State scrambles to comply with federal radio guidelines

Maine emergency management officials are scrambling to comply with a new federal law that will require all radio equipment used in the United States to use less of the radio spectrum. The law, scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2013, applies to police, fire, rescue units and others, according to Capitol News Service.

But Maine Emergency Management Agency Director Rob McAleer said a lot of equipment in the state doesn’t meet the new narrow-band requirement.

“That means that all of the radios, and all of the receivers and transmitters and the pagers that we currently have, we’ve got to do three things: One, they’ve got to be narrow-bandable —- in other words, they have to be able to accept those narrow bands that will come up into effect on the first of January [2013] — we’ve got to get licenses for all of those, and then we have to do the reprogram of all of that equipment,” he told lawmakers.

McAleer has launched a study to determine how many radios and radio systems will have to be changed in the state to meet the new requirements. He expects the cost to tally in the millions of dollars, and he said he doubts federal grants will cover all of the need.

CMP’s smart meter plans generate union opposition

Central Maine Power Co.’s plan to install new automated smart meters, which would allow the utility to monitor customers’ electricity usage, is generating opposition from union officials. Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1837 said the new technology could lead to the loss of 141 jobs, according to the Kennebec Journal.

CMP plans to pay for the $190 million project with the help of a $96 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. CMP President Sara Burns said the technology is “transformational” and will give consumers more choices, and allow the company to operate more efficiently. She said installing the new meters will create 200 jobs in the short term, according to the paper.

Chainsaws fell majestic Yarmouth elm Herbie

New England’s largest and oldest elm tree, known as Herbie, has stood in Yarmouth since before the American Revolution, but has been unable to withstand the latest bout of Dutch Elm disease.

As tree surgeons set about removing Herbie’s limbs one by one Jan. 19, a crowd of onlookers watched as a part of local history came down. Among them was Donna Felker, who, as a schoolgirl, christened the tree Herbie in the early 1950s.

“It’s pretty sad, but we know all growing things come to an end at some time,” she said. “So they’ve done a lot to keep it alive. It’s been hit 15 times, so the 15th time it didn’t survive.”

The 110-foot tall tree is estimated to be 240 years old, but its exact age will be known after officials count the growth rings in the trunk once it’s cut down. But Herbie will live on. Wood from the tree will go to artisans for furniture and other products.

Among those keeping track of Herbie’s felling is 101-year-old Frank Knight, who has been caring for Herbie as the town’s volunteer tree warden for the past 50 years. He said he tried many ways to save Herbie. “They came up with a fungicide, which we inoculate the tree around the base, and that helped and it survived. And after that, we have cut disease off 13 or 14 different times,” Knight said.

At one time, Yarmouth was reported to have had about 700 elm trees, but disease has taken its toll on all but a few.

Haiti on minds of MLK celebrators

On what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King’s 81st birthday, a crowd estimated at nearly 700 turned out for the 29th annual breakfast sponsored by the NAACP in Portland. Keynote speaker Melissa Harris Lacewell asked King’s legacy not be glamorized nor sanitized.

Several speakers, including 1st District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, urged humanitarian and political support for Haiti. Pingree said this country has not always done right by the small Caribbean nation.

“Nothing can make up for our mistakes of the past, but we can resolve today, as I believe we have, not to make those same mistakes this time,” Pingree told the crowd. “This time, we can help Haiti to rebuild and become a country that is a true partner for the United States, neither dependent on us nor beholden to us.”

Guard gets millions to finish Bangor training center

The Maine Army National Guard is getting $15.5 million to complete the last phase of a new regional training center in Bangor, according to Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations and Armed Services committees.

Collins said the training center “will support the men and women of the 240th Regiment and the Maine Army National Guard.”

Construction on phase one of the Regional Training Institute began last year. When complete, the facility will include classrooms, a student dormitory, cafeteria, athletic and training facilities, Collins said.

Public advocate seeks emergency assessment on telephone users

Maine Public Advocate Richard Davies is seeking an emergency assessment on telephone users totaling at least $100,000 to pay for the legal costs of representing Maine consumers in the FairPoint bankruptcy case under way in New York City.

Sen. Barry Hobbins, a Saco Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s Utilities Committee, said there is no doubt the state needs to be represented, the question is, who pays.

“The funding mechanism, obviously, is going to have to be looked at very carefully from the recommendation of the public advocate to see whether or not it is the appropriate means of funding the independent representation,” Hobbins told Capitol News Service. “We could find — unfortunately, under normal circumstances we’d probably be looking to the general fund.”

With the state general fund in the red, he said, that option is unlikely. Davies argued it’s fair to have all telephone users pay for the legal costs because nearly every phone call made in the state will travel over FairPoint equipment for a portion of the call.

Bangor Hydro to invest $8 million in smart-grid infrastructure

Bangor Hydro Electric Company said it has won approval from state utility regulators to invest $8 million in so-called smart-grid infrastructure.

Smart-grid technology, which is supposed to allow both power companies and consumers to better monitor energy use, is aimed at saving energy. Bangor Hydro said its $8 million investment in the technology could result in annual savings of as much as $2.5 million for the utility’s customers.

“This project directly aligns with our business strategy to provide in-home energy solutions to benefit customers, support energy independence and provide tools for customers to manage their electricity consumption and costs in a more efficient and informed manner,” said Bangor Hydro President and COO Gerry Chasse, who said the project will create two full-time jobs at the utility.

The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2011.

Environmental coalition unveils legislative priorities

An organization representing a diverse alliance of more than two dozen environmental, conservation and public health groups in Maine was at the Statehouse in Augusta on Jan. 19 to unveil its legislative agenda.

The Environmental Priorities Coalition said its top 2010 issues include efforts to prevent exposure to dangerous chemicals, ensure healthy air, protect fish and wildlife habitat, and encourage energy-efficient development.

“Protecting and preserving Maine’s environmental legacy takes vision and vigilance; while public support for conservation in Maine remains high, the present economic situation is challenging,” said Maureen Drouin, executive director of the Maine Conservation Voters Education Fund. “Our goal is to maintain our hard-won environmental gains, and move forward with new solutions to protect our natural resources.”

Drouin said the Environmental Priorities Coalition includes 26 environmental, conservation and public health organizations with a total of more than 100,000 members. She said the group has created a “trail map” for lawmakers outlining the bills the coalition plans to promote.

The group claims a record of success: It said 14 of 16 priority bills it has promoted the past few years have become law.