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Balak recognized for contributions to community

To say Sheri Balak loves her community is an understatement.

The Schuyler native has been heavily involved in the community, from Christ United Methodist Church to Habitat for Humanity and Schuyler Community Schools.

Balak said her desire to serve developed early.

“My parents and grandparents have instilled in me a responsibility and importance of serving,” she said. “My involvement with my church has put me in a position to see other people’s needs, and I feel that I have a great responsibility to relieve those needs.”

The former speech/language pathologist volunteers as much as she can, even before she retired.

Her list of services include the annual Coat Closet, Schuyler Community Garden, Schuyler Community Schools Foundation and work to develop more affordable housing in the community.

With the SCS Foundation, Balak helped establish distinguished alumni awards presented annually since 2012.

Her level of commitment was recognized last week when Balak received the Service to Mankind Award from the Schuyler Sertoma Club during an event at St. Augustine's Parish Hall.

“I am humbled and honored to be receiving this award today,” she said. “But there are many more who have received this in the past that are also great contributors to the community.”

Emcee Lance Johnson told the crowd about a current project Balak is involved with.

“Sheri has been instrumental in the building of new homes for Habitat for Humanity,” Johnson said. “While the building is still in the planning stages, without her foresight and commitment this home wouldn’t be happening. She is so involved with this town because she believes in it, and our community believes in her, as well.”

Balak said her goal with volunteering is simple.

“I want to encourage all people, young and old, to continue their efforts to make Schuyler a great place for all of our neighbors to grow,” she said. “We are all working together to come together.”

State approves Keystone XL route through Colfax County

LINCOLN — Nebraska regulators approved TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline, but not its "preferred" route through this state — raising questions about whether the company will continue to pursue the project.

Monday's split decision by the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which came on a 3-2 vote, adds another twist to a debate that has made headlines for nearly a decade.

The commission — instead of signing off on TransCanada's 275-mile preferred route, which was the main focus of a court-style hearing in August — opted for a second, slightly longer route known as the "mainline alternative."

That route cuts farther east, then runs parallel with the existing Keystone pipeline for about 95 miles, taking it through far northeast Platte County, Colfax County and Butler County.

It would impact about 40 new landowners, mostly in Madison County, who aren't along the preferred route and don't have the original Keystone pipeline cutting through their land already.

TransCanada didn't immediately say whether it will pursue Keystone XL construction along the alternate route. The decision was met with stunned silence on the part of opponents and apparent confusion by TransCanada representatives.

"As a result of today's decision, we will conduct a careful review of the Public Service Commission's ruling while assessing how the decision would impact the cost and schedule of the project," said Russ Girling, the company's president and CEO, in a statement.

Attorney Brian Jorde of Omaha, who represents landowners opposing the pipeline, compared the commission's move with a "choose your own adventure" book.

State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who backs the pipeline and helped outline the process followed by the Public Service Commission, tweeted that Monday's decision "creates unnecessary uncertainty, too bad."

In dismissing TransCanada's preferred route, the commission majority said that path "fails to take advantage of any opportunity to co-locate" with the existing pipeline, "and therefore we are unable to conclude that the Preferred Route is in the public interest."

However, the alternative route maximizes co-location with the original Keystone pipeline and is in the public interest, the commission wrote.

The approved route also includes less habitat for threatened and endangered species, has one fewer river crossing, traverses fewer areas of shallow groundwater, has fewer wells nearby, and crosses fewer state highways and natural gas facilities.

The mainline alternative route diverts from the preferred route in Antelope County, then cuts through Madison County on its way into Stanton County. From there, it runs parallel with the original Keystone pipeline on its way to a pumping station in Steele City, along the Kansas state line.

It wasn't immediately clear if TransCanada has made contact with the 40 landowners who might now have a pipeline developer interested in their land.

Mike Flood, former speaker of the Legislature and a TransCanada backer, lives in Madison County and said he hopes the pipeline still gets built, citing its potential to contribute property tax revenue to counties along the route.

"I support the pipeline," Flood said.

Attorneys for pipeline opponents cautiously celebrated the rejection of the preferred route, promising to continue their fight but not revealing plans for their next step should TransCanada still desire to build.

Ken Winston, attorney for the Sierra Club, said the commission's move "opens up a whole new bag of issues."

Commissioner Crystal Rhoades of Omaha, who voted against the pipeline, said approving the mainline alternative instead of merely weighing in on TransCanada's preferred route raises due process questions, because many landowners along the alternate route weren't included in the commission proceedings.

Neligh-area farmer Art Tanderup's land would be impacted by either route. He said the mainline alternative still crosses fragile soils and the Ogallala aquifer.

"What just happened is not protecting that resource," Tanderup told reporters after the decision.

Jane Kleeb, founder of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska and chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said the fight will go on: "We are resolute in stopping this pipeline."

Nebraska's approval was one of the final necessary steps before TransCanada could begin turning dirt on the 1,179-mile project, which would move Canadian oil sands from Hardisty, Alberta, to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The Keystone XL appeared dead after former President Barack Obama stopped it in 2015, but the project received a jump-start from President Donald Trump earlier this year.

Why did the commission approve the pipeline at all?

The commission majority summarized its reasons for approving the pipeline in its order:

"The Commission is very cognizant of the fact that opening a trench that entirely bisects the State of Nebraska from North to South to insert a 36-inch pipe will have impacts to the natural resources of the state, including soil, water, and wildlife," the majority wrote. "It is impossible to complete such a project without impacts.

"There is no utopian option where we reap the benefits of an infrastructure project without some effects. We are tasked with weighing those impacts against the potential benefits.

"We do not take lightly the concerns of the landowners, other Nebraskans, and our fellow Commissioners. We share many of the concerns expressed regarding the soils in Keya Paha, Holt, Boyd, and Antelope Counties.

"However, we also are very cognizant of the benefits to Nebraska, especially to the counties along the route. With economic concerns abounding, tax revenues from a project such as this can help ease burdened landowners, counties, school districts, and subdivisions by raising the potential of future property tax relief via expansion of the local tax base."

Commissioners also outlined why pipeline leaks — including last week's 210,000-gallon spill from a section of the original Keystone pipeline in South Dakota — could not be considered in their decision.

The Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act, adopted by the Nebraska Legislature in 2011, specifically prohibits the commission from considering pipeline safety, spills or leaks.

Why this route?

Opponents have argued that the Keystone XL should at least run adjacent to the original Keystone pipeline through Nebraska. That route cuts through Cedar, Wayne, Stanton, Platte, Colfax, Butler, Seward, Saline and Jefferson counties.

But TransCanada didn't include that option — also known as the "I-90" route — in its application. The company argues that Keya Paha County is the "fixed" entry point in northern Nebraska for the Keystone XL, because of a construction permit issued by South Dakota in 2010.

Commissioners dismissed the I-90 route for two reasons: deference to South Dakota's decision and because it wasn't part of TransCanada's application and therefore outside the commission's authority.

"While we understand that our primary focus is clearly the interests of Nebraska, we do not believe it to be in Nebraska's best interest to demand an approach that would result in direct conflict with our northern neighbor," the commission majority wrote.

Further, "The idea of the I-90 Route may sound good in theory, but we do not have the authority to approve it."

The mainline alternative route was included in TransCanada's application. And Meera Kothari, lead engineer for the Keystone XL, acknowledged at a hearing in August that the alternative route is viable.

Fentanyl a game-changer for law enforcement trying to stop drug abuse

Fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that has caused spates of fatal overdoses across the United States — isn't just a transient drug being trafficked through Nebraska on its way to other states, investigators say.

Illicit versions of the powerful painkiller are showing up on local streets and causing overdoses across Nebraska, proving a game-changer for law enforcement trying to prevent this state from experiencing the epidemic levels of abuse seen in the eastern U.S., authorities said.

"This is not someone else's problem," said Nebraska State Patrol Lt. Jason Scott, who oversees investigations for the Omaha troop area.

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times the strength of fellow opioid morphine.

Mexican cartels import the drug from Asia, primarily China, and add it to heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs in hopes of increasing addiction and boosting their illicit business, federal and state investigators said.

In Lincoln, three men died with fentanyl in their systems during the past two years. Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly says one of those deaths was directly attributed to the drug.

And across the state in Crawford, a state trooper recently overheard a medical call about an unresponsive person at a hotel, went on the call and treated the person with an antidote called Narcan used to revive someone who overdosed on fentanyl.

Fentanyl's emergence has slowed testing procedures at Nebraska's crime laboratories, as the drug's potency creates a unique hazard. Those labs saw a threefold increase in cases involving fentanyl and fentanyl variants during the first nine months of 2017, compared with all of last year, the state reported last month.

While other illegal drugs like meth and heroin are bad for human health, they are not hazardous to work with, Scott said. Fentanyl requires investigators to use protective clothing when handling any white powders that might contain traces of the drug.

In Ohio in May, an officer brushed a white powder off his uniform with his bare hand and overdosed at the police station an hour later.

"The days of us cutting into kilos on the side of the road are over," said Scott, who's been involved in drug investigations for 15 of his 19 years as a trooper.

And at the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Laboratory in Lincoln, the staff keeps Narcan on hand, just in case.

Fentanyl turned up in Nebraska quicker than Scott expected after he saw a nationwide drug alert from an East Cost law enforcement agency two years ago.

A week later, his investigators found fentanyl during an interdiction stop on the interstate.

This state's efforts to combat prescription drug abuse might already be contributing to an increase in fentanyl addiction and overdoses — an unintentional side effect as people replace one high with another. Still, officials hope they can adjust and learn from other states, much like a decade ago when Nebraska took aim at homecooked meth.

"We’ve been lucky being a state that doesn’t necessarily see these things first," said Pam Zilly, director of the Nebraska State Patrol Crime Laboratory.

Celeste Laird, who manages the laboratory's forensic chemistry area, said her team hasn't had any close calls with fentanyl.

But the drug has changed their testing procedures, she said: They now screen tiny amounts of suspicious white substances and forgo weighing suspected fentanyl to prevent even the smallest particles from becoming airborne.

"It can’t be just business as normal,” Laird said.

Recently, in a sample from a drug seizure, scientists there detected a mixture of caffeine and carfentanil, a synthetic derivative of fentanyl said to be 10,000 times the strength of morphine. It is generally used to tranquilize elephants.

Special Agent Matthew Barden of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Omaha said when drug dealers cut heroin with fentanyl, using amounts equal to a few grains of salt, even those border on lethal dosages.

Meanwhile, the price per kilogram of fentanyl has dropped from as much as $20,000 to around $3,500, he said. Dealers add granular amounts to heroin and other drugs for more lucrative profits.

What shocks the 25-year veteran drug investigator is dealers are warning customers to keep a bucket of ice water nearby when they get high, in case someone overdoses, Barden said.

"That is about as inhumane as a human being can be," he said.

Other drugs are being cut with fentanyl, too, say DEA agents and other law enforcement in the region. For example, Scott said investigators with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office recently seized marijuana laced with fentanyl.

Law enforcement officials worry the drug market will try to outmaneuver state and federal laws by tweaking the chemical makeup of fentanyl, similar to what has happened with K2 and other forms of so-called synthetic marijuana.

"They would just move a molecule, and all of the sudden they're outside the statute," Scott said.

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the DEA would schedule all fentanyl analogues and fentanyl-related substances on an emergency basis, speeding up the process outlawing possession, manufacturing and distribution to address this problem.

The Nebraska Attorney General's Office has drafted legislation to update the state's drug laws in a similar way, which lawmakers are expected to consider next year.

While Lincoln hasn't seen the large numbers of overdoses experienced in other communities, that doesn't mean the city is immune, said Kelly, the Lancaster County attorney.

At Lincoln Treatment Center, a woman began treatment there two years ago after a near-fatal overdose. She was addicted to heroin, but didn't know her hit had been laced with fentanyl, said clinic supervisor Mindy Mousel.

And most patients who are trying to subdue other opioid addictions are encountering the temptation of fentanyl patches being sold illicitly on the street, Mousel said.

Efforts to combat prescription drug abuse could send more addicts to heroin and fentanyl, Kelly said.

But he points to the state's experience in the years after 2005, when lawmakers restricted the sale of the decongestant pseudoephedrine with the goal of crippling meth production at clandestine labs across the state.

Since then, large homegrown meth operations have been largely rooted out, Kelly said.

Officials hope the state's prescription drug monitoring program will have similar effects: reducing illegal diversion of fentanyl and other opioids from medicine cabinets throughout Nebraska, so drug investigators can focus on stopping the importation of drugs from elsewhere.

"It kind of puts it on one front for us rather than battling on multiple angles," said Scott, the State Patrol investigator.

Awareness and vigilance remain key, he and Barden agreed, and Barden said law enforcement can't do enough to warn people about fentanyl and the dangers of illicit use.

"Drugs are bad," he said, "and they’re worse than they’ve ever been."

County awards $836K contract to replace collapsed bridge

Colfax County commissioners accepted a more than $836,000 bid from a Lincoln contractor after expressing surprise at the amount of interest in the project to remove and rebuild a bridge southeast of Howells that collapsed into Maple Creek last spring.

The three-member board voted unanimously last week to award the $836,370 contract to Midwest Underground Inc. to replace the bridge on the heavily traveled Road 17 after waiting for months on a prior contractor hired to remove the bridge deck from the creekbed.

The contractor hired for only the deck removal was to be paid $34,000, but never showed up to do the work.

County roads officials said the bridge failed last spring because of severe soil erosion along the creek.

Midwest Underground plans to start the bridge removal and replacement project in early January and finish by early June.

The Lincoln contractor was selected from among six bidders, including: Dixon Construction Co. of Correctionville, Iowa, $882.709; JJK Construction of Lincoln, $905,040; JMN Construction LLC of Valley, $913,722; Simon Contractors of North Platte, $975,055; and Christensen Bros. Inc. of Cherokee, Iowa, $987,702.

Local roads officials have said the closed bridge poses significant public safety concerns and threatens to continue erosion damage to the creek’s banks and bed.

Colfax County villages sign contracts for sheriff's patrols

Leigh, Clarkson and Howells are all on the same page now when it comes to contracting for law enforcement patrols by the Colfax County Sheriff’s Office.

The Colfax County Board of Commissioners OK’d annual revolving contracts for the villages along Highway 91 all taking effect this month. The communities had been operating under staggered contracts before last week's action by the board.

Clarkson, the largest of the three villages with a population of roughly 600, will receive five hours of deputy patrols daily in the coming year at a cost $54,183. Howells and Leigh, with populations around 550 and 400, respectively, each are contracting for four hours of daily patrols.

Each community received a 1.9 percent increase in patrol fees.

Howells was the third village along the highway to get on board with the plans to provide part-time law enforcement patrols and better response times in the northern tier of the county.

Sheriff Paul Kruse said his office is trying to slash response times for deputies responding to calls.

There are only 6 miles between each community along the highway and the deputy patrolling the area won’t have to make the 20-plus-mile trip to the Schuyler area to answer calls, the sheriff said in May.

The plan is to also have a deputy assigned to the southern portion of the county who can be available for calls around the Schuyler, Richland and Rogers areas.

All three of the northern communities requested patrol times at varying points in the day.

Leigh’s contract calls for four hours of evening patrolling a day. Clarkson also receives evening patrols along with law enforcement presence before and after school.

Howells’ contract includes daytime patrols and county deputies will also enforce village ordinances.

The sheriff’s office added a deputy about a year ago when the communities began seeking contracts for law enforcement services.