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Forest Service announces decision on drilling for oil in Ruby Mountains

The U.S. Forest Service has rejected a plan to pursue oil and gas drilling in the Ruby Mountains, following nearly two years of protests from a variety of groups and individuals both locally and nationwide.

Forest Supervisor Bill Dunkelberger said his decision is the result of detailed analysis and extensive involvement of citizens and communities. The analysis revealed unfavorable geologic conditions in the area, meaning that there is little to no potential of oil and gas resources in the area. This, coupled with concerns over potential impacts to wildlife and to the recreational and scenic values of the iconic Nevada landscape, led to the No Leasing Alternative.

Dunkelberger added that camping, hunting, fishing and motorized recreation are popular activities in the proposed lease area and represent part of a $12.5 billion recreation industry in Nevada — an industry that supports 87,000 jobs statewide.

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., praised the decision Thursday morning.

“I commend the Forest Service for recognizing what the majority of Nevadans have loudly said: oil and gas drilling has no place in the Ruby Mountains,” she said. “The Rubies are a sacred treasure and economic driver for local communities in White Pine and Elko Counties. I’m glad the Federal government listened to the voices of more than 14,000 Nevadans who asked for these precious public lands to be off-limits to oil and gas drilling.”

As the manager of subsurface minerals in public land, the BLM has the authority to lease land for oil and gas once a quarter. Companies or individuals can request that parcels of land be made available for lease through an expression of interest.

In April 2017, the Bureau of Land Management received an expression of interest in leasing 54,000 acres in and around the Ruby Mountains from Ethan Murray of Murray Land Service. The land in Elko and White Pine counties — south of Lamoille Creek and north of Sherman Creek on the west side of the Ruby Mountains — was classified as available for such use.

Because the land is under the jurisdiction of the National Forest Service, the state BLM office had to receive an environmental assessment from the Forest Service regarding the land in Elko County. The analysis sought to determine if the lands can be made available administratively, and what stipulations would be included to protect surface resources.

The Forest Service began accepting comments on the plan in the fall of 2017, and eventually extended the comment period through April 2018.

Sportsmen, environmental and tribal groups were among the many who announced their opposition to the plan.

“Drilling for oil in the Ruby Mountains is an extremely foolish and impractical idea that would further the climate crisis that we are experiencing, while destroying some of the most beautiful land that our nation has to offer,” said Rebekah Stetson with the National Wildlife Federation. “We have the greatest potential for solar energy of anywhere in the United States and this type of renewable option is where our efforts should be focused.”

Nearly 70 people attended a January meeting in Elko that included representatives of Trout Unlimited, Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone.

Cortez Masto said Thursday that she will continue pursuing protection for the Rubies.

“While today’s decision is a significant victory for the coalition of conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, small businesses and Nevadans who stood up, there is still more we must do to prevent any future attempts to develop these lands for potential oil and gas leasing,” she said. “I will continue to fight in the Senate for the passage of my Ruby Mountains Protection Act¸ which would write into law that oil and gas leasing in the Rubies is prohibited and specifically ensure the protection of those beautiful public lands for generations to come.”

Exploratory drilling has already taken place near the Ruby Mountains and elsewhere in Elko County following a rise in oil prices that led to a boom in fracking.

Noble Energy extracted 3,831 barrels of oil in 2014 and 2015 from Huntington Valley near Jiggs, according to the Nevada Division of Minerals. Oil prices fell, and the wells were plugged and abandoned in early 2017.

The Forest Service’s decision announced March 14 is in line with comments made last year by Nevada Department of Minerals Administrator Rich Perry, a former Elko resident.

“I know of no targets for oil in the Rubies. It’s a metamorphic core complex. There’s no sedimentary rock that would contain oil,” he told the Elko Daily Free Press in January 2018.

Perry said he did not understand why anyone would request to drill in the Rubies, as the geology makes the likelihood of finding oil practically nil.

The Forest Service announced its mapping found that “nearly all of the analysis area has very low to no oil and gas potential because of unfavorable geologic conditions.”

Still, the agency’s decision is open to appeal.

The Forest Service said objections will be accepted for 45 days following publication of the legal notice of its decision in the Elko Daily Free Press.

Objections must be submitted to Reviewing Officer, Intermountain Region U.S. Forest Service, 324 25th Street, Ogden UT, 84401, or hand-delivered during normal business hours from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, excluding federal holidays. Faxes can be sent to 801-625-5277.

Electronic objections must be submitted to: objections-intermtn-regional-office@fs.fed.us w put “Ruby Mountains Oil and Gas Leasing” into the subject line.


Govt-and-politics
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Democratic Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle resigns amid accusations of sexual harassment

Democratic Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle announced his resignation on Thursday in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment against him.

Sprinkle, who was not present in the legislative building Thursday morning, announced his decision in a statement released by the Assembly Democratic Caucus. It marks the second time in two weeks that Democratic lawmakers have stepped down over misconduct.

“In light of the growing sexual harassment claims against me I will be resigning from my position as state assemblyman effective today,” Sprinkle said in a statement. “I am truly disappointed in myself for anything that I have done to discredit the legislature or the state of Nevada. As for the claims against me, I am so sorry that anyone ever felt harassed or threatened by me.”

First elected in 2012, Sprinkle is a firefighter and paramedic with the Reno Fire Department and represented a Sparks-area Assembly district. He chaired the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee and was perhaps best known for introducing “Sprinklecare,” a bill in 2017 that would have allowed anyone to buy into a Medicaid-like program.

The assemblyman did not return requests for comment from The Nevada Independent but said in the statement that he was “taking full responsibility for my actions” and would “continue to seek therapy” and seek forgiveness from his family and others.

No lawmakers discussed Sprinkle’s resignation during an Assembly floor session on Thursday, and his seat was marked vacant.

In an interview afterward, Democratic Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said he was not aware of any specific allegations being formally filed against Sprinkle. Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Rick Combs also said complaints had not been filed with him.

“He informed us that he was aware of there being allegations that made him second-guess whether or not he thought he should remain in the body,” Frierson told reporters. “I think we have a process available, but he decided to — rather than exercise his opportunity to go through that process — to resign.”

He characterized the resignation not as an impediment to the Democrats accomplishing their agenda but a sign that the Assembly is willing to address issues within the body.

“I think what this really means is that we are willing to hold ourselves accountable and make sure that we deal with trouble behavior and move this state forward,” the Assembly leader said. “I think this is a reflection of us making sure that we maintain an environment that’s appropriate in this building to get work done.”

Frierson said he would like to fill the seat so no district goes unrepresented, but said he doesn’t have applications or a list of potential replacements. Washoe County commissioners will be tasked with appointing Sprinkle’s replacement, though it is unclear how soon that process will begin.

It’s also unclear who will replace Sprinkle for the chairmanship of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak shared the resignation letter Sprinkle submitted to him on Thursday and condemned the alleged behavior.

“I am profoundly disgusted and outraged by Mr. Sprinkle’s reported abuse and misconduct … I commend the courage of those who came forward to report Mr. Sprinkle’s behavior,” he said. “Let me send a clear message to any and all individuals who think it’s okay to harass others in the workplace: such behavior will not be tolerated, and my administration will see to it that such bad actors face the consequences of their behavior.”

Assembly Republicans also condemned the alleged behavior.

“There is no place in this institution for sexual harassment,” Assembly Republican Leader Jim Wheeler said in a statement. “We are pleased that he resigned and saved the body any unnecessary distraction in such a critical time.”

Thursday’s resignation comes a little more than a week after Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson stepped down, saying he was pleading guilty to a federal charge for misusing campaign funds for his personal use.

Frierson chafed at a question about whether there is more Democrats need to do to internally vet candidates ahead of the election, given the resignation of the two legislative Democrats in two weeks.

“I think you made it a partisan thing and it’s not. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. This is an issue of making sure we have an appropriate workplace environment,” Frierson said. “We have a vetting process, and we also have a process to remove individuals that are not behaving appropriately in the institution.”

Lawmakers launched a formal system for reporting sexual harassment after issues in 2017 with Democratic state Sen. Mark Manendo. He stepped down from his post after a two-and-a-half month investigation into allegations of sexual harassment revealed witness tampering and multiple instances of misconduct dating back years.

The Legislature also approved rule changes in the final minutes of the 2017 session that required legislative staff to develop a formal reporting system for complaints, expanded existing harassment policy to specifically address lobbyists and created a new Legislative Code of Ethics.

Under the new process, the investigations law firm Van Dermyden Maddux is responsible for maintaining a phone hotline and an online portal where people can submit complaints of inappropriate behavior that is or may become harassment or sexual harassment. Complainants and witnesses can also upload photos or other documents to support their allegations.

Once a complaint is submitted, investigators are allowed to continue a conversation with the person who submitted the complaint while maintaining his or her anonymity to determine whether the conduct they experienced constitutes a violation of the Legislature’s harassment policy. If investigators determine it does, legislative leaders have the prerogative to have the firm investigate it, investigate it themselves or have another firm step in.

The progressive group Battle Born Progress commended the system.

“It is clear that the Legislature has established a policy that takes cases of harassment seriously, and that this policy has been effective,” Executive Director Annette Magnus said in a statement. “We remain steadfast in our belief that abusers have no place in the progressive movement or the political environment, and that they must be rooted out and exposed for what they are.”


Crime-and-courts
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Kacin denies city's motion to dismiss flood lawsuit

ELKO – An Elko judge rejected a motion by the City of Elko to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Southside residents who were affected by the Humboldt River flood in February 2017.

District Judge Al Kacin denied the motion on March 13. It was filed by the City on Nov. 2 in an effort to end the lawsuit filed by more than 60 people whose homes and properties sustained damage.

According to court documents, the City’s attorneys made a motion to dismiss the third amended complaint, stating that the City is entitled to discretionary immunity regarding actions and decisions made regarding flapper valves and culverts dating back more than three decades.

The City also contended that “the plaintiffs have otherwise failed to state trespass, nuisance and inverse condemnation claims for which relief can be granted.”

The plaintiffs are suing the City at $15,000 per cause of action, totaling $4.26 million, plus attorney’s fees and expenses.

The court also said it disagreed with a motion to three of the causes of action, leaving only a $15,000 payout to each plaintiff for negligence, or a total of $1,065,000.

Kacin said “in the court’s opinion, the plaintiffs have not failed to state a claim for trespass, nuisance and inverse condemnation.”

Plaintiffs alleged in the third amended complaint that the city and about 50 parties including corporate, associate or otherwise “were responsible in some manner” for the damages to real and personal property that caused “emotional distress, annoyance, and inconvenience,” along with a devaluation of property.

Prior to a hearing on motions conducted in Kacin’s court on Feb. 15, both sides participated in two mediation hearings. It is unclear if or when a date for trial will be set.


Jeff Mullins / Elko Daily Free Press File 

Southside homes are surrounded by flood water that froze into ice in February 2017.


Crime-and-courts
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Elko school district sued over teacher sex case

ELKO – A lawsuit has been filed in federal district court by the estate of a former student against the Elko County School District and former Wells principal, citing failure to remove a teacher who was later convicted of sexual contact with four high school students.

Corbin Madison and Brennen Hooper were named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging the Elko County School District and Chris McAnany, former principal of Wells Combined Schools, “suppressed, concealed or failed to disclose” information about Tennille Whitaker’s conduct among male high school students.

Madison, who moved to Reno shortly after graduation, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound five days after Reno police sought the public’s help in locating him.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Reno on March 10 on behalf of Hooper, and Corbin Madison’s father, Terry, who is named as the special administrator for his son’s estate. Hooper and Corbin Madison each served as student aides in Whitaker’s classroom on two separate occasions and were part of an investigation that led to the arrest and felony conviction of Whitaker.

The suit asks for a jury to find the district guilty of failing to “address, prevent and/or remove known sexual predators from its ranks,” and award Hooper and Madison’s estate up to $45,000 and possibly more in funeral costs, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and “for any just and further relief as the court may deem just and proper under these circumstances.”

The lawsuit names the defendants as the Elko County School District and McAnany, who is now the district’s secondary curriculum director, alleging they knew about Whitaker’s behavior and did not take action.

“Defendants had a duty to disclose these facts to the plaintiffs, their parents and others, but suppressed, concealed or failed to disclose this information,” the lawsuit states.

A timeline of events listed in the court documents alleges McAnany was informed six times starting in early 2016 up until March 2017 of Whitaker having “unlawful sexual relations with minor students.”

McAnany conducted an investigation in early 2016 after a custodial worker notified him of Whitaker “having unlawful sexual relationships with her minor students,” court documents state. In the following months, a parent and two teachers approached McAnany with more allegations, and at one time, a teacher produced a photo from social media that “evidenced Whitaker with a minor student.”

Another incident was reported in February 2017 when a custodial worker found a student and Whitaker in her classroom with the door locked and the lights turned off. The student was also part of the investigation that led to charges against Whitaker.

The school district was informed by the Elko County Sheriff’s office of an investigation in October of 2016 and the teacher showed the photo to district officials in March 2017.

The lawsuit states that despite the knowledge of Whitaker’s “sexual propensities toward minor students,” Whitaker was allowed to continue to teach, and to keep her classroom at the end of a hallway away from the main office and cover the only window that “provided … a separate and secluded environment with minor children.”

Part of her room was set up with a private decorated “reading area” in the back corner of the classroom that could not be seen from the hallway or any outside windows, the lawsuit stated.

Whitaker was arrested on June 6, 2017. In a press conference the day after her arrest, then Superintendent Jeff Zander said the district conducted its own investigation four months earlier in February, stating that the individuals interviewed for the investigation told the district they were unaware of sexual misconduct between Whitaker and students.

“Nobody was really willing to testify or give a statement that said, ‘yes, this happened,” Zander said. Undersheriff Ron Supp also said at the press conference that the sheriff’s office investigation had also met with resistance, but that the detectives conducted surveillance to gather information.

At the time, Zander said the district was going to update guidelines regarding social media communication between teachers and students, and put a “policy in place … to expressly prohibit those conversations taking place that create personal relationships.”

The lawsuit further alleges Whitaker used her position as a fourth grade teacher “to begin ‘grooming’ her young male students” and that the school district “represented to the public, plaintiffs and their families that Whitaker was a qualified teacher of young students and that she was worthy of their trust.”

Hooper and Madison were two of four male teens that told investigators they had sex with Whitaker when they were assigned as student aides during her “special” hour. Police reports and court documents concealed their identity as they were minors at the time of the investigation. They are the only two victims named in the current lawsuit.

Hooper states in the lawsuit he had been a former student of Whitaker’s in the fourth grade and had a job feeding her family’s animals outside of school. After becoming her student aide, they communicated through social media and began a sexual relationship that took place inside and outside of the classroom.

On Jan. 15, 2016, after a school employee walked in when Whitaker was sitting on Hooper’s lap, Hooper was then removed from her classroom without explanation or notification to his parents, according to the complaint. The following month, McAnany conducted an investigation into Whitaker’s actions for “unlawful and inappropriate sexual harassment, molestation and abuse of minor students.”

Madison became a student aide in the fall of 2016. He was reported in the lawsuit to have rejected Whitaker’s advances, causing Whitaker to become angry and “threaten to mark him absent.” The actions, including “sexual harassment, molestation and assault,” by Whitaker, caused Madison “to feel scared and threatened,” and become “emotionally distraught, humiliated and embarrassed.”

Shortly after graduation in June, Madison moved to Reno. On Aug. 18, he was reported missing by Reno police and was described as being “despondent.” He was found dead five days later at the age of 18 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The lawsuit states his suicide was “due to his resultant depression, humiliation and embarrassment.”

Whitaker was placed on administrative paid leave after her arrest, eventually resigning two months later. She was first charged with 12 counts of sexual conduct between a school employee and a pupil. Whitaker later pleaded no contest to four counts in a plea agreement in Elko District Court that dropped eight counts.

Whitaker was sentenced on Oct. 4 to eight to 20 years in prison by Elko District Judge Nancy Porter.

The case sent shockwaves through the tight-knit community of Wells when the investigation was publicly revealed after Whitaker’s arrest in June 2017. During victim impact testimony at Whitaker’s sentencing, parents testified that the revelations shattered the town, and pushed all four victims to leave Wells.

Hooper and Madison’s father are asking for a judgment against the district and McAnany that would find them guilty of “failure to address, prevent and/or remove known sexual predators from its ranks;” and order the district to address Title IX violations and enforce a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that includes training teachers on inappropriate student-teacher relationships and enact a “zero tolerance policy.”

The plaintiffs are also seeking $15,000 each for past, present and future general damages and an additional $15,000 in general damages for Terry Madison “for his individual grief and sorrow.” Also it asks the jury to provide any special damages for the plaintiffs, for the estate of Corbin Madison, attorney’s costs and any “just and further relief as the court may deem just and proper under these circumstance.”

The Elko County School District declined to comment, stating it is not their policy to discuss pending litigation.