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American Scene

- - Tuesday, January 31, 2012

CALIFORNIA

Teacher charged with molesting 23 kids

LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles elementary school teacher was charged with committing lewd acts against nearly two dozen students after a film processor gave authorities bondage-style photographs showing children in blindfolds with their mouths taped, and some with cockroaches on their faces, authorities said Tuesday.

Mark Berndt, 61, was arrested Monday at his Torrance home and remained jailed on $2.3 million bail, according to a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department statement.

The charges involve 23 boys and girls ages 7 to 10 between 2008 and 2010.

The investigation started when the film processor gave authorities some 40 photographs depicting blindfolded children in a classroom with their mouths taped shut.

Mr. Berndt worked for more than 30 years at Miramonte Elementary School in an unincorporated area of South Los Angeles before being fired as a result of the investigation.

NEW YORK

World Trade Center design flaw could cost millions

NEW YORK — The agency building the new World Trade Center says a design flaw could cost it millions of dollars.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said Tuesday the loading dock under One World Trade Center won't be finished in time for tenants to move their equipment into the 104-story tower. So it's building five temporary loading bays aboveground.

The problem is a result of a temporary station that was built for the Port Authority Trans-Hudson subway. That station can't be dismantled to make way for underground freight areas until crews finish the permanent station.

"Several years there was a design miss," said Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, "Should it have been caught? The answer is, probably."

The temporary loading bays will add millions to the cost of One World Trade Center. The Wall Street Journal on Monday reported that the cost of the building has soared to $3.8 billion, $700 million more than the last publicly released estimate in 2008.

Mr. Foye said the soaring costs will be examined in a review of the agency that is being prepared for the governors of New York and New Jersey. He would not confirm the $3.8 billion figure.

VERMONT

State struggles to rebuild flooded mental health system

MONTPELIER — Vermont officials say they're going to rebuild the state's mental health system better than it was before the remnants of Hurricane Irene flooded and closed the centerpiece state psychiatric hospital.

For now, they acknowledge that there's been a crisis, with community hospitals around the state trying to care for acutely mentally ill patients who formerly would have gone to the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury.

But Mental Health Commissioner Patrick Flood notes the closing of the antiquated Waterbury hospital has made the state eligible for about $24 million in new federal funding. The federal government had decertified the hospital.

He says the state will be able to build a state-of-the-art psychiatric hospital and pay for improved community services.

MONTANA

Forest Service won't evict Jesus statue

HELENA — The U.S. Forest Service says it will reauthorize a permit for a 57-year-old statue of Jesus that had been facing eviction from a northwestern Montana ski resort.

The agency faced a firestorm of criticism from religious groups, the state's congressman and residents after it decided last fall to boot the Jesus statue from its hillside perch in the trees.

The Forest Service said Tuesday will renew a 10-year special-use permit for the Knights of Columbus Council statue. Service supervisor Chip Weber says the decision took into account that the statue "is important to the community for its historical heritage."

The agency received more than 90,000 comments on the issue.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues the religious statue does not belong on public land.

WASHINGTON

Reward offered for information about dead sea lions

SEATTLE — Federal authorities aren't sure yet who shot several sea lions in the Puget Sound region in recent weeks, but a conservation group has offered up $10,000 for information that helps convict the perpetrators.

At least seven dead sea lions and one harbor seal have washed up in Puget Sound and on the Washington coast since early December, Brian Gorman, a spokesman with NOAA Fisheries Service in Seattle, said Tuesday. One of the animals was a federally endangered Stellar sea lion.

Bullets or bullet fragments have been found or recovered from all seven sea lions, but biologists are working to determine whether the bullets killed them, Mr. Gorman said. He noted that stranded mammals have been found with old bullet wounds that aren't fatal.

Salmon-hungry sea lions often get entangled in fisherman's nets or catches, and some consider them to be nuisances.

ILLINOIS

Reactor shutdown blamed on bad insulator

CHICAGO — A failed electrical insulator in a switchyard was to blame for the power failure that caused one of Exelon Energy's nuclear reactors in northern Illinois to shut down, company officials said Tuesday.

Officials hoped to replace the part by the end of the day. The company would then begin preparing to restart the Unit 2 reactor at the Byron Generating Station, about 95 miles northwest of Chicago, though it remained unclear how soon it could return to service, spokesman Paul Dempsey said.

The insulator, a piece of protective equipment that helps regulate the flow of electricity in the plant's switchyard, failed Monday morning and fell off of the metal structure to which it was attached. That interrupted power and caused the reactor to shut down automatically as a precaution.

It was not clear what caused the insulator to fail, but the part will be sent to a lab for analysis, Mr. Dempsey said.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared the incident an "unusual event," the lowest of four levels of emergency. Commission officials also said the release of tritium was expected.

From wire dispatches and staff reports