Fargo contractor fined for hitting underground lines

BISMARCK (FNS) — The North Dakota Public Service Commission unanimously approved fines against a Fargo contractor for hitting underground lines while digging at a construction site.

The commission levied the $7,100 fine against KPH Inc. after the company damaged several underground lines, including a gas main line, during summer construction in 2018. The company is a first-time offender of the state's One Call policy, which requires companies to call 8-1-1 at least 48 hours before beginning an excavation project.

Since it has no history of similar violations, KPH will ultimately only have to pay $6,100 to the commission if it does not violate the policy again in the next five years.

KPH has already paid thousands of dollars in damages to Xcel Energy, who owned the damaged lines and filed the initial complaints a year ago, commission chairman Brian Kroshus said. Representatives of KPH could not be reached in time for publication.

Kroshus said the company did not take necessary precautions by hand-digging in areas known to have underground lines and instead used a backhoe. Kroshus said the company had worked well with commission staff, and the fine was just a punitive measure to ensure the same mistakes would not be made again.

The commission levied $10,000 in fines against Fargo-based Master Construction Co. in November for similar violations. Over the past year, the commission has ordered more than $50,000 in penalties for One-Call violations statewide, according to Stacy Eberl, public outreach specialist for the commission. The fines ranged from $500 to $6,500.

Minn. Supreme Court denies final appeal from former UMD coaches

ST. PAUL (FNS) — The Minnesota Supreme Court has declined to review the dismissal of a state lawsuit filed against the University of Minnesota Duluth by three former women's sports coaches alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The high court on Tuesday, Dec. 3, turned down a final appeal from former women's hockey coach Shannon Miller, former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles and former softball coach and women's hockey operations director Jen Banford. Their case was dismissed last year after a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired, among other grounds.

The women filed a petition for review on Oct. 3 after the Minnesota Court of Appeals declined to overturn the district court ruling in the university's favor. The Supreme Court's denial came in a one-page order without elaboration, as is standard practice.

Three members of the court — Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, Associate Justice Margaret Chutich and Associate Justice Paul Thissen — recused themselves from consideration of the case. Retired Associate Justice Christopher Dietzen was appointed on an acting basis in order to have five justices review the petition.

The decision brings a close to one chapter of the complicated tangle of litigation that started nearly five years ago. While Miller has tentatively reached a settlement agreement with the university, Banford and Wiles will be left hoping for a successful appeal in federal court to revive their legal claims.

The coaches' case claimed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, creation of a hostile work environment and reprisal under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, as well as violations of the Equal Pay for Equal Work Law and the Minnesota Whistleblower Act.

UMD notified Miller in December 2014 that her contract would not be renewed after 16 seasons, including five national championships. Banford and Wiles resigned their positions in the following months. Miller had a 383–144–50 record at UMD.

A federal judge suggested the sexual orientation claims were the "strongest" elements of the women's case, but dismissed those allegations from the federal case due to a lack of jurisdiction. Attorneys then filed the claims in state court in March 2018, the same day a federal jury found UMD liable for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation against Miller.

But Judge Daniel Moreno dismissed the state case last October, finding that the discrimination and equal-play claims were filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations. The judge also said the whistleblower claims were not "factually distinct" from the discrimination allegations.

On appeal, attorneys for the coaches contended the judge applied a "mechanic, harsh understanding" of the law and said the statute of limitations should have been "tolled" — placed on hold — as the claims were initially litigated, and ultimately dismissed, in federal court.

The university disagreed, saying the plaintiffs made the strategic decision to start in federal court and that Moreno applied "long-established and on-point legal precedent" in dismissing the claims at the state level.

A three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal in September.

"Not only was there no factor completely outside the coaches' control which prevented them from meeting the state-court statutory deadlines, (but) Supreme Court precedent indicated that, when the university raised its immunity defense in its answer, the coaches needed to bring their state-law claims before the expiration of the limitations period," Judge Renee Worke wrote in the court's opinion.

Miller in September accepted a reduced verdict of $1.96 million in the federal case. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz also ordered the university to pay more than $2.53 million in attorneys' fees, expenses and interest, bringing its total liability to nearly $4.5 million.

Miller and the university subsequently reached a tentative agreement to resolve her claims at both the state and federal level. However, attorneys said the agreement is still being finalized, and none of her claims had been formally dropped from either case as of Tuesday.

'Time of waiting' over: Walz orders new state subcabinet, advisory council on climate change

ST PAUL (FNS) — To combat the "devastating effects of climate change," Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is establishing a subcabinet and advisory council in order to meet Minnesota's emissions reduction goals.

Walz at a Monday, Dec. 2 news conference signed an executive order establishing the Climate Change Subcabinet, comprised of 15 state agency chairs, directors or commissioners, which will develop state climate policy and engage with the public on the issue. The Governor's Advisory Council on Climate Change, also established in the executive order, will be comprised of up to 15 advisers appointed by the governor, who will advise the subcabinet.

Walz said the state is confronting a host of new challenges thanks to gradual warming and increasingly extreme weather events: crumbling infrastructure, vulnerable shorelines, the washing away of topsoil and stronger pathogens and illnesses, to name a few. He said the new subcabinet and advisory council will bring "a new, clear emphasis for state agencies to work together to track the impact of climate change on the state, as well as drive new policies."

"The time of waiting and the time of debating are over," Walz said. "The time of action is upon us and Minnesotans are people of action."

Former-Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2007 signed the Next Generation Energy Act, which set the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 30 percent by 2025. According to data from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, emissions decreased by 12 percent between 2005 and 2016. MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said, "It's time we get back on track."

Bishop, who will be chairing the subcabinet, said the need to address climate change and pollution is urgent. She pointed to one June report from the MPCA and Department of Health which found that air pollution-related heart and lung illnesses resulted in 800 emergency room visits in Minnesota in 2013. Between 2,000 and 4,000 Minnesotans died due to air pollution that year.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said warmer winters may also result in different, stronger pathogens, causing more Minnesotans to get sick. Vulnerable Minnesotans, like the elderly, children, low-income individuals or minorities may not have adequate access to health care to fight these illnesses.

It's one of several ways Flanagan said climate change can disproportionately impact vulnerable and marginalized Minnesotans. She said the advisory council will source information directly from communities around the state, as well as the private and public sectors, to address climate change equitably.

In addition to Monday's new sub-cabinet and council, Walz's administration is pushing for 100 percent Clean Power legislation, which would require utilities to use carbon-free energy sources by 2050.

According to data from the MPCA, electricity generation was the third-highest greenhouse gas emitter in Minnesota in 2016 behind transportation in second place and agriculture and land use in first. Electricity generated from coal was the single most greenhouse gas emitter in Minnesota in 2016, emitting nearly 27 million tons of carbon dioxide in one year.

The administration is also pursuing clean car standards, which Bishop said Monday should be available in December 2020 to take effect on 2023 car models. The standards would impact new cars sold in the state, not those already on the road.

The subcabinet will be comprised of the commissioners, chairs or executive directors of the following state agencies and boards:

• Pollution Control Agency

• Department of Commerce

• Department of Labor and Industry

• Department of Management and Budget

• Department of Employment and Economic Development

• Department of Agriculture

• Department of Public Safety

• Department of Natural Resources

• Department of Health

• Department of Transportation

• Board of Water and Soil Resources

• Department of Administration

• Metropolitan Council

• Environmental Quality Board

• Minnesota Housing Finance Agency

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