New England, Energy and Environment, October 17, 2013

Craig Bolon, Tangle of air pollution regulations affecting energy, Energy and Environment, 2008

UMass Boston: hoop dreams

Ten years of Dr. Keith Motley leading UMass Boston bent toward a close last month with an announcement of his departure by the end of June. Something like that seemed likely, since it was known that his contract had not been renewed. Motley came to UMass from Northeastern, where he began on a basketball scholarship in the early 1970s. He became a protégé of Northeastern administrator John Curry, president from 1989 to 1996, and had worked at Northeastern as an admissions reviewer, athletics coach and sports recruiter.

To further a long-range ambition of becoming a college president, in 1999 Motley earned a PhD from the Boston College School of Religion and Education, whose best known graduates have become Roman Catholic bishops and administrators at Catholic-led colleges. Four years later he took a UMass Boston job as an administrator for student affairs.

During the short tenure of Dr. Michael Collins as the UMass Boston campus president–called “chancellor” there–Motley took a detour as a marketing administrator in the statewide university office. In 2007, Collins moved out to lead the medical school at the Worcester campus, and Motley got the nod to lead the Boston campus.

Poor relatives: Public colleges in New England are mostly poor relatives of the private colleges that comprised higher education in the region for three centuries: from the mid-1600s through the mid-1900s. Land-grant colleges common in the Midwest and Southwest were latecomers in New England. Of the few founded in the region, only MIT emerged as a first-tier institution; it has remained privately run.

Together with the Dartmouth campus, UMass Boston has long been a poor relative of a poor relative. The better-off members of the UMass family are the founding Amherst campus, the medical school and–more recently–the technologically driven Lowell campus. UMass Boston opened in 1965, then housed in a 12-story building fronting on Arlington Street. It looked like an office building because it was one: the 1927 Art Deco headquarters for Boston Gas. Better things were supposed to await UMass Boston at the city dump.

UMass Boston at Arlington Street, 1965

UMassBostonArlingtonStreet1965
Source: Massachusetts Department of Higher Education

At the wishfully named Columbia Point, bordering the ocean, the UMass staff and students and the state’s taxpayers were victimized by massive graft in public construction that was commonplace during the 1950s through the 1970s. Recalling unusable floors at the Middlesex County Courthouse in Cambridge, condemned before completion, the central garage at Columbia Point proved structurally unsound the day it opened. It and adjacent buildings–McCormack Hall, Wheatley Hall, the Science Center, Healey Library and Quinn Administration–were plagued with leaks, crumbling masonry, failing ventilation and mold.

The original UMass buildings at Columbia Point shared an architect with the central Chicago prison. In 1977, state Sens. Joe DiCarlo (D, Revere) and Ron MacKenzie (R, Burlington) were convicted and jailed for extorting $40,000 in bribes from McKee, Berger and Mansueto of New York–the firm hired to oversee the UMass construction. Punishing corrupt politicians did not cure the evils visited on UMass Boston.

UMass Boston at Columbia Point, 1974

UMassBostonColumbiaPoint1974
Source: Massachusetts Department of Higher Education

According to Laura Krantz, writing in the Boston Globe, during 43 years at Columbia Point more than $40 million has been spent on stabilizing the original UMass Boston buildings, but that has only postponed disasters. Now the garage and at least McCormack Hall, Wheatley Hall and the Science Center are likely to be demolished and somehow replaced.

Marty Meehan, current president of the statewide university system, has been quoted as claiming that UMass Boston should come up with the funds for such a project–maybe a quarter billion dollars. For a campus with a total yearly budget of only $19 million for all asset depreciation, that would clearly be far beyond its capacity. Ten years ago, when the Amherst campus needed around $2 billion for building repairs–including a failing underground garage–no one suggested that the UMass Amherst budget should bear the whole cost.

Hands on the throttle: UMass Boston needed steady hands on the throttle. Built entirely as a commuter college, it serves large low-income and moderate-income populations ambitious to succeed in the world of work. Between 1965 and 2007, the former campus presidents (“chancellors”)–John Ryan, Francis Broderick, Carlo Golino, Robert Corrigan, Sherry Penney, Jo Ann Gora and Michael Collins–provided steady hands. They achieved stable management despite rapid growth.

During 1965 until 2007, UMass Boston enrollment grew from about 1,230 to 13,400 students at the starts of academic years–a compound growth rate of about 6.0 percent per year. The pace slowed with Keith Motley as the campus president (“chancellor”) of UMass Boston. During 2007 until 2017, enrollment grew from about 13,400 to 16,800 at the starts of academic years, a compound growth rate of only about 3.1 percent per year.

UMass Boston enrollments, 2008-2016

UMassBostonEnrollments2008-2016
Source: U.S. Department of Education

After continuing historic rising trends at first, during the Motley regime the in-state undergraduate enrollment flattened, and the in-state graduate enrollment fell. The breakpoint year was 2010, making it look likely that changes in goals and policies from Motley’s planning “vision” at UMass Boston were the causes–not, as some might have thought, the deep recession that began in early 2008.

Vision: Dr. Motley became the organizer of a so-called “vision” for the future of UMass Boston. As with many other such institutional schemes, concrete in 2009 preceded concepts in 2011. The concrete was the product of architects Chan Krieger Sieniewicz–then in Cambridge, MA–later merged with Naramore, Bain, Brady, Johanson of Seattle, WA, now NBBJ headquartered in Boston.

Unlike Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Northeastern, Tufts, Brandeis, and a few other institutions in the region, UMass Boston has an historic mission as an affordable teaching university, not as a research university. In 2007, when the Motley regime began, UMass Boston remained a teaching university. However, spiraling student charges for tuition and fees had been eroding the UMass Boston mission of community service.

UMass Boston student charges, 1988-2016

UMassBostonStudentCharges1988-2016
Source: U.S. Department of Education

As described in the “vision” released in 2011, concepts for the future of UMass Boston reflected Motley’s background at Northeastern more closely than they did the needs and goals of UMass Boston students and their families. Motley described his focus as the “research university that we are and continue to become.” [App. B, p. 1] To most who have followed campus development, the falsehood and pretension would be obvious.

Rubber meets road: During the planning blitz for a future UMass Boston, Dr. Motley got blunt warnings from his finance staff that costs could easily spiral out-of-control. However, Motley likes to be liked. Results show him an easy touch for campus entrepreneurs who conjure up new programs. UMass Boston currently offers more than 200 academic programs to about 17,000 students.

Many degree-granting programs at UMass Boston lack sustainable enrollments. Of about 70 undergraduate majors available for at least ten years, only half have awarded ten or more degrees per year. The faltering yet longstanding programs include chemistry, physics, music, African studies, women’s studies, French, Italian, operations management, history and public policy.

Rather than trim back that unstable mix, the Motley regime has allowed several new programs a year. Most of the newer programs have awarded few degrees. Regardless of enrollment, all programs generate costs–mostly for teaching and support staff. Costs of less popular ones are not being offset much by revenues.

Dr. Motley does not seem to care very deeply about the impact of his research university “vision” on the Boston-area students and their families. He planned pay the bills by drawing in more out-of-state and foreign students. Early in his regime, he hired an expanded staff of very high-paid administrators who predicted, around a year ago, that there would be little or no deficit at this time.

Over the past year, rubber finally met the road. Not enough of those out-of-state and foreign students came. Recent reports estimate a $30 million annual deficit. The high-paid administrators were clearly wrong, but apparently either Motley had no contrary advice, or he chose to ignore it. His background as a basketball coach and sports recruiter left him personally unprepared to cope with storms of institutional finance.

In early March, state officials announced they had hired former Bowdoin College president Barry Mills to provide oversight but not to replace Motley. Early this April, Motley turned in his papers. The buzz coming out of UMass Boston signals desperate dodges to cut spending: classes cancelled without warning, part-time faculty laid off, library subscriptions dropped, copy machines unplugged. Hoop dreams.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, May 10, 2017


Laura Krantz, UMass Boston community fears cuts will erode its mission, Boston Globe, May 6, 2017

Laura Krantz, UMass Boston’s biggest challenge? Its own Big Dig, Boston Globe, April 22, 2017

Joan Vennochi, UMass Boston needs a reality check, Boston Globe, April 11, 2017

Michael P. Norton, State House News Service, Stoughton’s Keith Motley to step down as UMass-Boston chancellor, Quincy (MA) Patriot Ledger, April 6, 2017

Peter Lucas, Beacon Hill silent on UMass Boston’s fiscal fiasco, Lowell (MA) Sun, March 28, 2017

Laura Krantz, UMass Boston was warned of financial crisis years earlier, Boston Globe, March 23, 2017

Laura Krantz, Growth spree has the UMass Boston campus in a bind, Boston Globe, March 18, 2017

Facts and Figures 2016-2017, University of Massachusetts at Boston

Statistical Portrait for 2916, Office of Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning, University of Massachusetts at Boston

Annual Financial Report for 2016, University of Massachusetts, for Boston campus, see page 5-6

Chancellors and provosts, University of Massachusetts at Boston, 1965 to 2016

Emily Sweeney, The evolution of Columbia Point from calf pasture to UMass home, Boston Globe, March 29, 2015

Gabriel Baumgaertner, Hoop Dreams: where are the main figures now?, Manchester Guardian (UK), February 18, 2015

UMass Boston at 50, University of Massachusetts at Boston, 2015

Edwin Khoo, How did MIT become a private university?, Quora, June, 2013

Tracy Jan, When good enough is simply not enough, Boston Globe, February 27, 2011

History of UMass Boston, University of Massachusetts at Boston, 2011

A Blueprint for UMass Boston, University of Massachusetts at Boston, 2011

Fulfilling the Promise, University of Massachusetts at Boston, 2011

Vision statement, University of Massachusetts at Boston, dated 2010, published 2011

25-Year Campus Master Plan, University of Massachusetts at Boston, 2009

Chan Krieger Sieniewicz (Cambridge, MA), Campus Master Plan, University of Massachusetts at Boston, 2009

James Vaznis, UMass facing a daunting repair bill, report says Amherst needs an extra $1.8 billion, Boston Globe, May 9, 2007

Collins and Motley to assume top posts, Media office, UMass Lowell, May, 2007

Facts 2006-2007, University of Massachusetts (all campuses)

Lisa Prevost, Is UMass pricing out kids like Joe Drury?, Boston Globe, December 11, 2005

Richard A. Hogarty, Massachusetts Politics and Public Policy: Studies in Power and Leadership, University of Massachusetts Press, 2002

Michael Knight, Massachusetts told of wide corruption, New York Times, January 1, 1981

John W. Ward (Special Commission chair), Final Report to the General Court of the Special Commission concerning State and County Buildings, 1980

Associated Press, Massachusetts state senators are convicted in extortion case, New York Times, February 26, 1977

Wendell H. Woodman, Let me call you sweetheart, New England News Service (series of five articles), February 8-12, 1971

Bermuda explosion: medical racketeering

On February 14 of this year, Bermuda filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Court for Massachusetts, seeking damages and legal costs from the Lahey medical organization of Burlington, MA. Bermuda claims that Lahey, aided by Dr. Ewart Brown, former prime minister of Bermuda, cost the country millions of dollars by engaging in a “pattern of racketeering activity.”

Bermuda v. Lahey is likely to prove complex. It seeks to apply the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970 to a civil dispute. Congress aimed RICO at “organized crime.” RICO helped reduce the New England Mob from subverters of mainstream business through violence and threats to exploiters of some peep shows and massage parlors. However, little known to most people, RICO also includes a section authorizing civil lawsuits.

When a “pattern of racketeering activity” by an “interstate enterprise” has been proven in court, triple damages plus legal costs can be awarded in a civil RICO lawsuit. As an early example, civil RICO was used successfully against anti-abortion activists who harassed and trashed a Philadelphia clinic during 1984, resulting in awards of about $45,000 for damages and $90,000 for legal costs.

Bermuda’s claims: According to the recent lawsuit, Lahey “accept[ed] fees for medically unnecessary…services…using those fees to pay Brown increasing bribes…to promote its interests in Bermuda.” [Bermuda v. Lahey complaint, paragraph 121] The “actions have caused [Bermuda] to…increase the rate at which it pays for certain health benefits, and to pay for overseas services in the United States….” [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 132]

That is the essence of Bermuda’s arguments that it is owed damages under the RICO Act, in 18 USC 96.1962(a). Bermuda has also made claims under RICO Sections 1962(b), 1962(c) and 1962(d), using similar arguments. Its complaint says that fraud continued over more than ten years, that fraud cost Bermuda millions of dollars and that “bribes” and “kickbacks” were key elements in the “racketeering activity.”

“Lahey and Brown concocted a scheme built upon bribery and greed and carried out with complete disregard for Brown’s position of public trust or for the physiological and psychological impact on patients–who were subjected to excessive, medically unnecessary and frankly dangerous scans so that Brown and Lahey could obtain greater reimbursements….” [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 3]

“Between 2006 and 2016, Bermudian public healthcare insurers paid Lahey over $40 million for services…To induce patient referrals for diagnostic scanning at the Brown clinics, Brown…offered and paid kickbacks, which he dubbed and disguised as ‘commissions.’…” [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 92]

Dr. Brown is a bystander to Bermuda v. Lahey, not a defendant. If damages and legal costs were awarded under the lawsuit as filed, Lahey would have to pay. However, Dr. Brown’s activities would be key elements in showing a “pattern of racketeering activity” by an “interstate enterprise.”

A key issue for Bermuda will be proving that Lahey knew services in which it participated were “medically unnecessary.” If they were medically necessary or if Lahey did not know otherwise, then Lahey would not likely be seen as a party to fraud. According to the complaint in the lawsuit, patients were often referred to the Brown clinics in Bermuda, who would perform scans and send images to Lahey in the U.S. for interpretation. In such a sequence, Lahey acted as a third-party provider.

Conflicts: According to Bermuda’s complaint, “By 2001, Brown…was…serving as Bermuda’s minster of transport. At this time, [Lahey] entered into the first of many consulting agreements…whereby Lahey agreed to pay Brown and [his company Bermuda Healthcare Services] substantial sums of money in exchange [for] their promotion of Lahey’s interests on the island. [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 28]

The complaint continues, saying “agreements called for Lahey’s payment of ‘consulting fees’ to Brown…in exchange, Brown…would ‘promote healthcare opportunities (for Lahey) in Bermuda and elsewhere in the West Indies.’…Brown’s use and exploitation of his role as a government minister to promote Lahey’s interests in Bermuda [was] a clear conflict of interest….” [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 31]

According to the complaint, what looks to have been a problem developed into a threat: “Increasing the rate of Lahey’s payments was important to Brown because he was reliant on the payments to fund his clinics, which had to operate at capacity each month for him to stay…solvent.” [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 38]

Bermuda’s complaint says Lahey had helped Brown make arrangements to buy a CT scanner for his clinics and later buy an MRI scanner–very costly and risky moves for an individual physician. In addition to paying off debt for equipment, he was also paying Lahey directly for interpreting scans, rather than their trying to bill Bermuda’s national health program, and he tended to fall behind on payments.

Bermuda’s complaint continues by saying that “Brown routinely used his role as premier…to ensure that Lahey got the access for which it paid him…on February 5, 2007, [the chief operating officer at Lahey] mailed Brown to thank him ‘for offering Lahey the opportunity to meet with your minister of health…to participate in the development of a future urgent care center’…Brown responded, ‘You didn’t know you were in the in-crowd? (Smile)’.” [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 50]

As of 2007, an outside survey found that Bermuda did not require a government certificate of need to operate CT and MRI scanners. Its national health-care program did not require preauthorizations for scans. In Massachusetts, certificates of need for scanners began in 1976, and most health-care insurance plans required preauthorizations for scans in the 1980s. In its complaint, Bermuda notes that Dr. Ewart Brown successfully opposed a preauthorization requirement proposed in 2013. [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 99]

Prospects: Clearly set out in Bermuda’s complaint initiating the recent lawsuit are issues that might have been obvious to Lahey executives: conflicts of interest between Dr. Brown’s efforts in Bermuda for Lahey and Dr. Brown’s duties in government, plus financial pressures created by Dr. Brown’s debt payments for medical equipment and Dr. Brown’s payments for medical services provided by Lahey.

Bermuda’s complaint has benefited from unexplained disclosures, such as messages cited between Dr. Brown and an executive at Lahey. However, Bermuda probably has more to learn about Lahey’s activities. Unless the case is dismissed on preliminary motions, it will enter discovery, providing Bermuda with opportunities to obtain information.

Bermuda’s complaint says that “no one was better positioned than Lahey, which read all scans conducted at the Brown clinics, to detect medically unnecessary scans.” [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 81] However, Lahey did not necessarily know what medical indications had prompted scans, since it was reportedly Dr. Brown’s clinics that performed them. Whether scans were or were not “medically necessary” and how much Lahey knew about that are issues likely to develop at a trial.

Bermuda has accused Lahey of paying Dr. Brown for favors and accused Dr. Brown of paying other physicians to refer patients to his clinics. It will surely try to obtain documents and testimony strengthening those claims. If successful in the efforts, Bermuda might be able to prove at a federal trial what it now alleges–that the cooperation between Lahey and Dr. Brown comprised a “fraudulent enterprise,” subject to sanctions under the RICO Act. [Bermuda v. Lahey, paragraph 70]

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 15, 2017


Complaint, Bermuda v. Lahey, case 1:17-cv-10242, U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, February 14, 2017

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey, Lahey fights back against Bermuda bribery allegations, Boston Globe, April 14, 2017

Unattributed, Brown braced for chance of arrest, Royal Gazette (Bermuda), February 24, 2017

Shelley Murphy and Priyanka Dayal McCluskey, Former Bermuda premier defends his ties to Lahey, Boston Globe, February 22, 2017

Shelley Murphy and Danny McDonald, Bermuda’s ex-premier calls claims Lahey bribed him a litany of lies, Boston Globe, February 16, 2017

Sam Strangeways, Lawsuit slams Brown and Lahey, Royal Gazette (Bermuda), February 16, 2017

Janelle Lawrence, Bermuda files lawsuit accusing a U.S. hospital group of costly, unnecessary medical-imaging tests, Bloomberg News, February 15, 2017

Mark Arsenault, Former Bermuda leader with ties to Lahey was educated in US, Boston Globe, February 15, 2017

Jo Anne Pool, Northeast Women’s Center v. McMonagle: a message to poltical activists, Akron Law Review 23(2):251-267, 2015

John J. Hamill, Brian H. Rowe, Kaija K. Hupila and Emily Burke Buckley, A guide to civil RICO litigation, Jenner & Block, 2014

Bermuda Hospitals Board: Estate Master Plan review, Johns Hopkins, 2007

Seeking the bialy: a Jewish gift

The bialy shares only a few features with its distant cousin, the bagel. Both are round and low, and both came into the world from Jewish bakers. A good and genuine bialy, however, has a thin, crisp crust with a soft, fragrant texture inside. If it seems slightly sweet, that taste comes entirely from partly caramelized fresh onions. There will be no malt, no sugars, no starches and no enzymes added to a good and genuine bialy. There is only flour, water, yeast and salt–plus toppings made from vegetables, seeds and oils. The classic bialy, originally from the city of Bialystock while it was part of czarist Russia, has lots of poppy seeds.

A good and genuine bialy takes some special care. There are many ways to cut corners, and they probably have all been found by some source one might encounter. There are always the traps of poor ingredients, sloppy technique and stale product. Beyond those, for example, attempts to produce a bialy from bagel dough simply make an inferior bagel–usually firm and heavy. Reducing water in the dough may make it easier to shape but yields a tough texture. Adding sugar or malt to speed rising or cutting out an overnight build produces bland flavor, somewhat like mass-produced bread. Adding eggs, milk or fats makes an inauthentic product. A topping made with dried instead of fresh onions will have an odd, medicinal taste, maybe suggesting a bargain-price pizza-sauce.

There are still a few small bakeries that will turn out a good and genuine bialy, often at special points of days and weeks or on special order. However, it is a difficult product to handle all the time, with a short shelf-life. The well known bakeries located in New York City are all deep into product changes that tend to help profits but pare quality. Fortunately, one can make a good and genuine bialy at home. It does not need unusual equipment or ingredients that are hard to find. If it did, neighborhoods of mostly poor Jews once living in czarist Russia would probably never have developed the bialy.

A recipe: The bialy recipe presented here uses only vegetable ingredients, so it is vegan (purely vegetarian). With kashrut, as observed in an Orthodox kitchen, and proper selection of ingredients, it can be kosher and pareve. The recipe uses techniques familiar to artisan bakers and lists all ingredients by weight, where an ounce is 28.35 grams. Measuring by weight is the method of nearly all bakeries: the only way to achieve reliable results. If one does not already have it, a digital kitchen scale that measures from 1 to 2,000 or more grams can be found for about $15 to $40 at most department and many discount stores.

To make 16 about 10 cm (4 in) diameter, 65 g (2-1/4 oz) as baked
– for the dough –
720 g unbleached strong AP flour, 4 cups unsifted
500 g water, 2 cups + 2 tsp, room temperature
12 g fine kosher salt or sea salt, 1-3/4 tsp
4 g instant yeast, 1-1/4 tsp
– for the toppings –
180 g onion, minced, 3/4 cup
10 g olive oil, 2 tsp
2 g fine kosher salt or sea salt, 5/16 tsp
10 g poppy seed, whole, 1 tbsp
– for supplies –
semolina flour for work surfaces, as needed
vegetable oil such as canola, as needed

We usually use King Arthur unbleached, all-purpose flour: kosher certified and readily available in markets throughout the northeastern United States. Made with hard winter wheat, it provides good flavor and texture. We found little if any improvement in either flavor or texture from using “bread flour” or other extra-high-gluten flours. For kneading, we use a Varimixer appliance made by Wodschow in Copenhagen. It is a labor-saver and has proven useful and reliable when baking often. When baking occasionally, however, kneading by hand works just as well. The recipe gives directions for both approaches.

Preparing a build: Flavor is improved by preparing an overnight build–also called a sponge, a pre-ferment, a “biga” for Italian bakers or a “poolish” for French bakers. During the second half of the nineteenth century, that reduced the use of baker’s yeast, a new and expensive ingredient for the period. The bialy seems to have originated as a “sweet yeast” bread. No nineteenth-century descriptions have appeared that mention “sour yeast”–wild yeast cultures widely used for breads before development in Europe of baker’s yeast from beer brewer’s yeast, between about 1750 and 1850.

In a small bowl, combine 240 g of the flour (1-1/3 cup unsifted) with 240 g of the water (1 cup) and 0.2 g of the instant yeast (1/16 tsp). Cover the bowl, and allow the build to rise about 12 to 18 hours at 20 to 21 C (68 to 70 F). Stir the build at about halfway. Use or refrigerate the build when about doubled in volume or when any shrinkage is noticed. Temperature affects rising time; a lower temperature takes longer.

Mixing, kneading, rising, shaping and proofing: Varimixer technique. Lightly oil the Varimixer bowl and hook tool and a large bowl for bulk rising. Blend the remaining 480 g flour, the remaining 260 g water and the entire build at Varimixer 0.5 for about 1-1/2 minutes until well combined and smooth. Cover the Varimixer bowl tightly, and let stand about 20 minutes. Knead at Varimixer 1.0 for 12 minutes, clearing dough off the hook at least once. Add the remaining nearly 4 g instant yeast and the salt, and blend at Varimixer 0.5 for 1 minute. Place the dough in the bowl used for rising, form it into a flattened ball and cover the bowl.

Hand technique. Lightly oil a mixing and rising bowl. Place the remaining 260 g water, the remaining nearly 4 g instant yeast and the entire build into the bowl and blend them. In stages, add the remaining 480 g flour, and mix gently with a spatula until smooth. Cover the bowl and let stand about 20 minutes. On a work surface lightly dusted with semolina flour, knead the mixed dough by folding it in half and pushing and stretching, then rotating a quarter turn and repeating. At around 20-30 cycles, taking about 10-15 minutes, the dough will become elastic and resist kneading. Gather it into a ball, put it back in the bowl and let it rest about 5 minutes. Smooth it across the work surface, sprinkle the salt evenly and knead for about 10 more cycles. Place the dough in the bowl again, form it into a flattened ball and cover the bowl.

Allow about 2 hours for bulk rise at about 25 C (77 F), folding twice at intervals of about 40 minutes. After bulk rise, working on a surface lightly dusted with semolina flour, form the dough into an even roll. Divide in half 4 times, making 16 equal rounds of about 75 g (2-5/8 oz) each. Shape each round into a disk about 6 cm (2-1/2 in) diameter. Stretch the bialy disks to about 10 cm (4 in) diameter with thin middles and thick rims, about 2 cm (3/4 in) apart on nonstick baking surfaces. Proof about 1-1/4 hour at about 25 C (77 F).

Adding toppings, baking and serving: Preheat the baking oven to 220 C (425 F). That is the maximum rated temperature for high-performance, nonstick baking trays; results are just as good as with higher temperatures. A baking stone low in the oven will help to maintain an even temperature. Cook the minced onion in the olive oil over medium heat about 15 minutes, stirring often, until translucent and lightly browned. About half the original weight of onion should remain. Blend in salt, and set aside to cool. Place poppy seeds in a small bowl or a spice dredge for dispensing.

After proofing, dock the hollows in the middles of bialy disks around their edges with a plastic fork. Spread about 6 g (1/2 tbsp) of onion mix on each bialy, mostly in the hollow but a little toward the rim. Using more onion mix or leaving onions wetter than described can make a bialy blow up and become a lump. Brush each bialy rim lightly with water, then sprinkle about 0.6 g (1/4 tsp) of poppy seeds across the top, including the hollow. Bake about 15 minutes at about 220 C (425 F) until golden brown with crisp crusts. Allow to cool about 5 minutes on an open rack, and if possible serve within a half hour. Best while warm.

Can be frozen for storage, best in a sealed plastic bag about 10 minutes after baking. Can be kept frozen for up to about a month. When ready to serve, thaw and crisp in a toaster oven about 2 minutes, or thaw about 20 seconds each in a microwave oven and crisp about 2 minutes under a broiler. Traditionally consumed whole, not sliced, often spread with butter, cream cheese or whitefish salad. Also eaten with a variety of other foods.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 1, 2017


Rebecca Kobrin, Bialystok, YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, founded in 1925 at Wilno, Poland now Vilnius, Lithuania, today the Institute for Jewish Research, since 1940 at New York, NY), 2010

Leo Melamed (CME Group, former chair, Chicago Mercantile Exchange), There are no Jews in Bialystok, 2000

Barry Harmon, Bialy photos fresh from the oven, Artisan Bread Baking (West Valley City, UT), 2013

Bialys, pp. 262-263, in Jeffrey Hamelman, Bread, Wiley, 2004

Sarah Smith, Well-travelled food: the story of the bialy, The Garden Deli (Yorkshire, UK), April, 2015

Sylvia Carter, For many, a bialy is the bread of a lifetime, Newsday, September 6, 2000

Florence Fabricant, Kossar’s is sold and kosher, in Food Stuff, New York Times, March 11, 1998

Dylan Schaffer, Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story, Bloomsbury, 2006

Mimi Sheraton, The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World, Random House, 2000