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.

Ways to Connect

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - The Pentagon's decision to allow women in combat roles has some female soldiers rethinking their career trajectories.

Army Spc. Heidi Olson received a Purple Heart last year for shrapnel injuries she got during a foot patrol in Afghanistan. She feels she's earned the right to call herself a combat medic.

"Originally as a female, I wasn't allowed to be titled as a combat medic," Olson says. "It was a 'health care specialist.'"

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

OLYMPIA, Wash. - When you order that special filet at a restaurant or store, you're often going on trust that the fish actually is what the menu or label says it is. In Washington, two state agencies are asking for tougher penalties to deter seafood fraud.

Investigators for Consumer Reports recently found more than one-fifth of the fish they submitted for DNA identification was mislabeled at the point of sale.

Washington Fish and Wildlife police deputy chief Mike Cenci says the penalties for false labeling need to be stronger.

Just about all the cities in the Northwest have endured a stretch of abnormally cold weather. Now an updated three-month climate outlook suggests the past could be prologue.

The latest computer model run by the National Climate Prediction Center increases the likelihood for below normal temperatures during the next three months in most of our region. This applies to all of Washington, nearly all of Oregon and the northern half of Idaho.

Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond says to get used to "chilly."

EPA

A small engineering firm in Seattle says it has developed a system to capture carbon dioxide going up power plant smokestacks and convert it to methanol. The solvent is also known as wood alcohol and as an Indy race car fuel.

Brett Scott is chief counsel for Emission Resource Group. He says having a viable method to refine CO2 into methanol could make it worthwhile for fossil fuel burners to capture the greenhouse gas.

US Fish & Wildlife Service

A federal agency plans a major effort to preemptively rescue about 65 deer upriver from Astoria. The animals live on a floodplain beside the lower Columbia River.

These aren't just any deer. They're an endangered species: the Columbian white-tailed deer. One of this animal's strongholds is a national wildlife refuge near Cathlamet, Washington. But now the Columbia River is on the verge of bursting through a failing dike at the edge of the refuge.

National Park Service

A dock that washed ashore on a remote Washington beach last month is now confirmed as debris from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan. This news comes just as the federal government requests bids from salvage companies to get rid of the huge hulk.

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Unemployment has dropped to a four-year low in Washington. The state Employment Department Wednesday released the latest jobless stats. During December, Washington's unemployment rate fell to 7.6 percent -- one-tenth of a percentage point lower than the revised rate for November.

The state's chief labor economist, Joe Elling, tempers his enthusiasm though. He says the decline is mostly caused by a shrinking labor force.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

PORTLAND - Washington and Oregon are getting serious about finding a replacement for the gas tax. Steadily improving fuel efficiency in cars is eroding the primary source of road funding in the Northwest. A new report to the 2013 Washington Legislature finds it "feasible" to have drivers pay by the mile instead. In Oregon, lawmakers have actually drafted legislation to do just that.

Suburban Portland SUV owner Mary Olson has possibly glimpsed the future of how we'll pay for roads, although it's tricky to spot.

Wikipedia

An investigation by the Pac-12 athletic conference released Tuesday finds no evidence that Washington State University football coaches physically or mentally abused players. WSU's president requested the outside probe. He did so after an athlete who quit and the parent of another former player alleged the coaching staff was "out of control."

Wash. Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

State and federal biologists say they are confident they have minimized the invasive species threat posed by a derelict dock that washed ashore last month in Olympic National Park. The concrete and steel dock appears to have drifted across the Pacific Ocean after last year's tsunami in Japan. But the story is not over yet.

National Park Service

Federal and state biologists are trekking back to a remote beach in Olympic National Park where a large dock washed ashore. The concrete and steel dock appears to have drifted across the Pacific Ocean after last year's tsunami in Japan.

Washington Marine Debris Task Force spokeswoman Virginia Painter says the primary goal of Thursday's expedition is to scrape potential invasive species off the hulk.

"All the agencies agreed that the invasive species removal has to be the first priority, so that is what this is about."

City of Vancouver

For thousands of people around the Northwest, the way to start the New Year off right is with a dip in frigid water.

A so-called "Polar Bear Plunge" - or "swim" or "dip" - is a long time tradition in more than 20 different Northwest cities and towns. Numerous home videos posted online show the shivering anticipation, then a surge of people -- often costumed -- splashing into the water, followed seconds later by a surge in reverse.

US Census Bureau

Centenarians are still a rare breed, but their ranks are swelling. The most recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau found more people than you might expect over 100 years old in the Northwest. There are more than 1,000 centenarians in Washington state, nearly 700 in Oregon and 220 in Idaho.

"Oh, my goodness. People live to be old these days, huh?" says 100-year-old Justine Ackerman of Newport, Washington. She says she credits her longevity in part to clean living.

"I never drank or smoked, or anything like that," she says.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

Most of the tsunami warning sirens in one Oregon coastal county will go silent in the New Year. Communities up and down the West Coast are phasing in more modern forms of emergency alerts.

After much debate, Tillamook County leaders decided they could not justify the expense of modernizing and maintaining an aging network of 30 tsunami warning sirens. County emergency management director Gordon McCraw says there are many other pathways for people to hear about incoming danger.

National Park Service

Marine scientists say dozens of Japanese coastal species hitched a ride across the Pacific Ocean on a floating dock. The likely piece of tsunami debris washed ashore in Olympic National Park last week.

The preliminary list of marine hitchhikers includes 29 species "of Japanese coastal origin." Several are potentially invasive. National Park Service ecologist Scott Fradkin says he's concerned about the wilderness environment where the dock landed.

Washington Dept. of Transportation

A key cross-state highway in Washington will stay closed at least into Wednesday, forcing long Christmastime detours. US Highway 2 is barricaded between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth. The state Department of Transportation says unusually heavy and wet snow is snapping and uprooting trees at a rate they haven't seen in decades.

Traffic management supervisor Shellee Ludeman says highway crews are waiting for a helicopter to help them clear the route.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Washington state is set to join Oregon and Idaho in requiring most homes and rentals to be equipped with carbon monoxide alarms. Washington's new law takes effect on January 1. The detector rules are inspired by preventable tragedies.

Carbon monoxide is sometimes called "the silent killer." Kent, Washington Fire Department Captain Kyle Ohashi says just about every major power outage brings 911 calls that turn out to be related to the colorless, odorless gas.

National Park Service

A reconnaissance team on the Washington coast has finally reached a large dock that washed ashore on an Olympic Peninsula beach early this week. The team found Japanese writing and Asian barnacles on the hollow concrete dock. That strongly suggests the hulk drifted across the ocean after last year's tsunami in Japan.

National Park Service ecologist Steven Fradkin says the dock is now being battered and punctured by heavy surf, but could potentially still be towed away in the New Year.

IFRC

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Chances are, you've heard the public service announcements that say "It's up to you to be ready. Get a kit. Make a plan..."

For years, emergency managers have urged people to stockpile enough food, water and supplies to last 72 hours after a disaster. In the Northwest, basic assumptions like that are now under scrutiny, especially when it comes to the risk from a big earthquake. Two committees in Oregon and Washington have been working for more than a year to come up with wide-ranging recommendations to improve the region's disaster resilience.

OPT Inc.

GLENEDEN BEACH, Ore. - It goes without saying that the Pacific Ocean is vast. So it may come as a surprise to hear the sea described as "crowded." Perhaps even too crowded to make room for the nascent industry of wave and tidal energy.  Taxpayers and investors have pumped tens of millions of dollars into finding ways to turn the ocean's power into electricity.  In recent weeks, high stakes negotiations to identify wave energy sites on the Oregon Coast are finally getting somewhere.

Tom Banse. File photo of a Mazama pocket gopher

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The Northwest may have another species listed as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monday proposed listing the Mazama pocket gopher as threatened in the South Puget Sound region of western Washington. This is the third time this fall the government has moved to protect a critter that depends on dwindling Northwest prairies or coastal grasslands.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

LONG BEACH, Wash. – It’s been more than four months since the last confirmed piece of Japanese tsunami debris washed ashore on the Pacific Northwest coast. Even sightings of suspected disaster debris have tapered way off in recent months. Does that mean we’re just in a lull or past the worst of it?

Valero Alamo Bowl

‘Tis the season for college football fanatics to consult their travel agents. That’s because four Northwest teams received bowl game invites Sunday night.

The Oregon Ducks (11-1) are headed to the Fiesta Bowl outside Phoenix. They’ll play the Kansas State Wildcats (11-1) on January 3rd in a showdown of football teams that were until recently both in contention for the national championship.

Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The privatization of liquor sales in Washington this year is having an unintended side effect: increasing theft of booze. In Olympia Friday, lawmakers quizzed top managers of the state Liquor Control Board. The agency's deputy director, Rick Garza, says there are now five times as many liquor outlets in the state than before privatization.

Michael Pereckas / Flickr

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Stricter recordkeeping requirements for scrap metal dealers and sellers have not stopped trafficking in stolen copper wire and metal parts. That's according to Northwest police agencies and crime victims. So in Olympia Friday, Washington state lawmakers promised to look at further steps including a possible blacklist of suspicious sellers.

Link Transit

In the last couple years, you've seen mass-produced, 100 percent electric cars take to the streets in the Northwest. In the same vein, now come the first battery powered buses. And we're not talking about trolley buses that get juice from overhead wires.

FBI

A decade on the lam has ended for a suspect in a string of eco-sabotage attacks across the American West.  Alleged Earth Liberation Front fugitive Rebecca J. Rubin turned herself in at the Canadian border Thursday morning. 

Later in the day, she showed little emotion during a brief appearance in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Outside the federal courthouse, defense attorney Richard Troberman explained why Rubin surrendered.  "She really wants to move her life forward without these impediments. It was just time," said Troberman.

Rahul Nair / Flickr

Sawmills in the Northwest have significantly ramped up production in response to the rebound in construction nationally. That's according to a market survey by an industry consultant based near Seattle.

Wood Resources International president Hakan Ekstrom says the region's sawmills are returning to profitability thanks to a happy coincidence of rising domestic and foreign demand.

Friends of Washoe

The director of a chimpanzee institute at Central Washington University says she feels urgency to bring in new animals. The education and research program in Ellensburg is now down to two aging chimps after the weekend death of another ape known for his sign language abilities.

The chimpanzee named "Dar" was 36 years old when he died unexpectedly on Saturday of unknown causes. Autopsy results are expected later this week.

Randy Hoodenpyl

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Heavy rains and high winds are making it hard to get around parts of western Washington and northwest Oregon this afternoon. Flood watches and warnings are in effect across a wide area of the Northwest. At least half a dozen mudslides have blocked highways and rail lines since this morning .

The freight train of storms pummeling the Northwest has saturated soils. Some places are not getting enough time between downpours for the water to drain off. Oregon's Department of Geology put all of western Oregon on notice for increased potential of landslides.

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