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Seventh-grader Hannah Dodt wins 2019 Coconino County Spelling Bee

Twelve-year-old Hannah Dodt’s confident recitations bookended this year’s Coconino County Spelling Bee Saturday morning at Coconino High School as she secured first place, matching the number that hung around her neck throughout the hour-long competition.

In the ninth round, after the first and second runner-ups both misspelled their final words, Dodt -- a seventh-grader at Flagstaff Home Educators, a local home school program -- correctly spelled “bequeath,” followed by “potash” (potassium carbonate) to secure this year’s win.

Ivan Robertson, a fourth-grader at Puente de Hozho, finished in second place, followed by Jacob Frate, an eighth-grader at San Francisco de Asis, after a tie-breaker round. The two respectfully shook hands following their six-word showdown for second place.

The three finalists were awarded $250, $150 and $100, respectively. The prizes were donated by rotary clubs from Flagstaff, Williams and the Grand Canyon. One representative from each organization also served as a judge.

Coconino County Superintendent of Schools Risha VanderWey said this was the fourth year she has attended the county’s spelling bee, but she is always impressed by the students and the words they are spelling.

“They do such an impressive job coming in front of their peers and their community," she said. "It’s hard and I tip my hat off to them. There are plenty of adults that would have a hard time spelling in front of others."

This year’s competition presented students with words from common household objects to culture- and region-specific terms including “kona” (a southwesterly winter wind in Hawaii) and “ramen.”

Students struggled with tricky words like “bonanza,” “foist,” “dearth” and “agnostic,” but conquered “cummerbund,” “falsetto,” “linden” and “diatribe.”

Despite phonetic challenges and ever-present nerves, though, they remained polite under pressure, ending each request of pronouncer Stephanie Hammond – whether for a definition, origin or use in a sentence – with “please.”

Throughout the competition, Dodt’s confidence was unmatched. Unlike many of the other 20 competing students, Dodt needed no microphone to be heard as she recited each word presented to her. She said her confidence comes from her experience as a dancer.

The finalists all said they spent a lot of time practicing using the spelling word lists provided by the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Repetition is key.

“I would just type the words and then I would quiz myself on the words. Then my parents would quiz me on the words,” Dodt said.

Robertson, 10, took a similar approach, but spent extra time familiarizing himself with pronunciations.

“I would just say them, spell them, then just say them again,” he said. “I would go on the webpage and hear the pronunciation and my parents would give me a quiz.”

The winner’s advice for other spellers: “Just study hard and have fun.”

Dodt will travel to proceed to the state spelling bee on Saturday, March 23 at 1 p.m. at AZ PBS, 500 N. Central Ave., 6th Floor, Phoenix, AZ 85004. The winner of the state bee will represent Arizona at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. in late May or early June.

Lawmakers reach deal on border wall funding

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators reached agreement Monday night to prevent a government shutdown and finance construction of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, overcoming a late-stage hang-up over immigration enforcement issues that had threatened to scuttle the talks.

Republicans were desperate to avoid another bruising shutdown. They tentatively agreed to far less money for President Donald Trump's border wall than the White House's $5.7 billion wish list, settling for a figure of nearly $1.4 billion, according to congressional aides. The funding measure is through the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The agreement means 55 miles of new fencing — constructed through existing designs such as metal slats instead of a concrete wall — but far less than the 215 miles the White House demanded in December. The fencing would be built in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

"With the government being shut down, the specter of another shutdown this close, what brought us back together I thought tonight was we didn't want that to happen" again, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

Details won't be officially released until today, but the pact came in time to alleviate any threat of a second partial government shutdown this weekend. Aides revealed the details under condition of anonymity because the agreement is tentative.

"Our staffs are just working out the details," said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

The pact also includes increases for new technologies such as advanced screening at border entry point, humanitarian aid sought by Democrats, and additional customs officers.

This weekend, Shelby pulled the plug on the talks over Democratic demands to limit immigrant detentions by federal authorities, frustrating some of his fellow negotiators, but Democrats yielded ground on that issue in a fresh round of talks on Monday.

Asked if Trump would back the deal, Shelby said: "We believe from our dealings with them and the latitude they've given us, they will support it. We certainly hope so."

Trump traveled to El Paso, Texas, for a campaign-style rally Monday night focused on immigration and border issues. He has been adamant that Congress approve money for a wall along the Mexican border, though he no longer repeats his 2016 mantra that Mexico will pay for it, and he took to the stage as lawmakers back in Washington were announcing their breakthrough.

"They said that progress is being made with this committee," Trump told his audience, referring to the congressional bargainers. "Just so you know, we're building the wall anyway."

In a case of pointed political counterprogramming, Beto O'Rourke, a former Democratic congressman and potential Trump rival in 2020, held an evening march against the wall with dozens of local civic, human rights and Hispanic groups, followed by a protest rally attended by thousands on a baseball field across street from the arena where Trump was holding his rally.

The first dueling rallies of the 2020 election season made clear that Trump's long-promised border wall is sure to play an outsized role in the presidential race, as both sides use it to try to rally their supporters and highlight their contrasting approaches.

"With the eyes of the country upon us, all of us together are going to make our stand here in one of the safest cities in America," O'Rourke said as music and cheers from Trump's rally blared onto the field. "Safe not because of walls but in spite of walls."

Democrats carried more leverage into Monday's talks after besting Trump on the 35-day shutdown but showed flexibility in hopes on winning Trump's signature. After yielding on border barriers, Democrats focused on reducing funding for detention beds to curb what they see as unnecessarily harsh enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The agreement yielded curbed funding, overall, for ICE detention beds, which Democrats promised would mean the agency would hold fewer detainees than the roughly 49,000 detainees held on Feb. 10, the most recent date for which figures were available. Democrats claimed the number of beds would be ratcheted down to 40,520.

But a proposal to cap at 16,500 the number of detainees caught in areas away from the border — a limit Democrats say was aimed at preventing overreach by the agency — ran into its own Republican wall.

Democrats dropped the demand in the Monday round of talks, and the mood in the Capitol improved markedly.

The recent shutdown left more than 800,000 government workers without paychecks, forced postponement of the State of the Union address and and hurt Trump's poll numbers. As support in his own party began to splinter, Trump surrendered after the shutdown hit 35 days, agreeing to the current temporary reopening without getting money for the wall.

The border debate got most of the attention, but it's just part of a major spending measure to fund a bevy of Cabinet departments. A collapse of the negotiations would have imperiled another upcoming round of budget talks that are required to prevent steep spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic agencies.

California explosion raises questions over cell tower project

With the next planning and zoning commission meeting set for Wednesday, neighbors of the United Trinity Methodist Church are pointing to a recent gas explosion in San Francisco as evidence for why a proposed cell tower on the site should not be approved.

The tower, proposed on the church’s land by Pinnacle Consulting, who works on behalf of Verizon Wireless, would sit near three Kinder Morgan interstate gas pipelines that also pass under the church's property.

Residents worry that the construction of such a tower, which would also require the installation of an electric utility line under the three gas pipelines, could make the likelihood of an accident much higher.

Just last week in San Francisco, a 4-inch distribution gas line exploded when a construction company working on behalf of Verizon was installing fiber optic cables.

Although the investigation into what caused the explosion is ongoing, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the gas line had been properly marked by the company that owned the line.

No one was killed, but Carrie Warman, who lives near the proposed cell tower site and works on California gas pipeline projects as an environmental biologist, said she believes the incident highlights the danger of building near a gas line.

“These are very real and very serious risks,” Warman said.

Brooks Hart, who also lives near the proposed site, agreed, adding it is a risk that is left undressed in Pinnacle Consulting’s application.

“As a condition of the conditional use permit, they must make the finding that the proposed use will not be detrimental to health, safety or welfare -- how can you make that finding [with the gas pipeline there]?” Hart said.

In the section on whether the tower's development may be detrimental to public health or safety, the application Pinnacle submitted to the city does not mention the pipeline only saying: “there are no foreseen possible hazards to people due to explosion or contamination and flooding.”

“Their application shows that [Pinnacle, Verizon] and the city do not understand the dangers of the pipeline,” Hart said.

According to Jeannine Brew, a spokesperson for Verizon, although Verizon obviously want their towers to be in areas that do not endanger the public, they generally rely on local regulatory groups to make those calls.

As such, Brew said while they would follow Kinder Morgan’s rules for crossing the easement, they will rely on a group like the planning and zoning commission to make the determination as to whether a tower may threaten public safety.

At the same time, while the city takes the utility easements themselves into consideration when reviewing an application, city planning development manager Neil Gullickson said staff doesn’t discriminate between what kind of utility it is.

For example, whether the easement is for a gas line, an electric utility or a water line, it generally would not influence city staff’s recommendation to the planning and zoning commission, Gullickson said. But the planning and zoning commission can take such concerns into consideration as they might relate to public safety.

Kinder Morgan also relies on a body such as the planning and zoning commission to help protect the line. Although the company owns the pipeline itself, the easement for the land along the line only gives the company limited control.

Gullickson said it is also important to consider that for the city to say no to a development, they are essentially denying a group's property rights.

“People do need to remember the church has land rights,” Gullickson said.

According to a report by the Pipeline Informed Planning Alliance, it is considered best practice to take pipelines into account when making a land use decision.

In fact, the report suggests municipalities develop a planning area for large gas lines of 660 feet on either side of the line. In this way, municipalities can “make risk-informed decisions regarding land use planning and development in locations where residences and businesses are increasingly in proximity to transmission pipelines.”

The planning and zoning commission is expected to again take up the issue of the proposed cell tower on Wednesday.

Updated at 1:53 p.m. on Feb. 13.

Council meeting to shed light on Red Gap Ranch helium mining

The Flagstaff City Council hopes to clarify the city's stance on an agreement they entered into allowing Desert Mountain Energy to access city property for helium and hydrocarbon that could be present beneath the surface.

The land in question, Red Gap Ranch, was purchased by the city with taxpayer money for a different resource also found beneath the surface — potential drinking water. City voters approved a $15 million bond for the purchase to extend the city's water resources, with city officials only spending $6.9 million for the land and water access in 2005.

The city is holding a council meeting on Tuesday about a Desert Mountain Energy press release that city officials say "overstates" the city's commitment to their agreement that included exploration and production, according to the online council agenda.

Alicyn Gitlin, conservation coordinator at the Sierra Club, is concerned about the city's lack of transparency and communication on the mining and exploration prospect, which she believes could risk damaging the city’s water.

"It’s a very big violation of the public trust by not including public input and notification prior to making a decision like this that could affect our future water supply," Gitlin said.

Red Gap Ranch is located east of Flagstaff, south of the Navajo Nation and adjacent to the I-40 highway and has not yet been developed for city use.

Jessica Drum, spokesperson for the City of Flagstaff, encouraged people to attend the council meeting for further information.

The Desert Mountain Energy press release and focus for the concern states: “The parties agree to work together to limit the environmental impact of the work and production programs whilst allowing for the successful extraction of valuable resources.”

Olian Irwin, CEO for Desert Mountain Energy, said he stands by the information in the press release as accurate, but said there is always a possibility of misinterpretation.

Irwin also alleged that the company had no intention to build a well on the city's land or damage the city's water supply, despite the press release stating it could allow for hydrocarbon resource development. Hydrocarbons can include multiple different compounds but often occur in petroleum and natural gas.

"We won’t do a well for helium if there's any danger of contaminating the water supply at all," Irwin said. "It's just not going to happen."

A city council report from mid-January explains that the city will only allow seismic testing and mining if both Desert Mountain Energy and the city agreed to pursue the project.

“The memorandum of understanding: expresses the parties’ desire to explore possibilities for helium exploration and mining if mutually beneficial and to cooperatively work together,” the memo to the city council explained.

The agreement details the use of seismic testing to explore the presence for helium. Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said he is also concerned with how little public input has been allowed on the project, which he feels might endanger the Red Gap Ranch property.

"It's bad public policy," McKinnon said. "Secondly, a question arises, how does facilitating hydrocarbon exploration and development fit with the city’s new climate action plan?”

Desert Mountain Energy describes itself as a producer of helium, oil and gas on their website. Irwin alleges they included hydrocarbon in the agreement, because other gases and minerals can be found while exploring for helium.

"There's no intent, this is not about looking for oil wells," Irwin said. "Maybe that will be clarified with an amendment to the agreement."

City officials also recommend revising the agreement to clarify their perspective, according to the council agenda item.

“Any decisions or forward path by the city would be fully vetted with the council and public to achieve a complete understanding of the process to do any extraction, the environmental impacts, water quality impacts, and other factors that would be related to any decision in moving forward should any helium resource be discovered,” the city agenda said.

Helium is a nonrenewable resource and is used in items like computer hard drives and MRI machines as coolant.