Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 17, 2011

LIFE ON ROUTE 150: Raising Alpacas Sees Growing Profits

Some new livestock farms are cropping up in Illinois, but they're not the typical cattle or hog farms. Instead, more deer, bison, and llamas are growing up on private property. And one relative of the llama is growing up at over 50 farms statewide. As part of the series, "Life on Route 150," Illinois Public Media's Jeff Bossert visits three farms in Central Illinois to find out what makes the alpaca both appealing and profitable.

(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)

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Categories: Business, Environment

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 08, 2011

Energy Assistance Program Scaled Back This Summer

An energy program that helps offset the cost of air conditioning bills for low-income Illinois residents is being scaled back this summer.

Because of possible federal funding cuts, the state is telling agencies that administer the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program not to expect any federal aid.

LIHEAP provides utility bill aid to households with incomes of up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

"Though the reduction in federal funding for LIHEAP is unfortunate, the state's decision is necessary to help heat homes across Illinois next winter, which is the program's top priority," said Mike Claffey, a spokesperson for Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Claffey said Illinois could face a 60 percent reduction in federal funding for the program for fiscal year 2012, from $246 million to $113 million.

Cameron Moore, the CEO of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, said the lack of funding means hundreds to thousands of area residents may struggle to cool their homes this summer.

"You know, it's one of those things that's going to affect a lot of people, and I certainly think some of them negatively," Moore said. "At this point, we're hoping other agencies will work together to hopefully at a minimum provide fans for folks, maybe cooling centers. There are sort of some common responses to this kind of need that you see in other communities."

If the humidity becomes dangerous, Governor Pat Quinn could declare a state of emergency, prompting federal and state agencies to provide cooling centers.

Categories: Economics, Environment, Health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 07, 2011

LIFE ON ROUTE 150: State Parks Struggling Yet Popular

More and more people are taking advantage of their area state parks for camping, fishing and other recreation. In fact, nearly 2,000,000 people a year pass through two state parks along Route 150. Yet the agency charged with running them has seen significant budget cuts in the past decade. In this installment of our "Life on Route 150" series, Illinois Public Media's Tom Rogers visited the parks and took a snapshot of their health.

(Photo by Tom Rogers/WILL)

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WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 06, 2011

Federal Grants Aimed at Spotting and Evaluating “Brownfields” in Danville, Decatur

The cities of Danville and Decatur have more money to hunt down properties that may have hazardous chemicals sitting underneath them. The land may have once held gas stations, dry cleaners or manufacturers.

Danville will use a $400,000 federal grant announced Monday to investigate past records and eventually test a few of the sites that may pose the most problems to health or redevelopment. Decatur has received an identical grant.

Danville planning and zoning manager Chris Milliken says there may be as many as 300 properties that have some sort of underground contamination. So, he says the city will have to decide which so-called brownfields receive tests. "That includes sites around Danville High School and some other prominent locations," Milliken said. "The main factor engaging the importance of sites we want to pursue is going to be visibility, and then also the potential for redevelopment -- for instance, sites that are along North Vermilion or other developable corridors already."

Milliken expects it will take about a year to identify new sites and conduct testing on about 20 to 40 of them. Danville officials can use those test results to plan cleanups when money becomes available -- those cleanups could range from removing buildings to removing the soil underneath.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 23, 2011

FutureGen Hearings Planned for June

The Department of Energy plans three public hearings next month in Illinois on the FutureGen coal-energy project as it gathers information about the potential environmental impact.

A hearing is planned for June 9 in Jacksonville. That's near the Morgan County site where the project will retool a power plant to use new technology that captures the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from coal and then store it underground.

Hearings also are planned for June 7 in Taylorville and June 8 in Tuscola in eastern Illinois. Those are alternate FutureGen locations.

A group of coal companies and other firms known as the FutureGen Alliance earlier this year picked the Morgan County town of Meredosia for the project. An earlier version of FutureGen planned for eastern Illinois was scrapped.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 06, 2011

Evacuated Cairo Residents Allowed to Check Property

Residents of flood-stricken Cairo were allowed to visit their properties Friday as a mandatory evacuation of the southern Illinois city remained in effect.

Residents could check on property, drop off or pick up items and check pets, said Cairo police chief Gary Hankins. They can't spend the night and the mandatory evacuation order from April 30 continues open-ended, he said.

Cairo is near the confluence of Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Most of the town's 2,800 residents left when the mayor ordered the evacuation, fearing the pressure from the high water in the Ohio River would burst the local flood wall and levees.

"The rivers are still at near-record highs," Hankins said. "It's just still not safe."

On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers completed its third and final explosion at the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri. The Corps intentionally breached the levee along the Mississippi River to relieve pressure on the floodwall at Cairo and elsewhere nearby.

That initial blast allowed water into 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland. About 100 homes were evacuated.

Meanwhile a voluntary evacuation remained in place at Metropolis, on the Ohio River across from Paducah, Ky.

Water levels declined Friday on the Mississippi and Wabash Rivers, but were holding or slightly higher on the Ohio River, said Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Patti Thompson.

"We actually already are looking at trying to get in with our damage assistance teams," Thompson said. "With flooding you really have to wait until the water goes down."

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Categories: Community, Environment

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 04, 2011

Wind Turbine Project Scrapped for UI Campus

The University of Illinois has scrapped a proposal to build a single wind turbine on the Urbana campus' South Farms site, citing the project's rising cost and its negative response from area residents.

The Board of Trustees' Audit, Budget, Finance and Facilities Committee chose not to advance the proposal, so it won't be voted on by the full board.

First introduced in 2003, the project has evolved over the last year, going from three wind turbines to only one. Earlier this year, the U of I sought an additional $700,000 for the project, bringing the overall cost to more than $5 million.

U of I spokesman Tom Hardy said the university will work with sustainability groups on the Urbana campus to come up with other energy projects.

"I think it's just a matter of going back and identifying those that can fit within a certain budget, and don't have a community impact that this one had," Hardy said.

Most of the funding for the wind turbine would have been supported by the university, with an additional $2 million dollars coming from a grant awarded by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation The foundation said the grant will not be available if the wind turbine isn't built, but an official with the organization said the project's termination shouldn't affect future grant applications submitted by the U of I.

Kevin Wolz with the Student Sustainability Committee said he hopes funds reserved for the wind turbine support other environmental efforts, like campus composting, solar technology, and native landscaping.

"There is probably nothing we can do that can achieve the same symbolism that that turbine would have for campus sustainability in our movement," Wolz said. "That indeed will be the most difficult thing to replace.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - May 02, 2011

Army Corps Decides to Blow Up Missouri Levee

At the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh faced a decision that would likely mean devastation on one side of the waters or the other.

The 55-year-old officer, whose nearly two decades of command in the Army Corps of Engineers includes a stint in Iraq and helping oversee the restoration of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, decided Monday that the best course was to blow a massive hole in the Birds Point floodway levee in southeast Missouri.

Doing so was expected to drown 130,000 acres of rich farmland and destroy 100 homes. Opting not to could have meant wiping out the entire town of Cairo, Ill.

"Making this decision is not easy or hard," Walsh told reporters after announcing Monday that the plan would proceed. "It's simply grave - because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood, either in a floodway or in an area that was not designed to flood."

While waters and emotions have risen, the straight-talking Walsh has maintained a business-like demeanor. He met with people on both sides of the river, some of them angry or upset about the plan, which aims to relieve pressure on the flood wall at Cairo, a long-struggling community of 2,800 residents. In answering people's questions, he's often cited statistics or protocol. And he's shown empathy, if not emotion.

"I recognize all of your lives will be impacted," he told one group of property owners in East Prairie, Mo., last week. "But these levees have never been under this pressure before."

Even those opposed to the Corps' plan appreciate how Walsh - who is responsible for managing the entire length of the Mississippi River valley, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico - has handled the situation.

"The general has a very difficult decision to make relatively quickly," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, whose administration opposed the plan all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, said before the choice was made. "He understands the magnitude of the decision on his plate."

Nearly everyone is already out of Cairo. Mayor Judson Childs ordered mandatory evacuation after a massive sand boil was discovered, creating fears of an uncontrolled levee break. Barges brought explosive devices to the Missouri site, about 130 miles south of St. Louis. The Corps said an initial series of explosions was expected after 9 p.m. Monday.

Since the floodwaters began to rise to near record levels last week, rhetoric has sometimes been harsh from both sides of the river. Missouri officials not only condemned the idea of blasting the levee but filed suit to stop it. Childs last week implied racism was at play, saying Cairo - a community that is 70 percent black - was on the "verge of being the next 9th Ward of New Orleans," referring to damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

If Walsh was feeling pressure, he was neither showing it nor talking about it. He declined interview requests for this story.

He said last week, though, that he would rather use the controlled levee break to ease the floodwaters than do nothing and risk seeing a levee burst or be topped elsewhere where more lives and less farmland were at risk, and insisted he's not taking the decision lightly.

Walsh "has lived up to his reputation, Nixon said. "He's very sharp and focused on the job at hand."

The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., assumed his first command in San Francisco in 1994, moved to Sacramento, Calif., and then onto Corps headquarters in Washington, eventually becoming chief of staff. In 2004 he took command of the division in Atlanta, then went to Iraq, where he was commander for the Corps' Gulf Region Division. Walsh took command of the Mississippi Valley division in 2008, a region that includes portions of 12 states and encompasses 370,000 square miles.

Until now, the married father of two has kept a relatively low profile - except for one word he said in June 2009.

During a Senate hearing on the Gulf Coast restoration, Sen. Barbara Boxer took exception to Walsh's reference to her as "ma'am."

"You know, do me a favor," the California Democrat said. "Could you say 'senator' instead of 'ma'am?'"

"Yes, senator," Walsh responded, though military officials quickly pointed out that protocol directs that officers may use "sir" or "ma'am" when addressing those above them in the chain of command.

Amid the flooding, the general faced stakes far greater than hurt feelings.

Robert Jackson, a commissioner in Mississippi County, Mo., who owns 1,500 acres in the floodway, became animated and even mildly cursed during the forum in East Prairie, saying that blasting the levee would not only damage farm land but undo millions of dollars of work the county has done on everything from roads to ditches.

Walsh remained calm, but stood firm that all options were on the table. And Jackson said later that he understood what the general was up against.

"Human lives come first," Jackson said. If people died because a levee broke downriver, "They'd drag him in front of a Senate committee tomorrow to answer for it."

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - May 01, 2011

Shots Fired at Market Place Mall

Two people are hospitalized after a shooting at Champaign's Market Place Mall.

Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney says police officers were at the mall late Sunday afternoon, responding to a vehicle being recklessly driven around the mall, and a person exiting the vehicle with a gun. At around 4:45, one male fired multiple shots at another male outside the mall near the LensCrafters shop.

"When they got to that particular area, they encountered an armed subject who had shot and was continuing to shoot a subject who was laying on the ground," Finney said.

Several law enforcement agencies responded to the shooting, including officials from the University of Illinois, the Champaign County Sheriff's Department, the Urbana Police Department, and the Illinois State Police. Finney said the shooter was injured after two police officers fired their weapons.

The two injured individuals were taken to Carle Hospital for treatment, but Finney wouldn't release details about their conditions. He said several people were taken into custody as persons of interest, but no charges have been filed.

Theresa Pickett of Hoopeston was in a department store with her family when the shots rang out.

"We were toward the back of the store, and all we could see were people coming back and the employee was like you need to go to the back of the store," Pickett said. "There was a shooting. And so everyone started running and screaming. It was awful."

There are reports that shots were also fired inside the mall, but Finney couldn't confirm that information.

The shooting occurred on the same weekend during which Champaign hosted thousands of visitors attending Roger Ebert's Film Festival, the Illinois Marathon and a statewide school math tournament. Mayor-elect Don Gerard said the shooting was a tragedy that "punctuated what was an extraordinary weekend for Champaign."

In a statement, Gerard said: "My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims' families. I am thankful for the swift response of our first-responders and the units which support their efforts in such unfortunate times of crisis."

Finney said police are still exploring the motivation behind the attack, but he said there is no evidence to suggest that this was a random shooting.

People with information about the shooting should call Crime Stoppers 217-373-TIPS or Champaign Police 217-351-4545.

(Photo courtesy of Mitch Kazel)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 29, 2011

Law Enforcement Urging Residents to Leave the Flood Zone

Sherriff's officials in southeast Missouri are urging residents near the Birds Point Levee to clear out.

Law enforcement was busy Friday afternoon ordering the area's 200 residents to leave the flood plain while the Army Corps of Engineers weighs a decision to intentionally break the Mississippi River levee.

The move is aimed at reducing pressure on the flood wall protecting the upriver town of Cairo, Ill.

The land is sparsely populated, and many residents had already left as the corps began moving equipment into place to break the levee. That break is expected to send water over 130,000 acres of farmland.

The state of Missouri has fought the plan, but the corps says it's monitoring river levels and may not make a final decision on a break until the weekend.


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