Badlands Journal
Don't let Bush's ESA rules stand...Badlands Journal editorial board
This item below courtesty of the Center for Biodiversity, brings us up-to-date on Bush's lame-duck anti-Endangered Species Act regulations, what Obama has done about them, what he hasn't don't about them, and what remains to be done to get rid of them in the next several weeks.
Center for Biological Diversity…3-18-09
(415) 632-5319 for more information
Secretary of Interior Should Rescind Bush Endangered Species Act Rules —
Congressional Authorization Expires in 53 Days
Shortly before leaving office, the Bush administration issued three regulations that (1) remove the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an independent, scientific watchdog over potentially damaging federal projects such as timber sales, mines, and dams; (2) exempt all greenhouse gas-emitting projects, including coal-fired power plants and federal fuel efficiency standards, from Endangered Species Act review; and (3) specifically ban federal agencies from protecting the imperiled polar bear from greenhouse gas emissions. These policies eviscerate the central Endangered Species Act process — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversight — that has protected endangered species for 35 years, and they exclude the greatest future threat to endangered species — global warming — from consideration under the Act.
The Bush policies are the subject of active lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity, numerous other environmental groups, and nine states, including California, New York and Oregon. President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum on March 3 ordering agencies to temporarily ignore the portion of the regulation blocking U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversight. The memorandum does not rescind the regulation, however, and does not address the exemption of greenhouse gas emissions from the Endangered Species Act or limitations on protecting the polar bear.
On March 11, an omnibus appropriations bill was signed into law that gives the secretary of the Interior congressional authority to immediately rescind all three Bush policies. The secretary’s authority to act expires 60 days after the enactment of the law, on May 9. In rescinding the regulations, the secretary will have simply restored the status quo that has protected endangered species for 35 years.
Industry groups are marshalling op-eds and editorials urging Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to let the Bush regulations stand. There are many issues on Salazar’s plate, and he has not yet appointed a head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or filled other key endangered species-management positions. It is far from guaranteed, therefore, that he will rescind the regulations. Editorials in favor of action will elevate the issue and show the secretary that rescinding the Bush regulations is a popular, high-priority action.
The Self-Consultation Regulation. The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Minerals and Management Service and Federal Highway Administration to “consult” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when considering approval of projects such as timber sales, mines and road building that “may affect” endangered species. The consultation results in a “biological opinion” from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which will typically approve of a project in a modified form that reduces or eliminates impacts to endangered species. The Bush regulations would cut the Fish and Wildlife Service and its independent review out of the process, allowing the Forest Service and other agencies to determine for themselves whether a project is likely to affect endangered species. This is a classic example of allowing the fox to guard the henhouse because agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation employ staff dedicated to — and receive revenues from — logging public lands and building dams. Allowing them to review their own projects enshrines a conflict of interest in a system that was previously based on independent scientific oversight. Ironically, the Bush administration tested this policy in 2003 and determined that it does not work. When allowed to self-consult over timber sales, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management violated the Endangered Species Act 68 percent of the time.
The Greenhouse Gas Exemption. Global warming is rapidly growing as the greatest long-term threat to biological diversity. Scientists estimate that nearly a third of the world’s species could be committed to extinction by 2050 if current levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue. More than 50 percent of federal endangered species recovery plans issued in the past three years identify global warming as a threat. The recent listing of the staghorn and elkhorn corals off the coast of Florida and of the polar bear in the Arctic as “threatened” is the beginning of what will be a long list of global warming-related endangered species list additions. Penguins in Antarctica; seals and walruses in the Arctic; and pikas in the mountains of California, Nevada and Utah are all waiting in the wings for federal protection. While the Endangered Species Act cannot solve global warming by itself, as America’s primary law to prevent the extinction of plants and animals, it has a crucial role to play in ensuring that federal agencies address and mitigate their global warming contributions. 
Bush’s 11th-hour regulation defines all greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of how large they are, as part of a single “global process,” then excludes all such processes from review under the Endangered Species Act. The Endangered Species Act, however, makes no such distinction between local and global processes. It simply says that federal agencies must review any action they permit, fund or carry out that may affect a listed species. As greenhouse gases unquestionably threaten polar bears and corals, any federal permitting of coal-fired power plants, coal mines, and oil leases must be reviewed for their impacts. Similarly, federal policies such as the establishment of fuel efficiency standards must be reviewed. The Bush administration’s position that it is necessary to place global warming-threatened species such as the polar bear on the endangered species list — but that it is impermissible to take action save them — is absurd.
The Polar Bear Special Rule. In addition, the Bush administration promulgated a similar polar bear-specific regulation that exempts from regulation all activities occurring outside polar bear habitat. Thus, greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants and many other sources outside Alaska — even though they are the primary cause of the polar bear’s threatened status— are excluded from regulation under the Endangered Species Act. Because this polar bear “special rule” (also called a “4(d)” rule) is distinct from the national greenhouse gas regulation, it must be separately rescinded. The recently passed omnibus appropriations bill gives the secretary of the Interior the authority to strike both the Endangered Species Act regulations and the polar bear special rule.
Merced Sun-Star
UC regents endorse plans to expand Merced campus...DANIELLE GAINES
UC Merced is one step closer to building beyond its current footprint.
The campus' long-range development plan and environmental impact report were approved by the University of California Board of Regents at a meeting in Riverside on Thursday afternoon.
"Authorization of these two planning documents is a major step forward for UC Merced and a tribute to the many people at the university and in the public sector who helped to shape and fine-tune these plans in recent years," UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang said in a statement after the vote.
"The Regents' strong support renews our dedication to the challenging task we've undertaken and reinforces our determination to build a university that serves the people of California with great distinction," Kang added.
The plans must now be approved by a series of federal agencies before building can begin.
Associate Chancellor Janet Young said the four-year-old campus was fast approaching capacity at the 104-acre former golf course it broke ground on in 2002.
There are several building projects under way on that land: a social sciences and management building, early childhood education center and a third student housing complex. Plans are also under way for a second science and engineering building.
Construction of those buildings is expected to be done by 2012.
In the second phase, construction of the university community, a planned neighborhood that includes housing and recreational buildings, will begin on 1,951 acres directly to the south of campus.
Planning of the community is a joint effort of UC Merced and the Virginia Smith Trust under company called the University Community Land Co.
Other structures included in the second phase are an aquatics center, additional housing, several classroom facilities and a graduate school of education, according to the long-range development plan.
The first structure to break ground outside of the current bounds is a 1-megawatt photovoltaic solar array. The solar field is expected to cover nine acres and produce up to 20 percent of the campus' yearly electrical supply.
The fully built campus and accompanying student neighborhoods will stretch across 2,766 acres north of Lake Road, bounded by Lake Yosemite to the north and Yosemite Avenue to the south.
While UC Merced's buildings have been heralded around the world for their environmental friendliness, choosing how to develop the land hasn't been a smooth process.
In October 2002, the university was sued by environmental advocates in an attempt to block development that would endanger fairy shrimp, small crustaceans that hatch after rainfall collects in the vernal pools within and near the UC Merced land.
In October 2007, the university announced a revised campus and community plan with 259 fewer acres of development and a new configuration that reduced impacts on vernal pool wetlands.
In November 2008, the university released the long-range development plan and accompanying environmental impact report for the new development plans.
The university must now wait for a land permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency allowing it to build on federally protected wetlands.
The Army Corps is accepting comments through April 4 for their review process.
Nancy Haley, project manager for UC Merced development at the Sacramento Army Corps office, said a record of decision will likely be issued in May.
If the corps approves the project, a permit would be issued next summer. If the corps does not accept the environmental impact statement, it will be back to the drawing board for UC Merced leaders.
"We have moved the campus three times," Young said. "The permit will be a significant milestone."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also must issue a biological opinion related to the project.
Brad Samuelson, director of environmental affairs, has been working on the long-term plans since 2003.
He said the Regents' approval was just another day in the office.
"We're not necessarily celebrating at any part of this process," he said. "After we get the (Army Corps) permit, it's not like we don't do any more land-use planning."
Still Samuelson looked forward to a "24/7 campus where there is a lot of energy."
He said the current plans wouldn't be the same had it not been for the years of input by local leaders and community members.
"We recognize that the campus is a new addition to an existing community," Samuelson said. "We want to be a good, solid neighbor."
UC Merced plans to enroll 25,000 students by 2035.
Federal dollars to battle foreclosure crisis move closer to Merced
A few more steps needed...CORINNE REILLY
Merced County is closer than ever to collecting nearly $9.2 million in long-awaited federal funding to help local governments buy up foreclosed houses and demolish those that have become eyesores.
The money will come from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, created by Congress last summer.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that it had approved a state plan to dole out roughly $145 million in Neighborhood Stabilization money -- an approval that stood as one of the last roadblocks preventing the money from making its way to Merced.
The state already has said it plans to give roughly $9.2 million to local governments in Merced County, including $2.6 million for the city of Merced; $2.4 million for the city of Los Banos; $1 million for the city of Atwater; and $3.1 million for Merced County.
All that's left now is for those local governments to formally apply to the state for the money.
"This is a really important step forward," county spokeswoman Katie Albertson said. "We're very excited that this money will finally be getting here."
Albertson said the county is ready to file its application. "We've just been waiting for this approval," she added.
Congress passed the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 last July. It included roughly $4 billion in so-called neighborhood stabilization funds to be passed down to areas across the country hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.
Specifically, the money was meant to help local governments buy up foreclosed homes and redevelop areas slipping into blight.
HUD, the federal agency charged with handing down the money, announced its plans for allocating the funding this fall. Some was handed directly to local governments. Merced was passed over in that round, leaving local leaders with only one hope for collecting any of the money: getting it indirectly from the state.
HUD allocated $145 million for California but until Thursday had stalled on approving the state's plan to dole out that share.
Merced's projected $9 million piece of the pie is almost a done deal, said Chris Westlake of the state's Housing and Community Development Department. "It's basically just a matter of filing the appropriate paperwork so we know how (local governments) plan to use the money," he said.
Westlake said the state will work as quickly as possible to get the money to cities and counties so they can spend it within the next 18 months, as required.
In a statement issued Thursday, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said he and other federal legislators from California had been urging HUD to pick up its pace in issuing the approval.
"Merced County should never have been overlooked for these funds in the first place," Cardoza said in the statement. "I am pleased to have helped right this wrong as our communities remain at the heart of the foreclosure crisis."
Our View: Feeling effect of bankruptcy stats in Valley
Sacrifices will help us all get through this tough time together.
Bankruptcy filings in the Valley last year confirm what residents have witnessed first-hand.
The economic downturn has staggered the region, and its impacts echo throughout businesses, neighborhoods and families.
A new report says bankruptcy filings increased 83 percent in 2008 in a region that includes Merced County.
The report for the Eastern District of California shows the increases for this federal judicial district was the second-highest in the nation. The Eastern District only trailed the district centered in Los Angeles County.
Bankruptcy courts have been seeing people seeking shelter from home foreclosures, job losses and other financial calamities.
These cases mirror what we are told by the state's Employment Development Department, which saw January jobless claims increase 89 percent over January 2008.
The downward spiral often begins with residents becoming overextended on credit card debt, then breadwinners lose their jobs and mortgage payments mount and foreclosure begins. Once that occurs, many residents see bankruptcy as theonly way out of their predicaments.
This economy will turn, although it may not be soon enough for many businesses and the workers who rely on the jobs they provide.
There are some hopeful signs in the Valley housing market, but it is still burdened with a glut of foreclosures.
Like most Americans, we hope that President Obama's stimulus package helps jump-start the economic recovery. But we must be smart about our strategy.
That's why we were especially upset that Obama signed a $410 billion omnibus spending measure that had been loaded up with lawmakers' pet projects.
Federal spending must be targeted where it will do the most good. We have supported putting more money into infrastructure projects, which would quickly put people to work and be an investment in our roads, schools, highways, bridges, levees, parks, transit systems and other public infrastructure that have been allowed to decay.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Merced on Wednesday promoting the $46.7 million bridge replacement projects that will create 800 jobs in the Valley. Caltrans is spending $625 million on 57 highway projects as part of the first wave of federal stimulus money.
"In the end, it's not just about rebuilding California," the governor said. "It's about creating jobs."
And once the Wal-Mart distribution center project gets under way, that will open hundreds more jobs in Merced.
We also think local and state governments must be willing to do what California businesses have had to do -- make drastic cuts during this economic downturn. This is painful, but necessary.
Government can't always look to taxpayers for more money.
We all must make sacrifices, and that will help the recovery begin sooner. This is not an easy time, especially in this Valley with its many economic challenges. But we can get through this crisis if we all do our part.
Modesto Bee
Area home prices a mixed bag...John Holland...The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Home prices continued to slip in Stanislaus and Merced counties last month, a real estate research firm reported Thursday, but they perked up a little in San Joaquin and Tuolumne.
The median price in Stanislaus County was $136,250, the report from MDA DataQuick said. That was down 2.7 percent from the $140,000 median in January and 66 percent off the market's $396,000 peak in late 2005.
The median price is the point at which half the homes sell for more and half for less.
The low prices, many of them on foreclosed homes being unloaded by banks, are bringing out buyers. Stanislaus County had 731 sales last month, compared with 426 in February 2008.
"We are seeing a lot of first-time people and a lot of investors, because for both segments of the market it makes sense," said Neil Weese, sales manager and partner at Coldwell Banker Endsley & Associates in Turlock.
The Stanislaus median is about where it was in 2000, early in a run-up that would more than triple it. The collapse over the past three years has brought major job losses in construction and related fields and a wave of foreclosures that contributed to the turmoil in world financial markets.
Merced County's median price stood at $105,500 in February, versus $115,000 in January and $380,750 in late 2005.
San Joaquin County had a median price of $155,000 last month, up from $152,614 in January but far below the $450,000 at the end of 2005.
In Tuolumne County, the median was $200,000 last month, up from $196,000 in January but down from $335,000 in late 2005.
Statewide, the February median price was $224,000, unchanged from January but less than half of the $484,000 peak in mid-2007.
Andrew LePage, a spokesman at DataQuick's headquarters in San Diego County, said it would take several more months to know whether the state's market has bottomed out.
"I don't think you can read anything more into this than the possibility that it's an early sign of prices stabilizing at some later point," he said. "We won't know until we can look in the rearview mirror."
Mortgage less than rent
Weese said the countywide figure can conceal places that are doing better, such as north Turlock. He said his agency is once again getting multiple offers on homes, especially in the lower part of the market.
Low prices, low mortgage rates and new tax credits for some buyers are combining to get sales moving, he said.
Mary Prieto, an agent for California Prudential Real Estate in Modesto, said many people are realizing that they can buy homes with monthly payments less than what they pay in rent.
She also noted that another surge of foreclosed homes could hit the market this spring.
"Let's match them up," she said of the buyers and sellers. "Let's get the inventory off the books, and it will turn around."
The change is evident in the Housing Opportunity Index, compiled by Wells Fargo Bank and the National Association of Home Builders.
In the fourth quarter of 2005, just 3 percent of the homes that sold in Stanislaus County were affordable to median- income households, the index showed. Late last year, that figure stood at 71.1 percent.
"We feel very optimistic that we've seen the worst," Weese said of the real estate slump. "We kind of led the nation into this whole mess, and we will lead the nation out of it."
Fresno Bee
Sales of existing homes in Fresno County up 87%...Sanford Nax
Sales of existing homes surged nearly 88% in Fresno County last month and could climb even more in March as homebuyers capitalize on bargain-basement prices and take advantage of new tax incentives.
"I expect to see a huge spring and summer selling season," said Alexis McGee of ForeclosureS.com, an investment and market tracking service. "Buyers have little reason to wait."
In Fresno County, 635 existing houses were sold, up 87.3% from February 2008. The buyers were responding to dropping home prices; the median in Fresno County fell to $127,750, down 46.8% from February 2008 and a 5.7% decrease from January, according to MDA DataQuick, a market-tracking service.
The combination of lower prices, ample supply, motivated sellers, low interest rates and government tax credits creates an unprecedented opportunity, said Robin Kane, a housing analyst in Fresno.
Except for those worried about losing their jobs in this severe economic downturn.
"The recession is the 800-pound gorilla in the room," Kane said. "But if you have confidence in your job, the question is, 'Why aren't you buying a house?' "
Apparently, many people are. The number of pending contracts totaled 886 last month, which is the highest number since February 2007, said Jared Martin, president of the Fresno Association of Realtors. That bodes well for March, when more than 600 of those pending sales should be completed, if the 30% cancellation rate in February holds true.
Meanwhile, the number of houses for sale in Fresno and Clovis slid from 5,092 a year ago to 3,841, a decline of 24.5%. Martin said the market is absorbing the foreclosures, "and that is what we need to arrive at a healthier market."
Three of every four homes sold are bank-owned. Lenders are capitulating, which is driving prices down, analysts said. How long they continue to fall remains to be seen. McGee said the buying spree, tax credits, bailout programs and a cut in production by builders will firm up prices.
Still, the number of foreclosures remains high, and Shannon Martin, a real estate agent in Fresno who sells bank-owned houses, said supply should remain high through this year as government relief efforts take awhile setting up.
Scott Leonard, president of Guarantee Real Estate in Fresno, said a new $8,000 federal tax credit available to first-time homebuyers is helping spark sales. Home builders are hoping a similar $10,000 tax credit available to all buyers of new houses will juice their sales. Last month, builders in Fresno County sold 104 houses, compared with 106 in January and 196 in February 2008, DataQuick reported.
"That's free money," Leonard said of the tax credits.
Sacramento Bee
Fitch cuts California's bond rating, now worst in nation...Kevin Yamamura
Fitch Ratings downgraded California's general-obligation bond rating Thursday due to concerns about the state's economy and ongoing budget problems, likely raising costs for taxpayers and dampening demand for $4 billion in bonds the state intends to sell next week.
California's bond rating now ranks worst among the 50 states, according to Fitch.
The announcement came days before State Treasurer Bill Lockyer plans a bond sale starting next Wednesday to replenish the state's Pooled Money Investment Account and enable California to begin paying out $500 million to projects that desperately need public funding to continue.
Fitch Ratings downgraded California's general-obligation bond rating from A+ to A, which likely means the state will have to offer more attractive rates and could preclude some investors from purchasing the bonds, said Alex Anderson, portfolio manager of Los Angeles-based Envision Capital Management. Fitch had California on a negative ratings watch since early last year.
Lockyer spokesman Tom Dresslar used strong language Thursday to criticize ratings agencies for their downgrades.
"The ratings agencies have no credibility," Dresslar said. "They colluded with AIG and other titans of finance, and now they're screwing California taxpayers for a problem they helped create. We're going to sell $4 billion in California bonds next week and get the best possible deal for taxpayers, regardless of what they think of our creditworthiness. We've never defaulted on our bonds,and no investor has ever failed to get what was owed to them on general-obligation bonds."
State lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger enacted a budget package in February that resolved most of the state's then-projected $40 billion budget deficit. But the budget relied on late December projections, and the economy has grown worse since then.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimated last week that the state faces a new $8 billion budget gap. If voters reject three ballot measures in May, the state would face an additional $6 billion hole, for a total of $14 billion.
"There's still uncertainty about the budgetary outlook," said Douglas Offerman, senior director at Fitch Ratings." The solution they came up with in February was very significant. But we're concerned that the revenue outlook continues to be very uncertain."
After freezing state bond funds for thousands of construction projects in December, the Pooled Money Investment Board on Wednesday entertained the idea of releasing $500 million in April, contingent on the success of Lockyer's$4billion bond sale.
Standard&Poor's Ratings Services maintained a similar A rating Thursday for California's general-obligation bonds. It downgraded California's rating from A+in February.
Sacramento-area home prices fall 59 percent since 2005...Jim Wasserman
Prices keep falling.
February brought the lowest median sales price to Sacramento County's housing market since December 2000 as bank repos drove a decline to $160,000, researcher MDA DataQuick said Thursday.
The county median, where half the houses sold cost more and half less, is down 59 percent from a 2005 high of $387,000.
But what's clearly a distress signal for homeowners is proving a boon for area buyers like Alethea Lara. The single mother and first-time buyer will close escrow today on a $180,000 sale in Elk Grove.
"It went for $315,000 when the market was hot, so I scored," said the 34-year-old state worker.
Lara's real estate agent, Chris Saizan of Keller Williams, said lowered prices, 5 percent interest rates and an $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers make this the most affordable market for many in 15 years. Even in the Bay Area, a median price driven by repo sales and lack of higher-end sales fell below $300,000 for the first time since December 1999, DataQuick reported.
The plunging medians don't reflect overall home values, DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage said. Higher-priced homes aren't selling in large numbers and "that exacerbates the decline in the median," he said.
Altogether, 2,809 homes changed hands during the month in Amador, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties, DataQuick reported. That compared with 2,162 in February 2008, 2,534 in February 2007 and 3,185 sales in February 2006.
Regional highlights:
• The 1,895 escrow closings in Sacramento County were the highest for a February since 2005. Just 87 sales involved new houses, the fewest since DataQuick began keeping statistics in 1988. The firm said 68.1 percent of county sales were bank repos. That drove the investor share of sales to 28.4 percent, the most since the boom's 2004 height.
• Placer County reported 355 closed escrows, down 13.2 percent from February 2008. Its $315,000 median sales price was down 13.5 percent.
• El Dorado County reported 128 sales, up about 1 percent from February 2008. A $325,000 median was down 19.8 percent from last year.
• Yolo County's 136 escrow closings were up 13.3 percent from the same month last year. The median price dipped to $219,000, down 31 percent from February 2008.
• Median prices dropped below $150,000 in Yuba and Sutter counties. Yuba County's median was $148,500, lowest in the region. Sutter County's fell to $149,000.
In Elk Grove, Lara's deal will move her into a 1,200-square-foot foreclosed home built in 2000. She said it needs paint and maybe new carpet, the standout among 10 repos she toured with her 15-year-old son in January and February.
"I didn't have a lot of money and wanted an area that's safe to raise my son and I," she said.
February was the 11th straight month that the region's sales counts exceeded the same time a year earlier. Before that, year-over-year sales fell for 37 months following the market's 2005 and 2006 peaks.
Market watchers credit nearly a year of sales gains to banks' aggressive discounts on repo properties. The traditional move-up market, meanwhile, has become a quiet zone, said Placer County real estate agent Bob Montuori.
"To sell now and buy now? It's a tough position," he said.
Montuori, of Davis & Davis Associates, said he believes the staggering numbers of bank repos that have dominated the capital-area market are soon to be history. He said the number of repos on the market are half what they were eight months ago. That portends a market returning to "regular resales," he said.
"I think we're done unless unemployment creates another wave," he said.
Other agents aren't so sure. Some believe banks are sitting on another wave of repos for spring.
Sacramento researcher TrendGraphix, indeed, reported that a sustained buying spree has lowered the number of homes for sale in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties to 8,629. That's the lowest since December 2005. The peak was 16,262 in August 2007.
Saizan said he believes that as the spring sales season opens there will be more buyers in the Sacramento County market than homes for sale.
"I'm not saying we're at the bottom of the market. But when you have more demand than product, usually that doesn't mean prices are going to continue to plummet."
Saizan said Sacramento's rapid price declines put it ahead in the nation's quest for recovery. He said, "I talk with Realtors in Kansas City and Ohio and North Carolina, and what their markets are going through we went through two years ago."
Tracy Press
Water board hands down fines
The regional water board fined Tracy, Mountain House and Deuel Vocational Institution a total of $120,000 for sewage treatment violations...Justin Lafferty
The regional water quality board fined Tracy $78,000 for 26 violations at its sewage treatment plant, while the Mountain House Community Services District was fined $30,000 for similar charges and Deuel Vocational Institution was fined $12,000 for dumping too much salt and laundry chemicals into a Delta slough.
Treated sewage at Mountain House and Tracy sewage treatment plants flow into Old River, a tributary of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
At both locations, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board found higher-than-legal concentrations of chemicals that may have been byproducts from using chlorine to clean drinking water.
Tracy also tested high for levels of aluminum and chlorine.
During the board’s last violation check-up, which went from Jan. 1, 2003 to Jan. 31, 2008, Tracy had 47 violations for a total fine of $141,000.
“I don’t think there’s any immediate health impact, but we’re not the health agency,” said Wendy Wyels, a water board regulator.
Mountain House was originally going to be fined $33,000 for pollution violations from Feb. 1 to Dec. 31, 2008, but it was cut $3,000 when district general manager Paul Sensibaugh told the board that part of the problem related to chemicals released by plastic tubes had been taken care of.
“Of course, we’ve solved the problem so there won’t be any repeats,” Sensibaugh said. “If we pay it right after July 1, they’ll be happy with that. We’ll make the commitment. We want to keep on the good side and do our part. If we make a mistake, we’ve got to own up to it.”
From March 2007 to January 2008, Mountain House had just one $3,000 violation from the board. Problems with their sewage treatment plant led to the latest fines.
Deuel Vocational Institute near Tracy was fined $12,000 violations from June 1 to December 31, 2008. The prison’s treatment plant releases its treated sewage into Paradise Cut and Old River.
Wyels said that DVI tested high for salt and two volatile chemicals usually involved with laundry. From June 2004 through May 2008, DVI racked up 33 penalties for $66,000 for high levels of oil, grease and other industrial chemicals.
These were part of a $225,000 round of fines throughout the Central Valley. The board’s next meeting is June 11 or 12 in Rancho Cordova. Comments and complaints regarding to the fines can be heard then.
San Francisco Chronicle
Court blocks rule allowing guns in national parks...MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press Writer
(03-19) 19:19 PDT WASHINGTON (AP) --
A federal judge on Thursday blocked a federal rule allowing people to carry concealed, loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly halts a change in regulations issued in the waning days of the Bush administration and orders further review. She set an April 20 deadline for the Interior Department to review the rule and indicate its course of action in response to the injunction.
The rule, which took effect Jan. 11, allowed visitors to carry a loaded gun into a park or wildlife refuge as long as the person had a permit for a concealed weapon and the state where the park or refuge was located allowed concealed firearms. Previously, guns in parks had been severely restricted.
The Obama administration had said it was reviewing the Bush rule but had defended it in court.
Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said Thursday the department is reviewing the injunction.
The Bush administration issued the gun rule in December in response to letters from half the Senate asking officials to lift the restrictions on guns in parks that were adopted by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.
The rule went further than a draft proposal issued a year ago and would have allowed concealed weapons even in parks located in states that prohibit the carrying of guns in state parks. Some states allow concealed weapons but also ban guns from parks.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of two groups that sued to block the rule, called the judge's ruling a victory for the people.
"We're happy that this headlong rush to push more guns into more places has been slowed," he said.
Bryan Faehner, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, which also brought suit, said he was extremely pleased.
"We're especially glad to hear that the court is agreeing with the park rangers and the public who are concerned that there will be negative impacts from the regulation and increased likelihood for opportunistic poaching of wildlife and increased risk of violence to the public," Faehner said.
The National Rifle Association had pushed for the change, saying law-abiding citizens had the right to protect themselves and their families while enjoying America's national parks and wildlife refuges. The previous regulations were inconsistent and unclear, the NRA said.
A group representing park rangers, retirees and conservation organizations protested the change, complaining that it could lead to confusion and increased danger for visitors, rangers and other law enforcement agencies.
Judge delays UC's computer research center...Bob Egelko
A federal judge has at least temporarily blocked the University of California's plans for a $113 million computer research center in the hills above the Berkeley campus, a victory for a local group that says the project would damage the environment.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued an injunction Wednesday prohibiting any work on the center, the possible new home of U.S. Energy Department supercomputers, until a trial in September on whether the university must conduct a new environmental study.
He said the opponents, a group called Save Strawberry Canyon, had presented evidence that the project would be funded and controlled by the federal government and therefore had to be reviewed under U.S. environmental law. Alsup said the evidence was not conclusive and that a trial would resolve the issue.
Construction on the 126,000-square-foot building had been scheduled to begin this month. The judge quoted project officials as saying the environmental study would cause a year's delay.
The proposed Computational Research and Theory Facility, a joint project of UC and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is to be built on laboratory property near Strawberry Canyon. It would house high-performance Energy Department computers now located in a leased building in Oakland that is running out of space. It would be owned by the university and used by researchers and students from both UC and the lab.
Michael Lozeau, lawyer for Save Strawberry Canyon, said the group doesn't object to the nature of the project, only to its location.
"These are mostly folks from Berkeley worrying about ever-expanding development on the hillside," he said. "(UC is) continually proposing, and in some cases building, very large buildings in an area that is prone to fires, prone to earthquakes, very steep, with only two access roads and with important open-space habitat."
He said the university could house at least some of the project on land it owns in Richmond that is zoned for industry.
UC spokesman Chris Harrington said the university was considering its next steps. It could ask an appeals court to lift the injunction.
"We remain committed to the potential of the high-performance supercomputing research that the ... facility will house," Harrington said. The research includes studies of climate change, fusion energy, biological and environmental science and astrophysics, he said.
The university conducted an environmental study under California law last year and found that the project would not harm the hillside. But Alsup said a separate review would be required under U.S. law if the computer center is considered a major federal project.
The evidence on that issue is conflicting, he said. The lab, for example, is operated by UC but funded by the federal government. The Energy Department has not committed to relocating its computers, but the evidence indicates it is likely to do so, Alsup said.
The initial financing plans relied almost entirely on federal funding. The university said in November that it could not count on federal money for several years and was planning to proceed on its own.
But Alsup said the statement was "not entirely persuasive" because UC made it after the suit was filed.
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Activists accused in violent animal rights protests say their free speech rights are under attack...Jennifer Squires
SAN JOSE -- Four animal rights activists indicted by a federal grand jury for their alleged roles in violent demonstrations at the homes of UC biomedical researchers pleaded not guilty Thursday, then held a rally denouncing what they call an attack on free speech rights.
Joseph Buddenberg, Maryam Khajavi, Nathan Pope and Adriana Stumpo are being charged under the relatively new Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a 2006 law aimed at terrorism against scientists and others involved in using animals in their research. The San Jose charges are believed to be the second case in the nation brought under AETA, approved by Congress to "prosecute animal rights extremists" with a tougher law that includes stiffer penalties.
At the rally, which occurred just outside the federal courthouse downtown, supporters waved signs that called the law -- known as AETA -- unconstitutional. Some signs dubbed the four defendants the "AETA 4."
Well-known civil rights lawyer Tony Serra, who is representing Khajavi, said his client and the other defendants are idealistic kids whose free-speech rights are being curtailed. Punishing youth for dissenting leads to the downfall of a society, Serra said.
"We represent the voice of tomorrow," he said.
Authorities say the activists are linked to the alleged crimes through video surveillance footage and fliers seized by federal agents that pledged violence against the researchers for using animals in experiments.
In a two-count indictment filed March 12, prosecutors cite three specific protests, including a February 2008 incident outside the Westside home of a UCSC professor in which prosecutors say demonstrators shook doors and hit the professor's husband with thrown objects. According to court papers, protesters, wearing bandanas to hide their faces, yelled, "We're gonna get you." The animal terror act prohibits "force, violence and threats involving animal enterprises."
In addition to the attempted home invasion attack, the four are accused of being involved in several demonstrations at the homes of UC Berkeley researchers in late 2007 and early 2008. No one has been charged in the most egregious of the animal rights protests -- the July 2008 firebombings of two UCSC scientists' homes.
Robert Bloom, the attorney for Buddenberg, 25, called the government's case weak. The demonstrators were simply denouncing people who were terrorizing animals, he said.
"This is not intimidation," Bloom said. "This is not threats. This is exposing people who are believed to be torturers."
Challenging the constitutionality of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act will be a part of the defense, according to the defense attorneys. The law is vague and violates free speech rights, Bloom said.
"It's really deplorable," he said.
Khajavi was the only defendant to speak at the rally. Reading from a prepared statement, the 20-year-old UC Santa Cruz graduate said she has never been in trouble before and is only being punished for trying to express her point of view.
"I'm a victim of free speech suppression," said Khajavi, who said she wants to go to law school and become a civil rights attorney.
In court Thursday, the judge issued conditional release terms for Pope and Stumpo, who were arrested last month in North Carolina as they returned from a trip to Costa Rica. Pope, 26, was a one-time Cabrillo College student who lives in Oceanside. Stumpo, 23, had attended UCSC and now lives in Long Beach. Unlike the other defendants, Pope and Stumpo will be allowed to contact each other -- but not discuss the case pending against them -- because they are engaged, the judge decided.
About 40 people, most of them young and casually dressed, packed into the courtroom to watch the proceedings in front of Magistrate Judge Howard R. Lloyd.
The defendants, all free on $20,000 bonds, return to court April 16. Defense attorneys are waiting for the prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney's Office to turn over evidence, including several DVDs and reports from police and the FBI.
Serra said he anticipates the case will go to jury trial. It could take as long as two years to adjudicate, he said.
In court papers, federal prosecutors allege the defendants "conspired to use force, violence or threats to interfere with the operation of the University of California" and its animal research programs.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein co-sponsored the 2006 legislation, citing a number of violent protests at California research facilities, including a string of attacks at UC San Francisco between 2001 and 2005, and the 2003 firebombing at the Chiron Corp. in Emeryville.
The only other reported case the Justice Department has pressed under the domestic terrorism statute was the 2006 prosecution of seven animal rights activists in New Jersey. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia earlier this year heard arguments on a free speech challenge to the law in that case, a ruling that could serve as a test for whatever unfolds in the San Jose prosecution.
Los Angeles Times
California unemployment hits 10.5% in February
The state's unemployment rate rises from 10.1% in January and is the highest since April 1983. L.A. County's jobless rate is 10.9%...Marc Lifsher
Reporting from Sacramento — California's unemployment rate rose for the 11th straight month in February, hitting 10.5% as a recession-racked economy shed 116,000 jobs across all professions and industries, the state reported today.
The number was up from 10.1% in January, and it was the highest since April 1983.
Los Angeles County's seasonably adjusted unemployment rate reached 10.9% in February, the Employment Development Department said. (An earlier version of the story said the county unemployment rate reached 11% in February, but that was not the seasonally adjusted number.)
"It's pretty dismal," said Howard Roth, chief economist for the California Department of Finance. "Since October, we've been getting these increasingly larger losses of jobs." Layoffs in February were the largest for a single month in at least 19 years, he said.
Construction, which continues to weaken, suffered the most: 30,900 jobs lost for the month. All other industries reported declines, with the exception of information, which includes television and movie production.
Even once dependable government employment shrank by 3,200 jobs in February, and those conditions could worsen between now and June as thousands of budget-cut-related pink slips go out to teachers and school employees. Government layoffs hit 8,200 between last month and February 2008, with the bulk of the firings coming in the first two months of this year.
Though recent upticks in the stock and housing markets cheered some economists this week, no improvements are predicted on the job front until well into 2010.
"It's likely to get worse because the economic situation in Asia is dire," said Sung Won Sohn, an Asia trade expert at Cal State Channel Islands.
A sharp slowdown in Chinese economic growth, caused by slackening U.S. demand for manufactured goods, is wiping out longshore and trucking jobs in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as well as warehouse and distribution work in the Inland Empire, Sohn said.
"This is not going to stop in the next six months," he said.
For his part, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged that the "road to economic recovery will not be short."
The governor, who today is meeting with President Obama on public works projects that could boost employment in California, said he was hoping that federal economic stimulus funding soon would start to put people back to work in such high-paying jobs as construction.
Obama Administration Sides With Wal-Mart Workers (Update2)...Karen Gullo and Margaret Cronin Fisk
March 19 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration sided with women suing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for discrimination, urging a federal appeals court to let the current and former workers sue as a group and proceed with the biggest sex-bias case in U.S. history.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, weighing in on the lawsuit for the first time since it was filed in 2001, rejected Wal-Mart’s argument that as many as 2 million workers shouldn’t be allowed to seek back pay and punitive damages as a group because that would violate the company’s right to defend itself against each worker’s claims before a jury.
That position would prevent the government from ever seeking punitive damages from companies with a pattern of discrimination and interfere with the EEOC’s ability to obtain redress for violations of Title VII, the federal law that prohibits discrimination, said Barbara Sloan, an EEOC attorney, in a filing with a federal appeals court in San Francisco.
“If Wal-Mart’s arguments were accepted, it could effectively preclude a claim for punitive damages in most if not all Title VII pattern-or-practice cases including those brought by the Commission,” Sloan wrote. “It would be ‘nonsensical’ to prevent victims of particularly egregious discrimination from proceeding collectively.”
Wal-Mart, the largest U.S. private employer, is accused of paying women less than men and giving them fewer promotions. The 2001 lawsuit was originally filed in San Francisco by six women seeking to represent other employees.
Appeals Court
A federal appeals court on March 24 will hear arguments in Wal-Mart’s appeal of a judge’s ruling that allowed workers to sue as a group and seek back pay and punitive damages. Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, denied discriminating and said it should be allowed to defend the women’s claims on a case-by- case basis.
“We believe the EEOC’s positions are fundamentally incorrect and look forward to presenting our argument to the court of appeals on Tuesday,” Theodore Boutrous, Wal-Mart’s attorney, said today in an e-mail message.
The EEOC’s support of the Wal-Mart class action “can’t simply be attributed to the change in administrations,” said attorney Joseph Sellers, who represents the women. “These are the views of the people who were the holdovers at the commission,” he said.
“Wal-Mart’s position, if adopted by the court, would lead to the elimination of employment class actions larger than a couple of hundred people,” he said.
The EEOC didn’t address the merits of the case. The agency said it was filing the brief because “this court’s resolution of issues relating to punitive damages and backpay in class cases may directly affect the commission’s enforcement of Title VII” of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “particularly its systemic litigation.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce earlier filed an amicus brief supporting Wal-Mart’s efforts to reverse the class-action decision. “If the district court’s decision stands, it will have a potentially destructive effect on the Chamber’s members, who will likely face billions of dollars in new class-action claims,” the organization’s lawyers argued in a March 6 filing.
The EEOC’s support of class certification “would be given considerable weight” by the appeals court considering the decision, law professor Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond said today. “That’s the agency’s area of expertise.”
The case is Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 04-16688, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco).