Tom Banse

Regional Correspondent

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

Before taking his current beat, Tom covered state government and the Washington Legislature for 12 years.  He got his start in radio at WCAL–FM, a public station in southern Minnesota. Reared in Seattle, Tom graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota with a degree in American Studies.

When not sifting through press releases, listening to lobbyists, or driving lonely highways, Tom enjoys exploring the Olympic Peninsula backcountry and cooking dinner with his wife and friends. Tom's secret ambition is to take six months off work and travel to a faraway place beyond the reach of email.

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Anne Shaffer

The Port of Port Townsend is providing a temporary home to a piece of literary history. But the dry-docked sardine fishing boat once chartered by the writer John Steinbeck faces an uncertain fate.

The 76-foot boat's original name was the Western Flyer. In 1940, John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts (who later inspired the character "Doc" in Cannery Row) chartered the wood vessel for a cruise around Baja California. That resulted in a book still widely read, The Log From the Sea of Cortez.

Tom Banse

“Hackerspaces" are popping up all over the Northwest. But these aren't dens of computer infiltrators. What we're talking about are community workshops for tinkering, machine tooling, 3-D printing and any other hands-on creativity you can think of. So, some market themselves under the more benign-sounding label of "maker space."

And these spaces are now drawing attention as private incubators for entrepreneurship.

First, let's straighten out this name business.

Tom Banse

Fares on Washington state ferries are going up again.

On Tuesday, the Washington State Transportation Commission approved a two-stage increase. The fare increases are designed to meet a $328 million revenue target set by the state Legislature.

State Ferries Director David Moseley says the fare hike will mostly just maintain the status quo.

PNNL scientist Pete McGrail describes CO2 injection underway behind him on the grounds of the Boise Inc. paper mill in Wallula, Wash. / Tom Banse

This week, technicians in southeast Washington are moving forward with a field test to show how carbon dioxide could be injected and trapped deep underground.

Led by the Pacific Northwest National Lab, the experiment involves the injection of 50 tanker-truck loads of carbon dioxide, and will take about four weeks. Then comes about a year and a half of monitoring to see if the global warming gas stays locked away forever beneath ancient lava flows. 

WSDOT

For a while, it looked like a major highway project across Lake Washington could end up as a "bridge to nowhere" for nearly a hundred immigrant investors.

But now, after a long wait, the federal government has given the green light to process the green card applications of these wealthy businesspeople in exchange for their help financing the new 520 floating bridge.

The unemployment rate held steady in Washington state in June, standing at 6.8 percent, according to the monthly update released in Olympia Wednesday.

For state labor economist Paul Turek, the biggest headline is found is deeper in the numbers. He sees signs of stronger hiring in the private sector. That has the side effect of motivating new job seekers to join—or rejoin—the labor force.

"We're seeing, four years after the recession was declared over, more decent signs of recovery taking place," Turek said.

There has been a management shakeup at the Bonneville Power Administration. The U.S. Department of Energy replaced BPA's agency head and chief operating officer without explanation.

The move came just before the release Tuesday morning of a damaging inspector general report.

Federal land managers have banned the use of exploding targets on public lands in the Northwest out of concerns over wildfires. And a manufacturer of the popular target- shooting accessory is quite unhappy.

Fire investigators suspect exploding targets sparked at least a half dozen wildfires in Washington and Idaho over the past year. The chemical explosives give target shooters instant feedback that they've hit their mark from long range.

Spc. Reese Von Rogatsz / U.S. Army, 2012

Urban development around military bases in the Northwest and across the nation is creating a headache for the U.S. Department of Defense.

As a result, several federal agencies on Wednesday announced they will pool money to preserve buffer lands, starting with Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma.

Graeme Ellis / Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The fairy-tale ending for a young orphan killer whale keeps getting better.

Canadian marine biologists spotted Springer the whale with her first calf off the coast of central British Columbia last week. This comes 11 years after Springer was rescued from the ferry lanes near Seattle and successfully reunited with her whale family at the north end of Vancouver Island. 

Tom Banse

Here's a little-known fact that may affect your power bill.

Every year, public utilities in the Northwest give British Columbia several hundred million dollars worth of electricity. That's to compensate Canada for managing the upper Columbia River to minimize flooding and maximize hydropower downstream.

Americans are pushing for a better deal. But the B.C. government is preparing to defend what is now considered an entitlement.

Matt Cooper / University of Oregon

This week, a research ship is retrieving dozens of seismometers that have spent the last year on the ocean floor off the Northwest coast.

Earthquake scientists hope the data they're about to get will shed more light on the structure of the offshore Cascadia fault zone. That plate boundary will be the source of the Big One whenever it rips.

Ship-to-shore video shows how researchers are using a remotely guided submarine to pluck armored seismometers off the Pacific Ocean floor.

Port of Vancouver USA

Oil refiner Tesoro and a terminal operating company named Savage detailed plans Thursday for the biggest crude oil shipping terminal to be proposed in the Northwest.  

The proposed terminal, which would be located on the Columbia River at the Port of Vancouver in Washington, would receive crude by rail from oil fields in North Dakota and the like. The oil would then be transferred onto oceangoing tankers for delivery to West Coast refineries.

Gerard Herbert / Associated Press

Audio Pending...

The National Institutes of Health on Wednesday announced it will retire most chimpanzees used in federally-supported medical research.

The institute director says the use of our closest animal relative for invasive studies can no longer be justified in most cases. That means more than 300 chimps are headed into retirement.

But neither of the two chimpanzee sanctuaries here in the Northwest is prepared to take new chimps.

Eric Gay / Associated Press

The U.S. Senate wants to put a stop to Border Patrol checkpoints and warrantless searches taking place far from the border with Canada. The policy change was included in an amendment to the larger immigration overhaul being debated this week. It pleases civil liberties and immigrant advocates, but concerns frontline Border Patrol agents.

The Canadian dollar is dropping in value. At the close of currency trading Monday, the Canadian dollar hit its lowest point in nearly two years in comparison to the U.S. dollar. And if the trend continues, it'll be cause for concern in border states.

The Canadian dollar is affectionately known as the "loonie." Less than two months ago, it was at parity with the greenback. Now it's worth around 95 cents U.S.

Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

Gov. Jay Inslee says it will likely take a few days to confirm whether radioactive waste has leaked through the outer shell of a double-hulled underground tank at Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Earlier Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy disclosed it detected heightened radioactivity levels beneath a tank that holds some of the nation's worst nuclear waste. Inslee said he spoke directly to the new secretary of energy to say how unhappy he is with agency's pace of stabilizing half a dozen different leaking tanks.

Mary Altaffer / Associated Press

Washington state's labor market continues to improve slowly, according to the latest unemployment rate released Wednesday. The state's Employment Security Department said the jobless rate for May ticked down two-tenths of a percent from April to land on 6.8 percent.

State labor economist Paul Turek says it's the first time since late 2008 that the unemployment rate stood below 7 percent.

Tom Banse

The man who identified the quietest place in the Lower 48—dubbed the "One Square Inch of Silence"—is going deaf.

This Olympic Peninsula fellow campaigned against noise pollution, particularly at his symbolic spot in the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. The self-described "Sound Tracker" is now in a race to edit his life's work before he loses more of his hearing.

Traffic began rolling across the repaired Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River Wednesday morning, completing a hasty, around-the-clock salvage and reconstruction job.

The repair started less than four weeks ago after an oversize load brought down the vital bridge.  Northwest Washington drivers and businesses are relishing a return to normal.

Drivers and businesses in Northwest Washington are voicing elation now that there is a firm date for reopening the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River. The Washington Department of Transportation says the temporary replacement bridge will start carrying traffic Wednesday morning.

It took just three and a half weeks to clear the wreckage of the collapsed I-5 bridge and to build a new span across the gap. State transportation secretary Lynn Peterson says the temporary replacement can carry 99 percent of the usual car and truck traffic; no oversize loads will be allowed.

Imagine paying less than a dollar per gallon for your commute, compared to today's statewide averages of $3.84 in Oregon and Washington and $3.80 in Idaho for a gallon of gas. Eighty-four cents in Idaho and Washington -- or 96 cents in Oregon -- per gasoline gallon equivalent is how much the US Department of Energy figures it costs to recharge an electric car in each state.

The agency's assistant secretary David Danielson announced an online cost comparison calculator Tuesday for what he calls the "eGallon."

A couple of years ago, Democratic politicians at the state and national levels set heady goals for battery powered cars. For example, in his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama said, "With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015."

Tom Banse

The search is on for a cost-effective alternative fish food in the form of pellets. A key ingredient in commercial feed is other fish caught in the wild. Northwest trout farmers and some salmon growers recognize the practice is unsustainable.

But trout are carnivores; they can't just become vegetarians, or can they? Washington State University recently held a taste test to see if seafood consumers can tell any difference.

Put to the test: Difference in taste?

Tom Banse

The homes of the future will come with remarkably low heating bills. At least that's the hope of a Portland-based nonprofit group showcasing 13 super-energy efficient homes in four Northwest states. The question is: can you afford to buy one of these houses?

The model homes are scattered among many of the big cities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The houses don't look unusual from the outside. But all have been designed to use at least 30 percent less energy.

Crowdfunding websites have grown rapidly as a way to raise money for creative ventures—everything from movies to scientific research, to clever inventions. You might have heard of Kickstarter, Indiegogo or Rockethub. It would be just a small leap to use those same platforms to sell shares in a startup. That's illegal right now, but maybe not for long.

The automaker Nissan says sales of its fully-electric Leaf compact surpassed all other Nissan models at dealers in the Seattle and Portland areas this spring. The announcement Wednesday runs counter to the prevailing wisdom that adoption of plug-in cars has been sluggish.

At Nissan USA headquarters, director of electric vehicle marketing and sales Erik Gottfried says he's scrambling to ship enough Leafs to meet demand in the Pacific Northwest. The car maker juiced its plug-in sales by slashing the sticker price and offering low-cost leases. Gottfried says that was made possible by opening a domestic production line in Tennessee.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A songbird called the streaked horned lark has a curious propensity for risky neighborhoods. That's not a good quality for a bird proposed for listing as a threatened species. Its preferred hangouts include airports, Army training fields, and dredge spoil dumping sites along the lower Columbia River. A two-state experiment seeks to find out if these rare larks can be enticed to safer habitats.

Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane is planning a public memorial service for three of its airmen killed in a mid-air explosion over central Asia.

The cause of the air refueling tanker accident last Friday remains under investigation, but the crash renews attention on a Boeing Company contract to replace the Air Force's aging tanker fleet.

Tom Banse

This is the time of year when local farmers count on bees and other insects to pollinate orchards and vegetable and berry fields. The change in the seasons is not the only thing creating a buzz in the world of beekeeping.

This week, the European Commission put a moratorium on the use of three popular pesticides judged to pose high risk to bees.

Beekeepers have started to push Washington State's Department of Agriculture to go in that direction, too. And that could have an effect on what's available at your local garden center.

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