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North Dakota

Women charged with aggravated assault in Fargo stabbings

FARGO (AP) — A woman accused of stabbing three people in downtown Fargo is facing three felony counts.
Ashley Larson, 30, is charged in East Central District Court with three counts of aggravated assault. A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for June 16.
Larson was arrested Thursday after a 4-hour standoff with police while she was barricaded inside a vehicle belonging to one of the victims. She was medically cleared at a hospital and taken to the Cass County Jail.
Larson’s public defender could not be reached for comment on Saturday. Larson has no permanent address, police said.
Authorities said Larson stabbed a man she knew at a Fargo residence and then went to the Mexican Village restaurant where she got into an SUV in the parking lot and stabbed two women.
Debra Schreiner was having lunch with a friend in the restaurant when the stabbings in the parking lot occurred. Schreiner said she ran outside and helped the mother and daughter get into the restaurant and tended to their injuries before paramedics arrived.
The three people stabbed were treated for injuries and released.

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North Dakota

Many Fargo residents happy to go mask-free under CDC advice

FARGO (AP) — Downtown Fargo was surprisingly busy over the weekend, due in part to an outdoor fundraiser and an indoor spring fling. Masks were in relative short supply in North Dakota’s largest city.
Andrew Kodet, 20, a North Dakota State University student, and his girlfriend, Kenzie Nylin, 21, a University of North Dakota student, said they will wear masks where required. Otherwise they will go without because of the new Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and because they’re fully vaccinated.
The CDC says people who have completed their regimen of shots should feel free to show their faces.
Nylin said it’s been a long wait to ditch the face coverings, but added one caveat since unlike Kodet she’s old enough to enter liquor establishments.
Not everyone is ditching their masks just yet. Down the street from the college couple, Akayla Rondorf, 23, of Moorhead, Minnesota was wearing a pink cloth mask while walking. She said she’s fully vaccinated and still plans to wear a mask indoors.

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North Dakota

Review of leases requested after report of unused building

BISMARCK (AP) — A North Dakota state lawmaker said Friday that a news report about expensive but unused office space underscores the need for a review of all state leases to protect taxpayers.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that taxpayers are on the hook for nearly $3 million in rent over the next two years for unused office space in Bismarck for a state agency that intends to allow most of its more than 400 employees to work from home indefinitely.
“This is a classic example of the inefficiency and wastefulness of government,” said Republican Rep. Rick Becker, a Bismarck plastic surgeon, commercial real estate developer and former gubernatorial candidate.
“Can you imagine a business doing that? But no business would do that, of course,” he said.
The North Dakota Information Technology Department’s 85,000-square-foot leased space in a newly remodeled, privately owned office building in north Bismarck is unoccupied, except for about a dozen employees, the agency told the AP. It is the largest and most expensive leased office space in the state, officials said.
Though the lease was signed before the conavirus pandemic, the agency’s head had already begun moving toward having employees work remotely — and has said he intends to continue with that even after it subsides.
Becker previously sponsored a resolution that called for “studying the amount, type, cost, and occupancy of property leased by the state or any state agency” since 2018.
The resolution approved by the Legislature came after GOP Gov. Doug Burgum promoted working from home as a way to cut costs. Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said it also has been pushed to “promote workplace flexibility as a recruiting tool.”
The study is one of 72 that are optional for review by the Legislature, and if chosen could inspire legislation for the 2023 session. The Legislative Management committee, a 17-member panel of lawmakers that supervises business between sessions, will meet Wednesday to select the topics.
Lawmakers this year approved a $275 million two-year budget for the Information Technology Department, and increased its workforce from 402 people to 479. Included in the budget is funding for the agency’s digs, at about $2.9 million over the next two years.
Shawn Riley, who heads the Information Technology Department, told the AP on Friday that the agency did its “due diligence” in trying get out of the lease, since almost all of its employees are now working from home.
Riley said the agency inquired about having lawmakers cut funding for the lease but were told by the state attorney general’s office it would likely lead to a lawsuit.
“I would say we were adamant about our situation,” he said. “We were advised there would be a legal battle.”
Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, emphasized on Thursday and Friday her agency would not comment on legal strategy with a state agency. GOP Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem did not respond to repeated phone messages.
Documents obtained by the AP show that the state pays more than $10 million in rent for agencies at about 170 locations statewide, at an average rate of $13.33 a square foot.
North Dakota Capitol Facilities Manager John Boyle has said each state lease has an “appropriation clause” that allows the state to get out of it if the Legislature doesn’t provide funding.

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North Dakota

North Dakota high court orders new civil trial in 2015 crash

BISMARCK (AP) — The North Dakota Supreme Court has ordered a new civil trial for a driver who caused a Bismarck expressway crash that killed two women, injured a third and produced a jury award of more than $1 billion in damages.
The 2015 crash killed 21-year-old Taylor Goven, of Mandan, and 22-year-old Abby Renschler, of Lincoln, and caused a traumatic brain injury to 21-year-old Shayna Monson, of Dickinson.
Jordan Morsette, 28, who had a blood alcohol content more than three times the legal limit, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular injury.
A civil court jury in November 2019 awarded punitive and compensatory damages to Monson and the families of Renschler and Goven that topped $1 billion. The district court later reduced the total damage award to about $690 million, according to Supreme Court documents.
Morsette appealed to the Supreme Court after a district judge last June denied his request for a new civil trial. Morsette’s attorney, Kay Nord Hunt, in February argued that the district judge was wrong to admit evidence of Morsette’s intoxication because he had already admitted liability for the crash, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
Nord Hunt also argued the judge should not have allowed a plaintiffs’ motion to add punitive damages and erred in instructions to the jury. She also maintained the jury’s verdict was excessive.
The Supreme Court justices concluded in a decision released Thursday that evidence of Morsette’s intoxication was irrelevant, that the district court did err in its instructions to the jury, and that it abused its discretion by allowing the claim for punitive damages.
“There was no evidence indicating that Morsette acted with ill will or wrongful motive and intended to injure Monson, Goven, Renschler, or any other person,” the justices wrote. “Although Morsette’s conduct while intoxicated can be characterized as grossly negligent or extremely reckless, there are no special circumstances, such as an intent to injure or personal ill will toward the Plaintiffs, to support a finding of actual malice.”
The new trial will be on compensatory damages only, according to the Supreme Court order.

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North Dakota

UND rock library looks to preserve core of energy industry

GRAND FORKS (AP) — A few hours’ drive from the Bakken oil fields lies a treasure trove for geologists: rock from nearly every oil well ever drilled in North Dakota, under one roof.
The rock is tucked neatly into cardboard boxes stacked on numerous warehouse storage shelves in the Wilson M. Laird Core and Sample Library on the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks.
“We’ve got about enough core to lay out from here to Fargo, 85 miles or so,” director Jeff Bader said.
The library is part of the North Dakota Geological Survey and houses two forms of rock: core and drill cuttings. Core refers to cylinders of rock that oil companies pull out of the ground by attaching special bits to the end of their drills that make clean cuts as they preserve large chunks. Coring often is done when companies explore new places to establish wells.
Cuttings are smaller pieces of rock chopped up by a different type of bit. They are brought to the earth’s surface in a muddy mixture, then washed off and analyzed to determine which rock formations the company is drilling through. That ensures an oil well is placed exactly where it’s intended to go.
By state law, oil companies typically have six months to keep their core and cutting samples before they must send them to the library, The Bismarck Tribune reported.
The library has grown with the state’s petroleum industry, giving decades of geologists the opportunity to use its rocks to pinpoint where their companies should drill next. That work isn’t likely to stop anytime soon, and lately the library has found additional purpose as the energy industry eyes new ways to make use of rock buried thousands of feet below the North Dakota prairie.
The library spans 52,000 square feet and includes three labs with lengthy tables where geologists can lay out numerous boxes for their research.
“It was crazy busy when the Bakken boomed,” Bader said.
The facility grew cramped after shale fracking took off more than a decade ago. Oil companies began using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to access new layers of rock in the western North Dakota oil fields, and they shipped enormous amounts of that rock back to Grand Forks for storage. Company geologists visited the library often and still do, using the rocks already there to figure out the next big play.
The state in 2016 spent $13.6 million to expand the facility. Bader estimates it won’t run out of room again for another 65 years.
The earliest cuttings on its shelves stem from the work of Des Lacs Western Oil. The Minot-based company drilled for oil a century ago but came up dry.
Wilson Laird, who became state geologist in 1941, championed a host of laws and rules anticipating someone would strike oil one day. Among them was a requirement that companies preserve their drill cuttings and make them available to the Geological Survey. The rules have evolved over time and now require the rock to be sent to the core library.
The lucky break came in 1951 for Amerada Petroleum Corp., which struck oil near Tioga. The company’s discovery launched North Dakota’s first oil boom.
Rock from that well is packed into cardboard boxes just like all the other samples, and it’s something of a mecca for oil enthusiasts who visit the library and make it a point to stop by its shelf.
On a recent tour of the library, Bader and subsurface geologist Timothy Nesheim pulled down one of the boxes from that well. It contains rock from a depth of over 11,000 feet.
The rock is a light gray color but every so often shows a bit of brown, which Nesheim said is an oil stain.
Even he still gets excited by that rock, and he’s worked with the Geological Survey for years.
“Oh man,” he exclaimed as he looked at it earlier this spring. “You can actually see some of the pore space. You can actually see openings in the rock. You can’t always see that.”
Before the library was established in 1980, the Geological Survey kept its cores and samples in a Quonset hut behind the UND football field. Longtime State Geologist Ed Murphy recalled that it lacked heating, an inconvenience for geologists from Houston who would sometimes visit the chilly facility in winter and attempt to wet the rock to see it better.
“They were always complaining that it would freeze up on them,” he said.
Today’s geologists can run a number of tests on rocks from the library. One room is equipped with black lights to detect oil fluorescence, a yellowish glow that indicates the presence of oil within a rock.
Nesheim and Bader like to tell the story of how, in the days before the black light lab, Whiting Petroleum packed a number of geologists into one of the library’s windowless bathrooms. They closed the door for complete darkness before shining a black light on some core.
Their work paid off, as it led the company to discover the potential for oil development in the Pronghorn formation near Dickinson.
Activity at the library has slowed over the past year amid the coronavirus pandemic, which halted travel, causing demand for oil to plummet and sending prices crashing.
The downturn gave library staff time to catch up photographing all the rock that overwhelmed the facility during the boom days of the Bakken rush. They took 30,000 photos last year to upload online, accessible to other geologists via a subscription service.
“If somebody is in Texas or Denver, they can look at that core before they come up here and have an idea” of which boxes to pull from the shelves, Bader said. “Their time is valuable.”
Lately North Dakota’s other major fossil fuel industry — coal — is taking notice of the rocks at the library. So too is the state’s ethanol industry as both develop projects to capture their plants’ carbon emissions and store them in rock layers underground.
Carbon capture technology is in its infancy, and federal tax credits are helping fuel the projects. Supporters of the technology view it as a way to meet the public’s growing demand to address climate change.
Research into the subject has grown over the past two decades, and three operators of coal and ethanol plants in North Dakota have projects underway to see if they can make the technology work.
“Certainly there’s been an increase in interest in the last five years,” Murphy said.
Minnkota Power Cooperative is gearing up to apply for state permits to build and operate an injection site next to the Milton R. Young Station, a coal-fired power plant near Center northwest of Bismarck.
The effort, known as Project Tundra, has been in the works for several years. Minnkota has relied on research from the Energy & Environmental Research Center a few blocks away from the core library to test whether its plans are feasible.
“When we started the project, we needed to have some scope and sense of what the potential was,” said Shannon Mikula, special projects counsel and geologic storage lead for Minnkota, which serves eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. “The core library really was instrumental in helping us establish a target.”
Researchers examined rock already at the library from the Broom Creek formation to see if it had the right characteristics for carbon storage. Broom Creek is one of the layers of rock about 4,900 feet deep where Minnkota is looking to store carbon dioxide once it’s separated from the rest of the exhaust gas at the power plant.
“Over the years, the oil industry has flown over that formation because it’s not oil-bearing, but it’s got really good sand properties for CO2 storage,” Mikula said. “That core helped us identify that valuable formation.”
Minnkota has drilled two test wells, pulling out 3,000 feet of core from the Broom Creek and other formations for analysis. That rock is now housed in the core library.
Carbon storage projects in North Dakota also are focusing on the Inyan Kara formation. Some of that rock is out on display in one of the library’s labs. Bader has done extensive research on it for another purpose: to identify where the oil industry ought to inject saltwater, a byproduct of oil drilling.
His research also has pieced together its geologic history, showing how the formation was deposited when a massive inland sea once covered parts of North America over 100 million years ago.
“This is going to be your best for CO2 because it’s coarser,” he said, picking up a piece that feels like sandpaper to the touch. “When they decide to put their well in and their CO2 is going to be injected, they want to end up here.”
Carbon storage also requires significant impermeable rock that seals in carbon dioxide so the plume doesn’t migrate back up to the earth’s surface and enter the atmosphere. That too is something researchers examine closely as they develop carbon storage projects.
The library houses rock from other industries as well, some of which have been more successful than others over the years. Murphy described it as a “hodgepodge” of industries — everything from uranium exploration in the 1970s during the nuclear power boom to a more recent search for diamonds in the northeastern part of the state.
“We’re all about preserving that core,” Murphy said. “Who knows why 50 years from now they’ll want to be looking at those rocks.”

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North Dakota

North Dakota’s most costly leased building largely unused

BISMARCK (AP) — North Dakota taxpayers are on the hook for nearly $3 million in rent over the next two years for unused office space for a state agency that intends to allow most of its more than 400 employees to work from home indefinitely.
The North Dakota Information Technology Department’s 85,000-square-foot leased space in a newly remodeled, privately owned office building in north Bismarck is unoccupied, except for about a dozen employees, said Greg Hoffman, the agency’s director of administration.
It is the largest and most expensive leased office space in the state, North Dakota Capitol Facilities Manager John Boyle said.
Boyle said each lease has an “appropriation clause” that allows the state to get out of it if the Legislature doesn’t provide funding.
Hoffman said agency officials inquired about having lawmakers cut funding for the lease but were told by the state attorney general’s office that would cause a “legal battle” with the building’s landlord, who lives in Fargo.
Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said her agency would not comment on legal strategy with a state agency. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem did not return telephone messages.
Most state employees have returned to their offices since being told to work from home last spring as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S.
Gov. Doug Burgum allowed most state government offices to reopen to the public in a limited capacity last May. Burgum had said some 7,000 state employees at about 1,600 facilities across North Dakota had been part of a “remote workforce” under his orders since March 2020 due to COVID-19.
Hoffman said the agency favored “teleworking” even before the coronavirus pandemic hit and will continue to do so. The agency began allowing people to work remotely while its rented space underwent a two-year renovation, beginning in 2018.
The Republican governor has promoted working from home as a way to cut costs and “promote workplace flexibility as a recruiting tool,” Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.
Nowatzki did not know how many North Dakota state employees are currently working from home. Boyle estimated 70% of the 1,800 employees at the state Capitol have returned to their offices.
Shawn Riley, who heads the Information Technology Department, has sometimes worked remotely from his home in southeast Minnesota since Burgum hired him 2017 — with the governor’s blessing, Nowatzki said.
It has not hampered Riley’s ability to do his job or communication with the Burgum administration, Nowatzki said.
“The governor has been in hundreds of hours of online meetings with Shawn,” Nowatzki said.
Riley told The Associated Press he has spent “90%” of his time in North Dakota since being hired, including officing in person.
Nowatzki said the governor is aware of the agency’s near-vacant space. He said it could be made available to other agencies, if needed.
The leased space for the agency would occupy more than eight floors of the 19-story state Capitol building in Bismarck.
In addition to leading the state’s cybersecurity efforts, the agency supports the information technology needs of state government, K-12 education and higher education.
The Legislature this year approved a $275 million two-year budget for the agency, and increased of its workforce from 402 people to 479.
Included in the budget is funding for the agency’s palatial digs, at about $2.9 million over the next two years.

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North Dakota

‘Great day for America’: Vaccinated can ditch masks

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a major step toward returning to pre-pandemic life, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people on Thursday, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.
“Today is a great day for America,” President Joe Biden said during a Rose Garden address heralding the new guidance, an event where he and his staff went without masks. Hours earlier in the Oval Office, where Biden was meeting with vaccinated Republican lawmakers, he led the group in removing their masks when the guidance was announced.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask,” he said, summarizing the new guidance and encouraging more Americans to roll up their sleeves. “Get vaccinated — or wear a mask until you do.”
The guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but it will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues — even removing the need for social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.
“We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said at an earlier White House briefing.
The CDC and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shot. The country’s aggressive vaccination campaign has paid off: U.S. virus cases are at their lowest rate since September, deaths are at their lowest point since last April and the test positivity rate is at the lowest point since the pandemic began.
Walensky said the long-awaited change is thanks to the millions of people who have gotten vaccinated and is based on the latest science about how well those shots are working.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities — large or small — without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” Walensky said. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
The new guidance is likely to open the door to confusion, since there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those who are fully vaccinated and those who are not.
“Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”
Walensky and Biden said people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors.
“We’ve gotten this far — please protect yourself until you get to the finish line,” Biden said, noting that most Americans under 65 are not yet fully vaccinated. He said the government was not going to enforce the mask wearing guidance on those not yet fully vaccinated.
“We’re not going to go out and arrest people,” added Biden, who said he believes the American people want to take care of their neighbors. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, wear your mask for your own protection and the protection of the people who also have not been vaccinated yet.”
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is not changing the rules requiring masks on the House floor.
“No,” Pelosi told CNN. “Are they all vaccinated?”

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North Dakota

Jury: Guilty of manslaughter, innocent of murder, homicide

BISMARCK (AP) — A defendant accused of fatally stabbing a man in Mandan last summer has been convicted of manslaughter, but found innocent of murder and negligent homicide.
A jury in Morton County deliberated about three hours before reaching the verdict Wednesday. Arthur Funk, 48, was found not guilty of murder and negligent homicide.
A murder conviction carried a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole. The maximum punishment for manslaughter is 10 years in behind bars.
Defense attorney, Scott Rose, told jurors in closing arguments that Funk was only trying to defend himself when he stabbed 53-year-old Kevin Stockert at a residence in Mandan, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
Authorities say Stockert was stabbed nine times during a dispute over the return of a car belonging to Stockert’s girlfriend. Funk allegedly had been staying with her and hadn’t returned her car.
Assistant Morton County State’s Attorney Chase Lingle told jurors Funk had a knife with him when he went to the residence and planned to kill Stockert.
Rose said video from the confrontation between the two men showed that Funk was still in the driver’s seat of a car when he was punched by Stockert.
Rose says Funk passed out from blows and tried to escape when he regained consciousness. The two struggled outside the car, and Funk stabbed Stockert when “he had no other option, no other opportunity, nowhere else to go,” Rose said.
South Central District Judge Cynthia Feland has ordered a presentence investigation.

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North Dakota

One person has died in Bismarck apartment fire

BISMARCK (AP) — One person has died in an apartment fire in Bismarck, officials said.
Firefighters responded to a multi-family apartment building about 6:40 p.m. Tuesday and found heavy smoke and fire coming from a second-floor balcony.
Crews began working the fire from the outside, then entered the building to attack it and found an unresponsive person in the apartment where the fire was believed to have started.
The victim was pulled from the apartment and was treated by an ambulance crew, but died at the scene. Other tenants evacuated safely, but some residents have been temporarily displaced by the fire damage.

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North Dakota

Lawmakers to choose study topics that may inspire bills

BISMARCK (AP) — Less than a month after the North Dakota Legislature adjourned, a group of lawmakers will return to the Capitol next week to decide study topics that may result in legislation for the 2023 session.
The Legislative Management committee, a 17-member panel of lawmakers that supervises business between sessions, will meet May 19 to select the topics the Legislature will study during the next 18 months. The committee will meet again on June 9 to assign the subjects to study committees.
Each of the Legislature’s 141 members will be surveyed on committee preferences.
Legislative Management also will choose a legislative committee that will study redistricting plans this summer, its chairman, Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, said Wednesday. The Legislature is expected to meet again this fall to approve a proposal to redraw the state’s political map.
The redistricting plan is one of a dozen mandatory studies from legislation passed before adjournment. Other required studies include a review of the Public Employees Retirement System, access to private and public land for hunters, higher education affordability, prescription drug pricing, state agency fees, and “potential uses” of earnings from the Legacy Fund, the voter-approved oil tax savings account.
Another 72 studies are considered optional. Holmberg estimated that at least half of those studies will be assigned to committees.
The panel has 13 Republicans and four Democrats, and includes the floor leaders of both parties. Republicans have two-thirds majorities in both the North Dakota House and Senate, and they control the study and committee selection process.
Bismarck Democratic Sen. Erin Oban said study priorities for her party include “areas of health and wellness, issues that impact youth and families, education and workforce, infrastructure and responsible government.”
Holmberg, who has been in the Senate for 45 years, has headed Legislative Management four times during his tenure. Committee vice-chairman and Republican House Majority Leader Chet Pollert headed the group during the last interim.