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Bill expanding covered medical conditions passes in wake of Whitehall firefighter's death

The state Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would add vascular rupture to the list of firefighter injuries covered by workers’ compensation insurance — legislation prompted by the death of a Whitehall firefighter last year.

The Assembly had already approved the bill on June 3, so it now heads to the governor’s desk.

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, and Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, sponsored the legislation in honor of James Brooks, who was second assistant chief of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Co. Brooks suffered a torn aorta when responding to a fire in Dresden on May 2.

Brooks, who served in the department for 27 years, spent months recovering at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Vermont. He had three strokes, which confined him to a wheelchair and left him with the use of only his right arm.

Brooks died from his injuries on Sept. 17. His workers compensation claim was denied by Benetech Adjustments, Washington County’s insurer, because the company claimed it was a pre-existing condition.

The Chief James Brooks Jr. Act would create a presumption of coverage under the Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefit Law for vascular ruptures suffered in the line of duty, in the same way that heart attacks are covered.

“Assistant Chief James Brooks died as a result of a line-of-duty injury,” Stec said in a news release. “He was doing what he loved, serving his community. The insurance fund that would help with medical expenses unfortunately did not cover his care, which totaled more than $1 million dollars.”

Woerner said volunteer firefighters put their lives on the line, without compensation, to protect people. She urged Cuomo to support the law.

“These brave men and women are heroes, and they shouldn’t have to worry about covering the costs of medical expenses because their insurance denied them. This not only causes distress for their families, but also unnecessarily increases litigation costs and delays the payment of qualifying benefits to volunteer firefighters injured while protecting their communities,” she said in a news release.

Assemblyman Matt Simpson, R-Horicon, said first responders risk their lives every day when reporting for duty.

“We owe it to these individuals to have their backs with the same resolve they have when protecting ours. It is our duty to stand by their families when those responders end up paying the ultimate sacrifice. This bill is a step in that direction,” he said in a news release.

Family member reacts

Brooks’ sister, Kathleen Brooks, said the family is excited about the legislation. She is anticipating that the governor will sign it.

She was surprised at how quickly the bill moved through the Legislature, she said. Other fire departments and community members supported the bill, and major insurance companies did not raise concerns.

“We didn’t have any major issue with people objecting to the bill. The bill is fairly simple and it makes perfect sense. It wasn’t going to add a lot of money and it wasn’t really going to be impacting insurance,” she said.

The legislation will not affect her brother’s claim. The family’s lawyers are still fighting with Benetech. Another hearing is coming up in July.

Brooks said the family is doing as well as could be expected. Her brother was not married and did not have any children, she said.

“There’s no real financial devastation on our end. It’s just a horrible loss that we’re still overcoming,” she said.

She is worried, however, that medical debt collectors could try to go after his house, which has been in the family for three generations.

“You would expect as a volunteer firefighter that if you suffer any kind of injury in the line of duty that your family will be taken care of and your expenses would be taken care of,” she said.


International
Biden: 'United States is back'

MILDENHALL, England — President Joe Biden opened the first overseas trip of his term Wednesday with a declaration that "the United States is back" as he seeks to reassert the nation on the world stage and steady European allies deeply shaken by his predecessor.

Biden has set the stakes for his eight-day trip in sweeping terms, believing the West must publicly demonstrate it can compete economically with China as the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic. It is an open repudiation of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who scorned alliances and withdrew from a global climate change agreement that Biden has since rejoined.

The president's first stop was a visit with U.S. troops and their families at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, where he laid out his mission for the trip.

"We're going to make it clear that the United States is back and democracies are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and issues that matter the most to our future," he said. "That we're committed to leading with strength, defending our values, and delivering for our people."

The challenges awaiting Biden overseas were clear as the president and the audience wore masks — a reminder of the pandemic that is still raging around much of the world even as its threat recedes within the United States.

After addressing the troops, Biden and first lady Jill Biden flew to Cornwall Airport Newquay, then traveled by car to Tregenna Castle in St. Ives, where they are staying until Sunday.

Building toward his trip-ending summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden will aim to reassure European capitals that the United States can once again be counted on as a dependable partner to thwart Moscow's aggression both on their eastern front and their internet battlefields.

The trip will be far more about messaging than specific actions or deals. And the paramount priority for Biden is to convince the world that his Democratic administration is not just a fleeting deviation in the trajectory of an American foreign policy that many allies fear irrevocably drifted toward a more transactional outlook under Trump.

"The trip, at its core, will advance the fundamental thrust of Joe Biden's foreign policy," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said, "to rally the world's democracies to tackle the great challenges of our time."

Biden's to-do list is ambitious.

In their face-to-face sit-down in Geneva, Biden wants to privately pressure Putin to end myriad provocations, including cybersecurity attacks on American businesses by Russian-based hackers, the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and repeated overt and covert efforts by the Kremlin to interfere in U.S. elections.

Biden is also looking to rally allies on their COVID-19 response and to urge them to coalesce around a strategy to check emerging economic and national security competitor China even as the U.S. expresses concern about Europe's economic links to Moscow. Biden also wants to nudge outlying allies, including Australia, to make more aggressive commitments to the worldwide effort to curb global warming.

The week-plus journey is a big moment for Biden, who traveled the world for decades as vice president and as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has now stepped off Air Force One onto international soil as commander in chief. He will face world leaders still grappling with the virus and rattled by four years of Trump's inward-looking foreign policy and moves that strained longtime alliances as the Republican former president made overtures to strongmen.

The president first attends a summit of the Group of Seven leaders in the U.K., and then visits Brussels for a NATO summit and a meeting with the heads of the European Union. The trip comes at a moment when Europeans have diminished expectations for what they can expect of U.S. leadership on the foreign stage.

The sequencing of the trip is deliberate: Biden consulting with Western European allies for much of a week as a show of unity before his summit with Putin.

He holds a sitdown Thursday with British Prime Minster Boris Johnson a day ahead of the G-7 summit to be held above the craggy cliffs of Cornwall overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

There are several potential areas of tension as Biden meets world leaders. On climate change, the U.S. is aiming to regain its credibility after Trump pulled the country back from the fight against global warming. Biden could also feel pressure on trade, an issue to which he's yet to give much attention. And with the United States well supplied with COVID-19 vaccines yet struggling to persuade some of its own citizens to use it, leaders whose inoculation campaigns have been slower have been pressuring Biden to share more surplus around the globe.

Another central focus will be China. Biden and the other G-7 leaders will announce an infrastructure financing program for developing countries that is meant to compete directly with Beijing's Belt-and-Road Initiative. But not every European power has viewed China in as harsh a light as Biden, who has painted the rivalry with the techno-security state as the defining competition for the 21st century.

Biden is also scheduled to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while in Brussels, a face-to-face meeting between two leaders who have had many fraught moments in their relationship over the years.

The trip finale will be Biden's meeting with Putin.


Schuylerville's Molly Vianese is safe at third before the ball hits the glove of Granville third baseman Raegan Swain during Wednesday's Class B opening-round game of the Section II Softball Tournament at Schuylerville. For more on the game and the rest of Wednesday's sectional action, see Page B7.


Local
featured
Legislators seek end to mask mandate inside schools

Assembly Republicans on Wednesday urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo to drop the mask mandate for students.

“Governor Cuomo. Unmask our kids now!” said Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, during a rally on the steps of the Capitol in Albany.

Tague has introduced a bill that would make it illegal for state agencies to mandate the masking of healthy children under the age of 18, which would allow children to remove their masks in schools, summer camps and other settings.

On Monday, Cuomo said children could remove their masks outdoors, but they would still be required inside. This followed a weekend of confusion after Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker sent a letter to the CDC on Friday, asking if the state could waive the mask requirement.

Tague said he has heard from frustrated parents.

“Children are confused, scared and exhausted. Many of us couldn’t fathom wearing a mask in a room with no air conditioning for hours at a time, and we’re telling them they have to keep wearing their masks — even as adults in their lives are beginning to take theirs off in public,” he said.

COVID-19 positivity rates have fallen. Cuomo on Wednesday announced the daily rate was 0.37% and the seven-day average was 0.48%.

“In the months since the pandemic has started, we have learned that children in schools don’t spread COVID very much at all,” Tague said.

The state’s vaccination rate exceeds the national average, he added.

“Why do we continue to maintain such a burdensome mandate that data shows is entirely unnecessary?” he said.

Tague wants the bill debated on the floor of the Assembly.

Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said the governor’s emergency powers must be rescinded.

“We’ve seen one mandate after another come down from this governor that don’t make any sense. They’re not based in any kind of scientific or good public health policy,” he said.

Assemblyman Matt Simpson, R-Horicon, said he believes the requirement should be removed.

“Mask-wearing for children in school and in general can be simplified by letting parents decide what is best for their own child. End mask mandates on children and let them enjoy their summer mask-free,” he said.

Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said he has not seen a companion bill in the Senate but supports the idea.

“I share the frustration of many school officials, parents and even students who contacted me, following this weekend’s confusing mask announcements,” he said in a statement. “I think the mandate should be lifted in our schools.”

Wednesday’s cases

  • Warren County reported no new cases. The number of confirmed cases since the pandemic began remains at 3,504. Five more people have recovered for a total of 3,401. Two people are hospitalized, which is one less than Tuesday after one person was discharged. Both people are moderately ill. The county is monitoring 29 active cases — the lowest number since Nov. 18. All but two have mild illness.
  • Washington County reported four new cases, for a total of 2,806 confirmed cases since the pandemic began. Two more people recovered for a total of 2,757. There are 11 people ill, and one person remains hospitalized.
  • Saratoga County reported two new cases, for a total of 15,349 confirmed cases. Eleven people recovered for a total of 15,139 recoveries. The county is monitoring 41 active cases. Seven people are hospitalized — a drop of two from the previous day.
  • Essex County reported no new cases.
  • Saratoga Hospital reported four coronavirus patients in house.
  • Glens Falls Hospital reported five coronavirus patients. None are in the intensive care unit and three are out of isolation.

For Tuesday, the most recent data that is available:

  • The Capital Region reported 12 new cases, a positive test rate of 0.3%, which decreased the weekly average to 0.5%.
  • Warren County had a positive test rate of 0%, which lowered the weekly average to 0.7%.
  • Washington County had a positive test rate of 0.6%, which kept the weekly average at 0.5%.
  • Saratoga County had a positive test rate of 0.3%, which lowered the weekly average to 0.6%.
  • Essex County had a positive test rate of 0%, which kept the weekly average at 0.2%.
  • Statewide, 426 people tested positive for the virus on Tuesday. A total of 777 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 and 11 people died.

National
Sponsor ends Keystone XL pipeline

BILLINGS, Mont. — The sponsor of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline pulled the plug on the contentious project Wednesday after Canadian officials failed to persuade President Joe Biden to reverse his cancellation of its permit on the day he took office.

Calgary-based TC Energy said it would work with government agencies “to ensure a safe termination of and exit” from the partially built line, which was to transport crude from the oil sand fields of western Canada to Steele City, Nebraska.

Construction on the 1,200-mile pipeline began last year when former President Donald Trump revived the long-delayed project after it had stalled under the Obama administration. It would have moved up to 35 million gallons of crude daily, connecting in Nebraska to other pipelines that feed oil refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Biden canceled the pipeline’s border crossing permit in January over longstanding concerns that burning oil sands crude could make climate change worse and harder to reverse.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had objected to the move, raising tensions between the U.S. and Canada. Officials in Alberta, where the line originated, expressed frustration in recent weeks that Trudeau wasn’t pushing Biden harder to reinstate the pipeline’s permit.

Alberta invested more than $1 billion in the project last year, kick-starting construction that had stalled amid determined opposition to the line from environmentalists and Native American tribes along its route.

Alberta officials said Wednesday they reached an agreement with TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada, to exit that partnership. The company and province plan to try to recoup the government’s investment, although neither offered any immediate details on how that would happen.

“We remain disappointed and frustrated with the circumstances surrounding the Keystone XL project, including the cancellation of the presidential permit for the pipeline’s border crossing,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said in a statement.

The province had hoped the pipeline would spur increased development in the oil sands and bring tens of billions of dollars in royalties over decades.

Climate change activists viewed the expansion of oil sands development as an environmental disaster that could speed up global warming as the fuel is burned. That turned Keystone into a flashpoint in the climate debate, and it became the focus of rallies and protests in Washington, D.C., and other cities.

Environmentalists who had fought the project since it was first announced in 2008 said its cancellation marks a “landmark moment” in the effort to curb the use of fossil fuels.

“Good riddance to Keystone XL,” said Jared Margolis with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of many environmental groups that sued to stop it.

On Montana’s Fort Belknap Reservation, tribal president Andy Werk Jr. described the end of Keystone as a relief to Native Americans who stood against it out of concerns that a line break could foul the Missouri River or other waterways.

Attorneys general from 21 states had sued to overturn Biden’s cancellation of the pipeline, which would have created thousands of construction jobs. Republicans in Congress have made the cancellation a frequent talking point in their criticism of the administration, and even some moderate Senate Democrats including Montana’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin had urged Biden to reconsider.

Tester said in a statement Wednesday that he was disappointed in the project’s demise, but made no mention of Biden.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate energy committee, was more direct: “President Biden killed the Keystone XL Pipeline and with it, thousands of good-paying American jobs.”

A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on TC Energy’s announcement. In his Jan. 20 cancellation order, Biden said allowing the line to proceed “would not be consistent with my administration’s economic and climate imperatives.”

TC Energy said in canceling the pipeline that the company is focused on meeting “evolving energy demands” as the world transitions to different power sources. It said it has $7 billion in other projects under development.

Keystone XL’s price tag had ballooned as the project languished, increasing from $5.4 billion to $9 billion. Meanwhile, oil prices fell significantly — from more than $100 a barrel in 2008 to under $70 in recent months — slowing development of Canada’s oil sands and threatening to eat into any profits from moving the fuel to refineries.


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