Owensboro Convention Center Opens With Big Party; Senators Paul and McConnell Not Among The Guests

Owensboro threw a big  party on January 31, 2014 to celebrate the opening of its $50 million Events Center. Some 2,100 city and Daviess County residents attended. Two who didn't were Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Photo/Keith Schneider
Owensboro threw a big party on January 31, 2014 to celebrate the opening of its $50 million Convention Center. Some 2,100 city and Daviess County residents attended. Two invited guests who didn’t show up were U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — In February 2009, in the very depths of the Great Recession, seven of the nine commissioners elected to lead this capable city and surrounding Daviess County took a long breath, understood the political consequences, and approved a modest increase in a local tax to generate $80 million to build a new downtown.

Though just two of the seven officials remain in office, what they accomplished in a single courageous vote achieved three distinct and nationally significant objectives.

First, they created a local economic stimulus plan that, to date, has generated $250 million in downtown construction and infrastructure upgrades — $140 million in taxpayer-supported investment and $110 million in private spending. A pallid, mall-savaged 20th century downtown, short of breath and close to death, is being replaced by a beaming and inviting urban center fit for the 21st century. Owensboro today is a display of savvy design that encompasses a stunning river walk and riverfront park, a $50 million convention center, two new hotels, a $12 million office building, new housing and businesses, and streets reconstructed as handsome boulevards, with wide sidewalks to encourage outdoor cafe seating.

Second, those seven elected officials offered a pointed rebuke to the politics of austerity that grips Kentucky and the nation. The local increase in an existing tax on insurance premiums — from 4 percent to 8 percent, or around $150 a year for an average family — unleashed a torrent of new economic activity that produced hundreds of new jobs, more than any city in Kentucky, and dropped the city and county unemployment rates to around 6 percent, among the state’s lowest.

And third, Owensboro and Daviess County are building a nearly flawless case in support of the primary economic principle that built the United States — the joining of public spending with private investment to foster civic innovation, strengthen the quality of life, and generate jobs and new wealth.

Through the Convention Center's east window, a view of the LEED-certified Hampton Inn & Suites and a city in transformation. Photo/Keith Schneider
Through the Convention Center’s east window, a view of the LEED-certified Hampton Inn & Suites and a city in transformation. Photo/Keith Schneider

Spurred by two-term Republican Mayor Ron Payne, who led Owensboro’s downtown redevelopment, city leaders here are doing everything in their power to make sure that lesson hits home. Earlier this month Payne and his colleagues held a three-day, $134,000 party to stoke the new civic energy. It started on January 31 with an evening open bar, a tenderloin banquet, and a Sara Evans country music concert, all free of charge, for 2,100 evening gown and tuxedo-clad city and county residents.

The occasion, maybe the most ardent, festive, and longest public party ever held in Owensboro — nobody here remembers anything comparable — celebrated the on-schedule, on-budget opening of the city’s two newest facilities — a 169,000-square-foot Convention Center and the $20 million LEED-certified, seven-story, 151-room Hampton Inn & Suites next door. Continue reading “Owensboro Convention Center Opens With Big Party; Senators Paul and McConnell Not Among The Guests”

Shillong Times and its Courageous Editor, Patricia Mukhim, Gain National Hearing On Coal Mine Safety

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Patricia Mukhim, editor of the Shillong Times. Photo/Dhruv Malhotra

SHILLONG, India — To the best of anyone’s knowledge, and that includes a tribunal of senior jurists who heard testimony here on January 24, 15 men drowned in a coal mine in this state’s mineral-rich Garo Hills on July 6, 2012.

The disaster occurred in one of the thousands of Meghalaya’s dangerous and unregulated coal mines. It wasn’t formally reported for more than a week. The bodies weren’t retrieved. Meghalaya’s safety and health authorities conducted what appears for now to be a rudimentary investigation. For a time, state officials even asserted that because the bodies weren’t recovered the men might have escaped, just as 15 to 20 other men did who were working in the mine at the same time.

These details, and many others about the mortal danger of Meghalaya’s mines, and the egregious levels of mine-related pollution that poison the state’s land and rivers, were discovered by the reporters of the Shillong Times. They were disseminated persistently and broadly by its courageous 60-year-old editor, Patricia Mukhim.

Inside a rathole coal mine south of Shillong, India. Photo/Keith Schneider
Inside a rathole coal mine south of Shillong, India. Photo/Keith Schneider

From an uncluttered office lit with a single bulb, and so deep in the newspaper’s concrete basement that cell phone service is spotty, Mukhim manages an editorial staff of nearly 30 that consistently produces first-rate reporting on Meghalaya’s biggest issues, and that includes the state’s lawless coal mining sector. She’s worked for the paper since 1987, and been its editor since 2008. Her work on human rights, on the state’s dangerous insurgency, and on the sickened environment has generated death threats against Mukhim, and earned her numerous awards, including the Padma Shri Award, one of India’s highest civilian honors.

Mukhim was born and raised in Shillong by her mother, a single woman. Mukhim, divorced, is the mother of five children, two of whom died. Two years ago Northeast Monologues posted a good interview with Mukhim.

Her work has made Mukhim a prominent voice and personality in Northeast India. The region’s industrial development and the changes it has brought to the water, air, and forests stirs her interest. In 1996, for instance, she teamed with the Khasi Students’ Union to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India in support of a petition by TN Govindavarman to ban the cutting and export of timber. The Supreme Court upheld the petition and ordered a 10-year ban on timber cutting. The Court also ordered the national Ministry of Environment and Forests, one of India’s premier environmental regulatory agencies, to direct state governments to develop working plans for their forests.

The rank practices in Meghalaya’s coal mining industry also are a focus of Mukhim’s attention. In July 2013, in a frank article about the number of coal mining deaths in Meghalaya, the Shillong Times reported that, in the five months from January to May 2013, 15 more miners died in seven separate accidents. The newspaper reported that almost all of the sector’s tens of thousands of laborers are undocumented workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, and neighboring states in Northeast India. Because there is no record of their presence, no taxes on their wages, no formal knowledge of their names or where they came from, the migrant laborers operate without claim to basic rights of safety, fairness, or justice.

In this dangerous and spellbinding confrontation between 21st century production demands and 19th century working conditions, the miners are losing badly. Lawlessness, already pervasive, is prompting more violence above ground, with rapes and beatings and murders becoming commonplace, the Shillong Times reports. Five miners, for instance, were murdered in 2012 by factions apparently associated with the region’s political insurgents. The motive? Choose any one of a long list of mortal threats. Failure to pay insurgents’ self-imposed transport fees and bribes. Fight for control of the mines. Ripoffs and gambling and plain bad behavior.

It takes three hours of work for two rathole coal miners to produce a cart of coal worth 100 rupees, or less than $2. Photo/Keith Schneider
It takes three hours of work for two rathole coal miners to produce a cart of coal worth 100 rupees, or less than $2. Photo/Keith Schneider

Mukhim, a writer of considerable skill and knowledge, summed up the conditions this way: “The coal laborers, mostly migrants, are silent sufferers as they face the wrath of the militants, as well as the fury of nature,” she wrote last year.

That silence, though, may be approaching its end. Mukhim’s own work on the mine sector — determined and poetic – as well as her staff’s incisive reports, last year attracted the attention of the National Green Tribunal. The Tribunal is a panel of senior jurists formed by a remarkable national statute approved in 2010 to specifically investigate and adjudicate major risks to India’s public health and the environment.

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Just As It’s Always Been, Earth Day Marks Big Problems, Big Choices

The most beautiful country in the world, the United States, presents spectacular scenes of nature in every state, like the Cape Cod shoreline on Earth Day in Chatham, Mass. Photo/Keith Schneider

CHATHAM, Mass. — The tides here lay down a walkway of shells — horseshoe crabs, scallops, palm-size crabs — where the water meets dry sand. On Earth Day 2013 a nearly full moon is perched, like a round plate on a pedestal, amid an expanse of cloudless blue sky. Gulls soar and dive in a stout breeze, and in the nearby mudflats men and women with long-handled metal rakes in hand and collars turned up to the wind probe for sweet clams.

Had it not been for the principles of conservation and the values of pollution prevention that defined the first Earth Day in 1970, it’s almost certain that this stretch of Cape Cod beach would be sickened by now by any number of symptoms of environmental disease — sewage, chemical pollution, unsightly development, plastic litter, algae, and smog. The fact that shells mark the beach here, not garbage, and that the air is as clear as fresh-wiped crystal is testament to a streak in the American character that most citizens do not take for granted.

We cherish our beautiful places, and we are a nation rich in them. We’ve actively approved statutes to safeguard that beauty. And despite decades of effort by one faction or another to weaken those protections, our citizens and their allies in government and the courts time and again have insisted that they be enforced.

Gulls at work on a scallop. Photo/Keith Schneider

To do otherwise is to capitulate to the same tide of neglect and dysfunction that has consumed cities, the land, and the water in so many other countries. In Beijing the air is so thick with coal dust and toxic chemicals it’s dangerous to breathe. The Yamuna River is so choked with the raw sewage and chemical effluent of Delhi that it stinks like an open sewer and produces giant bubbles of methane. Old wells in Azerbaijan provide a pathway for streams of crude oil to rise to the surface and pour into earthen impoundments, forming sizable and unguarded ponds of fuel so aromatic they sting the nose, and so flammable they could explode into fire at any time. Continue reading “Just As It’s Always Been, Earth Day Marks Big Problems, Big Choices”

Gun Violence Mounts; So Does Cowardice

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In Florida, supporters sounded off on the need to strengthen gun safety and reduce violence, some of whom also were members of the NRA.

This has been a lousy week of murder in America. It’s also been another intolerable and telling week of cultural contrast best described by what President Obama today called “shameful” politics.

When a terrorist bomb killed three and injured nearly 180 people in Boston two days ago, we reacted with sorrow and agitation and anger. We express a national resolve to study the weapon, hunt down the suspects, renew our collective spirit, and take necessary action to make the country safer.

But we’ve chosen to continue to do nothing about the more serious threat: Gun violence. Since the Newtown shooting on December 24 — during which 20 students, six teachers and staff, the shooter, and the shooter’s mother were killed — almost 3,500 American men, women, and children have died in gun-related violence.

Just since Sunday — four days ago — two children, five women, and 28 men died from gunshots. A miserably revealing compendium of gun deaths since Newtown is posted daily by Salon.com and should be regularly visited by Americans interested in reducing actual risks to our lives.

Today the U.S. Senate blocked proposed legislation that would have required background checks for gun buyers who purchased weapons from gun shows and from other unregulated markets. That represents about 40 percent of gun sales. The proposal is a baby step, but a step nevertheless. Enacting that tiny change would signal that the U.S. could actually act to limit a public health hazard so serious that it threatened, as we’ve seen over the last generation, students in grade school and college, adults in a movie theater, innocent bystanders on ordinary streets, adults killed by children, and children killed by adults.

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In Civic Dispute Over Fracking, Lessons of Pragmatism From Previous Fights

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The economic benefits of deep shale gas development are becoming apparent, especially in Ohio where two new steel plants have been built, and three more expanded to serve the drilling and production sector. U.S. Steel’s new plant in Lorrain prepares drilling pipe for deep well development. Photo/Keith Schneider

Last month an 11-member collaborative – two foundations, five state and national environmental organizations, four energy companies — announced they had formed the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. The mission: to develop and implement drilling and production standards for shale gas that are environmentally safe and can be certified by an independent third party.

In essence, the new Pittsburgh-based center is seeking to do for the unconventional fuels sector what the U.S. Green Building Council did to significantly improve design, land use practices, and energy and water efficiency when it established the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for building construction. LEED standards changed how commercial buildings are designed and constructed. They did so by establishing a market for innovation that is encouraged, expanded, and even enforced not by regulation but by buyers.

It’s too early to know whether the collaborative — which includes Shell and Chevron, the Environmental Defense Fund and Penn Future — will produce meaningful advances in production practices. But there’s no question, at least in my mind, that the center’s formation is a significant step toward much-needed political and social pragmatism in developing the nation’s ample shale energy reserves.

Continue reading “In Civic Dispute Over Fracking, Lessons of Pragmatism From Previous Fights”