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In the News

Comments on news items and current events

Not a crisis, just a slow news day

Oak Ridge is a place where unusual and interesting things happen. No one knows that better than the area news media who know they can use a ho-hum story from Oak Ridge to create an attention-grabbing headline on a slow news day.

The week after Christmas is slow news time, and Tuesday’s Knoxville top newspaper headline was “Radioactivity lingers at Oak Ridge sewer plant.” A crisis? No! Revelation of an environmental cover-up? Not!

Rather, Frank Munger’s article tells about a situation that has existed for over a year, wasn’t kept secret, isn’t a health threat, and is under control (although it’s not fully resolved yet). It makes a scary headline that helps sell papers and is likely to convince a few people not to move here, but the actual story is pretty dull. And there’s no reason for public concern.

So how did radioactive material get into our city sewers?

It didn’t. This radioactive material isn’t in the city sewer system. It got into the sewer pipes at the former K-25 Site (ETTP). Sewage from the K-25 Site now goes to the City of Oak Ridge’s satellite wastewater treatment plant at Rarity Ridge. DOE’s K-25 site is now one of the City’s sewage treatment customers.

During the ongoing cleanup of the K-25 Site, some radioactive material leaked from the soil into cracks in the old sewer lines under the K-25 Site. (DOE thought they had sealed off the pipes, but subsequent events revealed that the sealing wasn’t 100% effective.)

The radioactive material (the isotope technetium-99) ended up in the Rarity Ridge wastewater plant where it got attached to the solid material in the sewage sludge.

Isn’t radioactive sewage sludge dangerous?

Well, you definitely shouldn’t eat it, but you shouldn’t eat normal sewage sludge either. This isn’t “hot sludge,” contrary to the words a creative headline writer used in a subtitle on Frank Munger’s article. The level of radioactivity is too low to be a danger for workers or the public. But  sewage sludge contaminated with technetium (which has a very long half-life) isn’t allowed in Tennessee landfills.

To comply with the law, for over a year DOE has been hauling Rarity Ridge sewage sludge to Richland, Washington, for disposal — all at DOE expense.

Is Rarity Ridge contaminated?

No. This has absolutely nothing to do with the residential community there — now known as The Preserve at Clinch River.

What is the City doing to put a stop to this?

Um, nothing. Actually, DOE and the City are cooperating, and this is DOE’s problem, not the City’s. DOE is taking full responsibility and is bearing all of the costs. DOE has made changes at ETTP to make sure this won’t happen again, but they haven’t yet succeeded in clearing all of the radioactivity out of the sludge. Until that happens, they’ll continue to take sludge to Washington.

In summary, this has been an annoyance for DOE and for City personnel, but it’s temporary, it’s not a secret, there is no health and safety risk, and there’s no cost for the City of Oak Ridge. Just one of those unusual and interesting stories about Oak Ridge, and it helped fill a newspaper on a slow news day.

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Personal endorsement from someone I greatly admire

Oak Ridge Today has published a letter to the editor from Liane (Lee) Russell in which she endorses me for election.

In the letter, she says (in part):

Oak Ridgers are fortunate in having a candidate of the caliber of Ellen Smith willing to once again serve on City Council, where, between 2007 and 2012, we benefited greatly from her wise, intelligent, and highly informed voice.

Lee is someone I greatly admire for qualities that include wisdom, intelligence, and being highly informed. I will never match her accomplishments, either as a scientist (her ground-breaking work in mammalian genetics earned her many recognitions, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences) or as a citizen (with her late husband, Bill Russell, she founded Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, is widely credited with achieving the establishment of both the Obed Wild and Scenic River and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and in her 10th decade of life continues to be largely responsible for TCWP’s extraordinary newsletter).

I am honored to be the subject of this wonderful letter, and I hope I can live up to Lee’s confidence.

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Unexpected news

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signThis is news I was definitely not expecting:

The Progress PAC (the O.R. Chamber of Commerce political action committee) included me in its list of endorsements, announced to the news media in a press release earlier today.

This was surprising news because I have never been aligned with the Chamber, I have strongly opposed some Chamber initiatives in the past, and I am not shy about my support for principles like conservation of publicly owned open space and putting the interests of existing residents and owners ahead of the interests of new business development. However, I respect the Chamber as the main representative of and advocate for a very important element of our community — and a group whose members and volunteers who are passionate about the future of Oak Ridge. We share many common goals and interests in this community, and if we are going to make progress as a community, it’s necessary for government, the business community, our nonprofit sector, and (ideally) all citizens to try to understand each other’s interests and needs and work together for the benefit of all.

I told the PAC’s committee (hard-working civic volunteers, all) that I would accept their endorsement, just as I would accept the endorsement of any group of citizens who go to the trouble of evaluating candidates for office and making endorsements as a group. I see the PAC’s decision to include me among their endorsements as indicating a recognition that people with divergent perspectives can work together to achieve positive outcomes for our community (indeed, diversity produces more positive outcomes than uniformity!)  — and that I am both qualified and committed to work for what’s best for Oak Ridge as a member of the City Council.

I am well aware that some people are suspicious about the Progress PAC’s motives and the candidates who cooperated with the PAC. As I said long before receiving today’s news, the formation of a political action committee makes the Chamber’s role in local political activity more transparent than it has ever been in the past. The PAC must operate under stringent state of Tennessee rules for multicandidate political action committees — getting its funds from member donations (no money from the Chamber organization) and publicly reporting all donations and expenditures over $100.

Additionally, the Progress PAC will not be providing money to any of the candidates they are endorsing — I’m not sure what the PAC plans to do, beyond publicizing its endorsements.  I recall that several other groups have endorsed (and promoted) slates of local candidates in in past Oak Ridge elections, but I don’t believe that any of those groups registered as a PAC. With that background, I congratulate the Progress PAC for operating in the open, as required by current state law.

Anyone who knows me at all well will laugh at the suggestion that the Progress PAC endorsement will change my opinions, positions, or future votes if I am elected to City Council. As I did in the past, I will make up my own mind, always aiming for what’s best for the community. I’ll do my own analysis, ask questions, seek out public input, and listen to what others have to say — and I will pursue consensus decisions where possible (because it’s rare for a 4-3 vote to result in a decision that everyone is happy to support — and our local government needs to present a more united front and a more positive image than it has done in the recent past).

The questions that the Progress PAC asked candidates were aimed at gaining information about candidates’ views on broad topics in local governance and our ideas and plans for responding to community challenges — they were not narrowly focused on the interests of the Chamber and the business community. I have the impression that most of us candidates (even those who refused to be considered for PAC endorsement) found it worthwhile to develop responses to the PAC questions because it helped us frame positions on questions that many citizens are asking. All of my answers to the PAC questionnaire are available on this blog:

1 – A bit of vision

2 – Where will the money come from?

3 – Patching relations between Council and schools

4- Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

5 - On the city government relationship with Chamber of Commerce

6 – Signs should help businesses reach customers — and they shouldn’t be ugly

 

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About the Chamber of Commerce PAC

EllenSmithSign Although I went to work on Monday, did some campaign business, and attended a City Council work session, it seemed like I was never far from discussions about the news (added: second news source) that the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce established a political action committee (PAC) that is screening the candidates for City Council and School Board to decide who they will support. People were asking for my opinions. Here’s the on-my-blog version of what I told the news media:

I have no objection to the Chamber establishing a political action committee. As I see it, the Oak Ridge Chamber has the same right as any organization to create a PAC to endorse and support candidates of the PAC’s choosing. People who are upset about this should consider that PACs must operate in the public eye, so the creation of this PAC should give citizens more information about the political activities of the Chamber membership than we have had in the past.

I plan to complete the questionnaire that the Progress PAC sent to candidates — and I look forward to an interview with the PAC committee as an opportunity for dialogue with some of Oak Ridge’s business leadership. It’s valuable for candidates to exchange ideas with all citizens and learn more about their interests and concerns. There’s no denying that the Chamber and I have been on opposing sides in some major local issues, but I believe the Chamber and the business community it represents are particularly important groups to talk with, learn from, and try to work cooperatively with for the good of the city.

I’m confident that no city funds will go into this PAC. That would be a stupid mistake for the Chamber and the PAC, and the Chamber leadership isn’t stupid. PACs generally get their money from member donations, and I expect that’s what the Progress PAC plans to do. I think it is legitimate to be concerned that Progress PAC might be trying to get more City money for the Chamber, but (based on the questionnaire and my past experiences with the Chamber) it appears to me that their goal is to encourage a strong business climate (not to augment the Chamber budget).

It would be presumptuous to say whether or not I would accept support from the Progress PAC. No support has been offered and I have no particular reason to expect it. However, I believe in transparency, so if the PAC offers to support me as a candidate, I will definitely tell the public about the offer and my decision — and I will disclose the information again if I’m ever in a position to vote on a matter related to business between the City and the Chamber.

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Campaign Announcement

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signI’ve posted the campaign announcement that went to the Oak Ridge news media on Friday.

UPDATE (9/18/2014): It appeared in the Oak Ridger on September 18.

UPDATE (9/24/2014): Now “Former Council member Smith running for City Council” is posted on Oak Ridge’s online news outlet.

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Best wishes to Josh Collins

It looks like it’s time to start congratulating Josh Collins on his retirement — he has announced that he’s retiring on October 1 after almost 30 years leading the Oak Ridge Recreation and Parks Department.

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A vote of confidence for the ORFD

citysealAt this evening’s City Council meeting, the Oak Ridge Fire Department just announced that the city has received an ISO rating of “2”. That may not mean a lot to people, but it’s good news for all of us. I’ve learned that ISO ratings of fire departments are an indication of a community’s fire protection effectiveness. A “1” is the best possible rating, but “1”s and “2”s are very rare, and a “4” is generally considered to be the best rating that most communities can aspire to. Thus, a “2” means we have unusually good fire protection. Also, because many insurance companies use the ISO ratings in setting their fire insurance rates, this “2” rating is likely to save us money on our insurance! Hurray for the ORFD — and the public works department that maintains the infrastructure that helps make this happen.

Added March 4: Oak Ridge Today has more on the story at http://oakridgetoday.com/2014/03/04/new-iso-rating-orfd-among-best-nation/

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PetSafe Big Turtle Dog Park is open

PetSafe Big Turtle Dog Park dedicationA nice event on Monday — the dedication of the PetSafe Big Turtle Dog Park at Big Turtle Park in west Oak Ridge.

Dog owners who have been impatient for a local dog park are being rewarded for their wait, as this is a premier-quality dog park. Radio Systems Corporation (PetSafe) gave the city $100,000 for development of a really nice dog park, and the layout and design have been informed by the “lessons learned” in other communities that opened dog parks earlier.

I feel I can take a bit of credit for this project, because I initiated the effort (as a Council member) to get City Council to pass a resolution allowing Oak Ridge to pursue a PetSafe grant through an online grants competition that was being conducted on Facebook. The city didn’t win that competition, but the staff was able to use that resolution as authorization when an opportunity arose with PetSafe, which has its headquarters in west Knoxville.

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Good news about our schools, but not in the Knoxville newspaper

Still photo of the animated sign display in front of Oak Ridge High School It’s happened several times lately. The Knoxville News Sentinel runs a story about some sort of statistics from area school districts, covering Knox County, Anderson County, Blount County, Maryville, Lenoir City, Loudon County, Sevier County, Claiborne County, etc. — but where’s Oak Ridge? Today’s story is on bullying.

Oak Ridge data are included in the state report that’s the basis for the story, so I can’t help but wonder if the newspaper’s education reporters are unaware that Oak Ridge has its own school system, separate from the county.

I looked at the state report because I was curious about the statistics for Oak Ridge Schools — particularly after recent allegations of rampant discipline problems in the schools. The report says our schools had 14 reports of bullying incidents in 2012-13. Five of the 14 cases were reported as “indicating bully occurred” based on investigation (the News Sentinel describes these as “confirmed” cases), and 5 cases (probably all 5 of the confirmed cases) involved “sex or gender discrimination.” There were no cases involving “race, color or national origin,” disability, or “the use of electronic technology.”

The Oak Ridge numbers are way below the 182 reported bullying cases (all of which were confirmed) in Knox County or the 150 reported cases in Lenoir City (71 confirmed) or the 129 reported cases (53 confirmed) in Anderson County.

Maybe the reporters didn’t find Oak Ridge’s statistics interesting enough to report because there were so few bullying incidents. Good-news stories about the absence of problems don’t sell newspapers. The story they didn’t print is good news.

Based on my experience as a parent — and before that as a kid —  Oak Ridge’s numbers seem unrealistically low (maybe our schools don’t use the same definition of “bullying” as some of those other school districts). However, I’m pleased (and not surprised) by this indication that our schools are generally orderly and our students are mostly well-behaved. (This is not a school system that’s out of control.) Too bad that the readers of the News Sentinel aren’t reading this good news.

Added at noon on October 27 following discussion on Facebook:

There is no question that different districts are using different definitions of “bullying” and what it takes to confirm a case. For example, is a physical altercation in the schoolyard between two boys, followed by a verbal threat of “I’m gonna kill you” an incident of bullying (I think it probably is) or just a case of “boys being boys” (the way school authorities have been known to interpret this kind of situation)?

In this area, Maryville and Union County both claim zero reported cases of bullying — it seems highly unlikely that nobody reported a bullying incident in an entire school year. Considering that bullying is often a case of “he said, she said” (or “she said, she said”, etc.), it also seems unlikely that Knox County didn’t have any bullying reports that school officials didn’t confirm.

Statewide, my calculations indicate that there were 0.008 bullying reports per enrolled student. Anderson County, Lenoir City, Roane County, and Sevier County statistics show higher rates than that state average (Lenoir City is highest of this group, at 0.068 reported cases per student). Alcoa, Blount County, Clinton, Knox County, Loudon County, Morgan County, and Oak Ridge report rates below the state average. Oak Ridge and Knox County both had about 0.003 reports per student.

Note: In case you care, the enrollment numbers I used in those calculations were “average daily membership” numbers for the 2011-2012 school year — the most recent compilation I found.

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Where black bears come from

Black bear sightings are almost getting to be routine around here. This cartoon is topical. (It’s been shared on Facebook — wish I could tell where it originally came from.) Update: Thanks to Linda Mann for finding the source: This is by Adrian Raeside and was published on his website at http://raesidecartoon.com/dbtest/images/1/2961.gif

eekabearcomic

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