Illinois Public Media News
A fatal accident inside a grain bin this week in northwest Illinois underlines just how dangerous it can be to work in the agriculture industry.
Firefighters, paramedics and other emergency workers are taking part in a three-day workshop on responding to farm-related emergencies.
Amy Rademaker is a farm safety expert with Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, which is hosting the event. She says this week's incident occurred at a grain elevator that's subject to a number of safety regulations. But individually-owned grain bins present special problems.
"Those safety practices may not be implemented -- they're not required by OSHA standards unless you have so many employees," Rademaker said. "So it's different when you talk about an elevator versus on-farm storage. But we do have a lot of elevators here, and so we hope they're taking precautions."
Rademaker says emergency workers this weekend are learning how to respond to grain-bin incidents as well as tractor rollovers and other accidents specific to farms. She says rural crews are obviously prime targets for training, but even urban fire and ambulance workers can be called out to help in farm-related accidents.
Tests have found little to no toxicity from the algae in Clinton Lake, but state officials still say swimmers and other users should be concerned.
A 12 year old girl from Urbana had become ill after swimming there over the Fourth of July holiday. The state Department of Natural Resources posted an algae advisory. But they've amended it now that 2 out of 4 water samples found only very low levels of the type of algae that would cause a public health concern.
DNR spokeswoman Januari Smith says blue-green algae scum is common in most bodies of water, but it's best avoided. "We didn't close the lake to swimming or boaters or any other lake users," said Smith. "We just advised them -- we did this last week and we are still doing it -- to be very cautious. Do not swim in stagnant water or in obvious algae blooms."
Smith says Clinton Lake is not treated for algae and they don't plan any treatment.
The new University of Illinois president says he has experience dealing with state governments that are struggling with meager budgets, and more struggling will take place in the next year.
Michael Hogan says he wants to correlate the yearly increases in tuition with state funding reductions that are forcing universities to pass the cost on to students and parents. Hogan sat down for an interview with Illinois Public Media's David Inge, telling him that the U of I has to concentrate just as much on controlling costs, and future staff reductions are possible. He wouldn't specify where layoffs could happen, but he says a committee report has focused on certain services that could be restructured.
"We're going to begin right away when it comes to IT, human resources, strategic purchasing and a variety of other back-office operations, administrative operations. We can begin implementing the recommendations coming out of that committee and begin realizing the savings quickly."
Hogan expects a steering committee to help implement the first of the cost-cutting measures soon. In the meantime, he foresees opening a line of credit to keep up with bills, admitting that doing so makes him uneasy.
Meanwhile, Hogan says some steps to help ease the budget crunch can also be of academic benefit. He admits that students from outside Illinois pay much higher tuition rates - but he also says they're needed to bring a diverse perspective.
"We're trying to create a learning environment on campus that's more cosmopolitan and prepares people for life in the world they're going to face when they get their degrees," Hogan said. "So the best argument for more nonresidents, or more diversity or more international students, is not really a financial argument. It's an intellectual and academic argument, an educational argument." But when asked, Hogan would not give a target number of out-of-state students the U of I wants. The report recommended keeping in-state enrollment level.
Hogan says he won't get defensive about the $620,000 salary that trustees approved for him before he took over as president earlier this month. But he says he plans to forgo pay raises or deal with furlough days if the university calls on other employees to do so.
Property tax money owed by Provena Covenant Medical Center is now in the hands of Champaign County.
County Treasurer Dan Welch received the $8-point-8 million check Thursday morning. An appellate court last week sided with taxing bodies, meaning the hospital owes the funds for tax years 2002 thru 2008. But Welch notes Provena is still fighting the court's decision regarding 2004 onwards. In October, an administrative law judge will determine whether about $6-point-6 million can be released to taxing bodies. But Provena could still take the decision to appellate court.
Welch says that means taxing bodies will likely want to hold off on using that $6-point-6 millon, but they could use just over $2 million from years the hospital is not contesting for taxing bodies like Urbana's school District and Champaign County. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing says those funds would come out of the city's tax increment financing district, which would first receive that money. "Smaller units really do need the money," said Prussing. "I don't think it would be right for the city to try to glom onto it. These are people that we work with continuously, so I think the fair thing to do is just give the money back as quickly as we can. And we have our legal council looking into exactly what is the proper way to do this." Prussing says it's 'unfortunate' that Provena is dragging this case out.
Meanwhile, Provena is planning to file for an exemption on its 2010 taxes. Spokeswoman Lisa Lagger issued a statement... noting the hospital provided over $25 million in charitable care in the Champaign Urbana area in the past year, saying those amounts 'clearly represent the value of charitable assets being returned to the community.
Shirley Hicks recently took over as the Public Health Administrator at the Vermilion County Health Department. Hicks has been with the health department for 25 years, and comes into her new role amid massive program and staff cuts. In the first six months of this year, the department cut more than half of its staff and eliminated eight programs. The state still owes the health department $600,000, which Hicks says could be paid back by December. She estimates that it could be at least a couple of years until her department can start thinking about adding to its services. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers spoke to her at the department's office in Danville.
The past six months have seen Vermilion County's Health Department reduced to providing just a handful of services.
The transition to a minimum federally-certified facility means the department now offers only immunizations, emergency planning, environmental health, and the Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC program. Wednesday was the last day for the retiring Administrator Steve Laker, who's seen his staff reduced from 74 to 30 since the start of the year due to dwindling state funds. The department is still owed $600,000, and still has to pay back Vermilion County for a $300,000 loan. It also started furlough days a month ago, operating Monday thru Thursday. Laker says walk-in clinics for sexually transmitted disease, and family planning programs will be missed the most. "That's going to have a devestating effect on people," said Laker. "As far as real economic effects and perhaps social and financial effects down the road, due to unwanted pregancies. I can't send out a memo saying 'folks, it's a good idea to cease your sexual activities because you no longer have access to family planning services. I know it's not going to work."
Laker says Aunt Martha's Health Center in Danville is expected to pick up about half of what his department provided for family planning. But the federally-funded facility's director of health operations, Alice Sartore, says no one should be turned away, despite the limits of federal grant dollars. "Because just as any other grant-funded services, we know that our grant never covers the cost of the services." said Sartore. "But our adminstration here at Aunt Martha's is really in tune with the needs of all of the communities in which we operate community health centers." Aunt Martha's is based in suburban Chicago, and operates 18 locations throughout the state. Laker says he's been frustrated that he can't find a phone number for the Danville office. Sartore says the facility offers a toll-free number for all its clients, and those appointments with new ones in Vermilion County will start up in about two weeks. That phone number is 1-877-692-8686.
Meanwhile, Vermilion County's Health Department has hired a new administrator to replace Laker. Shirley Hicks has been with the department since 1985.
A study of the spread of West Nile virus shows it has a new culprit.
A team of researchers from the University of Illinois says robins are unwittingly spreading the virus after being bitten by mosquitoes carrying it. Professor Jeff Brawn heads the U of I's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. Unlike crows and jays, which die when they get the disease, he says some robins survive when bitten by an infected mosquito. And Brawn says that's a problem in urban environments. "They seem to be to amplify the virus in their bloodstream but they don't die from it at a real high rate," said Brawn. "So you've got a common bird that the mosquitoes prefer, and one that the virus seems to do very well in, too."
Brawn and a team of U of I researchers are tracking West Nile in Chicago's southwest suburbs. The group has been able to detect what mosquitoes have been feeding on through DNA samples. Brawn says if another mosquito bites a robin, the mosquito gets the virus and can then transmit it to another host, possibly another bird or human. He suggests wearing long sleeve shirts, minimizing outdoor time from dusk to dawn, and using insect repellent this summer to avoid the illness. "It's not like robins are the enemy, and if you see one, you're going to get West Nile virus," said Brawn. "It's just that robins are species that seems to be involved in kind of a epidemiology of the virus."
Brawn's study includes several institutions, including Michigan State and Emory University. It's funded by the National Science Foundation.
A former administrator and researcher at Carle Foundation Hospital has settled her lawsuit against the Urbana firm.
Suzanne Stratton was Carle's vice president for research and had worked on breast cancer at the hospital's Cancer Center before she was fired in November of 2008.
Stratton charged that Carle had violated federal whistleblower laws by retaliating against her. Stratton had brought up allegations that Carle violated laws protecting human research subjects in its cancer studies.
Last week a federal judge approved both sides' agreement to settle the lawsuit with prejudice - that means Stratton won't be able to file another case on the same claim.
Carle spokeswoman Jennifer Hendricks Kauffman would not disclose any other terms of the agreement - in the suit, Stratton had sought to be reinstated and receive financial damages. Neither Stratton nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
A researcher at Mayo Clinic says a new collaboration with the University of Illinois will enable his facility to interpret the school's research.
The alliance impacting clinical research, bioengineering, and diagnostics has been in the works for about 18 months. Eric Wieben is Director of Mayo's Advanced Genomics Technology Center. He says the two entities complement one another well. For Wieben's line of work, he says DNA sequencing instruments are turning out more data each time they're used. Wieben says an institution like the U of I will improve care for patients by reading more than a billion letters of DNA code in one hour. "Mayo has a lot of patient information and samples that are in the queue for DNA sequencing," says Wieben. "The University of Illinois has world-renowned computing resources and the people who know how to use those to effectively make knowledge out of large amounts of data."
A Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the U of I, Rashid Bashir, says the goal of an alliance between the two is improving individualized medicine. The partnership will focus on computer-based skills, like tissue engineering. Bashir says this partnership could result in facilities that detect different markers of disease by feeding data through a digital network. He says the two parties have already received about 30 requests from researchers to work on the project, but that number could be growing. "We really hope that it will be open to any and all researchers from the University of Illinois and any researchers and physicians from Mayo Clinic," said Bashir. "Some partnerships have already initiated and we hope many more will come. So it's really kind of an umbrella agreement that gets the two institutions to work together towards these grant challenges for health care."
Both the U of I and Mayo Clinic are placing some seed money into the alliance, but Bashir says the majority of the work will rely on federal grant applications. The U of I and Mayo Clinic will each put some seed funds for the project, but the collaborators will seek out federal grants for most of their research. Mayo Clinic has three campuses, operating in Minnesota, Florida, and Arizona.
Preliminary tests of a liquid spill near a railroad track in Danville show that residents there aren't at any health risk. Illinois' Environmental Protection Agency hopes to have more information at a public meeting in the city on Wednesday. But agency spokeswoman Maggie Carson says the first samples prove that the smell of the fatty acids used in industrial settings are the only problem so far. "We're fully aware that there are odors and the neighbors have experienced them, and this is a problem," says Carson. "Even though there's not a hazardous chemical involved, the odors affect the quality of life of the neigbhors."
The substance appeared to have come from Double-S Liquid Feed Service on North Bowman Avenue. Carson says some of it spilled as it was being off-loaded, and rain waters carried it into a ditch. She says the area isn't heavily populated, but enough people were adversely affected to call for the meeting. Carson says it's also not yet known how much of the liquid had spilled, but she says inspections of site show small quantities of the substance may have spilled before there. The EPA is working with Double-S and the city of Danville to clean up the site. Carson says if the problem proves to be severe, the EPA could call the Attorney General's office over possible fines or other penalties. The EPA's public meeting over the spill is Wednesday at 12:15 at the Danville Boys and Girls Club.
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