Header

Archive for State News – Page 2

Conditions Improving, But Temperatures/Ice Still Pose Danger

While the threat of a major snow and ice storm may have passed, State Emergency Response Team officials say they are remaining vigilant and responsive.

“The situation is improving, but that does not mean that conditions have returned to normal,” said Public Safety Secretary Frank L. Perry. “People still need to be cautious whether they are out driving or walking. The black ice is a very real threat and should be taken seriously.”

Perry said state and local emergency management officials are still coordinating response to the storm and State Highway Patrol troopers will continue to have increased patrols at least through Saturday to ensure no motorists are left stranded in the dangerously low temperatures.

While ice accumulations were not as severe as predicted, most of the state remains under a Winter Weather Advisory due to dangerous black ice. Temperatures are expected to rise above freezing this afternoon allowing some of the ice to melt. But a brief chance of scattered snow showers combined with below freezing temperatures statewide for the next few days will leave many secondary roads, streets, driveways and yards in ice skating rink-like condition.

Law Enforcement Commissioner Gregory K. Baker also thanked state agencies for a tremendous job coordinating together to respond to the winter storm and for their extra efforts to ensure that no motorists were left stranded overnight in freezing temperatures.

“North Carolinians largely heeded our warnings to stay off the roads,” said Highway Patrol Commander Bill Grey. “Following that advice has greatly reduced the number of wrecks and injuries from what we’ve seen in previous storms.”

Overnight, Highway Patrol troopers responded to nearly 100 calls for service statewide, well below average. Troopers typically respond to approximately 1,000 calls daily.

National Guard soldiers, Wildlife officers, Alcohol Law Enforcement agents and DOT roadside assistance patrols also have assisted motorists.

By 11 a.m., the utilities reported about 12,200 power outages statewide, mostly in the Southeastern and Sandhills areas.

Governor McCrory lifted the State of Emergency late Tuesday. The truck weight and hours of service restriction waivers that also were signed earlier this week are still in effect as companies continue to move fuel, propane and other goods to recover from the winter storm. The waiver is in effect for 30 days or until it is canceled.

NCDOT has scraped or treated with salt and sand nearly all the interstates and four-lane divided highways. Crews will finish the primary routes today then shift their focus to secondary roads. Even with treatment, icy spots will remain especially on bridges and overpasses.

The department currently has 2,474 NCDOT employees responding to the effects of the winter storm statewide. They are using 1,316 trucks loaded with plows and spreaders and 213 motor graders to clear the roads of snow and ice. Since Monday, crews have put down 38,555 tons of salt and 9,061 tons of salt-sand mix on the roads.

Real-time weather and road conditions, as well as winter safety tips, can be found on the free ReadyNC mobile app or on line at www.readync.org web site.

Travelers are urged to call 511, follow NCDOT’s Twitter accounts or go to www.ncdot.org for up to date roadway conditions. Motorists are reminded NOT to call 911 or the State Highway Patrol Communication Centers for roadway conditions; those lines must remain clear for emergency calls.

Report Examines North Carolina Economic Incentive Programs

A bill is expected in the State Assembly as early as this week for a new jobs plan at the urging of Governor Pat McCrory. But it comes on the heels of a new report that 60% of those projects under the Job Development Investment Grant (J-DIG) Program have failed to deliver what they promised.

That’s according to the North Carolina Justice Center and the report’s author, Allan Freyer, who questions the allocation of additional funds, “If there were any other program in state government that failed 60% of the time, the Legislature would have eliminated it already.”

The J-DIG program has a spending cap of $22,500,000 annually. Recently, more than half the money was awarded to MetLife in Charlotte, which Freyer points out reduces availability of funds for other, smaller companies in rural communities where jobs are badly needed. The report says 90% of J-DIG dollars have gone to urban communities and more than 77% of projects approved in rural communities have failed.

Supporters of the J-DIG program say it enables the state to compete with others for new projects or expansions with existing employers. The money is not awarded to companies until they fulfill their promise of added jobs, but Freyer points out the money for J-DIG is still a line item in the budget and cannot be allocated to other proven programs, “It’s less money that’s available for the real building blocks of economic growth like education, job training, industrial and transportation infrastructure. These are the types of investments that actually promote broadly shared economic growth that benefits everyone in the state.”

The report recommends the state examine why so many incentive programs are failing, improve the evaluation process before projects are approved, and focus incentives in industries predicted to experience the largest growth.

Highway Patrol Offers Simple Winter Driving Tips As Potential Winter Weather Approaches

With the potential of winter and the possibility that motorists may
have to drive in inclement weather, the Highway Patrol is offering simple
and safe driving tips. The weather in North Carolina is often times
unpredictable and this time of year you never know when to expect black ice,
snow, icy roads or a mixture of road conditions. The Highway Patrol is
asking motorists to be prepared as the potential winter storm approaches.

“Winter weather brings new obstacles and responsibilities that the motoring
public will experience anytime inclement weather moves into our state.
Despite a rather mild winter so far, North Carolina’s weather can often
change from one day to the next,” says Patrol spokesman, Lt. Jeff Jeff
Gordon. It’s important that we monitor this weather system and plan
accordingly.”

Here are a few simple steps to help keep you on the road and less anxious:

Avoid travel unless necessary when winter weather is in your area.
Decrease speed.
Wear your seatbelt.
Driving Considerations

Leave Early- allow more travel time; expect delays.
Increase distance between vehicles – it takes significantly longer to stop
on snow covered or icy roadways.
Clear all windows on your vehicle prior to travel – having unobstructed
vision is vital to avoid running off of the road or having a collision.
Illuminate your vehicles headlamps.
Use caution on bridges and overpasses as they susceptible to freezing before
roadways. Avoid using cruise control – cruise can cause the vehicle’s wheels
to continue turning on a slippery surface when speed needs to be decreased.

Be Prepared – ensure your vehicle has a full tank of gas in the event you
are stranded for an extended period of time.
Charge your cellular phone prior to departure.
Take a blanket.
Notify a family member or a friend of your travel plans prior to departure –
if you travel is interrupted, someone will know.

Collision Information- first, be patient. Winter weather also limits our
capabilities and increases our response time; also, keep in mind that we
will be experiencing a high volume of requests for service. Attempt to move
your vehicle out of the roadway if you are involved in a minor, non-injury
traffic collision; especially if you are in a dangerous area such as a curve
or a blind hill. If your vehicle is stranded or wrecked but not in the
roadway, attempts to recover your vehicle will have to wait until conditions
improve for safety considerations.

Road Conditions – to check the status of road conditions, motorists are
asked to go to the Department of Transportation’s website at
http://www.ncdot.gov/travel/. The public is not advised to dial 911 or the
Highway Patrol Communication Centers for road conditions.

However, citizens can contribute to highway safety by reporting erratic
drivers to the Highway Patrol by dialing *Hp or *47 on their cellular
phones. Callers will remain anonymous and should give a description of the
vehicle, location, direction of travel and license number if possible.

Golden LEAF commits $50 million to entice auto manufacturer

The Golden LEAF Foundation Board of Directors announced today that it reserved $50 million to provide support for the location of an automobile manufacturing facility within the borders of North Carolina.

“The state is readying itself to win and host this type of manufacturing industry,” said Johnathan Rhyne, Chair of the Golden LEAF Board of Directors. “The Golden LEAF Board took this action to demonstrate its commitment to this emerging opportunity. An automobile manufacturer and its suppliers can create thousands of jobs and serve as a catalyst for long-term economic advancement.”

Since its inception, Golden LEAF has been committed to using the funds entrusted to it for projects with the most potential for bolstering North Carolina’s long-term economy, especially in tobacco-dependent, economically distressed, and/or rural communities.

“The committed Golden LEAF funds are not earmarked for a specific site or company, but to a site that an automobile manufacturer has indicated is its preferred North Carolina location,” said Dan Gerlach, Golden LEAF President. “The Foundation generally does not make a single grant of this magnitude, but recognizes the transformative potential of attracting this industry. The Board’s commitment is equal to a year and a half of our current grantsmaking budget, conveying the seriousness and aggressiveness that will be required to be successful.”

As a public charity, Golden LEAF funds can be used for costs associated with project needs such as public infrastructure and workforce training.

Taken for a Ride? Subprime Auto Loans Driving Consumers to Bad Credit

Trends have been found in auto lending that look an awful lot like the mortgage market prior to the meltdown that resulted in the recession. Those trends are featured in a new report from the Center for Responsible Lending. The report focuses on the growth of subprime lending … loans to people with poor credit scores.

The center’s Chris Kukla explains there are several issues at play – cars are more expensive and wages are stagnant. Plus, he says dealers are rewarded for issuing loans at inflated interest rates – an undisclosed practice called a dealer markup, “You’re already underwater by 40 percent to half the minute you drive off the lot, but you’ve also got a depreciating asset. Most people, they’re going to be underwater the entire time that they’re in the loan.”

Kukla contends that subprime loans are not only dangerous to a family’s economic health, but in the long run it hurts car dealers as well, because consumers upside-down in long-term loans aren’t repeat customers.

The report found the use of subprime loans for cars has grown quite suddenly, and there’s been a corresponding uptick in car and truck repossessions.

Kukla says consumers may think they have protections, but the industry has been aggressive in averting regulation – especially at the state level, “This is an area where there has been very little, if any, real consumer protections put in place, when you compare it to any other lending market.”

Those against regulations say stricter rules could make it tougher for people with sub-par credit to find auto loans with payments that work within their budget.

Group: Big Macs, McNuggets Should Be Sold Without Antibiotics

gr-44209-1-1The company known for its “Golden Arches” is being asked to make its burgers, chicken nuggets and other menu items antibiotic-free. It’s estimated that nearly 70% of all antibiotics sold in the US are used in raising livestock and poultry. McDonald’s sells more than 1,000,000,000 pounds of beef each year, and Pamela Clough with the watchdog US Public Interest Research Group says if the fast-food giant required its suppliers to stop raising meat with antibiotics, it would prompt sweeping changes in the industry, “If they were to make this change, it would be the equivalent of banning antibiotics in meat production in a small country. And so, if they make this commitment, it could really change the paradigm of the market and make antibiotic-free meat more affordable and more accessible for everybody”

Some medical experts say the overuse of antibiotics is creating antibiotic-resistant infections that are serious public health threats. McDonald’s says it recognizes the importance of combating antibiotic resistance and an update to its policy on antibiotic use in food animals is due out this year.

Other restaurants, including Panera and Chipotle, say they already use only antibiotic-free meats, and the Chick-fil-A chain has made a commitment to only purchase chicken raised without antibiotics by 2020. In 2003, McDonald’s implemented a policy about antibiotics, but Clough says it didn’t go far enough, “It only applied to some suppliers, and didn’t require even these suppliers to only purchase meat raised without antibiotics. It had to do with antibiotics used for growth promotion versus disease prevention. In the end, we need stronger action.”

The fast food giant announced last year that it will start transitioning to sustainable beef by 2016, but Clough says it wasn’t specific about the definition of “sustainable.”

Calls Today to End Corporate Influence in Elections

Protest events are planned around the nation today to mark the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United ruling by the US Supreme Court. The ruling removed limits on the amount of money an independent organization can spend on political campaigns.

Adam Sotak with Democracy North Carolina says the result is that millionaires and billionaires have greater influence over elections at every level of government, “We the people need to be in the driver’s seat of our elections, not wealthy special interests who are able to hide behind shadow groups and spend exorbitant amounts of money.”

A recent report on campaign spending on Senate races by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since Citizens United, spending by outside groups has doubled. In 2014, North Carolina’s Senate race received attention for the most outside money, with groups spending $80,000,000.

Stephen Spaulding with the nonpartisan group Common Cause, says political campaign spending from undisclosed sources topped $170,000,000 dollars in 2014, and was more than $300,000,000 during the 2012 presidential election, “And we’re well over $500 million money that is untraceable, that has been dumped into our elections, that otherwise likely would not have been spent, but for Citizens United.”

Spaulding says the impact of Citizens United could be reduced or even eliminated with tougher disclosure laws for independent campaign spending. He also thinks lawmakers should support a constitutional amendment giving Congress and the states the power to regulate campaign spending and require full disclosure of its sources.

Medicaid Expansion Not Yet Off the Table in NC

Despite opposition from some state lawmakers, Medicaid expansion is not off the table in North Carolina. At the start of the 2015 legislative session last week, Senate President Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) both dismissed the idea of expansion. But Governor McCrory has said he would be open to the idea if federal officials allow the state to develop its own plan.

Nicole Dozier with the NC Justice Center’s Health Access Coalition says it’s time for leaders to listen to the people, “Lawmakers are elected to serve the people who entrust that leadership in them. The leadership is saying there’s no case for it, they’re not convinced, but the counties they come from there are people there who say they do need it.”

Dozier says Medicaid expansion would extend health insurance to nearly 500 thousand people and would bring money into communities. And if it had happened in 2014, she says over 370 new jobs would have been created in Berger’s district of Rockingham County; and over 500 jobs in Moore’s district of Cleveland County.

Opponents of expansion say it would still increase the state’s already overrun Medicaid expenses, but Dozier argues the federal government would take on the bulk of the initial cost, “Lawmakers say that the Medicaid system is broken, it’s a big part of the budget and it is. But the system isn’t broken and any system can always be improved, and if you bring the federal dollars down you have the money to reform it.”

She adds the federal government has allowed flexibility in expansion. The majority of the 26 states that accepted federal funds last year did so through a state plan amendment option, or the continuation of a waiver.

TDozier says she’s heard from many people around the state who cannot afford health insurance, but need it for themselves and their families so they can stay healthy and live a productive life, “For folks to not be eligible for help because they make too little who work every day, who are in construction, and in home health industry, and food and beverage. Those are the stories that break my heart, the people who deserve access to health care.

At 24%, North Carolina has one of the highest rates of uninsured adults in the nation.

North Carolina Honors Dr. King through the Lens of Service

The life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be remembered and honored today through acts of service in North Carolina and around the country. The federal holiday became a national day of service in 1994.

Samantha Warfield, with the Corporation for National and Community Service, says every year, more and more people become engaged and want to give back to their community, “Young people have grown up in school learning about what Dr. King does through the lens of service, whether through service learning projects or through history lessons. And we hope that Dr. King would be proud of a day that’s named in his honor and the work that’s being done.”

Tag: In North Carolina, schools, universities, businesses, and community organizations are hosting service events around the state. Volunteers are doing a variety of projects including sorting donations at food pantries, delivering meals to home-bound individuals, creating care packages for the homeless, and cleaning up neighborhoods.

Natasha Wayne with the United Way of the Greater Triangle says they are hosting nearly 40 projects today throughout the area. She says the day allows groups and organizations to step outside of their own mission and join others in common cause, “MLK Day is a day of service allows everyone to come together and further the vision and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, helping us to transform our community into a stronger, more powerful place.”

Wayne says engaging children and students in the MLK Day of Service can lead to a lifetime of giving back to their community, “Oftentimes the problems that we face as a community feel very overwhelming, but it’s important to help, particularly students, understand that every little bit that you do is helping. That way they kind of grow up with that and then feel part of their community from the beginning.”

According to a recent report, North Carolinians contributed nearly $5,000,000,000 of service through more than 211 million hours of volunteering in 2013.

Texas Hearing Has Implications for North Carolina’s Immigrants

North Carolina is among states involved in the national battle over immigration reform, with a court hearing today in Texas on a lawsuit filed over President Obama’s executive action. About two dozen states, including North Carolina, are seeking an injunction against the plan, claiming it’s unconstitutional.

But Hector Vaca with Action NC says removing the threat of deportation for certain undocumented workers, students and their parents – which is what the president’s order does – is vital for future financial stability, “This would also mean more people would be able to come out of the shadows and contribute to the local economy by purchasing. And it would also means stronger workers rights for immigrants and for everybody else. The governor and the 25 states that are suing, it sounds to us like they just don’t understand it.”

An estimated 120,000 people in North Carolina would qualify for the president’s executive action, which Vaca says would generate about $170,000,000 in tax revenue in five years.

Vaca says this battle playing out in the courts again points to the need for Congress to act on comprehensive, just and realistic immigration reform. He says another benefit, beyond the economic impact and the impact on these families, is that North Carolina’s roads would be safer, “If these people could get this executive action, they would be able to qualify for driver’s licenses, which means more people would be buying car insurance, therefore more people would be insured on the road.”

Under Obama’s executive order, up to 5,000,000 immigrants would be eligible to stay in the country under the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs.

Petco pulls China-made food, treats from shelves

Petco has begun the New Year by quickly fulfilling one of its main resolutions — Removing all dog and cat treats made in China from its store shelves and website.

The past few years have brought headlines of tens of thousands of American pets becoming ill after eating Chinese-produced pet food; and over 1,000 pets have actually died after consuming these contaminated treats.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to investigate the link between pet sickness and treats made in China, Petco has made good on its promise to remove these treats from its 1,300 stores across the nation as well as its website. Vets from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have faced this issue before and speak to the history of problems with pet treats produced in China as well as the ongoing efforts to provide American pets with safe food. Here are some answers to questions that may surface from these new headlines:

Is Petco the only retailer to pull Chinese-produced pet foods?

While Petco is the first to pull Chinese-produced pet treats, it has been reported that PetSmart, Inc is going to follow in its footsteps and pull these treats later in 2015.

How can pet owners make sure the food they are giving their pets is safe?

While further investigation is underway about China-made chow, the safest bet is to purchase domestically produced pet food and treats. A vet will be able to give pet owners safe and appropriate recommendations for their pet’s diet.

What are some of the symptoms to lookout for in case pets have eaten these treats in the past?

While the investigation into these treats is still underway, the FDA has advised pet owners that symptoms can include: vomiting, decreased appetite and movement, increased urination, and water consumption. Some of the more severe symptoms have led to the diagnoses of kidney failure, gastrointestinal bleeding and pancreatitis.

For more information about pet food safety, visit www.AVMA.org

Gov. McCrory’s Financial Ties Questioned in Ethics Complaint

As he enters the second half of his term this week, Governor Pat McCrory is facing allegations of ethics violations. Progress North Carolina Action filed an ethics complaint against the governor, accusing him of failing to disclose ownership of stock in Duke Energy, failing to report income from Tree.com, and failing to report he was on the board of Tree.com.

Progress North Carolina Action executive director Gerrick Brenner says it shows a pattern of omission and incomplete answers that covers up conflicts of interest, “This is not some mid-level bureaucrat in state government who failed to report rental income. This is the chief executive of the ninth largest state in the country who campaigned on transparency and open and clean government, and his ethics forms are a mess.”

McCrory has previously denied any wrongdoing, and when questioned about the complaint at a news conference Monday, the governor said it would be inappropriate to respond to what he called ‘a left-wing, very closed-eyed group.’

The complaint also alleges discrepancies in how the governor describes his relationship with the firm McCrory and Company. Brenner says public documents and the firm’s own website describe the governor as a “partner,” while McCrory has only described himself as a “consultant.” “Calling himself only a consultant, he doesn’t have to answer key questions on the Statement of Economic Interest which would reveal and acknowledge that McCrory and Co. has business dealings with the state, which raises concerns about other conflicts of interest.”

Brenner says it’s a felony to intentionally fail to disclose financial interests on Statements of Economic Interest, and adds that he hopes the State Ethics Commission launches an investigation.

Turn that gift card into a gift, soon

Gift cards you got over the holidays should be considered cash that needs to be spent, and sooner rather than later.

If you set a gift card aside planning to use it in the future, you could be out of luck. The store could go out of business, or close the location near you making it more difficult to shop. You could misplace the card, or forget that you have it.

Gift cards can also lose their value over time. By law, gift cards are good for 5 years from the date of purchase. But merchants can begin charging a monthly inactivity fee if the card hasn’t been used within a year after it was bought.

Don’t let that happen. Instead, turn that little plastic card into a little something for yourself, as soon as you can.

Get more information about gift cards, and if you feel that you’ve been treated unfairly by a merchant, file a consumer complaint with our office at www.ncdoj.gov or call us toll-free within North Carolina at 1-877-NO-SCAM.

AMBER Alerts on Facebook

The North Carolina Center for Missing Persons, which issues AMBER Alerts in this state, welcomes a new partnership with Facebook to help find missing children.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children joined with Facebook to send AMBER Alerts to the social network’s community to help find missing children. Facebook’s distribution system will send AMBER Alerts to user’s News Feeds.

“Getting detailed information to the public quickly improves dramatically the ability to find an abducted child,” said Lt. Jeff Gordon, director of the N.C. Center for Missing Persons. “When the community is able to report sightings of the child, the suspect or the vehicle, especially in the first few hours, law enforcement are better able to find and recover the child safely.

Facebook authorities say that for most people, the alerts will be rare because they will only go to people within the designated search area. If a Facebook user does get an alert, it means there is an active search for an abducted child going on in that area. The alert will provide the critical information needed to potentially help reunite a child with his or her family.

Last year, an 11-year-old girl was safely recovered after a South Carolina motel employee recognized a photo of the girl in an AMBER alert she saw on Facebook. The woman called the police, and the child was found unharmed. Similar word-of-mouth efforts inspired Facebook to develop a more systematic way to help find missing children.

The AMBER Alert system issues media alerts when a law enforcement agency determines that a child was abducted and is in imminent danger.

Here’s how Facebook will complement existing AMBER Alert distribution systems:

1) Reach – Facebook’s distribution system will get the AMBER Alert to everyone who is logged into Facebook (on both mobile and desktop) during the alert if they are within the designated search area as specified by law enforcement.
2) Comprehensive Information – the alert will include important details about the child such as a photo, description, location of the abduction, and any other available information that can be provided to the public to aid in the search for the missing child.
3) Community Involvement – the Facebook system enables people to share the alert with friends and link to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for the most up-to-date information about the case.

AMBER Alerts are a child abduction alert system that started in the United States in 1996. AMBER stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and was named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas.

The decision to declare an AMBER Alert in North Carolina is made by the N.C. Center for Missing Persons. Information in an AMBER Alert usually includes the name and description of the abductee, a description of the suspected abductor, and a description and license plate number of the abductor’s vehicle.

Public Meetings in North Carolina Over Controversial Pipeline

Public meetings are underway this week in North Carolina on a proposed project that is already spurring a legal battle in Virginia. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be 550 miles long, and carry one-and-a-half billion cubic feet of natural gas a day through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

Professor Peter Swartz studies energy policy and environmental issues at UNC Charlotte and says despite environmental concerns, in North Carolina, the benefits of the pipeline seem to outweigh the costs, “Resistance is coming from those who are bearing the costs but aren’t getting much in the way of the benefits – western Virginia, the area near the Shenandoah Valley. That is obviously a beautiful area and it’s not going to be enhanced by having a pipeline through it.”

Dominion is suing dozens of the hundreds of Virginia landowners who are refusing to allow the company to survey for the pipeline. Landowners in North Carolina have been less resistant, with only a few refusals. Dominion is leading public meetings about the project Wednesday in Smithfield, and Thursday in Jackson.

Swartz says the natural gas the pipeline would carry could stabilize electricity costs, provide an alternative to coal plants, and improve the economy in the eastern part of North Carolina. But its fate may come down to the outcome of the legal battle in Virginia, where Swartz says landowners are putting up a good fight, “They have every reason to fight it. Even if they don’t think they’re going to ultimately prevail, landowners will then get greater compensation for allowing the pipeline, and they’ll probably also get greater expense put on trying to make sure that the chance of damage is as small as possible.”

According to Dominion, laws in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia allow the company to access private land to survey.

Radon Testing in North Carolina

As the turning of the seasons brings colder weather and North Carolinians snuggle in their households keeping doors and windows closed to stay warm, it is an excellent time to make plans for home radon testing.

Radon is the odorless, colorless gas that is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Each year up to 22,000 deaths in the U.S. are attributed to radon-induced lung cancer. Roughly 54 percent of those diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer are expected to live no more than five years after diagnosis.

The Radon Program, part of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, provides information to families and homeowners about radon gas. Information includes how to test for radon gas and how to lower the radon levels within a home. Lowering the radon levels in a home lowers the risk of lung cancer.

Eighty-three agencies and organizations across North Carolina are partnering with the Radon Program during January – National Radon Action Month – to provide free short-term radon test kits. Limited supplies of test kits are being made available locally at each of the sites, listed on the Radon Program website: www.ncradon.org. Nearly 7,000 kits are being distributed statewide. Only one kit is needed per home to determine if your home radon level requires action.

The Radon Program also offers the free kits via its website. Once the supply of free kits has been exhausted, the Radon Program website will provide radon test kits at a reduced cost of $5.34 while supplies last. Kits cost about $15 at retail outlets.

The program’s website includes a new radon map application. The application provides information about the number of tests that have been conducted within a zip code as well as the highest radon level recorded in that zip code. The app also links to a list of certified professionals who can assist in testing or fixing the radon issue in tested homes that return readings above a safe level.

Costs for lowering home radon levels average about $1,500. The N.C. Radon Protection Section provides information on its web page for families who may qualify for financial assistance to meet that expense. For more information visit www.ncradon.org and select Financial Assistance from the navigation aid in the left margin.

Do New Solar Rules for NC Allow for Slow-Walking Contracts?

 Rules for solar power in North Carolina remain intact under an order the state Utilities Commission recently released. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rules for solar power in North Carolina remain intact under an order the state Utilities Commission recently released. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

As North Carolinians rang in the New Year, state regulators released long-anticipated rules for solar power in the state. Solar developers wanted expanded eligibility for contracts, and utilities proposed measures that would limit access. The state Utilities Commission rejected both proposals and kept the basic framework for solar the same.

egal counsel with NC WARN, John Runkle, says the issue at hand is that the real value of solar is not being recognized, and the rules allow Duke Energy to slow-walk contract and interconnection negotiations, “A contract might take six months, eight months, nine months. Rather than, I mean it’s a pretty well understood technology. As much money as you want to spend on solar, there’s someone willing to put up a good solid solar system for you.”

Runkle says the price of solar has gone down considerably, and there is great potential to expand it around the state. But he adds that without timely contracts and consistent rates, investors can become discouraged and turn away from profitable solar projects.

Duke has been cited as saying it does support solar development, and a spokesman recently pointed to the 278 megawatts of solar capacity the utility has contracted to build or buy power from this year. But Runkle says just four percent of Duke’s projected total sales are solar, and he adds that much more solar power would be available if the company would offer standard contracts in a timely fashion, “Last year NC WARN and some other organizations put solar panels on 250 rooftops. If there were a way to do that more efficiently we could easily double that, triple that, and the big companies could put on a considerable more amount of solar.”

According to a recent report from Environment North Carolina, solar grew 127% between 2010 and 2013. It also found that the state has the potential to produce more than 30 times as much electricity from solar power as the state consumes each year.

Beware of Flu Symptoms

Along with New Year celebrations, January brings a warning from local doctors that this is one of the most active months for the flu. With the CDC announcing that the flu has reached empidemic levels, AFC/Doctors Epxress physicians want to raise awareness about the difference between the flu and a “stomach bug” so people know when it’s time to see the doctor and when they can take care of their sympoms at home.

One of the biggest myths about the flu is that is causes vomitting. But the flu is actually a highly contagious respiratory disease and vomiting is not on the list of flu symptoms. Our doctors have been seeing several different stomach bugs (gastroenteritis) go around which are contagious infections of the stomach and intestines.

Symptoms of the flu:

fever
headache
muscle aches
sore throat
cough
chills
runny nose
fatigue
*The biggest danger of the flu is that it wears your body’s ability to fight other infections that you may get while you have the flu, such as pneumonia. Sometimes these infections can cause death.

Symptoms of the “stomach bug:” (gastroenteritis)

nausea
vomiting and/or diarrhea
possible fever
*Most people recover completely. Stomach bugs can be serious for infants and the elderly who are unable to drink enough fluids to replace what they lose through vomiting and/or diarrhea.

According to the CDC, flu activity is “high” in nearly half the country. And, the past 32 flu seasons have shown that February is the most active month for the flu, followed by December and then January.

Smoke-free Law Continues to Return Benefits After Five Years

Friday, Jan. 2, marks the fifth anniversary of North Carolina’s smoke-free restaurants and bars law. The smoke-free law prohibits smoking in enclosed areas of most restaurants and bars, with limited exceptions for private clubs and some cigar bars.

The health outcome results for this law are significant and impressive, especially in such a short period of time, according to Ruth Petersen, M.D., M.P.H., chief of the Chronic Disease and Injury Section of the N.C. Division of Public Health.

“During the first year of the law, North Carolina saw a 21 percent drop in average weekly emergency department visits for heart attacks. Further studies demonstrate the law has improved air quality in North Carolina restaurants and bars and reduced emergency department visits for asthma attacks.”

An additional benefit of the smoke-free law is the reduced exposure to secondhand smoke, a known risk factor for cancer, heart disease, stroke and asthma. In 2006, a report issued by the United States Surgeon General stated that scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

“The smoke-free law was an important milestone for North Carolina,” said Cumberland County Health Director Buck Wilson, incoming president of the N.C. Association of Local Health Directors. “The law changed the way we look at smoking and secondhand smoke. It’s hard to imagine going backwards; people in North Carolina really enjoy their smoke-free restaurants and bars.”

The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA) worked to help pass the statewide law, which not only prohibits smoking indoors in virtually all restaurants and bars, but also specifies that no more than 20 percent of a lodging establishment’s guest rooms may be designated for smoking.

“NCRLA is proud to support this initiative, which improves the health and well-being of North Carolina hospitality patrons and employees,” said NCLRA President and CEO Lynn Minges. “The smoke-free law has helped create a safer, more pleasant atmosphere in our state’s bars and restaurants without harming our industry’s bottom line.”

Make a Plan: Tips to Stay Safe at New Year’s Parties

Nationwide, as many as 800 people die in car crashes involving a drunk driver every December. It’s why this month is one of the most dangerous times on the nation’s roads and why organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving are working hard to make sure people take precautions so they don’t hurt themselves or someone else.

Jan Withers is the national president of MADD, “We know too much now. We all know about designated drivers. We all know the dangers, but the key is not to decide after you’ve had some alcohol in your system. We really need to make a sober decision – before we ever start drinking – how we’re going to get home safely.”

Last year, 366 people died in drunk-driving accidents in North Carolina, costing the state more than two-billion dollars. Withers says in addition to planning for your own safe ride home, it’s important to evaluate the alcohol intake of your friends before letting them leave a holiday party, and don’t be afraid to prevent them from getting behind the wheel.

Withers knows first-hand the devastation drunk driving can cause, having lost her daughter to a drunk driver 23 years ago, “Some days it seems like yesterday because the pain is so intense, and sometimes, of course, it seems like a lifetime ago – but, indeed, the hole in my heart never goes away.”

This month, local police departments and the state Highway Patrol are planning additional patrols for drunk drivers. If you witness a suspected drunk driver, you can call *FHP from your cell phone. Drivers caught while driving impaired face an automatic suspension of their driving privileges for 30 days while they await trial and the possibility of losing their license for at least a year after their first conviction.