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Jury Concludes BNSF Railway Contributed to Two Asbestos-Related Deaths in Montana Town | OUT WEST ROUNDUP | News

NORTH DAKOTA

The jury concludes that the railroad contributed to two asbestos-related deaths

HELENA – A federal jury said April 22 that BNSF Railway contributed to the deaths of two people who were exposed to asbestos decades ago when contaminated mining material was transported through a Montana town, where thousands fell ill.

The jury awarded $4 million each in damages to the estates of the two plaintiffs who died in 2020. Jurors said asbestos-contaminated vermiculite spilled at the rail yard in the town of Libby, Montana, was a significant factor in the plaintiffs' illnesses and deaths.

Family members of the two victims hugged their lawyers after the verdict was announced. A lawyer for the plaintiffs said the verdict brings some accountability, but a family member told The Associated Press that no amount of money could replace her lost sister.

Libby's vermiculite has high concentrations of naturally occurring asbestos and has been used for insulation and other commercial purposes in homes and businesses throughout the United States

After being mined from a mountaintop outside of town, it was loaded onto railroad cars, which sometimes spilled the material at Libby station. Residents have described piles of vermiculite being stored in the yard and dust from the facility blowing through downtown Libby.

The jury did not find that BNSF acted with malice or indifference, so no punitive damages were awarded. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired BNSF in 2010, two decades after WR Grace & Co.'s vermiculite mine near Libby closed and transport of the contaminated mineral stopped.

The estates of the two victims argued that the railroad knew the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was dangerous and failed to clean it up. Both lived near the rail yard decades ago and died of mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

A second trial against the railroad over the death of a Libby resident is scheduled for May in federal court in Missoula.

IDAHO

The group is pursuing the abortion rights ballot initiative in 2026

BOISE — A new Idaho organization says it will call on voters to restore access to abortion and other reproductive health care rights in the state after lawmakers allowed a second legislative session to end without changing strict abortion bans that have fueled the recent exodus were blamed by healthcare providers.

Idaho has several anti-abortion laws, including one that makes performing abortions even in medical emergencies a felony unless they are performed to save the life of the pregnant patient. The federal government has sued Idaho over the ban, claiming it violates a federal law that requires hospitals to provide stabilizing care – including abortion – when a patient's life or health is at serious risk.

Idaho lawyers say the ban allows life-saving procedures for things like ectopic pregnancies, and they claim the Biden administration is trying to create a federal “abortion loophole” in Idaho hospitals.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on April 24.

Idahoans United for Women and Families is fundraising and hopes to present one or more ballot initiatives this summer to get them on the 2026 ballot, spokeswoman Melanie Folwell said.

Cynthia Dalsing, a certified nurse midwife in northern Idaho and board member of Idahoans United for Women and Families, said her region went from being a “first-line provider of obstetric services” to a maternal care desert after the four local birth attendants left the state.

According to the Idaho Physician Well-Being Action Collaborative, about a quarter of Idaho obstetricians have left the practice since a near-total abortion ban took effect in August 2022, as have about half of the state's maternal and fetal medicine doctors. Three hospitals have closed their labor and delivery departments.

NEBRASKA

Governor calls special session on tax relief

OMAHA — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen threatened early in this year's legislative session that he would call lawmakers back for a special session if they failed to pass a bill to significantly ease rising property taxes. On the final day of the 60-day session on April 18, some lawmakers who helped torpedo an already anemic tax-shifting bill said they would welcome Pillen's special session.

Pillen continued his address to lawmakers just hours before the session was adjourned without voting on the property tax relief bill he supported and said he planned to issue a proclamation for a special session.

Nebraska law requires that a special session be no shorter than seven days and that the actions under consideration must be limited to the topics set forth in the governor's proclamation.

Pillen had supported a bill that originally sought to raise the state's sales tax to 6.5%, which would have been among the highest in the country. It also expanded the sales tax base to include items such as candy, soda, pet care and veterinary services, and digital advertising, and imposed some caps on local government spending.

In return, the appointed commission proposes a cap on increases in property tax revenue

However, when the third and final round came on the last day of the meeting, the sales tax increase had already been abolished, leaving only a fraction of the originally targeted property tax savings remaining.

The bill was key to Pillen's plan to reduce rising property taxes. Just days into the session, Pillen called for a 40% cut that would cut $2 billion from the $5.3 billion in property taxes collected in 2023. These property tax revenues compare to $3.4 billion collected just ten years earlier and are far more than sales and income tax revenues, which will be approximately $2.3 billion and $2.3 billion, respectively, in 2023. brought in $3 billion.

The sharp rise in real estate and land prices in recent years has led to skyrocketing property tax burdens for homeowners and farmers. But some homeowners have been hit particularly hard because state law requires residential property to be valued at nearly 100% of market value, compared to 75%. for agricultural land.

The variety of proposed sales tax increases was enough to find opponents both among the Liberals, who complained that the tax burden was being placed too heavily on those who could least afford it, and among the Conservatives, who wanted more spending cuts instead of new ones demanded taxes.

NEW MEXICO

Voters can permanently receive mail-in ballots

SANTA FE – Registered voters in New Mexico will be able to join a permanent list to receive an absentee ballot in the mail for future elections for the first time, state election officials announced April 17.

The secretary of state's office said it is accepting online applications for absentee ballots ahead of the June 4 primary on the website NVMote.org, where qualified voters can opt in to the permanent list.

Previously, voters had to request a postal vote for every election, although the voting process could involve three to four postal deliveries.

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Absentee ballots can be returned by mail or in person at county offices or in some ballot drop boxes. The deadline to request an absentee ballot in the state's June 4 primary election is May 21.

New Mexico's permanent mail-in voting list was approved as part of 2023 legislation aimed at expanding access to voting in New Mexico. The law also requires each of New Mexico's 33 counties to maintain at least two monitored ballot drop boxes, although county clerks can request an exception.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said in a statement that this option is one way the state has increased the ease of voting.

KANSAS

Ostrich at zoo dies after swallowing employee's keys

TOPEKA — A beloved ostrich at the Topeka Zoo & Conservation Center in Kansas has died after swallowing an employee's keys.

The zoo announced in a social media post on April 19 that the five-year-old ostrich named Karen reached over the fence of her enclosure and grabbed and swallowed the employee's keys. The staff consulted experts in the US “to implement surgical and non-surgical measures to minimize the impact of the keys. Unfortunately, these efforts were unsuccessful,” the zoo said.

Karen was euthanized April 18 and “died at the hands of staff,” Fawn Moser, interim director of the Topeka Zoo, said in an email.

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Moser said, “She wasn’t just an animal; She was a beloved member of our community. Our thoughts go out to our dedicated animal care team who have developed a deep bond with Karen during her time with us.”

The revered ostrich had been at the zoo since March 2023. She was known for her love of playing in the water “and especially for being our 'dancing queen!'” the zoo said.

The zoo said it has launched an investigation and is “taking appropriate action regarding the affected team member.” The zoo also said it will review and improve safety protocols for its animals.

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