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2014: Mercury and a booming economy - Odessa American: 75th Anniversary

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HAPPY 75TH ANNIVERSARY TO US 2014: Mercury and a booming economy

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Posted: Friday, October 2, 2015 7:00 am

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today marks 75 years of the Odessa American. This concludes the OA’s countdown of the last 75 years with summaries of some of the news and events that affected Odessans.

The year 2014 brought ECISD a rough year but with a new leader, Thomas Crowe. There were new schools to be built as well as more scandals out of Permian High School and a mercury cleanup at Hood Junior High School that would cost the district quite a bit.

The mercury contamination occurred when a ninth-grade Hood student brought about 2 ounces of liquid mercury in a water bottle to the campus. Twenty people (students and staff) were exposed to direct contact and 49 others to indirect contact, all of whom were found to be OK. By the seventh day, ECISD was paying more than $48,000 a day for the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health to clear out Hood Junior High, and remediate the spreading vapors. Officials said because almost 70 people were exposed and the liquid mercury was carried around on the bottom of people’s shoes, the substance spread across the school. By the end of it, crews had to dispose of 33 desks, 30 textbooks, two cafeteria tables, clothing, shoes (more than 500 items in all) and replace the cafeteria floor at the 137,000 square-foot junior high. The school board also voted to pay for the medical expenses of Hood students exposed to the mercury spill. The total was capped at $30,000.

Like in 2013, there were more allegations of improper relationships between a student and an educator out of Permian.

Alisha Carrasco Knighten, a former P.E. coach at Bonham Junior High and an assistant softball coach at Permian, was charged with improper relationship after she was accused of engaging in a sexual relationship with a then 18-year-old female student in March 2014. On May 7, 2014, popular Permian teacher Mark Lampman was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a West Odessa field. Lampman was found a day after he resigned from his job amid allegations of a relationship with a student.

New schools: Approved by voters in November 2012, the $129.75 million bond issue was to finance additions to Odessa and Permian high schools, three new elementary schools and a conversion to a middle school system. The new elementary schools will be named after the late state Rep. Buddy West, R-Odessa, longtime educator and school board member Lee Buice and Edward Downing, former Blackshear Junior-Senior High School principal. He also was a principal at Douglass and Carver elementary schools.

An October board workshop was the first time the public heard there would be an $8 million overage on the projects. The next month, Superintendent Crowe said it was important that construction continue to avoid inflation down the road. Crowe said in November his first preference would be to pay for the projected overage from $2.2 million the district received from selling Fannin Elementary and the Teen Parent Center/AIM High School. The other money could come out of a fund set up in 2011, currently totaling $9.28 million, set up as a backup in case voters rejected the bond.

Oil boom: The Permian Basin reached 1.85 million barrels of crude production per day this year, capping what for several years now has been an unprecedented boom even as a cloud hangs over the region about whether it will continue. Some 85 percent of Odessa and Midland’s economy ties in directly to the oil industry, according to Amarillo economist Karr Ingham, who studies the area and the Texas crude industry. And through much of the year, high oil prices perpetuated rapid expansion of oil activity and the Permian Basin’s oil and gas industry generated $138 billion in economic output that year, according to a Texas Tech University study.

The Odessa City Council took several steps during 2014 to making the decades-old dream of a downtown hotel and convention center to Odessa a reality. The process included the purchase of land downtown and going out for requests for proposals.

The city also made moves to secure more water for the city’s future, offering up some of the money made during a deal with Pioneer to expand the well fields in Ward County, and also tried to expand the city limits through annexation.

County news: Two long-time elected officials in Ector County died this year, capturing headlines that include news about the courthouse, medical examiner and a budget increase.

Judge Mark Owens died Feb. 28 after a two-and-a-half year battle with cancer. He was a judge for 20 years at the courthouse in County Court at Law 2. The Ector County Republican Party selected former County Attorney Scott Layh to replace Owens as judge, and selected former Assistant District Attorney Dusty Gallivan to replace Layh as county attorney.

Freddie Gardner, a commissioner for 17 years, died on Sept. 29 after a yearlong battle with stomach cancer. Ector County Judge Susan Redford selected Eddy Shelton to replace Gardner. Shelton owns Apple Electrical Contractors, and was endorsed by Gardner in a letter he left to commissioners before he died.

A number of other issues headlined 2014 in the county, including some carryovers from previous years such as the courthouse and medical examiner’s office. After suffering a defeat in the 2013 election on a $95 million bond package to build a new courthouse, Redford and other county leaders regrouped and sought a way to figure out how to address the old, space challenged and deteriorating courthouse.

The year also brought some tension between District Attorney Bobby Bland and the Ector County Medical Examiner’s Office after investigators with the ME’s office failed to get an autopsy on a one-month-old infant that tested positive for cocaine.

The infant was cremated and no autopsy was ever conducted, but the child’s mother was charged with seven counts of endangering a child after her other six children — ages 2 through 11 — also tested positive for cocaine.

Bland went public with the case and said there were others in which the ME’s office didn’t do the proper thing, saying the office was “reckless” and lacked “credibility, competence and accountability.”

The accusations led to several meetings to determine what, if anything, needed to be done about the office, with it narrowly escaping a shutdown several times during the process.

Commissioners and other county officials were notified of several problems in the Ector County medical examiner system, such as the part-time medical examiner traditionally not viewing the body in all deaths and a lack of communication between the ME’s office and the DA’s office.

With a few brief stints in having a full-time forensic pathologist in the county, Ector County has had a part-time medical examiner who orders autopsies from Tarrant County for the past 25 years after switching from the justice-of- the-peace system.

Ultimately, Chief Investigator Shirley Standefer resigned from the ME’s office along with another employee in the fallout from the dispute. Since that time, Medical Examiner Dr. Anne Acreman has been viewing all the bodies pronounced dead and having more direct involvement in the process, officials have said, all while seeking alternatives to a single, part-time medical examiner.

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