OUT WEST - Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Lawsuit

In this 2015 file photo, a dunes sagebrush lizard is shown. The dunes sagebrush lizard is found among the dunes straddling New Mexico and West Texas in one of the nation's richest oil basins and is at the center of a new lawsuit. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)

NEW MEXICO

Lizard protections sought amid oil boom

ALBUQUERQUE — A small lizard found among the dunes straddling New Mexico and West Texas in one of the nation's richest oil basins is at the center of a legal complaint.

Environmentalists want the U.S. government to add the lizard to the endangered species list as part of a fight that stretches back to the Bush and Obama administrations and could affect part of the multibillion-dollar energy industry in the Permian Basin.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife filed the complaint in federal court in Washington. It follows a listing petition that the groups submitted in May 2018.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had 90 days to consider the petition and initiate a review of the species if necessary, but the groups say the agency failed to take action.

The complaint claims more than 2.5 square miles of the lizard's habitat was destroyed in the 18 months prior to the filing of the petition. The groups say the need for listing is urgent as drilling and development continue in the region.

The lizard is native to a small area of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. It's found only in sand dune complexes that have shinnery oak.

Federal biologists have said the primary threat to the lizard is oil and gas development near the dunes and oak removal stemming from the need for more forage for grazing.

THE WEST

Governors: States not consulted on nuclear waste

BOISE — Western governors are disappointed that the U.S. Department of Energy didn't consult their states' nuclear waste experts before releasing a five-year plan for a nuclear waste facility in New Mexico, the governors say.

The Western Governors' Association in a letter to the Energy Department signed by Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said the plan released in August for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) could have benefited with contributions from the states concerning transportation and safety.

WIPP, an underground repository near Carlsbad, New Mexico, takes in plutonium-contaminated clothing, tools and other material generated at 22 sites across the nation involved in Cold War-era nuclear research and bomb-making.

Among those sites are the Idaho National Laboratory, Oak Ridge Site in Tennessee, Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the Hanford site in Washington state.

Western governors in the letter said discussion in the plan devoted to a 2014 accident at the facility that shut down shipments for nearly three years is minimal and should contain lessons learned and actions to avoid future radiation releases.

The 2014 radiation release was the result of waste being inappropriately packaged at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory — the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

MONTANA

Pipeline rules adopted years after deadly explosion, spills

BILLINGS — U.S. transportation officials have adopted long-delayed measures that are meant to prevent pipeline spills and deadly gas explosions but don't address recommended steps to lessen accidents once they occur.

The new rules from the Department of Transportation apply to more than 500,000 miles of pipelines that carry natural gas, oil and other hazardous materials throughout the U.S.

In the works for almost a decade, the rules came in response to a massive gas explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people in 2010, and large oil spills into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010 and the Yellowstone River in Montana in 2011 and 2015.

The rules require companies to more closely inspect underground pipelines, including in rural areas and after catastrophic weather events. They also require better record-keeping so companies can monitor lines in some cases installed decades ago.

Left unaddressed were longstanding recommendations by safety officials to install valves that automatically shut down pipelines following accidents. Also absent were requirements for more advanced systems to detect pipeline ruptures.

While the rules were pending, pipeline companies moved on their own to make safety improvements such as developing guidelines for identifying and repairing cracked lines and responding to pipeline emergencies, according to the Association of Oil Pipe Lines.

Federal regulators are expected to soon release their proposals for pipeline shut-off valves and rupture detection equipment.

WYOMING

Bankrupt coal firm under investigation for fraud

CASPER — The federal government began a fraud investigation into coal company Blackjewel LLC prior to the company's sale last week of two Wyoming coal mines, according to court documents.

The document indicates the investigation also preceded Blackjewel's July bankruptcy filing, The Casper Star-Tribune reports.

Blackjewel owes the federal government about $50 million, court documents said. After failing to obtain funding from a key creditor, the insolvent company shut down its mining operations, including the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Wyoming employing about 600 workers.

The court filing explained the government has been investigating Blackjewel's potential violations of the False Claims Act, which holds corporations liable for defrauding the government.

A federal judge approved the sale of the Wyoming facilities to Eagle Specialty Materials without Blackjewel's debt obligations.

The ongoing investigation will not affect the purchase of the mines, but the federal government will likely not be able to recover the money owed to it, said Joshua Macey, a Cornell University law professor.

KANSAS

US Supreme Court to review lack of insanity defense

TOPEKA — The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to consider how far states can go toward eliminating the insanity defense in criminal trials as it reviews the case of a Kansas man sentenced to die for killing four relatives.

The high court heard arguments on Oct. 7 in James Kraig Kahler's case. He went to the home of his estranged wife's grandmother about 20 miles south of Topeka the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009 and fatally shot the two women and his two teenage daughters.

Not even Kahler's attorneys have disputed that he killed them. They've argued that he was in the grips of a depression so severe that he experienced an extreme emotional disturbance that disassociated him from reality.

In seeking a not-guilty verdict due to his mental state, his defense at his 2011 trial faced what critics see as an impossible legal standard. His attorneys now argue that Kansas violated the U.S. Constitution by denying him the right to pursue an insanity defense.

The nation's highest court previously has given states broad latitude in how they treat mental illness in criminal trials, allowing five states, including Kansas, to abolish the traditional insanity defense.

Until 1996, Kansas followed a rule first outlined in 1840s England, requiring defendants pursuing an insanity defense to show that they were so impaired by a mental illness or defect that they couldn't understand that their conduct was criminal. Now Kansas permits defendants to only cite "mental disease or defect" as a partial defense, and they must prove they didn't intend to commit the specific crime.

Christopher Slobogin, a professor of both law and psychiatry at the Vanderbilt University, said even seriously mentally ill defendants typically intend to the commit their crimes, even if their acts result from delusions.

He added that insanity defenses typically arise in less than 1% of felony cases, and when those cases go to trial, the defendant loses three out of four times.

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