Badlands Journal
Mors immortalis -- Lucretius...Bill Hatch
Death is immortal; real estate values do not rise forever.
Soros Sees No Bottom for World Financial "Collapse"...Pedro Nicolaci da Costa and Juan Lagorio
NEW YORK - Renowned investor George Soros said on Friday the world financial system has effectively disintegrated, adding that there is yet no prospect of a near-term resolution to the crisis.
Soros said the turbulence is actually more severe than during the Great Depression, comparing the current situation to the demise of the Soviet Union.
He said the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September marked a turning point in the functioning of the market system.
"We witnessed the collapse of the financial system," Soros said at a Columbia University dinner. "It was placed on life support, and it's still on life support. There's no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom."
His comments echoed those made earlier at the same conference by Paul Volcker, a former Federal Reserve chairman who is now a top adviser to President Barack Obama.
Volcker said industrial production around the world was declining even more rapidly than in the United States, which is itself under severe strain.
"I don't remember any time, maybe even in the Great Depression, when things went down quite so fast, quite so uniformly around the world," Volcker said.
Associated Press/BusinessWeek
Gov't expands national program to buy foreclosures...KATRINA A. GOGGINS
The federal government is spending $4 billion to buy and fix up foreclosed homes despite concerns over how the money is being distributed, questions about oversight and fears that the program amounts to a windfall for banks that repossessed the properties.
Now, even before the first dollars are spent, another $2 billion is on the way under the economic stimulus package signed this week by President Barack Obama.
Last month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development signed off on hundreds of grants to all 50 states. The Neighborhood Stabilization Program, as it's known, was passed last year as part of a housing rescue plan that was regarded at the time as the most significant housing legislation in a generation.
But critics have assailed the program for the lack of money it will send some hard-hit communities and the discontent stirring among residents who want a say in what happens to their neighborhoods.
"What houses are gonna be involved? We still don't know that and we're a month away from the funds arriving," said Mike Aaron, president of the Livingston Avenue Area Commission, a group in a foreclosure-ridden area of the Columbus, Ohio. "That's what's making us uneasy right now."
The total amount coming into Ohio, for example, is $258 million, and Columbus is getting $23 million of that. Those figures do not include new money from the stimulus package and HUD has said it has not yet decided what the guidelines for the new grants will be.
Aaron said Columbus has rebuffed his group's attempts to talk about the best ways to use money, which has already been awarded to the state.
"We need to be involved in the process," said Aaron, who is pressing for an oversight board comprised of city officials and residents.
And then there's back biting about who gets how much.
The first round money is being divvied up based on the number and percentage of foreclosures, number and percentage of homeowners behind on their mortgages, and the concentration of subprime mortgages.
While the formula sounds fair, some of the results aren't. California and Florida are both getting more than $500 million in federal help, even though California has 500,000 foreclosures -- around twice the number as Florida.
Vermont, meanwhile, is getting the minimum of $20 million, even though the state had less than 150 foreclosures last year and the lowest foreclosure rate in the nation, according to RealtyTrac Inc.
Some city and county officials are also questioning the government's math.
Almost one in 10 houses in Merced County, Calif., are in foreclosure, one of the highest rates in the country. Yet the county will get just $2 million of the money going to California.
The city, which has a foreclosure rate of 12 percent, will get just $1.4 million.
"Someone stopped me on the street and said, 'Oh good you got the funding. So what can you do with this money? Buy like four homes?'" city housing manager Masoud Niromaud said, adding that there are more than 1,300 homes in foreclosure in Merced. "Seems that they (HUD) could paid more attention to the formula -- ran it a couple of times. They didn't do that."
Economists say lenders will surely benefit from the plan, though it doesn't include enough money to be considered a significant backdoor bailout for banks.
"In terms of bailing out lenders it's hardly the biggest thing out there but surely there will be cases where the land purchases will be in least in part to help politically connected lenders," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based thinktank.
In many cases, government officials plan to dole out the money to nonprofit organizations and smaller government entities that will purchase homes.
Critics and local housing officials are shaking their heads over the carte blanche grantees have in how they spend the federal funds. One South Carolina county said it would consider proposals to put homeless or HIV/AIDS patients in foreclosed homes eligible for the grant, while officials in Florida's Miami-Dade County said they plan to snap up foreclosed apartments with grant money despite staunch public comment against it.
Many of the proposals called for renting out the homes to low- to moderate- income families.
On the streets of neighborhoods pockmarked with vacant houses, many residents said they'd welcome new neighbors no matter how they got into the homes.
"I would want to put somebody in it, whether they're renting it or not. That's a house that somebody could be in," said Cheryl Poole, a 51-year-old Irmo resident worried about home values and the empty house across the street from her one-story ranch.
On the other extreme is Debra Oakley, a 55-year-old woman who said she isn't so sure she wants a new neighbor.
The two houses to the left of her home are vacant, including one that nonprofits are being encouraged to buy using stabilization grant money.
"I've often wondered about what kind of people would move over there," said Oakley. "I like it just like that: vacant."
Susan Popkin, a researcher at the nonprofit Urban Institute, said many homeowners have grave concerns about their changing neighborhoods and how that might affect their already declining property values.
In major cities nationwide, tensions have risen recently as federally subsidized renters move from housing projects and violence-ridden neighborhoods to nicer communities in suburban areas.
"The fear is real. The reality isn't," Popkin said. "The thing they're anxious about is what's already happening in their neighborhoods."
That's true in Columbus, Ohio, where 84-year-old Walt McKinley said he'd welcome any help to rescue their neighborhoods.
McKinley, who lives in the city's downtrodden Linden neighborhood, said he worries the spread of foreclosures in his neighborhood will drive up crime and wants the city to use the grant to demolish the house next door to his, which has been vacant since it was foreclosed upon and the owners abandoned it over the summer.
"I told 'em at work that if possible, I would even drive a bulldozer myself and bulldoze it," McKinley said. "I would be happy to."
But critics say there's no guarantees that McKinley's neighborhood or other hard-hit communities will benefit from the grants. No one is tracking just how the money will be spent and grantees have been tightlipped on their plans.
HUD will monitor how states and cities spend neighborhood stabilization money, but leave it to local governments to monitor how passthrough grants are used by nonprofits and other, smaller government groups.
Many Republicans opposed the first round of stabilization grants and don't want to increase the program. They say additional money will just give more slush funds to disreputable nonprofit groups.
"Instead of trying to work out troubles in the existing funds, we're basically doubling the size of the program and potentially doubling the size of the problem, said Frederick Hill, spokesman for the Republican Oversight and Government Reform Committee, about the House's plan to double neighborhood stabilization grant money.
Some economists also have expressed concerns over a lack of oversight.
"The record of housing authorities are not very good. It's certainly reasonable to be concerned that the money will end up going to politically connected lenders and developers and not do very much for communities," Baker said.
Associated Press writers Meghan Barr in Columbus, Ohio; Adrian Sainz in Miami, Fla., and Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt. contributed to this report.
Fresno Bee
Valley on verge of a catastrophe...Bill McEwen
California's water system is failing.
And now the House of Representatives is about to break it completely by providing $88 million to bring salmon back to the San Joaquin River.
Don't get me wrong. I'm for restoring the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.
But the plan that Congress is expected to approve in a few days will cripple the Valley economy and create an environmental nightmare.
The problem with the plan is that it only puts water in the riverbed. There isn't another spending bill dealing with farmland retirement and the spike in unemployment that will occur if land goes fallow.
There's also no acknowledgment that farmers with significantly reduced access to river water will pump groundwater until the aquifer is degraded and exhausted.
Finally, there isn't a dime for infrastructure to offset the effects of cutting water deliveries to farms.
If you're wondering who to blame for this pending disaster, look no further than Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the key player in the river's restoration settlement.
Based on what she has shepherded through the halls of Washington, D.C., you would think that no one on her staff read studies prepared by the Congressional Research Service on river restoration and the extreme poverty in the San Joaquin Valley.
You also would think that the environmentalists pushing restoration are on another planet -- ignorant of the world recession, the economic plight of many Valley residents and California's water crisis.
The study on river restoration repeatedly states that the loss in jobs and the environmental consequences created by reduced irrigation flows can only be offset by improved water management.
In addition, the parties to the settlement of the long-running lawsuit filed by environmentalists over the destruction of the lower river have said this time and again: river water will be recirculated, recaptured and reused for the benefit of both the habitat and farms.
So where is the money for river recirculation and raising the height of Friant Dam to capture more Sierra runoff?
It's missing because the environmentalists aren't really interested in such things, and they have Feinstein in their hip pocket.
I've got another question: Where is the conscience of Congress? It always has turned a blind eye toward the Valley, ignoring the impoverished lives of the people who pick the nation's food and fiber.
Now, with unemployment hitting 40% on the Valley's west side because of the drought and judicial rulings protecting the delta smelt, Congress is about to sock farmers and their workers in the gut in towns such as Exeter, Tulare and Chowchilla.
We are spending more than a trillion dollars to shore up banks, bail out automakers and keep people in their homes.
What sense does it make to spend $88 million to put thousands of people in the Valley out of work? And what sense does it make to base San Joaquin restoration on bringing back salmon to their southernmost habitat?
Again, I refer to the Congressional Research Service study that says "all or many environmental factors may need to be favorable to permit this species to complete its migratory life history."
I'm not a scientist, but global warming would appear to make a salmon revival in the river a long shot.
Unless Congress spends for river recirculation, land retirement and a Valley-directed economic stimulus package, only enough water to make the San Joaquin a "real" river below Friant should be diverted from farms.
Salmon should only be reintroduced if scientific studies show that they can thrive in the river.
Decades ago, the government made a huge mistake: diverting almost all of the water out of the lower San Joaquin. It's on the verge of compounding that mistake by trying to fix the river on the cheap and without regard to the disastrous effects on the communities reliant on irrigation water.
When the Senate approved the public-lands bill that included the $88 million, Feinstein said that restoring "the once-mighty" river was one of her "top priorities."
How about making the people who rely on that water to feed, clothe and house their families a priority, too, senator?
Sacramento Bee
El Dorado residents oppose housing in asbestos area...Chris Bowman
Dozens of residents in the landmark Serrano development of El Dorado Hills are lining up against a proposal to build 135 homes on a ridge that bears a particularly toxic form of asbestos.
The united front represents the first organized opposition to construction in Sierra foothills asbestos deposits, after 10 years of public health warnings.
Carving roads, utility trenches and building pads into Oak Ridge is bound to release breathable asbestos fibers into the air, potentially contaminating neighborhoods and schools downwind, according to geologists and environmental health experts who have studied the area.
Some of the digging would take place just over residents' back fences and near sports fields at Oak Ridge High School, which takes its name from the proposed housing site.
The main public health concern is mesothelioma, an inoperable and almost always fatal cancer of the membranes lining the chest and other body cavities. Breathing the type of asbestos commonly found around Oak Ridge can be enough to trigger the disease, though it typically takes 20 to 30 years for the cancer to take hold, according to several health studies.
Children are especially at risk because of their long life expectancy.
Nadine Lauren, a leader of the opposition group, counts 23 children among her dozen closest neighbors on Meadow Wood Drive.
"My concern is 100 percent about health risk, most importantly to my kids," said Lauren, who helped enlist many of the 70-plus Serrano residents in the group, Block Asbestos Ridge Development.
Controls have worked
Many Serrano residents find their gated, oak-shaded "villages" much safer and saner than congested cities they left downhill in the Bay Area and Sacramento County. And the creator of this suburban refuge – Parker Development Co. – insists it will stay that way.
El Dorado County's asbestos dust controls have already proved adequate on construction sites elsewhere in Serrano, and they will work just as well on Oak Ridge, said Kirk Bone, the company's director of governmental affairs.
"We are confident that the regulatory framework works to protect the public," Bone said.
Several California communities are laced with asbestos veins. The fibrous minerals, best known for their decades of use as a fire retardant, are commonly found near earthquake faults in foothills of the Coast Range, the Klamath Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.
While other areas may contain more asbestos, none has drawn more attention from health experts and regulators than El Dorado Hills, a bedroom community of 43,000.
"We are not aware of any other place in the state where you have this convergence of rapid development and large-scale disturbance of tremolite-bearing terrain," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Dan Meer told The Bee in 2005, following a study he supervised of the community's busiest recreational park.
EPA testing showed everyday activities – playing baseball or riding a bike – kick up a particularly toxic kind of asbestos fibers called amphibole, specifically its tremolite and actinolite varieties.
A more potent asbestos
Most lung disease experts consider amphibole asbestos at least 100 times more potent than the more prevalent commercially used chrysotile fibers in causing mesothelioma.
EPA testing was one of several government and university studies stemming from a 1998 Sacramento Bee investigation of asbestos in western El Dorado County.
The reports spurred California to ban the sale of serpentine road gravel, which often contains asbestos, and prompted the first nationwide mapping of asbestos outcrops as potential cancer hazards. The state subsequently imposed special dust controls on construction and mining in areas likely to contain the minerals.
Local planning departments also added asbestos to their screening of proposed developments, and real estate agents began disclosing the potential hazard.
Development in asbestos zones has continued with little opposition from local residents.
Until now.
Opposition emerges
Discontent sprouted in November, after Parker Development informed residents of Serrano's 369-unit "Village D1" – a resurrected 1997 plan to carve lots for 65 custom homes along the crest of Oak Ridge, just west of their subdivision. In a letter, the company said it also had applied for county approval to plow a separate tract for an additional 70 homes on the ridge.
"My husband said, 'Did you read this?' " Carla McMorris recalled.
The couple bought their home in 2000, believing Parker had killed the ridge project because of asbestos concerns, McMorris said.
Her neighbor, Lauren, said she also was surprised and became agitated.
"I thought they had already made the decision not to develop it," Lauren said.
Parker officials said they had "voluntarily delayed" the development in 1998 because "there was much discussion and debate, but not much understanding" of the potential asbestos hazard, Bone says in the letter to residents.
Bone said the company does not expect to break ground "for several years."
Even so, Lauren, McMorris and others are quickly organizing.
Lauren gathered neighbors to solicit the backing of their homeowners' association, only to learn that three of the five association directors work for the developer.
"We felt really dissed for (them) not taking us seriously," McMorris said. "That meeting was an eye-opener for us."
Bone, who sits on the association board, said the residents got a generous hearing.
"We took an hour out of our time to listen," he told The Bee.
What they saw as a cold reception prompted residents to form their own group, which now counts among its leaders an accountant, a public relations consultant and a state lobbyist: George Miller, son of veteran Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.
Less than 2 months old, the group already has hired a lawyer to help navigate the regulatory terrain and an expert in sampling and analyzing asbestos fibers, said Seth Flexo, a leader in the campaign.
"We're pretty happy with what we have gotten so far," Flexo said of residents' financial contributions.
The group has about a year before El Dorado County planners are expected to review Parker's Oak Ridge proposal.
Improved asbestos controls
Ten years ago, when Parker pulled the plug on the ridge project, less was known about the hazards of disturbing naturally occurring asbestos. Regulation mainly addressed demolition and renovation of buildings insulated with asbestos.
What Parker Development needed, Bone told The Bee last week, was government direction on digging in areas geologists have identified as likely to contain the minerals.
In those zones, local air pollution regulators now require special dust controls when crews excavate for housing, roads and backyard swimming pools. Wetting the soil, covering unearthed material, installing windscreens and washing tires on construction vehicles are typically required.
Parker's county-approved asbestos precautions include air monitors strapped on excavation workers and air samplers on the perimeter of work sites.
A consultant hired by the residents group said these safeguards go beyond what the law requires but nonetheless are inadequate, given the magnitude of asbestos and excavation proposed at Oak Ridge.
"It's a recipe for disaster," said Sean Fitzgerald, a North Carolina minerals analyst who discovered tremolite asbestos a few years ago in an Oak Ridge High School soccer field under construction.
"They're talking about running bulldozers through an asbestos vein that runs the length of the ridge," Fitzgerald said. "The less you mess with that vein, the smarter you are."
Residents opposing the ridge projects said they would have no quarrel with the development but for the asbestos, which they believe would escape the job site no matter how stringent the dust control.
Said Flexo: "We don't begrudge Parker for wanting to develop land and make a profit. Just do it where you don't jeopardize the health and safety of children."
Stockton Record
Casino's future lies with Obama...Dana M. Nichols
PLYMOUTH - The Ione Band of Miwok Indians is not a restored tribe and therefore can't legally use land it bought to build a casino in Plymouth, according to a Department of the Interior memorandum issued in the final days of the Bush administration.
But whether the opinion by Department of the Interior Solicitor David L. Bernhardt definitively dooms the casino is not yet clear. Bernhardt's memo was dated Jan. 16. Four days later, Barack Obama was sworn in as president, and Ken Salazar became the new secretary of the interior. Bernhardt is no longer solicitor, and Salazar has not yet named his replacement.
Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling confirmed that Bernhardt's memo is valid, but noted that the opinion expressed in it is not yet final and will be reviewed by the new administration.
The Ione Band of Miwok Indians hopes to build a casino with 2,000 slot machines and 40 gaming tables on 228 acres the tribe bought in Plymouth, just 50 miles from Stockton.
Ione Band Chairman Matt Franklin said the tribe continues to move ahead with its plans. Right now, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials are completing environmental documents necessary to convert the tribe's property into recognized American Indian land.
"We have received nothing to the tribe to say stop," Franklin said. "We're still hopeful we'll get the land in trust."
Opponents of the proposed casino, who obtained a copy of Bernhardt's memorandum, say they are cheered.
"This is a major setback for the Franklin-led group," said Butch Cranford of Plymouth. "It puts their fee-to-trust application back to square one," he said, referring to the process by which land held in fee title is converted to sovereign tribal land.
Bernhardt's memorandum reverses a 2006 decision by former Associate Solicitor Carl Artman. Artman concluded the tribe was a restored tribe under the meaning of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and that the land in Plymouth could be used for a casino.
Bernhardt said he sent a copy of his draft opinion to the National Indian Gaming Commission and will await the commission's comments before informing the Ione Band of the change in position.
BIA spokeswoman Darling said she did not know how long it would take the new administration to review the case or when the commission might have a response.
The legitimacy of the tribe has long been in dispute. Amador County officials have argued for years that the Ione Band is not a valid tribe under the terms of federal law. The county sued in federal court to overturn the earlier Department of the Interior determination, but that case was dismissed in December 2007 as premature because the department had not yet completed the process to designate the Plymouth land a sovereign tribal property.
Amador County is already home to one casino, in Jackson, and two more are proposed, including the casino in Plymouth. The other proposed casino is by the Buena Vista band of Me-Wuk Indians and would be on Coal Mine Road between Ione and Valley Springs.
Farmland in retreat?
Ag census shows county's farm production value up while acreage on the decline...Reed Fujii
STOCKTON - San Joaquin County is an agricultural powerhouse with production valued at nearly $1.6 billion in 2007, according to a newly released agricultural census.
But the county's rank as No. 7 in farm value, among the more than 3,000 U.S. farm counties, seems threatened as the census also shows the number of farms dropped about 10 percent, along with farm acreage, in the previous five years.
Scott Hudson, the county's agricultural commissioner, said he suspected local farmland was in retreat.
"The good news part is the value of production - even though we're growing on less farms and less acres, the value of production has increased," he said.
Part of the jump in value from $1.2 billion in 2002, though, was simply that the price of many commodities rose sharply over the five-year period.
Hudson noted that the amount of harvested cropland in San Joaquin County held fairly steady going back to 1964.
Figures from the Census of Agriculture, conducted every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, show cropland varying from as low as 538,000 acres to as many as 594,000 acres from 1964 to 2002. The county ended that period at 575,000 acres of cropland, but then it dropped 13 percent, to 454,000 acres, in the latest count, done in 2007.
Over the decades, as the county's cities grew and subdivisions and shopping centers displaced orchards and fields, growers used new cultivation and irrigation techniques to turn once marginal land into producing cropland. More recently, however, that option has played out.
"I think we've pretty much developed the marginal lands that we can farm," Hudson said. "Any more development will see a net decrease in cropland, farmland."
The area's agricultural industry could well remain in place, or it could go the way of Los Angeles County - which once the led the country in agricultural production value.
"What farmers tell me, to maintain agriculture in an area, it needs to be economically viable," Hudson said. "That's a function where there are markets that remain available, where farmers can sell their crops; they get a good return for their crops, and they're able to operate in an environment that encourages their business of farming."
Many factors affect farm economics, said Bruce Blodgett, executive manager of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau. Today, growers are trying to cope with the rising cost of cultivation and California's increasingly limited water supply.
But the pressure of urban encroachment will be hard to resist.
"Land values for urban development always outpace the value of land for agriculture," Blodgett said.
"We're going to have to figure out a way to compensate people to keep that property in agricultural production."
Public opinion may seem to favor preservation of U.S. farms, but that support fades quickly when it comes to tax-supported farm conservation programs or even consumer demand for domestic - perhaps higher-priced - fruits, vegetables and meats.
"If they want agriculture to remain viable, they're going to have to support local growers and ask for those products at the grocery store," Blodgett said.
Other highlights from the 2007 Census of Agriculture - which can be found online at www.agcensus.usda.gov - include: ...
Manteca Bulletin
Tracy may need to buy unused Lathrop, Manteca surface water...Dennis Wyatt
Tracy’s reliance on scarce Bureau of Reclamation water could end up bringing a bit of temporary fiscal relief to Lathrop’s water budget.
Bureau water pumped from the Delta-Mendota Canal accounts for 50 percent of Tracy’s municipal water supply. Another 33 percent comes from groundwater while the remaining 17 percent from the South County Surface Water Treatment Plant.
The Bureau is substantially cutting back deliveries this water year due to the continuing drought. Farm users are getting zero percent of their allocation in March while municipal users are being reduced significantly.
South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields said Tracy is expected to try and acquire capacity that belongs to either Lathrop or Manteca or both from the treatment plant the three cites operate in conjunction with Escalon. SSJID oversees the actual day-to-day operations.
Tracy already is using Escalon’s share as that city doesn’t intend to start accessing treated surface water until the second phase of the plant is built
Lathrop has the biggest unused capacity thanks to River Islands at Lathrop fronting the money to provide a supply for its future 11,000 households. Lathrop currently is using less than 25 percent of its water capacity.
Tracy has the ability to request that it “buy” unused Lathrop water. By “buy”, it would take over the cost of treating whatever percentage of water that they acquire that is Lathrop’s. The end result would be more production of Lathrop’s share of water. That would send the unit price for treating down reflecting in a somewhat lower water cost for the water Lathrop does consume for itself.
Lathrop’s municipal staff had mentioned the possibility of selling some of their water as a way of helping reduce costs during a protest hearing over the need to hike water rates in that city.
Shields noted that none of the cities have the right to sell raw SSJID water that they have an allocation to receive within the overall picture of serving the urban and agricultural needs of the 62,000 acre district of which Lathrop and Tracy are outside of the boundaries.
Any cutback that farm users face has to be shared equally by the cities. If the SSJID has to cut back deliveries 10 percent, each of the cities would face a 10 percent cutback in their supply.
Manteca isn’t expected to be affected since it mixes surface water with well water and has a long way to go until it reaches full use of the allocation.
Tracy, though, which maxes out its share, may face cutbacks that could force it not just to access Escalon’s water as well as what Lathrop doesn’t use but some of Manteca’s as well.
The SSJID board is asking all cities to enforce what conservation measures they have in place and to consider other ways to reduce water use.
There is also the real possibility of a fourth year drought in 2010 which means conserving water this year regardless of a city’s water supply outlook in the next 11 months may end up helping them next year when supplies could be extremely critical.
San Francisco Chronicle
Big asbestos case in Libby, Mont., goes to trial...NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS, Associated Press Writer
After years of delays, the people of a Montana mining town are getting their day in court to see a major chemical company face federal charges accusing it of poisoning their homes and schools with asbestos.
Opening statements are scheduled for Monday in the case of U.S. vs. W.R. Grace and Co. and five of its executives, who are charged with knowingly exposing the residents of the small town of Libby to the fibrous mineral linked to cancer.
Prosecutors have had to overcome legal challenges that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This trial is one of the most complex and creative criminal prosecutions in the history of environmental regulation," said Andrew King-Ries, an assistant professor at the University of Montana School of Law.
The case stems from the mining for vermiculite from Zonolite Mountain near Libby, which began around 1920 and continued until 1990. The mineral could be processed into products used for plumbing insulation, fireproofing and gardening. Zonolite brand insulation is in some 35 million homes in the United States.
The problem is that the vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos mineral fibers, which can be inhaled and can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.
Lawyers for Libby residents contend the pollution has killed some 225 people and sickened about 2,000 in the area.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy has placed a gag order on the parties involved, but court documents set the stage.
"The defendants in this case knew the dangers of asbestos they released into the Libby, Montana air, yet they concealed the dangers, putting local residents at risk while enriching themselves," prosecutors said in their trial brief.
Lawyers for W.R. Grace, based in Columbia, Md., deny there was any conspiracy to knowingly release asbestos, and also contend that most of the releases occurred years before an applicable law was passed in 1990.
"The government has illogically charged that the defendants conspired in 1976 to violate a statute that would not exist for another 14 years," Grace said in its trial brief.
The case has outraged many people in Montana, which has a long history of environmental and economic exploitation by giant corporations that extracted wealth while leaving behind their messes. Many are impatient with the delays that Grace has sought through numerous appeals.
"Folks in Libby have suffered long enough," U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told The Associated Press. "It's well past time for the wheels of justice to get rolling."
Libby is a town of about 2,600 people located in a forested valley of the Cabinet Mountains, about 100 miles northwest of Missoula, Mont.
Kristine Paulsen, a Libby native who wrote a master's thesis on how townspeople are coping with the pollution, said many locals are unsure how to react to the start of a trial that is expected to last for months.
"They want to get their hopes up, but they've gotten their hopes up so many times it is hard to do anymore," Paulsen said. "The things that happened to these people are just so terrible."
Tiny particles of the ore got into homes on the clothes of miners. It was also taken to processing plants in Libby, one of which was located next to a baseball field. The mill smokestack released up to 24,000 pounds of dust a day. Asbestos-contaminated mine tailings were used to build running tracks at local junior high and high schools, and lined an elementary school skating rink.
After news reports of health problems, the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 sent an emergency team to Libby to collect information about asbestos contamination, and the town was declared a Superfund cleanup site in 2002
"There were visible flakes of vermiculite everywhere," said Dr. Charlie Weis, an EPA toxicologist, at a recent pretrial hearing.
A federal indictment unsealed in February 2005 charged Grace and its former executives with violating the federal Clean Air Act and obstructing an EPA investigation into the asbestos contamination.
The legal issue is whether W.R. Grace, which bought the mine in 1963, and its co-defendants knew of the health risks associated with the mine for years before federal regulators arrived. The government contends the company and some of its managers conspired to hide health risks from its workers.
In addition to Grace, the defendants are five retired executives. All face up to 15 years in prison and fines totaling millions of dollars. They are free on their own recognizance.
A sixth defendant, company attorney O. Mario Favorito has been severed from the case and will be tried separately because nearly all of his conduct is protected by Grace's attorney-client privilege, Molloy has ruled. A former mine manager also was indicted but has died.
In 2006, Molloy made a series of rulings that disallowed some evidence and witnesses, damaging the government's case. Prosecutors appealed and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Molloy's decisions.
Grace appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last June refused to overturn the 9th Circuit and sent the case back to Molloy.
Grace and some of the executives are also charged with knowing endangerment for providing contaminated material to the community for various uses such as the running tracks. Grace is also charged with obstruction of justice for hampering EPA's assessment and cleanup efforts.
Lawyers for W.R. Grace contend the Clean Air Act's knowing endangerment provision was enacted on Nov. 15, 1990, while prosecutors are seeking to punish the company for actions dating back to 1976.
"If there is no substantive federal offense, there can be no conspiracy," Grace argues.
On the Web:University of Montana trial blog: blog.umt.edu/gracecase   W.R. Grace: www.grace.com/
Lions and orcas and bureaucrats...Tom Stienstra
So many stories, so little time:
Mountain lions have been ordered shot in Nevada to protect deer herds. Salmon and killer whales face a collapse in California because of water projects. A Department of Fish and Game director appears ready to walk the plank into oblivion. And why one of the prettiest state parks in California, Pfeiffer Big Sur, is likely to stay closed.
Of the dozens of stories, adventures and profiles on my desk, these are the four most provocative:
Mountain lions vs. deer:In Nevada, deer populations have plummeted from 240,000 to 108,000 in the past 10 years. Scientists attribute the decline largely to mountain lion predation. So Ken Mayer, former big game coordinator in California and now the director of Nevada Department of Wildlife, has ordered a major program to shoot mountain lions.
The intent is not to eliminate predators, Mayer said, but rather to reduce them so deer herds can rebuild. He said the program will be based on wildlife science and the predator-prey relationship.
Some people think that the relationship between mountain lions and deer is self-governing. So when the deer are about wiped out, the mountain lion population then naturally goes down to form a "balance" and the deer herd will bounce back.
That is not what happens. When there are few deer left to eat, the mountain lions then wander into the backyards of homes and ranches and eat whatever they can catch, then return afield to clip off the fawns. Their favorite food other than deer appears to be house cats, but they'll take dogs, sheep, llamas, calves and about anything else when hungry enough, including people occasionally.
Many wildlife experts believe we need Mayer back in California to do the same thing here. In the past 50 years, the population of deer in California has dropped from an estimated high of 2 million to fewer than 450,000, because of mountain lion predation and habitat loss in the Sierra foothills.
Salmon, orcas face collapse:The story this past week that reported the lowest number of salmon in history to swim from the ocean, through the bay and to the Sacramento River has several shocking sub plots.
It's now likely that all salmon fishing will be shut down again this year off the Bay Area coast. Killer whales, or orcas, could face a population crash because their primary diet is salmon and they could have difficulty finding other food.
Now get this, from the fine print inside a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service: Of the salmon that spawn or are released from hatcheries in the Sacramento River downstream of Redding, only 20 percent make it to the Delta because of water projects. Of that 20 percent that make it to the Delta, 60 percent die because of more water projects. So for the juvenile salmon that start their journey in Northern California, only 8 percent make it to the Bay to head out to the ocean.
The best suggestion is tell L.A. and other water grabbers to shut off their California Aqueduct faucet and build several desalination plants.
DFG director to walk the plank?The Senate confirmation hearing and vote for Don Koch as director of Fish and Game, scheduled for next Wednesday, could turn into an interrogation with ugly results, or be delayed. The organization California Trout, once a Koch supporter, now opposes him. The Karuk Tribe also opposes Koch, and if his defeat is imminent, other organizations will reportedly surface at the hearing.
"Our endorsement was conditional, and Koch has uniformly failed on all counts," said Jeff Shellito of California Trout. "Under Koch's watch, DFG has really blown it in the past year."
The DFG charges a record high price for fishing licenses this year, $60.95 with stamps for the Bay Area angler. Yet salmon are shut down, striped bass have gone down the drain (of the California Aqueduct), ocean deep sea fishermen got lumped with commercials over widespread season closures, there isn't a single lake in the Bay Area where DFG trout plants alone provide decent fishing, and there still isn't a comprehensive trout planting management plan that protects native species and also provides recreation.
Koch will also have to explain how, when he was a DFG regional manager in Redding, water diversions caused fish kills on the Shasta and Scott rivers, and whether preferential treatment guided fish stocks in his region.
Trouble for Pfeiffer Big Sur: The backlog on infrastructure repair for state parks is finally hitting the public. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, with no money to build a new bridge at the entrance, could be closed all year. The old bridge was removed last fall when engineers discovered it could be washed out by mud slides. There's no telling when this might be fixed.
New York Times
Drought Adds to Hardships in California ...JESSE McKINLEY
MENDOTA, Calif. — The country’s biggest agricultural engine, California’s sprawling Central Valley, is being battered by the recession like farmland most everywhere. But in an unlucky strike of nature, the downturn is being deepened by a severe drought that threatens to drive up joblessness, increase food prices and cripple farms and towns.
Across the valley, towns are already seeing some of the worst unemployment in the country, with rates three and four times the national average, as well as reported increases in all manner of social ills: drug use, excessive drinking and rises in hunger and domestic violence.
With fewer checks to cash, even check-cashing businesses have failed, as have thrift stores, ice cream parlors and hardware shops. The state has put the 2008 drought losses at more than $300 million, and economists predict that this year’s losses could swell past $2 billion, with as many as 80,000 jobs lost.
“People are saying, ‘Are you a third world country?’ ” said Robert Silva, the mayor of Mendota, which has a 35 percent unemployment rate, up from the more typical seasonal average of about 20 percent. “My community is dying on the vine.”
Even as rains have washed across some of the state this month, greening some arid rangeland, agriculture officials say the lack of rain and the prospect of minimal state and federal water supplies have already led many farmers to fallow fields and retreat into survival mode with low-maintenance and low-labor crops.
Last year, during the second year of the drought, more than 100,000 acres of the 4.7 million in the valley were left unplanted, and experts predict that number could soar to nearly 850,000 acres this year.
All of which could mean shorter supplies and higher prices in produce aisles — California is the nation’s biggest producer of tomatoes, almonds, avocados, grapes, artichokes, onions, lettuce, olives and dozens of other crops — and increased desperation for people like Agustin Martinez, a 20-year veteran of the fields who generally makes $8 an hour picking fruit and pruning.
“If I don’t have work, I don’t live,” said Mr. Martinez, a 39-year-old father of three who was waiting in a food line in Selma, southeast of Fresno. “And all the work is gone.”
In Mendota, the self-described cantaloupe center of the world, a walk through town reveals young men in cowboy hats loitering, awaiting the vans that take workers to the fields. None arrive.
The city’s main drag has a few quiet businesses — a boxing gym, a liquor store — and tellingly, two busy pool halls. The owner of one hall, Joseph R. Riofrio, said that his family had also long owned a grocery and check-cashing business in town, but that he had just converted to renting movies, figuring that people would rather stay at home in hard times.
“We’re not going to give up,” Mr. Riofrio said. “But people are doing bad.”
Just down the highway in Firebaugh, José A. Ramírez, the city manager, said a half-dozen businesses in its commercial core had closed, decimating the tax base and leaving him to “tell the Little League they’d have to paint their own lines” on the local diamond.
The situation is particularly acute in towns along the valley’s western side, where farmers learned on Friday that federal officials anticipate a “zero allocation” of water from the Central Valley Project, the huge New Deal system of canals and reservoirs that irrigates three million acres of farmland. If the estimate holds and springtime remains dry, it would be first time ever that farmers faced a season-long cutoff from federal waters.
“Farmers are very resilient, we make things happen, but we’ve never had a zero allocation,” said Stephen Patricio, president of Westside Produce, a melon handler and harvester. “And I might not be very good at math, but zero means zero.”
While California has suffered severe dry spells before, including a three-year stint ending in 1977 and a five-year drought in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the ill effects now are compounded by the recession and other factors.
Federal, state and local officials paint a grim picture of a system taxed as it has never been before by a growing population, environmental concerns and a labyrinth of water supply contracts and agreements, some dating to the early 20th century. In addition to the federal water supplies, farmers can irrigate with water provided by the state authorities, drawn from wells and bought or transferred from other farmers. Such water may not always be the best quality, said Mark Borba, a fourth-generation farmer in Huron, Calif.
“But it’s wet,” he said.
Richard Howitt, the chairman of the agricultural and resource economics department at the University of California, Davis, estimates that 60,000 to 80,000 jobs could be lost — including in ancillary businesses — and that as much as $2.2 billion in crop and other losses could be caused by restrictions on water and the drought, which he called “hydrologically as bad as 1977 and economically as bad as 1991.”
“You’re talking about field workers, processing handlers, people packing melons, trucking hay, sprayers, people selling tractors, people selling lunches to people selling tractors,” Mr. Howitt said. “And in some of these small west-side towns, it’s going to hit the people who are least able to adapt to it.”
One of the hardest hit areas is the farmland served by the Westlands Water District, which receives water exclusively from the Central Valley Project and distributes it to 600,000 acres in Fresno and Kings Counties. Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for the district, said that her 700 members expected to leave 300,000 to 400,000 acres fallow and that some might not come back to farm at all.
“Everyone’s trying to go down fighting,” Ms. Woolf said. “But there will be significant companies that will go out of business, as well as families that have been farming for generations, if it doesn’t get better.”
The outlook for things getting better quickly is dim, despite forecasts of rain this week. Last month, California officials estimated the snowpack in the Sierra, a primary source of water for the state when it melts in the spring, at 61 percent of normal. On Friday, the State Department of Water Resources said it would deliver just 15 percent of its promised contracts, a level it was able to maintain only because of the recent spate of rain. “It’s pathetic,” said Lester A. Snow, the department’s director.
Lynette Wirth, a spokeswoman for the United States Bureau of Reclamation, said water levels in all federally managed reservoirs in California were well below normal, with “abysmal” carryover from the previous year.
“There’s been no meaningful precipitation since last March,” Ms. Wirth said.
Farmers, of course, are also dealing with issues unrelated to rain, including tight credit from banks and recent court decisions meant to protect fish that have limited the transfer of water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which feeds snowmelt to farmbound canals. Many farmers refer to a “man-made drought” caused by restrictions.
At the same time, environmental groups say they also fear a range of potential problems, including depletion of the valley aquifer from well pumping, possible dust-bowl conditions in areas of large patches of fallow ground and concern about salmon and other species. “It’s a tough year for the environment, and people,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.