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Smoking ban has some veterans fuming
A third of vets smoke, and many took up habit while serving; ban applies to patients, visitors, workers on medical center grounds

OUTSIDE VA HOSPITALS

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Serving up drinks at the American Legion post in Concord, Jeff Holland gets a little testy when the talk turns to smoking.

A Marine veteran who enjoys lighting up, the 44-year-old Holland fought unsuccessfully against a new smoking ban at the post. And he is also prohibited from smoking when he visits the nearby Manchester VAMedical Center in New Hampshire.

It is part of a nationwide smoking ban outside all VA medical centers that applies to visitors, patients and employees.

"I get the aspect that it's a hospital and for all practical purposes you shouldn't be smoking inside the VA," Holland said. "But as far outside, I think they should still have a smoking area.

"I mean, you got guys from World War I, World War II where this is all they have known for 40 or 50 years. To kind of take that right away, it's kind of a shame."

Smoking was already prohibited inside VA medical buildings, but now patients, employees and visitors will not be able to puff away anywhere on the grounds. Previously, smoking was allowed in designated shelters dotting the grounds of VA medical facilities. Posters and banners promoting the ban have been put up in facilities, and the VA is alerting veterans through social media and letters. They have also held forums on the ban.

"This is a really good thing for our veterans and our staff," said Kevin Forrest, associate director of the Manchester VA, which serves 27,000 veterans. "It's a safer environment. It reduces fire risk. There is certainly evidence that smoking and secondhand exposure is a medical risk for our veterans."

The smoking ban was first announced this summer. It brings the facilities in line with bans already in place at 4,000 medical facilities and four national health care systems that have made their grounds smoke-free. The ban at Omaha's VA Medical Center campus went into effect Tuesday.

But the move isn't without controversy. A third of veterans smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many were introduced to the habit while serving.

Tobacco has long been tied to military: Cigarette ads featured troops, and the culture of the service historically promoted smoking on the battlefield or as a welcome respite from the stress of combat.

"We recognize this is a difficult change for many folks," said John D'Adamo, who is co-chairing the smoke-free working group for VA Boston. It is gradually implementing the ban for the 62,000 veterans it serves over the coming months, including providing resources that could help veterans kick the habit. Violators will initially be warned of the policy, and eventually VA police will enforce it.

"This is a major cultural change," he continued. "It's really been something often utilized for comradery, essentially a sense of community."

But even a gradual rollout is seen as too stringent for some smokers — and even some veterans who don't smoke. They argue that there should be some place for smoking at VA facilities and fear that some veterans may choose cigarettes or cigars over visiting their VA doctors.

"It's going a little too far," Gregory d'Arbonne, president of the New Hampshire chapter of the Association of the United States Army. "I'm against smoking, but there are people who smoke. When they do, they go outside and have this little smoking area. Now, what are they going to do?"

Jorg Dreusicke, a 72-year-old ex-smoker from New Hampshire who recruits members for the Veterans of Foreign Wars nationwide, called the move government overreach. He started smoking at the age of 10 and quit three years ago.

"It's big brother telling people how to live," he said. "Some people don't mind because it doesn't affect them. But for those it affects, they are pissed."

He predicted that after a "period of revolt" and much complaining, veterans would eventually return to medical centers.

Others are welcoming the ban, saying it is long overdue.

Tony Botticello, a 76-year-old Coast Guard veteran whose lung cancer is in remission, said he would often pass by smokers in the parking lot on the way to his treatment at the Manchester VA. He smoked for over 50 years but quit smoking five years ago.

"It's personal for me," he said. "Maybe this will make somebody think about the ramifications of smoking and how some people find smoking offensive."


National
As harvest begins and biofuel plants idle, ethanol backers grow impatient for deal

WASHINGTON — Impatience is growing among Midwestern corn farmers and ethanol plants looking for an official announcement of the long-awaited deal to boost biofuels production.

“Would we like it to happen this week? Sure, we’d like it to happen last week,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

At issue is a federal mandate that billions of gallons of ethanol and biodiesel be blended into the nation’s fuel supply, a requirement known as the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Refineries can petition for waivers to ease the financial burden of complying with the mandate, and the Trump administration has been handing those waivers out at a higher rate than in the past.

Biofuel plants and the farmers who feed them say all those waivers have hammered demand for their products and are plunging many operations into the red.

Bloomberg reported this week that the administration has tentatively agreed to a final plan offsetting the RFS waivers by reallocating lost gallons into future targets.

But ethanol backers have seen those headlines over and over again.

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Back in late August, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to say farmers would be happy with what was about to be announced regarding ethanol.

“It will be a giant package, get ready!” Trump tweeted. “At the same time I was able to save the small refineries from certain closing. Great for all!”

What followed was a meeting between Iowa and Nebraska lawmakers and White House officials, a meeting in which the administration came down on the side of ethanol.

But that has resulted in nothing on paper yet — even as ethanol plants are idling production and farmers are preparing to sell their corn at low prices.

Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, one of those who has been pushing the administration to address the waivers, recently urged the administration to speed it up.

“Harvest is starting,” Ernst tweeted. “Ethanol plant closures have cost thousands of rural jobs and decreased demand for hundreds of millions of bushels of corn. Let’s move forward and get the RFS deal done.”

Shaw also said his advice to Trump is not to let the situation hang much longer.

Farmers will soon be taking harvests to town and either selling corn for depressed prices or paying for storage in hopes of a bounce down the road.

“That’s a painful reminder of how weak the corn market is right now and what some of the causes for that are,” Shaw said. “Timing is of the essence here as harvest cranks up. The more they delay, the more that’s just going to become worse and worse and worse.”

Shaw said he hopes the final deal is what those involved have described publicly — a reallocation of the waived gallons.

“All we’ve asked is for the EPA to follow the law,” Shaw said.

The latest round of 31 waivers delivered an immediate blow to ethanol plants margins that were already less than robust, Shaw said.

While most plants had been operating in the black, he said, the waivers pushed about three-fourths of them into the red. That situation can only continue for so long.

“Every day makes a difference,” Shaw said.

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Education
Busy roads, nearby train tracks cited as reasons for denying plan for OPS school in Bellevue

Safety concerns about the proposed location of a new OPS elementary school have prompted the Bellevue Planning Commission to balk at approving the project.

Last week, Omaha Public Schools officials appeared before the Bellevue commission for a third time in an attempt to persuade members to recommend approval of the school, planned for a spot near Fort Crook and Childs Roads.

Planning Commission members said it would be dangerous for students to cross nearby train tracks and Fort Crook Road, which has six driving lanes and turn lanes at its intersection with Childs Road.

OPS bought the land for the school in 2017 for $312,280, according to property records. The school, which would serve approximately 600 students, is scheduled to open in August 2021.

Officials from the school district, which serves a large part of Omaha and a portion of Bellevue, previously had gone before the commission July 25 and Aug. 22. Each time, however, members delayed voting on a recommendation in order to allow OPS to address safety concerns.

Lisa Sterba, chief operations officer for OPS, told Bellevue officials in a letter that the district would provide transportation to students living within the one-mile walk zone on the east side of Fort Crook Road.

Students who live more than a mile away from a school are provided transportation through the district’s Student Assignment Plan.

Busing would cost the district more than $108,000 a year, said David Kramer, an attorney representing OPS.

Sterba said the district would educate students and parents about safety and discourage them from walking across Fort Crook Road.

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Tom Ackley, a Planning Commission member, said, “I have no doubt it would be a fantastic school. It’s just not in the right place.”

Kramer said the district has limited site options in Bellevue. “And we’d like to put a school in Bellevue to ensure that the students we serve here are served without having to go sit on a bus for an extended period of time.”

Despite OPS officials’ attempts to alleviate their concerns, the commission members voted 6-1 to recommend that the Bellevue City Council deny the rezoning and a conditional use permit that would allow OPS to build the school.

The Bellevue Planning Department had recommended that the project be approved.

The City Council will have the final say. A Bellevue official said the matter will come before the council for the first time later this month.

City-approved demolition work already is underway at the elementary school site, but the project’s timeline could be delayed, OPS spokesman Jeremy Maskel said Wednesday.

“For the past two months, we have worked collaboratively with the Planning Department to address the concerns raised by the Planning Commission,” Maskel said. “We made a number of changes to our application, and we appreciate that city staff recommended approval of our project.”

Maskel said the district looks forward to being heard by the Bellevue City Council.

The $421 million school bond program approved by OPS voters in 2014 included $30.1 million for land acquisition and design for two elementary schools and two high schools. The 2018 bond issue is allowing the district to build the new schools.

This report includes material from the World-Herald News Service.

Omaha Public Schools through the years

Plus
When is that light turning green? Here are Omaha's top 10 busiest intersections

They’re the gatekeepers that often determine how quick your drive around Omaha will be.

They are the Omaha area’s busiest intersections, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency just released its latest ranking. Drivers who commute through these intersections know them well. They’re necessary stops, and stop you will, inching forward, stalled until the green light approves you to proceed on your way.

In southwest Omaha, traffic along the L Street and Industrial Road corridor is pushing those intersections higher in MAPA’s rankings.

Omaha has one intersection that’s clearly the busiest — 90th and Dodge. It continues to hold first place.

But east of there, the latest traffic numbers reflect some interesting movement. Traffic is down on Dodge Street at almost every intersection from central Omaha through midtown into downtown.

Around the Omaha metro area as a whole, traffic is growing — but at a slower rate than in recent years. MAPA figures show that traffic grew by 1.6% between 2016 and 2018, down from the 2% growth in previous reports.

Here’s a look at how the traffic numbers look for Omaha’s 10 busiest intersections.

Omaha's 10 busiest intersections

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Omaha streets and how they got their names