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Chesterfield officials mull changes to curbside recycling program

Chesterfield residents would pay a little more each month to recycle the glass, plastic, paper and aluminum they place out for curbside pickup under a proposal being considered by county officials.

The proposal would split the entire cost of the service among customers, who currently pay a $25 annual fee through their tax bills for the recyclable pickup from the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority.

That would effectively end a long-running practice in which the county has paid an additional subsidy from its annual budget to foot program costs not covered by the user fee.

The costs for those households participating in the recycling program could rise about $10 per year, according to preliminary county estimates.

Chesterfield supervisors are looking for ways to continue offering the service without footing the cost of rising subsidies after China, once a major market for the goods, pulled back from accepting recyclables such as mixed paper and cardboard and as some households have opted out of paying.

Concerned by spiking expenses and the fact that private trash hauling companies have started offering curbside recycling in Chesterfield, county officials told CVWMA last year that they were considering pulling out of the regional recycling program. That prompted concerns that other localities that take part in the regional program could face higher costs.

Chesterfield continued talking with CVWMA over the past year about how to overhaul curbside pickup, and Supervisor Leslie Haley said Friday that Chesterfield plans to continue taking part in curbside recycling from the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority through the end of its contract in 2023.

“We’re still in the program now and, long-term, we’ll have to see as the contract comes up for renewal what we choose to do,” Haley said.

The county paid for its curbside service entirely through tax revenues until 2010. Officials considered nixing the service altogether in the wake of the recession. Instead, they created the $25-per-household fee and gave residents the ability to opt out. About 20,000 households have opted out of the fee, which created the need to start paying the annual subsidy to cover the shortfall in the program’s funding. An estimated 79,000 households pay for the service, according to county estimates.

But the recycling company does not track which addresses don’t pay, meaning those residents receive free recycling services if they put a cart at the curb.

Likewise, there are other customers who are paying for the service through their tax bills who are unaware that charge is being tacked onto tax bills, county officials said.

The county government plans in April or May to send letters to people who are currently paying the recycling fee to ensure they are aware they are being charged for the service.

The subsidies the county sets aside to help pay for the program have risen sharply in recent years as China shut off its market to U.S. paper and cardboard.

Joe Casey, the county administrator, wrote in a March letter that the county had once been paying $231,000 annually. This fiscal year, the county was projecting to pay $859,000 for the program and, without any changes to the program, that was expected to grow to more than $1 million by 2023, according to a December presentation by Clay Bowles, the county’s director of general services.

Kim Hynes, the executive director of the CVWMA, said the loss of China’s markets for paper and cardboard was the biggest impact to the authority. Other countries, such as India and Vietnam, have been taking in those paper materials, but not at the prices China was offering, Hynes said. Plastics continue to have a strong market in the U.S. and Canada, Hynes said.

“We have spent the better part of 30 years educating people on the importance of recycling and keeping valuable commodities out of the landfills,” Hynes said. “I’m hesitant to, no pun intended, throw that all away because we’ve had a blip in the markets. We just need to figure out what our new normal is going forward.”

Some Chesterfield supervisors have questioned whether the county government should be involved in the recycling business, noting that private haulers are already providing that type of service.

The authority faces ongoing challenges as some people set aside items that cannot be recycled. A chief problem is plastic shopping bags that gum up the equipment at the recycling processing plant as well as pizza boxes and styrofoam, which cannot be recycled.

The regional waste management authority this past year hired GBB Inc., a Northern Virginia-based solid waste consulting company to examine the CVWMA’s contract.

Kate Vasquez, a project manager for GBB, told Chesterfield supervisors in December that her company recommends the localities stay within the current CVWMA contract, saying it provides “below-market” pricing for recycling processing costs and a centralized service rather than a patchwork of recycling service providers.

“While environmental and social benefits of waste reduction and recycling are solid, the economics of processing and selling of the commodities are volatile,” Vasquez said.

JOE MAHONEY/times-dispatch  

BELOW: Marc Holma, portraying Gen. Benedict Arnold, talked with Andrew Keehan (left) and Michael White as people lined up for a history lecture Sunday. The lecture, which was held at St. John’s Church, discussed Arnold’s raid on Richmond in 1781. LEFT: Sarah White climbed a hill to plant a 1776 flag at the church, which dates to 1741.

The Richmond School Board approved new boundaries. Its rezoning work isn't done.

As the current Richmond School Board heads into its final year, the divided group still has work to do.

Much of the body’s efforts last year focused on school rezoning, a normally contentious process that turned more divisive as the board and families debated combining majority-white and majority-black school zones. With the redrawing of new boundaries now complete, with few changes being made, the board is now looking to turn around a school district with the state’s lowest graduation rate, among other challenges.

“We only have a year left,” said Chairwoman Dawn Page, who, like the eight other members of the School Board, is up for re-election in November. “We need to have a focus.”

While the board has voted on new lines, which will take effect at the start of next school year, it has not finished its rezoning effort.

The board last year agreed to also figure out what to do with its vacant properties and those not used for instruction, including the Arthur Ashe Center on the Boulevard bearing the tennis legend’s name.

In 2018, the board punted on spending $750,000 on improvements to the center, which opened in 1982 and hosts basketball games and other activities about two dozen times per year, saying it needed more time to look at how the building is used.

A special committee is reviewing the Ashe center and the nine other vacant and non-instructional facilities currently used or owned by the city school system.

“We’ve got too much property,” said Jonathan Young, who represents the city’s 4th District on the board and serves as the chairman to the committee. “There’s support for unloading some of these buildings to generate capital that we can then put back into the district.”

The committee, Young said, plans to add members of the public and will meet this month to look at the buildings’ use, market value and viability. If the committee chooses to unload the buildings from the city’s rolls, Young said he wants them to be turned over to the city with the understanding that money from the buildings’ sales would go toward new schools or renovations.

That’s where the third part of the rezoning process comes in.

The board also plans to update a facilities plan it approved in its first year in office (2017) that called for the building of five new schools. Three of those schools — George Mason Elementary, E.S.H. Greene Elementary and a new middle school on Hull Street Road — are set to open at the start of next school year.

A special rezoning committee that reviewed school zone maps recommended to the School Board that a new elementary school be built on Ruffin Road, G.H. Reid Elementary be rebuilt and another new middle school be built on the South Side, where the school system is seeing its largest growth in enrollment.

“We have more students than we have space,” said Deanna Fierro, who represented the 4th District on the rezoning committee. “Building and expanding capacity on the South Side is the only reasonable solution to make sure our students can learn in functional spaces.”

As the school system reviews its facilities, it will also implement the new boundaries approved by the School Board last month. Those changes do not include “school pairing,” where zones are merged in the name of improving diversity.

“Though the final plan wasn’t the boldest possible, it did achieve a number of our objectives,” said Superintendent Jason Kamras, a pairing supporter. “It addressed — as much as is possible given current capacity — some of the overcrowding on the South Side; it made sure we will be effectively utilizing the three new schools coming online next fall; and it moved the needle on integration with the restoration of the old [William Fox] and [John B. Cary] zones.”

Without pairing schools, the district will turn to another idea — themed middle and high schools — to try to address the fact that roughly three in four city schools are what researchers define as “intensely segregated,” meaning less than 10% of the student body is white.

“We will be undeterred in leveraging our diversity to create one of the most integrated systems in America,” Kamras said. “I believe we owe that to our children.”

The first themed schools — science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and Henderson Middle School — are set to come online next fall.

The middle and high school shakeup is part of a five-year strategic plan. School Board members said at a retreat Saturday that plan will serve as their guide in improving student achievement.

“We’ve gotten sidetracked by different issues that have been brought before us,” said 7th District School Board representative Cheryl Burke. “Right now, we’re in the mode of making it right and not making the same mistakes that have happened in the past.”

The School Board will meet Monday for the first time this year. During that meeting at George Mason Elementary, it will appoint its leadership and hold a public hearing on a new name for the rebuilt Mason, another issue the group hopes to tackle in its final year.

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Blowback: Iran abandons nuclear limits after US killing

TEHRAN, Iran — The blowback over the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general mounted Sunday as Iran announced it will no longer abide by the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal, and Iraq’s Parliament called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil.

The twin developments could bring Iran closer to building an atomic bomb and enable the Islamic State group to stage a comeback in Iraq, making the Middle East a far more dangerous and unstable place.

The decisions capped a day of mass mourning over Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Friday. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets in the Iranian cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad to walk alongside the casket of Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran’s proxy wars across the Mideast and was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in suicide bombings and other attacks.

Iranian state television cited a statement by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration saying the country would not observe limits on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran no longer faces any limitations in operations,” a state TV broadcaster said.

In Iraq, meanwhile, lawmakers voted in favor of a resolution calling for an end to the foreign military presence in the country, including the estimated 5,200 U.S. troops stationed to help battle the Islamic State group. The bill is nonbinding and subject to approval by the Iraqi government but has the backing of the outgoing prime minister.

President Donald Trump responded to the Parliament’s troop withdrawal vote with a monetary threat, saying the U.S. expected to be paid for its military investments in Iraq before leaving and threatening economic sanctions if the U.S. is not treated properly.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One.

“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” he said.

He added: “We’re not leaving until they pay us back for it.”

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said earlier that the U.S. is awaiting clarification on its legal meaning but was “disappointed” by the move and strongly urged Iraq to reconsider.

“We believe it is in the shared interests of the United States and Iraq to continue fighting ISIS together,” Ortagus said.

The leaders of Germany, France and Britain issued a joint statement on Sunday calling on Iran to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal and refrain from conducting or supporting further “violent acts.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson specifically urged Iran to “withdraw all measures” not in line with the 2015 agreement that was intended to stop Tehran from pursuing its atomic weapons program.

Iran insisted that it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it would not seek a nuclear weapon.

But the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran’s longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.

Iran did not elaborate on what levels it would immediately reach in its program. Tehran has already broken some of the deal’s limits as part of a step-by-step pressure campaign to get sanctions relief. It has increased its production, begun enriching uranium to 5% and restarted enrichment at an underground facility.

While it does not possess uranium enriched to weapons-grade levels of 90%, any push forward narrows the estimated one-year “breakout time” needed for it to have enough material to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog observing Iran’s program, did not immediately comment. But Iran said its cooperation with the IAEA “will continue as before.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told journalists earlier that Soleimani’s killing would prompt Iranian officials to take a bigger step away from the nuclear deal.

“In the world of politics, all developments are interconnected,” he said.

In Iraq, where the airstrike has been denounced as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said the government has two choices: End the presence of foreign troops, or restrict their mission to training Iraqi forces. He called for the first option.

The majority of about 180 legislators present in Parliament voted in favor of the troop-removal resolution. It was backed by most Shiite members of Parliament, who hold a majority of seats. Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal.

Asked shortly before the vote whether the U.S. would comply with an Iraqi government request for U.S. troops to leave, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not answer directly. But he said the U.S. “is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism from ISIS and others in the region.”

Amid threats of vengeance from Iran, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq said Sunday that it is putting the battle against Islamic State militants on hold to focus on protecting its own troops and bases.

A U.S. pullout could not only cripple the fight against the Islamic State but could also enable Iran to deepen its influence in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority-Shiite country.

In Lebanon, the leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah said Soleimani’s killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair game for attacks.

With reported flu cases in Virginia ticking up, a less common type of the virus is being discovered more often this season

With reported flu cases in Virginia ticking up, a less common type of the virus is being discovered more often this season.

Of the more than 1,800 cases confirmed by lab reports since the start of the 2019-2020 flu season, 75% have been identified as type B, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“We normally see increases a little later, but it’s not unusual. It’s tracking along with what we saw in the 2014-2015 season,” said Em Stephens, respiratory disease coordinator for the health department. “The unusual thing about this season is flu B.”

The frequency of type B influenza in Virginia mirrors what’s being seen across the country. It has been found in 68% of all lab-tested cases reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health officials said type B is generally more common in children, though not exactly more severe. It also means that people over 65 who are usually susceptible to the flu might not catch it this year.

Scott Pauley, a spokesman for the CDC, said it’s the first time since the 1992-1993 flu season that influenza B has been identified more often than influenza A nationally.

“It’s good news in the fact that hopefully it’ll be a less severe season in terms of deaths, but it’s still looking like it will be a strong flu season,” Pauley said. “We’re not sure when it could peak, but it could be sometime between now and February.”

In the last full week of 2019, 8% of all visits to emergency departments and urgent care centers in Virginia were for people with flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough and sore throat, doubling the share of reported admissions for flu symptoms in the first week of December.

While the number of flu and flu-like cases has been increasing in the Richmond area over the past month, a larger concentration of cases have been found elsewhere in the state.

In eastern and Northern Virginia, officials have respectively confirmed about 1,000 and 325 flu cases this season. In central Virginia, which includes the Richmond metro area, there have been 84 confirmed flu cases.

That isn’t to say that the spread of the flu here is not intense.

In the Richmond area for the week ending Dec. 28, there were nearly 1,000 hospital and urgent care visits for people reporting flu-like symptoms, Stephens said.

“Most people who get sick with the flu don’t seek medical care. Those that do seek care are often diagnosed using a rapid test or based on their symptoms alone,” she said, explaining why the Virginia Department of Health publicly reports the number of visits for flu-like symptoms as well.

“The rapid tests that are available are great for clinical practice, but they’re not as accurate as public health would like.”

So far through the 2019-2020 flu season, there have been 255 reported pneumonia and influenza-associated deaths reported by the state health agency. There have been no reported pediatric deaths yet this season.

The CDC estimates there have been 2,100 deaths from the flu nationally this season.