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Frac mining company fined $200,000 for polluting stream; Durand couple loses court fight over tourist train; 11 more state news briefs

TREMPEALEAU COUNTY --For the first time, a frac-sand mining company in western Wisconsin is paying a large fine for causing pollution.

The state Department of Justice said yesterday that Preferred Sands of Pennsylvania will pay $200,000 for causing mud to flow into a stream and neighboring properties at Blair in Trempealeau County. Officials said three heavy rainstorms in 2012 caused sediment to flow from the mining site onto four properties -- including the first floor of a house -- and it dumped up to six inches of mud into a stream and a wetland.

Preferred Sands bought the Blair mine in late 2011. The firm said it recognized noncompliance issues right away and tried resolving the problems before discovering they were more complex than originally thought.

The Department of Justice said the firm did not tell the whole story to the state Department of Natural Resources, including waste on slopes that was never stabilized correctly.

About 115 frac-sand mines have popped up in Wisconsin in recent years, producing fine sand for domestic oil exploration equipment. Critics have complained about environmental problems with mines, but until recently, they cited a lack of enforcement efforts.

Since August, the DNR said it referred three frac-sand violation cases to the justice department for prosecution. As of this summer, the state has issued 20 violation notices to 19 companies.


Durand couple loses court fight over tourist train

A western Wisconsin couple has lost a court battle as they tried to stop a tourist group from running railroad cars near their home.

Robert and Helen Kees of rural Durand filed suit in 2009 to prevent Xcel Energy from fixing a set of railroad tracks so the Chippewa Valley Motor Car Association can run annual trips with classic rail cars. The trips were halted by a restraining order after the suit was filed.

The tracks go along a 14-mile stretch from Durand southward to the Tiffany Wildlife Area.

A circuit judge and a state appeals court ruled against the Kees, saying they didn't legally didn't own the property in question. The State Supreme Court recently said it would not take the case, it sent it back to the appellate court.

Helen Kees told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram she'll appeal to a federal court if necessary. She said the couple has deeds proving they own the land where the tracks run, and she's against the tourist trips, saying, "I'm not willing to leave the next generation to a circus."

The car group says it will prevail, but it might have to wait to get the trains going. The group obtained a lease agreement 18 years ago to use the tracks. It says Xcel Energy plans to work with affected landowners on doing the necessary rail repairs.


State’s first snowmobile death of season reported

A snowmobiler killed on the Crawfish River in southern Wisconsin was identified Monday as Katie Braasch, 24, of Lake Mills.

The Department of Natural Resources confirmed that it was the season's first snowmobile death in Wisconsin.

Dodge County authorities said the mishap occurred late Sunday when Braasch's machine slid over open water and hit several trees near Columbus on the Crawfish River.

Five other snowmobilers were with her. A Sun Prairie man suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries after jumping from his machine just before it hit a group of trees. The other four riders did not crash and were not hurt.


Task force asks for ideas to keep rural schools open

Wisconsin's rural schools will take center stage at the State Capitol today.

A task force created by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos will hear ideas about ways to keep rural schools viable amid rising costs and declining enrollments.

State public school Superintendent Tony Evers will appear before the panel, along with Jerry Fiene of the Rural Schools Alliance and representatives of school administrators, a technology group and the state's largest teachers union.

Vos asked the panel to consider a variety of proposals. They include new partnerships among rural districts, the most efficient way to deal with drops in enrollments and strategies to stay viable financially in the long run.


63-year-old man shot, killed by police officer

A man shot and killed by a police officer in Green Bay has been identified as Darold VandenHeuvel, 63.

Police said he showed up at his estranged wife's apartment complex early Monday, even though a judge ordered him to stay away from her. The woman called 9-1-1, and two officers responded.

Officials said they found VandenHeuvel carrying a handgun, and one of the officers shot and killed the man. Police have not said whether VandenHeuvel pointed his weapon at the officers or fired any shots.

The shooter's name was not immediately released. He's a 4 1/2 year veteran of the Green Bay police force, and he's been put on administrative leave for now.

Police say they'll submit their findings to Brown County prosecutors. An autopsy for VandenHeuvel is planned for today.


Removal of Indian protest camp postponed

The Iron County Board has again delayed the removal of a tribal mining protest camp from county forest land.

The matter was taken off the agenda for tonight's County Board meeting in Hurley. Clerk Mike Saari said the county's insurance company wanted up to 30 days to review the issue before the board does anything.

The camp has had up to 30 wigwams with members opposed to the proposed Gogebic Taconite iron ore mine nearby. In July, the board's Forestry Committee recommended civil and criminal charges against members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian tribe for keeping their camp on county forest land longer than their permit called for.

At the time, supervisors decided to negotiate with the tribe. Last week, the forestry panel called for an eviction of the site.

The tribe's Paul DeMain said the camp is doing valuable research, and Lac Courte Oreilles members are exercising their centuries-old treaty rights to hunt and gather food on off-reservation lands.

Saari said the proposed eviction could come up in January.

--Natalie Jablonski, WXPR, Rhinelander


Wisconsin man arrested in multi-million-dollar fraud ring

A Racine County man is among six people accused of running a multi-million dollar securities fraud ring in Las Vegas and Zurich, Switzerland.

Federal prosecutors said James Warras of Waterford was arrested Friday in Wisconsin. That was the same day Joseph Micelli and Antony Brandel pleaded not guilty to 24 charges in federal court in Las Vegas. Those counts include conspiracy, wire fraud and securities fraud.

Three other suspects are still being sought. They are Sean Finn of Whitefish, Mont., and Martin Schlaepfer and Hans-Jurg Lips, both of Zurich.

The six allegedly used Switzerland's Malom Group and the Nevada firm of My Consultants to defraud investors of millions of dollars over the past four years.


Knife-wielding man killed by police

A man killed by a Neillsville police officer last Friday has been identified as Ricky Taylor, 23.

Officer Aaron Bembnister responded to a domestic disturbance at a home in Neillsville early last Friday morning. Officials said Taylor was carrying a knife when the officer confronted him. Taylor was shot after he approached the officer and ignored numerous requests to drop the knife.

Taylor died later at a Marshfield hospital.

Bembnister, 24, is on administrative leave while the incident remains under investigation by the state Department of Justice and Clark County sheriff's deputies.


Wisconsinites rank 8th in percentage of residents who volunteer

Wisconsinites are more generous than most in donating their time to improve their communities.

New rankings released yesterday show that Wisconsin had the nation's eighth-highest percentage of residents who volunteered for something last year. The Corporation for National and Community Service said an estimated 36% of Badger State adults were volunteers -- higher than the national norm of 25%.

The group said Wisconsin volunteers served for an estimated 165 million hours in 2012.

Corporation CEO Wendy Spencer said Wisconsinites should be proud of what she called their "strong leadership in volunteering." She said volunteers enrich their communities, connect with their neighbors and use their talents for the common good.

Nationally, about 64.5 million American adults volunteered for almost eight billion hours. If you were to buy those services, it would have cost around $175 billion.


Possible deal reached for woman accused of attempting to kill kids

A tentative plea deal has been reached for a north-central Wisconsin woman accused of trying to kill four of her six kids so they wouldn't feel the pain of her impending divorce.

Attorneys on both sides told a Taylor County judge yesterday they reached an agreement on a possible conviction for Heidi Mann, 37, of Rib Lake. Details were not released. A plea and sentencing hearing will be scheduled.

Back in July, Mann claimed she was insane when she allegedly tried to kill her four youngest kids, ages 3, 5, 8 and 11. Prosecutors said Mann tried to asphyxiate the youngsters by placing them in an SUV for two hours in a closed garage with its engine running. All four children survived.

The incident happened in March, but sheriff’s investigators said they were not made aware of it until June.

--Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau


New charter school bill introduced

Wisconsin's charter schools would become independent and non-unionized under a new bill introduced by six Assembly Republicans.

The measure would create an authorization panel to approve charter schools statewide which would be run separately from local school boards.

Charter schools specialize in various subject areas and employment fields. Most of the 200-plus charters are now run by public school districts.

The GOP bill would eliminate the charter designation from those schools, although they could still operate as magnet schools. Charter school students could live anywhere in the state, instead of their home districts as required now. And private charter operators could open new locations if their schools demonstrate high performance.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Luther Olsen of Ripon says the bill includes everything he'd like to see, but he's not sure if there are enough votes to pass it in the current session.

GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said charter school reform is one of his main priorities, but he wants to approve something the Senate would pass.

Public school unions are blasting the measure, saying it would dismantle the successful charters that have been formed, and the traditional schools would lose state funds as students leave.

Some independent charters are currently allowed, but only in the Milwaukee region. Sponsors of the new bill are Republicans Joel Kleefisch, Dale Kooyenga, Don Pridemore, Rob Hutton, Joe Sanfelippo and Joan Ballweg.


Million dollar bond set in alleged ‘execution’ killing

A $1 million bond was set yesterday for a Neenah man accused of killing another man at a nightclub in downtown Appleton.

Chong Lee, 28, appeared in Outagamie County Circuit Court on charges of first-degree intentional homicide and illegal gun possession as a convicted felon.

Prosecutors said Lee walked into the Luna Lounge earlier this month, shot and killed Joshua Richards, 25, of Green Bay, then left the bar a few seconds later. An autopsy showed that Richards was shot in the head.

Lee reportedly told friends he shot Richards at point-blank range, then went to a second Appleton nightclub and disposed of the gun.

One prosecutor called the shooting an "execution" and said a high bond was needed because Lee was connected with a street gang. Lee's criminal history was also mentioned. Over the past decade, he's been convicted of sexual assault and a pair of burglaries.


60 safe after plane plows into snow in Madison

About 60 passengers escaped injury Monday when an incoming plane slid off a taxiway and into the snow at Madison's airport.

Kim Jones of the Dane County Regional Airport said Delta Flight 385 from Minneapolis had just landed around 4 p.m. and was taxiing when it left its paved runway.

Passengers were removed from the Boeing 737-800 aircraft and taken to the terminal. The airport was closed for about an hour so a second runway could be cleared.