Combating the silent killer: Firefighters discuss carbon monoxide detectors, regulations

carbon

Children swim Tuesday in the pool at the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA. Along the walls are various lights, cameras and carbon monoxide detectors. (Tony Wittkowski / HP staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

As children swam laps in the pool Tuesday in the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA, there is safety fixture fastened to the aquatic room’s northern wall.

Between a flat-screen television in the corner and a surveillance camera toward the middle of the wall, is a carbon monoxide detector.

With the recent carbon monoxide poisoning incident in mind, the Niles Fire Department is hoping residents and business owners will take an extra precaution in keeping everyone safe – like at both YMCAs in Berrien County.

The precaution, in most cases, costs $20.

Police and firefighters across Southwest Michigan universally agree on not only providing smoke detectors, but carbon monoxide detectors in homes and specific businesses.

“In the city of Niles, smoke detectors are required,” Niles Fire Department Capt. Don Wise said in a phone interview. “The code states a working detector must be in each bedroom and on each level (of the home). The same cannot be said for carbon monoxide detectors.”

On Saturday, a ventilation problem with the heater that keeps the Niles Quality Inn and Suites’ pool warm caused a carbon monoxide leak that sent a dozen people to the hospital and killed 13-year-old Bryan Watts.

In Niles, the fire department regularly inspects potential fire hazards, but not mechanical problems like what caused the pool’s heater to leak CO into the enclosed room.

The state building code requires structures that were built after 2009 to install carbon monoxide detectors near fuel-burning devices like furnaces, water heaters and other equipment that could malfunction and emit the deadly gas. Unfortunately, the building code doesn’t include structures built before 2009.

Spotting the signs

By definition, carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas.

This silent killer exhibits symptoms like that of the flu. Wise said sometimes the only way to know the difference is to have a CO detector on hand.

“I think anyone with fuel-burning equipment should have a CO detector,” Wise said. “A furnace’s heat exchanger could get a crack in it and dump CO into a home or business. Whenever we have a tragedy like this, the only thing worse is having it happen again when a $20 detector would prevent that.”

Watervliet Fire Chief Dan Jones said there’s a threshold that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has for certain businesses like car repair shops or underground parking garages.

The concentration of carbon monoxide is measured in parts per million. The baseline threshold for a minimum exposure is at 35 parts per million, Jones said.

Any more exposure leads to more severe effects. At 200 parts per million, the subject gets a slight headache and nausea after two hours.

After 800 parts per million, a convulsion will occur within 45 minutes, unconsciousness or death comes in two to three hours. At 1,600 parts per million, Jones said death will come within an hour.

“Obviously, you don’t want any CO whatsoever. The readings you want in your home or business is zero,” Jones said. “Just like with smoke detectors, we encourage people to use CO detectors. We encourage them because CO detectors are not required in the ordinance.”

Being prepared

Jen Hobson, director of administration for the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA, said after the renovation to its building on Hollywood Road, they added more than 30 smoke detectors that also detect carbon monoxide.

In addition to the one in the pool area, Hobson said there are also ones in the basement and near the child care facilities.

“We have them throughout the building,” she said. “They follow the same protocol at the Niles Y. We also hold by-yearly battery checks and have regular inspections for licensing protocol.”

But what happens when residents are unsure whether a business has a CO detector?

“We’ve had some people ask about going to hotels and knowing if they have a detector,” Wise said. “Sometimes we have to take care of ourselves. A battery-operated detector is the best option. You can plug it in when you get there.”

This is the practice Wise follows when he stays at any hotel or goes camping and uses propane.

“I have CO detectors in my home and at work. I know I have one in my house for natural gas as well,” Wise said. When asked if he sees as many of these CO detectors in public, the answer is not as simple. “I probably see more homes that don’t have them. We have a free smoke detector program for owner-occupied homes, but we don’t offer CO detectors. People have to buy them on their own.”

Jones said there are certain commercial buildings in Watervliet they inspect on an annual basis. This includes the Surfari Joe’s Indoor Wilderness Waterpark at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Watervliet.

He said hotels and motels are the type of commercial buildings that should have CO detectors because it is where people would sleep or spend the night.

However, his rule of thumb doesn’t apply to restaurants.

“It doesn’t take me three hours to eat,” he said. “Having a CO detector takes the guesswork out of it. It doesn’t take very many breaths of carbon monoxide and you will be debilitated.”

In most cases, CO doesn’t get into a high enough concentration for people not to recognize it, Jones said.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 5, 2017)

Advertisements

Cook nuclear power plant has potential for extended lifetime

plant

The Cook Nuclear Plant in Bridgman is pictured Sept. 7, 2013. The plant is one of the 60-70 percent of existing nuclear power plants in the U.S. to be viable candidates for an extension. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BRIDGMAN — If the powers that be have their way, the D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant has the potential to renew its license well past 2034.

Joel Gebbie, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer for Cook, said during an interview Tuesday with The Herald-Palladium’s editorial board it is one of the 60-70 percent of existing nuclear power plants to be viable candidates for an extension.

However, another extension would depend on its parent company – American Electric Power.

“We would like to make our decision within the next five years or so,” Gebbie said Tuesday. “It’s a long planning horizon that you want to undertake. Just to be clear, AEP is not committed to that, but that’s what it would take to do that. That’s an ongoing discussion I’m having with the people back in Columbus,” AEP’s home.

Gebbie said if AEP committed to applying for another extension, it would take another 30 months for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review and approve the application.

This is the same NRC that signed license renewals for Cook plant’s Units 1 and 2 in 2005, extending the life of both units for an additional 20 years. With the renewals, Unit 1 is licensed until Oct. 25, 2034, and Unit 2 is licensed until Dec. 23, 2037.

Preparations for that license renewal process began in 2001, where the application was eventually submitted to the NRC in late 2003.

“So much has changed in 10 years, it will be hard to project what happens in 20 years. But (the extension) is very feasible,” Gebbie said. “We are part of the industry group that’s looking at the technical considerations for it. There’s a financial piece and the optics to consider as well.”

Plant spokesman Bill Schalk said AEP’s decision would have to come down to whether an extension is cost effective for an additional 20 years.

Trump’s plans for energy

Gebbie also addressed the changing landscape that Cook plant faces with a new-look Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump’s administration.

“As an industry, we’ve tried to read the tea leaves from those close to (Trump). Right now it’s unclear,” Gebbie said. “They’ve made very definitive statements about the coal industry. But I do know they like the fact that the nuclear industry creates jobs.”

While Trump’s administration hasn’t given nuclear industry leaders a signal as to whether they want more or less nuclear power, Gebbie said they think the new administration hasn’t gotten to that form of energy yet.

After the president gets through a Supreme Court justice nomination, Gebbie said they’ll look closer to see whether they will signal their intentions for more nuclear power.

Revamping a visitors center

A lot of work has been done to Cook’s visitors center from 2014 to 2015.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Schalk said the plant limited its access to school groups. Even then, it was only a couple thousand students a year.

“We put about $1 million into the building and are getting more use out of it internally,” Schalk said. “We’ve been bringing folks in, for like key stakeholder tours. A security plan realignment might get some folks up there.”

Gebbie said among the good things about the visitors center is how close it is to the plant. However, because of security reasons, that’s a negative as well.

In an effort to give the community more access and make it easier for workers to get in and out, Gebbie said the plant is making some physical modifications to its security plan.

“We recognize people want to come and see the plant,” Gebbie said. “Of all the plants I’ve been to, this was the best visitors center I had ever seen. It was right on the lake and so close to the plant. We’d like to have it more for general community access, but we’ll never be like we were before (Sept. 11).”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 25, 2017)

A rolling stone: Peacock Rocks brings minerals, fossils to Bridgman

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BRIDGMAN — Very few people understand what lays underneath their feet.

But Adrian Quint does.

For more than 40 years, Quint has spent time searching for rocks, minerals and fossils. After all that time, the Benton Harbor native decided to open a shop called Peacock Rocks that would sell those very items.

“Rocks are a great example of how you can’t judge a book by its cover. From the outside, geodes look to be ordinary. You would step on them and wouldn’t think about twice about it. But inside there’s so much more to it. It’s funny because people will spend thousands of dollars for a cut-faceted stone in a ring.”

The business opened at 9798 Red Arrow Highway in Bridgman on Oct. 3.

Each rock showcased has a slip of paper underneath or attached to it, highlighting the rock’s price, name and location it was found in.

In addition to the rocks, minerals and fossils, Peacock Rocks sells posters and jewelry that pertain to his other items. The largest rock sold at his establishment is a 280-pound geode that rests at the front corner of the store.

Quint, a Bridgman resident, said he became interested in rocks and other minerals through his parents.

The three of them would go on field trips out to a quarry, mountainside and beaches in search for rocks together. From there, it grew from a hobby into a lifestyle.

“My dad taught earth science. My mom came into it and learned to appreciate it,” he said. “He was the main one who went on rock collecting trips. I was brought along over the course of that.”

Quint earned a degree in geology and kept collecting until he hardly had any room left.

He began selling at various craft shows and “rock shows,” which don’t have anything to do with music. While he’s sold rocks for about two decades, Quint’s path toward opening Peacock Rocks has been a progressive one.

For his first craft shows, he only had a 6-foot table. Within a year Quint collected enough to sell for about 12 feet of table space. In the next five years he was selling between 20 and 30 feet worth of table space. Now he would have no trouble filling 80 feet of table space.

Instead, Quint fills an entire showroom of rocks and minerals.

“I do this to show the general public that there’s more out there than just the rocks you see on the beach,” he said. “Any rock can be special or significant or have that spark.”

Opening Peacock Rocks was a way of getting all his rocks in one location, Quint said. His plans will be to expand his operation and potentially add services that include polishing rocks.

Until then, he plans on focusing on getting more rocks and customers.

“My favorite part is seeing the kids’ expressions when they see a rock and go ‘Oh, wow!’ You see the light bulb click on and their eyes get really big,” Quint said. “Then I get to explain why the stone is that color or what features reveal where it came from. Even some of the adults do the same thing.”

Peacock Rocks is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and closed for Sunday and Tuesday. Quint said they are also open by appointment.

Anyone interested in learning more about the new business can visit the Bridgman location or call the shop at 269-277-8844 or Quint’s wife at 269-923-9410.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 25, 2016)

Unemployment remains stable in Southwest Michigan

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

The unemployment rate proved stagnant throughout Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties in November.

According to the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, typical seasonal hiring in retail trade was partially offset by continued seasonal layoffs in leisure and hospitality and in business services.

All four Southwest Michigan counties’ jobless rate changes were minimal, while three of which recorded jobless rates below the statewide-unadjusted unemployment rate of 4.5 percent in November.

Allegan County’s unemployment rate – the lowest in the region – rose from 3.2 percent to a 3.3 percent. Berrien County increased its jobless rate from 4.3 percent to 4.4 percent, and Cass County rose from 4.2 percent in October to 4.3 percent in November.

Van Buren County’s jobless rate rose from 4.4 percent to 4.7 percent – making it the highest unemployed county in the Southwest Michigan region.

Michigan finished with a 4.5 percent unemployment rate in November, while the U.S. produced a 4.4 percent jobless rate.

A look at Berrien jobs

November non-farm payroll jobs in Berrien fell by 800 to a total of 62,700. Seasonal job cuts were recorded in leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, and construction.

The 100 job additions each in manufacturing, retail trade and government were not large enough to compensate for these employment reductions.

Since November of last year, the goods-producing sector added 400 positions – all in manufacturing – while employment in the service-providing sector was flat. Private service industries that added jobs since November 2015 included leisure and hospitality, education and health, and financial activities.

However, employment in professional and business services fell by 600 over the year. Total non-farm payroll employment in Berrien County was 400 above November 2015 levels. The current November payroll jobs were still below the pre-recessionary November 2007 level by 5.6 percent.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 25, 2016)

A new peak year for housing?

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Housing analysts are still waiting for the market to show some signs of decline.

In November, the Southwest Michigan housing market continued to break records in monthly and year-to-date numbers and prices.

Philip Amodeo, association executive of the Southwestern Michigan Association of Realtors Inc., said for the past few years the numbers have been falling in line with what the housing market saw in 2006 – the country’s peak year.

“In 2008 through 2010, we saw numbers and prices decline,” Amodeo said. “From 2011 until now, the market has slowly rebuilt itself. If the market continues to surge through December, we may need to realign our trend watch to set 2016 as the new peak year.”

From January to the end of November, the region was six houses shy of the number of houses sold in all of 2015. By comparison, this gap was an 8 percent gain over the year-to-date standing in November 2015.

In November 2016, there were 289 houses sold compared to 222 houses sold in November of last year for a 30 percent increase. Looking at the number of houses sold in the year-to-year comparison for November and year-to-date, both numbers set new records, Amodeo said.

“The average time a home was on the market before it sold in November was 114 days, compared to 131 days in November 2015. This was a 13 percent decrease,” Amodeo said. “Year to date, the time on market has dropped from 134 days to 119 – an 11 percent decline. This is a positive trend, indicating that homes are selling at a faster pace than recent years.”

The total dollar volume for November and year-to-date also broke records.

In November 2016, the total dollar volume at $57.5 million surpassed the $41.2 million set in November 2015 by 39 percent. Year-to-date, the total dollar volume has grown 12 percent.

The average selling price in November increased to $199,042 from $185,992 in November 2015 for a 7 percent climb. The November average selling price was the only housing market factor that did not break the record in the year-to-year comparison.

However, the year-to-date average selling price at $200,309 was the highest average selling price in the past 11 years.

The median selling price in November rose 14 percent to $137,000 from $120,000 in November 2015. Year-to-date, the median selling price was up 4 percent. Amodeo said both median selling prices, in November and year-to-date, raised the bar in the year-to-year comparison.

At the end of November, there were 1,877 houses on the market compared to 2,169 in November 2015. At that inventory level, the local housing market had a 6.3-months supply of homes for homebuyers. The inventory declined from 7.9-months supply in November 2015 and was down from the 7.1-months supply in October 2016.

Locally, the mortgage rate jumped to 3.92 percent from 3.58 in October. In November 2015, the rate was 4.1.

Across the country

According to the National Association of Realtors, a big surge in the Northeast and a smaller gain in the South pushed existing-home sales up in November for the third consecutive month.

Total existing-home sales rose 0.7 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.61 million in November from 5.57 million in October. The November sales pace was the highest since February 2007 (5.79 million) and was 15.4 percent higher than a year ago (4.86 million).

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said it’s been an a great three-month stretch for the housing market as 2016 nears the finish line.

The median existing-home price for all housing types across the country in November was $234,900, up 6.8 percent from November 2015. The November price increase marked the 57th consecutive month of year-over-year gains.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Midwest decreased 2.2 percent to an annual rate of 1.33 million in November, but was still 18.8 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was up 6.5 percent from a year ago.

Nationally, the total housing inventory at the end of November dropped 8 percent to 1.85 million existing homes available for sale, and was 9.3 percent lower than a year ago and has fallen year-over-year for 18 straight months.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 24, 2016)

Trustees approve women’s health center site plans

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — InterCare Community Health Network will have another freestanding medical clinic built alongside its Benton Township location in 2017.

Township trustees approved site plans for a women’s health center during Tuesday’s board meeting, which will be built next to Intercare’s Benton Harbor Health Center at 800 M-139.

Tracy Ezell, senior architect and project manager with Byce & Associates, said the proposed building would be directly north of the existing 800 M-139 clinic. The township assigned an address of 796 M-139 to the future building.

The network received notification this year it was a recipient of a $1 million federal grant from the Affordable Care Act’s Community Health Center Fund. This led to plans for the women’s health clinic.

The 1.5-acre property will make way for a 9,500-square-foot women’s health clinic, which InterCare will use for prenatal care and other services.

Ezell told trustees it was a long-term goal to use the land north of the clinic.

“Shortly after the first clinic was built, Lakeland Health transferred most of their women’s health care for prenatal care to the InterCare organization,” Ezell said Tuesday. “Those services are currently housed in the original clinic, which was built for overall general health care. That function will be removed from the original InterCare facility and moved next door.”

The proposed health center would be next to the original InterCare clinic, but would not be physically connected.

According to meeting minutes from the township’s planning commission, InterCare officials anticipate moving most of the staff from the existing clinic to the new building. A few additional employees may be needed.

The revised site plan shows 45 new parking spaces with some of the overflow parking to be provided by the InterCare clinic to the south.

“It’s going to be a shared entry drive,” Ezell said. “When the original project was completed, this drive was planned to service any future project. There are provisions for overflow parking, which would be handled by the main site. It’s a campus plan of sorts.”

A number of patients will be using public transportation, also reducing the need for additional spaces. The site proposes to provide an area for stormwater management – the northeast part of the parcel – under Berrien County Drain Commission review and permits.

Ezell said the extra space in the existing clinic, which was built in 2011, will allow them to systematically renovate space as needed of the new model of health care and plan for growth at the main clinic.

“I’d like to thank you for your proactive runoff plans that you have and integrated into your parking areas,” said Treasurer Debbie Boothby at Tuesday’s meeting. “That has been noticed and mentioned throughout the community.”

InterCare Community Health Network announced plans in 2009 to move its Benton Harbor clinics from the former Mercy Center to a consolidated clinic to be built a few blocks away at the corner of M-139 and Empire Avenue.

InterCare’s West Michigan network, based Bangor, serves more than 50,000 low-income patients each year.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 23, 2016)

Benton Township police secure body cameras

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON TOWNSHIP — After nearly a year and a half of research and price comparisons, the Benton Township police will get body cameras for on-duty officers.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Police Chief Vince Fetke explained to trustees how the body cameras would work and the process that went into picking them.

Fetke said they chose the cameras because of how departments that have already gone through a body camera program have found an overall reduction in use-of-force complaints, citizen complaints for police/citizen interactions and an enhanced relationship between the police and communities.

Trustees approved the purchase of 20 Laser Technology Axon 2 body cameras for more than $16,800. However, about $13,500 will be covered through a Edward Byrne Grant that the township received in 2015.

Also listed on the quoted sheet for the equipment is an annual charge of about $5,500 over the course of the next five years for licensing.

The remaining balance will be paid for from the police department budget.

“I think that we all know the importance of this technology, especially in recent months, not only nationally, but locally, in recording critical events that occur with law enforcement,” Fetke said. “When we submitted for this grant, we were looking at a lot of first-generation body cameras that lacked some of the things we were looking for our department.”

Recently, TASER International came out with its latest generation of body camera.

Not only is the latest generation out, but it is a programmable body camera. Fetke said the idea is to reduce any long-term costs in having to replace them with new technology. Each uniformed officer for the township will be issued their own body camera, Fetke said.

“Like our existing in-car camera system, any time an officer has contact with a citizen it shall be activated,” Fetke said. “The officer will turn it on prior to getting out of his vehicle. However, it does have pre-event recording capabilities.”

Pre-event recording allows the body camera to begin recording anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes before the officer hits record.

Fetke said this comes in handy during a situation where an officer is caught off guard in an impromptu event.

When asked by trustees about upgrade possibilities for the cameras, Fetke said because they chose the new generation of body cameras, they will work like a software upgrade. Any new enhancements will be downloaded every month.

When an officer puts the body camera back into its charging dock, the updated software will be downloaded. The body cameras have 12 hours of battery life and 70 hours worth of storage, Fetke said.

The other advantage to the newer generations is the additional software that will be put in police vehicles.

Benton Township already has an in-car system that records activity at the front of a patrol car. Fetke said many police agencies are either going to body cameras, trying to buy them or entertaining the idea.

The Benton Harbor Department of Public Safety bought body cameras through a similar grant last year, and other area departments have looked at the idea. The issue has gained national attention as the conduct of police in some well-publicized cases has come under intense scrutiny.

“In certain situations, such as activating overhead lights or the sirens, it will automatically trigger the camera without the officer having to touch the camera to capture the events,” Fetke said. “If anybody saw the film footage for the Benton Harbor incident, they had a first-generation of this camera and it worked quite well.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 22, 2016)