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With wind energy bill comes passion and a divergence of opinions

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon said his bill on wind energy regulation is not an anti-wind energy bill, as many opponents have said. 

The bill (LB373) does not prevent wind energy development in the state, but rather it's about county governments that do not have zoning regulations in place, he told the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee during a hearing on the bill Thursday. It's about local control and property rights, he said. 

The bill would require counties to have zoning regulations if they wish to host wind energy facilities, including preventing towers within 3 miles of a residence without the property owner's written permission. The regulations must also address noise and decommissioning. 

The many opponents of the bill, a number of them representing wind energy developers, and counties outside of the Sandhills that already have zoning ordinances, said the bill would undermine local control and would give Nebraska an anti-wind development label, forcing companies to flee to Iowa, North Dakota and Kansas, where their investments would be safer. 

David Cary, director of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department, said the agency is concerned about the loss of local zoning and regulatory control.

In December, Lancaster County took action to regulate wind energy projects based on local decision making and expertise from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department and appropriate research on the topic, Cary said. 

Some conservationists, like Chelsea Johnson of the Nebraska League of Conservation Voters, believe the bill would stall wind energy in the state. 

Mike Degan represented Invenergy, which has been developing projects in Nebraska since 2010 and has poured millions of dollars in economic development into the state, he said. 

"This bill, if it passes, it will halt development, period. There's just no question about that," Degan said. "Three miles is beyond the largest setback that we've seen anywhere else, and that would stop all development."  

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said his organization is at the forefront of taking advantage of renewable energy economic opportunities, so that family farmers and ranchers could increase their incomes, bring capital investment to struggling rural communities and reduce harmful emissions in the environment. 

Three-mile setbacks, he said, have no basis in medical literature and there's no data to support adverse impacts on property values from wind turbines. 

"Remember," he told the committee, "the overwhelming majority of people like the appearance of wind turbines. They think they are graceful and represent progress and a positive future." 

With wind energy development, he said, there's at least $5.8 million of new annual income for Nebraska farmers and landowners, $9.4 million of new local tax revenues annually, 150 direct and 2,000 indirect jobs in rural Nebraska, and $2.5 billion of capital investment. 

Many of those supporting the bill were from counties in and around the Nebraska Sandhills, who said a number of counties there have no real zoning regulations for the wind farms. 

Terry Madson is from Nuckolls County and belongs to Preserve Rural Nebraska. His county in south-central Nebraska, he said, has no zoning, and some of those that do created zoning before anyone was thinking of wind turbines. Other county zoning may not have taken into consideration escalating tower heights, larger generators, more noise and shadow flicker because of size changes. 

The bill gives those counties and others in the state the chance to get current, Madson said. 

The wind companies are heavily subsidized, he said. In his county, a $3 million structure, comparable to a wind turbine, would pay $8,000 per tower in nameplate capacity tax. But if he had the same value of a steel building for an enterprise, he'd be paying $38,000-plus, he said. 

Mike Adams is a Cherry County landowner and member with 47 investors in the Snake River Preservation Group that bought the Snake Falls Ranch, with Snake River Falls, one of the most beautiful, quiet and dark places in the continental United States. 

"I just want to tell you that property rights start and end where the next guy's property starts and ends," Adams said. "I don't dispute anybody's right to put up a wind turbine as long as it doesn't detrimentally affect me or my shareholders." 

But wind turbines could be built right now within easy view and earshot of Smith Falls, he said. That would decrease the property value and the money owners spent to enhance the ranch and falls, for them and for the state of Nebraska, he said. 

The bill, he said, is a small step toward allowing all property owners to be heard.

Brewer was passionate in his closing remarks on the bill.

"I will tell you that there's a burning disgust in me with many of the big wind folks who spoke here today," he said. "They are this conglomeration of overpaid lawyers that get paid to come in and do what they just did." 

People who are affected by the wind farms are working for a living and can't come to Lincoln to share their experience, he said. But to say that these wind towers have no effect on property values is ridiculous. 

These developers are getting ready to scatter wind turbines all throughout the Sandhills, he said. 

"And with each tower comes lots of concrete. And tearing apart those Sandhills to put in roads, and putting up towers that will be eyesores forever," he said. 

And it's about to tear the Sandhills apart, Brewer said.


Lincoln, NE - 1/31/2019 -The Nebraska Boat, Sport and Travel Show opens Friday at noon at the Lancaster Events Center. There will be over 100 RV's and trailers on display, more than 80 boats to view and a variety of activities for the entire family. Thursday, Jan. 31 2019, at the Lancaster Events Center. SAVANNAH BLAKE, Journal Star

Rapid thaw follows polar blast

CHICAGO — In Illinois, temperatures could rise by 80 degrees within days. In Michigan, melting snow and rain and a 17-mile ice jam on the Muskegon River could lead to flooding. And across the Midwest, the warmer forecast was sure to bring more broken roads and busted water mains.

The polar vortex that brought many cities to a standstill was expected to come to a swift end with a rapid thaw that experts say could be unprecedented. But the sudden swing from long johns to short sleeves could create problems of its own.

"I don't think there's ever been a case where we've seen (such a big) shift in temperatures," in the winter, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the Weather Underground firm. "Past record cold waves have not dissipated this quickly. … Here we are, going right into spring-like temperatures."

On Thursday, the system marched east, spreading arctic conditions over an area spanning from Buffalo to Brooklyn. In western New York, a storm that dumped up to 20 inches of snow gave way to subzero temperatures and face-stinging wind chills. In New York City, about 200 firefighters battling a blaze in a commercial building took turns getting warm on buses. The number of deaths that could be blamed on the cold climbed to at least 15.

For the nation's midsection, relief was as close as the weekend.

Rockford, Illinois, was at a record-breaking minus 31 on Thursday morning but should be around 50 on Monday. Other previously frozen areas could see temperatures 55 degrees or higher.

The dramatic warmup will offer a respite from the bone-chilling cold that canceled schools, closed businesses and halted trains. But potholes will appear on roads and bridges weakened by the freeze-thaw cycle. The same cycle can crack water mains and homeowners' pipes. Scores of vehicles will be left with flat tires and bent rims.

Joe Buck, who manages Schmit Towing in Minneapolis and spent about 20 hours a day outdoors this week responding to stranded vehicle calls, said he's already taking calls for Monday to deal with a backlog of hundreds of stalled vehicles.

"Sunday is going to be 39 degrees ABOVE zero," said Buck, who has had 18 trucks running around the clock in wind chills that dropped to minus 50.

In Detroit, where some water mains are almost 150 years old, city workers were dealing with dozens of breaks, said Palencia Mobley, deputy director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

"We'll have all hands on deck. Hopefully, we'll be able to address as many of the issues as possible over the next week," Mobley said.

The thawing of the pipes can sometimes inflict greater damage than the initial freeze. Bursts can occur when ice inside starts to melt and water rushes through the pipe, or when water in the pipe is pushed to a closed faucet by expanding ice.

Elsewhere, a bridge in the western Michigan community of Newaygo, 40 miles north of Grand Rapids was closed as the ice-jammed Muskegon River rose above flood stage. Officials in Buffalo, New York, watched for flooding on the Upper Niagara River because of ice.

In other signs that the worst of the deep freeze was ending, Xcel Energy on Thursday lifted a request to its Minnesota natural gas customers to temporarily lower their thermostats to ease concerns about conserving gas.

Earlier in the day, several cities set new record lows. Rockford saw a record low temperature of minus 31 on Thursday. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, set a daily record low of minus 30 degrees.

Chicago's temperature dropped to a low of around minus 21 degrees on Thursday, slightly above the city's lowest-ever reading of minus 27 degrees in January 1985. Milwaukee's low was minus 25 degrees, and Minneapolis recorded minus 24 degrees. Wind chills were lower still.

Masters, from Weather Underground, said the polar vortex was "rotating up into Canada" and not expected to return in the next couple of weeks. If it does return in late February, "it won't be as intense."


A pedestrian and dog make their way through blowing and drifting snow Thursday in St. Joseph, Mich.


Nouredin Nouili, Norris High School senior, on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.

Senate vote rebukes Trump on Syria, Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — In a bipartisan rebuke to President Donald Trump, the Senate voted 68-23 Thursday to advance an amendment that would oppose withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

The amendment by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell comes after Trump called for a drawdown of troops in both of those countries. The measure says the Islamic State and al-Qaida militants still pose a serious threat to the United States, and it warns that "a precipitous withdrawal" of U.S. forces from those countries could "allow terrorists to regroup, destabilize critical regions and create vacuums that could be filled by Iran or Russia."

Trump abruptly tweeted plans for a U.S. pullout from Syria in December, arguing that the Islamic State had been defeated even though his intelligence chiefs have said the group remains a threat. Trump also ordered the military to develop plans to remove up to half of the 14,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

McConnell didn't frame the measure as a reproach to the president, but he said before the vote that "I've been clear about my own views on these subjects." He said he believes the threats remain.

"ISIS and al-Qaida have yet to be defeated," McConnell said. "And American national security interests require continued commitment to our missions there."

The vote is the latest indication of deepening cracks between the Republican Senate and Trump on foreign policy matters. Similar rifts exist within Trump's own administration, evident this week when the heads of major U.S. intelligence agencies testified to the Senate and contradicted him on the strength of the Islamic State and several other foreign policy matters. Trump's announcement on Syria, meanwhile, prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.

McConnell's amendment, which is nonbinding, would encourage cooperation between the White House and Congress to develop long-term strategies in both nations, "including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued in support of the amendment on the Senate floor, saying Trump's withdrawal announcement has already undermined U.S. credibility in the region.

"This is being used against us right now," Rubio said. "This is a very dangerous situation. That's why this is a very bad idea."

Though many Democrats have argued that the U.S. should eventually withdraw from the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, around half of them supported McConnell's resolution.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said after the vote that she believes it's "far past due for the United States to negotiate an appropriate end" to the conflict in Afghanistan. But she said she also agreed with McConnell that the "precipitous withdrawal" from either country without political resolutions would risk what troops there have already achieved. She voted in favor of the measure.

Many of the most liberal members of the Senate — including several Democrats who are eying presidential runs in 2020 — voted against the amendment.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said he thinks Trump announced the withdrawals too abruptly, but the U.S. has been in Afghanistan and Syria for too long. "What McConnell is saying is let's maintain the status quo," he said.

A handful of Republicans also opposed the amendment. McConnell's Kentucky colleague, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, missed the vote but said he was against it.

"It's time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan and Syria," Paul wrote in a tweet, saying he stands with Trump.

A vote on final passage of the amendment could come early next week. If it succeeds, the language would be added to a wide-ranging foreign policy bill that has been pending on the Senate floor for several weeks. The legislation includes measures supporting Israel and Jordan and slapping sanctions on Syrians involved in war crimes.

Meanwhile, as the Trump administration pushes for peace in Afghanistan, a new U.S. watchdog report says Afghan security forces are shrinking, gaps in security are growing, and the Taliban are largely holding their own despite a surge in American bombing.

These trends reflect what U.S. military officials call a stalemated war, more than 17 years after U.S. forces invaded following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Gauges of battlefield momentum have changed little over the past year, according to a watchdog agency known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. In a report to Congress on Thursday, it said the Afghan government controls or influences 54 percent of districts, down from 56 percent a year earlier, and the Taliban's share slipped from 14 percent to 12 percent. Contested territory increased from 30 percent to 34 percent.

The Pentagon insists that military pressure on the Taliban is mounting. Last year the U.S. vastly increased its use of air power in support of Afghan forces. According to U.S. Central Command data, U.S. aircraft dropped 6,823 bombs in the first 11 months of 2018. That compares with 4,361 bombs dropped in all of 2017.

Even so, the Afghan government has been unable to expand its control of the country, and analysts say an outright military victory by either side is beyond reach.