Illinois Public Media News
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)
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)
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.
A federal judge on Friday gave the Army Corps of Engineers the go-ahead to intentionally break a Mississippi River levee in southeastern Missouri to spare a flood-threatened Illinois town just upriver.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr.'s ruling followed a five-hour Thursday hearing over Missouri's bid to halt the possible intentional levee break.
The corps has proposed using explosives to blow a 2-mile-wide hole through the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri's Mississippi County, arguably to ease waters rising around the upstream town of Cairo, Ill., near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
The corps halted its preparation for the break Thursday, saying it needed until the weekend to assess whether a sustained crest of the Ohio at Cairo would demand the extraordinary step.
The river's crest at the Cairo flood wall could reach 60.3 feet - nearly a foot above its record high - as early as Sunday, corps spokesman Jim Pogue said. The wall protects the town up to 64 feet, but there's concern the crest could last up to five days, putting extra pressure on it.
Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee all want the corps to move forward with the plan. Missouri had sought a temporary restraining order to block the detonation. It was not immediately clear early Friday whether Missouri planned to appeal Limbaugh's denial of the order.
John McManus, an assistant Missouri attorney general, had argued the break would unleash a torrent of water that would carve a channel through prime farmland, flood about 90 homes and displace 200 people. The rush of water also stood to cause an environmental catastrophe, sweeping away everything from fertilizer to diesel fuel, propane tanks, pesticides and other toxins, McManus and some of the four witnesses who testified for the state suggested Thursday.
Attorneys for the corps and the state of Illinois countered that the farmers already have land that's flooded and have been given ample notice to clear their properties of anything toxic. The state of Illinois and the town of Cairo argue the well-being of Cairo's 2,800 residents outweighs farmland that would be swallowed up by the rush.
The far southern Illinois city of Cairo is giving residents the option of voluntarily leaving as the Ohio River continues to rise.
Police dispatcher Cheryl James says, as of Tuesday morning, eight families have notified police that they're clearing out. Alexander County Emergency Management Coordinator Marty Nicholson says Cairo's levee and flood wall are holding their own against a river that's expected to reach a record 61 feet on May 3. Nicholson says the concrete flood wall at Cairo can hold back water levels up to 64 feet. On Tuesday, the river already had topped 56 feet.
The Mississippi River is also the center of attention for emergency officials. Already, St. Clair, Madison, Bond, Clinton, Monroe, Randolph and Washington counties in Illinois are under a flash flood watch.
Democratic Rep. Jerry Costello and Republican Rep John Shimkus met Monday with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Illinois Emergency Management Agency officials.
Afterward, the lawmakers said they encouraged the corps and IEMA to work closely with local officials in coordinating plans to deal with flooding.
According to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., a storm system that blew through northeast Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas on Monday will likely move into Illinois on Tuesday. It is expected to cause substantial flooding in a corridor that runs from Illinois to Arkansas.
The city of Chicago has launched a program that officials say will help the taxi industry buy hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles.
Mayor Richard Daley announced the program on Friday, the same day as Earth Day. It's called the Green Taxi Program and the goal is to help the city reach lower carbon emission goals. It also aims to passengers trips in environmentally sustainable vehicles.
A federal Clean Cities grant will fund the program. The program will use $1 million to reimburse the cost of certain green vehicles.
Hybrids will be reimbursed $2,000 and propane-powered vehicles can qualify for between $9,000 and $14,000. Eletric vehicles don't qualify.
Another Asian import has joined the Asian lady beetle and emerald ash-borer on the list of insect pests in Illinois.
The brown marmorated stink bug first showed up in the Chicago area last fall. By January, it was being seen in Kane County. And just this month, it was spotted downstate in Champaign and McLean Counties.
Kelly Estes of the Illinois Natural History Survey said the insects are a year-round problem, because they gather on and in the sides of buildings when cold weather comes.
"Looking for that place to hide out for the winter, and then in the spring," Estes said. "They move out and will feed on a wide variety of plants: ornamental shrubs and trees, as well as corn and soybeans, and many of the fruits and vegetables that we raise here in Illinois."
The brown marmorated stink bug is a big enough problem on the east coast that insecticides are marketed there to kill them specifically. Estes said experts tell her that insecticides may not be the best approach in Illinois, since the stink bug's numbers are still small.
"For infestations that people potentially have in their homes, just with the potential danger of using foggers and things like that, they're not recommending people necessarily bomb their houses to get rid of infestations," Estes said. "Vacuuming them up and physical removal is what they're recommending right now."
The brown marmorated resembles other stink bugs, but has a speckled body, red eyes, black and white banding along the edge of its body and white stripes on its antennae.
If you see any of them, Kelly Estes wants to know about it for the Illinois Cooperative Pest Survey. She would like to see a photo of any bugs that you find, or better still, a specimen in a crush-proof container. Kelly Estes can be reached at 217-333-1005.
There will still be an event Wednesday night in Clinton to discuss a plan to store toxic substances in the city's landfill.
But the purpose of the event has shifted from an environmental hearing to an informational meeting hosted by a concerned citizens' group. The U.S. EPA had postponed the hearing Friday night out of concerns that the federal government would shut down, and has yet to reschedule.
The owners of Clinton Landfill are seeking a permit to allow for the storage of toxic substances called PCB's. A group called WATCH, or We Are Against Toxic Chemicals, is afraid they could eventually leak from the landfill, threatening the Mahomet Aquifer.
Group President George Wissmiller said he has had his share of questions over the proposal the past few years.
"There apparently is no agency that can react to the idea that this is just a bad idea," he said. "It's irresponsible to dump PCB's on top of the water supply for 750,000 people. But if the U.S. EPA regulations and the Illinois EPA regs and everybody else's regs allow it, they're going to do it in spite of the fact that it doesn't make any sense."
Wissmiller said members had already promoted the hearing, and didn't want residents showing up, only to find that Clinton High School was locked. He said Wednesday night's main function will be to tell the public that there are ways to block the plan locally.
"If local government has an ordinance or a regulation that limits dumping of this particular type of waste, the federal government can't permit the hauler to violate that ordinance," he said. "So they are, in fact, restricted by local ordinances."
Wissmiller said the group could also enact a DeWitt County ordinance that stipulates how landfills are set up. The informational meeting runs from 6 to 8 Wednesday night at Clinton High School, with an open house starting at 5 PM.
The DeWitt County Board is staying silent on a proposal to allow PCB's into the Clinton Landfill.
County Board members voted eight-to-four Thursday night against a proposal to formally present a consultant's report critical of the PCB proposal at a federal EPA hearing next month. The hearing on the Clinton Landfill's request for a chemical waste permit --- which would allow PCB's --- is scheduled for April 13th from 6 to 8 PM, at Clinton High School.
One reason cited for voting down a formal presentation is the cost of bringing consultant G. Fred Lee to Clinton to present an updated version of his report. But another one is a 2008 clause in DeWitt County's agreement with landfill owner Peoria Disposal, to remain neutral on their application for a chemical waste permit. County Board member Sherrie Brown made the motion for the consultant's report, and would also like to see the neutrality clause rescinded.
"But ultimately it would lead to litigation," Brown said. "So I believe that in discussing this openly with my fellow board members, that they believe it would lead to litigation, and they're not willing to look at that."
Brown said she thinks the neutrality clause is not legally binding, because it concerns county board policy matters, but DeWitt County State's Attorney Richard Kortiz disagrees.
"When we start talking policy, the way I would look at this, that is more of a nebulous situation," Koritz said. "Maybe more into specific employment issues, or benefits, or we're going to put this area zoned this way or this area zoned that way. Those are policies, as opposed to contractual obligations."
The neutrality clause is part of DeWitt County's agreement with Peoria Disposal that sets out host fees paid to county government for the Clinton Landfill's operation.Koritz said that before the clause was added, the Clinton Landfill's request for a chemical waste permit had the county board's implicit support. But public opposition to the permit has grown, as reflected in the vote on two non-binding resolutions in 2008. Opponents say PCB's would eventually leak out of the Clinton Landfill, threatening groundwater supplies from the Mahomet Aquifer.
Meanwhile, opponents of a chemical waste permit for the Clinton Landfill argue that staying neutral on the issue won't protect DeWitt County from litigation. George Wissmiller of the local group WATCH predicts that the county will face litigation, from whichever side doesn't get its way in the dispute.
University of Illinois trustees have put off action on an Urbana campus wind turbine for at least three months, but speakers on both sides of the issue told trustees at their meeting in Springfield Wednesday they would prefer a quick decision.
For civil engineering student Amy Allen, the decision should be "yes". Allen, who is also president of Students for Environmental Concerns on the Urbana campus, told trustees that any further delay would just run up the cost for the wind turbine --- and perhaps kill the project entirely. She wants trustees to approve the wind turbine for its original site at South Farms.
"Re-siting the turbine and seeking an extension would kill the project," Allen said. "We ask that you approve the wind turbine at the next meeting of the board of trustees in June, or abandon it entirely, instead of consigning it to death by a thousand cuts."
But abandonment would be just fine for U of I faculty member Steven Platt. He told trustees that even if a site is found that won't disturb nearby homeowners, wind turbines are no longer on the cutting edge of energy technology.
"There are hundreds of large turbines in Illinois, thousands across the country," Platt said. "The time, if ever there was one, to erect what will amount to be a five-million-dollar symbol is long in the past."
A U of I board of trustees committee has decided to give the wind turbine project further study --- it could come up at the board's next meeting on June 9th in Chicago.
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