A look back at the Top 10 Mid-Columbia stories of 2013

By the Herald staffDecember 28, 2013 

Readers may get deja vu looking at this year's Top 10 stories of 2013.

Many of this year's biggest stories chosen by Tri-City Herald news staff involved issues that carried over from major news events last year or are topics of perpetual concern in the region.

The state of operations at the Hanford site, the Mid-Columbia economy, a Franklin County employee's embezzlement of millions of taxpayer dollars, the Pasco "doughnut hole" and a proposed Tri-City aquatics center again dominated the headlines.

New to the list in 2013 were Chiawana High School's thrilling state football championship, a battle about gay rights and freedom of religion, and a major apartment complex fire that left 150 people homeless.

Here are the Herald staff's picks for the top local stories this year:

1. At least one of Hanford's massive underground tanks is leaking radioactive waste into the soil beneath it, Department of Energy officials discovered this year.

That news -- with initial reports that as many as six single-shell tanks were leaking -- came amid turmoil in the project to build a vitrification plant to treat up to 56 million gallons of waste held in Hanford's underground tanks.

The Department of Energy warned the state of Washington that all remaining court-enforced deadlines for the plant, including having it fully operating in 2022, are at serious risk of being missed.

The year started with news that a top DOE engineer had recommended that work be stopped on the project because of "indeterminate quality" shortly before he retired.

In the fall, the DOE Office of Inspector General questioned whether standards had been met to assure quality at the plant.

Construction at the largest vit plant building, the Pretreatment Plant, remained on hold because of technical issues about its safe and efficient operation.

DOE broke a year of silence in September on its plans to deal with technical issues with a possible proposal to skip vitrifying some waste and to try a phased startup of the plant.

But many Hanford watchers, expecting more details and specifics after the long wait for information, were not happy.

There was some good news. DOE determined that a leak within the shells of a double-shell tank had not reached the environment.

2. Three months after same-sex marriage became legal in Washington, a Richland florist refused to create flower arrangements for a gay couple's wedding, citing her religious beliefs.

Barronelle Stutzman's action drew a mix of condemnation and support in the Tri-Cities and beyond, sparking debate about -- among other things -- the limit of religious freedom in the public marketplace.

It also sparked a legal battle that's still unfolding.

The state attorney general in April filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Stutzman and her Arlene's Flowers in Richland. The gay couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, also sued, claiming violation of the Consumer Protection Act and state anti-discrimination law.

And Stutzman countersued the state, saying the state was trying to force her to act against her religion, violating her Constitutional rights.

3. Hanford workers were laid off or faced uncertain paychecks in 2013 as bipartisan factions in Congress argued about federal budget and deficit issues.

An estimated 600 workers lost jobs at Hanford in the spring because of sequestration, a forced federal budget cut. In addition, many nonunion employees went on furlough, or forced leave.

The worst of the furloughs were eliminated and 100 union workers hired as Congress later agreed to switch money around in Department of Energy projects.

But in the fall, Congress again failed to pass a spending bill for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and the federal government largely shut down.

Workers at several federal agencies in the Tri-Cities were furloughed, and little was accomplished at Hanford as preparations were made to send home up to 85 percent of about 8,500 contractor workers plus additional subcontracted workers.

Just before furlough and layoff notices were expected to be sent out, Congress reached agreement on a spending bill, ending a 16-day shutdown of the federal government.

With continuing budget uncertainty, DOE has approved contractors to lay off up to 450 workers.

4. The quest for a regional aquatics center in the Tri-Cities took a big hit in August when voters overall in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick turned down a sales tax increase to pay for a facility.

The one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax request came from the Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District, which formed to go after regional projects. The aquatics center measure was its first proposal.

Kennewick voters in November also were asked for a separate one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to finance expansion of the Three Rivers Convention Center, but they turned it down.

Leaders of both public facilities districts are mulling paths forward.

5. Port of Kennewick commissioners decided to close the long-debated Vista Field Airport for redevelopment after an in-depth look at the costs and benefits of the little-used general aviation airport.

The port struggled to find a way to revitalize the airfield after deciding three years ago to keep the airport open in hopes of recruiting more businesses. But the port was unable to find a company to run the airport, and the airport showed no signs of gaining users.

Turning the land into a city center could make $3.7 million for taxpayers and add $408.6 million to tax rolls, according to a study. The airport officially closes Dec. 31.

Port officials already are planning for the future of the 113 acres near the Three Rivers Convention Center. They plan to build on the recent study that envisioned a mix of commercial, retail, office and residential properties in the area.

6. 2013 was a deadly year around the Mid-Columbia. In Benton and Franklin counties alone, 12 deaths were classified as homicides.

A third of the victims were younger than 18 -- two teens were killed in a high-speed crash, another teen was shot execution-style in a remote part of Richland and a 9-month-old baby was raped and killed, investigators said.

7. A year after his arrest on the job, Dennis M. Huston admitted that for more than two decades he siphoned at least $2.8 million from Franklin County using his public works position to file false invoices.

Huston pleaded guilty Jan. 31 in Franklin County Superior Court to theft, money laundering and cocaine possession.

The 66-year-old is serving his 16-year sentence at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.

Huston was the county's public works accounting and administrative director when it came to light that he'd long ago opened a bank account in the name of a legitimate company, claimed to be the sole proprietor and submitted invoices.

He was arrested in February 2012, then fired days later.

The crime was the largest public embezzlement in state history. He told investigators he used the stolen money to cover his $100-a-day cocaine habit and to gamble.

8. Annexation took a bite out of the west Pasco "doughnut hole," thwarting efforts to create a new town called Riverview.

At the beginning of the year, Pasco annexed some of the Franklin County residents who lived in an area surrounded by the city.

The annexations were possible after 60 percent of residents living there previously signed agreements to receive city water in exchange for being annexed someday.

Before the annexations, some of the residents proposed creating their own town, but the annexations removed about 1,400 people and there weren't enough to form a new community under state law.

Annexation opponents gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the November ballot in hopes of erasing two recent annexations. They also asked voters to change Pasco's council-city manager form of government to a strong mayor-led system.

But the propositions were voted down, with 70 percent of voters opposing the deannexation.

The deannexation measure failed to get a majority of votes in any of the 60 voting precincts in Pasco, including those in the recently annexed areas.

9. Chiawana High School in Pasco won a state title thanks to a miraculous finish.

An entire year of hard work and dominating football came down to the final 1 minute, 5 seconds of the season as the Chiawana Riverhawks trailed the top-ranked and unbeaten Camas Papermakers by 13 points in the Class 4A state championship at the Tacoma Dome.

A 57-yard touchdown pass, a recovered onside kick, another touchdown toss as the clock ran out and the winning extra point -- it all added up to a 27-26 victory for the Riverhawks and one of the most remarkable finishes in state championship history.

Chiawana's Steve Graff was named the Washington coach of the year after winning his fourth state title as a head coach, and seven of his players were named to the all-state team.

10. (tie) Washington farmers continued to break records in 2013.

Wine grape growers crushed a record harvest of almost 218,000 tons, up 16 percent.

Last year's apple harvest was valued at $2.3 billion, up about 17 percent. That was thanks to farmers receiving record high prices for their largest ever crop -- 129 million 40-pound boxes.

During 2013, growers harvested the state's second largest apple crop on record, and potato farmers had a good overall crop, although it was slightly smaller because of the hot summer.

Cherries were devastated by bad weather, and the fourth cutting of alfalfa hay got rained on and blown away, clogging irrigation canals.

And farmers harvested about 92,000 acres of chickpeas this year, up 15 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Overall, the value of Washington state's agricultural production grew to $9.9 billion in 2012, up 6 percent from 2011, breaking records.

10. (tie) A six-story Pasco apartment fire July 20 displaced about 150 people and was the largest ever handled by the Benton-Franklin Chapter of the American Red Cross.

The fire at the Sacajawea Apartment building on North Fourth Street was sparked when a resident fell asleep with a candle burning.

The blaze heavily damaged the 63-year-old building but no one was seriously hurt.

A Red Cross shelter at Pasco High School stayed open about three weeks. In all, the agency provided 464 overnight stays, about 2,000 meals, 1,300 snacks, 140 personal hygiene kits, and 356 health or mental health contacts.

In the end, the fire cost the Red Cross chapter more than $100,000 in relief funds.

The apartment building is still closed and repairs have not been scheduled.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service