Monthly Archives: November 2016

Board lets stand TVA permits to take water from Memphis aquifer

After a daylong hearing Wednesday, the Shelby County Groundwater Quality Control Board upheld permits authorizing the Tennessee Valley Authority to tap the Memphis Sand aquifer for water to cool a Memphis power plant, reports the Commercial Appeal.

By a 7-0 vote, the board denied an appeal by the Sierra Club of the Health Department’s decision to grant the final two of five well permits sought by TVA.

Environmentalists had warned during the hearing Wednesday that the planned use of Memphis Sand aquifer water to cool a power plant could endanger public drinking supplies, while local officials defended their approval of wells for the facility.

The hearing centered on the Sierra Club’s appeal of county permits authorizing two of five wells sought by the TVA for its $975 million Allen Combined Cycle Plant under construction in Southwest Memphis. TVA plans to pump some 3.5 million gallons of water daily to cool the natural gas-fired plant, which will be a cleaner-burning alternative to the nearby coal-fired Allen Fossil Plant slated for retirement in 2018.

“We’ve had a plentiful water supply. However, there’s no guarantee that plentiful water supply will continue…,” said Webb Brewer, an attorney representing the Sierra Club.

“The new power plant will be a good thing from an ecological standpoint, but we do not need to waste water to operate that plant.”

But during his opening statement, Assistant County Attorney Carter Gray said the TVA wells met the requirements set by local regulations. Consequently, Health Department officials “were required” to issue permits for them, he said.

TEMA: Seven deaths now reported in Sevier County fires, two in Polk County storm

Here’s the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency’s latest update on wildfires in Sevier County and storms in Southeast Tennessee.

November 30, 2016 – 5 p.m., Central

Activation:  LEVEL 3 – STATE OF EMERGENCY

HIGHLIGHTS

Tennessee Department of Health confirms 7 fatalities from the wildfires in Sevier County.

There are 2 fatalities in Polk County that are storm-related.

TEMA and TN VOAD set up call center, 866-586-4483, for information on donations and volunteering.

National Weather Service confirms two tornado touchdowns: EF1 in Coffee County and an EF2 in McMinn County.

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Dunn thinks election results help school voucher cause in state House

State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, tells The Tennessean he’s optimistic that school voucher legislation can pass the state House in 2017 after repeated failures because of changes in the membership because of the 2016 elections.

“Some of the opponents were defeated in this last election so that increases the number,” he said, adding that he knows of one lawmaker who previously didn’t support the bill changing his mind after visiting schools. “He came back and changed his mind and said there’s got to be options,” Dunn said, declining to identify the lawmaker in question.

…Dunn said he thought the potential of approving the legislation during last year’s session came down to just one or two votes.

“It was right there and there were a couple of people who were undecided,” he said.

This year there will be 10 new lawmakers — eight Republicans and two Democrats — in the House, which could help the bill’s chances of passing.

Two Republicans — Reps. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, and Paul Sherrell, R-Sparta — received donations of $4,000 and $5,000, respectively, in October from the political action committee for the Tennessee Federation for Children.

Note: Curcio and Sherrell replace Democrats – respectively the retired Rep. David Shepard of Dickson and the defeated Rep. Kevin Dunlap of Sparta, both voucher critics. TFC’s PAC also spent more than $100,000 in attack ads that may have played a role in the August primary defeat of Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, also a voucher skeptic, by Mark Lovell, who took money from the pro-voucher PAC.

On the other hand,  pro-voucher Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, was defeated in the primary by Sam Whitson, who the Tennessean says is undecided on vouchers. Also, pro-voucher Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, was elected to the Senate and his House successor, John Crawford, R-Kingsport, and is also reportedly undecided.

And Democrat Dwayne Thompson defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Steve McManus, R-Cordova, with opposition to vouchers as one of his main campaign issues.

The voucher views of other freshman House members have apparently not been reported by media.

TEMA update on wildfires, tornadoes at 11 a.m. CST Wednesday

News release from Tennessee Emergency Management Agency

CURRENT SITUATION

At least eight counties in Tennessee experienced a severe weather outbreak overnight, with weather spotters reporting tornado touchdowns.  This morning, local officials are conducting damage assessments, weather permitting.  The National Weather Service, weather permitting, will conduct surveys of the severe weather impact in the counties to confirm tornado touchdowns.  The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) has deployed district coordinators to assist local officials in Coffee and Polk counties.

The Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH) has confirmed two fatalities (husband and wife) in Polk County from the severe weather outbreak.  TDOH also reports injuries in Polk County, Marion County, and McMinn County.  Details below in county-by-county rundown.

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Corker, Blackburn coy on content of talks withTrump

Sen. Bob Corker and Rep. Marsha Blackburn both met with President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday and both were predictably coy in commenting on the substance of the discussions – as in whether they are in the running for a cabinet position. But Corker said the discussion was “wide-ranging” and Blackburn declared her meeting “great.”

From Michael Collins report:

Sen. Bob Corker described his sit-down with President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday as a “very wide-ranging meeting” but deflected questions about whether he is in the running for secretary of state or another cabinet post.

“It’s been an honor to have the kind of meeting that I had today,” the Tennessee Republican told reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York City, shortly after his meeting with the president-elect. “We had a very wide ranging meeting, actually a couple meetings, and his instincts on foreign policy are obviously very, very good.”

Corker described this moment as “the greatest opportunity in modern times to really strengthen our nation’s security interests around the world and help us economically.”

“I enjoyed the opportunity to be here, it’s an honor,” Corker said, later adding, “I know he has a number of outstanding individuals that he’s talking with. I was glad to be here and glad to see more fully some of what his views about the world are.”

Corker was the second Tennessee elected official to meet with the president-elect. Earlier Tuesday, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican from Middle Tennessee, spent time with Trump. Little was revealed from that meeting.

… Blackburn is a member of Trump’s transition team and has been the subject of speculation that she could land a position in his administration.

“Earlier this morning I had a great meeting with President-elect Trump in New York City,” Blackburn said in a statement. “We discussed policy issues that are important to him and ways I can be helpful going forward.”

See also Nashville Post Politics, which links to some block quotes from Corker.  Sample:

When asked if he thought his role in the administration would still remain limited to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker hemmed and hawed.

“The Secretary of State role is so important for the president. He needs to choose someone he’s very comfortable with and he knows there’s gonna be no daylight between him and them. The world needs to know the Secretary of State is someone who speaks fully for the president, and again, that’s a decision he’s going to have to make, and again, it’s an honor to be here, and I relish the role I’ve been able to play,” Corker said. “I think anybody who feels like they could further our country’s national interests around the would would obviously want to talk about that and would be honored to serve in that capacity.”

TN politician commentary on Sevier County fires

Tennessee politicians are voicing concern over the fires that have ravaged Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and other parts of Sevier County. Here’s a sampler from emails sent to media:

From U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander:

“This is heartbreaking news for the people of Sevier County and all who love the Smokies. My staff and I are working with Gov. Haslam and local officials to make certain that there is maximum federal support to help fight the fires and deal with the consequences of the fires.”

From U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s news release:

“I am heartbroken to see the damage caused by the ongoing fires in Sevier County,” said Corker. “While the full extent of the damage will become clear over the course of the day, we know that many have suffered tremendous loss.”

 “Sevier County is a special place surrounded by some of the country’s most beautiful God-given amenities and is where my wife, Elizabeth, was raised,” continued Corker. “So many wonderful families call this place home and millions from around the world visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. We are committed to doing all we can in the coming weeks to help these communities rebuild.” 

“Members of my senior staff have been and will remain in close contact with community, state and local officials, and we continue to extend our thoughts and prayers to all those who have been in harm’s way,” concluded Corker.

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Congress approves naming new Nashville courthouse for Sen. Fred Thompson

News release via U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn

WASHINGTON- U.S. Representatives Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Diane Black (R-TN), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Stephen Fincher (R-TN), Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), Phil Roe (R-TN) and U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Bob Corker (R-TN) applaud passage of H.R. 6135 – To designate the Federal building and United States courthouse located at 719 Church Street in Nashville, Tennessee, as the “Fred D. Thompson Federal Building and United States Courthouse”

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Sevier fire update from AP, TEMA: Three dead, others missing, National Guard helps firemen

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Wildfires fueled by high winds killed three people near the Great Smoky Mountains and authorities went door to door Tuesday to check on the well-being of residents and visitors of the popular tourist area.

The fires burned to the doorstep of the Dollywood theme park, destroyed a resort and chased thousands of people from their homes.

National Guard troops arrived to help overwhelmed firefighters, and Mother Nature provided a little relief as the winds calmed and rain fell in some areas. Forecasters said it would not be enough to end the relentless drought that has spread across the South and set the stage over the past few weeks for wildfires in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina.

Linda Monholland, who was working at Park View Inn in Gatlinburg, said it was about 9 p.m. Monday when she left her workplace with about five other people. Surrounded by flames the whole way, they walked for about 20 minutes to a trolley to evacuate.

“There was fire everywhere. It was like we were in hell. Hell opened up,” said Monholland, who was staying Tuesday at Rocky Top Sports World, an 80-acre sports facility that has been turned into a shelter. “Walking through hell, that’s what it was. I can’t believe it. I never want to see something like that again in my life, ever.”

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters confirmed the deaths but said he didn’t have any additional details. Officials were still conducting search-and-rescue missions.

“We have not been able to get in all of the areas,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. “We pray that we don’t experience any more fatalities but there are still areas that we are trying to get to because of down trees and down power lines.”

Photos of the popular tourist area showed scorched cars and buildings, and soot-covered debris littered across roads in the Gatlinburg area. A smoky haze hung in the air, obscuring picturesque views of mountains in the fall, awash in trees with leaves of red, yellow and gold.

Firefighters were still battling hotspots and a few structural fires, and officials were keeping an eye on strong winds forecast for Tuesday night.

Full AP story HERE. 

A Tennessee Emergency Management Agency update is below.

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Former Sens. John Ford and Roscoe Dixon get rights restored

Three former public officials convicted on corruption charges in the Tennessee Waltz scandal a decade ago have obtained court orders restoring some of their citizenship rights, reports the Commercial Appeal. They will now be allowed to vote and serve on a jury, but they cannot hold public office or own a gun.

Former state senators John Ford (and) Roscoe Dixon, (along with) former Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks Sr., all served federal time, but earlier this month received orders from two judges that restored their rights as citizens.

Dixon and Hooks attended a press conference on Monday to discuss the challenges in becoming full American citizens again and to encourage others. Ford was not present.

Former Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks pleaded guilty to accepting $24,200 in bribes from informants or FBI agents posing as corrupt businessmen pursing deals with Shelby County government. He was sentenced to 26 months in federal prison. He served 15 months. 

…Dixon was convicted in 2006 on bribery and extortion charges after he was caught accepting $9,500 to help pass legislation. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

He is now a community relations specialist with the Cocaine Alcohol Awareness Program.

“What this means, I am back in America, I’m an American. I’ve paid my debt and now I should be able to have the same privileges that everybody else has once you’ve paid off that debt,” he (Dixon) said.

Hooks now works in real estate valuation services and acknowledges that since his release he’s tried to  stay under the radar.

“I know that a lot of people, for whatever reasons — the money, not understanding the process, not having counsel, not having people to research this — are sitting around and not being full citizens that have earned the right to do so,” he said.

The restoration of their rights also allows them to obtain licences in certain professional fields, said attorney Walter Bailey, who represented the men in court.

…Ford was convicted in 2007 of accepting $55,000 in cash payoffs from an undercover agent posing as a corrupt businessman seeking tailored legislation. He was released in 2012.

Note: Former Rep. Kathryn Bowers, also of Memphis and who also plead guilty to taking a bribe, died in 2015.

TN prisons — public and private — running short on staff

There are more than 800 staff vacancies at Tennessee’s public and private prisons, reports The Tennessean. Officials say the state’s strong economy has increased competition for staff, though the newspaper notes there have been many months of complaints about pay, benefits, hours and safety from correctional officers, inmates and their families.

Right now, there are 519 vacancies at the state’s 10 public prisons, representing roughly 11 percent of the workforce, according to data provided by Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Neysa Taylor. Those prisons are supposed to have 4,576 employees, according to the information she provided.

…There are 306 vacancies at the state’s four private prisons, operated by CoreCivic, the company previously known as Corrections Corporation of America. That represents a vacancy ratio of 18.6 percent, company spokesman Jonathan Burns said.

“It’s important to note that vacancies reflect the total possible number of positions at each facility and are not reflective of the number of positions necessary for the safe and secure operation of our facilities,” Burns said.

Additionally, CoreCivic uses a private third-party contractor at times to hire for temporary workers to fill some of those vacancies. An online listing for a company called G4S shows a security officer opening in Hartsville, Tenn. — home of the Turner Trousdale Correctional Center, the largest prison in the state. The site says the salary is in the range of $20 to $25 an hour. The average starting salary for a CoreCivic officer is closer to $13 an hour, Burns confirmed.

…Part of the problem at public prisons is staff pay and an inability to keep staff for very long, according to the department’s latest statistical abstract. Systemwide for the current budget year, the turnover rate was more than 36 percent. At the Tennessee Prison for Women, recently plagued by myriad issues that led to leadership changes, the turnover rate was higher than 60 percent.

ABOUT THIS BLOG

Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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