US sued over road project in Mojave desert tortoise habitat
SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of conservation groups on June 4 sued the U.S. government over the Trump administration's decision to allow construction of a new four-lane highway through a national conservation area in southern Utah that includes protected habitat for the Mojave desert tortoise.
The group Conserve Southwest Utah argued the road through part of the "sensitive and scenic" Red Cliffs National Conservation Area would violate environmental laws and put the tortoise and several other species at risk.
There are alternative routes that would solve vehicle congestion problems in the fast-growing area and the decision to cut through protected land sets a dangerous precedent, said the lawsuit filed against the U.S. Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management.
The Interior Department did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the lawsuit. The Bureau of Land Management declined to comment.
Mojave desert tortoises, a threatened species, weigh up to 15 pounds and grow to about 6 inches high. They can live up to 80 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and spend up to 95% of their lives underground. Their historic range includes parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.
Roads are problematic for the tortoises because they bring noise, garbage and lights, as well as the possibility of the tortoises being hit by cars as they slowly make their way across pavement, said Tom Butain, board president for Conserve Southwest Utah.
Highway supporters have said the four-lane highway is needed to keeping traffic flowing in the area around the city of St. George, which has a metro area of about 170,000 people and is one of the fastest-growing parts of the U.S.
Mormons scrap conference session once reserved for men only
SALT LAKE CITY — A session that used to be reserved for men only at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' twice-annual signature conference has been permanently scrapped, the faith announced June 7.
The decision came three years after the church changed the Saturday evening session to alternate each six months between being for only men and only for women — and nearly eight years after the faith began broadcasting the male-only session.
Some women in the faith objected to the male-only session, contending it was an illustration of a gender inequality in the faith.
Only men are allowed to be considered priesthood holders in the faith's lay clergy, a distinction that allows them to lead congregations and hold the highest leadership positions in the Utah-based faith that counts 16.5 million members worldwide.
Church leaders said in a statement that the decision was made because the session is now available online for anyone to watch.
Bill Gates company to build reactor at old coal plant
CHEYENNE — A next-generation, small nuclear plant will be built at a soon-to-be retired coal-fired power plant in Wyoming in the next several years, business and government officials said June 2.
The plant featuring a sodium reactor and molten salt energy storage system will perform better, be safer and cost less than traditional nuclear power, Microsoft co-founder and TerraPower founder and chairman Bill Gates said.
Bellevue, Washington-based TerraPower is working with Rocky Mountain Power, an electric utility serving Wyoming and other Western states, to put the Natrium reactor at one of four of the utility's power plants in Wyoming, with the location to be decided later this year.
Wyoming is the top uranium-mining state, and the reactor would use uranium from "in situ" mines that extract the heavy metal from networks of water wells on the high plains, officials said.
Wyoming also is the top coal mining state. The U.S. coal industry has suffered a dramatic downturn over the past decade as utilities switch to cheaper and cleaner-burning gas to generate electricity.
The reactor proposal creates common ground between Wyoming, one of the most Republican states, and Democratic President Joe Biden's administration.
If it's as reliable as conventional nuclear power, the 345-megawatt plant would produce enough power for roughly 250,000 homes. The plant also would produce hydrogen, which can power trucks and other vehicles with fuel cells.
The plant will be a "multibillion-dollar project" with costs to be split evenly between government and private industry, TerraPower President and CEO Chris Levesque said.
The plant would produce two-thirds less waste by volume than conventional nuclear plants, Levesque said.
Review of contamination at air bases moves ahead
CLOVIS — New Mexico is several months into an investigation to determine the extent of contamination at two U.S. Air Force bases, and state officials said June 4 that the work is on track to be completed by summer 2022.
Environment Secretary James Kenney said his department has reviewed data, drafted analysis and sampling plans, and visited areas around Cannon and Holloman air bases. Once the study is done, the department will evaluate the next steps based on the risk to public health, available funding and any actions taken by the federal government at that point.
The state sued in 2019, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up plumes of toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities.
New Mexico officials consider the contamination "an immediate and substantial danger" to the surrounding communities of Clovis and Alamogordo. They say sampling has shown the levels of contamination — linked to a class of chemicals known as PFAS — exceeds lifetime health advisory levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Growing evidence that exposure to the chemicals is dangerous has prompted the EPA to consider setting a maximum level for PFAS in drinking water nationwide.
Prosecutor, attorney reprimanded for 'banishment' scheme
OMAHA — A prosecutor and a defense attorney in Nebraska have been reprimanded for a scheme reminiscent of the Wild West in which they told two convicted criminals to get out of town and never return.
On June 4, the Nebraska Supreme Court issued public reprimands for Custer County Attorney Steven Bowers and Broken Bow defense attorney Christopher Wickham for carrying out the "banishment plan." The high court said Bowers and Wickham violated rules of professional conduct and their oaths as attorneys.
Under the plan brokered by Wickham and Bowers, the defense attorney advised his clients, who had been charged with felonies, to plead guilty then flee the state before sentencing, with the understanding that they would not return.
Bowers, the prosecutor, agreed that if the men skipped out on their sentencing hearings and left the state, he would direct the county sheriff to not seek extradition to have them returned to Custer County, the high court said. Wickham and Bowers also schemed to seek a low bail for the men, so they could be freed before the sentencing hearings.
The court's reprimand orders don't reveal the names of the men who were charged, what charges they pleaded to or when the scheme was carried out.
In the reprimand order against Bowers, the high court said at least one of the men fled Custer County before his sentencing hearing and was later arrested about 200 miles away near Omaha. Bowers did not seek to extradite the man to Custer County, and he was released from custody, the court said. The court did not say what happened to the other man.