- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:



The Tennessean on state Rep. Jeremy Durham:

Democratic lawmaker Joe Armstrong is now a felon so it is more than appropriate to bind his fate together with his Republican colleague Jeremy Durham.

The disgraced legislators should both quit the Tennessee House of Representatives. If they fail to do so, legislators should come back to Nashville for a special session to expel them.

What a strong message that would send to the people of Tennessee that they deserve far better - and that their leaders will not tolerate corruption or abusive behavior.

Sadly, there is little appetite on Capitol Hill for a special session. Two petitions - one to consider expelling Durham and the other to consider expelling Durham and Armstrong - were drafted, but neither drew even half the needed 66 signatures by last Friday’s deadline.

“There was not anywhere near enough interest to come to special session,” said Cade Cothren, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus. He added that Caucus Chairman Glen Casada had no intention to revive it.

That is too bad.

The joint Durham-Armstrong petition was premature and should have been circulated only after a verdict was reached in the Armstrong case.

Practically speaking, resignation or expulsion would be purely symbolic. Neither man is coming back to the Tennessee General Assembly next year.

Armstrong, D-Knoxville, a 28-year veteran, can no longer seek to run for the state legislature because he was convicted of a felony.

He was found guilty Monday on a federal charge of filing a false tax return. A jury agreed with prosecutors on one of three counts. Armstrong failed to report $321,000 in income to the IRS that he made from the sale of cigarette tax stamps. He bought them before a tax increase - which he voted for - went into effect. Then, he sold them for a profit.

Durham, R-Franklin, was handily defeated in his primary battle against challenger Sam Whitson on Thursday.

The two-term legislator had suspended his campaign last month after a state attorney general’s report accused him of abusing his office through inappropriate sexual contact or harassment of 22 women. He had been deemed a danger to unsuspecting women and was banished by Speaker Beth Harwell to an office in another state building.

Lifetime benefits stand

Meanwhile, Durham and Armstrong are still eligible for lifetime pensions and lifetime health benefits for themselves and their families, even after they leave political office.

Lawmakers elected before a new law took effect July 1, 2015, qualify for those rich health benefits after having served just one term in office.

Durham and Armstrong were grandfathered into the old law, and Armstrong’s conviction does not affect his health benefits.

The legislative pension benefit kicks in after four full years in office.

If Durham fulfills the remainder of his term, he will qualify for it. Only by resigning or being expelled will that stop him from collecting a $4,130 annual pension from the state of Tennessee for the rest of his life.

A 2010 law barred lawmakers who are convicted of felonies from benefiting from lifetime pension benefits. However, because Armstrong was elected in 1988, that law does not apply to him.

The silver lining for voters is that he faces a prison sentence.

Still, the benefits Durham and Armstrong will be keeping should leave a bad taste in the mouths of voters.

Lawmakers should be ashamed if they do not give the expulsion petition another chance and act on it.

Neither Armstrong nor Durham deserve another day as a legislator.




Aug. 7

The Knoxville News Sentinel on capping ash ponds:

The Tennessee Valley Authority made the responsible choice in opting to cap its existing ash ponds at its coal plants instead of excavating them and sending the sludge to landfills.

Several environmental groups expressed outrage, but transporting the wet ash is riskier and much more expensive than leaving it in place, dewatering and capping the sludge, and monitoring the sites around the clock.

Coal ash once was little more than an afterthought, but it flooded the nation’s consciousness with the collapse of the wet ash storage pond at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant on Dec. 22, 2008. That incident dumped 5.4 million cubic yards of toxin-laden sludge into the Emory River and the Swan Pond community of Roane County.

In response, TVA decided to switch to dry storage at six coal-fired power plants in Alabama and Tennessee that use wet storage. The Kingston and Bull Run fossil plants have already made the conversion.

TVA then had to decide what to do with the wet ash ponds. The federally owned utility considered two options for closure - capping the ash in place or shipping the ash to a lined landfill.

Closure-in-place involves dewatering the ash and installing a cap over the site to prevent rainwater from filtering into the material and increasing the risk of groundwater pollution.

Removing the ash would eliminate the environmental concerns at the site, but it also would carry greater safety concerns - trucks can crash and trains can derail - and much higher costs.

There also can be public resistance. Much of the ash from the Kingston cleanup was shipped by rail to a landfill in rural Alabama, prompting accusations that depositing the material in the poor, predominantly black community amounted to discrimination.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed with TVA that closure-in-place should be the preferred alternative. TVA arrived at the decision after a year-long review of possible environmental impacts and taking public comments into account. No local, state or federal agency raised an objection.

Environmental groups criticized the decision, primarily because of worries over possible future groundwater contamination. Keith Johnston, at attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called the decision “unfortunate” and warned that it would guarantee groundwater contamination for decades to come.

“Essentially, it’s the status quo for TVA and the easiest and cheapest way out after decades of pollution,” he said. “They leave the burden of their pollution on the public and our environment.”

John McCormick, TVA vice president of Safety, River Management and Environment, said in a statement that TVA’s actions “are not harming human health or the environment.” He added that “digging up the coal ash and moving it someplace else has more potential environmental and safety impacts than closure-in-place and adds significantly more time and costs for our ratepayers,”

TVA will monitor the sites for at least 30 years. The utility built a $2 million Advanced Technology for Impoundment Monitoring center in Chattanooga to keep tabs on the sensors, weather and other factors that could affect the closed ash ponds. According to TVA, it is the only facility of its kind in the American utility industry.

Deciding to switch from wet storage to dry was obvious in light of the Kingston disaster. The cleanup of the Kingston spill took six years and cost TVA $1.134 billion, and TVA ratepayers will be paying a 59-cent surcharge on their utility bills each month until 2024.

The question of how best to close the ponds was more debatable because of groundwater contamination concerns, but when all factors - environmental, safety, cost - are considered, TVA made the right call. Opting to close and cap the ponds is a sensible solution to a problem with no guaranteed answers.




Aug. 5

The Johnson City Press on teen driving laws in Tennessee:

The authors of a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta say expanding restrictions on nighttime driving by unsupervised teenagers could save lives.

CDC researchers found that 57 percent of deadly crashes involving teen drivers happen an hour or two before midnight. Currently, laws are in place in 23 states and the District of Columbia that allow nighttime driving by unsupervised teenagers until midnight or later.

A report released in 2013 found Tennessee ranked in the top 10 states in the nation when it comes to deaths among drivers between the ages of 16-19. That ranking is disturbing in light of the laws passed by the state General Assembly in the last decade aimed at teen drivers.

One of those measures is a graduated driver’s license program that places certain restrictions on teens under the age of 18 who have learner permits and driver’s licenses. Unfortunately, statistics suggest Tennessee’s restrictions on teen drivers do not go far enough.

A teen driver in this state can obtain a learner’s permit at age 15 instead of 16 as recommended by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. That is certainly a problem that must be addressed by state lawmakers. It also appears Tennessee is too permissive when it comes to the hours teen drivers are allowed to spend on the highways. Teen driving is now permitted until 11 p.m. with an intermediate license. Some states restrict driving as early as 9 p.m.

One of the most glaring shortcomings of the current licensing system is Tennessee doesn’t require mandatory driver’s education. Such education would be beneficial in addressing what has become one of the most prevalent causes of teen deaths on the highway - driving while texting.



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