National News

Frac sand companies get creative with local politics

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-01-16 02:00

When officials in Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, tried to set limits on new sand mines, mining companies looked closely at how local government is structured in rural Wisconsin and got creative.

Sand mining has turned parts of rural Wisconsin inside out thanks to fracking for oil and gas. Fracking consumes 100 billion pounds of sand a year, and sand from a few midwestern states is highly prized.

Trempealeau has more mines than any other county, and in mid-2013, the Trempealeau County board declared a year-long moratorium on new mining permits.

However, the county only regulates mining in unincorporated areas. So mining companies went to some of the cities of Trempealeau County and asked to be annexed.

Like the City of Independence, population 1,363, now home to two sand mines.

At City Hall, Mayor Ottie Baekcer says Independence needed a shot in the arm: “And as you see, there’s not people standing outside that door, trying to bring a GM factory in here.”

Sometimes there’s cash upfront. One company offered $1.5 million to the City of Blair — population 1,379, plus two mines — if the city annexed another site.

Cities like Blair and Independence also offer more-permissive rules for mines than the county. “We let them work 24 hours, ‘round the clock, you see, where the county don’t,” says Blair’s mayor, Ardell Knutson. Rules around noise can also be less strict.        

With annexations, more than half a dozen different ordinances now regulate sand-mining in the county.

“It’s chaos,” says Jack Speerstra, who represents a third layer of local government: townships that provide services to rural parts of the county. Land getting annexed into a city like Independence comes out of a township like Lincoln, where Speerstra is the board chair.

When his constituents have problems — with noise or light from mines that become their neighbors on newly-annexed city land — they get caught in the middle of the chaos that Speerstra talks about. “They call the county, and the county says it’s in the city jurisdiction,” he says. “Who do you call?”

Lincoln and another town are suing Independence to prevent one proposed annexation. The mine site is far from the city limit, connected by a strip of other parcels. Wisconsin courts have ruled against “balloon-on-a-string” annexations before.

Meanwhile, Speerstra has a dairy farm to run. He takes a stipend of $400 a month to serve as town chair.

When aked if it is usually in his job description to negotiate with publicly-traded companies, he chuckles.

“No,” he says. “I’ve done this for 25 years. And in the first in the first 25 years, I probably had contact with an attorneys once every 4 or 5 years at the most.”

Now, he talks to lawyers three, four, five times a week.

Meanwhile, mining companies have also looked for allies going up the chain of government in the state capitol. Proposed legislation in 2013 would have given the state exclusive authority over mining permits; cutting local governments out of the process. That proposal died the first time out, but one senator has said he plans to float it again soon.

Netflix becomes a movie studio

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-01-16 02:00

In a major first for Hollywood this year, Netflix will release a big-budget movie which it financed both in theaters, and on its streaming service at the same time.

The streaming service signed a four-film deal with Adam Sandler's production company last year, and will release one of his films later this year (the exact date hasn't been announced). It's also financing a sequel to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which will be released in theaters and Netflix on August 28.

The moves into the film producing business are part of an effort at Netflix to change how films are distributed.

"The current distibution model for movies is pretty antiquated," Ted Sarandos, chief of Netflix's original content, said during MIPCOM, a television industry trade conference last year.

You can watch Sarandos' entire keynote interview below: 

It can take a year for a Hollywood movie to go from theaters to Netflix - part of a system set in place decades ago in which a film is released in 'windows': first in theaters, then in other formats such as DVD, video-on-demand and streaming.

"So, what we wanted to do is accelerate the model by putting our money where our mouth is a little bit," says Sarandos, "And say we'll release movies in theaters and on Netflix. And, we'll fund the movies to make it work."

"That's completely different and sort of upends the old economic model," says Chris McGurk, chief of Cinedigm, a digital content distributor, who used to be an executive at multiple Hollywood studios including Disney, Universal and MGM.

In recent years, some smaller-budget independent films have upended that model and been released in digital formats first or at the same time as in cinemas, but "now you're talking about major motion pictures," says McGurk, "with multi-tens of millions of dollars budgets, with top-line hollywood talent. And that is pretty much unheard of."

McGurk says Netflix's 50 million subscribers give it the best chance so far to make money on a major digital-first film.

A disappearing industry in Lorain, Ohio

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-01-16 02:00

On Friday, the International Energy Agency predicted that non-OPEC oil producers will slow the growth of their production this year. There's also news the oil services company Schlumberger will cut 9,000 jobs.

To get some perspective on what this means at a local level, just look at the town of Lorain, Ohio, west of Cleveland. Once economically distressed, jobs poured in at the U.S. steel plant in Lorain to make pipes for domestic shale oil production. Now, crude oil is trading at less than half the price it was in June, and Lorain's mayor, Chase Ritenauer, is seeing the effects.

Says Ritenauer, "U.S. Steel, what they do is driven by the price of crude oil. As crude oil prices have gone down, the demand from their customers for the steel, for the drilling, for the shale exploration, has gone down." Now, there's word that 600 workers at Lorain's steel plant, nearly everyone, will lose their jobs.

"It illustrates the global economy, and how the global economy can impact Lorain, Ohio pretty dramatically," says Ritenauer.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Silicon Tally: Et tu, glitter?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-01-16 02:00

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by science reporter Flora Lichtman, host of the forthcoming podcast on climate change entitled "The Adaptors".

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Released From Prison After 22 Years, But Still 'Locked Up'

NPR News - Fri, 2015-01-16 01:10

Before Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn left office, he granted clemency for Tyrone Hood, who had served more than two decades for a murder Hood says he did not commit. Now Hood is fighting to clear his name.

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By Making A Game Out Of Rejection, A Man Conquers Fear

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 23:23

Jason Comely's fear of rejection was so strong that he'd become completely isolated. So he set out to get himself rejected at least once a day, every day. Funny thing is, it worked.

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NYPD Disciplinary Problems Linked To A 'Failure Of Accountability'

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 23:23

The New York Police Department is one of the most sophisticated in the world, with advanced systems for fighting crime. But it's not so good at policing its own officers, criminal justice experts say.

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Tech Giants Will Pay $415 Million To Settle Employees' Lawsuit

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 20:42

Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe were accused of colluding to keep tech worker salaries low and avoid recruiting one another's employees.

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Boy Says He Didn't Go To Heaven; Publisher Says It Will Pull Book

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 18:20

The young man at the center of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, Alex Malarkey, said this week that the story behind the 2010 book was all made up.

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Oklahoma Executes An Inmate For First Time Since Lethal Injection Disaster In April

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 17:18

Charles Frederick Warner's execution had been postponed while Oklahoma revamped its drug combination and procedures.

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Pizza Delivery Driver Won't Be Fired For Shooting Robbery Suspect

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 15:53

A Papa John's driver who shot a robbery suspect in the face will not be fired, despite her violation of the company's policy against employees carrying guns. The employee will now work inside a store.

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The Oscars by the numbers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-15 15:31

This morning, the Academy Awards announced its 2015 nominees for what has been – at least from a business standpoint – a bad year for movies.

 

In 2014, the overall domestic box office reported a 5 percent drop from 2013. Americans age 12 to 24 saw 15 percent fewer movies in theaters during the first three quarters of 2014, suggesting that young people aren't interested in shelling out for feature films. The year also featured a magnificent summer slump, a reported 7-year low for domestic theater attendance.

 

The Academy Awards (apart from being an event where pretty people prance around in fancy clothes and clap for one another) has over the years made money for Hollywood. And it makes sense. When the winners, or even just the nominees, are announced, people want to see what all the hype is about. So they invest.

 

In honor of the new Oscar nominees, here are some random facts about the entertaining economic force that is the Academy Awards:

 

(Seth Kelley/Marketplace) 

 

(Seth Kelley/Marketplace)(Seth Kelley/Marketplace)(Seth Kelley/Marketplace)

Hero Of Kosher Grocery Siege Will Become A French Citizen

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 14:24

Like Amedy Coulibaly, the man who authorities say carried out the deadly attack in Paris, Lassana Bathily is a Muslim with ties to Mali. Last week, he saved several people from Coulibaly.

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Economic schmooze-fest in the Alps just got pricier

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-15 14:21

Next week, the world's rich and famous will descend on the small town of Davos, Switzerland. for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, which is essentially an invite-only schmooze-fest in the Alps.

Since the value of the Swiss franc rose 15 percent this morning, the exchange rate is going to make Davos a lot more expensive, Bloomberg points. Especially for Americans.

For instance, a Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky at the Belvedere Hotel in Davos would set you back about $41. That's $6 more than yesterday. And a double room at that hotel — at last check — would cost $1,133 each night.

After Saying Yes, Duke Nixes Muslim Call To Prayer From Chapel Bell Tower

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 14:01

The school had announced it would allow the traditional call to prayer from the Duke Chapel bell tower. The decision was excoriated, and today the private university in Durham, N.C., reversed course.

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Public Sales Of Google Glass To End Later This Month

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 13:55

In an announcement, the company said Glass is not dead, it's just going through a "transition.

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Sand turns a rural county upside-down

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-15 13:35

The fracking boom has transformed rural Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, and areas like it. There’s no oil or gas here —  just sand, the kind oil and gas drillers prefer. Fracking has made sand a $10 billion industry, and publicly traded companies have rushed in, digging enormous mines. Trempealeau — on the western side of the state, population 28,000 or so — has more mines than any other county.

“The onset of industrial sand mining pretty much flipped our county upside-down,” says Kevin Lien, who runs the county’s Department of Land Management. “And that’s probably an understatement.”

Pat Malone gives me a tour in her candy-apple red Toyota Corolla. She’s been here 26 years as a professor with the University of Wisconsin’s cooperative extension— kind of a full-time policy consultant to local government, on topics that include planning, health, and economic development.

 In March 2010, a woman came into her office, worried about a new neighbor. “She was talking about this sand mine, and all these awful things that would happen,” Malone recalls. “And in my head I’m going, ‘It’s just sand.’”

Malone had seen plenty of sand mines. Mostly small and temporary — gravel pits — supplying local construction projects.

But when she looked at the permit application for this mine, it was different. Most were a few pages long. This one was a few inches thick.

In the next three years, the county approved 27 more permits like it.

We go past that first site and lots of others: Giant silos, processing plants, and huge piles of sand. All on land that used to be rolling hills, covered with trees.

All of which have special value to people here, as Malone knows, having done many surveys and focus groups as part of the County’s planning process. “People really, really, really value the natural environment here,” she says. “Universally, top of the list.”

She says local residents pay a price for that value, in dollars. “If people took their job skills and went to New York or Chicago or Boston, they could make more money,” she says, “both in absolute and in real terms.”  

She gestures to the land around us. “But because they like this— these scenic hills, and the clean water, and the knowing-who-your-neighbor-is, and going and sitting in your patch of woods and hearing nothing— nothing!— they’re willing to pay for that.”

In addition to the changing landscape, people close to the mines hate the lights at night, the noise from blasting.

Then there are trucks carrying sand out. Most mines are permitted for at least 100 a day, and two-lane roads are the norm here.

“You look at this road,” Malone says as we idle near a mine, “and you’re like, gaad. Do you really want heavy truck traffic coming up and down this thing?”

Last, but not at all least, people worry about the air and the water.

Sand processing uses some potentially harmful chemicals, and there have been spills.

“A couple of years ago, we had seven mines operating here,” recalls Kevin Lien, the county land-use director. “And all seven were cited… for stormwater-runoff events. All seven. So the track-record isn’t great.”

With air quality, the big concern is dust — tiny particles that can be deadly over the long term.

In 2013, the county board declared a one-year moratorium on new mining permits, and Malone worked with a committee that studied the issue.

“For some of them I think they got sadder,” she says. “And for some of them, they got angrier.”

Among other things, the committee’s 150-page report found that mining had affected wells near some mines— and wells supply all of the county’s drinking water. With air quality, the committee found there wasn’t enough monitoring to know how much dust residents might be exposed to.

Malone takes me down County Road Q, where Hi-Crush Partners operates Trempealeau’s newest and biggest mine. A mile-long conveyor belt crosses the 800-acre site— and passes over County Road Q like a viaduct. It takes sand from the mine to a rail spur that Hi-Crush has built.

Chad McEver, a Hi-Crush executive who develops and oversees new mines, says the conveyor saves money. “Not having to truck is a huge advantage when it comes to costs,” he says. Less diesel, no drivers.

He expects the conveyor is also less annoying for neighbors. “We plan on on being here for a long time,” says McEver. “So we want people to like us, and want us to be here.”

That means financial support for local projects, and it means McEver tries to be responsive when neighbors complain. “If there are legitimate concerns or issues, we always take care of it, no questions asked,” he says. “We believe as a company in trying  to treat people the way we’d want to be treated, and I can honestly say that’s what we do.”

However, that doesn’t mean the neighbors are happy. They’ve still got noise from blasting, lights at night, and lingering concerns about air and water.

Bill and Angela Sylla live and farm across County Road Q from Hi-Crush. Their sons are two and five years old. Water has become their biggest concern.

A pump feeding their chicken barn failed last summer, not long after the Hi-Crush mine opened. Bill says it was clogged with sand. Hi-Crush had the well tested, and traces of lead and arsenic showed up.

“When you put everything together, they said it’s an OK level,” says Angela Sylla, at her kitchen table while her sons angle for her attention. “So it’s not unsafe, but it’s there.”

Chad McEver says the mine hasn’t hurt the Syllas’ water. Pat Malone has looked at the data and says it’s not conclusive.

When Hi-Crush first showed up, some of the Syllas’ neighbors sold land to the mine, at a big premium. Bill had just moved home to take over the farm his family has run for generations.

Now, they’re isolated, sleepless, worried about the water.

“The depression a person suffers some days is astronomical,” says Bill. “Because you just don’t know where to go, what to do. What can you do? What should you do? What’s your best option? You don’t know.”

By an agreement with the local government, Hi-Crush would buy the Syllas’ house for a guaranteed price, but not the $500,000 chicken barn the family installed a few years ago, and not the 200 acres they farm. For now, they’re staying put.

“These facilities are not going to make everybody happy,” says Chad McEver. “There’s no question about it.”

On the other hand, he says, the mine contributes to the local economy. “Every day I think of new examples,” he says. “Our plants buying parts from the local auto-parts store, the local hardware store, or the local janitorial company that comes out and cleans the offices.”  

Pat Malone ran economic-impact numbers when the first mine showed up, and found a modest contribution. A mine’s biggest expenditures— on heavy machinery— can’t be made locally. “You are talking about some big, honking pieces of equipment,” she says. “Well, there’s no Massive Pieces of Equipment retail outlet in Trempealeau County.”

Similarly, the profits go elsewhere, says financial analyst Brandon Dobell, who watches the oil and gas industry for William Blair & Company. “The sand’s being sold someplace else,” he says. “No one is headquartered in Wisconsin. It’s not like Texas, which has benefitted from the gazillions of dollars going into these wells, and the taxes from the oil and gas.”

Swiss National Bank gives up the ghost

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2015-01-15 13:23

The Swiss Franc is the sixth most-traded currency on the planet, and it exploded in value this morning by 15 percent.

That's because the Swiss National Bank surprised just about everyone when it stopped trying to control the currency.  It had been holding the currency down in value starting in 2011 during the eurozone crisis.  Investors at the time, fleeing the instability of the euro, sought to put their money in Switzerland.  That bid up the price of Swiss francs, hurting exporters.

The Swiss National Bank had printed nearly half a trillion Swiss francs in its effort to buy up other currencies and devalue the franc.  The bank called it quits without explaining its decision.  Perhaps it was concerns over inflation or public pressure, or fears that all the investments it was making were exposing it to undue risk.  Whatever the reason, the effect was immediate.

Limited Insurance Choices Frustrate Patients In California

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 13:20

California is seen as an Obamacare success story. But tens of thousands of people in the northern part of the state have only one insurer available on the health plan exchange.

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Is U.S. Gaining Or Losing Ground Against ISIS?

NPR News - Thu, 2015-01-15 13:12

Is the U.S. gaining or losing ground in its bombing campaign against ISIS? Audie Cornish puts the question to Jennifer Cafarella, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

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