Headlines for Wednesday, March 15, 2023
UPDATE! First Major U.S. Railroad Merger in 2 Decades Will Move Forward
UNDATED (AP) - The first major railroad merger in more than two decades, one that would link the United States, Canada and Mexico, is being approved by federal regulators. Canadian Pacific's $31 billion acquisition of Kansas City Southern will combine the two smallest of the nations seven major railroads after an arduous two-year review from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, released Wednesday. The bar for railroad mergers in the U.S. was raised substantially at the start of the century after a couple problematic tie-ups that snarled rail traffic for weeks. Safety was also at the forefront after the fiery derailment in Ohio last month. Regulators say the new railroad has an excellent safety record.
The bar for railroad mergers in the U.S. was raised substantially at the start of the century after a disastrous combination of Union Pacific and Southern Pacific in 1996 that snarled rail traffic for an extended period, followed by the 1999 split of Conrail between Norfolk Southern and CSX, which created backups in the East.
Railroads and safety have become a national political fight this year following a fiery derailment that forced evacuations in Ohio last month, and the safety track record of both Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern were poured over throughout the extended review process.
The Transportation Board said that the new railroad "will facilitate the flow of grain from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast and Mexico, the movement of intermodal goods between Dallas and Chicago and the trade in automotive parts, finished vehicles, and other containerized mixed goods between the United States and Mexico." The combined company will have little to no track redundancies or overlapping routes, and is also expected to add more than 800 new union jobs in the U.S., according to the board. The new single-line service is expected to "foster the growth of rail traffic, shifting approximately 64,000 truckloads annually from North America's roads to rail, and will support investment in infrastructure, service quality, and safety," the board said.
Even after this merger, the new Canadian Pacific Kansas City railroad will be the smallest of the major freight railroads with about 20,000 miles of track. The rest of the industry is expected to remain stable with two major railroads in the Western United States — Union Pacific and BNSF — two in the Eastern United States — CSX and Norfolk Southern — and Canadian National running trains across Canada and parts of the United States.
U.S. Board to Announce Whether It Will Approve KC Southern Acquisition Deal
WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - The Surface Transportation Board plans to announce today (WED) whether it will approve or reject Canadian Pacific's $31 billion deal to acquire U.S. railroad Kansas City Southern. The acquisition, which combines the sixth- and seventh-largest U.S. railroads by revenue, was tentatively agreed to in 2021. The chair of the board that oversees U.S. freight railroads will hold a press conference to discuss the decision.
Kansas Lawmakers Approve School Voucher Bill
TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS/KMUW) - Kansas lawmakers have approved a bill that would let families use state tax dollars to pay for private schools. The Kansas House narrowly passed the measure but did not get enough votes to override a potential veto by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly. The bill lets parents open state-sponsored education savings accounts to use at any private or home school. It also includes more money for special education and a requirement that districts raise teacher pay — ideas supported by the governor. Democratic Rep. Kirk Haskins urged colleagues not to be swayed by the funding provisions. “We’re holding instructors’ salary as ransom to get this bill approved," he said. "If this bill was so great, why do we have to threaten the livelihoods of our teachers?”
The bill has been heavily criticized by education leaders. Supporters say it will give more families an alternative to public schools, which they say are failing some students.
Demonstrators Rally at Kansas Statehouse in Support of Medicaid Expansion
TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Advocates — including Democratic Governor Laura Kelly — gathered at the Kansas Statehouse today (WED) to push lawmakers to expand Medicaid, as potentially thousands of Kansas could lose the health coverage because of pandemic programs ending. April Holman is the executive director of Alliance for a Healthy Kansas. She says the pandemic eligibility rules for Medicaid end this month. "As a result, approximately 100,000 Kansas adults will lose their health coverage over the next year," she said. Republican leaders in the Statehouse have continually opposed expansion for reasons including the cost. Lawmakers introduced expansion legislation this session, but there have been no hearings scheduled. Kansas is one of a dwindling number of states to yet expand Medicaid. South Dakota will expand this summer and North Carolina just recently announced bipartisan legislation. That will leave just 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid.
Advocates Push Kansas Lawmakers for More Affordable Housing
TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Kansas lawmakers are considering expanding an economic incentive program to build affordable housing in the state’s larger cities like Wichita. The incentive currently allows rural cities to issue bonds to build up to 100 residential starter homes. As home values grow, the new property tax generated is used to pay off the bonds. Hugh Carter, with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, says the incentive is necessary because developers aren’t investing in affordable homes. "If there’s such great demand for this work force type housing, why aren’t builders building it?," he said. "And the economics of building a 16,000-square-foot home or smaller just don’t pencil out." Affordable housing in Kansas has become scarce in recent years. A 2021 statewide housing assessment found about one in four Sedgwick County renters spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
The existing incentive allows rural cities to issue bonds to pay for the development of up to 100 residential starter homes. Senator Robert Olson, of Olathe, introduced the bill to expand the incentive to more populated cities. "In my community, affordable housing for people at the bottom, it’s just disappeared," he said. "We’re trying to get more starter housing for people at the bottom." The bill passed the Senate in February and still needs to pass the House.
TC Energy Executive Grilled by Kansas Lawmakers
TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - An executive with a Canadian energy company has been in the hot seat in Topeka, getting grilled by state lawmakers about the company's Keystone pipeline and its massive oil spill in northern Kansas. Democratic lawmaker John Carmichael, of Wichita, questioned Gary Salsman, the vice president of TC Energy. "Landowners and citizens are concerned about this. When should we expect you to be done?," Carmichael said. Salsman responded, "Unfortunately that’s not entirely within our control." Salsman said his company is committed to remediating the site and has cleaned up most of the oil. He wouldn’t talk to reporters after testifying. The company's Keystone pipeline erupted in December, spilling more than half-a-million gallons of oil in Washington County. Hundreds of workers have been working to clean-up the site ever since.
TC Energy has dedicated a webpage to providing updates on the oil spill and clean-up efforts.
Lawmakers Fear Spill on Keystone Pipeline System in Southern Kansas
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP/KPR) — State lawmakers worry that southern Kansas is vulnerable to oil spills from the Keystone Pipeline system because earthquakes have become more frequent there. They raised the concern Tuesday as they questioned an executive for the pipeline's operator about a massive spill in northeastern Kansas in December. A vice president of Canada-based TC Energy is briefing three Kansas legislative committees about the December 7 rupture on the pipeline in Washington County, in northern Kansas. The company expects cleanup efforts to last for several more months. Several lawmakers said they are nervous about the pipeline in the Wichita area about 160 miles south because of earthquake activity. Salsman told a joint meeting of the Kansas House energy committee and its water committee that safety is TC Energy's top priority and that the company will stay in Washington County until the cleanup is complete. He later gave a similar briefing to the Senate Utilities Committee.
But several lawmakers said they are nervous about the pipeline in the Wichita area, about 160 miles south of the Washington County spill site. The area began experiencing an increase in earthquakes in 2013, after Keystone opened its Kansas pipeline segment, tied to activities associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in oil and natural gas production. "My concern is not this spill so much as what's lurking, moving forward, especially as you get down south," said Republican state Rep. Leo Delperdang, of Wichita, the House energy committee chair. "We get earthquakes. What happens with the ground movement?"
During the House committees' hearing, Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, a Kansas City-area Democrat, asked whether the Keystone pipeline needed "exceptional engineering" in southern Kansas. The company said later in an email to The Associated Press that seismic activity is considered in pipelines' design and routes, and U.S. government regulators require it to be factored into maintenance plans. "Our pipeline corridors are patrolled several times per year," the company said, adding that seismic activity is assessed so the company can respond.
The oil spill in Washington County was the largest U.S. onshore spill in nearly nine years, and the company expects to spend $480 million cleaning it up, with those efforts lasting at least into the summer.
TC Energy reported last month that a faulty weld at a bend in the pipeline under the Washington County creek caused a crack that then grew over time because of the stress on the bend. The rupture dumped nearly 13,000 barrels of crude oil into the creek and on the surrounding pastureland. Salsman told legislators that 95% of the crude has now been recovered. The company said later that it is transported elsewhere "for treatment and disposal." "We've really contained this site," Salsman said.
The 2,700-mile Keystone system carries heavy crude oil extracted from tar sands in western Canada to the Gulf Coast and to central Illinois. Concerns that spills could pollute waterways spurred opposition to plans by TC Energy to build another crude oil pipeline in the same system, the 1,200-mile Keystone XL, across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. President Joe Biden's cancelation of a permit led the company to pull the plug on the project in 2021.
In Kansas, GOP lawmakers praised TC Energy for moving quickly to contain the Washington County spill and described the company as open about its activities. No one was evacuated, and state and U.S. government officials have said water from two rivers downstream were not affected. Salsman said the company has received no complaints from people tied to air quality. A few Republicans even appeared to brush off the seriousness of the spill. "I mean, accidents happen, and I know you're prepared for this kind of stuff," said Senate Utilities Committee Chair Rob Olson, a Kansas City-area Republican.
Salsman said the company has diverted water from the affected creek to avoid a 4.5-mile section so that crews can dig out soil contaminated by the crude oil. The company estimates that it has an average of 800 people on site in any given 24-hour period. "Our focus is on — entirely on — the remediation of the site and the safety of those people working on the site," Salsman said.
Bill Pannbacker, a Washington County farmer and rancher, believes he might not be able to use part of his pasture for several years. The rupture occurred about 20 feet from his property line, and he said the crack initially sprayed oil droplets perhaps 200 yards up a hill before becoming a wider "gusher" that soaked about two acres.
Democrats were sometimes pointed with their questions. Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation's pipeline safety arm showed that the Washington County spill was the largest on the Keystone system since it began operating in 2010 and larger than 22 previous spills combined, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report to Congress in July 2021. The report said: "The severity of spills has worsened in recent years."
Kansas City-area state Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, the top Democrat on the House Water Committee, asked Salsman why spills on the TC Energy pipeline are getting worse. Salsman didn't answer the question directly, saying that the company has done full cleanups and taken corrective action following all previous incidents. "We are going to get to the bottom of this," he said. Vaughn said later that she wasn't satisfied with the answer, and Zack Pistora, a lobbyist in Kansas for the Sierra Club, said people still don't have any reasonable assurances that another oil spill won't happen. "I appreciate the pleasantries," he said, "but there are still some hard questions that didn't get answered."
Retailer Seeks Permit to Build Beef Plant in Eastern Kansas
OLATHE, Kan. (Drovers) - A new beef production plant could be coming to eastern Kansas. According to Drovers.com, a website about the beef business, a mystery company wants to build a large facility in Olathe. If approved, the project would result in the construction of a state-of-the art beef production facility in southwest Olathe, employing nearly 700 workers. The plant would not slaughter animals, but process and pack beef into retail-ready products. Animals would be raised and slaughtered in another state. Last week, the Olathe City Council received a request for $257 million in industrial revenue bonds. The request was submitted by a large accounting firm that was not at liberty to divulge the name of their client. (Read more from Drovers.com.)
Wichita Settles Wrongful Death Lawsuit with Family for $5 Million
WICHITA, Kan. (KMUW/KNS) - A $5 million dollar settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit involving the shooting death of Andrew Finch by a Wichita police officer. Finch was shot and killed by Officer Justin Rapp during a fake emergency police call in 2017. Finch was killed on his front porch when he went outside to investigate why police were surrounding his house. The Wichita City Council approved the settlement on a 6-1 vote, with Jeff Blubaugh voting no. During the vote, council member Bryan Frye said the shooting should have never happened. "No amount of money will ever bring back Andrew, but it's time to heal and it's time to put this past us," he said. A federal appeals court last year denied qualified immunity for Rapp, allowing the suit to move forward at the time.
City of Wichita settles fatal SWAT shooting for $5 million
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - The city of Wichita has agreed to pay $5 million to the family of a man who was shot and killed by a police officer when he opened the door of his house during a hoax "swatting" call. The city council approved the settlement Tuesday in a lawsuit filed against police officer Justin Rapp, who killed 28-year-old Andrew Finch in 2017. Police had surrounded Finch's house after receiving a call about a potential murder-hostage situation. Investigators later learned the call was the result of a feud between two online gamers. Finch was shot as he stepped outside to see why police were there. Rapp was not disciplined and was later promoted to detective.
The settlement will go to the two children of 28-year-old Andrew Finch, who was shot by officer Justin Rapp as he stepped out of his house on December 28, 2017, to see why it was surrounded by police. Finch, who was unarmed, was shot by Rapp within 10 seconds of opening his door. Rapp has said that he thought Finch had a gun. Finch's death drew national attention to "swatting," a form of retaliation in which someone reports a false emergency to get authorities, particularly a SWAT team, to respond to an address.
"While this settlement will not bring back our beloved Andy, it helps bring some closure as our family moves forward, especially Andy's two young children," Lisa and Dominica Finch, Finch's mother and sister, respectively, said in a statement.
Investigators later determined the call was the result of a feud between two online gamers over a video game, Shane Gaskill of Wichita and Ohio gamer Casey Viner. Authorities said Viner recruited Tyler R. Barriss to "swat" Gaskill. Barriss, a Los Angeles man who was known online for "swatting," called police from Los Angeles to falsely report a shooting and kidnapping at the Wichita address. But the address they used was old, leading police to Finch, who was not involved in the dispute or playing the video game.
Barriss is serving 20 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to 51 counts in April 2019. Viner was sentenced to 15 months in September 2019 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Shane Gaskill was sentenced in September 2022 to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to wire fraud.
Rapp was not charged and was later promoted from officer to detective. The city was dropped from the lawsuit but was responsible for Rapp's legal costs. The city will pay $2 million from its self-insurance fund and $1.5 million from the city council's reserve fund, with AIG insurance paying the remainder of the settlement.
Man Arrested in Connection with Deadly House Fire in Southwest Kansas
LIBERAL, Kan. (KAKE) - Police in Liberal have arrested a man in connection with a deadly house fire that claimed two lives. Authorities say 22-year-old Hector Jesus Rey has been taken into custody in Texas. KAKE TV reports that Liberal police and fire officials responded early Monday morning to a house fire, where they discovered an unconscious woman inside the front door. She died later at a local hospital. Once the fire was extinguished, crews found a man dead inside the home. The deaths are being investigated as murders. Rey was arrested later in Texas and booked into the Jones County Jail.
KU Scientists: Groundwater Levels Continue to Drop
LAWRENCE, Kan. (LJW) - Groundwater levels in western and south-central Kansas fell by their largest amounts since 2012. That's according to new water well measurements taken by the Kansas Geological Survey, based at the the University of Kansas. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that the region saw water levels fall for the third straight year as a drought has spread across the state. The average decline in groundwater levels was 1.89 feet for the High Plains Aquifer that stretches all the way to the Kansas-Colorado border and has fingers that stretch as far east as Wichita. In 2022, the High Plains Aquifer, which includes the Ogallala Aquifer, posted its third largest decline in the last 25 years.
A region around Wichita, known as the Equus Beds, saw an average drop of 2.03 feet, its steepest decline since 2016. The Equus Beds serve as a major source of water for both Wichita and Hutchinson. The Kansas Geological Survey measures water levels in more than 1,100 wells across 49 counties to come up with the averages. Most of the water well measurements take place in January each year.
Prepare for Smoke in the Flint Hills; Burning Season Is Near
FLINT HILLS, Kan. (KNS) - It's the time of year when Kansas landowners, especially in the Flint Hills, begin burning their grasslands. The burning creates a lot of smoke, so health officials are advising people to take precautions. Smoke can cause burning eyes, runny nose, coughing and bronchitis. For residents where smoke is thick, the state recommends closing windows and doors, plus keeping indoor air clean with new air filters. The controlled burns are supposed to help conserve the ecosystem, protect it from invasive species and reduce wildfire risks. Roughly two million acres of range-land in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas are burned each year.
First Kansas Bills Signed into Law in 2023 Involve Art Projects at the Kansas Statehouse
TOPEKA, Kan. (TCJ) - The first two bills to become Kansas law this year involve art projects. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that one bill reauthorizes a replica of the Native American warrior statue atop the Capitol dome. The other bill involves a Statehouse mural of the first Black soldiers in the Civil War. Governor Laura Kelly signed the bills into law Monday.
Under the new laws, a life-sized replica of the Ad Astra sculpture that sits on top of the dome will be built at ground-level at the Statehouse. The bronze statue is already made and has been sitting in storage in Salina, waiting to be placed on a granite pedestal that sits empty on the southwest lawn of the Statehouse. Meanwhile, a mural will be made inside the Statehouse of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That regiment was the first U.S. military unit comprised of African-American soldiers.
Kansas Could Get New State Park
TOPEKA (WIBW) – Kansas could be getting a new state park. A bill moving through the Legislature aims to create a new state park in Allen County. It would be the 28th state park in Kansas. WIBW TV reports that the bill was originally introduced by Republican Rep. Fred Gardner, of Garnett, on behalf of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP). The bill would add the Lehigh Portland State Park, near Iola, to the official list of state parks. The site, which includes a lake and 14 miles of trail, is home to a former cement plant and quarry along the banks of Elm Creek in Iola. The property is a mix of woodlands, meadows and native prairie.
Prosecutor: No Charges in Fatal Kansas City Police Shooting
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Kansas City, Missouri, police officer who fatally shot a man at a convenience store nearly two years ago will not be charged with a crime, following a decision by a special prosecutor. Malcolm Johnson was killed in March 2021. Some civil rights, religious and community activists said the shooting of Johnson, who was Black, was part of a trend of officers killing Black men. They questioned if officers gave Johnson sufficient time to surrender before shooting him. Prosecutors announced Monday that no charges should be filed.
This summary of area news is curated by KPR news staffers, including J. Schafer, Laura Lorson, Tom Parkinson and Kaye McIntyre. Our headlines are generally posted by 10 am weekdays. These ad-free headlines are made possible by KPR members. Become one today. And follow KPR News on Twitter.