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Koonz likes direction of special teams units, which will feature fair share of fresh faces

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia special teams coordinator Jeff Koonz is a firm believer that few, if any, college football programs value special teams as much as the Mountaineers.

“We invest as much time on special teams as anybody in the country and I believe that,” Koonz said. “Our entire team understands that.”

Ahead of his third season in charge of the Mountaineers’ special teams, Koonz is hopeful an extra emphasis on special teams pays off in a big way for the WVU units associated with the third phase of football.

“With special teams as a whole, we made a lot of progress this summer,” Koonz said. “All of our newcomers, whether they be transfers or high school kids, we put them through a crash course through offseason agility and summer work that we did and got them caught up on what we call our Mountaineer techniques — all the techniques associated with special teams that are interchangeable within the units. Really excited about the group we have.”

Kicker Casey Legg returns and has proven to be a reliable weapon for the Mountaineers. Legg was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist last season, when he connected on 19-of-23 field-goal attempts and made all 35 point-after kicks.

Over the last two seasons, Legg is 24-of-30 on field goals. He’s never missed an extra point in 51 tries as a Mountaineer.

Yet Legg’s primary responsibility is scoring and he hasn’t handled kickoffs for much of his college career. Last season, he was responsible for 13 of the team’s 68 kickoffs, while the since-departed Evan Staley kicked off 50 times.

Only 12 of the 68 kickoffs went for touchbacks, with Staley responsible for nine and Kolton McGhee the remaining three on five tries. Those 12 touchbacks were 23 fewer than the next closest Big 12 team, while 29 of 65 kickoffs from WVU’s opponents went for touchbacks.

In an effort to increase that number, the Mountaineers added Florida State transfer Parker Grothaus, who accounted for 89 touchbacks on 167 kickoffs over three seasons as a Seminole.

“Parker has shown why he’s been able to kick at this level in the Power 5 setting, and we’re excited about that,” Koonz said. “It’s going to be a nice addition to our kickoff coverage unit.”

Danny King, listed as both a kicker and punter on the team’s official roster, is also vying for playing time and has gotten reps kicking off.

“Competition brings out the best in everybody and we all know that,” Koonz said. “They’ve embraced that and I’m excited about Danny.“

In addition to Staley finishing his college career in 2021, so, too, did punter Tyler Sumpter.

Sumpter averaged a respectable 43.5 yards per punt in his final campaign and handled all 52 of the Mountaineers’ punts.

That responsibility will now primarily be handled by either McGhee or true freshman Oliver Straw, a native of Melbourne, Australia pushing to be the team’s top punter.

WVU punter Oliver Straw. (Photo by Joe Brocato)

“Ollie Straw and Kolton McGhee have been competing this camp and both have similar skill sets,” Koonz said. “Ollie has done more on the move. but Kolton can do the same movements. They’re going back and forth. Both have shown the ability to really push the field with great hang time. We’ve had more consistent hang time than we’ve had in the past from both of them, so we’re excited about that and looking forward to seeing where the rest of this week takes it.”

The decisions of former WVU wide receivers Winston Wright and Isaiah Esdale to transfer this offseason left a void at punt returner and kick returner, respectively. Esdale was responsible for 13 of the team’s 19 punt returns last season, while Wright handled 23 of 27 kickoff returns.

Wide receiver Sam James factors into the mix at both return spots. Fellow wideout Graseon Malashevich has limited game experience as a return man and Jeremiah Aaron, a wideout WVU added from the junior college ranks, could also factor into the mix.

Koonz made it a point to note that he believes the Mountaineers “will be explosive in their return units” and believes much of it has to do with those responsible for creating running lanes.

“That’s just not a returner comment. We have a lot of guys that we can put back there that we’re excited about, but with what we’ve done on the back end of our kickoff return unit, the continuity with our back line and how they’re setting up on blocks, I feel really confident in them in a multitude of different schemes,” Koonz said. “With our punt return unit and how it’s tying into our punt return phase, I feel like the understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish is the highest it’s been in three years.

“We’re going to be more athletic, even on the front, and more depth with athleticism on the front line helps where those blocks are occurring in space. You have a chance to be really explosive when you can make those blocks in space.”

Regardless of who ultimately handles the bulk of West Virginia’s kickoff and punt returns, Koonz feels the success of both units largely falls on players adhering to the techniques that have been drilled into their heads countless times.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to be a technique unit on special teams,” Koonz said. “I can draw it up in the dirt, but if I can tell a kid, ‘Hey, you have to get to this yard line and use this technique’, he should be able to execute it. We would never do that, but that’s an example. The schematic part of it is really irrelevant if you have everybody working, doing the same techniques and doing exactly what they need to do within it.”

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The ‘mountain has been moved’; development continues at the North Central West Virginia Airport

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — A celebration was held Tuesday at the North Central West Virginia Airport for the completion of Phase I excavation work for the Aerotech Business Park.

The $10.5 million project moved a mountain to level land for the business park, new terminal building and additional aprons to include lighting.

David Hinkle

Current Harrison County commissioner and airport board member David Hinkle, said a few years ago the West Virginia National Guard began moving the estimated three million cubic yards of dirt, but they were redirected by mission requirements.

A couple years passed, then a team from the airport, including Hinkle, went to Charleston looking for support from the governor.

“I can tell we had been to a lot of places and we weren’t sure if we were ever going to accomplish moving this mountain, but the governor saw the potential,” Hinkle said.

Governor Justice announced in August 2019 an allocation of $10 million to support the project from the West Virginia Infrastructure Jobs Development Council and another $10 million in the form of a loan from West Virginia Economic Development Authority. Also, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries reached a deal to bring a regional jet service hub to the airport and build two new hangars for an estimated $20 million shortly after that announcement.

The airport currently employs about 1,500 people and is the home to aircraft maintenance and pilot schools from Pierpont Community and Technical College and Fairmont State University. It also serves a vacation gateway to Washington D.C., Myrtle Beach, Destin-Fort Walton and Orlando for thousand of residents.

“Thousands of employees, tens of thousands of people coming here and the longest runway in the state,” Justice said at Tuesday’s ceremony. “Now you have all this land for development, a new terminal and all the different things going on in this area- you’re on your way.”

Ron Watson

Ron Watson, current airport board member, former airport board president and former Harrison County commissioner said removal of the mountain and addition of flat, developable land is the key to spur more growth. That would be in addition to continued growth for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, he said.

“The aerospace industry is booming and the airport is an economic engine for North Central West Virginia,” Watson said. “It has an economic impact of over $1 billion annually.”

Ernie VanGilder

Current airport board president Ernie VanGilder, said there was a large group of people that have worked for years to position themselves to be a major employer in the area.

“This project marks a $70 million investment to the community with Harrison County, Marion County and the city of Bridgeport and North Central West Virginia Airport contributing $6.6 million in matching funds,” VanGilder said.

Design work for the new terminal building and parking area is complete and will be next major project. But, work and development of business continues on I-279 and nearby the airport that is expected to be ongoing.

Bridgeport mayor Andy Lang said the airport will be a driver of good things in the community for the foreseeable future.

Bridgeport Mayor Andy Lang

“North Central West Virginia is going to benefit from this for many generations,” Lang said. “This will provide transportation needs for our community, this will provide jobs for this community and it will provide them for many years.”

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Judge rejects plea deals for couple accused of selling nuclear submarine secrets

A federal judge rejected plea deals for a couple accused of attempting to sell the secrets of America’s nuclear submarine fleet, saying the proposed penalty was too light for the damage that could have been inflicted.

U.S. District Judge Gina Groh of the Northern District of West Virginia started and ended what would have been a sentencing hearing in Martinsburg by expressing major reservations about a proposed penalty.

“It’s not in the best interest of this community or this country to accept these plea agreements. Therefore, I’m rejecting them as presented to me,” Groh said today.

Before her were Jonathan and Diana Toebbe, accused of working together to place information about America’s most sophisticated nuclear-powered vessels on memory cards, taking them to drop points hidden in mundane disguises like sandwiches or gum wrappers and asking for infusions of cryptocurrency from agents they believed represented a foreign power.

Jonathan Toebbe was accused 0f gathering, formatting and attempting to sell the sophisticated secrets and faced the possibility of more than 17 years incarceration under the plea agreement that wound up being rejected. His wife, who stood as a lookout, faced three years.

Not enough, said the judge.

“Make no mistake, these defendants have been charged with very serious crimes. And as you all know, sometimes I may question counsel about whether or not I should accept a plea. And I listen to your arguments. But in the end, I generally honor plea agreements negotiated by the parties when they have binding ranges,” Groh told the court Tuesday afternoon.

“But I find the sentencing options for the court in this case that are available to me strikingly deficient.”

Judge Groh wound up giving prosecutors and defendants a few choices: let the judge proceed with a sentence that she would find appropriate or withdraw from the plea agreements and set a trial date.

The defendants agreed to move toward trial, and the judge set a Jan. 17 date. The defendants and prosecutors still could discuss a revised plea deal in the mean time.

The couple was accused of selling  restricted data about the design of nuclear submarines to a contact they believed was a representative of a foreign power. Instead, it was an FBI agent.

Diana and Jonathan Toebbe, pictured in this Instagram photo, were arrested Oct. 9, 2021 in Jefferson County.

Jonathan Toebbe, 43, pleaded guilty on Feb. 14 to one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data. Other charges were dropped because of the plea agreement. Toebbe had faced as long as life in prison but, by pleading, assured he would only serve 12.5 to 17.5 years.

Four days after that plea, Diana Toebbe, 46, acknowledged guilty of conspiracy to communicate restricted data. That plea meant she faced up to three years in prison.

Today, both prosecutors and the couple’s defense attorneys contended the proposed plea was appropriate.

Jonathan Toebbe had cooperated, the lawyers said, by providing detailed information about his scheme, including how to access encrypted messages he had used. He faced not only years in jail but also the loss of livelihood from his relinquished federal clearance.

But the judge countered the penalty fell short “given the background of the party’s motivation, his trusted employment position and threats to national and global security and service personnel alone that his actions caused.”

Diana Toebbe’s proposed sentence of just a few years in jail was appropriate, the lawyers had contended, because her lack of expertise would prevent her from having any way of repeating the scheme. And her participation only went as far as watching over the dropoffs while she stood with her arms folded, the lawyers said.

The judge didn’t buy that.

“That could have easily caused great harm to the Navy, the United States, servicemen, and even the world,” Judge Groh said. “These are tough times, we’re in.”

The Toebbes are both from Annapolis, Md., but their charges flowed through federal court in the Northern District of West Virginia because of the location of a drop point in the state’s Eastern Panhandle.

Jonathan Toebbe was a nuclear engineer for the Department of the Navy, assigned to the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. He had an active top secret/sensitive compartmented information security clearance through the federal government.

Diana Toebbe is accused of being his lookout for a series of dead drops of information. In exchange, the Toebbes had proposed receiving 51 packages totaling $5 million in cryptocurrency.

The first West Virginia incident occurred June 26, 2021, when Diana was the lookout for Jonathan for an exchange in Jefferson County. Investigators said when Jonathan Toebbe dropped off a computer memory card, it was placed inside a peanut butter sandwich.

The memory card also contained a typed message that included statements, “I hope your experts are very happy with the sample provided,” and “I want our relationship to be very successful for us both.”

Another drop off in Jefferson County occurred Oct. 9. 2021, when Toebbe left another memory card in a chewing gum package. Diana Toebbe again acted as a lookout.

Their activity began in 2020 when the Toebbes reached out to a foreign country offering to sell U.S. submarine nuclear propulsion secrets. The foreign country remains unnamed, but its representatives turned the information over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Toebbes unknowingly worked with undercover FBI agents until they were arrested. The information in their possession was classified as confidential, according to court filings.

“Mr. Toebbe abused a position of public trust and used a special skill in a manner that significantly facilitated the commission and concealment of the offense,” according to a summary of the plea agreement.

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Wayne County officials optimistic following transfer of Heartland Intermodal Gateway ownership

PRICHARD, W.Va. — Officials in Wayne County are optimistic about what may become of the Heartland Intermodal Gateway in Prichard following the transfer of ownership from the West Virginia Department of Transportation (DOT) to the county commission.

Gov. Jim Justice announced last week the DOT’s recently-created Division of Multimodal Transportation Facilities transferred the ownership of the 65-acre facility designed to transfer 20-foot and 40-foot shipping containers between railcars and trucks.

The facility was built by the former West Virginia Public Port Authority following a 2013 agreement with the Norfolk Southern railroad. The $32 million project was paid for with a combination of state money and a federal grant award.

Kenneth Adkins, the Wayne County Commission President told MetroNews the transfer is what is best for everyone here.

“I do believe we have a vested interest here. I believe that’ll go a long way in seeing us stick with it and get this thing open and running again,” Adkins said.

The West Virginia Board of Public Works approved the transfer of the facility on Tuesday, July 26.

In Feb. 2021, then State Transportation Secretary Byrd White told members of the House of Delegates Finance Committee the property was set to be sold as part of an online auction in 2020 with the final bids scheduled to be received on April 2, 2020, but then the pandemic hit.

Adkins said the county will be a needs assessment on the facility and look to hire an operator. Adkins said the operator needs to bring business and tenants to the facility. Adkins added the county will continue to work with Norfolk Southern Railroad.

According to Adkins, the commission has seed money and local economic development authority funding to get the facility ‘up to speed.’ He said the state Legislature members, including state Senator Bob Plymale (D-Wayne), are searching for grant monies for additional funding.

“We have enough to get started but we are working on getting these grants in order to get it up and marketable,” Adkins said.

Adkins said the county will look to get a free trade zone at the facility to make it more marketable. He said that means advantages for companies to bring in different components of a product without paying tax until the product is completed and shipped.

Adkins also believed the current supply chain issue will help the facility attract business.

“With the supply chain shortages we are all seeing right now, the ships that are coming into the port of Virginia, this is a very good time for the addition of the facility,” he said.

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Preparations begin for curbside flood debris pick up in Kanawha County

CAMPBELLS CREEK, W.Va. — Kanawha County emergency officials will begin collecting flood debris from curb sides Wednesday as residents continue to clean up from Monday’s storm.

Some residents were spared in Campbells Creek, while others like Michael Goff received several feet of water in his home.

“It was four feet in the basement. It tore the door off the hinges,” Goff told MetroNews Tuesday morning as he used a shovel to clear out mud. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Dump trucks will pick up debris from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Matt Skiles lives down the road along Point Lick Drive and was busy raking up brush and collecting trash in his front yard. He said fortunately, he didn’t lose anything valuable.

“Most of it was stuff we haven’t used in a while. It was a couple of power equipment tools that we lost,” Skiles said.

Skiles had about 6 inches of water damage in his garage.

Water markings could be seen along the side of Vicky Casto’s house on Campbells Creek Drive. She and her son were cleaning their basement that received a few feet of water.

“We’re just trying to save what we can,” Casto said. “Fortunately, for me, this was not a living space. It did not get upstairs in my living space.”

Neighbors were seen sweeping and using hoses to water down driveways Tuesday. Stephanie Holstine said there was a lot of uncertainty during the height of the storm early Monday morning. She woke up at around 4 a.m. and said she’s glad the rain stopped when it did.

“It was like a waterfall coming over here,” she said. “We didn’t know if it kept raining, if we would get in our house or not, but fortunately it stopped.”

Kanawha County received nearly 5-6 inches of rain. Flooding occurred along U.S. Route 60 near Hughes Creek, Kelley’s Creek and Rutledge Road too.

The Kanawha County Emergency Management and the Planning Office will travel to the affected areas to complete personal property damage assessments and infrastructure assessments on roads and bridges.

Gov. Jim Justice has declared a State of Emergency for Kanawha and Fayette counties.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said in a Tuesday statement they have money set aside to help out.

“We have over $250,000 set aside in our Emergency Response Fund for situations such as this, and we are prepared to use these funds for debris management to help our affected citizens. We do not have federal funding right now to help with this, but we will do everything we can to help our citizens, regardless of whether we receive reimbursement from the federal government,” Carper wrote.

Residents are asked to report the damage to the Kanawha County Planning and Development Office by calling 304-357-0570.

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DOH working to get roads back open in flood zone

GAULEY BRIDGE, W.Va. — A state of emergency declared by Governor Jim Justice has removed some of the obstacles for road repairs in Kanawha and Fayette Counties from Monday’s high water.

The top priority for the Division of Highways is getting Route 39/16 back open after it was covered with debris Monday.

“There were six large mudslides that came down into the road and there were several other more minor rock falls that you might see after any normal storm,” said Division of Highways District Engineer Jim Moore.

The Fayette County DOH maintenance crew was working from Gauley Bridge toward the county line while the Nicholas County maintenance crew worked in the other direction. As of Tuesday afternoon the two teams were within site of one another on the last major slide. However, punching through proved to be difficult due to the saturation of the soil.

“We had hoped to have a hole in it Monday night, but the more the crews dug the more material would come off the hillside because it was so soupy,” Moore said.

They hoped to have the road back open by Tuesday evening, but full repairs are expected to take six weeks or more.

Crews are also working on secondary roads where there was major damage, particularly to Mount Carbon Road.

“A concrete abutment got washed out from a bridge. We have crews on scene to put in a temporary causeway so our bridge crews can rebuild that bridge,” he said.

Moore added they would also have considerable work to do to rebuild the road along Scrabble Creek where tons of rock and debris washed into the road and rerouted the waterway through the road bed.

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West Virginia American Water completes $25 million upgrade to Kanawha Valley plant

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia American Water has announced the completion of a $25 million upgrade to its Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant in Charleston that is meant to improve safety measures for the company’s employees and customers.

The treatment plant, which serves approximately 85,000 customers in parts of Kanawha, Putnam, Boone, Logan, Lincoln, Cabell, Clay, Fayette, Roane, Jackson, and Mason counties, will now provide ultra-violet (UV) disinfection and utilizes sodium hypochlorite in lieu of gaseous chlorine.

Megan Hannah, Senior Manager, Government and External Affairs with West Virginia American Water (WVAWC) told MetroNews it took 18 months to complete the project and the upgrades to the plant have been successful operations since Dec. 2021.

“We have effectively now switched our disinfection process from gaseous chlorine, which can be a bit dangerous for own employees and the community. We’ve now totally eliminated the gaseous chlorine and have switched to liquid chlorine for our disinfection,” Hannah detailed.

Construction on upgrades at the treatment plant began in Nov. 2020 following new regulatory requirements from the U.S. EPA for the treatment of cryptosporidium in surface water systems. The Kanawha Valley plant had long been successfully treating water for cryptosporidium, but with the inclusion of UV disinfection, the plant now offers a 99.99% confidence level in removing cryptosporidium from its raw water, a release stated.

The Kanawha Valley water system is now the first in West Virginia to provide UV disinfection as part of its treatment process.

In addition to UV, the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant also converted from gaseous chlorine to sodium hypochlorite, also known as liquid chlorine, as part of its disinfection process. The conversion was not driven by a regulatory requirement but rather a safety measure for West Virginia American Water’s employees and the surrounding community.

The Kanawha Valley system is the second within West Virginia American Water to convert to sodium hypochlorite, and all systems are planned to be converted to liquid chlorine over the next eight years.

“We have always focused on the health and safety of our customers through rigorous testing of our water throughout the treatment process,” said Billie Suder, Senior Manager of Water Quality and Environmental Compliance at WVAWC said in a release.

“We can confidently say that our finished water had always been free of cryptosporidium, but we are now providing an extra level of protection to our customers through this UV process.”

Hannah said part of the funding for the project came through the customer rate process, putting ‘your water bill at work.’ She said another portion was through shareholder funding. Hannah does not expect any additional rate hikes in the future for this project.

WVAWC partnered with local contractor Oval Construction on the significant upgrades to the treatment plant, and over 50 West Virginia businesses and suppliers were utilized for various aspects of the project.

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Mountain runoff isolates Gauley Bridge community

GAULEY BRIDGE, W.Va. — Gauley Bridge Mayor Bob Cole knew he was going to be a busy man when he climbed out of bed on Monday morning. The rain was falling and kept on coming.

“I woke up to the rain, and I didn’t get out until the afternoon on a four wheeler,” Cole told MetroNews.

Cole lives on Scrabble Creek which was covered in a massive field of rocks and debris. The slide made the hollow inaccessible past the football field.

“Unless you’ve got a four wheeler or a really big four-wheel drive, you’re not getting in our out,” he said.

Homes on Scrabble Creek were okay, for the most part. One home incurred some water damage mainly in the garage area, but the rest were above the flood water as it rose amid the torrential downpour which hit the area late Sunday night and early Sunday morning.

The problem was the creek itself. The bank gave away and the water washed rocks, mud, logs, and other debris out into the road. The debris poured into the roadway and eventually rerouted the stream into what had been he roadbed.

“Scrabble Creek is pretty much impassable up past the football field,” the Mayor explained. “It’s just washed all of the rocks out of the hollow. There’s three foot of rocks and gravel in road,”

About all residents along the creek can do is wait on the Division of Highways. Their attention for the moment is on main arteries in the area which were made impassable Monday by numerous mudslides. Progress there is slower than transportation officials would like.

“Our crews in the Cannelton Hollow Road area in Smithers are working to get access for people, and to get to areas where repairs are needed,” said Jim Moore, P.E., District 9 Engineer. “What they’re running into is a soupy material. The area is so saturated that, as they’re clearing away the debris, it’s like working through mud soup.”

Mayor Cole said meanwhile, there is plenty of work to keep up with inside the Gauley Bridge city limits.

“A double-wide about washed off its foundation over at the campground and a couple of other homes had basement flooding. Right now, we’re trying to get the streets cleared off and the culverts unplugged,” said the Mayor.

The last major flood along Scrabble Creek and in the Gauley Bridge area was 2001 when the creek experienced a nearly identical wash out.

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Photo Gallery: Flooding leaves damage in Kanawha, Fayette counties

Photos taken from MetroNews’ Jeff Jenkins on Monday morning, afternoon from the scene of the flooding in Kanawha and Fayette counties.

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MetroNews This Morning 8-16-22

We have a comprehensive recap of the flooding in the upper Kanawha Valley on Monday and will bring you stories of residents there who were forced to wade rising waters in the dark to escape their homes. Also, the White House Drug Czar pays a visit to West Virginia today to talk about the opioid epidemic. Governor Jim Justice downplays a proposal by the Democrats to put the abortion question on the ballot before voters in November. Also a Maryland couple arrested in West Virginia for selling Navy Secrets will be sentenced today.

Listen to “MetroNews This Morning 8-16-22” on Spreaker.

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