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Lunda, Ames get contract to build Stillwater bridge; Arctic air rolls in state; 12 more state news stories

Two road builders from Wisconsin and Minnesota will work together to build the main part of a new four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River north of Hudson.

Transportation departments from both states awarded a $332 million contract Thursday to Lunda Construction of Black River Falls and Ames Construction of Burnsville, Minn. They'll build the part of the bridge that folks will drive on -- plus support elements and connections to a four-lane Hwy. 36 on the Minnesota side.

The original cost estimate ranged up to $310 million. The final contract is $22 million more than that. Project manager Jon Chiglo said that is because the final design included more steel than originally planned.

Crews will start pile-driving work at the site a week from Monday. The new bridge is expected to open in 2016.

Environmentalists in both states fought the project for 50 years until Congress and President Obama agreed a year and a half ago to exempt the bridge project from the St. Croix's protections under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.


Arctic air rolls into state

Wind-chill factors were in the minus-20's this morning in much of northern Wisconsin as an early December cold snap was starting to settle in.

Skies finally cleared up last night, allowing the Arctic air to move in. Phillips had the coldest actual temperature at 6 a.m. with 10-below.

Much of southern Wisconsin was in the single digits and teens. Kenosha was the warm spot with 15.

Some media reports said the temperatures in northwest Wisconsin would plunge to 25 below over the next few days, but that must be for the wind chill since the actual readings are only supposed to drop to 11 below at the worst. Still, that was cold enough for organizers to cancel a holiday in parade in Wausau that was set for tonight.

Today's highs are supposed to be close to 10 above throughout Wisconsin. A slight warm-up is expected on Sunday when a new storm system is due in. Moderate snow is predicted statewide with possibly heavy snows along Lake Michigan in eastern Wisconsin. After it leaves, we're supposed to be back in the deep freeze at least until the middle of next week.


GOP says governor candidate avoided state taxes

Republicans are slamming Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke for not paying state income taxes two decades ago.

Records show that Burke, a former Trek Bicycle executive, did not pay state taxes for 1990, 1992 and 1993. During that time, her campaign said, Burke was working at a startup company in New York and then worked for Trek in 1991 before going to Europe to head the bicycle firm's European operations.

The campaign also said her foreign residence exempted her from paying state taxes at the time. However, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said it's not that clear cut.

A Marquette tax specialist told the paper that a state tax obligation hinges on the credits, exclusions and exemptions which are taken. A revenue official said there's also a question of whether foreign income is "sourced" to Wisconsin.

Burke has paid at least $100,000 in state taxes in three of the last four years.

The Journal Sentinel said it would be hard to tell whether Burke followed the tax rules in the 1990's without seeing her actual returns, where the incomes and deductions are listed.

State GOP director Joe Fadness said it is “hypocritical that Democrats only want to talk about taxes when it's convenient for them.”


Kohl’s promises to be open for 100 hours straight

If you wake up at 3 a.m. and remember a last-minute Christmas gift, Kohl's Department Stores says they'll be ready to help you.

The Wisconsin-based chain said yesterday it would open its 1,158 stores for 100 straight hours from Friday, Dec. 20, through Christmas Eve at 6 p.m.

Kohl's, based in Menomonee Falls, is trying the overnight hours for the first time. Its stores are in 49 states.


Man gets 22-year term for killing ‘cultural wife’

An Eau Claire area man will spend 22 1/2 years in prison for strangling a woman described as his cultural wife.

Ying Xiong, 42, of Altoona was also ordered to spend 15 years under extended supervision when he gets out.

He pleaded guilty a reduced charge of second-degree reckless homicide in the death last year of Panhia Vue. Authorities said her body was partially burned when she was found dead in a shed near the couple's home. An autopsy showed that Vue was suffocated and strangled.

Relatives told police that Xiong and Vue had a number of physical confrontations during what they called a cultural marriage.


Rapper pleads guilty to selling drugs

A rap musician from La Crosse will be sentenced Feb. 11 after he pleaded guilty to federal charges of selling cocaine and heroin.

Eugene Shields, 33, entered his pleas Thursday in Madison. A plea agreement recommends 5-10 years in prison with the defense asking for the shorter amount.

Officials said Shields sold about $2,000 of heroin and cocaine to a police informant on three occasions in April in La Crosse. Authorities said they seized about $10,000 worth of drugs and related paraphernalia from his home and his recording studio.


November traffic deaths top five-year average

Wisconsin traffic deaths went up in November compared to a year ago. Preliminary numbers from the state Department of Transportation show that 52 people were killed in crashes last month.

That's 16 more than in November of 2012, and it's seven more than the average for the past five years.

Officials said 11 people died in traffic mishaps over the Thanksgiving holiday period from Wednesday night through Sunday. That includes three family members killed in a crash near Janesville.

For the year as a whole, Wisconsin traffic deaths are still down from 2012. A total of 496 people died in crashes from January through November -- 72 less than a year ago and 34 less than the five-year average.

Once again, Wisconsin police agencies will hold special holiday enforcement campaign aimed at drunk drivers and those who don't buckle up. The annual "Booze and Belts" campaign will run from next Friday through Dec. 21.


New invasive species crowds out other plants

Wisconsin has close to 200 invasive species that can threaten native plants and fish. One of the latest species, the phragmite, is causing a real concern.

It's a tall, densely growing, decorative grass that has filled in miles of shorelines along Lake Michigan and the Bay of Green Bay. Now, patches of phragmites are being reported inland, near the Rhinelander airport and at Manitowish Waters near the Trout River.

Vilas County invasive species coordinator Ted Ritters said the patches are small, but the phragmites tend to crowd out all the other natural species. Herbicides have been known to control the plant, but Ritters says old-fashioned methods don't seem to work anymore. He said small patches can develop dense, fast-spreading root systems, and they're virtually impossible to pull up or dig out.

If you see anything like this, you're asked to call your county invasive species coordinator. 

--Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander


Manure spills especially high this year

Wisconsin farms have spilled over one million gallons of manure in 2013.

It's the most since 2007, and it's about five times that of last year's spill total, which was 191,000 gallons.

The Department of Natural Resources said this year's spills represented only 1% of all the waste generated by Wisconsin dairy cows. Officials say mishaps are not uncommon, regardless of the precautions that farmers take.

The DNR says there's never been a clear trend in the amount of manure spills from year to year. However, environmentalists are concerned that we're seeing more spills as the number of so-called mega-dairies grows in the state.

There are almost 200 larger dairies, known as concentrated animal feeding operations. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that more than a third of the manure spills since 2007 came from those farms.

The latest major spill was discovered a week and a half ago. About 300,000 gallons of manure spilled from a broken pipe at a digester in Dane County that converts manure into electricity. Some of the manure spilled into a nearby creek. The DNR said the spill did not appear to kill any fish, but the damage is still being assessed.


Drug agent says he was fired after accusing boss of keeping stolen gun

Wisconsin officials say the Department of Justice might have broken the whistle-blower protection law for state employees.

The Equal Rights office says an administrative law judge should review the case of Dan Bethards, a former drug agent let go in October.

He had run-ins with his former boss Jay Smith at a DOJ field office in Superior that was later closed. Bethards accused Smith of keeping a stolen machine gun and producing and selling unlicensed firearms to police officers.

When the DOJ fired Bethards, the agency told him he lied about Smith having a stolen M-16. However, Equal Rights officer Gregory Straub said justice officials never established that Bethards' allegations were false. The justice department has not commented.

Federal officials investigated Smith, but no charges came from it. Bethards told the Wisconsin State Journal that the justice agency never interviewed him about his allegations against Smith. He said he's finding it impossible to find another job in law enforcement despite 25 years as a justice agent, corrections' officer and state trooper.


Wildlife center will track healed raptors

For the first time, a Wisconsin wildlife center will try to find out what happens to the eagles and other raptors they treat after they're sent back to the wild.

The Four Lakes Wildlife Center in Madison hopes to put GPS devices on the raptors to check on their recoveries.

Wildlife coordinator Jackie Edmunds told Wisconsin Public Radio it takes months to help raptors like hawks and eagles heal from conditions like broken wings, and then when they're released, workers can only assume "happily ever after" outcomes.

The center is planning to install a $40,000 GPS system which Edmunds said would provide some valuable insight. It would help officials learn what types of injuries have the best chances for recovery, thus helping the center use its resources more effectively.


State dignitaries mourn Mandela death

Wisconsinites are joining the rest of the world in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela.

The South African president who brought an end to racial apartheid in his home country died yesterday at age 95.

UW-Milwaukee Provost and Vice Chancellor Johannes Britz is a native of South Africa and said Mandela's legacy will go far beyond his vision and political agenda. Britz said the moral compass he gave his people and the imperative to forgive and reconcile was nothing short of a miracle.

Wisconsin United Methodist Church Bishop Hee-Soo Jung said his fellow bishops were in "awe" when they met Mandela at a meeting in Mozambique in 2006. Jung called Mandela a servant leader who led an "extraordinary life."  Jung said the entire world would miss Mandela’s powerful presence and solidarity of spirit.

U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee said the world has lost a visionary leader and a hero for human rights.

Milwaukee Alderman Joe Davis, who serves as a Wisconsin honorary consul to South Africa, called Mandela "a shining example to us all." Davis said Mandela's convictions "were tested beyond the bounds of comprehension, and he emerged from his trials more resolute where lesser men -- many men -- would have given up hope."


Step away from raw-meat sandwiches, warn health officials

Health officials are urging Wisconsinites not to eat "cannibal sandwiches" made of from raw seasoned beef this holiday season.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control said four people were poisoned with E. coli bacteria, and there were 13 likely cases.

Milwaukee historian John Gurda says cannibal sandwiches are appetizers at holiday celebrations and other events. They're most popular with people of Polish and German heritage.  Gurda says the sandwiches include raw and lean ground beef seasoned with salt and pepper, served on rye cocktail bread with sliced raw onions.

Health officials discourage folks from eating any meat that's not cooked.


Next Tuesday is deadline for turkey, bear permit applications

A deadline is coming up quickly for Wisconsin turkey and bear hunters.

The Department of Natural Resources says the deadline is next Tuesday to apply for permits for next spring's turkey hunt and for the bear season that begins around Labor Day.

A lottery will be held to select winning applicants for the turkey permits. The drawing will take place late this month or in early January. Any remaining permits will go on sale in late March.

A youth turkey hunt is set for April 12-13. The regular spring turkey season begins on April 16.

A drawing for bear permits will be held after the quota for the next hunt is set in January.