11 months ago

Alabama’s coal industry continues to fuel the expanding Port of Mobile

MOBILE – With the news breaking Monday that Alabama’s entire congressional delegation supports the proposed modernization and expansion – including major deepening and widening – of the Port of Mobile, I am once again left in awe at what the Port – and its success – means for the entire state.

It was a surprisingly cool summer day when I visited the Port in August, a steady breeze off the water making the normally blanket-like heat quite bearable. I was there on a tour organized by the Alabama Coal Association, with its President Patrick Cagle leading the charge.

We all shuttled in on a small transit bus, like you would find at a hotel, to the McDuffie Coal Terminal and proceeded into a small metal-sided office building for a quick briefing from the Port’s Deputy Director, Smitty Thorne, who is a longtime public servant set to retire in February.

I went into their conference room thinking I knew how important the Port was to the state and that the coal industry played a large role in that, but the facts and figures that the Port staff shared were staggering nonetheless.
First, let me just get this out of the way – the Port does not take a dime from the state budget, i.e. the General Fund. It is completely self-sufficient, generating around $160 million in annual revenue that is pumped back into continual improvements of the Port.

And the continual improvement is paying off – Alabama’s Port is the fastest growing container port in North America, at a 20 percent growth rate this year. It is now the 10th largest port between the U.S., Canada and Mexico and the second and third largest steel and coal ports respectively. The Port of Mobile also finds itself a major mover of automotive parts and breakbulk forest products.

They are constantly innovating, too. We are talking real-time tracking of individual slabs of steel with RFID chips, with them handling 3.3 million tons of slabs annually; a state-of-the-art “AutoMobile International” roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) facility that will boost automotive exports considerably when it is completed in late 2019 or early 2020; a world-class transportation network to and from the Port, including five national (Class 1) railroads, three short line railroads and easy access to both I-65 and I-10; and now the proposed plan for deepening and widening.

The Port handled a massive number of vessels in fiscal year 2017 – 1623 to be exact – and is responsible for an irreplaceable 134,608 direct and indirect jobs. That number equals a staggering 15.08 percent of Alabama’s total wage and salaried employees.

This also leads to more huge top-line numbers, including the Port’s annual economic impact of $22.4 billion and their yearly generated tax revenue of $486.9 million.

Now, let me preface this again. I knew, probably more than most, that coal played a huge part in the Port’s business. I have been to an Alabama surface mine and greatly appreciate the tremendous economic impact the coal industry has on the Yellowhammer State. But I learned something new in a big way.

Coal accounts for fifty percent – yes, half – of the Port’s total business.

Needless to say, the “War on Coal” was a huge hit to the Port and to Alabama. For example, once serving seven steam (energy-producing) coal plants, the Port now only serves two.

(Sean Ross/YHN)

But there has been an improvement after President Obama left office, with conditions and optimism considerably and rightfully higher in the industry. The Port even saw a nine percent volume increase in coal transit last year.

For the Port, a large part of their recent boon has been the emergence of Warrior Met Coal – now the Port’s single biggest customer by far.

Warrior Met mines metallurgical (met) coal used to produce coke, which is pivotal in steelmaking and has been on a tear since it bought the high-quality mines left untapped by Walter Energy’s 2016 bankruptcy.

Trading on the New York Stock Exchange (HCC), the Alabama company is excited about the good market outlook for met coal exporting, which also spells more good news for the Port. Of the 14 million tons of coal mined in the state last year, Warrior Met accounted for 7.5 million – well over fifty percent.

At the end of the briefing, Deputy Director Thorne said that the surging economic conditions, for the Port especially led by strong outlooks for the Alabama met coal and steel industries, meant that they anticipated 2018 to show another year of double-digit percentage growth.

It was on that note of optimism that we embarked from the unassuming office to tour the McDuffie Coal Terminal itself.

Stepping outside the narrow office doors, you look around and can not help but see coal and containers. They each rise high – cities of containers, plateaus of coal towering as far as the eye can wander.

We got back on the shuttle bus, headed eventually to hop aboard a tugboat. On the first attempt to get there, we ran into a train stopped on an intersection we needed to get to. The driver of the Great Southern Wood truck in front of us might not have been too pleased, but the train being at a standstill was actually a good thing, a sign of the rising economic tide, as it had stopped to take double its normal load due to an uptick in business.

We turned around and circled to the other side of McDuffie. As I first noticed when we had arrived, there were puddles everywhere – which was strange since it had not rained that day or the day previous. But it finally struck me as we drove by a sign that read “15 mph … think dust.” The Port is so dusty – think thousands of acres of dirt – that they have to water the barren ground just to stop it from kicking up into workers’ and drivers’ faces.

It was explained to us shortly after that the Port uses their own drainage water on the roads and shoulders to control the dust – another simple but cost-saving innovation.

When we arrived at the Parker Towing vessel to go out on the water, I could feel the teeming energy of the place building – the train cars rumbling, the salt air blowing softly and the peaceful ebb of the water making the buzzing optimism of the place come alive. Everything about the place was striking – even the simple contrast of little white birds flittering about on the jet-black masses of coal.

We boarded after a safety lesson and donning vests, out onto the water to see where the hard work happens. It was a confluence of characters, all who make the Port’s success possible, that made the tour so meaningful.

Besides the ever-so-important and equally under-appreciated Port employees, you had the Parker Towing employees, who are top-notch operators of barges and waterway freight up and down Alabama’s waterways; Warrior Met employees, many of whom have been in the coal industry for a lifetime and came over from Walter Energy or other companies that did not survive the Obama Administration; Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington, who is helping lead Gov. Ivey’s historic employment successes; and public officials, including incoming state legislators Chris Elliot and Shane Stringer and Rep. David Sessions, who will be transitioning into the state Senate this coming term.

The Port is the lifeblood of Alabama, and the coal industry is largely the driver of this status – again, think fifty percent of the Port’s business. To experience first-hand what goes into making this possible was rewarding. But to see Alabama’s congressional delegation cross the normal partisan lines this week to ensure the Port’s future competitiveness was historic.

As Sen. Richard Shelby said, “This project will create an avenue for exponential growth.”

As the proposed plan for its expansion moves forward in the approval process, remember the real impact the Port has. Not only the dollars and cents, but the people – again, 134,608 jobs. If you take into account the average Alabama household size, this equates to over 340,000 people that rely on the Port of Mobile for their livelihood.

Without the coal industry, this number would not be nearly as large. So, when you hear a politician say that only a handful of counties have mines and are affected by the industry, just know the real facts.

From Sand Mountain through the Birmingham metro area even into the Black Belt and down to the Gulf Coast, coal is still king in Alabama.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

6 mins ago

Urban Ministry tackles West End community needs

A visit to Urban Ministry proves to be equally eventful and heartwarming.

It’s lunchtime and the cafeteria is packed. The aroma of home-cooked meats and fresh vegetables billows through the air. Once inside the cafe, the tables are packed. Patrons are eating and communing just as they would at any other eatery.

Urban Ministry Executive Director Melodie Agnew walks around greeting customers with a welcoming smile.

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Agnew is equally comfortable greeting lunch guests and advocating for those served in this community.

Urban Ministry meeting community needs one soul at a time from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Ministering through healthy meals

There are several novelties about this spot called West End Cafe, or WE Cafe, which makes it unique among its restaurant neighbors.

For one, the produce doesn’t come from a local market. It is harvested just steps away in West End Garden, or WE garden, the community garden.

Those who abound financially, and even those who don’t, break bread together. Hearty soul food in a welcoming environment is the common thread regardless of person’s pay scale, and all are welcome.

WE cafe started as a soup kitchen, but now people come and pay as they can. So educators, volunteers and community and business leaders can sit at family-style tables where food is prepared fresh.

The garden fruits and vegetables are also sold at local markets. These include Pepper Place and twice-weekly at Princeton Hospital.

The WE Cafe is open each Wednesday from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Meeting more than financial needs

Some customers also have a great need for suitable housing.

Not only does Urban Ministry provide assistance with rent, home repairs and maintenance like painting, Urban Ministries partners with the Salvation Army to provide energy assistance to elderly and disabled clients through Project Share.

Urban Ministry has the largest Project Share clientele in Birmingham.

[Related: Project Share meeting community needs]

Agnew says the new Energy Assistance Portal( EAP),created by Alabama Power, is an invaluable resource to the agency.  Agency leaders say EAP provides a user-friendly platform for intake workers to quickly access information needed to post real-time energy assistance pledges and payments.

This in turn gives more time for workers to serve clients.

Under a broad umbrella, their work covers financial needs, but in its simplest form, it’s all about providing a better quality of life for adults who are in need, along with their children.

A record number of children enrolled in summer school. Staff had to prepare for 90 schoolchildren this year at Urban Ministry – including meals, activities and accommodations for each student.

And Agnew says it doesn’t stop there.

“In addition to our students, families of these students also come with various needs. Urban Ministries works to help support those needs of families with the help of our church and corporate partners.”

Empowering those they serve 

For Agnew, serving as executive director holds a two-fold meaning. She can look out her office window, where she grew up in West End just steps from where she sits today. Not only does she serve this community: she and her family are a part of it.

Her great-grandfather and grandfather had businesses in the community. Her father and grandmother were educators in the community. She saw them providing opportunities for the community.

Agnew believes in not only providing programs and resources for neighbors, but investing in people by teaching them to be their own advocates and support. The work is great, but Agnew’s determination and vision are without end.

Prior to joining Urban Ministry, Agnew worked as executive director of the Norwood Resource Center,where she dedicated her time to supporting families and building vibrant neighborhoods.

Agnew says she wants to leave a legacy of service and strengthening her community, just as her family did.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

13 hours ago

Opposition research: When is the right time for a campaign to attack their opponents?

This time of year before an upcoming spring primary election, I get asked a lot, “When are we going to see some opposition research dropped from campaigns?”

Long-term strategy during a political campaign can be a fragile thing knowing when to start and complete certain tasks. It’s an easy decision to have a campaign web site early on. It’s easy to decide that raising money early on is crucial to getting the campaign off on a solid foundation. Hiring staff and consultants is done early and adding more throughout the campaign is an easy call to make. When to open a campaign office and getting volunteers is also an easy decision to make. However, timing is everything, especially when it comes to knowing when to drop a piece of opposition research on an opponent. If a campaign uses what they have too early and in the wrong way, they run the risk of it leaving the voters’ minds in advance of Election Day. If a campaign waits too long, voters can turn off any information because towards the end of a long campaign season, voters get tired of all the ads and revolt against any and all campaign happenings.

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As a veteran opposition research consultant, I have been involved in well over 100 political campaigns over a span of 28 years, and have seen about all there is to see regarding opposition research and there is no concrete answer as to when a campaign should drop a piece of oppo on an opponent. Every campaign is different and having people on the team that know from experience when oppo should be dropped helps, but still isn’t a guaranteed way to know when to release the information.

These are some of the factors that go into the decision of when to release opposition research:

  1. If your campaign is hanging on by a thread: If your candidate has damaging opposition research on any other candidate who is even or above them in the polls, releasing the information can turn a campaign around and give it life due to the attention they will get once the oppo is released to the public. Holding information “for later” many times is never used because your candidate doesn’t make it until Election Day. If you have it, use it.
  2. If you are being attacked by an opponent: The old saying, “Fight fire with fire,” applies here. It could be deemed school-yard antics, but if your candidate is getting ravaged by another campaign, one way to stop it or at least slow it down is to release your own opposition research on the candidate that is attacking you. Many think that this sort of behavior turns off voters, but in reality, it works.
  3. To raise money: Donors love to see a candidate who will fight and will reward them accordingly if they feel that they have something to say and can win. Releasing opposition research on opponents can make some donors think twice about who they will support especially if what you have on an opponent is quite damaging to their campaign. Remember that an overwhelming majority of possible donors don’t have access to the information that you do, so releasing it to the public makes sense in a financial standpoint.
  4. To bake it in: If your campaign has incredible opposition research especially on the perceived front-runner, that in your opinion can dramatically affect the outcome of the race, releasing it early in the campaign season and hammering it daily can serve to “bake it in,” the voters’ minds.
  5. To drive the last nail in a coffin of an opponent: If one of your main opponents’ campaign is losing steam, some consultants like to do all they can to knock them out of the race by piling on with opposition research. Other consultants like to stay out of it and allow the opponent to slowly descend in the polls and drop out when the money dries up. I have found that both are credible strategies, however, if you want to use a boxing analogy, when you have an opponent on the ropes, you go for the knock-out and don’t back off in order to give him time to catch his second breath.
  6. Being the last word: For years, consultants have believed that all opposition research should be released a few days before Election Day. Their thought process was that if they waited that deep into the campaign season to release information, their opponent wouldn’t have time to adequately answer the attacks. That thinking has become antiquated due to the 24-hour news cycle that we currently live. Candidates have the ability now to answer attacks via a number of social media platforms, by talk radio appearances, and doing their own TV ads that answer the attacks. Technology and social media has changed the world and certainly has had a dramatic effect on political campaigns as well.

One thing is for sure, opposition research is always going to be used as a strategy and campaigns who know how to gather it and when and how to use it correctly can mean the difference between winning and losing a campaign.

Brad Presnall is a veteran Alabama-based political opposition and vulnerability research consultant. He can be contacted at bpresnall@hotmail.com.

14 hours ago

Three siblings share cancer diagnosis caused by rare genetic mutation

At first glance, Kevin, Kiala and Keaira Perkins may seem like typical 17-, 14- and 11-year-old children, respectively. But, after getting to know them, you might be shocked to find out that all three have suffered from thyroid cancer.

The siblings, from Madison, Alabama, all suffer from a rare genetic condition called multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN2A), a rare, hereditary condition occurring in roughly one in 35,000 people in the United States. It is caused by a mutation in the RET gene, which provides instruction for producing a protein that is involved in cell signaling and is needed for the normal development of several kinds of nerve cells.

“In December 2018, Kevin was tested for MEN2A by his pediatrician, and later received a call from UAB and Dr. Herb Chen,” said LaToya Wade, the mother of Kevin, Kiala and Keaira. “Dr. Chen said, ‘we need you here as soon as possible,’ and soon after we met with Dr. Chen, we scheduled surgery for Kevin.”

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Soon after Kevin’s surgery to remove his thyroid, Kiala and Keaira underwent the same testing. The result: Both tested positive for MEN2A.

People with MEN2A have one functioning RET gene and one that triggers cells to divide abnormally, causing tumors in the endocrine system and other tissues. MEN2A, identified in the children’s father and aunt by the aforementioned blood test, leads to medullary cancer of the thyroid, pheochromocytoma – tumors in the adrenal gland – and hyperparathyroidism, which causes excessive calcium in the blood and can lead to kidney damage. If one parent has MEN2A, the children have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the same mutation.

“Thyroid cancers, including medullary thyroid cancer, start out so small that you don’t notice them,” Chen said. “With genetic testing in patients with MEN2A, if the child tests positive, I can tell a parent there is a 100 percent chance their child will develop thyroid cancer.  Importantly, we can do surgery ahead of time to remove the thyroid before the cancer develops.”

Chen, chair of the UAB Department of Surgery, says cases like the Perkins’ are an example of how genetic testing can diagnose someone’s risk and eventual prevention of cancer by doing prophylactic surgery (an operation before the cancer develops in the organ).

To treat the Perkins family, Chen removed the thyroids of all three children in addition to Kiala’s parathyroid. They will have to take medications for the rest of their lives to make up the hormones their body loses after removing the thyroid glands.

It is a small sacrifice to prevent a larger problem.

“We were fortunate to treat the Perkins family while their cancers were very, very small,” Chen said.

Wade said finding out a loved one has cancer is always scary, let alone three of her children. However, she knew her family would be in the best of care with Chen and Nurse Practitioner Kelly Lovell.

“For me, this was a trying process,” Wade said. “When your kids have surgery, you never know what’s going to happen. I just didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t want to tell them I was nervous, so I had my moments alone, and I just kept praying. My mind was all over the place, but now they are doing well. They’re on top of their game.”

Chen agreed the siblings have a bright future ahead.

Kevin, a senior in high school, plans to study engineering in college, while Kiala and Keaira want to become an actress and a doctor, respectively.

Wade said she hopes her family’s story will help others seek genetic testing, so doctors can prevent more cases of thyroid cancer from developing.

Chen, who also serves as a senior scientist with the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, echoed her wishes.

“We’re taking a cancer that could cause harm and completely removing it before it starts,” he said. “That’s why it is so important that people hear about this condition.”

If you would like to learn more about this rare genetic condition, the UAB Endocrine/Neuroendocrine Neoplasia Program of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Department of Surgery in conjunction with AMENSupport Foundation will host a multiple endocrine neoplasia patient conference Saturday, Nov. 16.

For more information, visit the Department of Surgery’s website.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

16 hours ago

Alabama couple grow produce delivery service from the ground up

With summer in full swing, it’s the prime season for fresh fruits and vegetables. But who wants to get up at dawn on Saturday morning to make the trip to the local farmers market to buy produce?

That’s no longer necessary in the Birmingham area. In April, Will and Hayley DeShazo launched till, the city’s first-ever service that delivers produce fresh from the farm directly to your doorstep.

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The DeShazos said their idea for an online market grew out of “selfish motives.” While they were dating, they loved to cook together and eat locally grown, healthy foods, but getting to the market became a hassle.

“We love fresh produce, but we don’t necessarily love the challenges of getting fresh produce,” Will said. “We had been spending every Saturday for the past several years at the farmers market, but it was always difficult to work our schedules around it. In January, we were having brunch, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Why is buying local food so difficult?’”

Now married, Will and Hayley began their search for a better way.

The Cahaba Heights couple have a background in marketing. Will also had learned a lot about the use of local ingredients while working as a waiter’s assistant after college at Hot and Hot Fish Club, one of Birmingham’s most exclusive restaurants.

Till will shop Alabama farmers markets for you from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

With experience guiding them, the DeShazos began using Facebook and email to canvass people who enjoy eating healthy foods and to develop partnerships with local farmers. The response was overwhelming.

“We found that people not only wanted something like till in the Birmingham area, they needed it,” Hayley said. “There are stories of people who literally don’t have transportation to the farmers market, or who are disabled and can’t drive a vehicle to the market. There are people who work on Saturday mornings and can’t get to the market. We found everybody wants it, so we decided we’re doing it.”

Till offers a wide selection of produce, including fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, along with meats and pantry items, such as breads and baked goods.

The selection of available products is ever-changing, depending on the season, Will said.

“We update our website regularly,” he said. “We don’t want people to think they can only eat local in June, July or August. That’s so not true. Some of the best fruits and vegetables are found in the wintertime.”

Customers can order online for $12 a month or $99 a year. The delivery service is currently available to 10 Birmingham-area ZIP codes.

Free pickup is also available at the DeShazos’ drive-through location next to Doodles Italian ice in Cahaba Heights.

Ordering produce is easy. Customers can order online anytime between Sunday and Wednesday. When they sign up for the service, customers will receive an insulated bag, which they will fill with ice packs and leave on their porch on delivery days. On Saturday mornings, the till team delivers the goods and notifies you when they have arrived.

“Till is a metaphor for all of the options that the food industry in America gives us,” Hayley noted, explaining the premise behind the business’s colorful name. “We’ve been accustomed to getting the food we want, when we want it, without knowing where it comes from or what nutrients it has in it. Till is a metaphor for searching for all the options that are in the ground right beneath you, which is locally sourced food.”

Hayley added that spreading the word about the importance of eating nutritious food is a large part of the job.

“Teaching people to eat seasonally and change their lifestyle can be a challenge,” Hayley said. “We are used to having a wide variety of items available at the grocery store. But we have to realize that processed foods are lacking in nutrients and have been treated with pesticides that can cause health issues. But when you sacrifice these items and choose local produce, your life is changed.”

Realizing that thousands of Alabamians are going hungry every day, Will and Hayley are also giving back through their farm-to-door delivery service. They are donating a portion of the local produce to Grace Klein Community, a nonprofit that provides food to those in need. Customers can donate to Grace Klein directly through the till website.

The DeShazos said their favorite part of the business has been meeting their customers – many of whom have become friends.

“It’s fun starting at the grassroots level and getting to know our customers,” Will said. “We know that food is the one thing that connects everyone. Some of our best moments as families have been eating food around the table. Getting to know our customers while we’re still small is allowing us to create, pivot and tweak our service based upon our till members’ needs.”

Hayley said although Will is the entrepreneur in the family, she is thrilled that they took the plunge.

“I’ve never considered myself a risk-taker and probably would not have started the business without Will,” Hayley said. “But I’ve always been super-passionate about local produce and supporting Alabama farmers. Alabama is an amazing place, and you can grow amazing foods in Alabama because of our soil. I’m proud of the resources we have in our state, and I’m proud of our farmers and want to help people learn about the foods available to them.”

To learn more about till or sign up for the delivery service, click https://usetill.com. Along with ordering food, customers can check out the DeShazos’ recipe blog, which offers tasty ways to turn local produce into memorable dishes.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

18 hours ago

University of Alabama named top college football program of last 150 years; Auburn no. 20

The University of Alabama has been ranked as the best college football program over the last 150 years, with Auburn University also representing the Yellowhammer State well.

A report by ESPN’s Stats & Information Group used a formula based on the number of national championships, the winning percentage for the best 50 seasons in program history and the winning percentage over the past 150 years, with the most recent 50-year block being weighted heaviest, followed by 1919-1968 and then 1869-1918 coming in as holding the least weight.

Additional adjustments were made to account for discrepancies across divisions and eras, such as national championships below the FBS level counting at 50%, national championships before the poll era (1936) counting at 50% and winning percentages when a team was not in Division I being reduced by 10%.

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Using ESPN’s formula, the University of Alabama was awarded a 74.9 rating.

ESPN outlined, “The Crimson Tide’s history is a panorama of strength and longevity: From Wallace Wade in 1925 to Nick Saban five times in the past decade, four coaches have won a national championship. Seven have won an SEC title. Twelve have at least one 10-win season. Everyone wins there — except Ears Whitworth (4-24-2, 1955-57). But Bama fans even love him. Without Ears, Bear Bryant wouldn’t have heard Mama call.”

The University of Notre Dame was ranked second with a 72.9 rating, followed by Ohio State at 69.6, the University of Oklahoma at 68.5 and the University of Southern California (USC) at 67.25.

Auburn also received a high ranking, coming in at 20th best with a 56.82 rating.

The only current SEC schools ranked above Auburn, besides the Tide, were the University of Tennessee and Louisiana State University (LSU) at numbers 14 and 15 respectively.

ESPN wrote, “What’s it like to live in the shadow of the most successful program in the history of college football? Why, it’s pretty successful, thanks for asking, and War Eagle. The Tigers won national titles in 1957 and 2010, and stopped Alabama from playing for national titles with momentous upsets in 1972, 1989 and 2013 — and a true Tiger fan would have a hard time telling you which was more enjoyable. Auburn became a more successful program in the last generation, when the Tigers began playing home games on campus instead of in Birmingham, two hours away. The Tigers waited more than a century for a true home-field advantage.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn