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State-and-regional
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New health study of Mead contamination outlined by UNMC and Creighton
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For some people, it was the headaches, bloody noses and trouble breathing. For others, it was watching their dogs stumble around the house, bumping into doors and walls.

For Amanda Ruhe, it was the inability to breathe and having her eyes swell shut then ooze pus.

Residents and workers in the Mead area, who have become worried about their health and environment, got a glimmer of hope Tuesday when health officials explained a University of Nebraska/Creighton University proposed study during a virtual meeting.

Residents have said they believe their medical issues are tied to the local ethanol plant’s unusual practice of making ethanol from chemically coated seeds. (Other ethanol plants use unadulterated kernels.)

AltEn Ethanol has stockpiled more than 84,000 tons of contaminated waste on site and has spread more than 33,400 tons of ethanol residue on neighboring fields, according to information presented at the meeting.

Sampling of AltEn’s ethanol residue by state regulators has found neonicotinoid pesticides (including some banned in Europe) at many times the level considered safe for aquatic life.

Dan Snow, an NU faculty member described the study as "unprecedented," and it was clear from Tuesday’s meeting that if the study is to be fully executed, it will require a significant infusion of dollars. The team will seek funding from the state, federal government and philanthropic community. That’s because its long-term cost, over a decade or so, could reach $10 million, according to Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.

The study group will seek funding from the Legislature, grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, federal aid, including grants from the National Institutes of Health, and philanthropic support, said Khan and Dr. Eleanor Rogan, who is leading the study. Rogan chairs the Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health at UNMC College of Public Health.

“This situation that has arisen is a state problem,” Rogan said. “(State funding) seems appropriate to me ... so we know what the problems are and how they can be addressed.”

This potential cost of the study owes to its scope and timeline: medical screenings, a review of area hospital records, urine and blood samples from residents and workers (on a voluntary basis), tests of land, water and air, and of fish, insects and animals. And the costliest proposal: tracking people for years to see if they develop health problems.

The fact that a study is being attempted is owing to a philanthropic donation. The Claire M. Hubbard Foundation provided $200,000 in seed money, Khan said.

Dr. Anne Hubbard, a retired pediatric radiologist, provided the funding via her family’s foundation.

The contamination at Mead is a potentially serious threat to public health, Hubbard said in a statement provided to The World-Herald. She said she is especially concerned for the neurocognitive and behavioral health of babies and children. Noting that Nebraska is already a hot spot for pediatric cancer, she said the contaminants at Mead present the potential for future pediatric cancers.

The Mead community “needed big funding fast,” she said.

Information on donating can be found at the NU Foundation. (nufoundation.org/mead).

Rogan and Khan said the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy and AltEn have agreed to cooperate with the study. Additionally, Bayer has agreed to coordinate a meeting with seed companies so that Nebraska researchers have a better handle on the properties of the chemicals involved, Khan said.


Our best Omaha staff photos of March 2021

Our best Omaha staff photos of March 2021

Govt-and-politics
alert
Neary in lead to face Stothert, but election results won't be official until Friday
  • Updated

Mayor Jean Stothert delivered a dominant performance in Omaha’s mayoral primary election Tuesday, putting her in a strong position to win a third term ahead of the city’s May 11 general election.

Late Tuesday, it appeared Stothert, a Republican, was set to face commercial real estate broker RJ Neary, who held a comfortable lead over fellow Democratic challengers Jasmine Harris, Kimara Snipes and Mark Gudgel.

But at least 12,000 absentee votes remained to be counted Tuesday, and election officials won’t release the results until Friday.

Speaking from her campaign headquarters on Tuesday evening, Stothert, 67, made the case that she has made Omaha safer, carefully managed the city budget and helped grow the city’s economy.

Stothert said her focuses will include helping Omaha continue to emerge from the “economic, health and personal challenges of COVID-19,” creating new job opportunities and fostering “a more inclusive city for all.”

“We will continue to make the case that we are providing (the) change, the leadership and the experience that this job requires,” Stothert said.

Neary, 68, chairman of Investors Realty Inc., has campaigned on plans to better connect neighborhoods through improved public infrastructure, spur more affordable housing, implement sustainable practices across the city and ensure that city services are delivered equally in all parts of the city.

“What I’ve found is that when people hear about my path forward, they respond ... and they want to see Omaha with a strong urban core that’s very livable and thriving, and they want to see an Omaha that’s connected, equitable and fair,” the former Omaha Planning Board member said from his campaign headquarters.

Stothert congratulated Neary “for advancing to the May election,” saying she has known him for many years. She also thanked the other candidates for representing their ideas well.

Harris was in third place behind Stothert and Neary as of Tuesday evening’s returns.

Shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday, Harris, who works for a local nonprofit that helps people reenter society after serving time in prison, said her campaign has been a movement centered on everyday Omahans.

“This campaign has been about centering people and ensuring that people have their voices heard, that people are a part of the process at City Hall, in our government,” Harris said. “That they were being more engaged in how our city is being ran.”

Harris' campaign said in a tweet Wednesday morning that the "race is far from over. There are still 12,000 ballots to be counted."

In fourth place was Snipes, and the last of the five candidates was Gudgel.

Snipes on Wednesday said she was proud of the support she garnered and "grateful for the people who saw a vision in me that they could relate to."

In a tweet Wednesday morning, Gudgel, an Omaha North High School teacher, wrote: 

"I’m not going to be the next mayor of Omaha. I am, however, going to continue teaching English at North, advocating for what is right, expressing gratitude to countless wonderful supporters, and spending more time with my family. Excited to start the next chapter. Thank you all!"

The path to unseat Stothert won’t be easy. As of the incomplete results released Tuesday evening, Stothert held about 60% of the vote compared to Neary’s 15%. That was a much wider gap than the 3-point lead she held over Heath Mello after the 2017 primary. And Mello went on to lose to Stothert in the general by more than 5 percentage points.

Former Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman called Stothert’s performance impressive, even for an incumbent.

“I think it reflects the fact that the people of Omaha have great respect for Mayor Stothert,” Heineman said Tuesday at her campaign headquarters.

Active campaigning in the mayor’s race was put on pause in early March when Stothert’s husband, Dr. Joseph Stothert, fatally shot himself near the couple’s southwest Omaha home. Stothert took a break from the campaign trail and paused her reelection activities, as did her opponents.

Stothert, standing beside her adult children, became emotional as she described the unconditional love and support of her family.

“I want to thank you Omaha, from our entire family, for believing in us, for supporting us, and for partnering with us every day to make Omaha the best city that we can,” she said.

Stothert and Neary now enter a tight five-week sprint to make their cases to voters, who must decide: Four more years of the Stothert administration — or is it time for a shakeup at City Hall?

Omaha mayors, from the beginning to now

Omaha mayors, from the beginning to now

State-and-regional
Proposed study seeks to boost Nebraska K-12 student achievement with air filters
  • Updated

LINCOLN — Could installing high-grade air filters in K-12 classrooms be enough to significantly boost student test scores? And, if so, could those filters raise scores as much as cutting class sizes by one-third but at a fraction of the cost?

A recent study of some Los Angeles schools suggests the answers to both questions may be, yes.

Now first-year State Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln wants to see if the same results could be found in Nebraska. Toward that end, he introduced Legislative Bill 630 and named it his priority for the year.

The bill calls for state education officials to set up a pilot project in which commercial-grade air filters would be put in 150 classrooms in 50 school districts across Nebraska.

Working with the University of Nebraska, researchers would then compare the academic and behavioral performance of students in those rooms with those in 150 matching classrooms. They also would analyze how well the filters worked at removing common indoor air pollutants and particles.

“I’m hopeful the results are great, but we don’t know until we get the results,” Bostar said. “Even if the results we find are half as impressive (as the other study), it will be the most cost-effective educational intervention we could do.”

Bostar’s inspiration came from research done by New York University economics professor Michael Gilraine that was published as a working paper last year.

Gilraine studied a natural experiment created as a result of a massive leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in northwest Los Angeles. The leak was discovered on Oct. 23, 2015, and was not permanently plugged until mid-February 2016.

SoCalGas, which owned the storage facility, ended up paying to relocate nearly 350 nearby households and two schools. It also provided air filters for every classroom, office and common area of another 18 schools within a 5-mile radius of the leak.

Gilraine was then able to compare changes in English and mathematics test scores for elementary school students in the schools with air filters to test scores for students in schools just outside the 5-mile radius. He found substantial improvements in student performance at schools with filters.

He also analyzed the air quality in those schools during the months before and after the filters were added. Testing data showed no evidence of abnormally high pollutants linked to natural gas at those schools, which indicated that the filters worked by removing common indoor air pollutants.

Gilraine said air filters improved student test scores as much as reducing class sizes, but for much less cost. He compared his findings to those of a 1999 study of cutting classes to 15 students, down from 22 students, a change that required an additional teacher.

His conclusions have not been confirmed with further research, but they are in line with previous studies that linked higher levels of outdoor and indoor pollutants to lower academic performance and lower productivity in the workforce.

Those studies include a multiyear research project done by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln team with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Nebraska team studied how environmental factors, including indoor air quality, thermal comfort, lighting and noise, affect student performance.

Josephine Lau, an associate professor of architectural engineering and one of the lead researchers, said the study looked at about 5,000 students in five school districts in eastern Nebraska and Council Bluffs. The team found multiple links between the environmental conditions in the classroom and student test scores, some of which differed with the season of the year.

Bostar’s bill would leave details of the air filter study largely up to the researchers involved. The measure would pay for the classroom air filters, at about $1,000 each, including operation and maintenance. First-round debate on the bill has not been scheduled yet.


Meet the current Nebraska state senators

Meet the Nebraska state senators

Consumer
AP
US jobs come roaring back, surprising employers and economists

A resurgent job market is creating more opportunities at a faster clip than many economists and employers expected.

What’s more, too few people are applying for positions that are reopening, and that’s setting up a battle for talent. Restaurants and hotels are raising wages, offering bonuses for worker referrals or luring people from other states to cope with the shortage.

Many data watchers have been caught off-guard as improving weather, government stimulus money and a surge in vaccinations converge to boost the economy.

Nonfarm payrolls rose by 916,000 last month, blowing away economists’ median estimate of a 660,000-job gain. Meanwhile, a measure of service industry activity released this week saw the fastest growth on record in March, exceeding the highest estimate in a Bloomberg survey.

In Florida, Doug Babcock is considering hiring a temporary labor firm to fill roles at resorts and spas on Captiva and Sanibel Islands. Historically, workers have willingly driven up to an hour from the mainland for the promise of year-round work. This year, applicants are grilling him about drive times and taking jobs closer to home.

“It’s almost like the staff is interviewing you,” said Babcock, who’s boosted starting pay for dishwashers by $2 to $3.

Economic data are rebounding better than expected because of a “superfecta” of positives colliding at once, Michael Skordeles, a senior U.S. macro strategist at Truist Financial Corp., said in an April 2 note.

“The resulting horsepower lifting the economy is unparalleled, particularly for jobs in the coming months,” he wrote.

Economists like Skordeles point to improving weather, more states lifting business restrictions, the vaccine rollout and President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill as drivers.

Even before states like Texas and Mississippi reopened last month, job openings were surging — hitting a two-year high in February, data showed Tuesday.

“I think we’re getting to another phase in the reopening, and that’s leading to a spurt in economic activity,” said Ryan Sweet, head of monetary policy research at Moody’s Analytics Inc. And while economic data can sometimes send mixed signals, “this time around, we’re getting strong signals that the economy is set to bounce back,” he said.

To get ahead of the competition for talent, Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants Inc. is boosting pay to ensure all workers, tipped and untipped, earn at least $10 an hour initially and $12 by January 2023.

Many Applebee’s restaurants are offering $3,000 bounties for manager referrals after the first six months, while some Arby’s locations are paying $500 referral bonuses upfront.

“Our restaurants are literally busier than they’ve been in decades,” said Greg Flynn, whose Flynn Restaurant Group owns 2,355 restaurants including Applebee’s, Panera Bread, Taco Bell and other brands.

The worker shortage is especially apparent in Southern states that saw a spring break surge of activity. In Southern states including Alabama, South Carolina and Florida, growth in consumer spending since January 2020 far exceeds the national average, according to data from Opportunity Insights.

Hoteliers are in an especially rough spot right now, with a flood of leisure travelers booking rooms on weekends and almost no business travelers during the week, said Tim McPherson, whose Hospitality Staffing Solutions employs more than 10,000 workers around the country.

Hotels have boosted their pay by about 15% over pre-pandemic rates, McPherson said, while sign-on bonuses or bonuses for finishing a three-month assignment are catching on. In Nashville, staffing agencies like his have brought in workers from Minnesota temporarily to fill the need, McPherson said.

Hotel and restaurant operators have a litany of theories about what’s keeping workers away. Some say it’s the hot housing market luring away would-be employees. Others say it’s e-commerce companies or even customer service call centers, some of which are adopting attractive work-from-home arrangements permanently.

For now, a poolside bar at the SpringHill Suites at Florida’s Navarre Beach is closed until the hotel can find enough workers to staff it. Cooks, who earn $13 to $17 an hour, are especially needed, said General Manager Scott Mauer.

“I feel like this is all going to go away,” Mauer said. “At some point, people will want to start looking for jobs again.’’


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