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2011: The year in review

Herald staffers and readers agree that almost 2,000 workers losing their jobs at Hanford was the top story in the Tri-Cities during 2011.

News about the layoffs ranked No. 1 in an internal Herald vote and with readers who follow the Herald on Facebook.

But the two groups split ways after that, with Herald staffers rounding out the year's top three stories with the resolution of the 24-year-old "body shop" slayings and a slew of controversies surrounding actions by local school boards, while readers in the Facebook poll picked the Linda Lusk child molestation case and state budget woes as Nos. 2 and 3.

Regardless of which stories fell in which spots on the list, no one can deny it was a news-making year for the Tri-Cities.

Here are the stories ranked as the Top 10 of 2011 by the Herald staff:

1. A year of turmoil at Hanford

Hanford contractors and subcontractors laid off an estimated 2,000 workers in 2011.

The year started with about 12,000 people working at the Department of Energy nuclear reservation as hiring with $1.96 billion in federal economic stimulus money hit its peak.

The money, spent over about 30 months, helped workers make more progress on environmental cleanup than at any other time in Hanford's history. The site was used to produce much of the nation's weapons plutonium from World War II through the Cold War.

But with the end of Recovery Act spending came a restructuring of the workforces of several of DOE's Hanford contractors. The 2,000 layoffs hit not only recent hires, but also caught many longtime workers by surprise.

DOE also continued to struggle in 2011 with controversy that drew regional and national media attention to Hanford's $12.2 billion vitrification plant being built to turn high-level radioactive waste into a stable glass form for disposal.

The cost of the project could increase as much as $900 million and the plant is in jeopardy of not meeting deadlines recently agreed to in a court-enforced consent decree, according to a Construction Project Review and DOE officials.

While DOE officials have said they will not operate the plant unless it can be done safely, whistleblowers who have or had high-level technical jobs at the plant continue to question whether cost and schedule considerations are being put ahead of designing a plant that will operate safely. DOE and its contractors deny the allegations.

2. Body shop slayings

Vicente Ruiz received five life sentences for the 1987 slayings of five men inside a Pasco garage, a crime that had thrust Pasco into the national spotlight.

The sentencing in January came one month after a Spokane County jury convicted Ruiz of five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.

The seven-week trial had been moved out of Franklin County after the first two Superior Court trials ended in mistrials.

Ruiz, who was extradited from Mexico in 2007, maintains he is innocent in the Oct. 13, 1987, massacre at Medina's Body Shop and claims it was a case of mistaken identity. He was the second man convicted in the case.

Killed were: Misael Barajas, 22; Juan Antonio Lopez Garcia, 20; Eliceo Guzman Lamas, 20; and Rafael Parra Magallon, 22, all of Pasco, and Francisco Venegas Cortez, 21, of Kennewick. Aldo Montes Lamas was the lone survivor.

The judge had no discretion in the sentence because each count of aggravated murder carries a mandatory term of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ruiz and his lawyers are confident the convictions will be reversed.

2. School district controversies

The Kennewick School Board grappled with providing better access to school facilities for certain student clubs, including gay-straight alliances, or GSAs.

The district found itself in violation of federal law by not giving GSAs the same access to bulletin boards, loudspeaker announcements and student newspapers as it did other noncurricular clubs.

Between April and October, the school board changed tack several times on the issue. It first gave GSAs temporary full access to those resources, then took away access for all noncurricular clubs, which affected groups that volunteer with disabled kids or clean up parks.

In late September, after a flood of messages from incensed parents and students, the board reversed its decision and allowed the noncurricular clubs full access, but without paid advisers.

In Richland, the school board also reversed a controversial decision after public outcry. In June, the board prohibited the use in classrooms of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a novel by Washington author Sherman Alexie.

A month later, two board members who had voted to pull the novel said they didn't know that an advisory panel had recommended against True Diary without all of its members having read the novel.

The board then approved the young-adult book for Richland classrooms.

It wasn't the first controversy centered on literature in the district. And other novels were removed from the curriculum after everyone agreed they were not suitable for students.

But pulling this National Book Award winner off classroom shelves earned the Richland district the ire of local parents and national anti-censorship groups.

The statewide failure of school bonds in the spring spawned a controversial plan to move to a year-round school schedule in Pasco.

Voters stood nearly united against efforts to build new schools. Every school bond election in the state went down in defeat by wide margins in April.

Among them were proposals to raise property taxes for new schools in Prosser and Pasco.

Pasco needed money to build more elementary and middle schools for its swelling student body. It is the fastest-growing district in the state, officials have said. After voters rejected the bond measure, plans to convert the district calendar to a year-round, multi-track schedule kicked into high gear.

Prosser for the third time failed in its quest to replace the town's 75-year-old high school. Officials there have said they have no choice but to try again eventually.

3. Umatilla Chemical Depot

Nearly 50 years of chemical weapons storage south of the Tri-Cities ended this year.

The Umatilla Chemical Depot near Hermiston once stored 12 percent of the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons, including nerve and mustard agent.

Between 2004 and this fall, 7.4 million pounds of chemical weapons agent were incinerated at the depot. The chemical weapons had been stored there in earth-covered "igloos" since 1962.

The depot's 1,001 igloos, some visible near the intersection of interstates 82 and 84, also were used to store conventional weapons from shortly before the United States entered World War II until the '90s.

Incinerating the last of the chemical weapons agent in October easily met an April 2012 international treaty deadline for chemical weapons destruction.

Now nearby communities are preparing for the loss of about 1,100 jobs from now through 2014. Plans call for developing some of the 20,000 acres at the depot for industrial use to help replace some of the jobs that were lost.

4. Linda Lusk case

Former Prosser Mayor Linda Lusk admitted in May that she inappropriately touched a 14-year-old boy, then months later sat in jail on probation violations as her case was featured on national TV.

Lusk, 51, was sentenced July 7 to three months in jail for the April 2010 incident. The boy had stopped by her home "to have her sign a community service form" during his lunch hour, and she led him to a bedroom and undressed him, according to court documents

She served her time on work release -- she started May 20 after pleading guilty to third-degree child molestation -- which allowed her to work at her Prosser handbag boutique each day, but spend nights in jail.

As a convicted child molester, Lusk must register as a sex offender and follow other conditions. That includes leaving Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties without seeking prior permission.

On Nov. 7, Lusk was again arrested after her community corrections officer learned she had gone with her daughter to a swim meet at Central Washington University in Ellensburg and was with people younger than 16 without a chaperone.

She ended up admitting to seven probation violations that all occurred in October, and was ordered to do 16 hours of community service work within 30 days, take a polygraph test and re-enter therapy with a counselor in Yakima that she previously has seen.

While Lusk was in custody in the Benton County jail on those violations, her story was aired in an hour-long program Nov. 11 on ABC's 20/20.

5. Energy Northwest shutdown

Difficulties in replacing the condenser at Energy Northwest's nuclear power plant near Richland led to a long and expensive shutdown.

As the outage stretched from the 80 days planned to 175 days, the Bonneville Power Administration estimated the net cost of the delay in resuming operations at about $60 million. The Columbia Generating Station provides power to about 1 million homes when it's operating and is a critical part of BPA's power system, which markets the plant's power.

Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy has sued Energy Northwest in U.S. District Court, claiming Energy Northwest failed to reveal important information about the work during the bidding process, costing B&W about $50 million. B&W had a $33 million contract to do the work.

Energy Northwest said that as the work to replace the condenser dragged on through the summer and into September that B&W did inadequate planning and preparation and had management problems in the areas of quality and safety.

The lawsuit now is halted while the two sides enter mediation.

The condenser, which turns steam generated by boiling water in the reactor back into water for reuse in the plant, is expected to allow the 1,150 megawatt plant to generate up to 12 more megawatts of electricity.

6. State feeling the pain of recession

After patching a $5 billion budget hole in the spring, further revenue drops left state lawmakers facing another $1.4 billion deficit in a special session that started just after Thanksgiving.

As the Legislature mulled another round of cuts, Tri-City hospitals, senior citizens and people with disabilities protested further reductions to services they say keep people alive or living independently.

Seniors and people with disabilities in particular said cutting their prescription drug coverage and in-home care hours would be devastating, while hospitals said cuts to Medicaid reimbursements would hurt their bottom lines. Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco said state budget cuts could drive it out of the mental health business, leaving the Tri-Cities without one of its largest mental health providers.

One local lawmaker -- Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla -- said she would consider upping the state sales tax to avoid more cuts to vulnerable citizens. But her fellow Republicans said they would rather look at other ways of either making government leaner or finding revenue, including expanding some options for gambling.

The Legislature adjourned from the planned 30-day special session after about two weeks and having passed $480 million in cuts, leaving a $1.5 billion problem to be resolved when they meet again starting Jan. 9 that could pit health and human services advocates against education advocates as they fight for their shares of a shrinking state budget pie.

8. Criminal justice sales tax passes

Franklin County will get a new jail and Pasco will have money to put toward municipal court space and a police station after voters passed a 0.3 percent criminal justice sales tax in November.

It was the third time the county asked voters to pass the tax, but only the second time that the request was made with specific projects in mind.

Pasco also hopes to use some of the sales tax revenue for gang suppression.

9. Tri-City health care

Kennewick General Hospital started the year by announcing in January it had dropped plans to pay for its planned Southridge hospital with a loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and instead would seek private funding.

But despite several claims that an announcement was "coming soon," the hospital is ending the year with a question mark remaining over how it will pay for the estimated $112 million project.

KGH did take a small step forward in obtaining a foundation permit from the city of Kennewick that allows the public hospital district to start grading at the Southridge site.

In the meantime, Richland-based rival Kadlec Regional Medical Center announced plans to build a standalone emergency department in Kennewick. Although no specific site was announced, hospital officials said it likely would be in south Kennewick.

10. Tri-City housing market

The Tri-City housing market showed promises of growth as home sales began to increase during the fall and building permits exceeded 2008 and 2009 levels.

Construction of new apartment complexes after a lull of several years seems to have slightly eased the area's high occupancy rates.

The Tri-Cities' apartment market has been operating at an almost unprecedented vacancy rate of 1 percent to 2 percent for a couple of years, according to real estate experts.

Four apartment complexes recently broke ground in Richland. A 318-unit apartment complex adjacent to Horn Rapids Golf Course may be finished in 2012, and the 232-unit Copper Ridge Apartments in Southridge may be completed by March 2013.

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