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2005 in Review: Part 1

| December 27, 2005 11:00 PM

EDITOR's NOTE: The following is a rundown of the top stories that appeared in The Western News during 2005. It is the first of two parts.

Jan. 5

The number of building permits issued in Libby was expected to increase for 2004. According to city building inspector John Norberg, 32 permits were issued in 2003 and by the end of 2004 that number was expected to increase by 10 or 12.

Jan. 7

Marine Cpl. Raleigh Smith, 21, was buried with military honors at Milnor Lake Cemetery on Jan. 4. He was killed on Dec. 23, 2004, while fighting in Fallujah, Iraq.

Jan. 12

An application for the Montanore silver and copper mine near Libby were submitted to the U.S. Forest Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on Jan. 4. Spokane-based Mines Management Inc. is seeking to re-permit and develop the project formerly permitted by Noranda Minerals of Canada.

Jan. 14

The Environmental Protection Agency's Libby cleanup project met its 2004 goal of 170 properties cleaned of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, according to project manager Jim Christiansen. A similar number of homes is targeted for cleanup in 2005.

Jan. 19

The Center for Asbestos Related Disease has entered into a lease-purchase agreement on a building along East Third Street near St. John's Lutheran Hospital. The CARD is scheduled to move from the old Prompt Care building to the new site, currently occupied by Dr. Terry Patrick's eye clinic, around the beginning of April.

Jan. 21

Libby Middle School students raised $1,140 for south Asian tsunami victims, more than doubling their goal of $500. Several students spent last week taking wagons around to classrooms every morning to collect spare change for donations.

Jan. 26

A proposed permanent grandstand facility at J. Neils Memorial County Park will likely be built with only a partial roof due to rising steel costs and higher than expected bids. County officials discussed several options to bring the project into line with available funding and settled on a plan that calls for only 354 of the grandstand's 973 seats to be covered.

Jan. 28

The question of selling the old high school building at the corner of Mineral Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard will be put to the voters of the Libby School District on May 3, the school board has decided. The vote on whether or not to authorize the sale of the building will be on the regular school election ballot along with candidates for two three-year positions on the school board.

Feb. 2

The Owens & Hurst Lumber Co. mill in Eureka will be shutting down permanently this spring. The mill's 90 employees were notified of the impending closure during a meeting last Wednesday afternoon.

Feb. 4

The Lincoln County Commissioners are the latest to sign on to a plan to create a countywide tourism coalition being organized by the Kootenai River Development Council. Other organizations and businesses that have joined the coalition include the Igniters Car Club, the Caboose Motel, the Heritage Museum, the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce, Koocanusa Resort and Marina, the Healthy Communities Initiative, St. John's Lutheran Hospital, the Kootenai Heritage Council and the Lincoln County Port Authority.

Feb. 9

A federal grand jury in Missoula has indicted W.R. Grace along with seven current and former company officials for knowingly concealing information about adverse health effects of the asbestos mining operation Grace ran in Libby for 27 years. Among those charged is former mine manager Alan Stringer of Libby.

Feb. 11

Plans to expand and remodel Lincoln County's jail are being scrapped following a failed attempt to significantly cut costs while keeping the scope of the project relatively intact. Bids came in last June at nearly double the estimated $600,000, and a review with a subsequently appointed construction manager indicated that the project was still going to be prohibitively expensive despite cost-cutting efforts.

Feb. 16

Effects of two strains of influenza and a third bug that have hit Libby-area residents hard might be tapering off soon. An emergency room doctor at St. John's Lutheran Hospital said the first week of February brought lots of children ages 5 to 10 to the hospital for treatment, but last week the trend shifted to their parents and seniors, which typically means the worst of the flu season has almost run its course.

Feb. 18

Dozens of Libby and Troy residents met with Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Tuesday to seek fast-track permitting of the proposed Montanore Mine. They gave Schweitzer a resolution from the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners calling on the state to speed the process because of "the compelling need for new industry and jobs" in Lincoln County and statewide.

Feb. 23

Marine Cpl. Raleigh Smith of Troy, killed in Iraq in December, has been honored posthumously with the Bronze Medal for Valor. According to the commendation, Smith and other Marines were searching for enemy weapons and ammunition caches when gunfire broke out and "He steadfastly engaged multiple targets as they emerged from closets all around the room," allowing the remainder of his team to escape.

Feb. 25

Libby residents' relatively low electricity rates could zoom upward under President Bush's proposed budget for 2006. The president wants Bonneville Power Administration to begin selling power at market prices instead of cost-based rates, but Montana's congressional delegation is opposed to the idea.

March 2

During a meeting in Libby, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus reiterated his commitment to victims of asbestos-related disease, to continued EPA cleanup and to economic development in the area. He also expressed support for a Libby-based research center in collaboration with the University of Montana.

March 4

Ninety seconds of finished material of a documentary called "A Breath of Life," being produced by nine students in Libby's Central School, has been put together. The project is intended to show how teenagers growing up here, and learning about asbestos contamination, see the community changing for the better as it gets cleaned up.

March 9

Libby residents poured out of shops and homes Friday to welcome a dozen National Guard soldiers returning from Iraq. The soldiers had been away from Lincoln County for 15 months, including a year in Iraq.

March 11

Future Libby City Council meetings will open with a prayer, the council has decided. The council approved a proposal from the Libby Ministerial Association to start each meeting with a plea for divine guidance.

March 16

Thousands of Libby-area residents could be eligible for restitution if the federal government wins its criminal case against W.R. Grace, according to a representative of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Missoula. One of the government's requests if it wins in court will be for restitution for victims, with the amount depending in part on the number of people who sign up as victims and on the details of their impact statements.

March 18

A $17,437 award from Friends of the NRA to the Libby Rod and Gun Club will be used to build an archery practice range and a trap house with automatic trap machine at the public rifle range near Libby Airport. It provides final funding for the projects that have a total cost of $31,500.

March 23

A proposal to expand the Cabinet View fire service area to include all of the roughly 200 residences within five miles of the fire hall along Luscher Drive is moving forward following a public hearing. The Lincoln County Commissioners plan to act on the proposal on March 23, starting a 60-day public comment period during which residents of the area to be annexed into the district can register their objections.

March 25

The Libby School Board decided during a special meeting to follow district superintendent Kirby Maki's recommendation against seeking a levy for the 2005-2006 academic year. Maki said the district will be able to balance its budget and fill 10 teaching vacancies created by retirements without the extra revenue.

March 30

A proposed 192-acre residential development near Upper Thompson Lake sailed through a public hearing last week with little objection to the project. The main concern expressed by citizens was whether public access to Rainbow Lake would continue.

April 1

A Mines Management Inc. executive spent Tuesday morning meeting with local civic leaders discussing effects — good and bad — the company's proposed opening of the Montanore Mine would have on the area. The information the company gets for a socioeconomic study it is conducting will be used to write its hard rock impact plan, a document needed to acquire permits for the project.

April 6

A Missoula judge has blocked development of Rock Creek copper and silver mine under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area because of negative impacts to grizzly bears and bull trout. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy's ruling overturns previous approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

April 8

Officials of the company that hopes to develop Montanore Mine south of Libby believe they can avoid the pitfalls that derailed, at least temporarily, a similar project on the other side of the Cabinet Mountains. Eric Klepfer of Mines Management Inc. acknowledged that grizzly bears are a potential stumbling block but said company representatives are willing to mitigate any potential effects that would threaten grizzlies.

April 13

Dozens of people attended a presentation at Libby City Hall unveiling a proposed remodel of Mineral Avenue with rows of trees, benches, bike racks, attractive lighting fixtures, planters and ornamental bronze medallions. The plan was developed by consultants hired by Libby Revitalization Inc.

April 15

Advocates of preserving the old Libby High School rather than demolishing the building are gearing up a "sell our school" campaign heading toward next month's advisory vote. The group Friends of Historic Libby High School has printed pamphlets urging the school board to authorize sale of the building.

April 20

Morrison Elementary School in Troy will be switching next fall from heating oil to cleaner burning, less expensive wood pellets through a federally sponsored project. The conversion is anticipated to save more than $750,000 over the next 30 years.

April 22

If voters reject a May 3 ballot measure authorizing Libby School Board members to sell the old Libby High School, the building most likely will be demolished. Superintendent Kirby Maki said the school district does not have enough money to renovate the structure.

April 27

A provision providing criteria specific to Libby asbestos exposure has been dropped from the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005 but is expected to be added this week. The provision was added to the draft bill two weeks ago by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus but was missing from the version introduced by Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

April 29

The Libby City Council tabled a resolution setting investment fees for new water and sewer hookups based on concerns that a clause in the underlying ordinance would result in existing utility customers being charged as well.The council had previously passed the ordinance giving the city the authority to set fees for new hookups with the intent of providing a means to offset the cost of expanding the water and sewer systems when their capacity is reached.

May 4

The Senate Judiciary Committee failed to complete discussion Thursday on the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2005 but is expected to resume discussion May 12 after the Senate returns from its May recess. According to senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns, the bill still does not include adequate provisions for Libby victims.

May 6

Voters overwhelming supported selling Libby's old high school in Tuesday's election, with 636 voters marking their ballot in favor of the proposition and 262 people voted against. Also in the election, incumbent school board members Teri Kelly and Kate Huntsberger held off a challenge from Duaine Schultz to retain their seats on the board.

May 11

An army of volunteers attacked the previously uninspired Flower Creek streamside near Rosauers on Saturday and began turning it into a native plant showcase. Libby Revitalization Inc. is sponsoring the project.

May 13

The Lincoln County Commissioners are moving ahead with plans to remodel and upgrade the county's dispatch center after scrapping plans to renovate the adjoining jail due to higher than expected bids. The commissioners approved the expenditure of up to $85,000 for the dispatch project.

May 18

Analysis of bark samples from trees near the former W.R. Grace vermiculite mine has revealed measurable levels of asbestos. The University of Montana study is intended to answer questions about potential risks associated with logging in contaminated areas.

May 20

The Troy School Board tabled a proposal to establish a softball program after hearing concerns that student numbers might not be enough to

support three spring sports for girls. The board agreed to postpone a decision until more information could be gathered, including cost estimates.

May 25

A committee studying the sale of the old Libby High School has begun brainstorming covenants that could be placed on the property, including one to retain the public parking lot. Parking - or the possible loss of it next to the Memorial Center - occupied much of Monday's meeting between three school district trustees looking into details of a sale.

May 27

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) agreed last week to additional protections for Libby residents in asbestos reform legislation being considered by his panel. The provision takes Libby residents one step closer to getting compensation from exposure to asbestos fibers that contaminated the vermiculite mined and milled here for more than 60 years.

June 1

Efforts to find the body of a 20-year-old man missing in the Kootenai River since May 25 continued this week, aided by 17 California fire and rescue workers volunteering their time to help the victim's family. Sean Branch, who recently moved to Libby, disappeared in the swift-flowing river below Kootenai Falls after jumping in near the swinging bridge.

June 3

The Lincoln County Commissioners have agreed to take out newspaper ads explaining the county's decay ordinance but balked at a proposal from Libby Revitalization Inc. to send out letters on the issue to all area residents. The tone of the letter drafted by LRI implied that everyone was a potential violator of the ordinance, and sending it out might do more harm than good, said Commissioner Rita Windom.

June 8

Northwest Montana log haulers for Plum Creek went on strike Monday morning in a protest of inadequate wages that the timber giant pays for log hauling. In a prepared statement for the media, log haulers said the company continually displayed indifference to the "financial plight of log haulers."

June 10

Troy Mayor John Brown has announced plans to resign next month, five months before his term was to end. "I want to go over to the coast and let the wind catch my sails," Brown said. "I don't want to be tied so tightly to Troy."

June 15

Eligible low-income households in the Libby area are being encouraged to participate in a wood stove changeout campaign scheduled to kick off with a fair at the Memorial Center on Saturday, June 18. The program is aimed at helping the Libby area meet recently tightened federal air quality standards by replacing old, dirty-burning stoves with cleaner burning new stoves that are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

June 17

A Wisconsin man has been hired by the EPA to be a full-time project manager in Libby. Mike Cirian of Wisconsin will be moving his family to Libby under a five-year contract.

June 22

The body of a 20-year-old man missing since jumping into the Kootenai River near Kootenai Falls on May 25 was found last week in the river at Bonners Ferry. According to information released by the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, Sean Branch's body was found by an Idaho Department of Fish and Game employee on Thursday morning.

June 24

A committee charged with reviewing salaries for Lincoln County's elected officials has approved a 2.7-percent cost of living allowance along with a 1-percent longevity increase for the 2005-2006 fiscal year. The committee includes the three county commissioners, the treasurer, the clerk and recorder, the sheriff and the county attorney along with two citizen representatives.

June 29

President Bush's nominee for the position of EPA's chief of enforcement is partner in a law firm defending W.R. Grace in criminal charges stemming from its former Libby vermiculite mining operations. Granta Nakayama, a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, has been nominated to head the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, according to a news story published Saturday in the Baltimore Sun.