Key lawmaker urges higher education funding increases
Illinois House Higher Education Committee Chairman Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-Hillside) used a pair of public hearings on Southern Illinois University (SIU) campuses last week to help launch a drive for increases in state higher education funding.
“(Gov.) Bruce Rauner’s two-and-a-half-year budget impasse devastated higher education in Illinois,” Rep. Welch said following hearings Aug. 20 at SIU Carbondale and Aug. 21 at SIU Edwardsville. Payment delays, prompted by the budget stalemate, served to compound the effects of steadily declining levels of state support for higher education over recent years, he says.
The plea for overall increased spending on colleges and universities come as the two SIUE campuses feud over the allocation of existing state funding to the SIU system — currently divided with the Carbondale campus receiving 64 percent and the Edwardsville campus getting 36 percent.
Metro East lawmakers have introduced a trio of bills, calling variously for division of the two SIU campuses into two separate universities, an even split in state funding to the campus, and reorganization of the SIU Board of Trustees to ensure equal representation between the Carbondale and Edwardsville areas.
The SIUE Board of Trustees is hiring a consultant to conduct a study. Fearing that study will be biased, State Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) – a former SIU Edwardsville mathematics instructor – is circulating petitions for an independent study by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
During last week’s hearing at SIU Carbondale, State Rep. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) emphasized the importance of that campus as a key driver of the regional economy. The Carbondale campus is older and faces more deferred maintenance costs, she added.
Several speakers during the following day’s SIU Edwardsville hearing called for a “fair” distribution of funding and noted that student enrollment in Edwardsville, this semester, is expected to exceed the traditionally larger enrollment at the Carbondale campus.
Military first: non-Air Force officer leads TRANSCOM
For the first time ever, a non-Air Force officer leads the American military’s largely aviation-oriented unified transportation command.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen R. Lyons took charge of the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) during an Aug. 24 ceremony at Scott Air Force Base, the command’s headquarters. Lyons was also promoted to the rank of general during the ceremony.
He relieves U.S. Air Force Gen. Darren W. McDew, who retired Friday after 36 years of military service.
Gen. Lyons has been serving as the Deputy Commanding General for USTRANSCOM), assigned as the Director for Logistics on the Joint Staff. He previously served as the Commanding General, Combined Arms Support Command, the Sustainment Center of Excellence (SCoE), as well as the Senior Mission Commander for Fort Lee, Virginia.
He was nominated for promotion to general and assignment as commander of U.S. Transportation Command in April and subsequently confirmed by the Senate.
USTRANSCOM is a global combatant command with functional responsibilities for air, land and sea transportation for the Department of Defense, ultimately charged with delivering combat forces anywhere in the world.
Environmental remediation slatted for Wood River
Houston-based Phillips 66 has agreed to implement nearly $11 million in pollution controls at its Wood Rover Refinery; settling a law suit filed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The suit alleges that operational changes at the Wood River refinery in 2009 led to more than a dozen violations of the federal Clean Air Act; specifically, emissions of dangerous chemicals including sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and benzene.
As part of the settlement, the oil company also agreed to pay a $475,000 fine and conduct a $500,000 project to decrease lead paint hazards at certain homes and buildings.
The refinery is jointly owned by Phillips 66 and Cenovus Energy, through their WRB Refining partnership, but is operated by Phillips 66.
The facility processes a mix of light, low-sulfur oils; heavy, high-sulfur oils; and high-acid crude oils, from the U.S., Canadian, and other foreign sources. It produces mostly transportation fuels — such as gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels — but also petrochemical feedstocks, asphalt and coke.
Delaware-based Premcor Refining Group Inc., meanwhile, has settled a lawsuit filed by Illinois State Attorney General Lisa Madigan over soil and groundwater contamination caused by spills and leaks of gasoline and other petroleum products at its now-closed Harford-area refinery.
The settlement, announced Aug. 20, resolves years of litigation brought against the refinery in Madison County Circuit Court by the state and the Madison County State’s Attorney’s office.
The State Attorney General’s office filed suit in 2003 against Premcor and the refinery’s previous owner, St. Louis-based Apex Oil, based on evidence of state law violations uncovered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA).
As a result of the lawsuit, Premcor has completed an extensive on-site investigation, as well as some contaminant removal, under the direction of the IEPA, according to a statement from Attorney General Lisa Madigan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has overseen contamination cleanup in the nearby Hartford community.
Under the settlement, Premcor will now fund and complete a massive cleanup “that is expected to last many years” according to the attorney general’s statement.
The consent order includes a detailed clean-up plan with extensive IEPA oversight. The company also must pay $500,000 in civil penalties and costs to the state.
The attorney general’s office previously reached a settlement with Apex that required the company to pay $10 million into a trust fund established to support a portion of clean-up and remediation activities.
Paramedic supervisor’s drug theft conviction brings procedure changes
Former MedStar Ambulance paramedic supervisor Jason Laut, 41, of O’Fallon, was sentenced to nine years and three months in prison, Aug. 21, after being convicted in East St. Louis federal court of stealing narcotics from ambulances.
Laut was convicted by a jury in November 2017 on 38 charges, including wire fraud, making false statements on narcotics logs, aggravated identify theft, and tampering with a consumer product.
As a result of the thefts, patients on Southwester Illinois ambulances, for several years, may have received tainted or infective pain relief injections. For three years, ambulance patients were denied access to medicine’s most powerful pain reliever, because supervisors had removed it due to fears over diversion.
According to the U.S Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Illinois, Laut, between January 2013 and May 2015, took morphine and fentanyl from ambulances, and then changed or falsified records to cover up the thefts.
To obtain fentanyl, he used a syringe to extract the drugs from sealed vails and replaced it with saline or other liquids, U.S. Attorneys say.
A 2015 investigation found 26 out of 28 vials on Medstar Ambulances had tampered fentanyl vials.
During court proceedings, prosecutors presented 82 such vials, discovered and removed from active duty ambulances throughout the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Southwestern Illinois EMS System.
Investigators were unable to determine definitively how many patients may have received treatment from the adulterated vials, prosecutors say.
However, at Laut’s sentencing, a representative of Memorial Hospital Belleville, the Southwestern EMS System’s hub, testified that paramedics in the field had reported cases in which the fentanyl they were administering appeared to be ineffective at relieving pain.
At the time evidence of the tampering was first discovered, narcotics boxes were regularly shared among the ambulance companies in the area, which meant tampered vials could be reintroduced by unsuspecting pharmacists and paramedics onto ambulances owned and operated by various companies.
Fearing drug diversion, medical directors, not just at MedStar but at ambulance services across the region, were forced to remove fentanyl from ambulances, while a three-year-long investigation was in progress.
During a sentencing hearing, one paramedic testified that over those three years, five of his patients, who could not receive morphine because of allergies, received virtually no pain relief because the fentanyl had been removed from his ambulance.
As a result of the thefts, procedures for handling narcotics boxes in Southwest Illinois have now been changed, prosecutors note.
–Metro East Area News Briefs–