Dam breach at Duke plant; coal ash could spill
By MICHAEL BIESECKER and ALAN SUDERMAN
Friday, September 21
Duke Energy said Friday that a dam containing a large lake at a Wilmington power plant has been breached by floodwaters from Florence, and it’s possible coal ash from an adjacent dump is flowing into the Cape Fear River.
Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said Friday that floodwaters continue to overtop an earthen dike at the north side of Sutton Lake, a 1,100-acre (445-hectare) reservoir at the L.V. Sutton Power Station. That water has caused several breaches in the dam on the south end of the lake, which is flowing back into the river.
Company officials said that because the river is already running high after the hurricane, they do not expect the breaches in the dam to affect the water level.
The floodwaters had also over-topped a steel retaining wall containing one of three large coal ash dumps lining the lakeshore. Sheehan described the incident as a “developing situation” and said the company can’t rule out that ash might be escaping and flowing into the river.
Gray material that the company characterized as lightweight coal combustion byproducts could be seen Friday floating on the top of the lake.
The ash left over when coal is burned to generate electricity coal ash contains an array of components, including mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals. The inundated basin contains at the plant 400,000 cubic yards (305,820 cubic meters) of ash.
Floodwaters at the site were continuing to rise Friday. The area received more than 30 inches (75 centimeters) of rain from former Hurricane Florence, with the Cape Fear River expected to crest Saturday.
North Carolina’s top environmental regulator said Friday that the extent of the potential environmental harm from the breach is not yet known.
“What we don’t know at this point is if any coal ash has filtered into the Cape Fear River,” said Mike Regan, secretary for the state Department of Environmental Quality. “We plan to conduct flyovers … to see if we can ascertain that.”
Security personnel for Duke blocked access Friday to Sutton Lake Road, which leads to a public dock on the reservoir, a popular local destination for boating and fishing.
Duke denied a request for an Associated Press reporter at the scene Friday to pass the barricade, saying that the situation at the lake “continues to change” and is “not safe.” Aerial photos released by the company showed a wide breach in the earthen dam and the affected ash dump largely underwater.
Sutton Lake is the former coaling pond for a coal-fired plant Duke retired in 2013 and replaced with a new generating station that runs off natural gas. Duke said that power plant was shut down overnight as it was swamped floodwaters and all employees safely evacuated.
The current breach at the Wilmington site is separate from the rupture at a nearby coal ash landfill reported at the site last weekend, spilling enough material to fill 180 dump trucks.
Duke’s ash waste management has faced intense scrutiny since a drainage pipe collapsed under a waste pit at an old plant in Eden in 2014, triggering a massive spill that coated 70 miles (110 kilometers) of the Dan River in gray sludge. The utility later agreed to plead guilty to nine Clean Water Act violations and pay $102 million in fines and restitution for illegally discharging pollution from ash dumps at five North Carolina power plants. It plans to close all its ash dumps by 2029.
At the separate Duke plant near Goldsboro, three old coal-ash dumps capped with soil were underwater Thursday after the Neuse River flooded.
Staff from the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, visited the flooded dumps at the H.F. Lee Power Plant by boat Wednesday and took photographs and collected samples of gray sludge and water they said was washing into the floodwaters. The group said a private lab would analyze samples.
State environmental regulators went to the site Thursday, though they were unable to make a full assessment because of high water levels.
Sheehan, the Duke spokeswoman, said that any release of coal ash at the Goldsboro site appeared “minimal.”
“We’ll learn more as flood water recedes,” she said.
Biesecker reported from Washington. Follow him at http://twitter.com/mbieseck
Paper-based electronics could fold, biodegrade and be the basis for the next generation of devices
September 21, 2018
Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Seokheun Choi receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.
Binghamton University, State University of New York provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
It seems like every few months there’s a new cellphone, laptop or tablet that is so exciting people line up around the block to get their hands on it. While the perpetual introduction of new, slightly more advanced electronics has made businesses like Apple hugely successful, the short shelf life of these electronics is bad for the environment.
Modern electronics are filled with circuit boards on which various metals and plastics are soldered together. Some of these materials are toxic – or break down into toxic substances. There are efforts underway to boost recycling of e-waste, recovering materials that can be reused and properly disposing of the rest. But most devices end up added to the growing piles of e-waste in landfills.
Instead of adding more trash to these ever-growing piles, there is an opportunity to create electronics that are biodegradable. That’s why other researchers and I are looking to the emerging field of paper-based electronics – known as “papertronics.” They’re flexible – even foldable – sustainable, friendly to the environment and low-cost.
But to be truly eco-friendly, papertronics can’t use traditional batteries, which are made of metals and caustic acids, to store and discharge electricity. Recently, my chemist colleague Omowunmi Sadik and I developed a paper battery that’s recyclable and biodegradable, as well as reliable enough to actually use. The key is bacteria.
I’ve developed flexible batteries, batteries powered by saliva and more. I figured that when seeking to power paper-based electronics, it made sense to try to make a battery out of paper. Fortunately, paper is a good potential battery material: It’s flexible, a good insulator – which makes it a good platform for mounting electronic components on – and absorbs and releases fluids easily. We added polymers – poly (amic) acid and poly(pyromellitic dianhydride-p-phenylenediamine) – to improve those electrical characteristics.
Then, to store energy in the battery, in place of the metals and acids that react chemically to generate electrons, we added bacteria. When these batteries are eventually commercialized, they’ll use bacteria that are safe for humans and the environment and well-contained to reduce any other contamination.
Because the paper is rough and porous, the bacteria stick to it, and generate their own energy by breaking down almost any available organic material, including plant material or wastewater. At the moment, we’re prepackaging source material, but it could also come from the environment. This chemical reaction produces electrons. Normally in a bacterial reaction, those electrons would bond with oxygen, but we’ve built our battery to limit oxygen and substitute an electrode, meaning we can capture the electron flow and use it to power devices.
We were concerned that oxygen could get into the paper and interrupt the electron flow between the bacteria, decreasing the battery’s efficiency. We found that while that does happen, it has minimal effects. That’s because so many bacterial cells are so tightly attached to the paper fibers; they form a multi-layer biofilm that shields the chemical reaction from most oxygen.
We also wanted a battery that could biodegrade. The bacteria in the battery itself, once they’re done releasing energy, can break down the paper and polymers into harmless components. In water, our battery easily biodegraded, without any special equipment or other microorganisms to aid in the breakdown.
The polymer-paper structures are lightweight, low-cost and flexible. That flexibility also allows for the batteries to fold like a normal piece of paper, or be stacked on top of each other. That lets more battery power fit into smaller spaces.
Promises and opportunities
Papertronics can be particularly useful in remote areas with limited resources because they’re powered by bacteria that can inhabit even the most extreme of conditions and break down nearly any material to produce electrons. They don’t need a well-established power grid, either. In addition, though paper batteries are designed to be disposable after they’re used, their materials are recyclable – and new batteries can be created from recycled paper.
As revolutionary as paper-based bio-batteries are for future electronic devices, they’re fairly straightforward to make. The polymers and bacteria can be blended with paper in traditional manufacturing processes, including roll-to-roll printing and screen printing – or even be painted or poured right onto paper.
Other materials can also be added to the paper batteries – like metals, semiconductors, insulators and nanoparticles. These and other substances can add more properties and capabilities to paper-based devices, opening new doors for the next generation of electronics.
Suge Knight pleads to manslaughter over fatal confrontation
By ANDREW DALTON
AP Entertainment Writer
Friday, September 21
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Averting a murder trial that had been nearly four years in coming, former rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight pleaded no contest Thursday to voluntary manslaughter for running over and killing a Compton businessman and agreed to serve nearly 30 years in prison.
The Death Row Records co-founder entered the plea in Los Angeles Superior Court after striking a deal with prosecutors, and has agreed to serve 28 years. Jury selection for his trial, which could have led to a life sentence, had been scheduled to begin Monday.
Knight was charged with murder, attempted murder and hit-and-run after fleeing the scene of a dispute in January 2015 outside a Compton burger stand. Knight and Cle “Bone” Sloan, a consultant on the N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” traded punches before Knight clipping him with his pickup truck and ran over businessman Terry Carter, who died from his injuries.
Knight’s attorneys have said he was acting in self-defense and was fleeing armed attackers when he ran over Carter and Sloan. Sloan has denied he was carrying a gun during the confrontation.
During Thursday’s hearing, Knight, wearing orange jail attire with his arms and legs in chains, answered Judge Ronald Coen’s questions, loudly and quickly saying “no contest” when the judge asked for his plea. He will be formally sentenced on Oct. 4.
The plea deal calls for Knight to serve 22 years in prison on the voluntary manslaughter count, and another six years because it is a third strike violation.
Knight disagreed with the judge’s description of one of his previous strikes and put a pause in the proceedings that briefly raised tension in the courtroom.
“You served nine years for it,” Coen said, before Knight agreed to move on.
Carter’s daughter, Crystal, sat in the front row of the courtroom and displayed no visible reaction to the proceedings. “I’m surprised he pleaded out,” Crystal Carter said outside court. “Normally he likes the cameras to be on him 24-7.”
The agreement also absolves Knight in two other cases, both from 2014. He was accused of stealing a camera from a woman and of sending threatening text messages to “Straight Outta Compton” director F. Gary Gray.
Delays, detours and drama marked the run-up to Knight’s trial, which was expected to begin Oct. 1 under tight security and secrecy. Court officials had said that no witness list would be released ahead of the trial, and that some witnesses might not be identified by name during the case.
Surveillance video that showed Knight hitting the two men with his truck was likely to play a central role for both sides.
Sloan, who had feuded with Knight for years in a dispute with roots in their Compton gang ties, was likely to have been the trial’s key witness, but may have been a difficult one for the prosecution.
Despite giving a detailed account of the incident to police on the day it happened, just a few months later at a preliminary hearing he claimed to have little memory of it, and even refused at first to identify Knight as the person sitting in the courtroom who he’d fought with.
Knight collapsed during one court hearing, two of his former attorneys were indicted on witness-tampering charges, and his fiancee pleaded no contest to selling video of Knight hitting the two men with his truck.
His attorney Albert DeBlanc Jr., appointed by the court five months ago, was his 16th, and Knight tried to fire him and get yet another lawyer just a day before the deal was reached.
Knight would frequently, against the advice of Coen and his attorneys, speak extensively during hearings, complaining about jail conditions, his attorneys and his health issues.
On Thursday, while Coen read legal language about the plea and told Knight he was subject to deportation if he was not a citizen, Knight said “ICE is coming to get me?” to a smattering of laughs.
DeBlanc declined comment on the plea agreement. Prosecutors did not speak to reporters outside court.
The 53-year-old was a key player in the gangster rap scene that flourished in the 1990s, and his label once listed Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg among its artists. Knight lost control of the company after it was forced into bankruptcy. He has prior felony convictions for armed robbery and assault with a gun. He pleaded no contest in 1995 and was sentenced to five years’ probation for assaulting two rap entertainers at a Hollywood recording studio in 1992.
He was sentenced in February 1997 to prison for violating terms of that probation by taking part in a fight at a Las Vegas hotel hours before Shakur was fatally wounded in a drive-by attack as he rode in Knight’s car just east of the Las Vegas Strip. Shakur’s slaying remains unsolved.
Follow Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton .
Why the unemployment rate will never get to zero percent – but it could still go a lot lower
September 21, 2018
Jay L. Zagorsky
Adjunct associate professor, Boston University
Jay L. Zagorsky does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Boston University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
The U.S. Labor Department continues to release wonderful news for U.S. workers.
Just this week, on Sept. 20, the agency said that the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits reached the lowest level in almost 49 years. Unemployment benefits track changes in the number of workers who are laid off by companies. When few companies lay off workers, this signals a tight labor market and often means unemployment rates are likely to drop further.
As for the official U.S. unemployment rate, it continues to trickle downward and was last at just 3.9 percent during August, which was the lowest level since the late 1960s.
With the economy still strong, just how low could it go? And could the unemployment rate ever get to zero?
Economics often gets a bad rap as the “dismal science,” I and many of my colleagues are actually quite optimistic people who often search for how good things can get – not how bad.
The definition of unemployed
Many people may think that they know what the U.S. unemployment rate means and what it measures. After all, how complicated could it be, people either have a job or they don’t?
The official definition, however, is far from simple. To be considered unemployed, a person must pass three tests.
First, the person has to be immediately available to work. If a company asks you to start today, you must be able to say “yes” to be considered unemployed. Searching for a job that starts weeks or months from now does not count.
Second, to be unemployed someone cannot be working, even a tiny bit. Driving for a car company like Uber or Lyft while looking for a job means a person is not classified as unemployed but instead is counted as working.
Lastly, a person has to be actively searching for a job. Active searching means doing something that could result in an employer contacting a job seeker. Spending hours cruising internet job boards doesn’t count, unless a person sends in at least one resume or contacts a company directly.
Types of unemployment
Economists divide the reasons people are unemployed into five reasons: cyclical, structural, seasonal, frictional and institutional. For the unemployment rate to become zero, all five would have to disappear.
Cyclical unemployment happens because the economy goes through periodic cycles of booms and busts. During the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, businesses needed far fewer workers because they were selling less. With the economy expanding today, businesses now need more workers, so currently almost no one is unemployed for this reason.
Structural unemployment occurs when a worker’s skills no longer match any business need. The economy is constantly evolving and new types of jobs are being created, while old jobs are destroyed.
Decades ago when I was in high school, some of my friends took stenography classes to get jobs as secretaries. Stenography was a type of shorthand used so bosses could dictate letters, which were typed up later.
Today voice recognition and word processing software has eliminated the need for stenographers. If any of my friends are still looking for a stenography position, they would be considered structurally unemployed.
The only way to eliminate structural unemployment is to prevent new ideas and inventions. This is not something most people want so the economy always has some structural unemployment.
Seasonal unemployment is when there is no work because of weather or time conditions. For example, lifeguards who protect swimmers are usually hired in summertime and then laid off in the fall. Little can be done about seasonal unemployment since control of the weather and seasons are beyond human control. This means we always will have some seasonal unemployment.
Frictional unemployment arises because searching for a job does not always provide instantaneous results. It takes time for businesses looking for workers and people wanting jobs to find each other.
The U.S. government tracks the number of open jobs each month via the JOLTS survey. During this past summer, there were almost 7 million open jobs at the same time that 6.3 million people were considered unemployed.
Frictional unemployment explains why millions could be without work even if there are more vacancies. Faster communication helps reduce frictional unemployment, but as long as people and businesses take time to interview and make up their minds, this type of unemployment too will exist.
Finally, institutional unemployment arises when wages are too high and cannot fall. This is one reason why some people argue against raising the minimum wage rate to US$15 per hour.
Critics claim that if businesses are forced to pay higher wages, they will cut back their hiring of the low-skilled and boost unemployment. Others argue changing the minimum wage has little impact on employment.
In my mind, institutional unemployment could theoretically be zero. The only question is at what minimum wage rate this happens.
More room to fall
Even though some types of unemployment could zero out, others will always remain – meaning the overall rate will never reach zero percent. But then what’s the minimum rate of unemployment even the healthiest economy should expect?
The Congressional Budget Office takes a rather pessimistic view of the matter and concludes that the bare minimum of unemployment is over 4 percent – perhaps viewing the recent figures as anomalies.
Still, past experience suggests the jobless rate could continue to fall, despite the dour Congressional Budget Office perspective.
Using data that stretch back to 1948 shows that the unemployment rate has, in fact, been quite a bit lower than the current level. For a period of 13 months in 1952 and 1953, the rate was consistently below 3 percent and fell to just 2.5 percent in May of 1953, the lowest recorded value as the economy expanded to support the Korean War.
And in the late ‘60s, the last time the rate was so low, it was under 3.5 percent from September 1968 to May 1969. In total, the unemployment rate has been below the current level for 88 months since 1948.
Just how low the unemployment rate will go today is still an open question. But, if the economy keeps growing at the current pace, I believe there is a small chance of reaching the old record of 2.5 percent.