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West Virginia continues to deal with hazy skies from Canadian fires

Story by Jim Bissett, The Dominion Post

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Where there’s fire – there’s smoke.

Smoke, in this case, coming from a spate of wildfires that have raged across Canada for the past three days.

The meteorological byproduct has had most of America’s northeast making like a Martian landscape at sunset, as fire crews are still laboring to knock it all back.

While the orange-hued, dystopian-looking fallout of smoke has canceled school, flights and sporting contests across the urban climes, the Mountain State has remained relatively clear of it all.

At least so far, Tim Nurkiewicz said.

“Well, at this point, it really does depend on which way the wind is going to blow,” said Nurkiewicz, an air quality expert and director of the WVU Center for Inhalation Toxicology.

Besides, with hundreds of fires going unchecked and charring a swath almost twice the size of Massachusetts, no one, the researcher said, gets to keep a clean handkerchief so long as the flames keep kindling.

The potential for medical harm, Nurkiewicz said, is being carried in those massive plumes of smoke billowing up into the jet stream.

Not that there is such a thing as a benign, wood-blaze anyway, he added, no matter how cozy it all looks on the campground or in the fireplace at Christmastime.

Woodfires are always going to generate properties that are unhealthy for inhaling, he explained, such as benzene and formaldehyde.

That gets multiplied off the scale if it’s from a fire consuming thousands of acres with homes and buildings – and all the plastics and synthetics and all the other materials not meant to burn – that go with them.

To get a sense of the scale, he said, give a quick look to the mountains and trees in the distance during your work commute today on Interstate 79, he said.

The pastoral fuzziness you’re regarding is the haze of smoke from the north.

Which is also what you’re breathing in right now, he said.

Miniscule and microscopic particulate matter can nest in lungs and find its way into to the bloodstream, Nurkiewicz said.

That’s why he recommends wearing a facemask while those fires are still burning – even a high-duty KN95 model – if you’re going to be outdoors for an extended time.

“You don’t have to go crazy,” he said, “but right now it is a good idea to wear some kind of covering.”

It’s also a good idea to make a daily online check of, he said.

The link will carry you to the home of the U.S. Air Quality Index, which tracks pollution in what we breathe nationwide. Conditions were favorable Thursday across West Virginia, though they were in 16 other states, according to the index.

What to expect

Look for the Morgantown area meanwhile to have bouts of haze from the fires at least through Saturday, AccuWeather meteorologist Tom Kines said.

“You’ll have periods of three to four hours at a stretch,” he said, “and then it’ll clear up for a while.”

Things should be “considerably better” by Sunday, Kines said.

All smoke aside, AccuWeather is calling for a hazy high of 74 today, with a possible shower in the afternoon.

Saturday and Sunday will bring a mix of sun and clouds, with highs in the 80s both days.

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Woman sentenced for involvement in Fayette County drug distribution

FAYETTE COUNTY, W.Va. — A Fayette County woman received a lengthy sentence for federal drug crimes.

Samantha J. Cody, 35, formerly of Glen Jean, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for conspiracy to deliver fentanyl and greater than fifty grams of methamphetamine and 1 to 15 years for delivery of methamphetamine.

Fayette County Circuit Judge Thomas H. Ewing ordered the sentences to be served concurrently. Cody will serve a minimum of 15 years in prison before she can be eligible for parole.

Judge Ewing said the sentencing was in part due to Cody’s involvement in a significant drug trafficking organization that had expanded into Fayette County.

Cody is one of three people who recently received sentences for their participation in the drug trafficking organization. She was one of the primary distributors for Heather Hewitt, the leader of the organization, who was sentenced to up 90 years in prison. Another member, Jarod Hendrick, was recently sentenced to 60 years in prison.

An investigation, which began in June of 2021 by the Central Regional Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, found that Hewitt was the leader of the organization and had Cody and Hendrick assisting her in the drug distribution.

While using a confidential informant, the Task Force began making purchases of methamphetamine and fentanyl from the drug traffickers, including Cody, in August of 2021. She was involved in the distribution of large quantities of the drugs up until February of 2022.

Cody was arrested and found to be in possession of fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine on February 19, 2022. Law enforcement seized over one pound of fentanyl, two pounds of methamphetamine, approximately three ounces of cocaine, and just over $250,000.00 from the Hewitt drug trafficking organization during that time.

Ledgers found documentation at the residence of Heather Hewitt and Jarod Hendrick that stated over 14 pounds of controlled substances were distributed. It was documented that Cody was personally involved in the distribution of over 1 pound of controlled substances.

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St. Marys’ Ramsey utilizing experience of North-South week to help prepare him for what’s to come

INSTITUTE, W.Va. — For some players, Saturday’s North-South Football Classic at South Charleston High School will mark their final time playing competitive football.

For others, the week leading up to the game provides an idea of what’s to come in the future. With players from both teams staying at West Virginia State throughout the week, those going on to play at the next level are provided in part with a glimpse of what it’s like staying on a college campus and developing a daily routine that football heavily factors into.

That’s the approach being taken by Joey Ramsey, who is representing St. Marys for the final time before he heads off to West Liberty to continue his career on the gridiron.

“I kind of feel like this gives me a little bit of firsthand experience of what it’s going to be like come August,” Ramsey said, “and it gives me a head start to know what to expect.”

Ramsey enjoyed a sensational senior season for the Blue Devils. He was often utilized in a variety of ways and proved effective in various roles, rushing for 1,169 yards and 15 touchdowns and catching 535 yards worth of passes and nine additional scores.

Ramsey was instrumental in leading the Blue Devils to a seven-win season and a berth in the 2022 playoffs as the team’s leading rusher and receiver. He averaged 8.4 yards per carry and better than 26 yards per reception and was equally vital to the team’s defense while recording 63 tackles and a pair of interceptions.

At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Ramsey has the makeup of a player ready to take on the challenges that await in the Mountain East Conference. He is joining the Hilltoppers’ program as a tight end.

“It really helps coming in with the blocking schemes,” Ramsey said of his size. “I’m faster for my size, so I can run some routes and catch some balls, but I kind of have a head start with my size and obviously I’m going to get bigger.”

Because he was a proficient pass-catcher for the Blue Devils, Ramsey believes at least part of that can translate to a different position at West Liberty.

“My route-running will be really beneficial at the college level,” Ramsey said. “A lot of times, tight ends can be bigger and slower and I think my speed can help me.”

A running back and linebacker and SMHS, Ramsey was an early commitment to partake in the North-South Football Classic. Even after signing with the Hilltoppers after football season and earlier this year, Ramsey honored his commitment to play against other top seniors across West Virginia.

“I was one of the first ones on the original roster.” Ramsey said. “I’ve known I was coming down for a while. I stayed committed, came down and it’s been a good time.”

With an opportunity to meet players from different areas and schools, Ramsey, like many members of both squads, can form new friendships with teammates, opponents and coaches that will extend well beyond this week.

“We have fun when we’re not in practice, but when we’re in practice we really lock in and want to get better and learn the schemes,” Ramsey said. “The coaches have really done a good job of balancing having fun with keeping it serious at the same time.”

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Cabell County deputy involved in head-on collision

CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. — Dispatchers in Cabell County reporting that a deputy involved in a head-on crash Thursday afternoon is doing okay.

The crash occurred on Cedar Crest Drive around 1 p.m. just outside of Huntington between the deputies cruiser and another vehicle.

According to Sheriff Chuck Zerkle, the deputy was taken to a hospital to be checked out. Dispatchers said no one was else has been taken to the hospital.

Cedar Crest Drive was closed but has since been reopened following the incident.

The cause of the crash has not been reported.

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Guard Kevon Voyles joins Herd hoops

— By Bill Cornwell

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall has picked up another piece in hopes of filling the void of its most productive players from last season not returning.

Kevon Voyles, a 6-foot-3 guard announced through social media he’s joining the Thundering Herd program. Voyles comes to Marshall from Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference member Maryland Eastern Shore.

Voyles’ arrival addresses backcourt needs for the Herd caused by the graduation of last year’s leading scorer, Taevion Kinsey, and the departure of four-year starting point guard Andrew Taylor, who is now at Mississippi State.

Voyles is a Cape Charles, Virginia native and was the Hawks’ leading scorer last season with an average of 12.9 points. He shot better than 49 percent overall, 71.7 percent from the free-throw line and just under 33 percent from the three-point line.

He played in 20 games during the 2022-2023 season for a team that finished 18-13 and 9-5 in the MEAC. Voyages started 16 contests, scoring a career-high 27 points with seven rebounds in 26 minutes against South Carolina State on January 21.

In his three seasons at Maryland-Eastern Shore, Voyles played in 72 games and averaged 8.3 points. During the 2021-2022 campaign, he was especially effective from behind the three-point line and shot better than 40 percent from long distance.

Voyles becomes the third addition by way of the transfer portal this offseason for Marshall, which already added Indiana State shooting guard Cameron Crawford and Texas State power forward Nate Martin.

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3 Guys Before The Game – Wren Baker Visits (Episode 466)

So much for a honeymoon.

West Virginia University Athletic Director Wren Baker’s first six months on the job have seen him drink more from a fire hose, than sip from a cup.

He unexpectedly had to deal with the Bob Huggins comment controversy and hire a women’s basketball coach.

Throw in the current turbulence of the transfer portal and NIL funding, and it has been an eventful debut.

In this episode, the “Guys” cover the major issues facing WVU athletics and get Baker’s look toward the future.

Other topics include conference alignment, the Iron Sheik and coffee preferences.

Three Guys Before The Game is sponsored by Burdette Camping Center Komax Business Systems  —-  GoMart   — and Lou Wendell Marine Sales.

Don’t forget to check out Three Guys merchandise.

Never miss an episode, it’s free, subscribe below.




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Supreme Court says governor isn’t the guy to sue over charter schools approval process

In a question of whether West Virginia’s system for approving charter schools is constitutional, the state Supreme Court has ruled that Gov. Jim Justice isn’t the guy who should be sued.

The justices concluded that the West Virginia Public Charter Schools Board, which was established by the legislature as a way of approving and assessing the schools, is the entity with the actual authority.

Tim Armstead

“Upon thorough review, we conclude that Respondents lack standing to seek the preliminary injunction at issue against Governor Justice because (1) he does not have the ability to authorize public charter schools, and (2) granting injunctive relief against him does not prevent the PCSB, a nonparty in this case, from authorizing public charter schools,” wrote Justice Tim Armstead in a majority opinion.

“Therefore, we reverse the circuit court’s order, dissolve the preliminary injunction, and remand for further proceedings.”

So the matter isn’t exactly settled but will return to the circuit court level for continued litigation.

The West Virginia Supreme Court’s opinion was handed down Thursday afternoon.

Charter schools receive financial support from the state’s public education system and are given greater operational latitude in exchange for the possibility of losing their right to operate if they fail. Because they receive public funding, they are considered public schools.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey in late 2021 granted a temporary injunction on West Virginia’s newest method for approving charter schools, saying a constitutional challenge stands a good chance of succeeding in the long term.

The legal battle is not about whether West Virginia can have charter schools, but instead whether they may be authorized through the Professional Charter Schools Board, where members are appointed by the governor and then go through confirmation by the state Senate. In this route, there is no vote by the public.

The plaintiffs challenging the approval system, Sam Brunett of Marion County and Robert McCloud of Kanawha County, want the right to vote on any charter school created in their counties, citing the state constitution.

The court challenge is based on a section of the state Constitution that says “no independent free school district, or organization shall hereafter be created, except with the consent of the school district or districts out of which the same is to be created, expressed by a majority of the voters voting on the question.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t get into that matter but instead dealt with the matter of standing.

The lawsuit named Governor Justice along with Senate President Craig Blair and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw.

Because Blair and Hanshaw are in the legislative branch and don’t oversee the enactment of policy once a bill is passed, much of the argument in court didn’t really focus on their roles.

Instead, the court system has heard arguments over whether the governor, as chief executive, holds the ultimate responsibility.

The Attorney General contended the plaintiffs in the original case erred by naming the governor and legislative leaders rather than the Professional Charter Schools Board.

“Respondents here sued the wrong parties. None of the Petitioners are responsible for enforcing House Bill 2012,” wrote lawyers for the Attorney General’s Office.

“And none have power to authorize the charter schools Respondents oppose — the statute assigns that task to the PCSB.”

Lawyers for parents and educators challenging the charter schools approval process counter that, as the head of the executive branch, Governor Justice is exactly who should be held responsible.

“Governor Justice maintains, however, that he is completely powerless to instruct PCSB to suspend further creation of charter schools or even exercise his established authority to remove PCSB members, in the unlikely event they would disobey any such instruction,” wrote the lawyers challenging the charter schools.

“Governor Justice instead throws PCSB under the proverbial school bus, insisting that it, not the State’s chief executive, is responsible.”

The Supreme Court majority emphasized that the governor’s main role was to sign the bill and to appoint members of the Professional Charter Schools Board.

“Governor Justice has no veto authority over the PCSB’s decision to approve or reject a charter school application,” Armstead wrote for the Supreme Court.

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Gupta returns to West Virginia to talk drug addiction, treatment issues

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Biden administration Drug Czar and former state Health Officer Dr. Rahul Gupta is back in West Virginia to talk about the ongoing battle against substance abuse.

Gupta was in Morgantown Thursday. He has other stops scheduled in the Charleston and Lewisburg areas on Friday.

Dr. Rahul Gupta

At a roundtable discussion on the WVU campus, Gupta told the group that the Biden administration has allocated $15 billion for addiction treatment to the state, or about $8,500 per West Virginia resident. Gupta said enforcement is still a focus but as the numbers of those addicted rise more options must be considered.

“This major shift in policy will be one where we meet people where they are because we cannot feed dead people,” Gupta said.

Those under 25 likely know someone who has either been addicted or has overdosed, according to Gupta. As the age has dropped, most of the drug market is on the internet, where people inadvertently buy something they think is familiar but the substance could be a deadly cocktail.

One of the most important efforts has been educating younger people about the dangers of fentanyl and synthetic drugs like Xylazine. Xylazine is an animal tranquilizer mixed with fentanyl that can cause severe limb damage when injected.

Gupta listens as Dr. Ali Rezal, executive chair at the WVU Rockfeller Neuroscience Institute, explains how this equipment uses ultrasound to treat cravings. (Photo/Ron Rittenhouse-The Dominion Post)

“Today, a teenager somewhere in America or right here in Morgantown can log on to social media on an app and order what they think is an Adderall or a Xanax and end up killing themselves,” Gupta said. “The rate of that is worse than playing Russian roulette with your life.”

Reducing and eliminating stigma relating to mental health and drug treatment is an objective of the program. The stigma related to drug issues is often attributed to a lack of willpower, poor choices, and low moral character. Gupta said over time, opinions have changed and will continue to change, resulting in more people seeking treatment. He also said fentanyl test strips should be readily available for people to test before they use a substance.

“Naloxone is as enabling for addiction as defibrillators cause heart attacks. So we know that from science, and now everybody has embraced it.”

As interdiction, enforcement and treatment continue, large quantities of these dangerous drugs continue to flow across the border with Mexico. Gupta said the Biden administration is making investments in non-human assets that include non-intrusive detection devices to monitor the border.

“We’re always chasing like whack-a-mole, and that’s the reason why on April 12 I declared Xylazine an emerging threat, for the first time any administration has done that,” Dr. Gupta said.

Many times, successful drug treatment depends on the person’s complete engagement. In many cases, he said, engagement could take more than the standard 28 treatment programs paid for by insurance plans. Following that, he said outreach and outpatient services need to be available to people in recovery.

“The challenge really is connection, community, and family,” Gupta said. “There are going to be individuals who need patient care and who need patient care for a longer time than 30 days.”

The panel included the Chancellor & Executive Dean for Health Sciences, Dr. Clay Marsh; Dean of the WVU College of Applied Human Sciences, Autumn Tooms Cypres; Senior Policy Advisor for U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, Audrey Smith; United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of West Virginia, Michael J. Aloi; Monongalia County Delegate from the 81st District, Anitra Hamilton; co-chair of the Mountaineer Fentanyl Education Task Force, Azeem Khan;  United States Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, Bill Ihlenfeld; Director of the Carruth Center, T. Anne Hawkins; Executive Director at Clarksburg Mission, Lou Otenzio; Dean of the West Virginia University College of Law, Amelia Smith Rinehart and Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia, Matthew Cowden.

Stops scheduled for Friday include West Virginia Health Right in Charleston, Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston and the West Virginia School for Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg.

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PEIA says open enrollment was active following changes, assesses spousal surcharge

Managers of the Public Employees Insurance Agency are encouraged by open enrollment, which has come after big changes to the program.

And they are monitoring the results of opt-ins for spouses following the establishment of a surcharge.

Jason Haught

“We’ve had one of the largest open enrollments you can imagine,” acting PEIA director Jason Haught told finance board members during a Thursday afternoon meeting.

Online, the insurance plan had more than 20,000 finalized enrollment transactions, he said. Among people who filled out enrollment forms on paper, Haught estimated about 30,000.

“This is a critical open enrollment. We’re really anxious to see the final numbers,” Haught said.

Open enrollment means people who are insured through PEIA can change their health plan or coverage without some other qualifying event. The most recent period was from April 2 to May 31.

The PEIA Finance Board is getting a feel for the effects of several significant changes for how the plan operates, which were part of a broad-ranging bill passed by the Legislature during the most recent regular session:

  • Imposition of the spouse surcharge for active employee policyholders from state agencies, colleges, universities, and county boards of education whose spouses are offered employer-sponsored insurance coverage but who choose to get coverage through a plan offered by PEIA. This change does not affect non-state agencies, retirees, spouses who are employed by PEIA-participating agencies, or spouses whose coverage is through Medicare, Medicaid, or TRICARE.
  • Increasing health premiums to get the plan back to an 80/20 employer/employee premium split for state agencies, colleges, universities, and county boards of education by July 1, 2023.
  • Increasing reimbursement to providers to a minimum of 110% of Medicare’s reimbursement.

Haught reported to board members some preliminary information about trends on the spousal surcharge.

“That was the big question,” Haught said. “Were our assumptions accurate to what actually happened?”

PEIA had asked people who might be affected by the spousal surcharge to respond to an affidavit and got a 73 percent response rate, Haught said.

PEIA had assumed 45 percent of spouses on the plans did not have employer coverage available to them. That would have been a few more than 11,000 policies.

“We were pretty accurate,” Haught said.

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Sgt. Maynard an inspiration to become a donor

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An organ donation group is admiring the efforts of the recently fallen state trooper, Sgt. Cory Maynard, who gave his tissues after his death.

Sgt. Cory Maynard and family

Within 24 hours after Maynard was shot and killed in the line of duty nearly a week ago today, his body was taken to a tissue donation facility. The Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE) West Virginia Outreach Coordinator, Cheryl King said Maynard lives on through such a bequest.

“That is what brings such comfort to families and it gives them hope, and all people who are donors are heroes,” King said on MetroNews Talkline Thursday.

She said Maynard’s donation was one of the more rare contributions, as tissue donation is less known than organ donation.

“It’s easier to understand what a heart transplant is, or a lung transplant or a kidney transplant,” said King.

She said tissue donation is just as impactful though, having the ability to improve the lives of up to 75 people.

Tissues which can be transplantable include bones, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, heart valves, skin, veins, cornea and nerves.

“All of those can help patients in various situations some life-threatening, as in the case of heart valves,” King said.

Cheryl King

King said tissue transplants mainly improve the quality of someone’s life, helping them to walk or stand up straight, as they replace worn out tissue that was prohibiting them from working properly.

However, organ donation typically deals with live-saving matters. King knows of at least two stories where the gift of life was passed along through organ transplants.

One is the story of Jasmine “Nicole” Moore of Ripley who was 26 and engaged to be married when she was killed in a car wreck. Her mother, Lisa Johnson didn’t find out until after the accident that Nicole had become a donor, saying that she’s a hero and lives on through those in need.

Another story is of Sam Romano of Clarksburg. Appearing to be a healthy 18-year-old boy preparing for college and deciding on football and baseball scholarships, doctors soon discovered Romano had a heart abnormality that required a transplant. He received the donation three years ago, and his mother, Beth said “he isn’t going to waste that precious gift.”

King said often a person’s decision to become a donor also comes as a gift to their family members.

“Families always are glad when the family member has made the decision themselves, because then they don’t have to make it, but it always brings them and sense of comfort in knowing that their loved one lives on,” she said.

King said organ and tissue donation are both greatly in need, with about 500 people in need of organ donation in West Virginia alone.

People can sign up to become a donor when they go to get their hunting and fishing license, or from Donate Life West Virginia.

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