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Posts published in “Mendiola”

On southern Idaho newspapering


During a week that saw major news outlets announce the layoffs of some 1,000 editors and reporters nationwide, including many veteran journalists, the president and publisher of Adams Publishing Group newspapers in eastern Idaho discussed the daunting challenges confronting his industry when he addressed a large crowd at a City Club of Idaho Falls luncheon on Thursday, Jan. 24.

The Florida-based Poynter Institute, arguably the world's most influential school for journalists, called Wednesday, Jan. 23, “another brutal day for journalism” after Gannett, which owns USA Today and 109 other local media companies, began slashing jobs throughout the country. “The cuts were not minor.”

Gannett's massive cost-cutting move impacted the Arizona Republic, including Pulitzer winning cartoonist Steve Benson; the Indianapolis Star, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Tennessean, the Record in North Jersey, the Westchester Journal News, the Ventura County Star, the Citizen Times, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D., the Fort Myers News-Press, the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y. and USA Today’s travel section.

(Adams Publishing Group Regional President and Publisher Travis Quast, right, converses with longtime businessman Park Price at recent City Club of Idaho Falls luncheon. photo/Mark Mendiola)

CNN reported: “This week reaffirmed just how dire things have gotten within the industry, with about 1,000 jobs in media lost as the result of layoffs announced at BuzzFeed, HuffPost and Gannett -- the nation's largest newspaper chain. BuzzFeed announced Wednesday that it would lay off 15 percent of its work force, or about 220 employees; Verizon announced it would cut 7 percent or approximately 800 jobs from its media division, which includes brands like HuffPost, AOL and Yahoo News; and Gannett slashed dozens of jobs at newspapers across the country.”

It was noted at the City Club of Idaho Falls function that the newspaper industry's annual advertising revenue has plunged from $60 billion to $20 billion since 2000.

Travis Quast was appointed the Adams Publishing Group's regional president and publisher of its East Idaho Group last April, overseeing 10 newspapers, including the Post Register in Idaho Falls, the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello, the Standard Journal in Rexburg, the Teton Valley News in Driggs, the Preston Citizen, the Montpelier News-Examiner and the Herald Journal in Logan, Utah.

Prior to joining Adams, Quast served as publisher for five years at the Times-News in Twin Falls, a Lee Enterprises newspaper.

In October 2017, it was announced that the Seattle-based Pioneer News Group was selling its media division assets to the family-owned Adams Publishing Group, including 22 daily and weekly newspapers in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Utah. The transaction was finalized the following Nov. 1, making Adams Publishing a dominant media voice in eastern Idaho and elsewhere.

Based at Minneapolis, Minn., Adams Publishing at the time owned and operated 100 community newspapers in 11 states, including the acquisition of five newspaper publishing companies in 2016. It also owned radio stations, outdoor advertising companies, a wine distribution business, label printing companies and a large interest in Camping World Holdings.

Its acquisition of the Idaho Press, formerly the Idaho Press-Tribune in Nampa, and hiring strategic seasoned journalists there is even giving the Idaho Statesman in Boise a run for its money in the Treasure Valley. The Statesman, a McClatchy newspaper, has been undergoing its own shakeup with the loss of two managing editors in recent months.

Quast told those attending the City Club of Idaho Falls meeting that media companies, including local newspapers, are for-profit businesses and require revenue to survive. Twenty percent of the Post Register's revenue comes from subscriptions and 80 percent from advertising, he said, pointing out that Adams Publishing did not exist six years ago.

Quast noted there were 20 newspaper printing presses operating between Idaho Falls and Boise 15 years ago, but now there are only four – and Adams Publishing owns three of them in Idaho Falls, Preston and Nampa. The other one is in Twin Falls.

Quast remarked that what was considered “fake news” five years ago has morphed into a label for anything with which someone disagrees. Cable news networks and social media the past 20 years have concentrated more on commentary than actual news as the nation has become more polarized, blurring the lines, he said, adding there's a danger that approach can filter into local communities.

“If I lose your trust, I lose you,” he said. “If we are not fair, we will not survive or exist.”

Hundreds of thousands of people regularly access one web site that blatantly admits its news items are totally fabricated and yet they view it religiously on a daily basis, Quast mentioned, lamenting that the more outrageous the news, the more some blogs and web sites make money.

Although the Post Register no longer prints a Monday edition, it still posts breaking news on its web site 24/7, he said, noting the Post Register no longer requires payments to view its content online. “The Internet is actually helping us to grow.” Marketing data can be accessed almost instantaneously. “It's scary what the Worldwide Web knows about you,” he remarked.

There must be a balance between competing with electronic news media and maintaining fairness and accuracy, he stressed. “We're not telling people what to think, but to think,” Quast said. “Democracy is at risk when people become complacent. Local journalism makes a difference.”

Adams Publishing's acquisition of groups of newspapers in Idaho and elsewhere allows it to consolidate operations and run more efficiently, reducing costs, Quast said, defending the use of an automated central call center. “We're trying to be all things to all people.” The company's newspapers only endorse political candidates directly interviewed and never presidential candidates, he said.

The Post Register is one of the few newspapers with a dedicated editorial writer – Bryan Clark, who serves on its editorial board with Quast and Managing Editor Monte LaOrange. Quast said he strongly advocates that governments be transparent and accountable, allowing unfettered access to public documents. It's a “slippery slope” when elected officials regularly conceal vital information. “It gets to the point they operate in secrecy,” Quast said.

Investigate the fiasco


The Federal Communications Commission definitely must investigate CenturyLink's massive Internet system failure that lasted from early Thursday, Dec. 27, through early Friday, Dec. 28. It was an unmitigated disaster! The FCC also needs to publicize the outage's cause, which CenturyLink seems loathe to divulge.

This not only was a public relations fiasco for CenturyLink, it can be argued the blackout of its service jeopardized lives and could have been a threat to national security.

Customers like those of us in Idaho were blindsided by the widespread outage, not knowing for nearly 24 hours what happened or when service would be restored. Everyone from law enforcement to medical centers to thousands of individual customers were adversely impacted in dozens of states.

What was especially disturbing about the nationwide outage was the fact 911 systems in many states were completely disabled, leaving countless people in the lurch as they tried to helplessly cope with emergencies on their own.

This debacle was not unprecedented. The Seattle Times reported in 2014 that a six-hour CenturyLink outage led to more than 5,800 failed 911 calls, crippling Washington state's 911 system. The FCC fined CenturyLink $16 million over that failure, and state regulators added another $2 million.

At that time, a woman tried calling 911 37 times after a burglar broke into her home. In another case, a domestic violence victim had to flag down police because she could not reach law enforcement via phone calls, the Times noted.

Those calling CenturyLink's help number in the latest snafu also could not reach any assistance, were put on hold for interminable hours or rudely disconnected. The news media's pathetic coverage of the major event did not help ease anxieties, either. Was this a cyberattack or an infrastructure collapse? Who knew?

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai expressed grave concerns. He said: “When an emergency strikes, it is critical that Americans are able to use 911 to reach those who can help. CenturyLink service outage is therefore completely unacceptable, and its breadth and duration are particularly troubling." Pai added, “I've directed the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau to immediately launch an investigation into the cause and impact of this outage."

In one of its few sporadic tweets, CenturyLink stated: “We are aware of some 911 service disruptions affecting various areas through the United States. In case of an emergency, customers should use their wireless phones to call 911 or drive to the nearest fire station or emergency facility. Technicians are working to restore services.”

At about 4:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 28, CenturyLink tweeted its teams had “discovered some additional technical problems as our service restoration efforts were under way.” This came after another statement issued about seven hours earlier said the company estimated service would be restored within four hours.

“CenturyLink engineers have identified a network element that was impacting customer services and are addressing the issue to fully restore services,” the company said. Its tweets, however, did little to comfort blacked-out customers who had no Internet access.

All of this underscores society's frightening over dependence on wireless or electronic services – and our vulnerability to such frustrating disruptions. One thing we can be certain: CenturyLink will not be forthcoming in offering reduced payments on our utility bills in the near future for the annoying inconvenience. Don't hold your breath!

Impacting the tribes


Idaho Commerce Director Bobbi-Jo Meuleman (pictured) cited the significant impact the state's five indigenous tribes have on the Gem State's economy when she addressed about 150 tribal and western planners gathered at the elegant $49 million Shoshone-Bannock Hotel & Event Center in Fort Hall on Monday, Aug. 6.

The 2018 Tribal Planning & Western Planner Conference was the first time the major conference has been hosted by a Native American tribe, underscoring its theme of “Building Partnerships through Understanding, Cooperation and Consultation.” It was convened in Spearfish, S.D., last year and is scheduled for Santa Fe, N.M., next year.

Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Chairman Nathan Small welcomed delegates from as far as Alaska, Canada and North Carolina by stressing even though it has been 150 years since the Fort Bridger Treaty established the Fort Hall Reservation in July 1868, Shoshone-Bannocks still adhere to their language and traditions.

In office since January, Meuleman noted Idaho's five tribal reservations – Shoshone-Bannock, Coeur d'Alene, Nez Perce, Kootenai and Shoshone-Paiute – have a $570 million annual impact on the state's economy, their exports average about $1.5 billion each year and they employ some 7,570 people. Collectively, they are among the top 10 employers in Idaho.

A 2013/14 University of Idaho report about the economic impacts of those five sovereign nations showed they added 13,840 jobs to the state's economy and their total annual sales transactions exceeded $1.1 billion, including multiplier effects. Their value-added gross state product (GSP) amounted to $653 million or 1 percent of the state's GSP in 2013. More than 500,000 people, including 60 percent from out of state, visit Idaho tribal casinos each year.

In total, the five tribes of Idaho own more than 963,325 acres and have 9,555 members living in Idaho. If compared with Idaho’s total 44 counties, the five tribes would be ranked 20th in terms of land area. They have more than 150,000 acres under cultivation in Idaho, producing direct revenues/expenditures of $100 million annually.

Meuleman noted that Idaho has been gleaning positive national attention lately because it boasts the nation's top performing state economy, highest job growth, fastest expanding population, surging earnings and top travel destinations. She credited Idaho's success to existing businesses creating new jobs and making investments that have grown the economy.

Solid community infrastructures, expeditious permit applications, easy access to top government leaders, available land and resources, plus cheap energy, also have enhanced Idaho's reputation as a business-friendly state, she said, noting traditional industries are using more advanced technology, providing employment opportunities for young people and adding value to domestic products.

“We're looking to proactively attract business. Idaho is in a really great position,” Meuleman said.

Traditional industry sectors pay well and are projected to grow, she added. Their average annual wages and 10 year growth projections are as follows: Food manufacturing, $57,000, 20 percent; agriculture support, $36,000, 16 percent; computer/electronics product manufacturing, $128,000; 13 percent; wood product manufacturing, $52,000, 12 percent, and mining, $85,000, 4 percent.

Meuleman also showed a slide about how emerging industries compare: electrical equipment, appliance, component manufacturing, $73,000, 66 percent; information services, $75,000, 52 percent; beverage manufacturing, $44,000, 49 percent; data processing, hosting, $86,000, 29 percent, and advanced manufacturing, $58,000, 28 percent.

“The last thing we want to hear is that a company is leaving,” Meuleman said.

The Idaho Department of Commerce employs 43 people. Its Business Retention & Expansion division made more than 500 company visits in Fiscal 2017 and coordinated with 19 rural economic development officials.

Its International Export Assistance division has trade offices in Taiwan, China and Mexico.

The Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (IGEM) provides funding support for public/private commercialization projects between the state's research universities.

Meuleman praised the success of Idaho's innovative tax reimbursement incentive that has benefited the operation of companies like Amy's Kitchen, SkyWest, Albertsons, McCain Foods, Glanbia, Paylocity, Jayco and more than 30 other businesses in the state. It has been used to create 1,680 jobs for 28 rural projects and 19 urban projects. It has been used by 24 existing and 23 new Idaho companies.

About $9.2 million has been awarded in federal Community Development Block Grants for improvements in water systems, wastewater treatment, senior and community centers, wells and downtown revitalization projects. Another $500,000 has been awarded in state Rural Community Development Block Grants.

Tourism is the state's third largest economic sector, positively impacting smaller communities. It is expected to continue growing the next three years with 26 percent of survey respondents indicating they enjoy cultural experiences and visiting historic landmarks, Meuleman said, noting urban areas in Idaho are growing, but rural areas are getting left behind.

She said Idaho's three most formidable challenges are its work force, broadband service and affordable housing needs. In response to a question, she said the commerce department has had no bad experiences dealing with Idaho's five tribes, but she conceded communication always can be improved.

Pocatello council pulls the plug


I was saddened, but not entirely surprised to learn that the Pocatello City Council indeed has decided to completely cut funding for the city's public access cable television programming, effectively pulling the plug on it and blacking it out after the pioneering channel has been on the air for many decades. For years, it was known as Pocatello Vision 12.

If it is not the longest continuously running cable access station in the nation, it definitely is one of the oldest. In fact, Hank Gonzalez' bilingual “La Voz Latina” holds the distinction as the longest airing cable access television program in the United States!

It obviously was a foregone conclusion or fait accompli for some council members to terminate the channel, but go through the motions to make it appear they were still open to resuscitating it.

The prospect that an entire city department could be arbitrarily eliminated in one fell swoop despite its historic reputation was not well-publicized. Some council members apparently hoped they could obliterate the cable access channel with minimal flak or adverse public reaction by conducting their fatal strike under the radar like stealth bombers.

Pocatello private citizens of all backgrounds have been allowed for more than 40 years to produce and host their own television programs, giving them a voice and allowing them to exercise their freedom of speech unlike most anywhere else in the country. “Transparency” was a refreshing byword exercised in the Gate City for many years.

While some council members have decided to ax community access programming by Sept. 28 or the end of the fiscal year, they have opted to continue government access programming that features meetings prominently attended by elected officials and politicians. Hmmmm … Could priorities be askew? If expenses were an issue, why not cut it, too?

Vision 12 has touched the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people in Bannock County over the years, binding the community together. It's too bad such a priceless treasure can be flippantly tossed onto the ash heap with little regard to its legacy.

I've had the privilege and pleasure of producing and hosting a program called “Business Dynamics” since December 2000, interviewing top government, business, agriculture and education leaders, covering economic development, energy, transportation, manufacturing and a host of other issues pertaining to business.

When I ran into Rick Eike at Fred Meyer some 18 years ago, he broached the idea that I do my own cable access program like he did. At first, I dismissed his suggestion, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. In-depth local news coverage of economic issues of interest to me and no doubt others was sorely lacking, and this could fill a void.

I would like to thank the scores of guests who gave of their time to appear on “Business Dynamics” and share their expertise, observations and opinions. I learned a great deal from each of them and hope viewers also found their appearances enlightening and informative.

I also would be remiss to not thank Kathy Oborn, Ken Wilson, John Hahn and other studio employees for their professionalism and assistance over the years. Their hard work behind the scenes ensured that Pocatello's cable access station ranked at the very top of its class and gave outsiders a positive view of the community's many amenities – a window into the Gate City from a distinct vantage point.

It's been a great run, a great ride, a great experience for me to be part of such a truly unique operation like Pocatello's cable access television service. Unlike Tom Bodett of Motel 6, some Pocatello City Council members have decided to not leave the light on for us. Signing off …

(Photo: Former U.S. Interior Secretary and Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne appears a few years ago on 'Business Dynamic,' a longtime Pocatello cable access television program in Pocatello. Host Mark Mendiola is on the left.)

North at Pocatello


Lt. Col. Oliver North, incoming president of the National Rifle Association, told an enthusiastic crowd of some 700 Republicans attending the 2018 Idaho GOP Convention inside Idaho State University's cavernous Holt Arena that it is his objective to double the NRA's membership from six million to 12 million as it comes under increasing fire from gun control advocates.

North was introduced by former Idaho U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, a longtime NRA board member who was instrumental in arranging North's appearance in the Gem State. Craig praised Melaleuca CEO Frank Vandersloot for dispatching a corporate jet to fly North to Idaho Falls after his flights were delayed out of Washington.

Calling North “a true American hero,” Craig referred to the NRA as “without question the strongest civil rights organization in the United States” because of its efforts to protect the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that ensures the right to keep and bear arms.

North joined the NRA's board in 1998, the same year Academy Award-winning actor Charlton Heston started his three terms as its president, Craig pointed out, noting the NRA's membership then stood at 900,000. Upon addressing the Idaho Republicans, North joked that the NRA now has gone from “Moses to the U.S. marines.”

North commended Idaho for helping elect George W. Bush to the White House and sending Al Gore packing during the crucial 2000 presidential election. He predicted Republicans would win Idaho's gubernatorial election in November and took shots at Paulette Jordan, the Democratic candidate who will oppose Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the Republican candidate. He said she has earned an “F” rating from the NRA.

Jordan backs gun control, including licensing schemes and banning firearm magazines, North said, adding she also defends sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants. “Paulette Jordan sounds perfect for office in San Francisco,” North said, mocking her endorsement by the singer/actress Cher. “You can't make these things up folks.”

When he welcomed North to the podium, Little said it has been no accident that Idaho leads the nation in job creation and income growth. He was roundly applauded when he said Idaho also leads the U.S. in per capita manufacturing of firearms and ammunition. He mentioned that Jordan arrived at a recent event in a limousine and with bodyguards.

Idaho is in partnership with the Trump administration in ensuring bills comply with the Tenth Amendment that states the federal government possesses only those powers delegated to it by the Constitution, with all remaining powers reserved for the states, Little said.

He extolled the 180 degrees in U.S. Department of Justice changes that have occurred under the Trump administration and said he's excited President Donald Trump will soon nominate a second justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Idaho was among the first states to return money from recent federal tax cuts to citizens and ask the Trump administration to end Obamacare, which has priced people out of the health care market. It also is working closely with the U.S. government for better management of federal lands to prevent devastating wild fires, Little said, stressing that Idaho repeatedly is ranked at the top in national surveys.

North said much is at stake in November's crucial mid-term elections with a “progressive cabal” headed by socialist billionaire George Soros and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg planning to spend millions of dollars to defeat Republican candidates so Democrats can regain control of Congress.

“They may have the money, but the NRA turns out the vote,” North said, noting there are 100 million gun owners in the United States, promising the NRA can and will make a difference in the elections.

North warned: “There are evil enemies who have wanted to visit terror on our land,” and he urged that the American flag be honored. “The NRA will never 'take a knee',” he remarked.

North criticized retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who recently called in a “Washington Compost” article for the Second Amendment to be repealed. “The Second Amendment is not going to be eradicated,” he vowed, calling it essential to the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights. “The NRA is not going to let real American voters be shut out.”

When North asked for a show of hands of those in the audience who were NRA members, a majority of the Idahoans in attendance raised their arms. He cautioned that it's easy to delude certain voters as pivotal elections approach.

“Progressive politics is spinning a web of hollow arguments to deceive voters,” he said, adding that “Idaho United, Idaho Strong” is a motto that the state's Republicans can use all the way to victory in November.

Challenges at INL


Addressing a recent City Club of Idaho Falls gathering, Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters praised Idaho's elected officials for their solid support of INL as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) lab confronts formidable cybersecurity, homeland security, nuclear energy, radioactive waste management and nonproliferation challenges.

In a presentation titled “Securing the Nation's Energy Future,” Peters recalled how he met former U.S. Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus a few months after he started directing INL in October 2015.

Andrus, who died last August at the age of 85, and Phil Batt, another former Idaho governor, have been vocal critics of allowing more spent nuclear fuel to be shipped to INL in violation of the “1995 Settlement Agreement,” expressing concern that Idaho could become the nation's de facto spent nuclear fuel repository.

The agreement struck between Idaho, the U.S. Navy and DOE nearly 25 years ago allows for 1,135 shipments of spent fuel to come to INL for interim storage over 40 years, including 575 shipments from the Navy. It also could come from other DOE sites, foreign research reactors, universities and private companies directly supporting DOE research and development.

The agreement also calls for DOE to remove all spent nuclear fuel from Idaho no later than 2035, treat all high level INL waste for final disposal elsewhere by 2035, remove transuranic waste by no later than Dec. 31, 2018, and place all spent fuel in dry storage by Dec. 31, 2023, but not above the Snake River Plain Aquifer.

If DOE fails to remove all spent fuel by 2035, Idaho could fine it $60,000 per day. If it fails to meet any agreement milestones, the state could ask a federal court to block further spent fuel shipments to Idaho. Some of those milestones have been missed, especially pertaining to the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) and removal of 900,000 gallons of liquid nuclear waste stored underground at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC).

Peters indicated that when he first met Andrus, the late governor was very frank about upholding the 1995 agreement's terms. “I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. All of us miss Governor Andrus,” he said.

Peters commended Idaho's congressional delegation, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and the state's legislators for their continued robust support for INL and its many activities, heaping special praise on the Idaho Legislature for funding a Collaborative Computing Center and a Cybercore Integration Center that will be constructed on 13 acres, with groundbreaking scheduled in mid-April.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Appropriations Committee (JFAC) also recently approved $3 million in funding for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES), a research and education consortium located in Idaho Falls that involves INL, Idaho State University, Boise State University, the University of Idaho and the University of Wyoming.

Peters praised Rep. Raul Labrador for being generous with his time when Peters is in Washington; Sen. Mike Crapo, who has been very instrumental in pushing nuclear innovations, and Sen. Jim Risch, who is deeply committed to INL's national security mission. He was especially effusive in his praise for Rep. Mike Simpson, who chairs the U.S. House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

“INL owes so much to the chairman for what he has done,” Peters said of Simpson. “He's a tremendous leader for the state.”

The day before his City Club address, Peters was on Capitol Hill in Washington testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology about how DOE's laboratories provide world-leading technology in science. It was the same day Zachary Tudor, INL associate lab director of National and Homeland Security, testified before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee about cybersecurity threats.

Peters mentioned he has spent a lot of time in the nation's capital dealing with pressing budget, national security, nuclear energy and high technology issues. Noting that about 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from nuclear energy, he said many commercial reactors are undergoing financial and legal stresses, and some units are being prematurely decommissioned when they can safely operate for 20 to 80 years.

“If the existing fleet isn't protected and preserved, it will be difficult to go forward,” he said, adding that Russia and China are constructing nuclear reactors. “R&D budgets need to be stable.”

With Iran and North Korea posing threats to national security, it's even more urgent to develop the next generation of nuclear technology, he emphasized, pointing out the Trump administration is bullish for nuclear energy, and the sector is getting a lot of attention in Washington.

Cybersecurity funding is not under pressure nor facing cutbacks like other federal programs. He mentioned the federal government has the capability to closely monitor the nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea. It also is doing all in its power to protect the nation's extensive electricity grid.

“I'm ready for a more optimistic environment,” Peter said, praising partnerships between the federal government and private companies. He said plans by NuScale Power and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) for locating first-of-its-kind small modular reactors (SMRs) that could generate 50 megawatts of power at the INL site have made significant licensing and financing progress in recent months.

Two bills enacted by the Idaho Legislature that would have a positive impact on the NuScale project at INL are awaiting Otter's signature in Boise. One would allow a property tax exemption originally targeted for an Areva project to be applied to the small modular reactors. The other would exempt two of 12 SMRs from sales tax. Federal tax credits also may be implemented.

Peters predicted if the SMR technology proves successful upon starting its first commercial production of nuclear energy in 2026, that could create hundreds of construction jobs, unleash an energy renaissance and replicate in eastern Idaho the “Magic Valley miracle” that spawned Chobani, Clif Bars and a host of other businesses in the Twin Falls region.

Peters, however, warned if small amounts of spent nuclear fuel cannot be brought into Idaho for research purposes, the INL's overall mission will be jeopardized. “If they don't let us do this, we can't solve bigger problems.”

He said when DOE Secretary Rick Perry visited the Idaho site last May, discussions between DOE, Otter and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden were initiated and trust between the state and federal government began to be rebuilt.

The INL director noted that President Donald Trump recently praised last year's reactivation of INL's world class Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT). Peters also expressed confidence its Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project (AMWTP) will continue to be operated in the long term.

INL recently lost $20 million in federal research funding when spent nuclear fuel had to be diverted from INL to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a development Peters characterized as “a slippery slope.”

From Agrium to DEQ


July marked the second anniversary of John Tippets' appointment as director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality after working 40 years in various capacities for the phosphate mining and fertilizer processing operations of Agrium and its predecessors near Soda Springs.

“It's been an interesting transition,” Tippets told me, stressing he has proven since he was appointed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on July 6, 2015 that – despite misgivings by some that it was like “putting the fox in charge of the hen house” – he can make difficult decisions without a conflict of interest.

“I agreed to recuse myself from issues that dealt directly and primarily with Agrium. I did not recuse myself from dealing with issues for any of the phosphate companies. Those are big issues for the department, and it's a lot of what we do,” he said.

Tippets has delegated other IDEQ employees to attend meetings and sign documents pertaining to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment that involves Agrium and other companies.

“I know what's going on. I get reports, but I'm not involved at all in the decision making. So, I would say from my perspective, it's worked very well. I think the department is able to do its work and avoid the perception of a conflict of interest with the director,” he said, adding his extensive background gives him an understanding about issues that pertain to protecting and enhancing Idaho's air, water and land.

Starting in 1996, the death of sheep, cattle and horses from ingesting vegetation contaminated by selenium in the vicinity of historic phosphate mines in southeastern Idaho prompted companies – including Agrium, the J.R. Simplot Co. and Monsanto – to cooperate with federal, state and tribal agencies to investigate and address selenium-related environmental and public health issues.

It was determined selenium contamination is concentrated in about 75 square miles of active and historic mine lease areas within the 2,500-square-miles phosphate resource region. Jeff Cundick, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) minerals branch chief in Pocatello, told me that 15 large selenium-contaminated sites have been identified.

Selenium is a mineral that enhances metabolism in small amounts as it occurs naturally in water and some foods. In large amounts, however, it can prove toxic.

Tippets said plans to remediate the contaminated selenium sites were progressing well when he retired as Agrium's public affairs manager two years ago. Calling the problem “a legacy issue,” the IDEQ chief said phosphate companies did not know when they were mining for decades that selenium had the potential of becoming a contamination issue. The selenium is contained in shale sandwiched between layers of phosphate ore, not in the ore itself.

In issuing mining permits, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM often required companies such as Beker Industries, Nu-West Industries (Agrium's predecessors), Agrium, Monsanto and Simplot to put the shale on top when mines were back filled, not realizing that exposing the shale to air and water released the selenium into the environment, Tippets said. Now that shale must be buried with impervious caps on top when new mines are developed.

“So, they're not creating more problems with selenium, but they haven't got all the past problems resolved yet, either. So, it's an ongoing issue, but they're making progress, and they know how to deal with it today. So, they're on the right track,” Tippets said.

When the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were enacted in the 1970s, it was envisioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would have oversight authority, but states would run regulatory programs, he said. Idaho is in the process of getting primacy for a program dealing with water discharges by municipalities and industries.

“In Idaho, we have to be as stringent as the federal government to have primacy, but Idaho law says we cannot be more stringent. We're trying to find that sweet spot. We do have some flexibility in some areas, and we exercise them when we can,” Tippets said, noting there are a few high profile issues that are in dispute between the EPA and IDEQ.

Idaho is prepared to go to court against the EPA in regards to imposing on the Gem State an onerous fish consumption standard used as a human health criteria for Oregon. “It's not resolved yet, but we think we came up with the right solution for Idaho. I don't want to demonize the EPA. We work together with them very well and have a good relationship, but when we think what they want to impose on Idaho isn't appropriate, we're certainly willing to push back.”

When Tippets started his phosphate career four decades ago with Agricultural Products, which later became Beker Industries, he hired on as a laborer during an extremely cold December, using a jack hammer, pick and shovel, pouring concrete at 20 degrees below zero, working 12-hour days.

Beker shut down its Soda Springs fertilizer plant in the summer of 1986. It reopened as a Nu-West Industries operation the following summer. In 1995, it was sold to Canadian-based Agrium.

Meanwhile, Tippets learned how to operate heavy equipment and spent many years working as an instrumentation technician. He earned a bachelor's degree in independent studies from Brigham Young University via correspondence. While working in human resources, he got a master's degree in human resource management by taking night classes at Utah State University.

He was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1988, but resigned during his sixth term after 11 years when he became Agrium's human resource manager. He was out of the Legislature for 11 years when he was appointed to the Idaho Senate to replace Bob Geddes. Tippits resigned his Senate seat while serving his third term to become IDEQ director.

After taking his government position, Tippets was approached by a legislator who asked him, “How many crazy environmentalists do you have working in that organization?” He said he responded: “If we have any, I don't know who they are,” commending his staff as professional Idahoans dedicated to reasonably protecting the state's natural resources and spending tax dollars wisely.

Tippets said he has been appointed to serve until the end of Otter's third term, which will expire in January 2019. He said he would be willing to stay on for a transition period to assist his successor, but “it would be hard to commit for another four years.” Otter is the nation's longest serving incumbent governor whose time in office has run consecutively. “Honestly, I can say that I've enjoyed this more than I even anticipated,” Tippets said.

Premier’s dilemma


At a recent Idaho Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) meeting in Pocatello, Premier Technology Chief Business Officer and Co-Founder Douglas Sayer (pictured) testified that his Blackfoot-based design, engineering, manufacturing and construction management company is on the horns of a very challenging dilemma.

Since its start in 1996, Premier Technology has grown to employ about 300 highly skilled professionals, including engineers and machinists, at its cutting edge 210,000-square-foot fabrication plant conspicuously seen west of Blackfoot’s main Interstate 15 interchange.

Its welders are stringently trained to work with a variety of metals, ranging from stainless and carbon steel to exotic elements such as titanium.

Premier has done extensive sophisticated custom work for the Idaho National Laboratory and other U.S. Department of Energy contractors, but Sayer told LINE commissioners at Idaho State University that it’s a misconception to believe that private companies securing government contracts have grabbed brass rings.

He said it’s an uphill battle for relatively small businesses to get bank loans for such contracts as they struggle to make large capital investments. Only about half of Premier Technology’s business mix is related to the nuclear industry, Sayer noted.

“Food processing and mining allow us to participate on the nuclear side,” he said, mentioning that if it were up to his wife Shelly, Premier’s chief executive officer since 2013, the company would not be involved in the nuclear business due to its significant expenses and difficulty breaking even. Premier has heavily invested in research and development for new technologies.

Premier believes it has a moral obligation to maintain top quality levels of manufacturing to protect the environment and Idaho’s Snake River Plain aquifer, Sayer said, but pointed out companies in such countries as India are not held to the same standards or pay scales, making it more difficult to compete.

Competitors in Missouri and the United Kingdom see the economic advantages of developing Small Modular Reactors as the wave of the nuclear industry’s future and are aggressively pursuing the development of SMRs. NuScale Power has indicated it could start placing orders for SMR components as soon as 2019.

“We’re a little bit behind the eight ball if we want to get serious about it,” Sayer said, adding Premier Technology has imposed 60-hours-per-week mandatory shifts at its plant to keep up. “We’re short on human capital. … There’s a shortage of qualified talent in Idaho now.”

Unlike Chobani, which can tap the resources of the College of Southern Idaho, a community college in Twin Falls, for its yogurt plant employment needs, the nuclear industry’s requirements demand much higher training proficiencies. “There’s a difference between teaching and training,” Sayer said.

The Premier Technology executive urged LINE committee members to create a subcommittee to address the compelling need for trained, qualified personnel in the nuclear industry and initiate an effective strategy. The INL needs “top shelf talent” and is not a place for on-the-job training, Sayer stressed. “We’ve got to think outside the box.”

He also emphasized that Idaho ranks among the lowest states in terms of education investments. “We can’t wait any longer,” Sayer said, adding Premier Technology has considered acquiring oil and gas companies in Utah and Wyoming to secure their pipeline welding talent.

He also noted there is a large difference between nuclear performance-based welding requirements and those of the petroleum industry. Many if not most welding instructors in ISU’s College of Technology hail from the oil and gas industry. Idaho has not addressed the dire need for nuclear-qualified welders, machinists and crafts, he said, mentioning he has been working with ISU for 15 years.

“Five years ago I could operate every piece of equipment in our facility. Today I cannot operate any of them. That’s how far manufacturing has advanced,” Sayer said.

Premier Technology offered someone in Carlsbad, N.M., a quarter million dollar salary, a $50,000 relocation stipend and six weeks vacation to move to Idaho, but the individual turned it down because he was making the equivalent amount working part time, Sayer said. “And Carlsbad is not the prettiest place on earth,” he remarked.

CWI’s legacy


Mark Mendiola, a longtime eastern Idaho journalist, recently worked for the Idaho Cleanup Project.

When I first started covering the Idaho Cleanup Project’s many activities at the Idaho National Laboratory site for CH2M-WG Idaho (CWI) as a communications specialist in November 2009, it was especially reassuring for me to witness the high caliber of veteran employees who had racked up many decades of experience working with high levels of radioactivity in a very hazardous environment.

As a “boots-on-the-ground roving reporter” for CWI, I was privileged to experience first hand projects that took Herculean efforts and tremendous resourcefulness to complete, invariably weeks ahead of schedule and substantially under budget.

There was no task too formidable for teams of project managers, radiological control technicians, engineers, demolition workers, laborers, etc., to tackle. A can-do attitude, coupled with a mutual respect and genuine camaraderie among the ranks, combined to work wonders on the Arco Desert.

Stringent safety requirements took top precedence throughout the company and were interwoven throughout CWI’s cultural fabric. Everyone covered each other’s back so all the employees could return safely to their families at the close of business each day. That commendable attitude impressed me from day one. Achieving safety records without lost time injuries for countless employee hours was the norm.

With camera in tow and notebook in hand, I was charged with regularly visiting the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC), the Radioactive Waste Management Complex (RWMC), the Materials and Fuels Complex (MFC), the Idaho CERCLA Disposal Facility (ICDF) and the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) area to chronicle the many successful projects under way at each facility. It was an enviable assignment few have had the opportunity to experience.

Many of the projects undertaken by CWI proved to be groundbreaking and even revolutionary in terms of the technology and procedures developed to address specific challenges. During CWI’s 11 years managing the ICP, it often would take the lead among U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contractors nationwide and counterparts internationally in introducing standards that have become the norm in the nuclear industry.

It was CWI that proved -- and improved on -- a patented sodium treatment process using spritzing, distilling and immersing techniques at MFC and INTEC now used throughout the DOE complex.

Its intrepid Decontamination and Decommissioning (D&D) workers safely demolished or removed three nuclear reactors, two hot cells, a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility and more than 200 other buildings and structures over the course of CWI’s DOE contract.

It was astounding a few months ago to watch the massive jaws of heavy equipment skillfully run by D&D operators rip apart and voraciously devour a large MFC building in only a matter of hours like mechanical tyrannosaurus rexes, leaving a Jurassic Park graveyard of metal beams, siding and insulation strewn about in their wake.

They and their co-workers are now concentrating on dismantling the iconic Experimental Breeder Reactor II dome, using an innovative water jet cutting system to peel it like a giant onion before the year ends.

Waste Management personnel, including Packaging and Transportation employees, completed 364 shipments of Remote-Handled Transuranic (RH-TRU) waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, including the first-ever shipment of such waste there, and completed 60 U-233 shipments to the Nevada National Security Site without incident.

RWMC employees exhumed 4.11 acres of 5.69 acres (72 percent) of buried waste required by a 2008 agreement with 97 percent of the 7,485 cubic meters of targeted waste packaged, completing buried waste exhumation at seven Accelerated Retrieval Project (ARP) areas. Work now continues at the Subsurface Disposal Area’s eighth ARP site. Some 7,300 drums and 60 waste boxes have been successfully treated.

CWI Environmental Restoration workers have remediated 136 waste sites and suspected waste sites. They also have reduced 184,400 acres of potential unexploded ordnance areas to 6,300 acres, which protects crews that work out in the sagebrush.

At INTEC, 3,186 units of spent nuclear fuel were transferred from wet to dry storage, and a tank farm where 900,000 gallons of sodium-bearing liquid waste are stored underground has been successfully closed. And the list continues …

Even the controversial Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) painstakingly developed from the ground up by CWI has achieved significant strides in advance of processing those 900,000 gallons with state-of-the-art technology. Simulant runs have proven feasible at the 53,000-square-foot facility before the liquid waste is converted into a more stable form. The finish line for that grueling marathon is actually within sight.

Last February, DOE awarded a $1.4 billion, five-year contract for managing the ICP to Texas-based Fluor Idaho, which took effect on June 1. Coinciding with that new contract, many long-time CWI employees have decided to hang it up and retire, including many key managers and engineers who have worked on the IWTU project virtually since its inception.

With the departure of so many seasoned CWI employees occurring at once, a legacy of invaluable experience, an unrivaled safety record and institutional knowledge not easily replaced also is exiting. They professionally transformed a work site fraught with danger into one of DOE’s safest locations with minimal damage or injury.

It’s been my privilege and pleasure to have worked with such a diversified group of talented CWI individuals, ranging from project managers and subcontractors to information technologists, accountants and administrative assistants. Cherished friendships have been nurtured within CWI’s tight knit family. The end of the CWI era leaves some mighty big boots for Fluor Idaho to fill.