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La Porte County Fair may go on, but without 4-H exhibitions and judging

La PORTE — Even if the La Porte County Fair is conducted this summer – a decision still being evaluated – it will not include the usual 4-H competitions.

The Purdue University Extension – La Porte County announced Friday that in place of judging and showing at the fair, it will conduct a “hybrid 4-H experience” that will include a July virtual exhibition and fall Showcase of Excellence for non-market animals and static projects.

The decision was made “after review of the requirements and considerations needed for animal and non-animal exhibition, along with concern for our most vulnerable 4-H volunteers and families,” extension educators MaryJo Moncheski and Gayle O’Connor wrote in a letter to the 4-H community.

“Over 60 percent of the La Porte County volunteer base is considered ‘at-risk’ and this does not include 4-H families,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, the risks outweigh the benefits of having a live exhibition in conjunction with the La Porte County Fair.”

They said the decision was based on conversations with the county’s Extension Board, Agricultural Association, 4-H Council and 4-H community.

“These conversations have always been centered on the health and safety of volunteers, members and staff...”

A post on the fair’s Facebook page Friday in reference to the 4-H decision said: “While this DOES NOT show the decision for the fair (we are still a go); we are deeply saddened by this decision and our hearts go out to the ones making these decisions. You cannot please everyone.”

The fair “is still scheduled as normal,” Ag Association member Catherine Mrozinski said Thursday. “The board reviews COVID developments weekly. We are hoping to continue as normal, but are still evaluating.”

That evaluation is centered around rules announced last week by the Purdue Extension.

“Local 4-H fair boards, 4-H councils and county extension educators may continue planning ... in alignment with Indiana’s Back on Track plan and in consultation with local health officials.”

That will mean new rules, according to Jason Henderson, senior associate dean of the College of Agriculture and director of Purdue Extension.

“Purdue Extension will comply with all federal, state, and local regulations and public safety guidelines and will adhere to Purdue University policies for public health and safety,” he said.

Fairs can begin on July 4, but “must adhere to social distancing guidelines; screen employees and volunteers working on behalf of Purdue Extension daily; and follow industry best practices regarding disinfecting high traffic areas and offering hand sanitizer and cleaning stations to employees and guests,” the statement from Purdue said.

“In some cases, 4-H councils and extension boards may choose to virtualize their fair experience due to financial limitations, PPE availability or other locally determined restrictions.”

Extension specialists have developed models for virtual 4-H fairs for counties that may not be able to adequately follow guidelines, according to Casey Mull, assistant director of extension and 4-H youth development program leader.

“We want to make sure we are doing everything possible to protect our 4-Hers, their families and the community,” he said. “All 4-H youth who want to exhibit this summer will be able to through virtual or face-to-face mechanisms.”

A post on the La Porte County Fair’s Facebook page after St. Joseph County announced the cancellation of its fair read: “While we are saddened by the painful and heart-wrenching decision that the St. Joseph County Fair announced, we are still evaluating our options.

“We are pushing on and the La Porte County Fair is still scheduled AS PLANNED AND NOT CANCELED.”

As for the 4-Hers, “This is not the 4-H year any of us expected or wanted,” Moncheski and O’Connor wrote.

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Petition: NIPSCO should not move coal ash from MC until pandemic over

MICHIGAN CITY — Environmental groups won a small victory last Friday – gaining an extension of time for public comment on NIPSCO’s plan to remove coal ash from its Michigan City Generating Station.

Hundreds of people have signed a petition asking the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to postpone removal of the toxic ash until after the COVID-19 pandemic.

IDEM agreed to extend the public comment period by 30 days until June 22.

“Studies show that an increase in air pollution, which may result from the movement of the hazardous ash, increases mortality from COVID-19,” according to La’Tonya Troutman, Environmental Climate Justice Chair of the NAACP La Porte County Branch

“When the time is right for the important removal process, the petition also asks the state and NIPSCO for much stronger safety measures than NIPSCO is proposing.”

She urges people to sign the change.org petition, created by Just Transition NWI, the Hoosier Environmental Council, Earthjustice and the NAACP chapter.

NIPSCO plans to permanently close five coal ash ponds at its MC station as part of a plan to close all remaining coal-fired power plants by 2028.

NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said the process of moving coal ash is safe, and has been part of normal operations at the Michigan City plant.

“These pond closures, combined with our plans to retire 100 percent of our remaining coal-fired generating stations by 2028, is an important step toward the future,” he said.

“Protecting human health and the environment is vital, and the practice of transporting ash from NIPSCO’s Michigan City Generating Station to the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station property has been in place for decades and are part of the company’s normal operations.

“The additional work that is being proposed is intended to remove remnant material from 5 ash ponds at Michigan City and replace it with clean fill, which is consistent with the requirements outlined in the EPA’s Coal Combustion Residual.”

That rule, he said, is designed to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash.

The organizations are calling on NIPSCO to add more public safety protections in their draft plan, Troutman said.

“Everyone wants to see the toxic coal ash moved out of Michigan City, but it needs to be done safely. Now is not the time,” she said.

“Part of putting safety first is to avoid the risk of the toxic dust in the air when people are already in danger from coronavirus. Toxic dust and COVID-19 are a bad combination.”

According to the petition, “Excavation, transportation, and landfilling of coal ash can raise levels of particulate matter in the air. Particulate matter is a dangerous air pollutant linked to respiratory and cardiovascular health effects, and to a higher risk of mortality from COVID-19 that puts Michigan City, Jasper County, and the communities along the transportation route at higher risk ...”

Ashley Williams of Just Transition NWI said the plan has “plenty of room” for improvement.

“When moving a toxic waste like coal ash, every precaution must be taken,” she said. “Particles of coal ash can contain heavy metals, silica, and radioactivity. Inhaling coal ash particles can damage your lungs, cause cancer, and bring on other health problems. We ask the government of Indiana to make the health of the people who live in Michigan City and Wheatfield their top priority.”

The plan calls for moving up to 170,600 tons of coal ash to be landfilled at Wheatfield, Meyer said, from the 5 ponds in MC, 4 ponds at the retired Bailly Generating Station and 4 at the Schahfer station.

“Approximately 50,000 tons of ash are already being sent from the Michigan City Generating Station and being landfilled on the Schahfer property.”

That will require more than 6,000 truck trips along a 41-mile route, according to Williams.

Meyer said the closure and removal plan includes transporting the ash in enclosed trucks.

“A formal dust control plan is being finalized as part of the process and it will also be made available to the public. Regular monitoring occurs at the Schahfer site today, and ongoing monitoring will continue for the life of the landfill plus an additional 30 years beyond that timeframe at a minimum.”

Dr. Indra Frank, director of Environmental Health and Water Policy at the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the goal is more than just safety.

“We are also focused on the protection of water resources. As it has at all of the state’s power plants, the coal ash at Michigan City has contaminated the underlying groundwater,” she said.

“It is good that NIPSCO will be starting the cleanup by removing their ash ponds and taking the ash to a lined landfill. Since some of the contaminated groundwater is seeping into Trail Creek, we are also asking IDEM and NIPSCO to test the fish in Trail Creek.”

Meyer said those concerns have been addressed.

“While there are known groundwater impacts – which are being addressed under this new rule – the data collected to date indicates there is no risk to human health or the environment, no impacts to drinking water supplied to neighboring communities and nothing to indicate that the state’s waterways are affected.”

He said the CCR “outlines a prescriptive, multi-phased process” for monitoring groundwater, identifying and reporting concerns, and addressing any issues.

“Closing coal ash ponds is an important first step to addressing the groundwater impacts and the rule outlines more than one acceptable method for closure. Once the ponds are closed, additional monitoring and assessment with IDEM oversight will determine what additional corrective steps are needed...”

He called the closure by removal method “the most protective option in the rule.”

Lisa Evans, former EPA official and senior counsel for Earthjustice, said NIPSCO’s plan is a good one, if done correctly.

“The removal of coal ash ponds at the Michigan City plant is a step in the right direction after decades of pollution of air and water, but it needs to be done right.”

She called coal ash part of a long legacy of pollution at the site.

“It really gets to the fact that this site has not been investigated fully to determine all the pathways, all the contaminants,” Evans said. “What we need to do is arrive at a cleanup plan that’s fully comprehensive.”

The petition can be viewed and signed at change.org/NoCoalAsh NWI or the Just Transitions NWI Facebook page. Comments can also be sent to IDEM permit manager Alyssa Hopkins at Ahopkins @idem.in.gov.

RP man captured, charged with burglary after safe stolen from Schoop's

MICHIGAN CITY — A Rolling Prairie man has been charged with burglary for allegedly stealing a safe from a Michigan City fast food restaurant before being captured by police.

About 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, Michigan City Police Department Shift 3 officers were dispatched to Schoop’s Hamburgers at 4105 Franklin St. after an audible business alarm sounded, according to MCPD Sgt. Francisco Rodriguez.

While police were investigating, a witness called 911 to report a subject running north from the business toward U.S 20, he said.

When officers located the subject, he attempted to elude police on foot, but was quickly caught, according to Rodriguez.

He was identified as 27-year-old Kyle James Reese of Rolling Prairie.

Officers then checked the perimeter of Schoop’s and found no visible signs of forced entry into the building.

However, later in the morning at about 6:15 a.m., officers were called back to Schoop’s by employees who had arrived for work and found the office safe missing, according to Rodriguez.

Officers then checked the area surrounding the restaurant and found a safe in the landscaping of Starbucks at 4103 Franklin St. The safe was brought back to Schoop’s and employees identified it as the missing safe, Rodriguez said.

MCPD Lt. Kevin Urbanczyk and members of the Investigative Division continued to investigate, and on Thursday sought probably cause for charges to be filed.

With the assistance of La Porte County deputy prosecutor Elizabeth Boehm, the lieutenant presented probable cause to La Porte County Superior Court 1 Judge Michael Bergerson, who approved charging Reese with one count of burglary as a Level 5 felony.

He remains in the La Porte County Jail on a $15,000 cash-only bond, and is scheduled for an initial court appearance on Tuesday in front of Judge Bergerson, according to court records.

The investigation is ongoing and anyone with information is asked to contact Urbanczyk at (219) 874-3221, ext. 1042, or through Facebook Messenger or the crime tip hotline at (219) 873-1488. Tipsters can request to remain anonymous.

Majority of state moves to Stage 3, flags to be flown at half-staff

INDIANAPOLIS — As the majority of Indiana enters Stage 3 of the reopening plan, Gov. Eric Holcomb is directing flags statewide to be flown at half-staff to honor victims of the novel coronavirus. Holcomb asked businesses and residents to lower flags all weekend through sunset on May 24.

Movie theaters and public playgrounds will remain closed in Indiana for at least three more weeks under revisions to the reopening plan signed by Holcomb on Thursday.

The new order, in effect through June 13, allows social gatherings of up to 100 people and retail stores and malls to operate at 75 percent capacity. Gatherings had been limited to 25 people and stores to 50 percent capacity under the first easing of restrictions that took effect May 4.

Gyms, fitness centers, community pools and campgrounds will be allowed to open under rules limiting the number of people, and for distancing and cleaning.

“We continue to remain vigilant about protecting Hoosiers’ health while taking responsible steps to further open our state’s economy,” Holcomb said.

The new order continues to limit restaurants to 50 percent capacity in dining rooms, and summer youth camps can’t open until at least June 1. School buildings and grounds remain closed, as do casinos, and bars and nightclubs that don’t serve food.

Tougher local restrictions are still being allowed, with the new steps not taking effect until at least June 1 in Indianapolis, Lake County and Cass County.

While businesses slowly reopen, the financial hit will likely continue.

Indiana’s unemployment rate hit 16.9 percent for April with more than five times as many people jobless than before widespread business closures started.

The Indiana jobless rate is higher than the 14.7 percent national rate; and April’s mark was much worse than the state’s peak unemployment rate of 11 percent in 2010 during the last recession, according to federal statistics.

The report showed about 546,000 people unemployed in Indiana. That’s up from just less than 100,000 unemployed in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey conducted in March, when the jobless rate was 3 percent.

Indiana’s private sector employment fell by 380,500 workers from March, the state Department of Workforce Development said. The hardest-hit sectors were leisure and hospitality, with 116,000 job losses; and manufacturing, which lost about 78,000 jobs.

Holcomb on Friday announced he has asked the State Budget Agency to reduce state agency appropriations by 15 percent for Fiscal Year 2021 because of the sharp drop in revenues reported for April and to prepare for a continued decline in state revenue.

“This is the first of what is likely to be a number of steps we’ll take to rein in state spending,” Holcomb said.

He also said the state would not move forward or put on hold several projects, including $291 million in capital projects; $65 million in Next Level Trails grants; and $110 million of deferred maintenance projects, including $70 million for state parks.

No cuts to school or university funding have been announced, although those areas saw significant cuts during the last recession.