Mid-Columbia's top 10 stories of 2009

By the Herald staffDecember 27, 2009 

No one will accuse 2009 of being dull.

But while Americans nationwide reeled as a plummeting economy halved their 401(k) accounts and put many out of jobs, Tri-Citians largely held their breath.

A relatively diversified economy and hearty doses of federal stimulus cash propped up the Tri-City economy -- earning it top place on the Herald's list of the Mid-Columbia's top stories.

That "Top 10" list (actually a Top 11 because of a tie) includes a bust of the nation's worst puppy mill, tragic crimes and accidents, the swine flu outbreak, growing conservative rage and the "Circle du Soleil" double roundabout.

Read on.

1. Economy

The Tri-Cities remained an oasis of relative economic stability amid nationwide financial turmoil.

Business Week ranked the Tri-Cities the third-best place in the U.S. to make a fresh start for people battered by the ongoing recession. It cited the food processing, professional and business services, education and health services, leisure and hospitality and government sectors for providing potential job opportunities.

A federal stimulus grant of $1.96 billion for Hanford cleanup was credited with creating or saving about 2,500 full-time, family-wage jobs. That in turn helped sustain the housing market.

The Tri-Cities area also was consistently ranked as among the least expensive places to live compared with other Northwest metro areas by C2ER, the Council for Community and Economic Research. Local economic development experts said that may have brought some companies to the Tri-Cities.

Among economic good news for the year, Syngenta opened a new $42 million seed processing facility in Pasco, and Cascade Natural Gas Corp. decided to relocate its main office from Seattle to the Tri-Cities.

And Areva, which has been making nuclear fuel in Richland for decades, announced it will transfer its fuel production operations from Lynchburg, Va., to the Richland plant, adding 50 jobs.

2. Two new high schools

The new $72 million Chiawana High School opened in the fall in west Pasco after two years of construction.

It changed the landscape of Pasco in more ways than one. For the first time, the city now has two high schools.

And the new Delta High School opened in Richland. The regional public school offers Tri-City students instruction in science, technology, engineering and math and is the first of its kind in the state.

It was started by the three Tri-City school districts, Washington State University Tri-Cities, Columbia Basin College and Battelle.

3. Animal control

The 371 American Eskimo pups with dirty, matted hair found in deplorable conditions in east Kennewick spotlighted Benton County's animal control problem.

Dogs were living in make-shift cages, including boxes, crates and overturned shopping carts, when a deputy responding to an unrelated call stumbled on them.

The sheriff sought help from The Humane Society of the United States and in May dozens of animal rescue volunteers converged on Ella Stewart's two-acre property.

Humane Society officials called it one of the largest and worst puppy mills they had seen in the nation.

Some dogs, which were taken to 11 shelters and rescue groups in the Northwest, are still waiting to be adopted.

Stewart, 67, of Kennewick, is awaiting trial on multiple animal cruelty charges.

And Sheriff Larry Taylor has proposed operating an animal control facility for Benton County, ending years of debate over animal control in the rural area. County commissioners approved Taylor's low-kill proposal in mid-August, and Taylor hopes to have the facility operating by late spring.

4. Hanford

Cleaning up Hanford will take much, much longer than earlier projections.

New deadlines for some of the nuclear reservation's most difficult environmental cleanup were proposed to end the state of Washington's lawsuit against the Department of Energy.

They would allow 22 more years to get leak-prone underground tanks emptied of radioactive waste and extend the deadline to have 53 million gallons of tank waste treated for disposal from 2028-47. Closing the underground tanks would take until 2052.

As a concession, the tentative agreement between the state and DOE would extend a moratorium on importing many types of radioactive waste for disposal at Hanford until the vitrification plant is at full operation about 2022.

Long-term delays aside, it was a good year for Hanford environmental cleanup with many accomplishments, thanks in part to federal economic stimulus money.

Eight years into work building Hanford's massive vitrification plant to treat tank waste, the project's design and construction work passed the halfway mark. Schedule slips, budget increases and funding shortfalls had plagued the plant but it now appears on a steady course.

Other highlights of the year included a visit by new Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Work at Hanford remains hazardous, with one worker fortunate to survive a 50-foot fall from a catwalk in a building being prepared for demolition.

5. Police shooting

A Richland man was fatally shot by a Kennewick officer during a traffic stop in downtown Kennewick on Sept. 14.

Dispatchers received calls about Christopher Villarreal's black Lexus driving erratically and the 39-year-old had apparently hit another vehicle before officers caught up with him in a parking lot.

Motorcycle Officer Lee Cooper pulled up behind him, then fired several shots at Villarreal's car when it went backward into Cooper's bike.

Some witnesses, however, questioned if the shooting was justified because they said Villarreal's car had only slowly rolled backward toward the motorcycle.

The case was taken over by the U.S. Department of Justice and is being investigated by the FBI.

Cooper, who as standard procedure was put on paid administrative leave after the shooting, was allowed to return to desk work in November.

A week later, Villarreal's family filed a $10 million claim against the city, claiming negligent supervision, wrongful death, gross negligence, a civil rights violation, excessive use of force and the loss of a family member.

6. Conservative movement

Anger was prevalent for frustrated conservatives in 2009 as they reeled from a national shift to the left with Democratic President Obama's landslide election in 2008.

As Obama proposed spending nearly $800 billion to stimulate the country's faltering economy, TEA parties sprang up to oppose federal deficits and the possibility of new taxes to pay for Obama's programs. A tax-day TEA party on April 15 attracted hundreds of supporters to John Dam Plaza in Richland.

Thousands later flocked to see rising conservative icon Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate, when she visited the Tri-Cities around Thanksgiving for a family reunion and book signing.

Religious conservatives mobilized in Pasco to fight a proposal to open a Planned Parenthood clinic near Mark Twain Elementary School. A protest demonstration along Court Street in late October reportedly drew several hundred participants who lined the street for eight blocks to the clinic.

The Pasco City Council voted 5-2 to approve the clinic Nov. 16.

7. Roundabout

Kennewick's Columbia Drive/240/U.S. 395 Interchange -- as it is officially known -- dominated roadway projects news in the Tri-Cities this year.

The $16 million double roundabout that replaced the cloverleaf intersection on Highway 395 south of the blue bridge was seven months in the making, creating numerous detours, lane closures and delays last summer.

The goal was to ease congestion in what had become a bottleneck for about 60,000 vehicles daily traveling between Kennewick and Pasco. State officials say the new design also is safer because it eliminated the need for a quick southbound lane change after crossing the bridge.

But not all motorists welcomed the double-teardrop, or figure-8, roundabout that is the main feature of the state project.

A Herald contest to nickname the interchange produced entertaining entries like Loop de Loop, Crazy Eight and Confound-about. But the most popular unofficial title is Circle du Soleil, with apologies to the popular French-Canadian circus.

8. Accidents

The community mourned when two young Richland cousins were killed in a fiery crash on Interstate 182 in Pasco during the Oct. 5 evening commute. Alexandra Hatley-Flores, 12, and Taylor Tefft, 11, were mortally injured when the car they were in collided with a Suburban slowing down because of mechanical problems.

A few weeks later, Joevani Olivera, 16, of Kennewick, died when the car he was in hit the back of a slower-moving Jeep while trying to pass it on I-182 in Richland. The car flipped over a concrete barrier along the Yakima River bridge, plunging more than 30 feet to the riverbank.

Excessive speed was not a factor in either collision -- nor is it in most crashes on the 15-mile stretch of highway -- but the wrecks prompted some community members to call for a lower speed limit on I-182.

And while Washington State Patrol officials said the 70 mph speed limit doesn't appear to be a problem in normal conditions, they said it could be more dangerous driving at that speed when traffic is congested.

A state Department of Transportation speed study found most drivers are still going at or a little above the speed limit. Officials are reviewing the data to determine if any change is needed.

9. Crime

A year after Tiairra Jo Garcia disappeared during a night out in Pasco, her body was found in July in Mount Rainier National Park.

Marnicus Lockhard was given an eight-year sentence for fatally shooting his 19-year-old girlfriend in June 2008, and Ashone Hollinquest ended up with one year in jail in a plea deal for helping authorities and agreeing to testify against his friend.

Donald Schalchlin was ordered in July to spend 9 1/2 years behind bars for aiding in the December 2007 slayings of his younger sister Elizabeth and mother Ellen "Lori" Schalchlin. Now 17, the Benton City boy should be out of prison by age 23 for his guilty pleas to first-degree manslaughter and first-degree rendering criminal assistance.

Nearly six years after raping his Franklin County cellmate, David Webster in July was given a 20-year, 5-month prison term that will lock up the Pasco man until he is 80. Webster, who represented himself at trial, claimed it was consensual sex and that he'd been set up, but a jury convicted him of second-degree rape.

Pasco teen Christopher Ruesga claimed he was trying to change his life since gunning down Eutimio Vivero-Martinez in an April gang clash. But Judge Craig Matheson wanted to send the message that gang violence must stop and sentenced the 17-year-old in October to 15 years behind prison walls for second-degree murder.

Former Kennewick pastor Randall Foos avoided prison for three years while appealing his vehicular homicide conviction for hitting a teen bicyclist in 2003 as he drove home from work. But in November, his appeals exhausted, the Las Vegas resident was returned to Washington to start his one-year, three-month sentence in the death of 19-year-old Sara Casey.

Tie 10. Swine flu

A new form of influenza swept across the country in two waves, prompting public health officials to wage an intense public education campaign about how to prevent the spread of disease.

H1N1 influenza, known as swine flu, spread rapidly among school-age children, causing one Mid-Columbia school district to cancel classes and others to cancel extracurricular and athletic activities.

Three Tri-Citians -- two adults and a 5-month-old Pasco boy -- died from the disease and numerous others were hospitalized. People under 25, pregnant women and health care workers were considered most at risk for serious illness.

While the public was urged to get vaccinated against the new form of flu, delays in manufacturing the vaccine meant it wasn't available to most until December.

The pandemic peaked in Benton and Franklin counties in October, but health officials believe a third wave could come in early 2010.

Tie 10. County seat

After four years of gathering signatures, retired Superior Court Judge Fred Staples submitted 3,486 pages of petitions with what he believes are enough signatures for a vote on moving the county seat to Kennewick.

Staples estimated he had more than 20,000 signatures -- which he said should be more than enough to get the 13,684 valid signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot in 2010. The county auditor's office will certify if there are enough valid signatures from registered county voters.

Staples believes Kennewick should be the county seat because 80 percent of county employees already work there and it's inconvenient having offices of officials including the county commissioners 30 miles from the county's population center. He also has argued the current arrangement violates state law.

Staples also got the measure on the ballot in 1984, but it failed to get the required 60 percent vote. With the growth of the Tri-Cities' population over the past 25 years, he believes the result will be different now.

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