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Midwest School's air quality given all-clear by county health department

Midwest School’s air quality was given another all-clear Monday, 18 months after the building was evacuated and closed because of a gas leak and nearly three months after students returned.

The report, distributed by the Casper-Natrona County Health Department, found that the air quality was acceptable for all chemicals tested. After installing a vapor mitigation system, the district conducted tests inside and outside the school in May, June, July and October.

Samples were taken in the library, the pool, the preschool, the kitchen, and two classrooms. They were also taken outside at the swing set and the weather station.

Originally scheduled for Oct. 21, the most recent testing was moved up to Oct. 7 because of an unidentified smell in room 105 — which had not been one of the sample locations in previous tests — and because of fluctuations in carbon dioxide concentrations, according to the health department.

Students were moved out of room 105 on Sept. 20, according to the report. Dennis Bay, executive director of business services for the Natrona County School District, said there was a problem with the furnace in the room letting off a gas smell, but that it had been fixed and the room was again in use.

Testing showed the classroom did not contain a high concentration of the unsafe chemicals, and there will not be further sampling of the room, according to the health department report.

Carbon dioxide alarms have been installed and activated throughout the school. A review of the concentration of CO2 had been conducted weekly for five weeks, as part of a “separate task that arose since school resumed,” according to the report. Those reviews have stopped after the alarms were turned on.

Bay said the CO2 fluctuations were because students were again filling the school and breathing, exhaling carbon dioxide and causing an increase in the chemical’s concentration in the air.

“We figured out what was going on there,” he said. “Everything’s been cool ever since.”

Midwest School was evacuated and subsequently closed in May 2016, after an odor was discovered and testing revealed a gas leak coming from an uncapped well in the nearby Salt Creek oil field. There are 120 abandoned wells in the 640 acres surrounding Midwest, according to state records.

Many students reported having headaches and other symptoms around the time that the gas leak was discovered.

Despite initial hopes that Midwest could reopen by the midway point of the 2016-17 school year, the school remained closed until summer 2017. Students were bused to schools in Casper.

The district — with FDL Energy, which operates the Salt Creek field — installed a mitigation system designed to pump air out from beneath the building into the atmosphere above it.

A similar incident closed the school’s kitchens in November 2014. An odor was detected, and two kitchen workers became sick. Local, state and national health officials conducted what they said was an exhaustive investigation and found nothing conclusive.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Mike Yarger, a senior at Natrona County High School, waits for geese to walk closer to him while photographing the birds Tuesday afternoon at Patterson-Zonta Park in Casper. Yarger, who is taking his second year of photography at NCHS, enjoys photographing waterfowl most. "I just like being out in nature and seeing how the animals are," he said. 

Charitable giving
Wyoming ranked fourth-most charitable state in the nation

Despite being in the midst of a major economic downturn, Wyoming scored high marks for charitable giving and volunteering over the last year, according to a ranking by the finance website WalletHub released Tuesday. The Cowboy State was listed as the fourth most charitable state in the nation.

The rank places Wyoming behind Utah but ahead of all other neighboring states, the closest competitor being South Dakota, which was ranked eighth.

States were scored primarily on charitable donations and volunteering but the full methodology included 14 items, including the total share of income by state residents that is donated. While Wyoming ranked eighth in both donations and volunteering, it appears to have been boosted in the overall ranking by a first place finish in the percentage of donated income.

Wyoming consistently scores high in philanthropic rankings. A different list of charitable states, released in mid-November by the website SmartAsset placed Wyoming third overall.

“Wyoming residents are ... generous with their money, at least according to their tax returns,” SmartAsset expert Derek Miller wrote in the ranking. “The average Wyoming resident donates just under $1,000 per year to charity according to IRS data.”

Casper was named the “most giving” city in the nation last November by travel website Travelocity in a ranking that relied largely on social media postings. The moniker is now promoted on lamppost banners in the city’s downtown.

“We take a great deal of pride in our community and our way of life in Casper and in Wyoming,” Downtown Development Authority CEO Kevin Hawley said at the time.

Grantmaking in Wyoming has been on an upward trajectory in recent years, according to Philanthropy Northwest, an organization that supports major charitable giving across six western states. Grants rose 30 percent between 2012 and 2014 and totaled $57 million in 2016, the most recent year for which data was available.

Source: WalletHub

While Philanthropy Northwest focuses primarily on foundational giving as opposed to small, individual donations, its data shows that charitable giving in the state is largely concentrated in the Jackson area. It ranked the Community Foundation of Jackson as the largest grant maker, representing more than 80 percent of philanthropic grants in the state.

Representatives from the Community Foundation of Jackson were unavailable to comment Tuesday.

The other major foundations active in Wyoming included the McMurry Foundation, the LOR Foundation, the John P. Ellbogen Foundation, the Joe & Arlene Watt Foundation and the Robert S. & Grayce B. Kerr Foundation.

Most of these organizations are endowed by wealthy individuals and less susceptible to the whims of Wyoming’s boom-and-bust energy industry.

Philanthropy Northwest noted the Wyoming nonprofits that received the most grants last year were working on issues related to the environment (22 percent), education (21 percent) and health (12 percent).

GOP shoves tax overhaul ahead; shutdown still a threat

WASHINGTON — Republicans held together and shoved their signature tax overhaul a crucial step ahead Tuesday as wavering GOP senators showed a growing openness. But its fate remained uncertain, and a planned White House summit aimed at averting a government shutdown was derailed when President Donald Trump savaged top Democrats and declared on Twitter, “I don’t see a deal!”

“It’s time to stop tweeting and start leading,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer retorted after he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi rebuffed the budget meeting with Trump and top Republicans.

Trump lunched with GOP senators at the Capitol and declared it a “love fest,” as he had his previous closed-doors visit. But the day underscored the party’s yearlong problem of unifying behind key legislation — even a bill slashing corporate taxes and cutting personal taxes that’s a paramount party goal.

Tuesday’s developments also emphasized the leverage Democrats have as Congress faces a deadline a week from Friday for passing legislation to keep federal agencies open while leaders seek a longer-term budget deal. Republicans lack the votes to pass the short-term legislation without Democratic support.

In a party-line 12-11 vote, the Senate Budget Committee managed to advance the tax measure to the full Senate as a pair of wavering Republicans — Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Tennessee’s Bob Corker — fell into line, at least for the moment. In more good news for the GOP, moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said it was a “fair assumption” that she was likelier to support the bill after saying Trump agreed to make property taxes up to $10,000 deductible instead of eliminating that break entirely.

But the fate of the legislation remained uncertain as it headed toward debate by the full Senate, which Republicans control by a slender 52-48. GOP leaders can afford just two defectors, and a half dozen or more in their party have been uncommitted. They include some wanting bigger tax breaks for many businesses but others cringing over the $1.4 trillion — or more — that the measure is projected to add to budget deficits over the next decade.

“It’s a challenging exercise,” conceded Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He compared it to “sitting there with a Rubik’s Cube and trying to get to 50” votes, a tie that Vice President Mike Pence would break.

Corker, who’s all but broken with Trump over the president’s behavior in office, is among a handful of Republicans uneasy over the mountains of red ink the tax measure is expected to produce. He said he was encouraged by discussions with the White House and party leaders to include a mechanism — details still unknown — to automatically trigger tax increases if specified, annual economic growth targets aren’t met.

“I think we’re getting to a very good place on the deficit issue,” Corker said.

But other Republicans are wary of backing legislation that would hold the hammer of potential future tax increases over voters’ heads.

“I am not going to vote to automatically implement tax increases on the American people. If I do that, consider me drunk,” said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana.

Collins said she’d also won agreement that before completing the tax measure, Congress would approve legislation restoring federal payments to health insurers that Trump scuttled last month. That bill has had bipartisan support, but it’s unclear if Democrats would back it amid partisan battling over the tax bill.

McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., met with Trump at the White House despite the top Democrats’ no-shows. Trump highlighted their absence by appearing before reporters flanked by two empty chairs bearing Schumer’s and Pelosi’s names.

Trump said Democrats would be to blame for any shutdown, despite GOP domination of government.

“If it happens it’s going to be over illegals pouring into the country, crime pouring into the country, no border wall, which everyone wants,” he said. He also said North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile on Wednesday should prompt Democrats to renew negotiations over the spending legislation, which includes Pentagon funding.

“But probably they won’t because nothing to them is important other than raising taxes,” Trump said.

Trump repeated those claims Tuesday night on Twitter, writing that Democrats “can’t now threaten a shutdown to get their demands.”

Democrats noted that in May, Trump tweeted the country “needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” In a tweet of her own Tuesday, Pelosi said Trump’s “verbal abuse will no longer be tolerated,” adding in reference to the empty-chairs show, “Poor Ryan and McConnell relegated to props. Sad!”

A temporary spending bill expires Dec. 8 and another is needed to prevent a government shutdown. Hurricane aid to help Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is also expected to be included in that measure, as well as renewed financing for a children’s health program that serves more than 8 million low-income children.

Democrats are also pressing for legislative protections for immigrants known as “Dreamers.” Conservative Republicans object to including that issue in the crush of year-end business. But GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida joined Democrats in saying he won’t vote for the spending bill unless the immigrant issue is resolved.

Casper fire chief to retire month earlier than expected

Casper Fire Chief Kenneth King will retire a month earlier than expected, city manager Carter Napier said Tuesday.

King announced in October 2016 that he would retire on Jan. 2, 2018, but Napier said that date has been moved up to Dec. 1. Napier did not give a reason why King is retiring earlier than planned.

King announced his retirement last year hours after he apologized for an email asking a fire investigator to delete “bad parts” from video evidence of the Cole Creek Fire. He said that the email was a joke, but apologized for “insensitive words and lack of judgement.” King sent the email to fire inspector Devin Garvin on Oct. 14, 2015, as crews were still working to extinguish the Cole Creek Fire, which destroyed 14 homes and charred more than 10,000 acres.

King became fire chief in July 2013 and has worked in the department since 1980.

Napier said last week that 28 people had applied for the chief’s position and that there were some “good candidates.” He said the position would likely be filled on an interim capacity until a new chief is hired.

Former Casper police officer pleads guilty to child abuse; will likely serve probation

A former Casper police officer pleaded guilty to felony child abuse and misdemeanor child endangerment charges Tuesday afternoon stemming from allegations she mistreated her two adopted children.

If Natrona County District Court Judge Daniel Forgey accepts the terms of the plea deal at Laura Starnes-Wells’ sentencing, she will serve one to five years of supervised probation.

As a condition of the deal, Starnes-Wells’ plea to the felony charge will not become final until a later date. If she successfully completes her probation, the felony charge will be dropped and she will not be convicted on that count.

She will serve a term of probation for the misdemeanor charge to run at the same time as the felony probation.

In court Tuesday, Starnes-Wells admitted to inflicting mental injuries on one of her children by acting recklessly. She also admitted to negligently endangering the health of the other child.

Starnes-Wells was arrested and charged with felony child abuse in February. During previous hearings, investigators and prosecutors outlined instances of “extreme” punishment Starnes-Wells allegedly used to discipline the children. They also allege Starnes-Wells did not meet the mental health needs of the kids.

The case began in May 2016 when the officer’s adopted daughter told officials at her school that Starnes-Wells “had battered her,” court documents allege. Investigators wrote that the girl came to school with a partially bruised eye and swollen lip.

The girl told investigators with the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office that Starnes-Wells had slapped and punched her on multiple occasions, according to court documents.

Starnes-Wells was previously a school resource officer at Centennial Junior High.

Former Casper Police Chief Jim Wetzel said in February that Starnes-Wells was placed on administrative leave in November 2016 when the department became aware of the criminal investigation. He said at the time that she would remain on administrative leave throughout proceedings in the criminal cases, as is standard policy.

City Manager Carter Napier said earlier this month Starnes-Wells was back working for the department in an administrative capacity. Tracey Belser, support services director for the city’s human resources department, declined earlier this month to say why Starnes-Wells had returned to work for the department, citing privacy due to personnel matters.

Napier told a reporter Tuesday evening that Starnes-Wells had subsequently resigned from the department.

Prosecutors initially filed a misdemeanor child abuse charge against Starnes-Wells’s husband, Sgt. Todd Wells. That charge was later dropped. Wells is still working for the police department.