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GB bay has growing 'dead zone' where nothing lives; deadly bat disease creeping closer; 8 more state stories

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GREEN BAY -- The Bay of Green Bay has a growing “dead zone” where virtually all fish, worms, and insects cannot survive because there’s not enough oxygen in the water.

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In a public Web seminar Thursday, Tracy Valenta of the Green Bay Metro Sewerage District said the dead zone starts about eight miles northeast of the city – and it can go for up to 30 miles from there.

Wave and weather patterns are blamed, along with phosphorus runoff from the Fox River which feeds into the bay. The dead zone is similar to others found in Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.

Valenta said the Green Bay dead zone could cover as much as 40 percent of that waterway. The lack of oxygen has been a concern for many years, but Valenta says it appears to be getting worse.

Back in 1990, there were only four summer days when the bay’s oxygen was measured at below life-sustaining levels. In 2011, there were 43 such days. It’s not clear how many fish have been affected.

Officials said thousands of round gobies floated ashore in 2005 and 2011 as they desperately searched for air.

Lyman Welch of the Alliance for the Great Lakes says the Green Bay dead zone shows a need to limit phosphorus runoff from farms and other sources. He says agriculture is a bigger contributor to the problem, but all sectors work together to get it solved.

Deadly bat disease creeping closer to Wisconsin

There’s new evidence that a deadly bat disease is getting closer to Wisconsin.

Officials in neighboring Minnesota say they’ve found the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome at two places in the Gopher State. One is at Forestville-Mystery Cave, about 50 miles west of the Wisconsin border at Vernon County. The other spot is in northeast Minnesota at the Soudan Underground Mine.

Paul White of the Wisconsin DNR calls the new discoveries a “major disappointment.” An outbreak could be a big problem for Wisconsin farmers, who rely on the bats to help kill insects and prevent crop loss.

White says it’s inevitable that the Badger State will be hit with the fungal disease, which has killed almost 6 million bats in the eastern U.S. and Canada.

Last year, white-nose was confirmed at an Iowa cave about 30 miles from the Wisconsin border. It’s also been spotted to the south in Illinois. The disease causes bats to wake up during their hibernation. It rapidly depletes their energy supplies. In May, the DNR said it found no evidence of white-nose syndrome in 73 popular hibernating spots in Wisconsin. An estimated 300,000 bats hibernate in the Upper Midwest in the wintertime. In 2011, Wisconsin added four types of bats to its threatened species’ list.

Visitors to caves are often asked to wipe off their shoes before entering and leaving, to keep the disease from spreading.

Mining opponents appear in force at a DNR hearing

HURLEY -- Mining opponents showed up in force Thursday at a DNR hearing in Hurley on the second phase of testing for Gogebic Taconite’s proposed iron ore mine.

By 4 p.m., 76 people had spoken and only a half-dozen were in favor of the planned excavation of four-thousand tons of rock.

It’s part of the G-TAC’s feasibility studies for a 4.5 mile-long mine in the Penokee Hills of Iron and Ashland counties.

Over 100 people ended up speaking by the time the 10-hour hearing ended last night. Most testified about possible pollution to the Lake Superior and Bad River watersheds, and possible asbestos-type fibers in the rock to be extracted.

Several residents supported the project, saying the mine would bring badly-needed jobs. Local business groups have pleaded for the new mine in the past, but they were a no-show Thursday itself, and it’s really for others to discuss.

The DNR is taking written comments on the rock excavation through Sept. 3rd. If approved, the bulk sampling could begin in October.

D-N-R officials said at the hearing that an actual permit for the new mine could be two to three years away.

Former voucher school operator who owes money has gone missing

MILWAUKEE -- A Milwaukee judge has ordered the head of a private school to pay back $300.000 tax dollars he received to teach low-income kids under the state’s voucher program.

The only problem is that no one seems to know where to findf Corey Daniels, age 41.

Process servers have tried for months to find Daniels, and give him a summons outlining the state’s complaint against him.

He ran the Milwaukee Institute of Academic Achievement in the 2011-and-’12 school year when reports surfaced about students being in danger. The state Department of Public Instruction later terminated the institute’s participation in the choice program. The D-P-I said the school submitted false documents to the state, was never eligible to get the tax money it received.

Also, the DPI has barred Daniels from operating another voucher school. When the choice program was expanded this year, the law only allowed previously-existing private schools to participate. The change was meant to discourage people from quickly putting together a private school in order to accept the public voucher money.

Town clerk-treasurer facing felony charges for alleged embezzlement

A town clerk-treasurer in northeast Wisconsin is facing 43 felony charges in a theft-and-forgery case.

Melissa Bloechl, age 43, of the town of Elcho is free on a signature bond, and the status of her case will be reviewed on Sept. 11th in Langlade County Circuit Court.

According to reports, another town officer notified sheriff’s deputies – and a local financial institution raised questions after money was allegedly withdrawn from town accounts over several years. One check was said to be over $52,000, and another was around 40-thousand. Bloechl is charged with one count of theft, two counts of forgery, and 40 counts of misconduct in office.

Meanwhile, a former village clerk-treasurer in Sheboygan County was sentenced to three years in prison Thursday – but he’ll stay free-on-bond until an appeal is completed.

Former Oostburg official Kim Simmelink was convicted of stealing over $341,000 dollars in village funds.

His appeal will determine whether the statute of limitations expired on 26 embezzlement charges filed against the 56-year-old Simmelink. Besides the prison term, Circuit Judge Terence Bourke ordered seven years of extended supervision. He also told Simmelink to pay back the full $341,000 he stole from the village, plus an additional $34,000.

He was also convicted of embezzlement in 2009. The current charges were filed after an audit revealed that Simmelink stole a lot more money than was first thought. Simmelink apologized Thursday, and said he’s been changing to be a more positive presence in the Oostburg community.

-- Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

Republicans who want tougher OWI penalties challenged for evidence

MADISON -- Two Republicans who want tougher penalties on drunk drivers were challenged at a hearing Thursday.

Democrats on the Assembly Judiciary Committee told Mequon Representative Jim Ott and River Hills Senator Alberta Darling to come up with proof that their measures work in other states.

They said they want to make sure that locking up more offenders will actually deter drunk driving. Thursday's hearing was for three bills from Ott and Darling to make first-time OWI a criminal misdemeanor for blood alcohol levels of .15 or higher. Those with three- or more drunk driving convictions could get their vehicles seized and all OWI suspects would have to appear in court at least once.

Ott questioned whether lawmakers needed evidence to know that offenders who appear before a judge are less likely to re-offend than someone who just pays a fine by mail. Also, lawmakers heard more testimony from relatives of those killed by drunk drivers, demanding a crackdown. Similar testimony was given at another recent hearing on three other bills from Ott and Darling to make three-and-four-time O-W-I a felony, and create longer mandatory sentences for those who kill or injure motorists by driving drunk.

Wisconsin jobs grew at lower pace second quarter

The number of jobs created in Wisconsin grew at a slower pace in the first quarter of this year.

Figures released Thursday for a national quarterly jobs report show that the Badger State added 24,000 private sector jobs during the year ending in March, for an increase of 1.1 percent.

The same report issued three months earlier showed that Wisconsin added 32,000 private sector jobs for the year ending last December – with a more robust growth at the time of 1.4 percent.

The data is based on a survey of nearly all Wisconsin employers. That’s why it has a lag of several months. The monthly job reports only survey 3.5 percent of Wisconsin firms – and when big job losses are reported, the state is most vocal in criticizing the accuracy of the monthly data.

There have not been many complaints lately, though. The monthly report for July was issued Thursday, showing that 1,800 private sector jobs were added statewide during the month. The seasonally-adjusted jobless rate is at 6.8 percent, down from 7 in July.

Teens collared in failed robbery of 96-year-old grocer

MARSHFIELD -- Two teenaged boys are under arrest for the failed robbery of a 96-year-old woman and her neighborhood corner grocery store in Marshfield.

Police arrested a 17-year-old Arpin boy and a 13-year-old Marshfield boy on Wednesday for the attempted July 15th heist at Wolf’s Grocery.

Officials said the younger boy took out a pocket knife and demanded money from store owner Margie Wolf. She said the boy could have all the Tootsie Rolls he wanted, but no cash. That stance made the robbery attempt a national news story.

The 17-year-old faces a possible charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Police said the teen allegedly encouraged the 13-year-old to commit the robbery. The teen was referred to juvenile authorities.

Wolf told the Marshfield News-Herald newspaper that if the 13-year-old gets the right kind of help, he probably won’t commit such a crime again. She said she was not going to report the incident to police – but she did so after thinking that the younger boy might have tried to rob an elderly person’s home.

For decades, Wolf’s Grocery has been known for serving up pop and candy to youngsters at nearby Madison Elementary School.

Man who died during a police standoff likely shot himself

The Waushara County sheriff said a man who died during a police standoff most likely shot himself in a house where he was taking refuge. An autopsy had been scheduled yesterday for 33-year-old Timothy Pawlacyk of rural Red Granite, about 40 miles west of Oshkosh. He was found dead in the basement of a home whose residents were away on vacation.

Two deputies are on administrative leave, while an investigation continues.

Sheriff David Peterson said it all started Wednesday afternoon, when Pawlacyk robbed a Wautoma pharmacy at gunpoint, and got away with the prescription painkiller Oxycontin.

Officers later found the suspect’s vehicle. Peterson said it struck a squad car before an officer fired a shot to try and stop the suspect. That didn’t work. Pawlacyk later got stuck at a road construction site, where more gunshots were exchanged – and the suspect ran off to the nearby house where the standoff took place.

It ended when a SWAT team from Oshkosh entered the home late Wednesday night, and found Pawlacyk dead. Neighbors who were evacuated were allowed to return home early Thursday morning.

Milwaukee will host a major hunting show

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee will host a major hunting show next year. About 30,000 people are expected for the National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic, to be held Feb. 14-16 in downtown Milwaukee.

The event is a trade show for upland hunters, sport dog owners, and conservation specialists. It will include seminars on pheasant hunting, dog training, and conserving wildlife habitat. Tractors, guns, and art works will also be featured.

The show is organized by Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, a non-profit group from St. Paul that’s dedicated to preserving upland habitat. The last time the show was in Wisconsin was 2009, when Madison hosted it.

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Steve Dzubay
Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer since 1995. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.
(715) 426-1054
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