Connect with us

News

Court Rules in Favor of Northern Beltline

Brandon Moseley

Published

on

By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Friday, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama Northern Division ruled against the Black Warrior Riverkeeper (BWR) in BWR’s request for a preliminary injunction to block the start of construction for the Northern Beltline.

BWR had requested the injunction, claiming that the start of construction on a 1.8 mile segment of the Northern Beltline which joins State Roads 79 and 75 violated the National Environmental Policy Act requirements and that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (CORPS) should have conducted an Environmental Impact Study for the entire 50.1 mile Northern Beltline project instead of only the first segment.  BWR asked for the preliminary injunction against the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The executive director of the Coalition for Regional Transportation, Renee Carter said, “This very strong order of the federal court reflects exactly what we have been saying about the need for the Northern Beltline for the past several years – that it is a necessary and justifiable transportation project that will tremendously benefit the people of this area.  We are both very pleased and gratified by the court’s order.”

In the ruling the judge found, “The appropriate question is whether the SR 79/75 project serves a significant purpose if the other portions are not built… The evidence establishes that the SR 79/75 segment increases the utility of the existing roadway network by providing access between well-traveled highways.  Further, the SR 79/75 segment will relieve traffic on arterial and city streets.”

The ruling further said, “…the SR79/75 project satisfies NEPA regulations because it has independent utility, logical termini, and does not foreclose other alternatives for the overall project.  Moreover, requiring the Corps to prepare an EIS for each 404 permit would likely result in the project never being started at all and would be useless and redundant.”  “…The public also has an interest in development that will promote job growth and economic stability, and Plaintiff does not establish a factual weight of harm to override the public interest in development.”  Finally, “…consideration must be given to the fact that substantial funds have already been expended to begin construction on the 1.86-mile project, including preparation for preliminary engineering, right-of-way acquisition, and utility relocation work.  Delaying construction would have significant financial impacts on Defendants and the public treasury, especially if the bid process has to be repeated.”

The construction of the Northern Beltline in Jefferson County is expected to enhance cross-region accessibility, create jobs and stimulate economic growth. Thousands of construction jobs will be created to build the new interstate connecting I-59 near Deerfoot in Trussville with I-59/I-20 near the I-459 junction west of Bessemer. The project will bring new housing and businesses to northern Jefferson County and 41 governing bodies have passed resolutions supporting the Northern Beltline. Not everyone however is happy with the project. Radical environmental groups have opposed the project due to their stated concerns about water runoff from the project.

JobKeeper Alliance, a job-focused nonprofit organization had stated their concerns that the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) will try to use a federal lawsuit the group filed over 30 months ago to block the start of construction on the Northern Beltline, which Governor Robert Bentley (R) has is supposed to begin this year.

Advertisement

Governor Bentley said, “We’re committed to building the Northern Beltline in the most environmentally responsible way possible.”

In 2011, the SELC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper claiming that ALDOT inadequately assessed the potential environmental impact of the proposed highway.
JobKeeper Alliance has been a vocal supporter of the job-creating highway project.

The Executive Director of JobKeeper Alliance Patrick Cagle said, “The fact that this project is supported by the vast majority of elected officials, including Governor Bentley, is a clear sign that the public has rejected SELC’s claims. Our concern is that SELC will now try to use the federal court system to accomplish their goal of killing the Northern Beltline; disregarding the will of our state’s leaders.”

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said in a written statement, “The Northern Beltline will support economic development and additional job creation in Jefferson County. It will link all the Interstates in the county, and it will increase accessibility to several communities. New industries look for modern infrastructure and convenient access when considering locations to build and create jobs. The Northern Beltline will spur economic growth and benefit drivers and residents throughout Jefferson County.”

Construction of the first 1.34 mile phase of the project between State Highway 75 and State Highway 79 in northeast Jefferson County is expected to be completed in five to six years. The Northern Beltline will be built entirely with federal funds. The State will not even have to contribute matching funds thus the project does not divert limited state highway resources away from other projects and priorities.

To receive updates on the Northern Beltline you can visit the new website:

www.betterbeltline.org

Advertisement

Education

State superintendent Mackey addresses concerns about plans for public schools

Josh Moon

Published

on

Over the last few days, several public school principals in Alabama — most of them from more rural districts — have spoken with APR about a number of concerns they have about the state’s plan for moving forward with the 2019-2020 school year in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The principals were not angry or even necessarily critical of the guidance being issued from the Alabama State Department of Education and their local school boards. Instead, they were simply worried about the safety of their staff and faculty, and they were confused, in some cases, about what they can and can’t do to protect themselves and their staff and to provide food and coursework to their students. 

With things moving so quickly in such an unprecedented situation, it probably should be expected that communication isn’t always the best. So, state Superintendent Eric Mackey spoke with APR about the specific concerns of the principals and offered helpful guidance to teachers, principals and superintendents on what he and state leaders expect from them moving forward. 

Q: One of the first questions the principals had was about employees and teachers who have underlying health issues that make them more vulnerable to coronavirus. They’re worried about those staff members coming back to work next week, even in a setting without students. Can anything be done to protect them? 

Mackey: Well, of course. We don’t want anyone who has a health condition like that to be put in danger. I know everybody’s anxious, really scared — some maybe more so than they need to be and others not as much as they should. We have about 10 people in here in the office today. We’re being cautious. Washing hands, wiping down with Clorox wipes. We have some people who need to be more scared about it. One of our vital employees has a heart condition, another is a cancer survivor. We’ve told them not to come in. That’s just how it has to be. They can contribute what they can from home. 

And I suggest that be the case for these schools. If you have an employee with an underlying condition, we need to look at ways for them to contribute — if there’s a concern with everyone pulling their own weight — ways that don’t put them at risk and protects them. Because that is absolutely the first priority. Maybe they can’t come in. But someone needs to be calling parents and making sure they have everything. There are ways to do this.    

Q: Another concern is the close quarters of the food prep areas for employees working to get lunches out for kids to pick up. 

Mackey: Yeah, that is something that we’ve worked, something we’ve put a lot of thought into and we are concerned about it. But at the end of the day, these things are a balance. It is very important for us to get the meals out to the kids. We know from the response just how important it is. But in doing so, our people have to follow the standards, and being six feet apart is not always practical. What I want people to do is be safe first. Wear gloves and masks and whatever they can to protect themselves and the area around them. 

Advertisement

One thing I’m more concerned about right now is that our cafeteria crews won’t be able to keep up with this pace. It’s one thing to have these folks do this work for two or three weeks. But the same men and women can’t do it forever. They need breaks just like everyone. And as this stretches on, we’re going to have to consider changing people out. You might know already, but a cafeteria worker at one of our schools in north Alabama tested positive for (COVID-19) last week. So far, it doesn’t appear as if any other people were infected. But we closed that school down and stopped the meals from there. As this spreads, it was bound to happen, but it’s another indication of just how cautious we all need to be and how real these concerns are.

Q: Because the schools provide meals to any student who asks for one, some of the schools are running low on meals due to kids from other districts and homeschool kids coming in and getting lunches. Can anything be done to alleviate that situation? 

Mackey: There should be some help coming on that. We just received our waiver (Wednesday) to start serving meals for pickup at all of our schools, not just the schools in high-poverty areas. So, we’re going to start rotating the schools that serve, maybe do five in a district and rotate them around each week. That plan is still being worked on. 

Q: Teachers and principals are also very concerned about the process of handing out packets, and then having those packets returned to them. Have you heard this from other folks around the state, and what do you tell them? 

Mackey: I’ve gotten quite a few questions about handling packets. Again, a totally understandable concern. We have people doing really innovative things to get packets to students. Some districts are mailing packets if they can afford it — and I understand that is not cheap and I’m not recommending it. Other districts are running a bus route once per week. And we’ve given advice to them on that: Don’t go in the house, keep your safe distance, handle with gloves, use sanitizer as often as possible. And that’s the main advice we’ve given to our superintendents — figure out a way that keeps you and your people safe.  

Q: It seems as if what you’re saying on almost everything is that this is a unique situation and you’re not going to question people who get the job done the best they can and keep people as safe as possible. Accurate? 

Mackey: Absolutely. One of our biggest issues is always communication, and it’s understandable to a degree. I’m telling superintendents and they’re passing that information on to their principals and they’re implementing things with their teachers and staff. We’ve all played that old game, and we know that information just gets twisted sometimes when it goes through several channels. But know this: Safety is always first. If you’re doing something and you don’t feel it’s safe, back out of it, tell your principal you don’t think it’s safe. Hopefully, we can get that resolved at that level, but if need be, take those concerns higher. Don’t do things that you feel are unsafe for you. That’s not what any of us want. 

Q: Is that same level of flexibility there for the actual school work and how principals and teachers get that handled?

Mackey: It is. I had a principal today ask if it was OK if he told his parents that the kids didn’t have to do the work and they’d receive whatever grade they had going into this. But if they did the work, he was giving out bonus points up to 10 full points on the final average. I told him that was absolutely fine. It doesn’t punish the kids because of this situation and it provides them with incentives to continue doing the work and continue learning. And that’s the key here. 

Q: Has there been any thought to altering the way things are done next year — possibly taking a few weeks at the start of the year for review and to get the students back up to speed — and tinkering with the start and end times? 

Mackey: There have been many, many discussions, and they’re still ongoing. I’ve spoken to a number of legislators who have quite a few ideas. At this point, there are basically three main options we’ve discussed. One that I’ve had from legislators is to extend the school year from 180 to 190 days, which would give us 10 extra days, two full weeks at the start to have a review period. And we can absolutely do that, except that costs money. Someone has to pay for that, and a school day in Alabama costs just under $21 million per day. I don’t see us having an extra $210 million at the end of this coronavirus. A second option that legislators have asked about is giving assessments at the start of the year, and working off those. We actually purchased some really great assessment tools last year. And finally, the third option is to compress the school year and take the first three to four weeks and teach what would have been teaching the final month of this school year. We’re still working through those to see what we think is best.

The main thing I want everyone to understand is that this is an unprecedented event that’s taking place. You go into a school year and you expect to deal with things like tornadoes or ice storms that close schools. But not this. We’re all trying to work our way through it and do what’s right for the students. But we also want our teachers and staff and principals to be safe and protect themselves.

Continue Reading

Health

Jefferson County Health Department: Nursing homes can take in COVID-19 positive residents

Jessa Reid Bolling

Published

on

A letter from the Jefferson County Department of Health informed nursing homes that they can take in residents who have been treated for COVID-19 and still test positive for the virus if they meet certain requirements.

The letter, sent to Jefferson County nursing homes, reads that there is a “possibility that our hospitals will not have the capacity to care for a large number of patients infected with COVID-19, and the impact of COVID-19 on Long-Term Care Facilities that house our most vulnerable patients” as the reasoning behind why nursing homes can take in COVID-19 patients who still test positive for the virus. 

The criteria for accepting COVID-19 positive patients requires that the patients must meet two steps of criteria:

  • At least 3 days (72 hours) have passed since recovery, defined as resolution of fever without use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath); and
  • At least 7 days have passed since symptoms first appeared

The letter also says that patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 may return to a long-term care facility prior to the above criteria being met as long as the facility uses contact precautions as outlined in “Interim Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Patients with Suspected or Confirmed Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Healthcare Setting.”

The elderly and those with conditions that can weaken the immune system are considered the most at risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19.

John Matson, communications director for the Alabama Nursing Home Association (ANHA) said that this decision “goes against sound medical advice.”

“For the past month, Alabama nursing homes have been doing everything they can to prevent COVID-19 from entering their buildings,” Matson said. “Now, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson wants nursing homes to accept patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 even though they still exhibit symptoms and have not fully recovered.

“That decision goes against sound medical advice,” Matson said. “Just last week, the American Medical Directors Association issued guidance stating that nursing homes should not admit a COVID-19 patient until the patient has two negative tests. Dr. Wilson’s decision places nursing home residents, those vulnerable to COVID-19, in great danger.”

Advertisement

The ANHA said two weeks ago that visitations at nursing home facilities will be restricted at Alabama nursing homes during the COVID-19 outbreak to prevent the spread of the disease and that nursing homes will follow the CDC guidelines for screening symptoms of COVID-19.

Matson said that nursing homes need resources to prevent the spread of COVID-19, not “orders from government officials to bring this horrible virus into the very place where our most vulnerable citizens live.”

“While the health officer is concerned about the capacity of local hospitals to meet the demands posed by the COVID-19 crisis, he (Wilson) does not cite a single example of a local hospital that is currently experiencing a capacity problem,” Matson said. “Our nursing homes are being stretched to the breaking point and not one penny of the money allocated by the federal government to fight this virus has made its way to a nursing home.”

The JCDH issued a response to concerns surrounding the letter, saying they were endorsing existing guidance from the CDC, not giving orders to nursing facilities. 

“This letter was an endorsement, not a Public Health Order, of existing guidance issued from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” the statement from JCHD said. “In this guidance, the CDC outlines a non-test-based strategy for when a person can be considered not to be infectious due to COVID-19 when there is limited ability for a local area to perform COVID-19 testing.”

The JCDH said that patients who do test positive can return to their facilities if the facility follows guidance issued from the CDC with regard to personal protective equipment and appropriate isolation to protect all residents at the facility. If a nursing facility does not have the appropriate equipment to provide the requirements laid out in the CDC’s guidelines, then there is no expectation that the facility should admit a COVID-19-positive patient. 

“COVID-19 cases continue to increase, and the peak need for hospital beds is expected around the 3rd week of April, and the JCDH is working with our community partners to allow for as many hospital beds as possible to care for what will be a much greater than usual number of patients seeking medical care. 

We want to do everything possible to allow Jefferson County to be able to provide high-quality care to all who need it; ultimately, we do not want a hospital to have to turn away any patient because of a lack of hospital beds.”

There have been eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 in six Alabama nursing homes across the state. 

Statewide, Alabama nursing homes have reported eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 in six Alabama nursing homes. Two cases were reported at two separate nursing homes in Jefferson county. 

Continue Reading

Health

UAB launches symptom tracker to identify COVID-19 hot spots in Deep South

Jessa Reid Bolling

Published

on

To better track COVID-19 cases, experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham have created a symptom checker to identify hot spots where the virus is spreading. 

The new website, called HelpBeatCOVID19.org, will provide public health officials insight into underserved areas based on the symptomatic data collected from the region and could help inform and enhance public health observation. 

“We are taking a look at COVID-19 symptoms alongside underlying medical conditions to provide public health officials an in-depth analysis of how rural areas are affected in real time,” said Sue Feldman, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB School of Health Professions and UAB School of Medicine. “The website asks people about their symptoms to produce an interactive map showing how areas are effected and hot spots that are showing a rise in symptoms. We hope to learn more about how coronavirus is spreading in rural communities who have health disparities so we can help fight the spread of the disease.” 

People can fill out a short questionnaire on the website to report if they are experiencing symptoms related to the coronavirus. There are a series of questions addressing how one feels that day, current symptoms, pre-existing health conditions and basic social factors.

The website also has questions on social factors, such as neighborhood characteristics, economic factors and others that could play a part in understanding and acting upon any disparities in COVID-19 spread, such as access to affordable healthcare and access to transportation to a hospital. 

U.S. Senator Doug Jones praised the new website and encouraged people to participate to better inform public health workers on where the virus had spread. 

“This new daily symptom tracker will help public health officials track the spread of COVID-19 and identify coronavirus hot spots that need more resources, especially in Alabama’s underserved communities,” Jones said. “We all have to do our part to keep ourselves and the people around us healthy by participating in social distancing and having good hygiene, and this tool is another way to help our communities combat the spread of this virus.” 

Continue Reading

National

As cases surpass 1,100 in Alabama, still no “stay-at-home” order

Chip Brownlee

Published

on

The number of positive novel coronavirus cases in Alabama rocketed past a thousand Wednesday, but the state still has no shelter-in-place order — and Gov. Kay Ivey’s office says she is not ready to implement one.

“The governor remains committed to exploring all options and has not ruled anything out, but she hopes that we do not need to take this approach,” Ivey’s spokesperson said Wednesday.

By 6 p.m., there were 1,108 confirmed cases of the virus and at least 28 deaths statewide related to COVID-19. Cases grew by triple digits again after a brief lull in new cases Tuesday. But the infections are also widespread. Cases have been reported in 62 of the state’s 67 counties — and not just in the more urban ones.

Only one city in the state, Birmingham, has issued a shelter-in-place order. The city is in Jefferson County, which, in coordination with the city, has taken a stricter approach to handling the coronavirus outbreak because it has the most cases in the state.

The cities of Montgomery and Tuscaloosa have also implemented curfews, but they have far fewer cases per capita than many other areas of the state. (No. 30 and 31 out of 67 counties in per capita cases.)

But some of the hardest-hit counties in the state are outside of Jefferson County, and the health departments in those counties do not have as much authority to issue their own directives as Jefferson County and Mobile County do. They’re the only two health departments in the state that are independent with the legal authority to act autonomously from the state health department.

Cities and counties in some of the hardest-hit areas like Lee and Chambers counties have also not issued shelter-in-place orders by municipal ordinance as has been the case in Jefferson County.

Lee County and Chambers County in East Alabama have the highest infection rates in the state, and the highest per capita number of cases, yet the cities and counties there are following a statewide order that is less restrictive than the measures in place in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa or Montgomery.

Advertisement

Lee County has 83 cases, and Chambers County has 45. But per capita, Chambers County has 135 cases per 100,000. (For comparison, Jefferson County, where there are 302 cases, has only 46 cases per 100,000 people.) Chambers County also has the highest number of deaths per capita in the state, at 12 per 100,000 people.

The hospital that serves Lee, Chambers and the surrounding counties — East Alabama Medical Center — is currently treating 30 patients with a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19. It has already discharged 16 other COVID-19 patients, and there are 12 more in the hospital with suspected cases of the virus.

While the hospital says it is currently stable in the number of ventilators and other equipment it has available, it is still asking for donations of some needed supplies like latex-free gloves and bleach wipes.

Aside from UAB in Birmingham, EAMC is currently treating the most COVID-19 patients, according to data APR collected over the past two days. As the state continues to avoid issuing a statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order, East Alabama Medical Center is urging the residents in the area to act as if there has been an order issued.

“While there is not yet a mandate to shelter in place, EAMC encourages it as the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the hospital said. “Community leaders, city officials and the media have shared this important message, but there are still reports of groups gathering, children playing in neighborhood parks, dinner parties, bible studies and other events.”

All of Alabama’s neighboring states have issued shelter-in-place orders. Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana have done so. The governors of Mississippi, Florida and Georgia all decided to issue orders today after balking at the idea for weeks.

Ivey has taken steps to curb the spread of the virus. She and the Alabama Department of Health issued an order on March 19 that closed the state’s beaches and limited gatherings of 25 or more people. She’s also closed schools for the remainder of the academic year.

On Friday, March 27, Ivey ordered closed a number of different types of businesses including athletic events, entertainment venues, non-essential retail shops and service establishments with close contact. The state has also tightened its prohibition on social gatherings by limiting non-work related gatherings of 10 people or more.

Ivey’s order Friday is not that far off from a shelter-in-place order, but it lacks the force of telling the state’s residents to stay home if at all possible. A number of businesses and manufacturing facilities are also allowed to keep operating, though they have been encouraged to abide by social-distancing guidelines as much as possible.

But Ivey has said she doesn’t want to issue a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order because she doesn’t want to put more stress on the economy.

“You have to consider all the factors, such as the importance of keeping businesses and companies open and the economy going as much as possible,” Ivey said on Friday.

Ivey’s spokesperson Wednesday said the governor has taken appropriate action thus far.

“In consultation with the Coronavirus Task Force, the governor and the Alabama Department of Public Health have taken aggressive measures to combat COVID-19,” her spokesperson, Gina Maiola, said. “The governor’s priority is protecting the health, safety and well-being of all Alabamians, and their well-being also relies on being able to have a job and provide for themselves and their families. Many factors surround a statewide shelter-in-place, and Alabama is not at a place where we are ready to make this call.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Authors

Advertisement

The V Podcast

Facebook

Trending

.