Gnome sharpshooting, satanic texts in schools, and coal bonuses

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.

  • WASHINGTON He’ll know you’re speeding before you do.

    Amy Gulick

It was a story made in heaven, at least for headline writers: “Bible giveaway riles nonbelievers, and there may be hell to pay,” said the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. The kerfuffle began when western Colorado’s Delta County School District allowed Gideon Bibles to be given away for free at a Delta middle school library. The nonprofit Freedom from Religion Foundation demanded equal access, citing separation of church and state, and the school district, hoping to avoid a lawsuit it had little chance of winning, agreed. So, as the Sentinel put it, the schools now had to “give the devil his due.” Which is why both middle school and Delta High School students soon found provocatively titled publications on a hall table, all of them free for the taking, including The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities and pamphlets entitled “Why Jesus?” and “The Top 10 Public School-State Church Violations.” All were swiftly snapped up, perhaps to be savored as future collector’s items. The Gideon Bible giveaway was initially reported by the parents of middle-schooler Aileen Harmon, who complained that she was harassed by fellow students for not taking one. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Delta High School senior Cidney Fisk reported that last fall, the abstinence-only sex education program offered a special presentation that stressed that “sex before marriage moved you further from God,” and that wives had to be subservient to their husbands. Boys and girls were segregated for separate talks, but Fisk, who was covering the story for the school magazine, sat through both. “On every slide,” she added, “there was a crucifix.” A school district official said he never noticed any crosses, but added, “I’m not saying it wasn’t there, I’m saying I didn’t notice it.” The school district is now reconsidering its “open-door” policy on the distribution of religious materials. 

How would you like to shoot virtual gnomes in taxis and garbage cans in a virtual New York City? That may soon be an option in Peoria, a town of 154,000 on the outskirts of Phoenix. Under a Peoria program that encourages the re-use of empty buildings, a corporation called Modern Round Entertainment will get $655,166 to open a “virtual shooting lounge” in a former restaurant and bar. Patrons will sit on couches in darkened rooms and participate in virtual shooting games that play out on large screens, using realistic machine guns and other weapons. The idea is “Ready, aim, fun,” reports KJZZ radio. If the project goes through, there will be no gnomes on the range in Peoria. 

Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Michael Davis has a keen awareness of how gas companies try to dodge their reclamation obligations. Recently, he ruled in favor of Brett Sorenson, an Arvada-area rancher stuck with 10 coalbed methane wells. Judge Davis said Pennaco Energy’s sale of the wells to an operator who went bankrupt didn’t end the company’s original obligation to remove its equipment and restore the private land to its original state. “Pennaco says its obligations passed like a quarterback passes the football to a receiver — once the ball is passed, the receiver has it and the quarterback has not. We view Pennaco’s attempts to relieve itself of the obligations it bargained to perform more as a game of hot potato.” Pennaco is now liable for a total of $1.1 million: $70,032 in unpaid annual surface-use payments, $888,732 for reclaiming the land torn up by the wells, and $96,217 to replace an artesian spring damaged during drilling. Judge Davis said Pennaco could have written the contract so that reclamation costs passed to any future buyer, but it failed to do so. “There is no such clause, and we are not at liberty to rewrite the agreement,” the court said. The decision guarantees an increase in legal action from some of the thousands of landowners with abandoned wells in northeastern Wyoming, says Wyoming regulators have committed to plugging more than 3,800 wells, while another 4,000 idle coal-bed methane wells are on public land. So far, says the Casper Star-Tribune, the Bureau of Land Management has made no formal plans for reclamation.

Sometimes a corporation’s behavior is so self-serving you’d think its top brass would be ashamed to get out of bed. Arch Coal Inc., for example, reported a loss of more than $2.9 billion for 2015. In fact, it has “lost more money than it has taken in every year since 2012,” reported Environment & Energy Publishing. Yet a few days before the company declared bankruptcy — threatening coal mining jobs around the West — Arch made payments of $8.12 million in bonuses to seven of its corporate officers, including its chief executive officer, chief financial officer and president. Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, called the bonus payments “bizarre,” and added that they were vulnerable to being “voided by a bankruptcy court.”

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected] or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.

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