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Manchin experiences training made possible through ARC

CHESAPEAKE, Ohio — Gayle Manchin won’t hold her breath for a career in heavy equipment operation, but it didn’t stop her from giving the training course a try.

Manchin, the federal co-chair for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), visited Collins Career and Technical Center in Chesapeake, Ohio, on Wednesday to gain a better understanding of what the ARC has made possible at the local level.

The visit included hopping into the seat of a state-of-the-art heavy equipment simulator developed by Caterpillar (CAT) that helps students who are working toward careers in that field to learn basic controls and movements of the heavy machinery like bulldozers, excavators and other common construction machines.

There are two such simulators at CCTC, both purchased with funds provided by an ARC grant.

The simulators, which have multiple screens, sensory elements, task simulations and evaluations of each completed mission, are built to give a realistic learning opportunity within the safety of a classroom.

“You can see a project on paper and it looks good, but to be able to see that project in action makes all the difference,” Machin said. “The skill sets that these students walk away with are really huge. It enables them to have several different types of jobs.”

Caden McFann, a student in the Heavy Equipment Operator course at CCTC, said while there are many differences in the simulator and real-world machines, the former gives him and others the chance to safely learn the controls and develop some muscle memory before testing their skills in the field.

Mark Norris teaches the course and said students will spend about four months learning from a textbook and on the simulators before touching a real piece of heavy equipment in a real-world situation.

“It’s a lot safer for someone to come here, sit at this machine in the classroom and learn versus putting them on a real machine, and if they do something wrong, it can get dangerous. In here, there’s no safety concerns,” Norris said.

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) is an economic development partnership agency of the federal government and 13 state governments focusing on 420 counties across the Appalachian Region.

Manchin was sworn in as the ARC’s 13th federal co-chair on May 6, becoming the first person from West Virginia to hold that title. Nominated by President Joe Biden, Manchin works directly with ARC’s 13 member governors, their state alternates and program managers, and a network of local development districts to continue to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth throughout Appalachia.

Wildfires on West Coast cause hazy weather in Huntington

HUNTINGTON — Because of wildfires in the U.S. and Canada, Huntington has experienced hazy weather this week.

Huntington was one of many cities in the eastern part of the U.S. to experience the haze.

The Associated Press reported the weather event in states such as New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

According to the National Weather Service’s website, haze was present again in the local area as of Wednesday afternoon due to wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada, but the High-Resolution Rapid Refresh model indicates the highest concentrations of haze would drift south by Wednesday evening.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen it like this,” said Jeff Hovis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston.

He said the area has been experiencing haze for a couple days. He said at first the haze did not affect visibility so much, but it turned the sky milky blue. On Tuesday, the smoke created a vivid sunset in Huntington, he said.

Hovis said the NWS expects the haze to improve Thursday as a cold front pushes the haze to the south toward Virginia and North Carolina. He said the Charleston office has received a few calls from people asking why there isn’t a smoke smell with the haze, but he said that was because the smoke has been diluted as it traveled through the atmosphere from the wildfires.

Climate change is part of the reason Huntington has experienced the haze, but it’s not the sole reason, Hovis said. Wildfires and high pressure in the atmosphere in the West resulted in the haze.

The AP reported extremely dry conditions and recent heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight. In the past 30 years, climate change has made the West much warmer and drier and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

The West Virginia Division of Air Quality’s website listed Huntington’s air quality on Wednesday at good levels, meaning air pollution posed little to no risk. Charleston’s levels were moderate, which means air quality is acceptable, but there may be a moderate health concern for a small group of people who are sensitive to air pollution.

Strong winds blew the smoke eastward from states such as California, Oregon and Montana, according to the AP. The largest wildfire in the U.S., Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, grew to 616 square miles, which is half the size of Rhode Island, on Wednesday.

Experts: Spend opioid settlement funds on fighting opioids

As a $26 billion settlement over the toll of opioids looms, some public health experts are citing the 1998 agreement with tobacco companies as a cautionary tale of runaway government spending and missed opportunities for saving more lives.

Mere fractions of the $200 billion-plus tobacco settlement have gone toward preventing smoking and helping people quit in many states. Instead, much of the money has helped to balance state budgets, lay fiber-optic cable and repair roads.

And while the settlement was a success in many ways — smoking rates have dropped significantly — cigarettes are still blamed for more than 480,000 American deaths a year.

“We saw a lot of those dollars being spent in ways that didn’t help the population that had been harmed by tobacco,” said Bradley D. Stein, director of the RAND Corporation’s Opioid Policy Center. “And I think it’s critical that the opioid settlement dollars are spent wisely.”

Lawyers for states and local governments and the companies laid out key details of the settlement Wednesday and said there are provisions to make sure the money is used as intended.

The deal calls for the drugmaker Johnson & Johnson to pay up to $5 billion, in addition to billions more from the major national drug distribution companies. AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health are each to contribute $6.4 billion. McKesson is to pay $7.9 billion.

Nearly $2 billion of the funds would be reserved for private lawyers who were hired by governments to work on their suits against the industry. State attorney general offices could also keep some of the money.

States — except West Virginia, which has already settled with the companies but could receive more through the deal — will have 30 days to approve the agreements. After that, local governments will have four months to sign on. Each company will decide whether enough jurisdictions agree to the deal to move ahead with it. The more governments sign on, the more the companies will pay.

“While the companies strongly dispute the allegations made in these lawsuits, they believe the proposed settlement agreement and settlement process it establishes … are important steps toward achieving broad resolution of governmental opioid claims and delivering meaningful relief to communities across the United States,” the distribution companies said in a statement.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said it would be the second-biggest cash settlement of its kind in U.S. history behind the tobacco deal in the 1990s.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said the opioid agreement requires state and local governments to use the vast majority of the money on abatement — and that will be subject to a court order. The deal calls for at least 70% of the money to go to a list of abatement activities such as providing naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses; helping house homeless people with addictions; or educating the public on the dangers of the drugs, among many other possibilities.

“We all are experiencing the consequences in communities across North Carolina, across the country,” Stein said on a video news conference Wednesday.

Not every state is ready to agree. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he would reject the deal as “insufficient” and move ahead with a trial on claims against the distributors scheduled to start in September.

And during a news conference Wednesday, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said although the state would receive more than $460 million if the $26 billion proposed settlement goes through, if not enough local governments vote yes to move forward, he will pursue legal action against the drug firms in state court.

Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general who’s been involved in both the tobacco and opioid lawsuits, said the difference this time is that “everybody wants this money to go toward opioids and abatement around the country.”

The deal would be part of the ongoing effort to address the nationwide opioid addiction and overdose crisis. Prescription drugs and illegal ones like heroin and illicitly produced fentanyl have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000. The number of cases reached a record high in 2020.

If approved, the settlement will likely be the largest of many in the opioid litigation playing out nationwide. It’s expected to bring more than $23 billion to abatement and mitigation efforts to help get treatment for people who are addicted along with other programs to address the crisis. The money would come in 18 annual payments, with the biggest amounts in the next several years.

This is likely to be the biggest group of settlements, but other companies, including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, generic drugmaker Mallinckrodt and the consulting firm McKinsey have all reached or nearly reached national settlements over opioids, too. Some drugmakers, smaller distributors and pharmacy companies are still being sued by thousands of government entities.

A group of advocacy organizations, public health experts and others are pushing for governments to sign on to a set of principles for how settlement money should be used. They include establishing a dedicated fund for combating the epidemic with the settlement money and making sure that it doesn’t just replace other funding streams in the budget.

The group has pointed out that many state and local governments have already made cuts to substance use and behavioral health programs because of economic downturn wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. And government officials may be tempted to fill holes in budgets with the money.

Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it’s crucial that the money is spent to combat the opioid scourge because the overdose epidemic is raging.

Last year, there were a record 93,000 fatal overdoses from all drugs in the U.S. The majority of them involved fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid that has medical uses but is also produced illicitly.

“Everybody is both excited and a little worried,” Sharfstein said of the expected funds, “a little worried that they may be squandered.”

Paul Geller, a lawyer representing local governments, said the structure of the settlement ensures the money will be used as intended.

“It won’t be used to fill potholes or build libraries or balance budgets,” Geller said.

Those are the kind of things that a significant portion of the tobacco settlement money has been spent on, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which tracks the money.

Campaign President Matthew L. Myers said the tobacco settlement is “one of the greatest missed public health opportunities of our lifetime.”

“We would have saved massively more lives,” he said if more money was spent on cessation and prevention.

The settlement was the result of states wanting to recoup health care costs associated with tobacco-related illnesses, while alleging the industry misled the public.

Joelle Lester, director of commercial tobacco control programs at the Public Health Law Center in Minnesota, said the tobacco settlement was “both a huge success and a cautionary tale.”

It led to rising cigarette prices, which caused smoking rates to drop. Marketing, particularly to kids, was curtailed. And adult smoking fell from 24.1% in 1998 to 13.7% in 2018, according to the American Lung Association.

But the money that was diverted could still have made a bigger difference, she said.

“The folks negotiating these settlements have to keep their focus on the destruction to health and communities caused,” she said of industry settlements in general. “Every element of the settlement should either try to remediate the harm caused or prevent it from continuing.”

Local governments in West Virginia were not included in settlement talks because of prior settlements reached between the companies and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.