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Across the Region: June 23


System problems further delay prison opening

Problems with the geothermal heating and cooling system continue to delay the opening of Iowa’s $132 million maximum-security prison in Fort Madison.

The new Iowa State Penitentiary was expected to be occupied in March by 550 inmates, but state officials said the improperly designed heating and cooling system had indefinitely delayed the prisoners’ move from the old penitentiary. State Corrections Department spokesman Fred Scaletta said “there is no predicted date” for the move.

Corrections Director John Baldwin blames the design flaws on the Durrant Group, a Dubuque architectural and engineering firm that ceased operations in 2012. The problems appear to be tied to the installation of 40-horsepower geothermal pumps, rather than 25-horsepower pumps, Baldwin said.

The geothermal system operates by transferring heat to and from the ground, which provides cooling in the summer and heat in the winter.

State officials haven’t determined what it will cost to get the geothermal system working properly.

The Department of Administrative Services says the state is paying the additional cost but shouldn’t get the final bill, as extra costs will be covered by insurance or claims filed by the state.

Argosy lawyers seek to keep riverboat casino open

Operators of Sioux City’s embattled Argosy riverboat casino have asked a judge to temporarily block an order for it to shut down by July 1.

Lawyers for Argosy’s parent company Penn National Gaming Co. filed a motion for an emergency stay of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission’s order. Penn National argued the casino should be allowed to remain open until other pending legal action taken against the commission can be resolved.

The Argosy’s pending closure stems from the commission’s decision to allow a land-based casino in downtown Sioux City to replace the Argosy. Penn National lost its bid to operate the land-based casino to Sioux City Entertainment, which is building and will operate a Hard Rock Casino.


‘Pink slime’ makers say sales are rebounding

Sales of a treated ground beef product that critics derisively dubbed “pink slime” have rebounded, according to two of its manufacturers.

Spokesmen for Cargill and Beef Products Inc. confirmed that sales of the product, which the industry refers to as “lean, finely textured beef,” have risen. But Cargill said that sales haven’t rebounded to the level they were before a 2012 controversy about the meat.

The product, which is added as a low-cost ingredient to ground beef, is made from fatty bits of meat left over from other cuts.

The phrase “pink slime,” coined by a federal microbiologist, has appeared in the media since a critical 2009 New York Times report.

BPI sued ABC News and others in September 2012, alleging the network’s reporting about the product earlier that year damaged BPI by misleading consumers into believing it was unhealthy and unsafe. BPI said the sales drop forced it to close several plants.

Attorneys for ABC have said the network in each of its broadcasts stated the U.S. Department of Agriculture deemed the product safe to eat. They argued that although the term “pink slime” may come across as unappetizing, it is not incorrect.

The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled last month that BPI’s lawsuit against ABC News can go to trial. Union County Judge Cheryle Gering has already ruled that ABC isn’t protected against liability by saying that the product is beef and is safe.

Omaha sex offender facing life in prison

An Omaha man who spent less than three years in prison for participating in the gang-rape of a teenager in 2000 now faces life in prison for allegedly sexually assaulting two young girls within months of leaving prison in 2004.

Kelvin Smith, 35, was convicted this week by a Sarpy County jury of 11 sex-related crimes against the young girls, including first-degree sexual assault of a child and third-degree sexual assault of a child.

He faces up to life in prison when he’s sentenced on Aug. 11.

The girls were 9 and 10 years old when Smith began abusing them in 2004, months after he had been released from prison, prosecutors said.

Smith was charged with first-degree sexual assault and false imprisonment in a 2000 attack on a 19-year-old woman. Prosecutors say several men dragged her into an abandoned north Omaha house and took turns raping her. She managed to escape after stabbing Smith with a knife.

As part of a plea deal, Smith pleaded no contest to attempted sexual assault in that case.


Red River diversion foes take case to state court

A group of Red River diversion opponents who have filed a federal lawsuit against the planned flood control project are pleading their case in Minnesota state court as well.

According to the complaint filed last week by the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, made up of representatives from about 20 cities and townships in North Dakota and Minnesota, it doesn’t make sense to begin construction of a ring dike around the communities south of Fargo until a review of the possible environmental impacts of the project is completed.

The proposed $2 billion diversion would move water through a 26-mile channel around Fargo, but it would need a staging area to store water in times of serious flooding. The Richland-Wilkin group filed a federal lawsuit in September and asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a cheaper project that doesn’t flood farmland.

Diversion sponsors say the ring dike is separate from the channel and meant to protect people in Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke from naturally occurring floodwaters and not primarily from water in the staging area. Opponents believe the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority is seeking to influence the review by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The diversion would take about 10 years to build once construction begins. Congress has authorized the project, but must pass separate legislation to pay for it.

Advocates of parental rights law submit signatures

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger says he has received signed petitions for a proposed statewide ballot measure on parental rights that could go before voters in November.

Advocates of the proposed law giving both parents equal rights and decision-making responsibilities in child custody cases turned in petitions totaling 13,521 signatures last week.

Many supporters of the initiated measure are from Walsh County. Voters there passed a similar law in 2012 but state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has challenged the local initiative, saying it usurps state authority.

Jaeger’s office has until July 21 to determine whether the signatures are valid. North Dakota voters would decide the fate of the measure on the Nov. 4 election should Jaeger clear the proposal.

A similar measure failed in 2006.


State fixes speed limit in hot spot for tickets

A short stretch of Interstate 90 in western South Dakota has a reputation as a speed trap. Highway patrol troopers, who sit in the median of the road, make frequent stops in that stretch where the speed limit goes from 75 to 65 mph.

But now it appears the speed limit may have been wrong on that section of the highway. State officials acknowledge that the final 1.3 miles of the 65 mph zone that starts west of Rapid City and ends less than a half mile east of Exit 67 was actually a 75-mph zone all along.

Defense attorney Patrick Duffy brought the mistake to the state’s attention as he was preparing a defense for a couple who were stopped for going 68 mph on the supposed 65 mph zone near Exit 67. The officer who pulled over the couple found 20 pounds of marijuana in the vehicle and charged them with possession with intent to distribute.

Duffy’s inquiry about the discrepancy led to the commission to extend the speed-limit zone in April.

Area attorneys say that portion of I-90 is one of the patrol’s main spots for detecting and arresting people transporting drugs from the West Coast to points east of South Dakota.

New rules on autism advance to public hearing

The South Dakota Board of Education has authorized public hearings on rule changes pertaining to students with autism and other disabilities.

Panelists voted unanimously last week to support the first reading of the proposed rules. They still must be reviewed by the public and by the Legislative Research Council for form and style. They are available for review online.

The changes reflect a state law approved this session requiring the Department of Education to use a manual of the American Psychiatric Association to define autism spectrum disorder. The disability affects students’ communication skills and social interactions.

The law and the new rules replace the term “autism” with “autism spectrum disorder.”

Lawmakers also authorized a study this year on treatment and insurance for children with autism spectrum disorder.


Patients still waiting for access to seizure drug

Wisconsin epilepsy patients are still waiting for doctors to give them a marijuana-based anti-seizure drug, two months after Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill allowing the drug’s use.

Federal law prohibits the use or possession of cannabidiol, an extract derived from marijuana that’s also known as CBD. Parents of children suffering from seizures believe the drug could help alleviate their suffering. Federal officials haven’t approved the drug’s use, but eight states including Wisconsin have passed legislation allowing doctors to dispense the drugs under certain conditions since January, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The U.S. Department of Justice has said it won’t challenge the laws if they’re followed.

In Wisconsin, doctors can hand out CBD if they get permission from the FDA to use it as part of a clinical trial. But it doesn’t appear that any have started such a trial.

Wisconsin Medical Society officials say they haven’t heard of any such trials and state regulatory officials say no doctors have approached them for help with a trial application.

A spokeswoman for American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, said the hospital would support any researchers to try to start a trial but no one has attempted to begin the application process.

Uncertainty for gay couples married in Wisconsin

A federal judge’s order for Wisconsin officials to stop issuing same-sex marriage licenses didn’t address the legal status of the more than 550 gay marriages conducted in the last week, and subsequent statements by state officials have not removed the uncertainty.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb on June 6 ordered county clerks to stop enforcing the state’s gay marriage ban but she put that ruling on hold while an appeal from Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is pending.

State income taxes, pensions and health insurance are among many issues affected by a person’s legal marriage status.

The Wisconsin Vital Records Office started processing same-sex marriage licenses, after receiving guidance from Van Hollen’s office that it could move ahead.

But Van Hollen said that same-sex couples with marriage licenses aren’t legally married because Crabb had not told county clerks how to interpret her ruling striking down the ban. His spokeswoman reiterated that position, saying Wisconsin’s marriage law — including the same-sex marriage ban Crabb originally ruled against — was in force pending Van Hollen’s appeal.

Sixty of Wisconsin’s 72 county clerks had issued licenses to same-sex couples. As of midday Thursday, 555 same-sex couples have been married in the state. Couples who were in the middle of the five-day waiting period to get a license, which most counties waived, also are caught in a legal limbo.

Across the Region is compiled from Associated Press wire, staff reports and news releases.

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