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A-State receives grants to study crop burning

JONESBORO — Arkansas State University received two grants this month for research that will study prescribed crop burns to improve guidelines as well as their negative health effects.

Researchers recently received a $571,940 grant through the Non-Land Grant Colleges of Agriculture program for a cooperative study titled “Improving crop residue burning and management recommendations in the Arkansas Delta Region.”

The project director of the study is Aaron Shew, assistant professor and R.E.L. Wilson chairman of Agricultural Economics in A-State’s college of agriculture, who will be working with researchers from the University of Arkansas, University of Arkansas’ division of agriculture, Miami University and the University of Delaware. A-State is the lead university on the project.

A-State professors Joe Ford and Ross Carroll will also be joining Shew in the study, which will run through May 2023.

The main goal of the project is to monitor in-field burns and to improve guidelines for prescribed burns, Shew said.

“Ideally, we’ll be able to reduce smoke in populated areas by improving the guidelines for crop residue burning,” he said.

Shew said the project hopes to be able to have a general metric for the best times for farmers under financial and time pressure to burn. Ford is hoping to build a smartphone app that will give a simulation of what would happen if a farmer was to burn at the time they were in the field.

Shew explained that controlled burning is more cost-effective than tilling. Producers are able to save on man-hours and fuel costs by burning. As part of the project, researchers are also planning to survey producers and residents in the area, which is expected to start within a year. Part of the survey will be to see if residents would be willing to offset tilling costs.

Shew also believes the project will open up opportunities for A-State’s College of Agriculture. The project will change the capacity to do high-level applied research for the area and state, and the universities plan to hire graduate and undergraduate students to work on the project, Shew said.

Dr. Troy Camarata, assistant professor at NYITCOM at A-State, received a grant for a study titled “Exploring Causative Relationship Between Agricultural Burning and Negative Public Health Outcomes in the Arkansas Delta.” The study will look at how air pollution in Northeast Arkansas, where controlled burning is typical, impacts the health of residents.

Camarata said the research has been ongoing since the summer of 2018, and he intends to collaborate with Shew on their studies since they’re looking at the same problem from different sides. Ford will work on the project as well to develop a public information tool with an app that will give users the local air quality and recommendations.

“We want to provide evidence one way or another if there is a correlation between agricultural burning and public health,” Camarata said.

The data that’s been collected so far will move the project forward to collect additional patient data. In the study they will be looking at data from asthma, COPD, cardiovascular disease and chronic kidney disease.

A 2016 study conducted by the VA St. Louis Health Care System showed that ambient air pollution may be a significant driver of chronic kidney disease.

According to the CDC, chronic lower respiratory diseases were the third leading cause of death in Arkansas in 2016 and 2017 and Arkansas had the fourth highest death rate for chronic lower respiratory diseases in 2018.

Agriculture industries and landowners across Arkansas are able to use a voluntary system to better manage crop burning by assuring that air quality and human health are not compromised by smoke.

Prescribed fires can be reported to the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, which then lists the fires on its website to keep residents in nearby areas informed about possible smoke in the area. The department also recommends completing a safe burning checklist before a prescribed burn, and warns against burning if winds exceed 15 mph, humidity is below 20 percent and when the wind direction could send smoke directly into roadways or communities.

Last fall the Arkansas Department of Agriculture received six calls reporting prescribed burns in Craighead County, public information manager Anna Thrash said. According to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, Craighead County has over 300,000 acres of farmland.

While Arkansas’ system is voluntary, other states have adopted laws to regulate controlled burns. California requires its producers and landowners to have a burning permit, burn only on days determined by local air districts and shred and pile residue when possible. In Washington and Oregon farmers can be fined for burning on no-burn days, and they must receive a burning permit. Louisiana requires certified burn managers to be present at prescribed burns.

In November of 2017, Dr. Warren Skaug published his findings on agricultural burning in Northeast Arkansas. The document, which was signed by 32 Northeast Arkansas physicians, expressed an urgent concern about the adverse health effects of agricultural burning. It found that there is a spike in respiratory illnesses in the fall, and the three realistic goals should be a significant decrease in total burning, elimination of the spikes over population centers and to accomplish those two things with the least pain for farmers and taxpayers.

The study also suggests grants and mandates to fund more extensive monitoring should be considered, as well as a permit system with oversight and enforcement and adoption of a burning fee paired with a tax credit for non-burning alternatives.

University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences researchers found there is a 20.9 percent increase in odds of being treated at the emergency room for asthma and COPD during the fall season in Craighead County. In the study, which spanned from 2014 to 2016, they also found that particulate matter 2.5 levels were higher in the fall that could be attributed to crop burning.

Other than PM 2.5, agricultural smoke also emits carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, ammonia and sulfur dioxide, according to Skaug’s findings.

Sheldon Harvey and Eddie Craft of Capital Paving Materials and Construction install a storm drain Thursday near the new overpass that connects Nettleton Avenue and U.S. 18. The overpass is expected to open in August.

Overpass construction

Emerson Owens, 6, and her cousin, Bo Hampton, 10, both of Little Rock, enjoyed playing with border collies and sheep during a recent visit to Emerson’s grandparents in Jonesboro. If you have an interesting photo of people doing activities in Northeast Arkansas, email it to and it may be published in The Sun.

Goats and collies

State, drug makers to spar in Jonesboro

JONESBORO — A opioid lawsuit filed in March 2018 in Northeast Arkansas on behalf of several cities and counties against the pharmaceutical industry has grown bigger and more complex.

And progress toward a resolution has been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawyers from across the country were scheduled to attend a hearing Tuesday in Jonesboro, but that has now been pushed back to Sept. 30 in Jonesboro after an attorney from Birmingham, Ala., complained that an in-person hearing would be too hazardous.

Second Judicial District Prosecutor Scott Ellington filed the lawsuit in Crittenden County Circuit Court. Since then, the list of plaintiffs has grown to include all 75 county governments and 16 of the state’s most populous cities, including Jonesboro.

The cities and counties seek money from as many as 60 drug manufacturers and distributors to reimburse them for the costs they’ve incurred in fighting the opioid epidemic.

“From the beginning in this case, the plaintiff governments – the State of Arkansas, all 75 Arkansas counties, and the 16 highest-population cities of Arkansas – have alleged that the defendant opioid manufacturers and distributors caused the Arkansas opioid epidemic, and the defendants should pay what it costs to abate the epidemic that they created,” Ellington told The Sun. “The defendants should pay to meaningfully address the deaths, overdoses, addiction, neonatal abstinence syndrome, judicial costs, social services, family displacements, and other harms and threats that they have allegedly created.”

No dollar amount of what the state, cities and counties believe pharmaceutical manufacturers and marketers should pay in Arkansas has been disclosed.

Since the case was filed, attorneys have been fighting over access to thousands of records to bolster each others’ claims.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed a similar lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court shortly after Ellington’s suit was filed against many of the same companies to recover the medical and law enforcement costs the state has incurred due to opioid abuse. A trial in that case is scheduled for October 2021.

Statistics from the Arkansas Department of Health showed that in 2017, 108.1 opioid prescriptions were written per 100 persons. That means enough opioid prescriptions were written for every person in Arkansas to have their own bottle of pills.

Between 2015 and 2016, the report found that 4.89 percent of Arkansans over age 12 misused pain relievers. Non-medical use of pain relievers is higher in Arkansas than it is in all of its border states, said Chris Villines, executive director for the Association of Arkansas Counties, after Ellington’s suit was filed.

The defendants in the two Arkansas cases have already reached settlements in similar lawsuits in other states.

In 2019, opioid distributors McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health, and drug manufacturer Teva Pharmaceuticals, agreed to a $260 million settlement with Cuyahoga and Summit counties in Ohio, according to the Washington Post.

In 2019, OxyContin manufacturer Purdue filed for bankruptcy as part of an estimated $12 billion settlement with state and local governments, reported The Associated Press. As part of the proposed settlement, the Sackler family agreed to pay at least $3 billion in the settlement plus contribute the company itself, and its future profits, to the bankruptcy trustee. The trustee has provided forms for each of the Arkansas plaintiffs to file claims, according to the court files.

In 2019, CNN reported an Oklahoma judge ruled that Johnson and Johnson must pay the state of Oklahoma $572 million, stating: “The defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths, and neonatal abstinence syndrome.”

In 2017, McKesson Corporation, one of the nation’s largest distributors of pharmaceuticals, paid a $150 million civil penalty for violations of the Controlled Substances Act. McKesson was failing to report “suspicious orders” for oxycodone and hydrocodone, such as orders that were suspicious in frequency, size or other patterns, the Justice Department announced.

No trial date is set in the cities and counties lawsuit.

Victim identified in Fisher Street homicide

JONESBORO — A man found murdered in a home on North Fisher Street Wednesday has been identified by police as Gonzalo Mazariego Ramos, 49.

The Jonesboro Police Department was dispatched just after 8 a.m. to the 100 block of North Fisher Street “in reference to a Hispanic male laying in an open doorway,” according to an updated incident report.

Ramos was found dead with a gunshot wound, it read. Initially, JPD investigated the murder as a suspicious death.

Circumstances leading to the fatal shooting and the extent of the victim’s injuries were not detailed in the report. Information JPD released Thursday indicates that it stemmed from an argument between Ramos and Rosario Vela, 61, of Cash.

JPD’s recent allegation is not the first time Vela’s been accused of being violent during a dispute. He was sentenced to five years of probation in May 2019 for shooting a male roommate, court records show.

Vela was arrested at 11:46 a.m. Wednesday in the 300 block of North Allis Street on a warrant for first-degree murder, the report read. The suspect was out of jail on several bonds at the time of the homicide, records show.

Hours later, Second Judicial District prosecutors filed petitions to revoke the bonds set in recent cases.

“On July 29, 2020, the defendant committed the offenses of first-degree murder and possession of a firearm by certain persons. The defendant has committed new felonies while awaiting trial,” the filing read. “The defendant should be held without bond until his hearing on Aug. 3, 2020, at 1 p.m.”

The incident report shows that Vela was unarmed during his arrest.

The suspect is being jailed until his probable cause hearing scheduled for 1 p.m. today in Craighead County District Court.

The homicide of Ramos marks the seventh murder that JPD has investigated in 2020, with the last occurring nearly one week ago.

Other victims include the following:

Tiquan Wilson, 21, of Jonesboro, in January.

Donald Hubbard, 78, of Jonesboro, in January.

Elijah Ross, 1, of Jonesboro, in February.

Jonathan Morgan, 39, of Jonesboro, in April.

Robert Green, 30, of Jonesboro, in April.

Charlene Jewell, 57, of Jonesboro, in July.

Craighead adds 31 virus cases

JONESBORO — Craighead County recorded 31 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, while statewide, there were 791 confirmed new cases, and eight more people in the state have died from the illness caused by the virus, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.

The new fatalities brought the statewide death toll to 442.

The total number of people who have tested positive for the disease since the pandemic began in early March stood at 41,559, while Craighead County’s total rose to 1,062. Eleven Craighead County residents have died.

The statewide numbers Thursday were similar to the report from Wednesday.

The governor said public schools in Arkansas remain on track to reopen the week beginning Aug. 24, and he said health officials plan to make an announcement Friday about fall high school sports, including cheerleading, football and volleyball.

Dr. Shane Speights, the city’s medical director and Jonesboro campus dean of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at A-State, said Craighead County seems to be following a statewide trend for new infections. He said 63 percent are among the 25-49 year age group.

“Most of the cases are in the expected age group. Those that commute and work, go out to eat in restaurants and bars, travel, etc.,” Speights told The Sun Thursday. “Senior citizens (65 and older), for the most part, have been paying attention to the warnings and have limited their activities outside the home. However, they still represent the highest risk in terms of hospitalization and death (about 70 percent of deaths).

“On the other side, those under the age of 18 represent a smaller fraction (13%) of the cases because of one primary factor; school is not in session. As it stands now that will change in the coming months, unfortunately we may also see an increase with our senior citizens.”

While hospitalizations in Jonesboro have risen in recent weeks, Speights said the medical centers are well prepared to handle them.

“However, there is a trend of younger hospitalized patients than we saw in the beginning. This is likely due to the increased spread among that population,” he said.

Thursday Northeast Arkansas COVID-19 cases by county:

Craighead – 1,062 confirmed (up 31 from Wednesday), with 189 still active, 862 recovered, 15,568 negative tests, 11 deaths.

Lawrence – 173 confirmed (up 4), 18 active, 146 recovered, 2,097 negative, 9 deaths.

Greene – 280 confirmed (up 11), 87 active, 192 recovered, 5,802 negative, 1 death.

Poinsett – 141 confirmed (up 8), 36 active, 102 recovered, 2,401 negative, 3 deaths.

Randolph – 155 confirmed (up 3), 39 active, 114 recovered, 2,563 negative, 2 deaths.

Clay – 103 confirmed, 10 active, 89 recovered, 2,145, 4 deaths.

Jackson – 56 confirmed (up 1), 12 active, 43 recovered, 1,692 negative, 1 death.

Mississippi – 648 confirmed (up 23), 170 active, 470 recovered, 5,879 negative, 8 deaths.

Cross – 157 confirmed (up 1), 28 active, 128 recovered, 1,997 negative, 1 death.

Sharp – 97 confirmed (up 3), 18 active, 74 recovered, 1,493 negative, 5 deaths.

Crittenden – 1,135 confirmed (up 8), 99 active, 1,019 recovered, 7,602 negative, 17 deaths.

St. Francis – 1,104 confirmed (up 18), 138 active, 963 recovered, 6,012 negative, 3 deaths.

COVID-19 cases by community as of July 27, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, with cumulative total of confirmed tests, followed by number of active cases:

Ash Flat, 38, 0.

Bay, 11, 0.

Blytheville, 287, 95.

Bono, 48, 10.

Brookland, 42, 0.

Harrisburg, 22, 0.

Hoxie, 20, 0.

Imboden, 13.

Jonesboro, 835, 189.

Lafe, 12, 0.

Lake City, 16, 0.

Lepanto, 14, 0.

Luxora, 18, 0.

Manila, 15, 0.

Marked Tree, 20, 0.

Marmaduke, 14, 0.

Newport, 36, 0.

Osceola, 101, 27.

Paragould, 206, 57.

Pocahontas, 107, 34.

Rector, 36, 10.

Reyno, 11, 0.

Trumann, 47, 19.

Tyronza, 13, 0.

Walnut Ridge, 97, 18.

Wilson, 15, 0.

Wynne, 115, 28.