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Abuse, misuse of opioids kills 300-plus annually; bear rescue caught on video; 12 more Wisconsin stories

Close to 300 people die each year in Wisconsin by abusing prescription pain-killers which have a synthetic form of opium.

State figures obtained by Gannett Wisconsin Media show that 297- to 329 people each year have died from opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin from 2006 through 2012. All but six counties have recorded such deaths.

The highest death rates per capita include counties of all sizes -- larger places like Milwaukee and Kenosha, and smaller counties like Adams and Langlade.

The drugs contain the core ingredient in heroin, and that's why they're considered stepping-stones to heroin abuse.

Victims include teens looking to get high, but they also include older pain sufferers who become addicted to their medications.

Dorothy Chaney of the Wisconsin Community Health Alliance tells Gannett that most households have prescription narcotics at some point and that's where the addictions often begin.

The State Crime Lab has seen its opioid cases rise from 170 in 2004, to 640 last year.

Judge to hear Senator Johnson's health-care lawsuit

GREEN BAY -- A federal judge in Green Bay was to hear arguments Monday morning in a lawsuit from U.S. Senator Ron Johnson on Obama-care benefits for his colleagues and staffers.

The Wisconsin Republican alleges the administration overstepped its authority by granting federal tax subsidies for congressional personnel to use the Obama-care purchasing exchanges regardless of their incomes.

Johnson filed the lawsuit in January, saying the subsidies amount to special treatment that's not afforded to other Americans.

Federal Judge William Griesbach is presiding over Monday's hearing, in which the government will seek a motion to drop the lawsuit while claiming that Johnson had no legal right to file it.

Johnson insists he has legal standing to sue, because he's being harmed by having to take part in program he believes is illegal. The government disagrees, calling the subsidies a fringe benefit that Johnson and his staff do not have to accept.

The health reform law required lawmakers to use the exchanges, so they could know what their constituents were going through.

Dominion speeds up decommissioning of old nuke plant

KEWAUNEE -- Owners of the former Kewaunee Nuclear Power Plant are speeding up a transfer of used fuel, to address concerns from local residents.

Dominion Resources shut down the plant in the spring of last year. Under its latest plan, the spent fuel rods would be moved from a large storage pool in the reactor to two dozen concrete casks which stand 18 feet tall. The move is set to be completed by the end of 2016.

The firm hired an Atlanta company to build the casks and fill them. Kewaunee has said it would take the full 60 years allowed by federal law to decommission the plant.

Officials in the nearby town of Carlton are worried that it would hurt efforts to bring in new jobs.

Dominion spokesman Mark Kanz told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the fuel-rod transfer is the only activity being moved up -- but it could set the stage for an earlier decommission down the road.

The Kewaunee reactor operated for 39 years until the utilities which bought the plant's electricity found cheaper alternatives with plants that burn natural gas.

Nuclear plants are retaining their spent fuel because the federal government has not found finalized a national plan to store them.

Wisconsin reactors have an estimated 1,430 tons of spent fuel. That's about 2 percent of the U.S. total.

Traffic deaths on decline again

MADISON -- For the second year in a row, Wisconsin could see a major decline in the number of motorists killed in traffic accidents.

Two-hundred-15 people were killed in road crashes during the first six months of 2014. That's 11 fewer than the previous year. Wisconsin is on pace for almost 100 fewer deaths for this year -- but Wisconsin Department of Transportation safety analyst Donald Lyden says traffic deaths normally increase in June, July, and August because folks drive faster.

Authorities said 527 people died in Wisconsin highway mishaps in 2013, down considerably from the 601 deaths the previous year. Both years had a late start to summer-like weather, keeping more people off the roads and contributing to the drop in traffic deaths.

Mass transit advocates have also pointed to surveys showing traffic declines in the state's largest metros. The DOT credits things it controls -- like improved highways, safety campaigns, and a renewed focus for citing drunk drivers and speeders.

Last week, the DOT reported the second-safest June for traffic deaths since the mid-1940's.

North central Wisconsin experiences severe weather Sunday evening

A wave of thunderstorms dumped quarter-sized hail for up to 10 minutes near Boulder Junction in Vilas County. Lac du Flambeau received 1.75 inches of rain in less than an hour and Rhinelander received nearly as much rain. Trees were downed at Pine Lake in Oneida County and parts of Lincoln and Langlade counties also had hail.

Up to 15,000 electric customers lost power at the peak of the storms. As of 6 a.m., Monday, the Wisconsin Public Service utility said almost 360 customers were still in the dark, about two-thirds of them in the Boulder Junction area.

More thunderstorms were forecast for most of Wisconsin late Monday and Monday evevning. Some could be severe in the western half of the state. The National Weather Service in the La Crosse region also said an isolated tornado was possible Monday evening.

-- Zach Hagenbucher, WSAU, Wausau

State leads region in business survivability but lags in new starts

Wisconsin leads the Midwest in the percentage of new businesses that survive for at least 10 years.

The U.S. Small Business Administration said 41 percent of companies which opened in 2002 in the Badger State were still around a decade later. That's 6.5 percent more than the national average and it's at least 10 percent higher than larger states like New Jersey and Florida.

However, Wisconsin falls short in its actual numbers of business start-ups. As a percentage of population, the Badger State has ranked near the bottom in new start-ups in 2002, 2007, and 2010.

Wisconsin was last in 2002, with 157 new firms opening for every 100,000 state residents. Washington D.C. had the most that year with 410.

Teen drowned in campground pond

PORTAGE -- A missing teenager from a campground near Portage was found dead Sunday.

Rescue divers found Thomas Biggs, 17, of Beloit around 2 p.m. in a pond close to a trailer where his family was celebrating the July Fourth weekend.

He was last seen late Friday afternoon near the trailer at Blackhawk Park near Portage.

Columbia County officials said Biggs apparently drowned, although his family said he could swim. An autopsy was planned Monday or Tuesday, which could provide more answers.

Searching continues at Dunn's Tainter Lake

MENOMONIE -- A search for a missing boater entered its fifth day on Monday, north of Menomonie.

Rescuers in Dunn County have been searching since Thursday night on Tainter Lake. According to the sheriff's department, a witness reported seeing a man fishing on the lake and an overturned boat a little while later.

The man was said to be around 30 years old. Officials said the boater might live close to Tainter Lake, but there have been no reports of missing persons.

The boat reportedly did not have a state registration or hull number.

June was wet but no record-breaker

Last month was one of the soggiest on record in Wisconsin. The National Weather Service said Madison had about 9.5 inches of rain in June, the fifth-highest on record. Also, there was at least a trace of rain during 20 of the 30 days of June in Madison, the second-highest in Weather Service annals. Western Wisconsin was among the wettest region with River Falls recording 11.16 inches, Baldwin 12.1 inches, and Durand, nearly 9 inches.

Milwaukee had its 14th-wettest June, with just over 6 inches of rain. That city also had 20 rainy days last month, tied with 1969.

The faucet was turned off at least long enough for most Wisconsinites to enjoy the extended July Fourth weekend.

Police kill Racine man following threat

RACINE -- Police officers shot and killed a man in Racine yesterday. Police were called to an apartment building around 12:15 p.m. Sunday and were told that a man there was suicidal.

Officials said police shot the man after he threatened the officers, and refused to drop a weapon, the type of which was not disclosed. The man later died at a Racine hospital. No names were immediately released. The Racine County Sheriff's Department was called in to investigate the shooting.

The Racine Journal-Times reported the man was described by fellow residents of a south-side apartment complex as quiet and gentle, but someone who continually battled mental health problems.

As police finished processing the scene for evidence early Sunday evening, a distraught neighbor sat outside the building where both she and the shooting victim lived.

“He never did anything to anybody,” she said. “... He was a gentle giant." She said the man had just returned from his latest stay at a mental health unit several days earlier.

Overheard chat prompts cafe attack

MADISON -- A 44-year-old man is under arrest for attacking a fellow diner at a Madison restaurant with a glass drinking boot. It happened early yesterday morning. Police said the victim was talking with friends when the suspect came up to their table and starting harrassing them.

Officers said the attacker was upset about something that came up in the discussion and he grabbed the glass boot and struck the 28-year-old victim.

The man was taken to a hospital to treat a wound that needed several stitches.

The suspect was booked on a possible charge of substantial battery.

Bear rescue captured on video

RICE LAKE -- A black bear was rescued by a lumberjack who saw the animal's head stuck in a milk can. It happened a few weeks ago near Rice Lake in northwest Wisconsin, and the rescue was captured on You-Tube. Both TV stations in Eau Claire showed the video during the weekend.

Garrett Smith said he was working in a wooded area when he saw the troubled bear next to a cornfield. He said the landowner gave him permission to drive across the field, and use the hydraulic claw on a timber forwarder to try and remove the milk can from the bear's head. After a couple tries, Smith was able to grab the can and give it a tug, popping it off the bear's head. The bruin quickly ran off.

View the video here: