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It’s candidate forum season

citysealThere are lots of candidate forums and “meet the candidates” occasions scheduled this year for Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education elections. All are open to the public, without charge.

  • Wednesday, September 17 – League of Women Voters forum for school board and state candidates (yes, you already missed it!)
  • Thursday, September 25 – League of Women Voters forum for Oak Ridge City Council, 7 pm, Oak Ridge High School amphitheater (upstairs from the lobby)
  • Tuesday, September 30 – Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce forum for City Council candidates, 7:30 am at the Chamber offices (informal meet and greet starts at 7:00 am; light breakfast available)
  • Wednesday, October 1 – PTA/PTO candidate forum for school board, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge High School amphitheater. Meet and greet starts at 5:30 pm.
  • Thursday, October 2 – Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce forum for school board candidates (see September 30 for time and location, etc.)
  • Wednesday, October 8 – PTA/PTO candidate forum for city council, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge High School amphitheater. Meet and greet starts at 5:30 pm.
  • Thursday, October 9 – DFET (Democracy for East Tennessee) meet-the-candidates event, 7:00 pm at Oak Ridge Civic Center gym
  • Tuesday, October 14 – Elks Lodge Meet the Candidates Night and forum for City Council, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge Elks Lodge, 684 Emory Valley Road
  • Thursday, October 16 – Elks Lodge Meet the Candidates Night and forum for School Board, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge Elks Lodge, 684 Emory Valley Road

Added September 26: There’s also a local League of Women Voters forum about the state constitutional amendment referendum questions on the ballot:

  • Tuesday, October 7, 7 pm, at Pollard Auditorium.

Early voting starts Wednesday, October 15, and runs through Thursday, October 30. Election day is Tuesday, November 4.

Updated October 12 after I discovered that the Elks Lodge is holding two candidate forums.

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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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The Friendship Bell is special

20100926173814 The International Friendship Bell in A.K. Bissell Park is special. It’s unique, it has substantial aesthetic value, it symbolizes principles (peace and friendship) that everyone ought to embrace, and it is quintessentially Oak Ridge. If anything erected in the city during the decades I’ve lived here deserves to be revered in the future as a historic landmark, it’s the bell and the structure that houses it.

I was very disappointed by the news that the wooden bell structure had deteriorated and was no longer safe. The bell will be “out of commission” for some time — until the community rebuilds its support structure. I am one of the many people who believe that the structure should be rebuilt according to the original aesthetic design, but with structural members that will not succumb when exposed to the elements. Like the bell itself, which is decorated with images of both Japan and Tennessee, the structure is not purely Japanese in its design — it’s a blend of Japan and Tennessee. Architect Jon Coddington designed the bell house to incorporate elements of traditional temples in Japan and traditional cantilever barns in Tennessee. The blend of Tennessee with Japan in the structure’s design emphasized the bell as a symbol of international friendship — and the design was an important element of the campaign to dispel fears of local residents who saw the bell as a Buddhist religious item or as some sort of “apology” to Japan for Oak Ridge’s role in the Hiroshima bombing. I hope that the original structure can be reassembled around (and disguise) a rugged steel frame that can support the bell for many decades to come.

This is an “interesting” issue for city government. The bell was cast and the structure was built with private donations (here and in Japan), and it was placed on public land as a gift to the city. That makes it a city responsibility now, although the original donors still have a strong sense of ownership. I didn’t donate to the bell when it was created (I was a lot younger then and hadn’t lived in Oak Ridge very long — and this was a project of an older generation of Oak Ridgers), but I will happily donate now to the structure’s restoration because I appreciate the bell’s meaning and value. The bell housing can’t be restored without the help of local donors, but it may not be necessary to find donors to cover the whole cost. I was pleased to see that city government and some citizens with a particular interest in the bell have been creative in seeking additional funds and have discovered a grant-making foundation that looks like an excellent prospect for assisting our community with restoring the bell. The Japanese World Exposition 1970 Commemorative Fund awards matching grants for projects around the world that are related to Japan and that promote international mutual understanding. At Monday evening’s City Council meeting it was reported that it probably is too late to apply for this year’s round of grants, but Oak Ridge should be an excellent candidate for a grant next year.

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Clark Center Park

CarbideparkpicnicareaThe future of Carbide Park (officially Clark Center Recreation Area) is on the city agenda right now.

It’s clear why DOE wants to get out of the business of running a community park, and it makes sense that they are offering it to the city of Oak Ridge. It’s a wonderful public recreation resource — 80 acres on Melton Hill Lake, with boat launches, picnic areas, ball fields, swimming area, fishing pier, and access to the Gallaher Bend Greenway. This is an asset that can’t be allowed to slip away. I believe it needs to remain as a public park — and the city needs to say “yes” to DOE. Trouble is that the city will face the same issues of cost and liability that DOE wants to avoid. There’s no room in our city budget to take on new obligations.

When I spoke at the August 25 public meeting, I commented that this is a regional asset, not just a local park, so the city should not “go it alone” in running it. The region should help support its operation and maintenance — maybe through user fees or an annual membership (much like the old days, when use was limited to employees of the federal agency and Union Carbide). It’s costly to hire people to collect fees, though, but there may be a way to implement electronic access controls (think EZ-Pass). I also recommended that DOE should share some of the money it will save by giving away the park with the city. A chunk of the $300,000/year that the federal government spends yearly to run the park would help the city take on this new responsibility — and DOE would still be saving money. There were many good ideas presented at the city’s public meeting on the park (a model for how a public meeting should run — an unstructured opportunity where people had an open-ended invitation to make comments). I think we can make this work — but the community will need to recognize that the taxpayers of Oak Ridge can’t be asked to pay the full cost of a quality public recreation resource that benefits the entire region.

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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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Coyotes again — or possibly coywolves

Wikimedia-Coyote2008Oak Ridgers have coyotes on their minds again.

The last time this animal was a hot topic was 2006-2007. The city Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB — I was chairman then and I’m a board member again now) had long discussions of coyote sightings, disappearances of pet cats, etc. We learned that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), not city animal control, has jurisdiction over wild critters like coyotes. EQAB members studied up on the biology of coyotes and their management. We concluded that these animals are here to stay, and that the best way for the City to deal with them would be to help residents get good advice on coexisting with these animals.

It doesn’t look like very much has changed since 2007. The only new wrinkle is the information, based on scientific research in the northeastern U.S., that the coyotes in the eastern states may be “coywolves” — the result of crossbreeding between coyotes and eastern coyotes. (Read all about it at easterncoyoteresearch.com.) Also, now we have an Oak Ridge coyote tracking page on Facebook.
February 5, 2014 update: Warren Webb has supplied the information, from the Chattanooga Nature Center, that genetic research has found that our coyotes have less wolf in them than coyotes in the northeast: “Midwestern and Southeastern coyotes were genetically 90% coyotes, with an average 7.5% dog and 2.5% wolf.” In the northeast, they were “82% coyote, 9% dog, and 9% wolf.”

Back in 2007, EQAB member Liyuan Liang drafted an informational article on coyotes and how to live around them. Her article was submitted to the Oak Ridger as an EQAB contribution and published on May 21, 2007.  I found a slightly earlier draft of that article in my files, plus an information piece produced in 2008 by the Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) wildlife management staff, and I’ve pulled out some excerpts that I think are just as good to read in 2014 as they were in 2007 and 2008:

When did coyotes show up in Oak Ridge?

From ORNL: Historically known as an animal of the wild-west, the adaptable coyote has expanded its range into eastern North America while other carnivore populations (e.g. , wolves) have declined. Coyotes are now found in every corner of the United States, and they shift their behaviors to fit new habitats.

The first coyote probably crossed the Mississippi River into Tennessee around 1965. On the Oak Ridge Reservation (ORR) the first reported sighting of a coyote was in 1978, and the first coyote road kill happened in 1984. That same year, a pair of coyotes were observed raising a litter of pups on the east end of the reservation. In 1987 a pair of coyotes were trapped on the ORR and equipped with radio collars. They were radio-tracked for nine weeks during which time they ranged over an almost 4-square mile area. In 1990 ORNL researchers estimated that approximately 12 to 16 coyotes existed on the reservation. … Using known population densities from studies in other areas of the country, it is estimated that the reservation could potentially support as many as 50 or more coyotes.

Why are coyotes here now, when we didn’t have them before?

From the EQAB article: People unwittingly helped coyotes flourish when they exterminated most of the wolves in the United States. Coyotes became top dog, filling the wolf’s ecological niche. Deforestation and agriculture opened up previously dense tracts of forest, and human settlements, with their garbage, vegetable gardens, compost piles and domestic pets, provided food.

Describe the coyote’s “lifestyle” and what they eat.

A typical group of coyotes consists of a breeding pair and their offspring. The family group is largest in the summer when the pups, parents, and non-breeding adults are together at their den. Coyotes den in a variety of places, including brush-covered slopes, steep banks, rock ledges, caves, thickets, and hollow logs. Dens of other animals (such as groundhogs or foxes) are frequently used. In urban areas dens may include storm drains; culverts; holes in vacant lots, parks, and golf courses; and under storage sheds or porches.

Coyotes breed during January through March and typically produce five to six pups 60 to 63 days later. The entire family unit, including the mother, father, and other non-breeding family members, helps raise the young by providing food. Young coyotes begin dispersing in October and may travel up to 100 miles from their birthplace.

Coyotes are active mainly during the nighttime, but they can be moving at any time during the day.  Most sightings of coyotes occur during the hours close to sunrise and sunset.

They communicate through a series of yips, barks, and howls. A common call of the coyote is two short barks followed by a long wavering yodel known as the howl.

Adult males have large territories (15-25 square miles) in which they roam; adult females occupy areas of six to ten square miles. The availability of food affects territory size. Contrary to popular belief, coyotes do not hunt in packs. They are relatively solitary hunters, but they may hunt in groups when food is plentiful. They may also form packs to defend territories.

The coyote will eat almost anything, including rodents, rabbits, muskrats, groundhogs, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, songbirds, insects, watermelons, apples, and persimmons. They prefer fresh kills but will eat carrion. Recent studies have also shown that coyotes eat Canada goose eggs, goslings, and occasionally adults. Coyotes may take as many as 70 to 80 percent of the fawns of urban deer. Unfortunately, in urban areas their diet may also include garbage, pet food, cats, and small dogs.

When we see coyotes in neighborhood streets and yards, in the daytime, does that mean they are desperate for food, and dangerous?

In urban areas where coyotes aren’t hunted or trapped, they may lose their fear of humans. If they associate people with an easy and dependable source for food, they can become very bold. They will come up to the door of a house if food is regularly present. Coyote attacks are, however, extremely rare in contrast to the 4.7 million dog bites recorded in the United States each year. A person is millions of times more likely to get attacked by the family dog than by a coyote.

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to get rid of Oak Ridge’s coyotes by capturing them and killing them?

Eliminating individual coyotes doesn’t control their population. Remember that they produce litters of 5 or 6 pups. They also produce more young when their populations are low. This makes it very difficult to reduce coyote numbers. Scientists have determined that it would require removing nearly 70 percent of the population every year to maintain a sustained population reduction.

If we can’t rid of them, what we do to reduce the problems coyotes cause for our families and our pets?

* Do not feed coyotes!
* Eliminate sources of water. Water attracts rodents, birds, and snakes that coyotes feed on.
* Position bird feeders  so that coyotes can’t get the feed.  Coyotes are attracted by bread, table scraps, and even seed.  They may also be attracted by birds and rodents that come to the feeders.
* Do not discard edible garbage where coyotes can get to it.
* Secure garbage containers and eliminate garbage odors.
* Place trash cans out on pickup day. Putting them out the night before allows coyotes to scavenge under cover of darkness.
* Do not leave barbeque grills outside and uncovered. Food smells from the grill will attract coyotes.
* Feed pets indoors whenever possible.  Pick up any leftovers if feeding outdoors.  Store pet and livestock feed where it is inaccessible to wildlife.
* Trim and clear, near ground level, any shrubbery that provides hiding cover for coyotes or prey.
* Fencing your yard could deter coyotes.  The fence should be at least 6 feet high with the bottom extending at least 6 inches below ground level for best results.
* Don’t leave small children unattended outside if coyotes have been frequenting the area.
* Don’t allow pets to run free.  Keep them safely confined and provide secure nighttime housing for them.  Walk your dog on a leash and accompany your pet outside, especially at night.  Provide secure shelters for poultry, rabbits, and other vulnerable animals.
* Discourage coyotes from frequenting your area.  If you start seeing coyotes around your home or property, chase them away by shouting, making loud noises or throwing rocks.

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No more competing festivals in Oak Ridge in June?

20110618114917There’s good news for everyone who has been saying they hope the Lavender Festival and Secret City Festival will be held on different weekends in the future (as happened this year) instead of competing on the same days (as happened for most of the Secret City Festival’s history). In 2014, the Secret City Festival will be on June 13 and 14, and the Lavender Festival will be the following Saturday, June 21, in Jackson Square.

Actually, this is good news for the whole community — more people will participate in more festival activities, vendors will have more opportunities to sell their wares, volunteers won’t have to try to be two places at once, etc., etc.

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Yucca Mountain, spent nuclear fuel, and Oak Ridge

This piece of mine ran as a guest column in Thursday’s print edition of The Oak Ridge Observer, responding to an article about comments by Charlie Hensley:

I share Councilman Charlie Hensley’s concern that the United States needs a clear path for disposition of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors, but I oppose his suggestion that Oak Ridge should volunteer to host a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing pilot plant.

For background, I am convinced that the proposed underground nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be a good place to put nuclear waste, having visited Yucca Mountain and worked on many studies related to it. The repository plan wasn’t perfect, but the repository would provide a higher level of protectiveness than has ever been attempted in human history. Key features of the site that make it a good place to isolate nuclear waste are its remoteness from human activity and the fact that it is exceptionally dry – not only is it a very dry desert climate, but the depth to groundwater is several hundred meters. Not only did that protect the waste from water contact that could release it into the environment, but it meant that the repository could be designed to allow for waste to be retrieved after a century or two, if needed.

The failure of the Yucca Mountain program wasn’t due to technical problems so much as to a combination of bad politics and ineffective management. I believe that the ultimate doom of the Yucca Mountain project was sealed in the mid-1980s when Washington politicians (first a Congressional conference committee and later the Reagan Administration) abruptly removed all other potential repository sites from consideration. That understandably caused Nevada to feel victimized and caused the state to unite in opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository. I don’t think that any of the various technical and practical issues that arose over the next couple of decades were “show-stoppers,” but the program leadership didn’t have the firepower to withstand the continuous stream of technical issues and political opposition that it faced.

The nation needs a new plan for spent fuel now. That plan possibly could include a centralized interim storage site – a way station between commercial reactors and a permanent repository. Sooner or later it must include a permanent underground repository (either at Yucca Mountain or another site), and it might include reprocessing, as Charlie suggests.

Citizen acceptance of nuclear technology makes our city one of the few places that might volunteer to host a facility for spent fuel management, but our general support for nuclear technology should not blind us to the very real risks associated with the technology.

Oak Ridge is not a realistic candidate for a permanent waste isolation facility – for example, there are too many people nearby (and plenty of reason to think that more people will be here in the future) and we have a wet climate. If waste containers failed, there would be abundant opportunities for water to come into contact with waste and release it into water supplies and the food chain.

From a technical standpoint, Oak Ridge is probably a suitable location for consolidated temporary storage of spent reactor fuel in an engineered dry-cask storage facility. A few decades ago, a citizen task force undertook a study of “monitored retrievable storage” and concluded that hosting an MRS facility could be a good opportunity for Oak Ridge, but only if there was strong assurance that this would truly be temporary and only if the local community would have meaningful oversight authority. In the current political climate, I don’t think anyone can assure us that temporary storage would truly be temporary. There’s currently no defined path toward a permanent repository and it’s not even clear to me that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico will be able to receive all of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s stored transuranic waste, as once was promised. Also, with the restrictions that were placed on public information about radioactive materials in the community after September 11, 2001, I don’t see much chance of getting meaningful oversight authority for the community.

Spent-fuel reprocessing is a topic with which Oak Ridge has a lot of experience. As I understand it, most of the reprocessing technologies ever used were developed and tested here at ORNL. Research and development on new methods for reprocessing can and should happen here again. Reprocessing fuel is many times messier than storing it, though. Existing reprocessing technologies use “wet chemistry”, inevitably leading to worker exposures and environmental releases, and generating wastes that can be very difficult to manage. DOE still hasn’t found a way to deal successfully with wastes from past reprocessing – weapons-related reprocessing at sites like Hanford and Savannah River, R&D on reprocessing at ORNL, and experimental reprocessing of commercial spent fuel at West Valley, New York.

In my opinion, no community should volunteer to host a reprocessing facility for spent fuel from commercial reactors until there is some assurance that all aspects of the necessary technology – including effective management of the waste – are proven and ready. That meaningful community oversight that Oak Ridge sought for the MRS would help a lot, too. Even when those criteria are in place, because of the size of the population that could be exposed to releases and the vulnerability of our natural environment, Oak Ridge probably won’t be a good site for a full-scale facility, or even a pilot plant.

It’s great that Oak Ridge residents support nuclear technology, but we shouldn’t let our enthusiasm blind us to the risks.

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Clinch River ‘R Us

Babcock and Wilcox diagram of a small modular reactor assembly

SMR assembly

The TVA proposal to build small modular reactors in Oak Ridge on the site that was once going to host the Clinch River Breeder Reactor is one of several interesting developments on the local horizon in recent years. The National Geographic website has a nice little news article about the technology and the proposal — I say “nice” because it does a good job of explaining the SMR technology, its expected advantages, and the issues that still surround it.

The article mentions Oak Ridge, but (as also happened in the days of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project) it doesn’t say that the site is in Oak Ridge. That’s probably OK. In general, the names of nuclear power plants don’t include the names of the towns where they are located. I believe that’s done deliberately to help communities avoid the negative perceptions that surround nuclear topics. (Of course, Oak Ridge already deals with those negative perceptions — that’s not a situation that’s likely to change.) I do hope that TVA remembers that “Clinch River ‘R Us”, so that our community is remembered when the public needs to be consulted about this project and when the benefits of the SMR project (whatever they turn out to be) get passed around.

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Sitting at another City Council meeting

cityseal I had an EQAB work session earlier, but now I’m at the City Council meeting, having arrived late. I’m not going to live-blog this one, but I can do bit of real-time reporting.

City Council voted 4-2 (Baughn and Garcia Garland opposed; Mosby arrived later) to give Habitat for Humanity a property on Hillside Road. Later they voted 4-3 not to give Oak Ridge Schools approximately $35,000 from  traffic camera revenues for repair of the sinkhole in the high school soccer field. (If I remember right, the four who opposed the soccer field money were Baughn, Beehan, Garcia Garland and Miller. Hensley, Hope and Mosby supported the funding.)

Now the item on the agenda is the FY 2014 budget — for the fiscal year starting July 1. First item of discussion is the school system’s request for city financial support for additional school resource officers (SROs). City Manager Mark Watson says the schools request doesn’t account for the cost of police cars for the additional officers that would be hired. Federal grants exist for school policing, and the city will apply for a grant that could help pay for new officers and equipment. Charlie Hensley suggests waiting until we know about a grant (in the summer) until making a decision on this item. Also, Chuck Hope wants the details of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the schools to be hammered out before making any decision on funding for additional officers in the schools. Chuck also wonders if the SROs need patrol vehicles. Police chief Jim Akagi says that it’s important to have a vehicle, but Chuck thinks it might be possible to outfit a vehicle that’s not fully suited for patrol use. Mark Watson agrees that several things, including the MOU, are pending and need to be sorted out before this is resolved.

Now, at 9:17 pm, there’s a vote on a motion by Trina Baughn to reduce the property tax rate by 1 cent. It fails by a vote of 4-2 (Baughn and Hope voted for), with Anne Garcia Garland abstaining.

The full budget passed without further discussion.

It’s 9:23 PM, and there’s a vote to fill an unexpired term on the Municipal Planning Commission. Candidates are Sheldon Green, Andrew Howe, Martin McBride, and Hugh Ward. Votes: Mosby for Green, Hensley for Ward, Miller for Green, Beehan for Green, Hope for Green, Baughn for McBride, and Garcia Garland for Howe. Sheldon Green is the new Planning Commission member.

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