Illinois Public Media News
New revisions in the Department of Energy's FutureGen project has led one local lawmaker to question its viability.
The DOE had already scrapped a new clean coal power plant for Mattoon, in favor of a retrofitted plant in western Illinois. The DOE is also looking for a new site for underground carbon dioxide sequestration, after Mattoon decided to withdraw from FutureGen. Under the latest revised plans, the underground storage site needs ten acres of land --- about five times the size of the Mattoon site. State Representative Chapin Rose --- whose district includes Mattoon --- said the Energy Department's changes threaten to ruin FutureGen
"How on earth are they going to secure the easement for these property owners for a 10-square mile area," asked Rose, who said FutureGen was at one point a good idea. "I don't think the thing's ever going to happen."
The DOE wants to begin construction of the FutureGen project by 2012, but needs to produce an environmental impact report on the storage site first. John Thompson with the non-profit Clean Air Task Force said that alone could take up to three years. He said he wants FutureGen to succeed, but he is concerned the latest changes to the plan may put it in jeopardy.
"If they need to take more time to find the right storage site, they need to do that," said Thompson. "But what's happened over the last month or so is a number of changes that are occurring very quickly without careful consideration, and that needs to change."
A new storage site must be picked before September 30, the deadline when the federal government can dedicate billion of dollars in stimulus funds for FutureGen.
Thompson said he believes the DOE should carefully review the best possible storage fields across the state before it makes a decision, even if it means determining that a nearby power plant would be a better fit for the new oxy-combustion technique rather than the Meredosia plant.
The Iowa farms whose eggs have been recalled in a Salmonella outbreak aren't saying yet what will become of their hens, but it's possible they'll wind up becoming meat for soup or other products.
Food safety experts like Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois say there's no reason for the eggs or the meat not to be eaten as long as they're thoroughly cooked to kill any Salmonella bacteria.
The farms say they're already sending the eggs to be pasteurized and sold as a liquid product. Pasteurization should kill most if not all of the Salmonella.
Wright County Egg Farms and Hillandale Farms are the two Iowa egg producers that have recalled more than a half-billion eggs.
Both companies say they're waiting to hear from the Food and Drug Administration before deciding what, if anything, to do with their hens.
The administrator of the Vermilion County Health Department said she hopes finances will allow her staff to return to a 5-day a week schedule in just over month.
Shirley Hicks said the Friday furlough days that started in June haven't reduced the volume of work. A lack of state funds forced the department to become a minimum certified facility that month, offering a handful of services, including immunizations, emergency planning, and the Women, Infants, and Children or WIC program. But Hicks said the department still has the same clients in those areas, noting the work has not been furloughed.
"High-risk restaurants - they need inspection three times a year," said Hicks. "Can you do all of those kinds of things? And what are doing on complaint calls? How effectively can you go out and respond to issues of communicable disease if you're not available three of seven days?"
At issue is continued budget problems caused by cash flow from the state. Hicks said in addition to that backlog of about $400,000, her department still owes Vermilion County for roughly half of a $300,000 loan made last year. County Board Chairman Jim McMahon said the county will help the department if it keeps the 4-day schedule, but not with a 5-day a week plan. McMahon said the funds that have come back from the state have led Hicks to believe that the health department can resume a normal work week in about six weeks.
"I don't share the same confidence, but at the same time, you have to let managers be managers," said McMahon. "So if you make that decision and go back to five days, basically what you're saying is you no longer would need the county board's help. So if you're saying that, you're back to five days - everybody's happy."
McMahon said if county decided to stick with the 4-day a week schedule, the county will provide 'whatever means necessary' to maintain a minimum certified health department to maintain services like immunizations and restaurant inspections.
University of Illinois scientists say they've found a destructive mildew in the state's pumpkin crop that could affect vegetables such as cucumbers and squash.
Plant pathologist Mohammad Babadoost said Wednesday that downy mildew has been found in pumpkin fields in central Illinois. He said the disease moves fast and can turn leaves brown in 10 days.
Babadoost said the impact on Illinois pumpkins grown for canning will be limited because many have already been harvested. But the disease can move to other vine-grown vegetables and fruits. The University says farmers should quickly spray fungicides.
Illinois has about 25,000 acres of pumpkins and last year produced almost a third of the country's crop.
A school in Tuscola will be back in session tomorrow even though nearly one out of every five students stayed home or were sent home with stomach pain or vomiting.
James Voyles is the interim superintendent in Tuscola, where absence levels at North Ward Elementary School were normal earlier this week. But he says today things changed.
"We had an unusually large number of absences to start the day, and during the course of the morning we had kids getting sick, throwing up, abdominal pain, some diarrhea, but but no fever," Voyles said.
Voyles says school is still on for tomorrow, but he asks parents not to send students back if they experience those symptoms. Tuscola's middle school and high school did not see the same illnesses today.
Voyles says just in case it may have been a virus at work, he called in custodians to give North Ward School a thorough disinfecting before tomorrow. He also says Douglas County Health Department officials have taken food samples, but he's not sure if food service had anything to do with the illnesses.
The Republican candidates for Illinois Treasurer and Comptroller say they're confident that consolidating the two offices will not only save the state money, but be done in a system with checks and balances.
Former Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka and Pontiac Senator Dan Rutherford say merging the positions will save the state 12-million dollars by trimming jobs, office space, and saving communication time when investing money. Campaigning in Urbana Tuesday, Topinka says it used to be that way, when Illinois simply had a state auditor. A person in the office in the 1950's... Orville Hodge... was convicted and sentenced to prison for embezzlement. Topinka says the two offices were created for oversight, but adds that's what the office of auditor general is for now. "He (William Holland) serves in that function of oversight. Second of all, becase of the high-tech computerization, we have the same numbers."
If they're elected, Topinka and Rutherford say they'll actively campaign for the change before lawmakers next year. If lawmakers approve the change, it would require voter approval in November 2012. If the question passes, the single financial officer would be on the ballot two years later. And during their time in office, "Communication will be key," said Rutherford. "Because of our relationship, we will talk about when she's gonna disperse and when I can make funds available. But the thing is, someday Judy and Dan aren't gonna be there, there will be a different personality, and we want to have this thing fixed for the future."
Illinois' Democratic candidates for Treasurer and Comptroller, Robin Kelly and David Miller, have also gone on record supporting the idea. Kelly contends she first proposed merging the offices, but the GOP candidates say press reports indicate she was only exploring such a plan until recently.
Illinois failed to win $400 million in the federal "Race to the Top" competition.
In addition to the District of Columbia, the U.S. Education Department named nine states to win the grant money, including Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island. They will receive a portion of the $3.4 billion left in round two of the federal education funding.
The state has paid out $529 million to the Illinois State Board of Education, but still owes an additional $770 million. Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch said he does not know if the Illinois' budget woes hurt its chances at being awarded the grant money.
"We were definitely interested in getting these funds," he said. "We believed that Illinois had moved far enough to be competitive nationally."
This was Illinois' second time as a finalist in the competition. University of Illinois education professor Debra Bragg was part of a committee that helped prepare the state's application for the grant.
"There was a very extensive proposal writing activity that the state engaged in," said Bragg. "It felt that we had put together a very strong and even better proposal than the first one."
Koch said he thinks Illinois fell short in its proposal to use incentives to bring highly-qualified teachers and administrators to low-performing schools. He said he plans to use other federal and state grants to develop new models that prepare educators, evaluate students, and allow districts to share software and resources across the Internet.
(Photo courtesy: House of Sims/Flickr)
Gov. Pat Quinn has picked his Department of Human Services head to be his new chief of staff.
Quinn named Michelle Saddler on Tuesday to replace Jerry Stermer, who resigned this weekend amid an ethics probe. Saddler has led the social service agency since October 2009.
Stermer resigned Sunday after a probe of his admission that he had "inadvertently'' used his state e-mail account to send three messages, including campaign-related ones. He said executive inspector general James Wright later determined they were prohibited under state ethics rules.
Stermer said he quit to avoid being a distraction for Quinn, who is in a tough campaign against Republican state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington.
Illinois has struck out in its attempt to get federal school-reform money.
The state was a finalist twice for "Race to the Top'' grants and hoped to get $400 million this time. But the U.S. Education Department named nine states and the District of Columbia as recipients in the final round of stimulus program funding.
Illinois House education leader Roger Eddy says the state's bid was hurt by its long history of local school control and concerns about its ability to continue the programs after federal money dried up. But the Hutsonville Republican says the State Board of Education worked hard to revise its application after Illinois missed out on the first round of federal money in March.
The top education leader in Illinois is diappointed the state got shut out on those funds. But state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch says the reform agenda will proceed. Reforms paid for with the federal money must be continued with state funds. Koch says he doesn't know if Illinois' budget problems played a role in the state's loss. He says there is already some federal money for changes and Illinois can gain from successes in the states that did get money.
A referendum to make the Champaign County auditor an appointed, rather than elected, position will not be on the November ballot this year.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden says it was his duty as the county Election Authority to remove the referendum from the ballot, because the Champaign County Board voted to put it on the ballot more than a year in advance of the election.
"I've never had to do it before --- hope it never happens again", says Shelden. "But this ballot question won't be on the November ballot, because it was passed by the County Board, more than a year prior to the election. And the state statute is very clear that they cannot do that."
Shelden acted, following a complaint filed last week by County Democratic Chair Al Klein, who also said the question was flawed because it didn't list a date for the auditor to switch from elected to appointed, if voters approved the measure. Shelden said it might have been possible to work around that problem, but not the county board's failure to wait for the one-year pre-election window.
The referendum's co-sponsor on the County Board, Democrat Steve Beckett, says he plans to bring it up again for inclusion on the April 2011 ballot. Beckett says he accepts responsibility for the error. Meanwhile, Republican County Board member Greg Knott accuses Klein and Democratic County Auditor Tony Fabri of sitting on knowledge of the problem until it was too late for the County Board to fix it.
"It's clear they were playing games", says Knott. "It was a way to not have the focus on Mr. Fabri and his performance and the need for that office in this election cycle."
The auditor's referendum had targeted Fabri, with Republicans and some Democrats on the County Board accusing him of poor attendance at his office, following a News-Gazette report. Fabri says an elected auditor is vital for good county government, and says his critics should run their own candidate for auditor, if they're unhappy with him. Fabri says he had heard rumors that there were statutory problems with the way the referendum was put on the ballot, but wasn't focused on the matter, and thought the County Board would take care of any problems.
Klein says he learned of the statutory problems with the referendum a few weeks before he wrote to the County Clerk about it, but waited in order to check the matter out with legal experts. He also says waiting until after the deadline for submitting items for the ballot is the usual time to post a challenge.
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